By Frank Kofsky
The only word for Frank Zappa is "genius."
Just as the only word for the concert – actually, more of a homecoming celebration – that he and the Mothers of Invention performed Saturday, 9 December, at the Pasadena Civic, is "magnificent." Unless you happen to prefer "superb."
Zappa and the Mothers offer living testimony to the Marxian (dialectical) proposition that the universe is too complex to be chopped up into tidy little abstract definitional pigeonholes. How do you classify them? (Hint: you don't!) Are the Mothers a rock band? Waal, bassist Roy Estrada, drummer Billy Mundi, and vocalist Ray Collins (who was reunited with Zappa & Co. for the concert) all come out of rock backgrounds.
But reedmen Bunk Gardner and Ian Underwood, "keyboard wizard" (Zappa's half facetious description) Don Preston, who also recently rejoined the band, and trumpeter-percussionist-vocalist Jimmy Carl Black ("he's the Indian in the band") are stone jazz musicians. And, judging from the collectively improvised passages the Mothers played, if Frank didn't mind watching his band and himself slowly starve to death, he could easily have the most exciting small "avant-garde" jazz unit on the coast. (Using amplifiers for the horns lends a whole additional dimension of weirdness to their already freaky sound. Some of the new jazz musicians in the East may ultimately pick up on this new development – if they can ever find enough work to be able to afford the equipment!)
If this situation weren't already sufficiently confused, Zappa himself shoots off in more directions simultaneously than the eye can follow or the brain comprehend. His playing is basically out of the blues guitar tradition; but his listening, as you probably have gathered, takes in everything from iconoclastic jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Eric Dolphy, and Wes Montgomery to the Crows (lest you forget, they had the biggest hit single in Southern California in 1963, Gee) and Edgar Varèse, whose statement, "The present day composer refuses to die," furnishes Zappa with his musical motto. It isn't unusual, moreover, for one of Frank's compositions to shift with lightning rapidity (how's that for a novel simile?) from some dog rock-and-roll tune of five or ten years ago to an excerpt from Stravinsky (with Varèse, another Zappa favorite), and from there into an unbelievably frenetic interlude of collective and individual jazz blowing. Diversity, thy name is Zappa!
Like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, the late John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Sun Ra, one of Zappa's most striking abilities is that of orchestrating men as well as music. I watched the Mothers rehearse during the final three days before the concert, and marvelled at the disciplined way Zappa put his men through their paces. If you have been as impressed as I was with the precision of the Mothers in their stage performances, be assured that the tightness is achieved by one means and one means only – hours of hard work on the part of everyone.
Zappa's ability to extract every last ounce that his musicians have to give manifests itself in a variety of other ways as well. Take Bunk Gardner (but don't take him too far – Frank may want him back). In an interview for JAZZ & POP (September and October issues), Frank told me that, when he joined the band, Bunk was playing what was in essence a late-'50s bebop style tenor saxophone (echoes of which still persist). Now, however Zappa has Bunk blowing flute, two clarinets, and three saxes, all (save perhaps the tenor) in a convincing neo-Coltrane manner.
Such versatility is characteristic of what Frank demands – and somehow obtains – from the band. The newest (and youngest) Mother is Ian Underwood, who joined originally as a replacement for organist-pianist Don Preston when Don quit to return to L.A. Now that Don is back, Ian is playing alto saxophone – he is one of the most persuasive of the young white "avant-garde" saxophonists I've come across – and doubling on flute. But even that's nothing. Jim Black moves effortlessly from trumpet to tympany to drums to vocals and back again; Don Preston, when he isn't at his keyboards or whacking away at one of the mothers' fantastic collection of Oriental gongs, is operating a synthesizer or some hunk of electronic gadgetry; everyone in the band is apparently able to play drums with some competence; and, to top it all off, equipment handler Jim Sherwood sings, plays tenor and soprano saxophone, drums, and guitar (at least in rehearsals)! "It's a shame we don't have the money to be able to utilize Jim properly," Frank remarks wistfully. Man, when the equipment handler in your group can work out on two or three axes, you know that's got to be a heavy band!
For this concert appearance, the only one in Southern California for several months, Zappa wisely decided to avoid material already available on LP, though this caused some grumbling from those who were disappointed because the Mothers didn't play "your favorites, the songs you like to hear" (as Ray Collins' routine on America Drinks and Goes Home has it). Instead, the program was divided between devastatingly funny renditions of rock-and-roll Moldy Oldies (and moldy they were: Gee, Blue Suede Shoes, Houn' Dog, Shotgun, and a version of Babylove choreographed a la those somethin' else Supremes) and some very extended and complex instrumentals that gave ample blowing room to all the soloists in the band. Zappa himself played an exceptionally fine improvisation on the last of these, a composition he announced (seriously?) as Orange County Lumber Truck, for which he put the seldom heard (because it is difficult to master) Vox wah-wah pedal to good use.
Others may have been disgruntled because the Mothers didn't play more selections from their LP, but I, for two, was delighted. Chances are, the things heard in Pasadena won't find their way onto recordings – at least not at the length played that night. Would that more groups accept the implicit challenge that Zappa has thrown them and devise a concert repertoire that didn't depend primarily on songs from their albums. But then, how many bands are there – jazz or rock – that can measure up to the Zappa level?
At some point during their rehearsals it struck me that, given their versatility and proficiency, most of the Mothers could probably leave the band and earn five times as much or more working in the recording studios. That they prefer instead to remain tells you as much about the loyalty that Frank Zappa inspires and the sense of fulfillment (and sheer fun!) involved in playing his music as any sentence I could devise. Come to think of it, were I in Zappa's shoes, I could think of no tribute I'd rather have.
