How Frank Zappa Runs His Rock Orphanage: No more Mothers, no more Invention?
By Nathan "Detroit" Roth & Cary Baker
By Nathan "Detroit" Roth
Their names should be familiar to any connoisseur of the pop idiom. Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison, Phil Spector and The Byrds all mined the commercial mainstream, armed with a scandalous array of hip street jive, electrified Dylanisms and erotic poetry.
Perhaps the most outrageous performer of all was Frank Zappa, leader of a bewildering menagerie of musicians called The Mothers of Invention. As the Dada of Art-Rock, Zappa spawned a new rock era, blending a gift for satire with genuine compositional genius.
The Mothers became known for their zany catalog of aural jokes, insults, innovations and absurdities. In the course of a 12-year concert career, Zappa has interrupted the musical proceedings to unpack a bag of vegetables, mutilate a doll and take a shoeshine from his saxophonist. (The Mothers were temporarily banned from The Auditorium for abusing a life-sized stewardess doll on stage).
Zappa's November 24th performance at the Auditorium is somewhat of an historic occasion. It marked his first
As the title suggests, the movie is self-indulgent and amateuristic, hardly worthy of comparison to Zappa's earlier video masterwork, "200 Motels." The current band's show suffers accordingly. It highlights several lackluster offerings from Zappa's forthcoming record, Zoot Allures as well as a sampling of uninspired, almost puerile versions of Mothers classics.
Zappa was unruffled by the current tour's lack of critical approval. "The problem with critics, "he noted sardonically during a luncheon interview, "is that they tend to use their imagination rather than their intellect. Now my show gives them indigestion. Well that's too bad. At least they won't spend their time making up tales of my stomping on boxes of baby chickens and defecating on stage. Those weren't true either.'"
Zappa's bizarre career has supplied an ample selection of factual anecdotes. His pre-Mothers ventures include an appearance on the Steve Allen Show with a bicycle concerto for two, a musical score for the low-budget Gothic horror film, "The World's Greatest Sinner," and a bundle of rejection notices for early tunes like "I Was a Teenage Malt Shop."
By late 1964 Zappa had transformed a local bar band, The Soul Giants, into The Mothers of Invention. Having replaced Wilson Pickett and James Brown hits with their own outlandish compositions, The Mothers were promptly fired, as Zappa cheerfully recalls, "from every beer joint between
"When we first appeared," he says, chain-smoking, "no one knew exactly what to make of us. We were on a TV show called Swing-Time and the MC had a Freak-Out costume dance contest (named after an early Mothers album). "Everybody was supposed to wear weird outfits because the Mothers were coming. Well we arrived to find kids wearing two different pairs of socks. He was completely out of an other era."
A Zappa crony from that era was Captain Beefheart, renowned for his equally eccentric c artistic abilities. He joined a recent Mothers tour, but only after surviving Zappa's rigorous initiation rites. "His solo career had consisted of retirement, "Zappa said of his former protégé. "So he asked for a job. I auditioned him for the group and he flunked.
"I let him try again. He just barely squeaked by, but we let him join anyway. His problem is quite simple. Its a combination of his rhythmic concepts, which are poor, and his memory, which is abysmal. It has huge gaps-sometimes we'd leave room for his solo (Beefheart plays harmonica) and he'd forget it was his turn."
As a music theorist, Zappa knows no equal. Having outlived a dozen incarnations of The Mothers, he is obsessed by a sense of musical continuity. "If you write short stories or poetry," he explained with a slight hint of impatience, "you'd understand that our aural career has enjoyed such a long time span that we can incorporate details that someone working in a smaller area might miss.
"The running gags are just tips of an iceberg. The references to poodles, food and yellow snow are just teasers, not the real continuity. My most difficult chore is teaching new members songs, since the piece is usually so specific that by the time they've memorized the details, they're not in a position to understand what the composition means. "Most of my band members don't comprehend the music until it's been out on the record and they've heard it at a distance."
Zappa's outspokenness has often provoked bitter controversy. Recently he became embroiled in a lawsuit against
Zappa immediately filed suit, but was not allowed to testify until he was properly attired. He promptly bought a brown English tweed suit, and to impress the court with his new found austerity, fitted himself with a Justice's wig as well.
Thus attired, Zappa spent a day on the witness stand" defining terminology like "freak-out", "groupie'" (one justice mistakenly assumed it meant a female member of a band), and "penis dimension." Zappa, who won the suit, considered the time well spent. Asked if it was a duel of honor or merely a financial matter, he replied with characteristic aplomb. "It was both."
What does Frank Zappa have to be thankful for? Good friends and family on Thanksgiving Day? Nope. The weekend off, to be spent unproductively basking in the tropical sun? Hardly. While you ate turkey and caught up on the family doings and listened as your uncle expounded on how a Carter administration means fire and brimstone to the economy, Zappa sat in his hotel room high atop the Magnificent Mile trying to get his espresso machine to grind.
"Blasted thing," he cursed, as finally the precious strains came dripping through.
It was the same Frank Zappa who'd been through town previously with innumerable incarnations of the Mothers. This time, the group was called simply Zappa, with all the same brazen eponymy that gave you Montrose. "It just seemed time to let go of the Mothers once and for all," he said. "Things had changed to the, point where my group was no longer the Mother's."
One can't help but reminisce, as flashes of flagrant Mothers of yore come to mind: The ever bumbling duo of Flo & Eddie as they found themselves ex-teen-idols-cum-elephantine, dazed and confused in their new niche as Mothers. Jimmy Carl Black's exploits as "the Indian of the group."
