Frank Zappa – expecting the remarkable
By Lanny Waggoner
"I did this because I wanted to hear my music," said Frank Zappa. "Nobody came to me and asked me to put on a concert." The concert in question, to be performed on Sept. 17 and 18 at UCLA's Royce Hall, will unveil a bizarre Zappa creation called the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. It's a 37 piece outfit ("at last count") that includes winds, brass, percussion, a full-size harp – and occasionally, Mr. Z himself on guitar. "I'm just gonna come down and jam, y'know what I mean?"
Indeed. Frank's latest special project is the outgrowth of a desire to hear some of his most ambitious, creative and, probably, not commercially gigantic music. He is footing the bill, and the ticket revenues in cozy Royce Hall will fall far short of compensating him. "The grand total cost is between $50,000 and $70,000, which includes costs like $10,000 just to pay the copyist for making up the scores. Every time we have a full rehearsal of the orchestra, it's about $5,000. It's real lunacy to even be doing this.
Zappa is high with anticipation these days, partly because of his belief that this concert will present some of his most arresting music. "We'll be doing symphonic arrangements of 'The Dog Breath Variations,' 'Duke of Prunes,' 'Bogus Pomp,' 'Yellow Snow,' 'Brown Clouds' and a new piece called 'Pedro's Dowry.' There are some things in the program that will make your eyebrows go up and down, and there's a nice balance of things that are strenuous to listen to with pieces that are more melodic."
The unusual concert partly grew out of Zappa's longstanding effort to get away for a vacation. "I really needed one and even had a room reserved at a hotel. Then I decided I would do this orchestra thing, so I sat down in my basement workroom and started writing 'Pedro's Dowry.' I was really involved – 14 to 18 hours a day, for three weeks. I haven't felt that good in years!
"I told my wife, 'That's the best vacation I ever had!' 'Pedro's Dowry' is wonderful. It may even last as a great piece of music – and this is only the second time I've felt this way about one of my own pieces. It's got some neat things in it."
So, when conductor Michael Zearott gives the downbeat at the first concert on Sept. 17, we'll all get a listen at Zappa's latest imaginings. "You haven't heard anything like this before. One concert will be recorded for an album later on. It's really a tremendous feeling doing this. The only other American composer to put on his own music like this was Charles Ives, and he had made his fortune already in insurance. Something I haven't done." Smile.
As if the Royce shows were not enough to satisfy Frank's creative impulses, he will take the latest edition of the Mothers on a two-month tour starting Oct. 1. The new band includes holdovers Terry Bozzio on drums, Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax, and Denny Walley on slide. The third guitar will be handled by Frog ("a good singer also"), with old-time Mother Roy Estrada on bass. "Roy has been working in Orange County, driving a truck, being a night watchman and working in a wire factory," grins Frank. Novi of Chunky, Novi and Ernie will play violin and contribute what Zappa assures are definitive versions of the Frug and the Pony.
The new Mothers tour will loop through the South and East and into Canada, then take four days out to travel to Yugoslavia(!) for shows there. "We were invited by the Yugoslav government, although I don't believe our records can be bought in the country. One show will be recorded on 24 track remote, with the equipment being driven in from England. All we'll take with us is our instruments. Right after the date in Zagreb, we hurry back to the U.S. for a gig at
Some craziness surrounds the beginning of the tour, since Zappa is still seeking a keyboard player to replace George Duke. One had not been found by early September, and the lucky winner will have a monumental task in learning the Mothers' complex repertoire in time. But Zappa expects the remarkable (and occasionally the impossible) from his musicians.
Two legal wrangles have occupied some of his time recently. The Albert Hall lawsuit, where Zappa lost his breach of contract action against the Hall's management for cancelling a Mothers concert, is now in appeal. "What the Court said essentially was, 'You guys are right, but this is the Albert Hall.' And Albert Hall is the Queen, and she can't be a chump, can she?" The reluctance of the English courts to find against a royal entity is the real reason behind the decision, Zappa contends.
The lawsuit has cost him "about $40,000 so far, but I had no choice. Since this happened, it has been very difficult to get a gig in England. The Albert Hall's 'no' – a dull thud, really – has echoed across England, and I guess it carries a lot of weight. So unless we challenge it and win, we may always have trouble getting to play there.
"The trial itself was pretty wild – all these unbelievable characters. I can count on one hand the number of times I've worn a suit in the last few years, but I was told there'd really be trouble if I didn't, so I got myself a nice brown one. One of our opponents – a senile old dingbat – said I was 'perpetrating filth for filth's sake.' (Groan)"
The other litigation is against MGM, a suit for royalties Zappa contends are owing from his first five albums on the label. "It's a case of fraud. We are alleging they took our product and sold it out the back door for the profit of the executives of that record company and did it in such a way that no royalties were accrued to our own account. This suit has been in the process for six years and keeps getting postponed. We now have a court date for next year."
In the midst of all this activity, Zappa still has a few choice words for the critics who panned the latest Mothers' record, One Size Fits All. "It should have been more successful both commercially and critically. Most of the bad reviews – on this album and others – don't deal with the music but just talk about me. And most rock critics can't write anyway. Of course, every time I do an album, I think it's wonderful. That's how crazy I am – I thought they were all hits. "We have a new album coming out in October that was recorded live at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin on the tour last spring, with Beefheart reciting poetry and a great thing called 'Mister Muffin.' Let me see if I can find an acetate to play for you. You'll really like this .... "
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net