Boss Of The Mothers
By Nat Freedland
Inventor of the “groupies,” creator of highly original rock music, this hairy genius is a legend in the Underground.
HE’S A GENIUS who disguises himself as a freak to get audiences for his far-out jazzrock music.
He’s Frank Zappa and he called his group The Mothers—which intended a far funkier meaning than the “Mothers of Invention” tag that chicken recording execs stuck on their first album, Freak Out!, in 1965.
He looks like John Carradine portraying Edgar Allan Poe, with all that long black Shakespearean hair and the square patch of beard under his bandido moustache. But offstage, away from his deliberately created image of hairy evil, he is a calm, warm, rational husband and father whose quietly erudite conversation bristles with jargon like “aleatory music” and “chemical reality.”
During the four years Zappa’s Mothers have been underground stars their entire presentation has steadily become more thornily complex. By now, what they do on the bandstand takes on the dimensions of a full theatrical music happening.
Zappa is, among other things, the Brecht of Rock. Like the author of The Threepenny Opera, the slender, self-taught rock guitarist has a mordant sense of drama and satire. He’s trying to make the world a groovier place to live with lyrics like:
Over the camp in the valley
Wish I was back in the alley
With all my friends,
Still running free:
Hair growing out
Every hole in me
Threatened by US
Drag a few creeps
Away in a bus *
Probably the wildest personal appearance ever put on by the Mothers took place during their latest European tour. It was Paris and the audience included Mia Farrow and other celebrities.
“Five Mothers and our German equipment handler were fucking each other onstage, humping and groping in a dogpile of bodies—with their clothes on, though,” says Zappa. “It was very bizarre, but like a ballet somehow. The idea is if you do something on the stage that nobody would ever imagine could or should be done, you’re helping everybody feel a little freer. Very good therapy. Mia came back afterwards and said she liked it a lot.”
This outburst of loving friendship grew from three years of what the Mothers call “packing.” Zappa says the process has grown more passionate through the years. Packing consists of anything from hugs or kisses on the ear to a couple of fast forks in the buns and wrapping a leg around another male waist.
“The band really loves each other and they get so physical about it, it’s ridiculous,” says Zappa. “They’ll start packing anywhere now, airports or restaurants. When a new member of the Mothers is voted in by the group, his first few rehearsals must seem pretty weird to him.”
THE MOTHERS’ first four record albums were released by MGM-Verve, but in 1968 Zappa was able to start his own company, Bizarre, under an exclusive distribution agreement with Warners-Reprise, currently the hottest recording company in Hollywood.
With dropout civil rights lawyer Herb Cohen handling the business end, Bizarre ownership gives Zappa absolute freedom to go his own way—not only musically but in his explorations of the sociology of hip freaks.
When Life Magazine finally got around to devoting a special issue to New Rock, there was nobody around better qualified to write the article about groupies and street freaks than Frank Zappa. It was Zappa who first brought onto the world stage the remarkable Cynthia Plaster Caster—an attractive Chicago 22-year-old who makes plaster casts from rock stars’ penises.
Zappa imported Cynthia to Los Angeles and is preparing to publish her diary about how she cast seventeen top stars including Jimi Hendrix as the lead piece in his Groupie Papers anthology. Cynthia, on her own, is also working on a Groupie’s Guidebook which will explain how any teenybopper can track down her favorite rock musician and get him into bed with her.
Still another renowned groupie, Zappa’s first discovery Suzy Creamcheese, is writing her own book about the groupie life. And to top it all off, six of the most notorious groupies in Hollywood have been banded together by Zappa into a singing group called the GTO’s— which supposedly doesn’t mean anything dirtier than Girls Together Outrageously.
The GTO’s were a stunning success at their first concert and their album is due shortly. Each girl tries to outdo the others in wackiness of costume, hairdo and make-tip. One GTO sports black mascara stars around her eyes and bare-midriff navel; since she is pregnant this third ring of stars makes an astonishing sight. She plans to name her baby Crayola.
Domestically enough, Zappa got the GTO’s together when one of their groupie members, Miss Christine, was employed as a housekeeper by his wife, Gail, for the year-old Zappa daughter, Moon Unit. The other girls just liked hanging around with Miss Christine at the Zappa home in Laurel Canyon.
He was living, at the time, in the rambling pseudo-log cabin built by early cowboy star Tom Mix (Tony the Wonder Horse is buried in the backyard.) It’s just across Laurel Canyon Boulevard from the burnt-out ruins of Houdini’s pseudo-Grecian villa. Ah, Olde Hollywood. Only hippie tribes can now afford to take on the maintenance of the log cabin white elephant now and it’s been passing from hand to hand as psychedelic scrawls appear on the windows and logwork.
So with characteristic efficiency, Zappa decided his house groupies might as well become a singing group. This latest talent was added to the calling cards that the GTO’s hand out, explaining the erotic services they offer to pop stars.