The various comings and goings of Sugarcane Harris, George Duke, Don Preston, Jim Pons and the Underwoods. An almost Warholian succession of characters completing the spectrum from tragic to formidable linking the day of Motorhead Sherwood with that of Napoleon Murphy Brock. But Mothers to the last drop, long exceeding anyone's expectation of their longevity.
The musicians who flank Zappa today are no Mothers by any stretch of the imagination. Competent players, yes; Zappa's never settled for less. Adept performers, sure, although one player (keyboardist Bianca) was dismissed due to her inability to cope with ballroom blitzkrieg night after night. But Mothers, no.
Drawing capacity crowds night after night and watching as Zoot Allures (his first for W.B. following the demise of DiscReet) goes from height to height on the Hot LP's chart, a realization cuts its way through the bravado: If Frank was the mother of invention, gone is the necessity. In '68,'he was a visionary, a rebel nine years later, we find the rebel largely an outmoded concept, a rebel's posture an irrelevant goal.
A musician of less stern stuff would have years ago conceded defeat, but not Zappa. The years that heralded creative demise for rock's fringe lunatics (Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart) asserted Zappa's growing legitimate acceptance, something he had the makings of from the time he first dropped Varese's words, "The present-day composer refuses to die," on his album liners.
Zappa's current quintet is concededly skeletal. Their familiarity with the Zappa backfile dips little beyond "Stinkfoot" or "Dirty Love." They're certainly not Zappaphiles (and you know that nuisance some breed; they know, every sideman, release date and matrix number and somehow believe they've traversed his thoughts). As showmen, the band exudes little in the way of uncalled-for personality, save a stunning violin outing by ex-Roxycrucian Eddie Jobson. It's Zappa's youngest band, and potentially his longest-lived on merit of its low profile. Simply, there are no personalities permitted. Hence, there are no clashes.
"What I looked for in assembling this band were musicians who could survive six months on the road and retain their sense of humor. They had to play in a style compatible with mine, whether they read music or I had to hum it to 'em," Zappa said. The four – Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Terry Bozzio and David White – were selected in an open audition.
Despite the lineup of horns, vibes, etc., seen recently on Saturday Night Live, it's only Zappa and a rhythm section on tour. "Horns are nice," he said. "But left to their devices, horn men try to play as many notes as they can. Horns are linear; they can't play chords. And when you have several horn players, each waiting for their treat, a solo, it gets crazy. And I just want to play my guitar so get out of my way!"
Zappa has maintained social relations with a number of former sidemen. "George Duke is one player whose career I never stood in the way of. I'm the one who twisted his arm to play the synthesizer. When he was offered, a good contract and lots of money, I urged him to grab for it, and we're still friends. Flo & Eddie warmed up for us recently in
And what of the assortment of artists , some monstrous today, others not to be found, that premiered on, his Bizarre/ Straight label, circa '68?
"Alice Cooper and I today have no social adieu. And the G,T.O.'s – one is dead, one is living in Italy, one's acting in a daytime soap opera, one's a waitress at Benihana of Tokyo in the San Fernando Valley, another just married Shuggie Otis and another just got divorced from J.J. Cale. Did I miss anyone?"
Wild Man Fischer?
"Still doing the same thing, only not recording because no one else will take a chance on him."
Instead, Zappa has a new circle of compatriots, including, to the surprise of all, Grand Funk Railroad, whose most recent album he produced. Despite an initial flurry of interest from critics, the album has for all intents and purposes, stiffed. Nonetheless, Zappa still stands behind it.
"They called me up one day and asked me to produce them," he said. "And I'd never heard them. I'd only read what the critics had written, which was rather negative. So we got together and they gave me copies of all their old albums. I listened to them and agreed to do it. And the album is the first in which Grand Funk sounds like Grand Funk."
But what of all the curiosity sales, those among the Zappa constituency, who picked it up in quest of precious moments of Zappa sardonicism?
The telephone rang in Zappa's room. "Hello?" he answered. "Hi, Miles, I've got a news flash for you. Last night at the third annual Thanksgiving Banquet, I saw Ozzie and Geezer from Black Sabbath. They're playing the Amphitheatre tonight. We had a great time and discussed the possibility of teaming up at
Frank Zappa and Black Sabbath? A combination every bit as heterogeneous as that of Zappa and Grand Funk, What's happening here?
"Black Sabbath moves people," he said. They're in the same boat as Grand Funk in terms of what the critics say about them. But critics' bands like Aerosmith just don't compare to Black Sabbath. I prefer their modality. Black Sabbath is the archetype of that style, the hard-core."
In Zappa's recent past is a Christmas reunion featuring such artifacts of Motherdom as Roy Estrada, Don Preston, Ruth Underwood and whoever else showed up. Material performed included "Peaches en Regalia," "Uncle Bernie's Farm," "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and ·"Mr. Green Genes.'
"As vintage as I've been able to get with the new band is Dinah-Moe-Hum, which I consider indispensible. People go berserk over that song," he said. "I could spend years teaching old material to my current band, but why?"
Zappa's current tour has taken him to several U,S. cities, with an emphasis on college towns, One might infer that Zappa was a closet advocate of academia, which couldn't be farther from the truth.
"Yes it's true ," he started, " I myself was actually a part of the great American education machine that device that can make you a docile consumer. Work. then buy. Then spend.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net