Zappa’s Zoot Allures!
DiscReet Charm From Un-Bourgeois Z
By Tim Hogan
At first glance, he looks like Carlos Santana with an overgrowth of moustache and chin-patch. But as the figure hustles further into the dim-lit room from the sunny Los Angeles atmosphere, it registers that this character is decidedly Frank Zappa, with his hair pulled back into a ponytail.
In one of the outer offices, a small group of people who were a moment ago discussing the perils of popdom, snaps to a strange attention. Several are waiting to speak to Zappa about one thing or another, but no one makes a move. Zappa notes this within a second, and the next view of him is from the rear, as he scoots into his manager’s off-ice to conduct some fast business. It becomes too much like a scene from some bad movie as the group goes back to chattering about overdoses.
Frank Zappa’s first taste of Southern California fame came in early March, 1962, when a Pomona daily newspaper reported that the 21 year-old Frank V. Zappa had composed the score for “The World’s Greatest Sinner.” It was the “arty” tale of an insurance salesman who moves through music, religion, and politics, and ends up repenting for efforts to prove himself God.
Less than a year later, Zappa showed up on national television playing a bicycle concerto for two with Steve Allen. He’d already begun collecting rejection notices from record companies and TV networks which couldn’t appreciate songs like “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” and script outlines for “I Was A Teenaged Maltshop.”
Then, in 1965, Zappa again made headlines, this time in Cucamonga. The local Vice Squad raided his “free-swinging film and recording studio,” where Zappa and “his buxom, red-haired companion” were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture pornographic materials and suspicion of sex perversion. The raid was preceded by an attempt by an undercover officer to rent a stag film from the studio. Always the enthusiastic salesman, Zappa offered to make a stagmovie for $300.
Whether it was in retaliation or not, within a year Zappa formed the Mothers of Invention, and quickly scored a recording contract with Verve Records. It’s now been 11 years since their first appearance on wax, yet Frank Zappa is buzzing around the office with test pressings of his 23rd album with the child-like excitement of a first-timer.
At the initial hint of interest in his new DiscReet Records double-album set, Zappa’s ponytail bounces towards the stereo equipment stacked on glass shelves in the corner of the room “It’s called Zoot Allures,” he says over his shoulder as his fingers adjust the numerous knobs on the amplifier. “Zoot Allures” is an English corruption of a French expression [Zut, alors] that translates as “oh, shit.” Combined with the album’s cover photograph, the title makes for what Zappa refers to as a “sight gag.” 
Zappa returns to his chair just as the first notes fill the air. He whips his briefcase onto his lap, snaps open its lid, and pulls from it a glossy photograph of massive teen appeal. Left to right: Mothers veteran Terry Bozzio, newcomer Patrick O’Hearn and Roxy Music keyboardist Eddie Jobson line up behind Zappa, who hardly looks any older than he does in the earliest shots of the Mothers.
“The album is me playing most of the instruments and Terry playing the drums on all the cuts and a variety of other people playing incidental things. Patrick is playing bass on one of the cuts and Eddie’s not on the album.” Like so many of Zappa’s more recent releases, the current incarnation of the Mothers on the road differs from that on the latest record. (Zappa ranks second only to Miles Davis in this category.) In the background, Zappa’s leading his studio band through “Disco Boy,” a typically tongue-in-cheek tribute to one of the ironies of modern civilization. “The inspiration for that comes from a place in Copenhagen called the Disc Club. We spent a week in Copenhagen for rest and recreation between the Japanese part of our last tour and the European part.”
With arched eyebrows, Zappa continues, “I don’t know what you’ve ever heard about Copenhagen, but you’d think you could have a good time there. Five or six days in that city was the pits. It was colder than shit. The record company people were showing us the amusing highlights of the area and they took us to the Disc Club, which was the local nose-in-the-air discotheque.”
“One night I went to the toilet and I couldn’t get in because all these guys were in there combing their hair. But they’re pretending not to. They look in the mirror and give themselves a quick little checkout and quickly zoot their hair back. They check out their expression and adjust their clothing and zip out the door. And there’s this endless rotating armada of Danish disco gents outside the room. So I just went back to the hotel, got out some stationery, and cranked it off.”
The next tune, “Friendly Little Fingers,” is a mystery even to its creator. “There’s no reason in the world that that song should exist and here’s why: the lead guitar track was recorded at 7½ on a Nagra in a dressing room at Hofsberg University. I listened back to the tape and thought it was a nice little guitar track.”
“So one day I tried an experiment in the studio. I transferred that tape to an existing drum track from a song that was already an improvisation. The time signatures don’t match, nothing matches, except that it all matches perfectly. And it’s one shot. I never tried to adjust any of the synchronizations or anything. I just laid it on there and let it lay where it may, and it sounds like the drums are right in there with the guitar.” It’s not often that Zappa expresses wonderment at his own talent.
A giant dog of unknown origin enters the room, sniffing at everyone until he settles on a mysterious scent that’s centered on a glass table at Zappa’s feet. The table gets a thorough going over as the deep throated lyrics of “Wino Song” squeeze between the room’s atoms.
