Zappa's Got A Brand New Bag
By Michael Watts
In an upstairs room in E block at Pinewood Studios Keith Moon is talking to Jimmy Carl Black, a big, raw-boned Mexican Indian with deep bags under his eyes and a long black pig-tail held in place by a silver clip. An ex-Mother, you may recall.
"It really would be too much, man," he tells Moon, "if you could send me all The Who records. My kids really dig your group and they'd kind of like it if you could autograph the copies for them. Here, these are my kids." He fishes in the pocket of his cowboy shirt, a fancy deep blue in colour, and pulls out some photos, laying them on the dressing-room table.
Moon murmurs his appreciation and then turns to his "Minder," his valet Chalky. "Get Track to send those albums to Jim's address," he says. He pauses. "Hey, when do you go back, Jim?" he says suddenly.
"Well, I gotta be getting a flight tomorrow," the reply is drawled slowly. In that case, Moon says, he will make sure he has them by the morning. "You got that Chalky?" he remarks. He walks to the door, flinging a last remark over his shoulder. "And Chalky, don't forget to get some bottles for the party tonight."
The party. Everybody is talking about the party, and everybody is going to be there: sound technicians, cameramen, lighting experts, bit part actors and big part actors – the whole movie shebang. And not forgetting Mr. Frank Zappa, of course because after all it is his show.
The party is being held at 5.30 on the dot, right after shooting ends on Zappa's "200 Motels," the movie that is going to spill the beans on what it is like to be a group on the road. Man, the chicks, the dope, the sex … who would think of missing it? You know what Frank and The Mothers are like; there's bound to be a large glob of lasciviousness that you can savour and roll around your mouth.
Out in the corridor downstairs, walking towards Studio A, we stop and say hello to Ringo. He is playing the part of Zappa in the film, and my God, he is the image of him, right from his floppy black hair and dark skin to the inch of beard that has been stuck on strategically in the centre of his chin.
Behind the disguise and a stylish little pot belly, though there is no mistaking him. You know it, and so do the two tea-ladies, pushing past with their laden trolley. "We know you, you're Ringo," they call out, nudging each other. "No, I'm Zappa, Frank Zappa," he says very deadpan. "That's Ringo," pointing to Moon, who is hiding behind a grotesque, fleshy mask of a wrinkled crone. "And that's Paul," he says, stretching out his arm to me.
"No. We've seen you; it's Ringo," call out the chars, disappearing up the corridor. You can fool some of the people some of the time. But...
Studio A is rigged up like a small mid-Western township. There is a blue-painted liquor store, a butcher's with its white walls flecked with blood, and just opposite, the wooden front of a "boutique, in the window of which hang a few soiled dresses.
Walk through the casbah tassels of the boutique door and you are in a mock cafeteria, complete with fake jukebox, fake food and the life-size dummy of a blonde in a black-tasseled dress, sitting at a table with her legs apart.
It's all very unglamorous and depressingly artificial, but clever nevertheless, because, right next to the cafe there is the exact replica of a bar, its half-moon counter ringed with bottles; and right across the main street there are four mock house-fronts, whitepainted with green squares of carpet outside, like neat lawns. And standing on the carpets are cardboard models: of a redneck with turned up dungarees and a can of beer in his fist, and a Mr. and Mrs. Average, all permed hair and suits.
Avoid the wires snaking around the set like tram-lines, sit down on the porch steps of a ranch, and take note. A lot of people have got the same idea. There are various photographers milling about, zoom lenses dangling from their shoulders, their faces white and sharp, like the rest of us, in the fierce hotness of the arc lights. Then there are the various technicians, mostly middle-aged men with grizzled faces and diffident airs; the actors and actresses, waiting for their scenes to come up, and the casual onlookers, like the tall, distinguished guy with his small blond son, who is trying to explain what groupies are:
"What's a groupie, dad?" says Neil, and his father pauses and thinks slowly. "They are fans of pop groups and follow them about," he says after much reflection.
Well, mmm, that's about the half of it, I reckon, and I look up to see Miss Lucy of the GTOs, deep in petulant conversation with an assistant director. She doesn't wanna be in this part of the movie, she whines, because she don't have nuthin' to say, and anyway, nobody can goddamn see her because the boutique front is in the way. She tosses her short head of dark brown hair and pouts full-lipped at him.
Don't be silly, he tells her. They have four cameras on the scene and she is sure to be featured on at least one of them.
He delivers the payoff: "Don't forget, you've been paid to do this and you're going to do it." She stalks off, her bottom moving rhythmically up and down behind her mauve silk flapper's dress, and her arm trailing a similarly mauve bra down Main Street, like a kid pulling a toy.
"Gee, it's tough being an actress," mimics David  in perfect American. David is a very impressive-looking cat, who appears to be an assistant co-director. He is very tall and rangy, with a black sweater and trousers, white shoes and a red cloth cap, that perches on his head above big shades. A pair of cans look permanently glued to his ears, and every now and then he says "yes, Tony" or "right, Tony," the Tony in question being Mr. Tony Palmer, who is directing the movie from a control room outside the studio.
This guy David paces in brooding fashion around the set, slinging out sardonic asides every once in a while from a mouth that is incessantly grinding chewing gum. When he is not doing that or talking to Tony, he is shouting "cut," though maybe he should have said: "Once more from the top?"
