200 Motels – Life On The Road, Part 1

By Martin Melhuish

Grapevine, December 1, 1971

NEW YORK - It was one of those rainy New York nights that lately I have always seemed to run into whenever I am down that way and for me Manhattan is becoming more infamous for drizzle than dear old blighty. The occasion for this latest visit was to witness the birth of Frank Zappa's newest creation, a movie this time, 200 Motels. United Artists had gone to considerable expense, (actually I found out later that Frank also had more than a picayune financial investment in this particular project), to fly in the pop press from all over Europe and North America to be on hand for it's premiere. The Mothers of Invention Carnegie Hall gig coincided within a couple of days of the screening of 200 Motels so it was a matter of killing two birds with one stone.

The press who was treated to a three day tour with Frank and the Mothers, arrived back in New York by bus from Boston the evening before the Mothers long awaited Carnegie Hall gig. For most, exhaustion had already set in and the thought of getting back to the hotel room to get a good nights sleep was foremost in everybody's minds but Frank had planned a little get together to show some old movies of the Mothers on tour and talk about 200 Motels.

There is an old factory building in the Bowery section of New York that a friend of Frank's had converted into a penthouse apartment and it was here that Frank held court. It was planned in the beginning to be a small intimate party but by the time New York's hip crowd found out that that swinger Zappa was having another one of his bizarre all nigh t orgies they turned out en masse and the already small apartment began to bulge at the walls. Frank visibly annoyed by the intrusion fled to a quieter section of the building where he sat quietly sipping an espresso and talking about the forthcoming film. It had been a tedious week for him but a week that he obviously enjoyed but with the movie screening and the Carnegie Hall concert coming up it was far from over. He was more than anxious to expound on some of his ideas behind 200 Motels.

"I've been a musician since I was fourteen and I got into film in 1958, learning by picking up bits and pieces here and there. I wrote the script for 200 Motels in about two weeks but I had had the music in my mind for four years so it acted as a sort of a blueprint for what I wanted to do visually. Now, it's fine to have an idea for a film but we had to find a company that would finance such a project.

Well, we put together a folio of what we wanted to do and set out to the various companies.

As you can imagine after hearing the concept most of them would go screaming off into the distance. At one point we went to United Artists with it and to our surprise the agreed to get involved but I also financially backed this project along with them.

"In the film we use the old technicolour three strip colour process. They use another process I understand now in Hollywood but the three strip process is compatible with the PAL 625 line European colour video system.

You can separate the three colours off the video tape at the point that you transfer it to film so you get a transfer of each individual colour which means that you can control the density of that colour and so forth.

"A slight reshuffling of the scenes was done at the thirty five millimetre stage. There are no film opticals in 200 Motels at all. There's no film shooting in the studio. The clips of the things that were in motels and stuff like that was stuff that I shot with a sixteen millimetre camera on the road. It was transferred on the tele-cine to video tape and processed with the rest of the footage. It was originally transferred to the telecine because we were going to use it as a projected background sign.

"It turned out to be just as convenient. It would have actually been cheaper because the video tape to film process costs approximately $112 a minute with a machine called a wobulator that cuts out the visual video lines.

" I want to go into more video projects because in pioneering that thing not only did we experiment around with the technical side of it, but we had the first taste of all the diverse . Union problems that you're going to run into. Just think, we were doing it on a film lot and there's a big difference between a film union and a video union in England and now all of a sudden they've got to work together and nobody's got a rate card.

"For video you need a special kind of make up man who knows that media. It was weird some of the deals that were going on all over the place. So we have some special knowledge of that thing just going through it 011 that scale.

"I'll give you one example of weirdness that happened out there. In thirty five millimetre when you're working with a camera crew you have a guy called a focus puller. It uses a little lever to focus it. On the video camera you've got a guy who sits on it and rides it around. He focuses it and aims it and he's got another guy who drags the wires for him. He doesn't need a focus puller but the union wanted us to hire five focus pullers. I said, 'But the cameras don't have that on it', but they still made us hire them." Terry Thomas the actor dropped in unexpectedly and we agreed to continue our conversation after the screening of the movie.


It Was obvious as you drove up in a cab that the Carnegie Hall Mothers Concerts were complete sell outs. The cabbie marveled at the spectacle of a crowd of thousands of kids lining up to see, in his words, 'that pervert Zappa. What's Carnegie Hall coming to? 'Zappa agreed completely with the cab drivers views and opened the concert by declaring, 'Now for the ultimate desecration of Carnegie Hall.' Of course nobody believed that those hallowed halls were being desecrated for Zappa and the Mothers mesmerized everyone with their own particular brand of opera and haven't we always been taught that opera and ballet not necessarily in that order are beyond reproach. There was a time when I referred to this artistry as 'stage antics '. Zappa's reply was immediate and stinging.

"Stage antics? We work six days a week practicing those routines and you call them 'antics' I don't like that word.

Our whole stage show is thought out methodically. We are a very visual band, that's true. In all the cities that we have played in Canada the best reaction we got was in Montreal and Quebec City where the audience were 90 per cent French. They couldn't understand the words but they loved the show." I heard Zappa's new opus Billy The Mountain for the first time a t this particular concert and was completely knocked out by it. It is in a piece like this that Zappa's genius becomes evident.

