On Tour With the Mothers of Invention
By John Carman of The Journal Staff
Frank Zappa was slumped in the back seat of a Cadillac gliding in darkness over a Kansas City freeway.
He leaned silently against a window, sleepily watching the sweep of headlights and neon signs. Coca-Cola, Shell Oil, Holiday Inn. . . .
As the founder and leader of a rock group called the Mothers of Invention, Zappa is the musician who has bestowed on the world such songs as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,” “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” and “Willie the Pimp.”
Zappa, 31, has been described as the sociologist of rock, the man who most fully comprehends the impact that electronic music has had in reﬂecting and shaping the lives of its audience.
His music is far more intricately scored than that of most rock composers. Conductor Zubin Mehta of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has called Zappa “one of the few rock musicians who knows my language.”
The lyrics that accompany the music deal with vegetables (“they make you regular”), teenage pimples, sex in automobiles, parents’ obsession with alcohol, mountains that travel absurdly across the continent and the road life of the Mothers of Invention.
At the moment, Frank Zappa was being driven in a local promoter’s car to an FM radio station for a late night interview a day ahead of two Mothers of Invention concerts in Kansas City.
The promoter chattered while Zappa watched Kansas City flowing by outside. Aynsley Dunbar, the Mothers’ British drummer, tapped his fingers on the rear of the front seat in time to the chatter.
Twenty minutes after his arrival at the FM station, the local forum for progressive rock, Zappa was on the air with an interviewer whose mid-american twang was strong enough to batter holes in the Missouri flinthills.
The interviewer seemed unsettled by Zappa, who at first glance is a horrendous nose jutting out of stringy black hair, a moustache and a splotch of dark hair centered below his lower lip.
Zappa lighted a cigaret and leaned his pencil thin frame against a desk. After preliminaries, the interviewer began to talk about the “jazz orientation” of Zappa’s music.
It was a blunder.
“Just what makes you say that?” Zappa interrupted.
The question was innocently posed, but the interviewer correctly sensed a menacing tone.
Zappa stood without a word for nearly five minutes while the interviewer grappled with the question. He was struggling, stammering something about the necessity of categories in music. In desperation, he said he really would like to question Zappa about his music.
“How do you propose to do that?” asked Zappa.
Young station workers who had hung around to catch a glimpse of Zappa bit at their lips. The interviewer was going under, but Zappa gave in and let the conversation switch to more confortable topics. The conversation ended at nearly 1 a.m.
Looking for Girls
The most the radio audience learned that night about Zappa’s music was that it was part of a long range project. Part of Zappa’s project was not to tell other people what his project was about.
Zappa did the interview because, as he explained on the air, he wanted to place an “all points bulletin” for two “delightful young ladies” from Kansas City who had once entertained the Mothers in Berkeley, Calif. The Mothers had lost their phone number.
One of them was standing at the door of Zappa’s Holiday Inn room when he returned.
Kansas City was the next to last stop on a road tour that began in California and then jumped to the East Coast and the Midwest.
By the time Zappa and the six other Mothers had performed in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Kansas City, road fatigue seemed to have engulfed them. Not so much physical weariness as emotional exhaustion. One more concert in Denver, and they could return home to southern California for a few weeks of rest before embarking on a European tour.
The Mothers of Invention are older than most rock groups. The youngest members, vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, are 24. With bass guitarist Jim Pons, 28, they were once members of a group called the Turtles. Don Preston, 39, is the oldest.
In its six years of existence, more than 20 musicians have been members of the Mothers of Invention. Ian Underwood, the group’s keyboard and woodwind man, has been with Zappa longer than any of the other current members – since 1967. Underwood is an accomplished musician, with a bachelor’s degree in music from Yale and a master’s degree from Berkeley.
Zappa’a wife, Gail, 26, was with him when the Mothers boarded an Ozark Airlines jet at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field for a Thursday noon flight to St. Louis. Their two children, Moon Unit and Dweezil, were at home in the Laurel Canyon of California.
The concert here the previous night had attracted more than 5,000 fans to the Arena. For their hour on stage, the Mothers earned roughly a dollar for each person in the audience.
Zappa and his wife were the last to board the plane. Their entrance set off a round of hostile stares among passengers in gray business suits, a common reaction to Zappa from that segment of society.
They settled in their seats, and soon after takeoff Zappa was absorbed in the National Lampoon, a monthly humor magazine, and later a Time magazine article about transcendental meditation. Much of Zappa’s reading matter is more scholarly – biochemistry and physics.
