You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here
By David Walley
"always wondered whether I could make it in society because it's a drag when you're rejected."
Sandwiched between the Jefferson Airplane, Kent State massacre and nationwide paranoia sat Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention a few weeks ago. They were at the Fillmore East after a year's absence, billed at the "original" Mothers ... they weren't. Missing were Artie Tripp III, Bunk Gardner, Roy Estrada, and Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group) ... that was a sign of something funny. All four sets went off as planned. The audience reaction was uniform, while Zappa's music was almost boringly entertaining.
There was something missing in performance, something missing in the whole concept of the Mothers, a spark of an admission of failure on the part of the Mothers and an almost equally disappointing admission on the part of the audience that they were prepared to look on the scene and not partake ... a normal state of affairs.
The last time I went out to LA, I spent about 17 hours with Frank at his rehearsal studio and at the Wadleigh-Maurice editing rooms where he was synching ten hours worth of Uncle Meat (that fabled movie which is both a chronicle of the Mothers from times past and a cinema verité treatment of Mothermania ... more precisely a view from Frank's head).
The movie is not to be believed. Experienced, yes. Understood, maybe. That is if you are familiar with all the folklore of the Mothers and are intimately familiar with the way Frank looks upon art and composition. It will be an art film, an extended version or synthesis of Zappa's own compositional techniques, the marriage of visions and music and absurdist Dada dialogue.
I sat in the editing room for ten hours, from nine at night until seven the next morning, watching the saga of the Mothers unfold and having Frank explain to me what was going on, the levels within levels. There are eight things happening simultaneously: one needs a scorecard to learn the players. Like a cartoon bubble where one sees the character's inner thoughts as well as the dialogue – imagine that times eight.
Frank sits in the control room and splices film deftly and automatically. He chuckles to himself, proud of his creation. He asks me what I think is going on; I tell him that even if I don't understand everything, even if I can't get inside his head, I can approach it as total art. Uncle Meat is an experience, not a movie, a concept which has come directly from his compositional techniques. One can intuitively grasp Zappa but not be able to explain him except in other images – his music is imaginative, setting up images of Los Angeles, plastic powered robot police and superpsychedelic stoned out lost children in a mad world. Uncle Meat is a vision of madness as interpreted through the mind of Zappa – the Mothers are the actors in a mad charade: they are the foils of a mad world: they are the actors in a psychodrama which has no beginning and no end.
Like being dropped in the middle of a painting by Bosch, they scramble through many different scenes, never leaving the canvas. The dialogue is painfully random but symbolic, symbolic in terms of the rest of the chaos going on ... if we are all insane and viewing the insanity of a government gone mad, perhaps it is because they too are in the movie. Like being in the Kesey bus, either you're on or off the bus; so too with Zappa.
I've been working on a book for a long time, a book on Zappa and the Mothers. I see Frank when I can and ask him a lot of silly questions which he answers with good grace and honesty. Seeing Frank on the road is much different from talking to him in his home, though one is really an extension of the other. At the Fillmore East he was on guard. So many people wanted to see him and he rose above it, all the New York important people bullshit. Between sets Friday night, he took off to a loft on 18th Street to listen to Aynsley Dunbar's acetate with a special 18-minute version of "Willie the Pimp." (Aynsley joined the Mothers recently and is now in the process of getting into Los Angeles and moving out of Frank's house.)
Frank sat there for 50 minutes with Aynsley, assorted Mothers, groupies, and myself. It was very difficult to interview him because he was not in his environment (he hates New York with a passion and the Fillmore East seems to be the seat of his discontent). He was surrounded by his own mystique, his own alienation.
On one level one can try to make him answer supercilious questions relating to form and meaning in old Mothers music: He can tell you who played what when and where; he can tell you how a piece was created and under what conditions. He never seems to be satisfied. There is an unfed energy source within him which one can tap into but never fully comprehend, unable to give either total acceptance or total rejection. The best, or the latest, example of his energies is a soon-to-be released album on World Pacific Jazz Records (ST-20172) called King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. It contains jazz treatments of some old Zappa favorites: "King Kong," "Idiot Bastard Son," and "America Drinks and Goes Home," plus a number by Ponty relating to (I guess) Zappa called, "How Would You Like to Have a Head Like That."
The major event on the album is a composition called "Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra," a first in conception, where Zappa's music is being played by musicians which he has chosen. The piece itself has many moods, ranging from highly structured melodic Satie type improvisations to Albert Ayler jazz meanderings. The cut is fascinating, letting Zappa's imagination and compositional skill run the gamut. For Mother's fans, for sure, a delight to the ear. But Zappa isn't satisfied.
"Music" was done in one six-hour session, and the recording was so bad that Frank had to edit everything around so that it fit together. The original recording is not what appears on the album; moods are interchanged, forgotten, or re-recorded by other musicians at other times, and this was supposed to be some sort of special event for World Pacific, for Ponty, for Zappa ... Nothing happened – yet another imperfect vision of creativity.