Scene 21, Take Four, is the scene that manages to make it past Tony and David to the actual videotape. Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, vocalists with The Mothers are walking into Centerville. I say walking; rather, it is a curious stylised shuffling that gives them the appearance of clockwork figures. Centerville – real nice place to raise your kids," they say in these very stylised, zombie-like voices. "Liquor stores! Rancid boutiques!" They gaze around in stylised appreciation.
A vicar walks down Main Street, his hands clasped piously together. Drunks topple out of the liquor store. A policeman strolls up and down, swinging his night-stick. A schoolmarm steps out very primly, her nose in the air. A girl in a white party frock and a kid in a cowboy suit zigzag in and out of these characters in playful pursuit of each other. Then, Volman and Kaylan close the scene by shuffling cut off-camera, their heads working mechanically up and down like dolls. Really, it seems a very stylised movie.
It all goes in the can and there is a break for coffee. Returning, I take a look-see around the set. Don Preston, one-time keyboard man with The Mothers, is playing snooker on a table set up in Redneck Eats. He is wearing a black cape and black hat, and seems oblivious to everything that is going on around him. Suddenly, he puts down his cue, picks up a little camera, and shoots: at nothing in particular. He takes his cue again and carries on playing. His face is a large blank.
Martin Lickert, Ringo's chauffeur, is rehearsing his scene. He rises from his bed in a motel, The Mystery Roach clasped in his fingers. He begins to stagger, goes red in the race, clutches his throat, tries to hold onto the Venetian blinds, his body shakes, his hand is trembling, it's pointing to – a pile of white towels! Heavens! Then, in a mad, blind rush, he dives for the towels, scoops them up, and muttering hysterically, shoves the hotel ashtray into his briefcase. Oh, the drama!
Zappa has been supervising it all, noting every movement very intently, with the deep emotionless, unsmiling concentration of a Russian bridge player. Now he moves silently around the set, prompting and prodding, the circus ringmaster who knows he does not need a whip to make them all perform.
"Mista Zappaaaa!" Miss Pamela GTO, petite, blonde and pretty in a vacuous way, gazes at him in supplication like a child asking the teacher if she can leave the room. "Can I be in the next scene, please'? I can! Whoopee! Oh Mr. Zappa, you're wunnderful!" Did Frank give the hint of a smile, just for a minute?
Miss Pamela's part in the scene requires her to wriggle her cute little ass as the juke plays hot music in the bar, which is entered by The Mothers. The bar is crowded. Ringo/Zappa is sitting at a table. So is Keith Moon dressed as a nun with an awful green face and black eyes. So are two enormous newts. And so are Motorhead Sherwood, dressed in mauve drag, and Volman, attired in blonde wig and black scanty dress, and looking like a mountainous brothel keeper. The scene is done in two takes. Each time it ends with Kaylan being ravaged by these two creatures (Oh my, that Mr. Zappa!).
"Right, Tony?" says David. "Okay. Okay everybody. Just one more scene and shooting's over."
It's getting unbearably hot and people are becoming tired. Miss Lucy lies in sybaritic abandonment on one of the lawns that is really a green carpet. Her dress is slit to the thighs and a large hunk of haunch is visible. She is watching the lonesome Cowboy Bert Scene, and a lot of people are watching her watching Cowboy Bert, who is Jimmy Carl Black singing and acting the part of a redneck.
Ian Underwood plays the last note on the piano and suddenly, it's all over. But not quite. Frank Zappa is not the man to go out with a whimper, rather than a bang. But literally.
All around the set are thin copper wires, and throughout the day warnings have been given out not to tread on these strands. It seems that these are connected to explosive charges, because pretty quickly almost everyone is shepherded off the main set and inside a wooden, barbed wire palisade, which induces the feeling of being in a concentration camp.
"What gives?" I whisper in best hipster fashion to no one in particular. "It's Herbie, man," answers an American voice; he is referring to Herb Cohen, Zappa's manager. "This is what he's been waiting for."
The next minute two very loud cracks ring out, followed by big clouds of smoke from Redneck Eats and Centerville Bank. Herbie is nowhere to be seen, but I hope he was pleased.
Later, I do see him. He is at the party – remember that? – a short, stocky man with curly hair, tough face and barrel chest that is pushing hard at the seams of his white shirt.
Miss Lucy is not so inhibited. Obviously an Isadora Duncan aficionado, she is whirling hectically around the crowded floor in The Green Room, the top half of her demure brown suit very sensibly unbuttoned to allow her breasts to jiggle about at will. Around and around she goes, and as we stare at her those two unblinking eyes on her chest gaze impudently back.
Drink in hand, I talk with the film's publicist. Some juicy scenes today, I say. He nods his head emphatically and blows out his lips. "But you should've been here two days ago when we did the groupie scenes," he smiles. Barkus was willing, I think to myself.
Over in the corner Miss Pamela is slumped against the wall. " I'm so lonely," she keeps muttering, "so lonely." She looks like a shattered blonde doll, discarded like some toy that's no longer in favour. So lonely.
Miss Lucy has stopped dancing now and is having a long crying jag. People are trying to comfort her. "I didn't want it all to end," she boo-hoos as I squeeze past. I sit down at a table, right next to this quiet young American girl and we introduce ourselves. She turns out to be Cynthia of the Chicago Plaster Casters. No kid! I'm fascinated.
Now tell me, Cynthia, how and why do you do it? "Well she starts to explain. Really? You don't say! My, that is interesting.
You know, I would love to tell you as well, but then that's another story, isn't it?
1. David Alexander.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net