The whole piece revolves around Billy The Mountain who makes a living by posing for picture post cards. One day he receives a royalty cheque from these post cards and Billy and his wife Ethel who is a tree that is growing out of his shoulder decide to go on a vacation to Los Vegas. They wreak so much havoc and destruction on the country side on their way that the United States government decides to draft him to go to Viet-Nam as a secret weapon.

Well, Billy wouldn't have any of it so the government sends Studebacher Hoch, a secret agent to convince him to sign up. In the end though, Studebacher falls off of Billy and is killed. Don't screw around with Billy The Mountain.

Anybody who tries to analyze anything that Zappa writes is asking for a big headache because in the end you come down to one basic fact, you are being entertained. Frank expanded a little on this theory: "One of the basic tenets of our group philosophy is 'It is, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, theoretically possible to be 'heavy' and still have a sense of humour. (We direct this specifically toward people who suffer feelings of ambivalence when given an opportunity to laugh at themselves.) "And another precept which guides our work: 'Somebody in that audience out there knows what we're doing, and that person is getting of on it beyond his/her wildest comprehensions." There was more than one somebody getting off on what they were doing that night because the calls for encores caused a bit of a union problem as far as the time the show was supposed to end.

"In the middle of my guitar solo at the end of Billy the Mountain, Howard (Volman) came over and said, 'If we don't get off the stage in six minutes, it's going to cost us another six hundred dollars. So I had to compress everything down and we got off the stage at exactly the minute, right to the dot, to keep form paying that fine. The audience wanted an encore so what are you going to do? If I walked back on the stage and didn't play an encore, r could probably have still been liable for the six hundred just for going back on there. You have to be off the stage. I just decided it was worth the money.

They'd get a few more bucks and the audience would get a Mudshark." The Mudshark is a dance that the Mothers invented which entails clasping hands between legs and hopping around. The concert ended when Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan hopped their way up the aisles of Carnegie Hall and into the street with nearly the whole audience following.


After the screening of 200 Motels, Frank gave us an insight into the method in the madness of the film.

"When I first started writing the script for the film I based most of the actions around one main character which happened to be the bass player who was Jeff Simmons at the time.

"When Jeff Simmons joined the group it was weird situation because he has a wife that is telling him from time to time that: 'You're too heavy to be in this group because they play comedy music and you're a new and aspiring blues talent.' "Jeff, unfortunately, liked to believe that sort of thing. He has the ability to be a fantastic comedian. He's really got that.

If you know Jeff Simmons, he can crack you up so bad and he does so constantly. He's every bit as funny as Mark and Howard but he doesn't want anybody to know that because nobody will ever take him seriously and he wants to be a heavy blues bass player. As you can see, he was, within the humourous context of what we were doing a little bit uncomfortable.

"He had the best part in the film. I had to rearrange some of the dialogue in the film to the point where I found out he wasn't going to do it.

"But I had caricatured that sort of situation into the film where one guy in the group is generating all this other atmosphere because of the inner conflict about whether or not anybody can take you seriously if you have a sense of humour and still want to play the blues.

"I'd written a script and the way our production schedule was set up, we'd done a tour in Europe and the Mothers got to go home for Christmas and I was working all through to finish the pre-production.

"They were to arrive back around New Year's and they would receive the script and have a number of weeks to do that other phase of preproduction where they memorize it and so forth. They didn't know what was in the film.

Everybody knew that thy thing was supposed to be a fantasy type thing but they didn't know what.

"They all got their scripts on the day they go off the plane and they had overnight to read it.

"Next day we had a meeting and everybody was going 'Ugh'.

They couldn't believe what they had in their hands because it was everything they always said and I'd just stored it up and I thought I'd recycle it ecologically and get it to a point where it might be usable in some artistic form.

"Jeff cracked up on his roll and thought it was funny but the next day we had a second reading and I guess his old lady had gone to work on him because he quit the group.

"I had feelings that something like that might happen because he was a little bit reluctant to come over to see me when he got back to Los Angeles and we had some trouble at that point so I had already scouted for a potential replacement if worse came to worse. I considered Wilfred Bramble because I thought if you were going to replace Jeff Simmons with a long haired guy where are you going to get a guy who's as funny as him or so unique? So I invented a character who was supposed to be the world's oldest bass player in rock and roll.

"We were going to get a weird wig made for Wilfred. I had considered him prior to Jeff's departure. Then was the problem of getting hold of Wilfred.

We didn't even know if he was available but finally we got a hold of him and made a deal.

"He came in to rehearsals which went for another week. I thought he was good in the part.

He was really funny. We had invented extra business to add into the script that would rationalize his presence a little bit better and modified some things but the day we set up out at the studio to begin working in earnest on the thing he walked in, took my hand, put it up against his heart which was going 'bam, bam, bam', and he said, 'Listen! I'm an old man. I can't do this movie. I sat up all night and drank a quart of scotch. It really scares me. I just can't do it.' "The guy was ready to have a heart attack so I'm going to say.

'No! You must make this movie.' I couldn't. But, think of the position we were in. We're at the studio ready to shoot and we've got a $679,000.00 budget to make a movie, and there isn't anybody to play the main character in the movies.


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