200 Motels – Life On The Road, Part 2

By Martin Melhuish

Grapevine, December 23, 1971


Does This Life Look Interesting To You?

Does this kind of life look interesting to you?
Night after night: dinners with Herb Cohen!
Thrill-packed, fun filled evenings
On the French
Riviera
At the M.I.D.E.M. Convention!
(A fake tie ... the whole bit!)
Watch Mutt eat
And
Leon feed the geese!
One thousand green business cards
With your name and the wrong address
Plus six royalty statements
Inspected and customized by
Rantoon Tan, Hantoon Frammin, and DEE...
Followed by twelve potential suicides
As the members of your group, past and present,
Find out they can't collect unemployment!
A dog,
A car,
An epidemic of body lice,
Your own record company,
With your name on the door,
Electric buzzer to the inner office
Plus a three-month supply of German Bookings
With tickets on AIR
RANGOON...
Does this kind of life look interesting to you
As a fake rock and roll guitar player
In a comedy group?

NEW YORK – If you remember, last week, Jeff Simmons the bass player for the Mothers and main character in the film 200 Motels had just quit the group and his replacement Wilfred Bramble had just, at the last minute before shooting, run down the hall screaming and tearing at his hair, never to be heard from again.

It was quite a predicament as Zappa remembers:

"We had a business meeting in the dressing room with Herb Cohen the business manager and all the guys in the group plus Ringo Starr. We were sitting around trying to figure out who in the world could memorize about sixty pages of dialogue and learn the bass parts. Who?

"Anyway in walks Ringo's chauffeur Martin Lickert and everybody just went, 'You! Read this!' and grabbed him. He picked it up and he read it. He was fantastic. Then we found out that he had played the bass in some little band in Birmingham and so he might be usable. He had a fantastic memory. He was still working for Ringo and memorizing the script and learning the bass parts but he did it under the most insane pressure that could be put on anyone. We shot the movie in seven days."

Martin said later: "I had gone along with Ringo to the filming and I remember going out to get some tissues or something for Ringo. When I got back to the dressing room, they all said 'ah' and pointed at me. I remember thinking, 'Hello, me flies undone! Then Frank asked me if I wanted to do the part. Apparently they all dug the way I said, 'Funky' and besides I played bass, so I said, 'yeah'. "Ian Underwood helped me a lot, so it worked out in the end. I'm sure Frank could have got anybody for the film. He was going to get Marlon Brando for my part! Despite all the put downs in the papers, people respect Frank and like to work for him. Even me mother likes him. She hasn't heard his music, but she likes his moustache and beard."

There is a twelve minute cartoon in the middle of the movie that caricatures the incident of Jeff's departure from Zappa's comedy group to get his own HEAVY group like Grand Funk, Black Sabbath or Coven together.

"Cal Schenkel and Chuck Swenson did the cartoon. I wrote the music. Cartoons are done to a track. A guy sits down with a pair of earphones, the thing is already on magnetic film and frame by frame he marks on a sheet how long it takes to say, 'I am stealing the room'.

"I did the track then we had a little meeting to talk about how I wanted to have it visualized and I gave him some specific elements that I wanted to have in it but when you've got someone like Calvin, you don't want to tell him everything you want to do because he's so creative, you just have to give him a rough idea. I specified items in the cartoon like the duck, the mouth, the beer bottle, the ghosts floating through and about five or six other elements that I thought would work with various things in the music and the rest of it was just their imagination."

One of the funniest incidents in the movie was a take off on 'Let's Make A Deal', a television game show. As Frank had stated before that he never watches television, I wondered how this idea should occur to him.

"I saw that on television at one time. When I say, 'I don't watch television', I mean I'm not a television addict. There are times when you are sitting around in a motel room... I'll tell you exactly when I saw that. It was in a motel in Miami and it was the afternoon before a sound check and I was sitting there and I said to myself, 'I wonder what they watch in Florida'. I went 'click' and there it was. I thought 'man, that's the sickest thing I ever saw in my life.' There were people out in the audience with balloons and little hats on and holding up signs saying, 'Choose me'."

The second screening of the film for the press was just getting out downstairs in the preview theatre and Frank commented on the press reaction so far to a film that quite obviously would become the target of a lot of controversy.

"The reaction from the press at the screening has generally been quite favourable, especially the guy from Downbeat.

