Music to My Ears

Giraffes and Whipped Cream: Frank Zappa

Two of my kids have a cat with decidedly uncatlike characteristics.  Having known a few cats in my time, the strangest thing about Jeter is the kids can take him to anyone’s house and he’s as cool as an iceman’s handshake.  Very weird.  Because the kids are at our place a lot our home is a second to the little guy.  So we naturally keep a cat bowl and food, and a litter box downstairs in front of the furnace.

A few weeks ago Diane called to get the furnace cleaned.  She takes the guy down to the furnace.  Dwayne scopes the job and tells Di she has to keep the cat away for a while.

My wife .  “We don’t have a cat.”

Pause, then Dwayne says ”Ok…Then keep your husband away for a while.”

Confusion and cat pee drove Frank Zappa to some of the most barbequed nebulae and tire shredding blarps since Edgard Varese went to a Barbie reunion with Spike Jones.

If you started listening to Zappa when you were still living with your parents, you waited until they weren’t home, closed the door, and prayed yer Mom didn’t come up the stairs while you were listening to Crew Slut.  If she listened enough and got the drift they’d send you to West Point.  If she heard this they’d put you in a home.

“What the hell was that?!”

“It’s a song from Burnt Weeny Sandwich.”

Pack yer bags, Johnny.  We’re going for a ride.

Dad complained early that the music I was listening to, like Hendrix, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, was nothing but worthless noise.  When we started listening to Zappa, he was flummoxed, had no word for it.  He’d gone to the superlative with “worthless noise” and had nowhere to go.  That was worth the price of an album right there.

Zappa fell in love with Edgard Varese at an early age, early enough that for Frank’s 15th birthday his Mom let him call Varese’s home on the opposite coast as a present.  Edgard wasn’t home.  That’ll crap on your day.  Point is that Frank at an age like 13/14 was not just listening to guys like Varese but was hungry for it.  You can’t talk about Frank without Edgard Varese.  Varese was an early 20th century composer who pioneered and composed music with a special focus that led in a host of directions.  He took concepts of music in space, the floating of notes, the organized noise of music that fed spatial frames and waited for something to come back.  That appeals to a very interesting group.  Varese did have nominal success in his lifetime.  One of his successes, albeit without knowing it, was a teenage Frank going into a Sam Goody music store in CA and purchasing The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume 1.”   This was the end of a yearlong search for Varese’s music.  Frank had read an article in LOOK  that described the percussion sequences on Varese’s Ionisation as “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds”.  He had to have it.

A young Frank found a mentor and new purpose to his music. That story that his Mom allowed him a long distance phone call for his 15th birthday to Varese places a book mark on his development and an insight into just how early Zappa was working with really avant garde ideas.   When I was 15 I had just started dating my future wife and she was all I could think about.  Frank was dating guys like Varese, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

So consider this notion FZ had no formal training as you read on.  He did take theory classes in high school and some short lived junior college classes, but for all intents was self-taught with training books and an amazing ear.  He was composing in high school and had a few teachers who allowed him to conduct in band, but even at that early age found trouble finding kids who could play his music and teachers who could fathom what he was up to.  By the time he graduated from high school he was composing and conducting avant garde pieces with the school orchestra.  His primary instrument was drums, and with indulgence of his mom was playing in R&B bands in the San Diego area.  Later, he switched to guitar.

In 1963 he incongruously got on Steve Allen’s late night show.  I haven’t found a good explanation for this, Frank was 22 and unknown.  Probably he’d gotten the attention of one of Allen’s minions and was put on the show as a foil for Allen, and in fact Allen treated Frank like a backwards relative.  After all, Allen was a classically trained musician, and Frank came on the show to play a bicycle.  Yep.  Check it out.  The sounds created here are incredibly prescient of later works.

By the early 60’s FZ was performing with bands around San Diego and LA.  He was the guitar player for a trio called the Muthers, and in 1965 they got the attention of Tom Wilson, a well known producer, who was able to get them a record contract with Verve.  Verve insisted they change the name to the Mothers of Invention.  Here we go.  They released their debut album Freak Out! in 1966.  This was only the second ‘rock’ double album after Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and being a debut album that was amazing enough, but on top of that the album was a collection of rock, doo-wop, and musical giraffes.  The album had an 11 minute closing track called Return of the Son of Monster Magnet. Session musicians brought in for the album (a small studio orchestra was also used) were shocked to discover Frank had the stuff all on sheet music and were expected to be able to sight read.  The release of the album established FZ as an important artist in the freak subculture.  Good on ya Verve.

Zappa and the Mothers continued releasing albums in the late 60’s like Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It for the Money.  FZ was experimenting heavily with taped sounds and strictly produced live recordings.  His live performances were so heavily structured in key, time and signature that he was able to use the live recordings as samples in the studio.  His live performances became such studies in composition and strict timing he had to employ the best musicians, even if the result sounded like dropping a drum kit down a well.  My brother Jim saw Zappa in Hartford in the 70’s.  At one point during the performance Frank was conducting a particularly complex composition with a 20 piece band, when a fight broke out in the orchestra pit.  Frank stopped the band on a dime with his hand, and proceeded to tell these two clowns that they were disturbing people who had paid money to see them, and suggested they move their bullshit outside.  Then he turned back to the band, and with a wave of his hand the band was perfectly back on the next note.

