The Grand Design of Which Apostrophe Is but an Element
By Barry Hansen 
People react strongly to Frank Zappa. His high school, for instance: "I graduated from Antelope Valley High School ... with about 20 units less than what was required, simply because they were in a hurry to be rid of me." (Quote from Frank's semi-official one-page autobiography).
Six years later, it was a group of reasonably normal beer-bar musicians in Pomona, California, a town not noted for trendsetting. After Frank joined them in 1964, they fired the group's old leader and became The Mothers, abruptly deserting the works of James Brown and Wilson Pickett to play those of F.Z.
The next reaction came from the owners of the drinking establishments that unwittingly, and briefly, subsidized Frank's self-expression. "We kept getting fired for about a year ... all the places between Pomona and Torrance," Frank recalls. But the Mothers persevered, growing their hair. Soon they were ready for an assault on Hollywood.
In those days, Hollywood (particularly its unincorporated western extension, the Sunset Strip) was one of very few places on earth where an audience of people desiring to hear unconventional approaches to rock & roll music could readily assemble. Furthermore, these audiences had the power to influence other audiences, including those outside California.
Even at the Whisky a Go Go, there were people who reacted negatively when The Mothers changed tempo during a song, insulted the customers and refused to play "Midnight Hour." But everybody reacted in one way or another. The Mothers were loved and hated, but never ignored.
That sort of response inevitably got record people interested. With the recording of Freak Out in 1965, the Zappa controversy became a worldwide affair.
Sixteen albums (not counting re-packagings or bootlegs) and 10 years of tireless concertizing later, Frank Zappa has by now altered the consciousness of several million people, more or less. Though the occasional non-positive response continues, the usual pattern is for people to simply become Mothermaniacs, buying every album in sight and savoring the music, lyrics and other communications of this uniquely irreverent artist with a feeling very close to reverence. No more than a handful of other entertainers gets this sort of unilateral respect, something that goes far beyond the usual fan-idol relationship by reaching the intellect as well as the erogenous zones.
In search of the storm center, as it were, I went to Zappa's Hollywood Hills home for a recent interview. Arriving, I discovered him at one end of the enormous workroom that occupies the lower half of the house. He was seated at the controls of a fearsome machine, a complex of reels and screens which turned out to be a console for the editing and assembly of movie film.
On one of its twin screens he and I watched a short film, an untitled work by a Seattle artist, Bruce Bickford, with music by The Mothers. The film uses the technique of "puppet animation," in which clay figures (as many as 80 of them) are set up and photographed, then moved a fraction of an inch and photographed again, and again and again until their movements make up a movie with a three-dimensional quality lacking in conventional cartoons.
As I was about to compliment Zappa on composing music that so perfectly fit the Hadesian mood of the film, he told me that the music had not been written for the film at all, but had been extracted from live recordings of Mothers concerts which took place before Frank had ever seen the film.
"I got the work print from Bickford and edited that," Frank explained, "without sound. Then, just last night, I was sitting here with the salesman for the [film editing] machine, and I just put the [Mothers] tracks on, and it worked. It's so unbelievable – when you think what it would take to actually score a film like that, and last night I put on this music, which was something constructed for completely different purposes, spontaneously at another location at another time, and I put them together and they worked perfectly."
We retired to the other end of the workroom, where a comfortable alcove provided a place to discuss the matter. Surprised and delighted as he was at the perfect mesh of audio and video we had just seen and heard, Zappa had a rational explanation for it, based on an idea that has infused and governed all his work through the past decade. This is the idea of "conceptual continuity," Zappa's belief that everything he creates and performs in any medium is part of a single continuous artistic and communicative experience.
"Instead of thinking of each individual unit, like a guitar solo, a song or a series of songs, as being an end in itself, the way I look at the stuff is that all these units deserve ultimate care and concern, but you also have to think about what it means in terms of the overall output structure."
Once and Future Lines
I was immediately reminded of Zappa's technique of punctuating his albums with brief, often startling, quotes from previous (and, one presumes, future) recordings – such as the line "Is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?" that appears in both Overnite Sensation and in the new solo album, Apostrophe', or the continuing poodle business. That is, indeed, one of the ways in which Zappa makes listeners aware of ongoing "conceptual continuity." A more subtle manifestation of the same idea would be the way the Mothers' music on those concert tapes we had just heard matched the Bickford film, whose choice and editing was, after all, another part of Frank's continuity.