Somewhere on the roads below, a rented truck was lugging four tons of sound and lighting equipment from Milwaukee to St. Louis.
Acts as Mother Hen
Thursday afternoon, St. Louis.
Dick Barber, a 28-year-old former grade school teacher who has been the Mothers’ road manager for four years had arranged for two rented station wagons to be ready for them at the St. Louis airport.
Barber counted the Mothers with his index finger as they piled into the station wagons. He’s sort of a mother hen. His other duties include answering their questions about where they are, where they will be tomorrow and what month it is.
Barber drove one of the wagons, Underwood the other, to a downtown motel. Volman, wildly haired, pudgy and maniacally funny, sat in the front seat next to Underwood on the way to the motel.
Volman punched radio tuning buttons the way secretaries screak through typewriter keys. Under his direction, the dial jumped frantically while he and Kaylan kept pace with a perfect imitation of “Top 40” radio madness. Mooore muuuusic ... punch ... baaaby, baaaby ... punch ... and the hits just keep on coming. And so on.
St. Louis was damp and miserable. The huge Gateway Arch was draped in gray mist.
Thursday evening, St. Louis.
Checked in, fed and counted by Barber, the Mothers were escorted to the Fox Theater for a sound check before their concert. The theater marquee flashed the group’s name in letters 10 feet high. Preston reached for his movie camera.
“Hurry up,” Kaylan told him. “You may not always be a star.”
It was two hours before concert time, and already police were keeping watchful eyes on the young crowd gathered outside the theater.
Once inside, Zappa was immediately struck by the rococo excesses of the 42-year old building. The middle-aged theater manager, squat, cardiganed and punctuating each sentence with Zappa’s first name, eagerly guided him around the building.
Test a disaster
“You just close your eyes, and we’ll take a few souvenirs off the walls,” Zappa told him. The manager ignored the comment and went on to describe the theater’s imported Italian fixtures.
“How are the toilets?” Zappa inquired.
The sound test was a disaster. The stage monitor system was in awful condition, meaning the group would have trouble hearing itself accurately during the performance.
Kaylan, unhappy with his microphone, shouted across the near empty theater to a sound man in the rear: “I refuse to sing my lungs out into your rancid sound system.”
But he would.
The Mothers were the only act on the program, and elsewhere in St. Louis there would be a simultaneous concert with two top British attractions, John Mayall and Black Sabbath.
The promoter of that program had first billed Black Sabbath and Rare Earth. When he learned his show would he competing against Zappa, he dropped Rare Earth and beefed up the concert with Mayall.
Although advance ticket sales had gone well, the promoters of the Zappa concert were tense. The difference between profit and loss can be delicate, and if the concert lost money, it would be their problem.
Forty-five minutes before the concert, Zappa was hunched forward in his dressing room chair, massaging his forehead. His wife stood behind the chair, rubbing his back.
Volman wandered in and asked what the problem was.
Zappa said he’d had a phone call from a friend who said there was “some kind of ban on rock concerts in this town. It’s the same old excuse. Audiences at this kind of thing are unruly and undesirable.”
Booked in Advance
That night’s concert would not be affected, he said, because the show had been booked ahead of time. Police would later deny any knowledge of a ban on rock concerts, but Zappa was not talking to the police.
Half an hour before the show, young people were noisily filling the back rows of the theater. Two balloons were bouncing above the crowd in the front rows. Young men begged for spare change at the entrance to the men’s room.
Backstage, Zappa was outlining the night’s program for the Mothers. It varies from concert to concert. Gail approached her husband and told him people were slipping in through the rear door of the theater.
“I should care?” Zappa said. “I should stand at the door and take tickets or something?”
Eight minutes remained when Volman began clowning behind the stage with two rough hewn, denim-clad young women from St. Louis. Beer cans and wine bottles were scattered on the dark wooden floor. One of the women asked Volman what drugs Zappa used.
“If Zappa ever ODs,” Volman said, “it’ll be on coffee.”
Volman paced his chubby body through fake calisthenics while microphones hummed electronically in the darkness on stage. He could hear the audience clapping in unison, a sign of impatience.
At 7:57, the Mothers filed on stage. The rhythmic applause erupted into a roar.
The concert was sold out.
Zappa, holding his lead guitar at stage left, leaned into his microphone and told the audience that the first piece would be something abstract – “King Kong,” a strange grouping of electronic jungle sounds with which Zappa often closes concerts – because there was one advanced person sitting in the audience, “and he knows who he is.”
