Bizarre Isn't The Word ...
By Dave Swaney
Frank Zappa's freak show invades the straight business world. The straight business world isn't ready for this.
The Wilshire Boulevard address is the tipoff something unusual is going on, but it doesn't grab you until you arrive and dig the building, one of those 1950s pastel aluminum and glass horrors that house the soul of Los Angeles' plastic ethic, along what some L.A. Chamber of Commerce whiz titled the Miracle Mile.
The lobby is your standard, airy, light marble and more aluminum blah (everything is so clean) with the standard aluminum-cased directory with little plastic letters all arranged alphabetically, and there all alone at the bottom of this long list of names of companies and individuals, all by himself, the only Z in the building, is Frank Zappa. Up in the middle of the B's is Bizarre Records.
The elevator pings and the up arrow is lit, so you walk on and whoosh up. At four the car stops and picks up two under assistant accountants with armloads of IBM sheets and they look at you. At six an executive secretary, the kind with the ersatz snobbery by association, steps on and looks at you. At seven a director and a manager, the director in a narrow-lapeled suit that he'll trade for something silk when he gets to be a Veep, and the manager in ivy-league shirtsleeves, offering the director first entry. The manager looks at you and then at the director. The director looks at you, and then at the rest of the passengers. The manager looks at the rest of the passengers. Everybody looks at you. They all look at each other without expression and the fear vibes are passed. If they knew each other they'd snicker. The elevator continues on up.
Something like that happens everyday Frank Zappa shows up at his record company, on the seventeenth floor of the building. It's just like him not to choose funky garden office somewhere up in Hollywood three miles or so to the north, with the rest of the record biz. It's more fun this way, being an outpost, and scaring the hell out of those nice, orderly station-wagon-with-the-wood-on-the-sides people.
They have this block that falls down over the brains, and each of them has his own idea of what Zappa might be. It would blow their minds to learn that he's the founder and spiritual leader of a successful record company. Or would it?
Bizarre's home up on the seventeenth floor is nothing special yet, just a tiny foyer and a central work area with three offices, two with spectacular views to the north, toward Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills. Since Zappa doesn't spend much time in the office because he's either out and about seeking new talent to record, or in the studio recording what he already has, he doesn't waste money on a lavish office here.
One of those offices is the lair of Herb Cohen, administrative force behind Bizarre Records, the man who interprets the creative Zappa energies into figures and deadlines and physical product, and sits in meetings and makes deals with people who see that Bizarre efforts reach your eyes and ears.
Cohen is sort of a smaller version of Peter Ustinov having fun in the role of a record company director. Not only does he take care of the operations of Bizarre, but he also is personal manager of folk-singers Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and bombshell Linda Ronstadt. Cohen rushes in and out and around the office, snapping decisions and ushering visitors in and out.
Another key man in the Bizarre organization is Joe Gannon, handsome former executive with A&M Records and Tetragrammaton Records. Gannon is the antithesis of Cohen, calm and soft-spoken, taking every crisis as it comes and dealing with it in a hushed manner. Then there's Grant Gibb, Bizarre's merchandising director, who occupies the third office along with stacks of promotional material, mailing plates, file cabinets full of tricks and treats and walls covered with Bizarre Graffiti. He also runs the company's ad agency, Nifty, Tough, Bitchin'.
Along with secretaries and other assistants, this is the Bizarre personnel complement.
Zappa is the thread running through the organization. His ideas and his artists pervade. It's all very informal and titles are in disdain – a group effort as one of them called it. Business is business, though, and like it or not, there are meetings that have to be held in order to reach decisions that affect the direction of Bizarre. If there was someone hip at Fortune Magazine, the Time-Life business journal, they'd send a photographer out to shoot one of these meetings.
There's Frank, lounging on the floor in a Pipco softball shirt, high-rise jeans and wing-tip shoes over sweat socks. And Herb, two telephones to his head, straightening out some kind of snafu at the factory on the Ruben And The Jets single; and Joe and Grant hopping out to take a phone call or reassure a waiting visitor. Secretaries pop in and out with cokes and messages, pop back out with 16 new assignments.
As in every record company office the waiting room is constantly occupied by a hopeful rock band, or a retinue of artist's managers, lawyers, and agents waiting to be dealt with by one of those executives. But Bizarre attracts the furthest out, and the dinky cooling room is likely to be filled with members of a dwarf rock band, or a fire-eating barbershop quartet, or a 1200-pound ukulele virtuoso.
Plans whirl around the office: a book by the plaster-casters is in the works, sort of a diary with illustrations (or impressions); a film of the Mothers' March on Europe; a television special that will either justify television or set it back 15 years.
But meanwhile there is action on Bizarre's present artists going around the office:
The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a clique of super-groupies who design clothes after a fashion, sing after a fashion, perform skits after a fashion and live together near the hills and do whatever pleases them;
And Wildman Fischer, the professional psychotic, whose songs and performing style have the psychiatric world buzzing;
And Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, one of the top blues bands in the country;
And Alice Cooper, a five-man hand out of Phoenix, one of the straightest acts on the label;
And Ethiopia. Ethiopia?
Not to mention Ruben And The Jets and a two-album set of Lenny Bruce's last concert.
And so after spending an hour or so in this creative and hustling maelstrom, it's a downer to get back on the elevator, no pun intended. It's all so clean. And quiet.
They make elevators to run fast because people are in a hurry, and maybe to make all the accounting firms, and law offices, and personnel agencies, and plumbing cartels, and engineering consultants blur into some kind of happening action. And it doesn't work.
At least it's something to tell the little woman about over four or five martinis.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net