By Jerry Hopkins
It was one of those great moments in music that you don't recognise as such until a long while later.
In 1963 I was working as a talent coordinator for Steve Allen's nightly TV variety show in Hollywood. My job was to find someone unusual for him to interact with every night. Allen called me his "vice president in charge of left-fielders". Others used the phrase "kook-booker". Some of the acts I introduced were merely unusual, and all Steve had to do was ad lib. Thus I brought a genuine flea circus out of retirement and on another night an octogenarian used his long white beard to pull three automobiles up the street in front of the TV studio.
Other guests demanded more interaction from the host. Someone would 'teach' Allen how to do something, such as walk a tightrope or eat fire; alternatively the comedian might receive a massage with a vacuum cleaner type device that was supposed to reduce fat and tone muscles, or get tattooed.
The rules for my job were simple. Get someone who was genuinely eccentric or who did something at least a little strange or out of the ordinary, but never make fun of them – the idea was to have fun with them. And no fakes, frauds, no bogus acts looking for exposure and willing to do anything to get it, no put-ons or send-ups, no cons. Because, Allen assured me, they never, ever worked, and they embarrassed everyone.
Only once did I ignore his advice. and that was when got a call from a young man who identified himself as Frank Zappa. He said he wanted to teach Steve how to "blow bicycle".
"Blow bicycle?" I repeated.
"Yeah, you know, like the bicycle is a musical instrument."
I thought it was a dumb idea, and a bad joke besides, but for some reason I asked him to come in, and a couple of days later he arrived with his old Schwinn two-wheeler. He was wearing a black suit (all three buttons buttoned), a white shirt and a black knit tie. He had not yet grown his trademark moustache, and his hair was way short of his later freak-flag. Still in his early twenties – and years before he became a pop icon who bridged the gap between classical music and rock – he looked like a smalltown trainee bankteller. He put his bike on its kickstand in the lobby of the Hollywood theatre where we videotaped the show, and plucked the spokes as if they were the strings of a harp, pitter-pattered on the seat as if it was Buddy Rich's tom-torn, and, removing the handgrips, blew across the hollow chrome handlebars, creating the sounds of a wind instrument. He then played a short, improvisational piece and upon its completion, stood waiting for my reaction.
I laughed. "You've got to be kidding," I said.
"You didn't like it?" he said, seeming genuinely wounded. "I can play another song."
We talked. I was sure it was a gag, but I couldn't get him to admit it, and I thought that might be the key to his pulling it off. At that point in his life, he had no album or club date to promote, so I suspected he wanted to appear on the show for the $235 that was paid every 'performing' guest. Yet he seemed so damn serious. I also had to admit that what I had heard was musical. Still, I worried about incurring Allen's wrath, so I told Zappa I would call next week.
Concerned about failure, over the weekend I hatched a plan that I thought might guarantee chaos if not hilarity, and out of the mayhem some laughs. On Monday, I called Zappa and asked, "How would you like to conduct a bicycle symphony?"
I explained that we would fill up the television stage with bicycles – two-wheelers like the one he had brought in with him for the 'audition', tricycles, unicycles, Victorian penny farthings, bicycles built for two, everything we could find in the big 'property houses' that delivered props to the Hollywood studios. The whole stage would be crowded with bicycles, I said, and Zappa could do whatever he wished with them.
This was not my introduction to the use of ordinary objects to make music. Like many people coming of age in the 1950s, I saw musical spoons and saws played on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I remember someone playing Christmas carols on a table full of champagne glasses by rubbing his fingers around the wet rims. At the same time, a hypnotic new sound was emerging from the Caribbean using hammered (and tuned) steel barrels, or drums. During the folk music boom that followed, musicians put metal thimbles on their fingers and played the corrugated iron surface of a washboard and blew across the open and of a ceramic jug (giving the name to jugbands). Blues guitarists used the necks of bottles on the frets to create a 'sliding' sound. More recently, in an oddball South Korean musical called Nanta (Wild Beating), performers beat knives on chopping blocks and hammered kettles and pots and pans to a frenzied rhythm that became a season's hit at Tokyo s Disney World before embarking on a world tour. And let's not forget Karlheinz Stockhausen's Helikopter String Quartet, a composition for string quartet and four choppers.
Ever since our ancestors first started banging rocks together, or maybe hitting tree trunks with sticks in some sort of organised pattern, humans have been determined to make music by whatever means available. Music – something that is difficult to define but is generally believed to have melody, rhythm, harmony and dynamics – was from the beginning and is now a part of every aspect of life, inextricably linked to all human activity, from religious ritual to frothy entertainment, and nothing is too outlandish or impossible.
Over the years, while many found music in the Ambient environment, others, like Ken Butler or Frank Zappa, deliberately sought the unexpected, and created new music in the process.
Sadly, I don't remember specifically what Steve Allen and Frank Zappa did on that night long ago in a Hollywood TV studio, but I do recall that it worked, and that afterwards, Allen suggested I should not bring on any more put-ons. He was smiling when he said it. One musician, after all, recognises another when he hears one.
This article here is an edited version of "Frank Zappa's Bicycle Debut", which was once available at jerryhopkins.com.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net