It was one of Frank’s drummers, Terry Bozzio or maybe Aynsley Dunbar, who talked about Zappa’s drum sheets looking like a black sheet of paper.  In fact, FZ was concerned enough with the possibility of walking into a studio with a composition that was impossible to play that he decided to exorcise that demon by writing a percussive piece called Black Page.  Originally played by Bozzio, it contained some of the most complex percussive passages ever written.

What we found so interesting was Zappa had a superficial reputation for writing potty songs, and did have some famous sexual and plastic banana lyrics that led to songs like Please Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow, Moving to Montana Soon, and Catholic Girls.  These were really a lot of fun.  Many people loved the raunch that got FM air play and were disappointed when they’d pick up an album like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Frank wasn’t above making money with the whack tunes but always used that money to fund his deepening journey into musical black holes.  This was no Spike Jones.  This was a genius, and as a genius he was certainly misunderstood and hounded by the censors his entire career.

But Frank was no saint.  He was a tyrant in life, in studio and on stage, and believed absolutely in his version of the world and music with high disdain for anyone who couldn’t see it.  He in fact treated fans like dolts, especially if they tried to discuss his music.  In 1967 the Mothers were doing an extended stint in New York at the Garrett Theater.  During an Easter show he somehow convinced some US Marines from the audience onto the stage.  Frank had put a large baby doll on stage, then asked the soldiers to treat the doll like a ‘gook baby’.  They dismembered the doll while Zappa played an antiwar composition.  That was black, man.  He thought of this as satire.  With genius comes fear.

Frank was infamous for degrading drug use and had no patience for this in his musicians, who were some of the heaviest drug users in the industry.  We were always amazed by this because listening to his music you’d think these guys, including Frank, were higher than Icarus.  But there was an obvious example of a period in FZ’s life where he had to be using something.  He despised most of the rock that was going on, considered bands like the Beatles insignificant pop.  But he loved The Monkees.

A quote from one of FZ’s bios states “Zappa had respect for what the Monkees were doing”.  This really was odd because what all we thought they were doing was becoming the first boy band.  Only one, Mike Nesmith, could play an instrument and they were always backed by studio musicians.  Frank appeared in two episodes of the TV show and even did a cameo in their first movie,   Zappa offered Micky Dolenz a job in the Mothers but RCA/Columbia/Colgems wouldn’t allow Dolenz out of his contract.

We knew Frank was weird but this was truly a departure from reality and smacks of running into Castaneda out in the desert.  We call this his LSD Period.

Zappa released more than 60 albums over thirty years, with some of the most complex music ever written.  What a nut.  The discipline he needed and demanded required the best of the studio musicians of his day.  The list is amazing.  Ian Underwood, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dunbar and Bozzio, Flo and Eddie, Ruth Underwood, Stevie Vai, George Duke, Eddie Jobson, the Brecker Brothers, Patrick O’Hearn (bass!), Chester Thompson, Jean-Luc (I wanta hyphen in my name) Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris.  Zappa himself was featured in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Guitarists list at #22.  And I think he went too low.

Here’s a pic of Frank in concert in 1977. You can see the concentration on not only his instrument, but everything going on around him.  OK, forget about the schnozz, I’m trying to make a point here.  Geez, you guys are sick.

FZ

Frank Zappa did a lot for us, but especially this.  OK so he did it for himself.  He organized noise.

Here’s a cut from 1979’s Sleep Dirt called The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution.  My favorite song title.  With Patrick O’Hearn on bass.

That Zappa. He organized our noise.

[A few thoughts on FZ: I became a follower at any early age and through him was introduced to Varese, Arthur Honegger, Harry Partch, John Cage, and many other modern and modernist composers. I can’t say it all stuck, but it broadened my horizons. It took a while for me to understand just how complex Zappa’s music was, and the caliber of musicians with whom he surrounded himself; like FZ himself, they tended to look like escapees from a body shop or a motorcycle gang. These guys could play anything. Given the bizarre collection of musicians who came and went through the years—everyone from Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (AKA ‘The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie”, later shortened to “Flo and Eddie”) to Sonny Rollins…the level of musicianship is astoundingly high, though often veiled by adolescent, scatalogical humor. Suzy Creamcheese, what’s got into you?

A few Zappa anecdotes: FZ and the Mothers were playing at a theater  in a casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when an audience member shot off a flare gun (?!?), which caught the rattan-covered ceiling on fire, and burned the complex to the ground. Yes, the Mothers prompted “Smoke on the Water.”

At a Fillmore gig, an audience member threw a bottle which hit FZ on the arm. He stopped playing, told audience members to point at where the bottle came from—which pinpointed one guy, who was escorted from the theater.

Several Mothers went on to have greater commercial success elsewhere: Guitarist Lowell George played his anthemic song, “Willin'”, with its mention of “weed, whites, and wine”, for the notoriously anti-drug FZ…who commented, “if you’re gonna sing about drugs, maybe you should do it in your own band.” Voila: Little Feat.

Did Top 40 radio have its revenge on FZ? Incredibly talented Mothers drummer Aynsley Dunbar went on to score big with ’80’s schlockmesters…Journey? Srsly?

Finally: as a DJ on the Armed Forces Network in Germany, PS Audio CEO Paul McGowan once interviewed FZ…who promptly told him he was an idiot, and walked off. Ever the diplomat, that Frank.

There’s more, but Woody and I will likely come back to FZ again.—Ed.]