This latest hassle with World Pacific points out yet another problem which Zappa has had with his vision. The original Mothers broke up for many reasons, because their expenses were outrageous, because they were not successful enough to bring people up to their level (because they always had to make excuses for what they did), because they were misunderstood. The Mothers however are just an extension of Frank's art concepts, like someone in Mother country says, an extension of "the big note."
The original Mothers broke up because Frank could only go so far with his musicians, because his music required more deft handling. "Music for Electric Violin" was done with the intent of having Frank become a composer instead of a "pop" musician, a band leader. Like you would accept the Julliard String Quartet playing a Stravinsky quartet, you could accept trained musicians working out the charts for "music." It doesn't happen, because of a fundamental desire of many who listen to Zappa's music not to transcend what he presents on stage and what their ears experience.
Talking to Zappa is like talking to Samuel Beckett (or interviews with Beckett). Zappa can only tell you how something is put together or what specific lyrics mean in terms of his own cosmology, his own environment. Like "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" off We're Only in It For the Money is a song about some friends of Motorhead's and Frank's who lived in a cabin in the back of someone's house and who, over the space of a few months, collected urine in Mason jars because they were kicked out of their parent's house and they used to have contests to fill up the jars. Nice story, rather disgusting, but then what's in a song, for what goes into a song or an idea is certainly not what is received by an audience experiencing the song.
There is no way to make the artist's vision uniform in appreciation; creativity comes from the seat of the unconscious and flows through the artist onto whatever medium the artist is familiar with – he defines, refines, and edits this vision and hopes that he has communicated his vision.
Zappa's visions are his music; his movie will make the vision more available but not more comprehensible. It may even be treated, as his music has been treated, as the product of a prolific media freak, the product of someone attuned to electronic impulses and their visual manifestations. He can edit reality, as David Seay has amply pointed out in Crawdaddy magazine, to the point where his performers are yet another track on an album. Experiences become mythic as one can only see the myths and capitalize on them ...
Talking to Zappa one has the idea that everything is planned out even before one starts talking; an extension of his records, the mind which works at the control room controls the world, and Frank Zappa is rapidly becoming a wizard in the media arts. Working on a television show, working on a movie, writing music, producing records, making deals, he smokes many Winstons (I like the color of the pack), drinks (at home) copious amounts of black coffee and demitasse; and he works at the editing room far into the Los Angeles night and greets the dawn still hunched over the editing machine, smiling to himself with proud eyes.
A long time ago, I asked him why, why at all, why subject oneself to all the bullshit of the industry (record/media), and he said in so many words that even if nothing ever happens as far as public recognition, there's always all those hours of tapes and some acetates. In reality, even if there is no audience, an artist creates to get it out, to satisfy his own visions, to explain and define his own myths and realities. The Mothers are a conscious working out of Zappa's musical vision, a combination of music, drama and reality where everything is staged and in the process of being staged ... the audience is just there and, if they are aware of the theater, can contribute their own business.
At the Fillmore East, sandwiched between the Jefferson Airplane and Kent State, came Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The show was no show, more a pantomime, a parody of a Fillmore East performance. Zappa said out front, "We're just going to do some favorites for you." He did, all the old Mothers' nonsense with acapella and giraffe perversions supplied by Ray Collins, monster faces by Don Preston, cigarette smoking supplied by Jim Sherwood, girth by Billy Mundi, glamour by Aynsley Dunbar, and Frank Zappa by Frank Zappa.
But it's the essence which counts for so much. The Mothers may have been at the Fillmore, but the Mothers had long ceased to function as anything more than a distant memory. The last time they played the Fillmore, a year earlier, they performed a composition known as "Electric Bassoon Concerto." It went over most people's heads, but that didn't matter, not so much as the reality that a work of that complexity was performed at all in public.
Look at it another way, see the whole Mothers' trip as a way to get things performed, Zappa's music In Public. Imagine if Edgar Varèse could have had the influence which Zappa has today. That influence is underground for the duration and will only come out when it can, when there's a place to play, time to rehearse, and an audience which wants to listen and experience instead of taking what they put in when they sat down.
If you watch Zappa at a concert, you can catch, somewhere behind the mustache, black straggly hair and paisley construction shoes, a mad gleam. He knows where his audience is going because he is leading the procession. The hostility he evokes is staged, possibly as a foil to his music, possibly as an addition to it. If you listen to Zappa, that quality comes out, shocking one into an examination of oneself.
The Frank Zappa approaching thirty is widening his horizons, going into film, into television, trying to make it on the concert stage. There are approaches to all these avenues; they deal in main with mastery of man over medium. Uncle Meat is just an extension of the Mothers of Invention, which is an extension of Frank Zappa sitting at the control room twisting the dials, editing the tapes, adding outside noise. He is trying to turn on the world, not paisley psychedelic blue but Concentration Moon yellow. His specialty is sarcastic verity, musically, culturally. "This is going to be a really dynamite show." Only you will get blown up, while he's already taken the precautions by making it all happen.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net