"The lady from Harper's Bizarre was just unreal. She said, 'I love it but what am I going to tell all those ladies that sit under their hair dryers?' "

It was getting late and the press was awaiting Frank downstairs but before he left he talked about his upcoming album releases.

"There's a live album which we did on 22 live dates in Europe scheduled for around January or February then the anthology which is three, three album sets totaling nine albums in all. They'll be released on March 1st. They'll all be available at the same time and each three record set is $7.98. There'll probably be a special price for the three sets.

"It's a good set. It's got performances from the Fillmore in '68 with the old group and I have some things going all the way back to about 1962.

"There was a time when Captain Beefheart and I had a group together called the 'Soots' and were recording in a studio in Cucamonga where we made a bunch of masters and I brought them into town and took them to all major labels. The stuff was pretty funky. Its blues oriented stuff with absurd lyrics and croakings over the top. I took it to Milt Rodgers who was the A&R man at Dot Records at that time and I played it for him and he said, 'You know, that's not commercial. The guitar is distorted.' I've still got a rejection slip from that.

"Dot at that point was Billy Vaughan and Pat Boone and also the Surfaris. I remember the day that I went in for my meeting. There was a process server screaming outside in the lobby trying to get in to serve something on them because the Surfaris never got any money for Surfer Joe and all that stuff.

"But that didn't stop us. We were desperate and we wanted to get a record out.

"As far as another movie goes, I started working on Billy The Mountain as soon as 200 Motels was in the can. Uncle Meat is still sitting in the basement and I don't have any money to finish it. There's about fifty to sixty minutes of cut footage and probably another five hours of dailies that I haven't done anything to."

On that statement Frank exited to take care of the press who had just finished seeing the movie and who were anxiously awaiting Frank's explanation of what they had just seen.

A MOTHERS VIEW OF 200 MOTELS

For any of you who were avid Turtles fans, (remember She'd Rather Be With Me, Happy Together et al.) the names Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan will not be new. Well, maybe you wonder as I did how Mark and Howard got involved with Zappa's comedy music. I suggested to them that the Turtles weren't anything like the Mothers. The answer was immediate and in unison.

"Oh yes they were".

Howard continued, "We had a lot of Top 40 records and we made a lot of National television appearances and because of the records we got into the television groove but when we did a concert we still had trouble with promoters because they thought the show was the grossest thing that they'd ever seen."

Mark Volman, who was perched precariously on the edge of a very flimsy table that threatened to crumble at any minute, went on.

"We moved to Hollywood in 1965 from about ten miles away but it was a big step. We were working at a club called the Red Velvet and Frank and The Mothers were playing a place called the Trip which was about half a mile up the street. We'd go and check them out at the Trip and they'd come down and see us.

"For us it was a natural progression from the Turtles to join the Mothers. We always knew we would be in the band because we had meetings even in the Turtles because the Turtles at the time in 1968 were going to sign with Frank's label, Bizarre."

Howard added, "We were going stale. We could have stayed together as the Turtles but we just decided to pack it in. When Frank said, 'Are you in? 'we said, 'yeah' immediately. It was very simple really.

"We are going to release another Best of the Turtles album to hit the Chrismas market. The album will include four songs that we didn't put out before we broke up. It's purely a financial venture. Mark and I both own the name Turtles.

I was interested in how the people involved in 200 Motels had reacted when Frank dropped the script on them. Mark answered.

"We had no idea of what was going to happen in the movie and we had about a week and a half of rehearsals in the hotel in London meeting the rest of the cast and Ringo Starr and Keith Moon.

"Ringo took the part in 200 Motels because all his other parts were making him look too straight. He wanted to do something that was weird. "Theodore Bikel who plays Rance Muhammitz in the film wanted to do it because it was the first video taped film project and he's really into acting for acting's sake. I think his feelings sort of come out at the end of 200 Motels when you see his face and he says, 'Forgive him for he does not know what he has done." Then he says to himself, 'Maybe he does know.'

Howard interjected, "The movie was like doing a television show with the Turtles. We'd done a million TV shows so we had been through it. It was the same video lighting and four video cameras. The only time we had to learn cues was when there were two scenes going on at once on different stages then the light would go on and you'd have to say your line.

"All the music was done live at Pinewood Studios. We went back and glossed up not only the vocal stuff but a lot of the tracks because we found ourselves in a horrible predicament as the film got closer to shooting. The bass player quit a week before we were to shoot but Martin Lickert pulled it off." 

I wondered how much social comment that people were going to find in 200 Motels.