“That was originally written in 1968 when we were working in a place in Boston called the Ark. I didn’t do anything with it until Jeff Simons needed another song for his album. He had an instrumental track that was similar to the original version, so I suggested we put my words to his song. So the first recorded version of “Wino Song” appears on Jeff’s album (Lucille Messed Up My Mind, Straight Records). I’ve changed the words and music to make it more current."
Zappa won’t reveal the story behind “Night of the Iron Sausage,” saying only that “it’s a real long story.” The song was originally a set item from a past tour, but on the new album it’s slimmed down to a basic guitar solo. “Let that be the title of mystery,” Zappa offers.
The second side of Zoot Allure is comprised of two extended cuts with minimal lyrics. The first is “Sleep Dirt,” a basically acoustic cut that finds Birdlegs Youman trading licks with Zappa. The title cut follows, an instrumental that began as a jam between Frank on a 12-string and Terry on drums. Patrick O’Hearn later overdubbed bass tracks, and much later Zappa added a guitar solo played through a Pig Nose amp.
“It’s just something to occupy your time when you’re sitting in your teenage room with the red lights on," Zappa scoffs.
The kinkiest song of the whole set opens side three. Entitled “Pinky,” the song tells the tale of a hot date with a life-sized doll’s head. “We saw an ad in a Finnish magazine for a rubber head called Miss Pinky. It’s got a vibrator in the throat and a bulb that you squeeze to make the jaws suck in. When in action, Miss Pinky sucks you off. When I saw the ad, I just said ‘Jesus!’ We got two of them, one for the crew bus and one that Roy Estrada used to sing to during our concerts. I figured something as wonderful as that should be memorialized in song,” he says with a straight face.
The next tune, “Filthy Habits,” again features a healthy dose of Zappa on guitar, but rather than break-neck time changes, the notes are held and squeezed out for maximum effect. The freedom to conduct lengthy solo excursions that comes from having four sides to play with is used to full advantage by Zappa.
“Finder Finer” offers Uncle Frank’s advice to young men in search of one-night love affairs. “Seeing as how the main problem with the teenage male set is today, and always has been, how to get reamed, then maybe some of them haven’t figured it out yet. But you’re not gonna get any action if you’ve got any brains, so let’s get it together: be as dumb as you can, folks. You can discuss it later with your intellectual friends.”
Side four opens with a live recording of “Black Napkins” taken from a concert in Osaka, Japan. A multitextured free-for-all, the tune got its title from “a black napkin sitting on a table in a Milwaukee hotel, Thanksgiving, 1975.”
The final tune is Zappa’s current tribute to the old concept of the “freak out.” We find the main character trapped in the dark recesses of someone’s twisted fantasy where “The Torture Never Stops.” The song was originally written for the Bongo Fury album, but Captain Beefheart couldn’t get the vocals right so Zappa saved it.
As Zappa slides the last side back into its protective sleeve, the conversation turns to the present Mothers lineup.
“Terry’s been with me for over a year. He introduced me to Patrick, and he plays so good I’d be a fool not to have him in the band. Eddie Jobson auditioned for me when we were out on the road with Roxy Music. He asked to join the band, so we tried him out for a few dates. He’s got a knack for fitting in.”
The new Mothers are kicking off a domestic tour this month and are expected to stay out on the road for at least two months. After a short break, they head to Japan and Europe for several weeks of concert dates in December. The set for the tour will consist “90% of Zoot Allures and 10% of golden oldies,” according to Zappa.
“It’s too soon to tell what I’ll be doing when we get back from Europe because I’ve got a lot of side deals going that may come into being by then." Questioned as to whether he’d be getting into any more outside production work, like with Grand Funk (“Back Pages,” CIRCUS 138), Zappa gets dodgy.
“Well, I’ve already offered to do their next one if they want me to. I guess I’ll know whether they want me to, and whether I’ll have time, when we get back.”
All of a sudden, hell starts to break loose in the office. Two Mexican construction workers attack the hinges on the room’s back door. The dog starts barking and can’t be stopped. A secretary runs in to tell Frank he’s missed an important meeting on the other side of town. It seems like the perfect time for one last question. Zappa agrees.
Is it true that you’ve fired people from the Mothers for getting stoned? Zappa hesitates just long enough for a look of discomfort to slide across his face. But it disappears as quickly as it appeared.
“There’ve been a few. And there’s also been situations where there were so many people getting so wasted at critical points in a tour where it’s just not practical. I would’ve had to fire the whole band and crew at the same time.” Someone laughs and Zappa raises his voice a little to emphasize his seriousness.
“It’s stupid. If you’re going into places where you know there’s some kind of legal danger, all you have to do is get one key person nabbed and it’s gonna blow the income of everyone else on the tour. We’ve got a tough book (of songs) and if one person falls out, it’s impossible to patch up the gap on short notice.”
On that note, Zappa bounds from his chair and in a few minutes he’s sitting in the middle of the street outside, posing for a photographer. As we pass on the sidewalk, Zappa winks and asks, “Can you think of a better way to spend your time?”
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net