That's Funny, You Don't Look Like The Musician Of The Year
By Jerry Hopkins
Frank Zappa, head Mother of the Mothers of Invention, was taking visitors on a tour of his new Los Angeles home.
"This is the bowling alley," he said, pointing to a real bowling alley in the basement.
"And this is the vault, where we will pile up all our hard earned teenage money," he said, pointing to a real vault (right next to the bowling alley).
"People say there is a horse buried down here," he said, pointing at nothing in particular.
Outside the house (an honest-to-gosh log cabin – with more than 15 rooms, some of them the size of a basketball court) were fish ponds, manmade caves and tunnels, half a dozen patios, and a Redwood tree with all the limbs cut off one side for a rope swing. Inside were the many friends who seem to be present always, making Frank look like the presiding officer of a Congress of Gypsies and Freaks.
Frank led his visitors back to the huge living room, where three young girls in tee shirts and frizzed hair were bounding about, rehearsing what they said was a ballet. The girls galumphed and squealed and crashed into doors and furniture. Frank explained they were part of the Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, a group of 10 "dancers" who appeared with the Mothers at a recent concert. When two of the girls slammed into each other, Frank suggested we go to an other room to talk.
The conversation began with Frank reminiscing about his "spiffy all-American home town," Lancaster, Calif. (which is in the Antelope Valley, where there are, needless to say, no antelopes. Nor much of anything else, to hear Frank tell it.)
"I had a rhythm and blues band there," he said. "The town was pretty upset by that because at the time nobody really understood R&B in Lancaster and even the police were afraid of teenagers in those days. Did you know the police arrested me and put me in jail the night before we were to play a dance? My own home town and they arrested me for vagrancy. How ridiculous ! Nobody even wanted to go to that town, let alone be a vagrant there."
One of the members of Frank's band, the Blackouts, was Don Vliet, now recording as Captain Beefheart. "Don and I used to get together after school and listen to records for hours," he said. "Then we'd raid his old man's bread truck and take all the leftover pineapple buns and ride around town for awhile, then go to Don's house and listen to records until maybe five in the morning. We knew those records so well we could sing the guitar parts. We even knew what the record numbers were."
Frank said the band remained together "until we all hated each other's guts." He then struck out on his own, working in other groups, owning a small recording studio for a while, and scoring an independently produced movie called "The World's Greatest Sinner." (It was not the World's Best Movie.) In 1964 he formed a group that was later to become the Mothers, but then was called Captain Glasspack and His Magic Mufflers.
"It was a strange time," he says today. "We didn't sound like the Beatles or the Stones and we didn't have long hair, so we didn't work very much. We even got thrown out of after-hours jam sessions, things you don't get paid for anyway."
Later, once they'd become the Mothers (on a Mother's Day) and had acquired a personal manager, the group auditioned at the Action, a small club in Hollywood. "Six or seven months earlier the club had refused us an audition because our hair wasn't long enough," he said. "It still wasn't very long, so we went in wearing purple satin shirts and black hats. We looked like Mafia undertakers. The management responded on a visceral level to this packaging and hired us for a four-week tour of duty."
For several weeks, he said, he concentrated on the group's "packaging." "I never actually told the guys what to wear, but I thought it silly to be playing the kind of music we were playing in suits and processed pompadours."
The "kind of music" they were playing was what was later to earn Frank a "genius" tag. Even then they were incorporating electronic effects in combination with musical lines, unusual rhythm changes and what Frank calls "noise elements." The Mothers of Invention were musical anarchists long before it was popular to be thus.
Since leaving the Antelope Valley for Hollywood, Frank Zappa and the Mothers ("of Invention" was tacked on by MGM) have been both hailed and stoned. ("Stoned" as in people threw rocks at them, practically.) ( Heh heh.) Jazz and Pop Magazine voted him Musician of the Year in 1967 and fellow musicians and composers said what he had done for music placed him in the genius category. At the same time, he has been described as looking like a "dying tree, with suspenders," 99% of the radio stations in the country have declined to play his records, and he has been booed from the stage for what some listeners describe, rather delicately, as "obscenity."
One "obscenity" he is fond of performing has an unusual beginning. Most of the members of the band have played ballroom music and occasionally the Mothers will open a concert with a gentle rendition of "Moonlight Serenade," Glenn Miller's theme song of of 30 years ago. This usually is done when the audience is old enough to remember this song, and the Mothers sound just like the good old days.
The men in the audience usually react to this by saying, "Gee, Mildred, these boys aren't so bad after all. All that ugly hair, you'd never think they could play so pretty." At which point Frank signals the boys in the band. The music of yesterday stops on a half-note and all nine Mothers begin oinking, grunting, braying and belching. A number of people present during these occasions still have not recovered.
Other "obscenities" – Frank prefers to call them "atrocities" – involve the use of props. Ray Collins, the group's hirsute lead singer, performs magic tricks that never work, and parts of a dismembered doll are tossed back and forth. Or, as when they played a theater in New York for six months, a large stuffed giraffe is used to spray the first three rows of the audience with whipped cream. This was the favorite part of our act," Frank said. "People used to request it all the time."
"Music always is a commentary on society," he explained, and certainly the atrocities on stage are quite mild compared to those conducted in our behalf by our government." He stops, almost grins. "Also, sometimes the audience is beginning to lose interest in what we are doing, so we stage an atrocity. This gives them a chance to re-focus."
Is this any way to run a musical group?
You bet it is. The Super Freak image, coupled with a unique musical sound, has made it possible for the Mothers to sell more than half a million albums – without a hit single and without the usually necessary radio air play. "Word of mouth is what sells our records," Frank said, knowing the music is good, and knowing he gives the people something to talk about.
The conversation with the head Mother comes to an end. Frank walked back into the living room, where three tenths of the Laurel Canyon Ballet Company lay on the floor, huffing and puffing.
"Rehearsal finished?" he said.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net