"I think the movie makes social comments in certain points," offered Mark. "I mean there are parts of it that people will be sensitive to. I mean the whole penis thing in the movie, that stuff is socially unacceptable. The point we were trying to make is how much you can get away with and how absurd it is and how undirty it really is when used in a context like that.

"You hear certain words that are supposed to be socially unacceptable at parties, or concerts or whatever and it is accepted genre. You change when your're thrown in jail or when Herb says. (Herb Cohen is their business manager.)

"I am sure that there are going to be critics who say, 'I came to see a heavy movie and I'm just being entertained. What's the deal?' " On the subject Mark and Howard were both outspoken. Mark began the tirade.

"I hate people who call themselves critics. There ain't critics man, there's just people that are so uptight because they are frustrated that they couldn't do it themselves that they do this instead. It's real easy to make yourself look big when you're bad rapping somebody else.

"Rolling Stone is a good example. I have the feeling that too many of those people who call themselves critics would like to be pop stars or they would like to be successful at doing anything, even writing. Because they write for such a cheap holocaust of a paper they think that they're so big. John Mendelsohn with Christopher Milk is a good example."

200 MOTELS DEFINED

Leaving Mark and Howard to their tirade on pop music critics let us get back to 200 Motels and really what amounts to the ultimate definitive piece on the philosophy of this particular film and the Mothers of Invention in general. Okay Frank, 'What's the deal? '.

"200 Motels is a "Rock and Roll Movie". Granting the fact that the MOTHERS tend to operate somewhere on the outer most fringes of your real life Rock and Roll Consciousness, the film is an extension and a projection of the group's specialized view of and participation in this intriguing area of contemporary human experience. In other words, 200 Motels deals with things like: Groupies, Life On The Road, Relationship To Audience, Group Personality - Chemistry, Macrobiotic Food and Tie Dye Shirts etc ... but deals with these things in ways you might not expect (or approve of), simply because the Mothers is not your average sort of Pop Group, and if, for instance, we have experiences with Groupies on the road, these experiences will not be very ordinary. Our Relationship To Audience is not ordinary. Our Group Personality - Chemistry is not ordinary ...therefore an ordinary documentary based on our exploits wouldn't be ordinary, and a Surrealistic Documentary extended from these circumstances might seem to be just a little peculiar at first.

"No chronological continuity is stressed in the film. This is done to convey the sort of time-space reference alteration a group can experience on tour. On the road, time is determined by when the road manager wakes you up, when the plane or bus leaves, when you set up equipment at the hall and check your sound system, when you play your concert, and what you do for recreation after the show. Space is indeterminate. Motels resemble each other. The same for planes and buses. Concert halls may vary a bit, but over a period of years they also blend together. Audiences vary/blend in a similar way.

"When we go on tour, especially long tours, life in the group begins to resemble life in the army. Each concert is a campaign. On such tours it is possible not to know where you are ("Is this really Vienna?"), sitting in your room, dealing socially most of the time with other group members, you might as well be in Los Angeles.

We seem to carry a 'mystery bubble' of L.A. consciousness along on the road. Inside of this 'bubble', strange things happen.

"The situations contained in 200 Motels were organically grown inside four years worth of these 'bubbles'. These concepts extracted from within the various time-warps, with as much care as our $600,000 budget would permit, form the basis of the filmic event.

"For the audience that already knows and appreciates The Mothers, 200 Motels will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings. For the audience that doesn't know, doesn't care, but still takes a chance every once in a while on a new idea, 200 Motels will provide a surprising introduction to the group and its work. For those that can't stand The Mothers and have always felt we were nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf perverts, 200 Motels will probably confirm their worst suspicions."

Well there it is from the horses mouth. You'll get no critique from me. Life on the road CAN make you crazy. Memories of one of those 200 Motels still stays in my mind. A drunk security guard hiding a bottle of whiskey in the ice dispenser while a phantom thief does everything but steal the rooms, (I wonder if Chris ever got that camera and tape recorder back), chasing robbers and mice down the eleventh floor hallway at a time when ordinarily the third nightmare is just coming around, expensive food that is as insulting to the stomach as a kick in the gut, missing a plane three times (probably a world's record), hanging around the bar at the airport for hours and hours and etc. etc. etc. Holiday in New York. What a bloody laugh. Barb, Maxine and Marv how do you cope? Now it's Europe. It never ends does it?

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net