In his more poetic moments, Frank Zappa likes to describe groupies as handmaidens to the new music who make the ultimate sacrifice of their young bodies to the nearest representative of the Rock God. “Groupies are a phenomenon that exists for every form of masculine endeavor,” says Zappa. “Sailors and truckdrivers have their own groupies, but now at the moment pop music groupies have more status so this attracts more converts.
... It’s great to tell all the ugly girls at high school who aren’t getting any that you’re a groupie and you’re balling rock stars.”
Like most of the more sensitive rockers, Zappa is deeply grateful for the presence of groupies on the road. “You get terribly lonely when you’re away from your home and family for weeks on end,” he says. “When we’re not actually playing we compose a lot of the Mothers’ songs on the road. But it’s really nice to be able to talk to young people in a strange town.. even nicer if they take their clothes off.”
However, Zappa with his ten years of experience along the wild Sunset Strip scene insists that hometown groupies are the champs. “Los Angeles groupies fuck better than anyplace else,” he insists. “Unfortunately they also spread the most VD—that’s why we’re delighted to donate our services to a Free Clinic Benefit any time we’re in town.”
And how do the Mothers rank with the giving groupies? Zappa shakes his locks in bewilderment as he admits, “The Mother who makes out best of any of them on the road is our pianist, Don Preston. We call him Dom De Wild and he’s the oldest guy in the band—skinniest too because he’s on the macrobiotic brown rice diet. He comes on with the teenyboppers by reading their fortunes on the tarot cards or cooking them macrobiotic meals.”
From the first, the psychedelic-looking Zappa has taken a firm stand against drugs. In the earlier days of the turned-on revolution, this brought him a certain amount of hostility from hip commentators who felt he was putting down the very audience that supported him.
“Actually, we get practically no support from stone hippies,” says Zappa. “The largest single element of our audience is straight-looking, bright fifteen-sixteen-year-old boys from suburban homes. They seem to look at us as older brother figures who let themselves get all weird and escaped from the middle-class bullshit. But they also dig our music no matter how demanding it gets.”
And as the percentage of bummers, bad trips and ruined lives began to mount among the youth drug experimenters Zappa’s prophetic stance gained more and more respect.
“If you intend to function in society I don’t think you can do it good if you’re all jacked up, wiped out or bent out of shape,” explains Zappa. “It’s pathetic to see these people pretending that they’re really making it. The chemical reality they live in is just that ... an underground Raggedy Ann fantasy. I guess when I first started saying that stuff everybody was having so much fun being the local teenage acid freak I came off like a teetotaler or something.”
FRANK ZAPPA is utterly fascinated by the weirder side of life, though he is thoroughly down-to-earth himself in everything except physical appearance. Undoubtedly this came about as the result of a shy adolescence in superstraight Lancaster, the desert outpost of Los Angeles County. (John Wayne’s hometown too.)
Zappa spent his teen years sitting in his room listening to rock and Stravinsky records, reading library books on music theory and teaching himself to play first drums and then guitar. He is a true product of the phonograph age, able to absorb multiple demanding worldwide music traditions via the long-playing record.
Nominally a rock performer, Zappa and the Mothers have a fluent command of avant-garde jazz and classical music as good as any full-timers in these fields. Frank has written three movie scores, the latest for motorcycler The Naked Angels, as well as a handful of “serious” chamber orchestra works.
He was also on the spot for the great Southern California youth music explosion of the Fifties. All the first crude rock chorales came through to the El Monte American Legion Ballroom at the dismal inland end of the far-flung county. Hordes of youths with ducktail pompadour haircuts and hotrods flocked to freak to those early “Ooo-wah” sounds.
Satiric nostalgia for this era of pop has long been a staple of Zappa’s musical bag. His final album for MGM is called Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. It is a pure re-creation of carwash pachuco music made with what he calls “greasy love songs and cretin simplicity.”
According to the lyrics of “Fountain of Love”:
“Don’t go, baby. Don’t put me out on the street. You threw my best sharkskin suit out on the lawn, right on top of some dog waste ...” *
The back cover shows Zappa posing as a mythical “Ruben Sano” by way of a high school photo of himself in vaselined hair, a wispy moustache, knit tie and a padded-shoulder jacket.
Frank went to one of the state colleges for a couple of terms, dropped out and got a job as advertising director for a small greeting-cards studio. This may have been where he got some of the merchandising and packaging ideas that have made his album jackets visual feasts.
For We’re Only in It for the Money, Zappa ran off an entire parody of the coffin and crowd scene jacket of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
When Zappa eventually got together a quintet under the short-lived name of “Captain Glasspack and the Magic Mufflers,” he was working for seven dollars a night per man in the beer bars of Pomona. The repertoire included “Mustang Sally,” “The Midnight Hour” and all the oldies but goodies. “We thought we were rolling in money anytime we got a gig for fifteen dollars a man,” sighs Zappa.