3 Hour Marathon
The concert, Zappa’s first in St. Louis, was a three-hour marathon. Its components were not only conventional rock instruments, but also marimbas, two Arp Synthesizers and even a Chinese gong.
The Mothers in concert are a theatrical as well as musical experience, with Volman and Kaylan spinning and sometimes dancing their way through “Billy the Mountain,” a piece that is part rock opera parody and part Firesign Theater nonsense.
Zappa conducts Mothers of Invention concerts coolly, ending a drum flurry here with a sweep of his right arm and directing spinning sounds there from the electronic synthesizers with circling flicks of his wrist.
Zappa is fully aware of the joy, hostility and emotional catharsis produced during an overpoweringly live rock concert. He knows how an electronic burst can register in the central nervous system of the listener, sending its current directly to the brain and seizing control of the voluntary muscles. The listener abandons his critical facilities and subjugates himself to the music. Rock can be totalitarian to an explosive degree.
Critics have trouble with Zappa, trouble deciding whether to label him the clown prince of rock, a serious musician or perhaps a demonic put-on.
Only Rolling Stone, the San Francisco publication that supposedly is the gospel of rock, doesn’t like him.
He in turn, detests Rolling Stone and does not advertise his Bizarre label albums in it. A Rolling Stone writer declared not long ago that Zappa hasn’t the talent to write an elementary rock tune like “Louie Louie.”
Visitors Move In
But you get the feeling that it would have been child’s play for Zappa. He’d just smile to himself and never mention it to anyone. Whatever Zappa wants in life, it isn’t a niche in the “Top 40,” and, indeed, the Mothers have never been there.
The St. Louis concert ended.
Zappa sat wearily on a counter in his dressing room with his wife next to him. There were visitors. The local Black Panther chapter needed money. Zappa promised a check. A young man who wanted a job – promotional work? Maybe sound? – with Zappa was turned down.
Finally, the young leader of a struggling local band handed Zappa two tapes to listen to when he returned to Los Angeles. Zappa stuffed them in the pocket of his battered sheepskin coat. The visitor’s band just had to get out of the Midwest to succeed, he told Zappa. They were tired of playing college dances, and they needed help from someone like Zappa.
“I think you’re vastly underrating the Midwest.” Zappa told him matter of factly. “Probably our best state right now is Wisconsin.” He advised patience: “You talk about college dances. Man, we used to do five jobs in crummy bars.”
Friday morning, 12:30 a.m.
An hour and a half after the concert, Zappa sat in the restaurant of his motel with Gail, road manager Barber and this reporter.
He ordered a bottle of wine with his late dinner and listened to a combo called John Reno and the In Crowd. Most of the other Mothers were sitting two tables away, joking and rattling silverware.
Other Group Plays
John Reno and the In Crowd were trying to be sedate. “Girl From Ipanema,” “Age of Aquarius.” Were there requests from the audience?
“Willie the Pimp!” Zappa shouted.
“Willie and the Hand Jive” chimed in the Mothers.
John Reno and the In Crowd played “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Saturday afternoon, en route to Kansas City.
The Mothers have a friend in Hutchinson, Kan., and that’s what they call him, Kansas. He’s their former equipment manager, and now he is working the Midwest on the Santa Fe Railroad.
Kansas is a railroad fanatic and, having joined the group in St. Louis for a few days of reunion, he persuaded them to ride the rails to Kansas City.
Car to Themselves
The Mothers had a private car divided into three small compartments. Zappa, whose wife had flown home to California early in the day, occupied one. Preston burned incense in another. Pons, Volman, Underwood and Dunbar pursued their latest passion – a table game called “Thinking Man’s Golf” – in the third. Kaylan watched. Kansas and Barber wandered.
“Thinking Man’s Golf” was forcefully on the minds of the Mothers of Invention during the waning days of their road trip.
Were there those sex orgies behind closed motel room doors with groupies, the women who devote their bodies to rock musicians? Insidious explorations with death dealing drugs?
Uh-uh. “Thinking Man’s Golf.”
Game Gets Tense
Between dice rolls, Volman observed that the game brought out the true personalities of the people who played it. The game was getting tense by the time darkness began to spread gently over the Missouri Valley outside.
It was pitch dark when the train finally pulled to a stop in Kansas City’s Union Station, a five-hour ride. The massive depot was a worn survivor of the rail passenger industry’s better days. Now it was dreary, dimly lighted and nearly empty. Voices echoed from its high ceiling and forlorn gray walls.