"If you take a tape and put it on fast-forward," said Frank, "you can hear the bass line at a higher octave. The same way, if you could take the whole output of what we are doing, and play it at a higher speed, you'd be able to see that there are many macro-melodies and macro-rhythms going on inside of it."
Zappa takes great pains to preserve as much of the continuity as he can, recording all his performances in quadraphonic sound, and filming them whenever possible. Though the walls of Zappa's workroom are covered with remarkable artworks and artifacts (including the remains of the guitar Jimi Hendrix burned at the Monterey Pop Festival ), the most prominent features of the place (aside from the equipment) are five-foot stacks of tapes and huge racks of movie film.
Using the capabilities of his editing machine to excellent advantage, he played me a tape of The Mothers' recent appearance at the Roxy Theater, with perfectly synchronized films of the event taken from two different camera locations showing simultaneously on the machine's twin screens.
Grand View of Details
Zappa is, of course, as concerned with microstructure as he is with macrostructure. The intricacy of detail in his work is as amazing as its grand design, as I was reminded when I visited the DiscReet complex a few days after the interview to see The Mothers rehearse for an upcoming tour.
DiscReet lives in an anonymous but by no means drab building on the eastern fringe of Hollywood. It's really two buildings; the offices are in one, behind which is a warehouse-like structure, perhaps 80 feet square. Inside this is The Mothers' rehearsal stage.
Occupying about half the building, and raised a few feet above floor level, the stage is a good approximation of those found in concert halls. There are no seats, but out in what normally might be the fourth row, Frank's men have set up the sound mixing console. Though built for traveling, it's as large and versatile as the boards in many recording studios. An engineer is there, adjusting the settings now and then as The Mothers rehearse, doing his part for the sonic textures Zappa has so carefully planned.
Next to the sound system is an almost equally elaborate lighting console, controlling the tall banks of lights which are likewise part of The Mothers' traveling gear. Though lights are intricately coordinated with music in performance, and might normally be rehearsing their cues along with the musicians, on this particular day the crew was busy installing new equipment and experimenting with it. The stage was bathed in multicolored light one moment, pitch dark the next.
Through this panoply the musicians worked, unperturbed even when several strobe lights were set up and tested in their midst. This rehearsal was devoted to the meticulous honing of several particularly angular and asymmetrical instrumental passages. Except for the scarcity of music stands, the process resembled a symphony rehearsal far more than the usual loose rock session.
When Frank was called to the phone, the musicians continued to work on the passages. And when break time came (for all except Frank, who took the opportunity to show some guitar runs to the newest Mother, Jeff Simmons), milk appeared to be the favored refreshment.
Several weeks of daily rehearsals precede each tour. The results were brilliantly in evidence at the Mothers concert I went to a few weeks later, as the band sailed through some of the most intricate and challenging music I've ever encountered, leaving us listeners ecstatic (if exhausted!). The light crew was in peak form, and the sound filled the large hall thoroughly and with clarity.
The concert, like everything else Zappa does, was the work of a man very much in control. He is a perfectionist. What may be even more remarkable is the prodigious energy level that enables Zappa to be one of the most prolific writers and composers music has ever known, despite his heavy touring schedule.
Then along came the
Beatles and the Fifth
The Stones and Dylan and
the Mothers of Invention
They ruined it all from
Nashville to Napa
Now when I grow up I
wanna be just like
– Don Imus
"The Ballad of Rick
(Don't Call Me Ricky
'Cause I'm a Veteran)
He is so absorbed in his work that he appears to need no other pleasures; it's hard to imagine him at a cocktail party or a football game.
"When I'm home, I have a work schedule that goes like this. If I'm not rehearsing, I spend about 16, 18 hours a day down here (in the workroom) on film, writing music, typing ... and if I'm not here, I usually do about 10,14 hours in the studio, seven days a week, until rehearsal schedule starts." Needless to say, when the Mothers are rehearsing, Frank still finds plenty to do in the workroom before and after.
Does he feel like doing this forever, I ask? "It's great. The only thing I would see as a worthwhile interruption would be 100% concentration on a feature film." Is such a film in Zappa's near future? "Yes." (He didn't elaborate).
As our interview drew to a close, I commented that not many people were as thoroughly committed to their work as he, nor enjoyed it as much as he seemed to. His reply: "What else you gonna do, work in a gas station?"
1. Barry Hansen is better known as Dr. Demento. For over thirty years,
he has had a syndicated radio show specializing in novelty records.
2. Actually Miami Pop Festival in 1968
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