Eventually they moved onto the Sunset Strip scene as exciting new rock clubs sprang up and for a time drew audiences of the biggest names in Movieland. One Halloween Eve the unknown Mothers played to Soupy Sales, Lorne Greene of Bonanza and Frank’s fellow Lancasterite, John Wayne.
The Mothers got a five-week run at the famous Whisky-A-Go-Go. “It was a very strange time at the Whisky,” says Zappa. “The Johnny Rivers era just ended and the first hard-core hip- pie freaks were beginning to appear. They shared the club’s dance floor with the white plastic go-go boots and angora sweaters crowd. We used to rank our audiences a lot in those days, it was part of our charm ... the carhops from the Whisky lot loved us.”
Then in 1965 came the first Mothers album with song titles like “Monster Magnet.” Unlike most other LP’s, the Mothers records keep on selling year after year as new audiences hear about the group by word of mouth.
Initial sale of Zappa albums is now around 200,000 copies and the group is increasingly popular in Europe—especially Holland and Germany, for some reason.
FRANK LIVES NOW in a large Hollywood Hills pad complete with pool. His family and a small herd of animals are constantly about, but he locks himself into a soundproof basement to work late into the night on his editing tape machine and a new movieola for the films he is beginning to splice together about the Mothers.
One of the few things Zappa still wishes he had is the wider commercial acceptance that would bring in sufficient bread for him to lay hands on expensive new electronic music devices for the Mothers. Something like a Moog Synthesizer—a keyboard computer that can be programmed to create any kind of sound—costs at least five thousand dollars for a professional model. Members of the Beatles and the Monkees can keep a synthesizer around the house to toy with, but Zappa can’t afford one yet.
As it is, he has made remarkable breakthroughs in finding new adaptations for the equipment he was able to stockpile during a triumphal eighteen-month stay in New York when he played to packed houses each weekend in an off-Broadway theater. The Mothers were the first group to use wah-wah pedals on the horns as well as guitars and they make full use of the compact electronic sound-changers that can make a single clarinet onstage sound like a choir of outer-space trumpets.
Although Zappa doesn’t believe in telling his ten current Mothers (the band keeps getting bigger) what to do in their private lives, it is understood that they cannot be doped up while playing with the group and still hope to handle the musicmaking. The orchestrations would be too hard to follow unless one’s head was completely straight.
Like most large-scale jazz works, Zappa’s long compositions are written out and rehearsed, hut there is much open space left for improvising solos or rearranging the elements. The Boss Mother has developed a wholly unique conducting style that he uses to change his compositions around to suit the moods of an audience.
If the crowd’s attention needs picking up, all Zappa has to do is move his hand in a certain way to produce either a split-second singing high note from the band, a moment of retching sound-effect or a clap of drum thunder. “Anybody who misses a cue really gets the shit afterwards from all the guys,” says Frank. “If they want to get stoned, it’s got to be on their own time.”
Wherever the Mothers play, there’s always some local hero weirdo who prides himself on being the strangest cat in town. “These people always come around and introduce themselves before the show,” Zappa says, “and we invite them onstage to do their number.”
This sort of thing can end up with mass dancing all over the stage. At their final appearance in New York’s Fillmore East, Zappa left a delicatessen supper with famed conductor Leonard Bernstein and found a lovely Swedish road groupie of the Mothers’ acquaintance singing to herself backstage.
She had a beautiful soprano voice and Frank promptly told her to join them on the stage and start singing. The lyrics she improvised began along the lines of, “I am making love to the moon flowers,” and the whole thing developed into a twenty minute opera with the Mother vocalists joining in and a perfect accompaniment created by the instrumentalists. Many minds were blown that night.
As a recording company exec and fledgling movie producer, Zappa has been as free-swinging and inventive as in his music. Bizarre and its quieter affiliate, Straight Records, have already released posthumous tapes by the controversial comedians Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, an all-male rock group called Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band and basso folksongstress Judy Henske.
But their most bizarre production yet is a lavishly packaged double record set by one Wild Man Fischer, a youthful hippie eccentric who sings his strange little songs unaccompanied on the Sunset Strip for nickels and dimes. “Wild Man is a magnificent example of what the twentieth century can do to people,” sighs Frank. “He was very shy and couldn’t talk to anybody. One day something snapped and he decided he wanted some friends so he made up these simple songs and wandered around the high school singing them. He was thrown out of school for disturbing classes and his mother had him committed to the asylum twice.”
With his new stardom, Wild Man has been dating one of the GTO’s. And Frank Zappa, King of the Groupies, regularly storms out of the Hollywood Hills with the Mothers to freak out three continents. “Groupies vary from place to place,” Zappa mutters.
“They do the same thing but they do it in different ways.”
*All lyrics copyright for the world by Frank Zappa Music Co Inc. BMI.
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