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There used to be a genuinely charming poster of the Mothers that leered down at the hapless motorists from atop the Sunset Strip. If you haven't seen it, it showed the Mothers dressed up in drag, similar to the Rolling Stones on the cover of their Can You See Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows? LP; and the name of the group was tastefully spelled out in garbage, satirizing the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had "Beatles" spelled in flowers.
That picture, as you may have heard, was also to serve as the cover for the third Mothers' LP, We're Only In It For the Money. "Everybody we showed it to dug it," Frank Zappa explains, "except for Capitol." The upshot was that Capitol was so miffed at this insult to "their product," the Beatles, that attorneys for the firm sought and obtained an injunction preventing sales of the Mothers album with that cover. Consequently, a new cover had to be shot, printed, and glued to the albums, all of which has caused a postponement of its release.
From a dub of the album which I was able to hear, (though not under very advantageous conditions), I would say that, overall, much more emphasis has been placed on intricate vocal work than in the previous two, with Zappa himself singing most of the parts via overdubbing. Thematically, We're Only In It For the Money also varies from its predecessors, in that it strikes out at fairweather hippies about as savagely as the other two hit out at Plastic People. More than that I can't say until I have an opportunity to listen to the album intensively a few times.
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During the JAZZ & POP interview with Frank that I referred to earlier, Zappa mentioned that he thought that some of the Mothers' material had influenced recent works by the Beatles and Stones. At the time, I tended to discount this notion; but since then, the evidence continues to roll in that Zappa is indeed exerting a quiet but nevertheless very real pull on the current rock scene. Some examples:
Have you looked inside Eric Burdon's new LP, Winds of Change? If you do, you'll note the identical circular screen pattern focused on one of Eric's eyeballs that Zappa has centered on one of HIS eyeballs on the interior of the Absolutely Free jacket. Add to that that the guitar riff that Eric uses on his Monterey single is precisely the riff that introduces the Invocation and Ritual Dance to the Young Pumpkin (whew!) on Absolutely Free. Too bad that he feels compelled to be so imitative because in person Eric and the Animals are a pleasure to watch.
Spencer Dryden's "composition" for After Bathing at Baxter's, the Jefferson Airplane's new album, is, admittedly, a cop from Zappa's Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet track on the Freak Out! LP. (At one point, the Airplane wanted Zappa to produce their third album; but in view of the remarkably beautiful job done by Al Schmitt, there are probably no regrets on that score.) Inasmuch as I've already written at great length about Baxter's elsewhere in J & P, there's no need for further details here.
In a general way that makes it difficult to pinpoint, the devices that we are familiar with as Zappa trademarks keep popping up with increasing frequency in recent recordings. Whether this is a matter of Zappa's influence being transmitted to admiring disciples or a matter of several people getting roughly the same idea at about the same time (something that happens constantly in the area of scientific discoveries and inventions) is impossible to state, given the little information we have at our disposal. Nonetheless, the subject is an intriguing one.
Take the Rolling Stones as an immediate case in point. Back at the time of the J & P interview I've already referred to, Zappa felt that their Something Happened to Me Yesterday track (on Between the Buttons) may have been partly inspired by the deliberately corny band that plays on the Mothers' America Drinks and Goes Home (Absolutely Free). (Myself, I rather thought that the band on Something may have been one of the originals that gave rise to Sgt. Pepper's). Zappa's speculation becomes more plausible after hearing the new Stones LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request. First off, the frontside (that's how it's printed on the record label) of the album makes use of an opening theme and a final reprise, just as does the second side of Absolutely Free (and, as Zappa observes, Sgt. Pepper's). The reprise, Sing This All Together (See What Happens), moreover, contains just the same type of marginally audible dialogue as Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet (on Freak Out!). At one point, for instance, one of the Stones asks: "Where's that joint?" And through the track you can, if your mind has been properly prepared, hear the subliminal chanting of "Flower Power!" – not to mention the sounds of someone smoking what one presumes to be a joint, some pre-orgasmic screaming and yelling, and so on. On the other side, the closing track, On with the Show, bears a very strong resemblance to America Drinks and Goes Home: It is set in a topless club ("see them naked as they dance"); there is the same unctuous Master of Ceremonies; the same babble of drunken and inattentive voices (toward the end, a woman's high-pitched voice calls out, and the bartender repeats, "Bourbon and sody"); even the same dreadfully syrupy piano.
I'm not saying that the Stones got their ideas for the tracks I've been discussing from Zappa's work (though that surely is a distinct possibility). But regardless of that, such albums as Their Satanic Majesties Request can't help but make more secure Zappa's position as one of the seminal innovators of modern American music.
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This is absolutely the last bit of Zappa gossip! Seems that, while in L. A., Frank was called upon to do some bits for the TV show of none other than the Monkees. Honest! For one of the routines, Zappa dressed up as Mickey Dolenz, the Monkee who had requested his presence on the show, and vice-versa. Dolenz-as-Zappa then proceeded to interview Zappa-as-Dolenz. (Sample. D-as-Z: "Why is it that you guys play such crappy music"? Z-as-D: "Gee, come to think of it, I don't know why we play such crappy music.") As his finale, Zappa took a shaved, lowered, chopped, and channeled (don't bother if you don't understand the terms – they're practically archaic now) 1940 Ford and proceeded to demolish it with the aid of tire chains, iron pipe, and sledge hammer. Of course whether all of this tomfoolery – Zappa's attempt to blow the minds of the country's nine-year-olds, as he puts it – will ever get onto commercial TV is another matter. Perhaps letters to the Monkees' sponsors (whoever they are) might increase the chances.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net