Zappa wandered around the station to investigate, while Kaylan ate a soggy chili dog and Barber set off to rent two station wagons.
Zappa returned. “Someday,” he said, “all our factories will be like this, unused. There’ll just be a few people around to make nuts and bolts. At least we got to see the place before it was encased in plastic and shipped to New York.”
Zappa likes to amuse himself by thinking that all discards from American society are eventually encased in plastic and sent to New York. Finally the entire continent will be encased in plastic.
“Someday all our concert halls will look like this, man,” said Kaylan.
Zappa thought a moment. “Think so, really? What makes you say that?”
Friday night, another motel, Kansas City.
Zappa returned from his radio interview and disappeared wordlessly into his room. It was nearly 1:30 a.m. Barber and Dunbar went next door to a room shared by Kansas and Preston.
They were in their beds, but awake and talking. Obscure jazz was playing on Preston’s portable stereo. Barber and Dunbar set down, and there were a few cans of beer to drink.
Kansas spoke of his home in Hutchinson, the sad state of American railroading and past road trips with the Mothers. Thet led to discussion of groupies.
Kansas, lying flat in bed, pulled at his goatee and addressed Dunbar as the resident expert on the subject.
Dunbar discussed women the way auto mechanics discuss makes of cars.
A few doors down, Underwood, Kaylan and Volman had been listlessly watching a late night movie on television. Volman was displaying trophies from the road trip. An Indiana state flag, a Kansas state flag and a green and yellow Holiday Inn flag. He kept them neatly folded in his suitcase.
Saturday night, the Cowtown Ballroom, Kansas City.
The ballroom is a roller skating emporium by day and a rock palace by night. Signs warned against wearing roller skates on stairs.
The Mothers had two shows, and the old ballroom was filled to its 2,100 capacity for each. Young people squatted elbow to elbow on a gymnasium type floor sprinkled with coffee cans used for ashtrays.
The dressing room, in the rear of the building and up a flight of stairs, was long and narrow with spotted stucco walls and mismatched rectangles of carpeting on the floor.
A pastel green door led to a small storage room, and the door was kept closed. Behind it, Kansas, Volman, Kaylan and two young Kansas City women passed around a few marijuana joints.
Their use of the drug was discreet, compared to the open smoking on the ballroom floor below them. Volman and Kaylan decided they liked the place; it reminded them of engagements during their early days with the Turtles. It was funky.
Talks to Young
Between shows, Zappa sat cross legged in a dark corner of the dressing room, talking to half a dozen Kansas City youths. They asked questions. They must have been surprised in the darkness at the answers Zappa gave them. He told them he hadn’t used drugs since smoking marijuana as a teenager. But he drank a quart of coffee a day.
He said he had a little respect for Timothy Leary, because Leary preached the use of a drug (LSD) that had been damaging to a friends of Zappa. As for politics, Zappa said, too many young people were oblivious to the needs and aspirations of most Americans. What about the poor boob who just wants his beer to be cold, his television working, his mail on time and his work steady.
Driven to Motel
The Mothers departed in different directions after the two shows. Pons, Underwood and Kaylan left for the motel and bed. Dunbar disappeared. Zappa, Preston and Volman went to a party in a home somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
Zappa stayed at the party about two hours, spending most of the time at a dining room table talking to young people who filtered in through the front door.
He was with one of the women he’d posted the “all points” radio bulletin for the previous night. When the crowd became too large, she drove him back to his motel. Volman and Preston followed an hour later.
Sunday afternoon, Kansas City Municipal Airport.
Game on television
The Mothers had left hours before on a plane bound for Denver, the final stop of the tour. If they had remained in Kansas City, they would have seen their first rays of sunlight in the four cloudy, sullen days, since before coming to Milwaukee from Indianapolis.
In an airport cocktail lounge, a television set was tuned to the Green Bay Packers - Los Angeles Rams football game. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to it. Two thirtyish cocktail waitresses were taking advantage of the day’s slow pace to chat at the end of the bar, describing their Saturday nights.
One of them had been at the same party as Zappa. She didn’t mention it because she didn’t know it. She had no idea who Frank Zappa was. She had a John Reno and the In Crowd personality.
“The party was a waste,” she told her friend. “Too many young people.”
This article is about Zappa and the Mothers’ concerts between October 20 - 23, 1971. See Frank Zappa Gig List: 1971. A shorter version of this article appeared in St. Louis Post Dispatch, December 21, 1971.
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