Frank Zappa: The Great Southern and Western Expedition Is On!

By Arthur Levy [1]

Zoo World, April 23, 1973

"The first time I ever took the Mothers out on the road I approached it from a sociological point of view. After the first tour I made a statistical analysis, in a crude sort of way, of what had happened, trying to gauge response in different parts of the country. The customs, the folkways, and the morality at the time we went on the road varied widely from area to area. The first place we got off the plane when we did our first tour was Washington, D.C. We were doing a thing on a UHF station where a guy announced they were gonna have a freak out party on this record hop dance show and told all the kids to wear the weirdest clothes they could wear. And we had kids wearing two different socks and you worked your way down from there. That was a freak out party at the time."

If omens still mean anything in America, the good kind of omen, then it's time we all congratulated Frank Zappa for keeping the Mothers of Invention alive for the seven years since an album called Freak Out! was first unleashed. And hope for at least another seven years of whatever it is that Frank has been doing until now, which is, uh ... weird, y'know?

"From there we went to Detroit and did a television show there. There was no audience to see and we played at a roller rink in some part of Detroit and the kids were still 1950's there.

"Then we went to Dallas and worked in a shopping center at a place with a TV show emanating from it. It was a sunken room with high windows that were at street level so the people could look in and see a TV show going on. And the kids were 1950's, still doing the dance where the legs go off to the side," and Frank makes an upside-down "V" and wiggles the two fingers to show how they danced.

"And I got back from that tour and I couldn't even imagine what was going on around the rest of the country cause I hadn't traveled that much prior to the tour. That was Analysis number 1: I came up with the result of total mystification on the part of all parties concerned. And it seemed that there was a definite need, in the audience, for an alternative to what they'd been presented with thus far in terms of music, entertainment, something to do. It seemed like most of the kids we saw on that tour had already been sold a complete bill of goods by everybody who was making novelties, men's wear, women's wear, shoes. They'd gotten a kit and each area was into its own little merchandising thing.

"Each tour after that I would gather little bits of information on what the kids were doing, what it was like to live in different parts of the country and up until now I think the South is probably still the best in terms of just the best attitude towards being alive."

If Frank's conversation seems a bit unorthodox compared to what you know or have heard about him over the years, it might be because he was talking over dinner in a Bavarian restaurant not too far from a stage where he and the newest aggregate of Mothers were to play a return to Florida, of sorts, a place that Zappa had known well ever since he inaugurated Marshall Brevitz's Thee Image (forerunner to Thee Experience, the rock hall whose name he took with him to California when Jim Morrison shut out the lights on rock 'n roll in Miami, March, 1969), warming up the club for bands like Led Zeppelin, Moby Grape, the Jefferson Airplane, Spirit, the Grateful Dead, and a host of other bands that Marshall Brevitz brought to Miami regularly in the heyday of 1968. Now Frank Zappa sits in a Bavarian restaurant surrounded by people who've long since forgotten about such things and, frankly, hardly even notice the table with the twelve musicians and hangers-on. Between bits of goulash and splaetzle (Frank calls it "dumpling debris"; Steve the Roadie calls it "dumpling leavings") Frank talks about Marshall in California.

"He's in Los Angeles. My last two albums were recorded in his studio, Paramount. He doesn't own it any more, though, it was changed over, sold out over somebody's head.

"It was a good studio that's really good to work in but it's so busy that they don't have adequate time to maintain the equipment. So you take your chances. You go in there and a vital piece of equipment might not work. So the engineer will call the maintenance man who'll call Marshall who'll sort of show up with something to eat, you know, while you're sitting there waiting for the machine to work. We've been served barbecued dessicated chicken and hot dogs and many things. I had so many equipment failures there that the next time it's gotta be pheasant under chartreuse or I'm not coming back. Pathetic."

Business is bizness with Frank, though, and any talk is inevitably going to wander in the direction of Herb Cohen, Frank's legendary business manager and dealer supremo who's had his say in everything from Wild Man Fischer and the GTO's to Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, and Ruben and the Jets, the latest Bizarre spinoff.

"Herb's doing fine, he's into architecture now. We just bought an office building on Sunset Blvd. and we renovated it – what do I mean 'we' – Herb designed some decorations for the building which are not exactly my idea of a good time but he likes it and he's gotta work there.

"You see Herb, being a world traveler, has seen architecture of many lands. And one of his favorites is the Moorish Arch. Only the Moorish Arch, in all of its grandeur, has been translated into stucco by some guys he found in Los Angeles. He says 'open these windows here, a Moorish Arch,' like that. And they say 'we can do it' so they bend a little tin and put stucco around it and they're all different and all crooked.

"But it has a courtyard in the middle of the office building and he can sit in his office and look across and see two ugly Moorish Arches. That gets him off, really, he loves it. There's a few other designs and factors he's come up with. We've got an 11-foot hand-carved door in the front. It was quite attractive for the first, I'd give it, 3 weeks. And then suddenly the weather got to it. They must've put one coat of varnish on it and already the parts are getting weird. So it's not Apple Records, what the heck."

Apple should live so long. With the great Southern and Western Expedition under full throttle (a Midwestern and Eastern Expedition are slated for April or May; Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are scheduled in June; and an invitation to the Iron Curtain countries of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia is also under consideration – all with this band) things are under a full head of steam, with an awful lot of attention focused on young Jean-Luc Ponty, the French violinist Zappa has known but a short time.

"I met him over here, he was working on some albums for World Pacific, about 2 or 3 years ago. I got a phone call from Dick Bock, the producer, who said he wanted to introduce him to me and I said 'sure' and he came over to the house.

"I'd heard of him before but his English wasn't as good then as it is now and so we couldn't talk very much at that time. It was a little weird, heh heh. But his English is a lot better now especially since he's seeing parts of the U.S. that a European tourist might never go to. Learning about things like the Waffle House, which is real big in Georgia."

The album that came out of that initial meeting was called King Kong, a remarkable work when you consider that budgetary limitations put studio time at a premium and restricted several of Jean-Luc's solos to one take only. But now, with Jean-Luc and Frank working together, things are more promising.

"We've recorded some stuff already that's gonna be released. There's one piece that I like very much, just he and I playing together. He's playing the baritone violin and I'm playing the bouzouki, which, in case you don't know, is a Greek, long-necked mandolin that I had tuned a funny way. And we improvised a duet that's about 12 minutes –  turned out really good. I haven't named it yet but you'll know it when it comes out cause it doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard before."

The band is being recorded every night it plays – on one sixteen track machine (just in case something of album quality should transpire), one reel-to-reel stereo unit, and two cassette decks, which the band listens to collectively on the bus or plane between dates. The cassettes are the best learning device available, according to Frank, allowing the musicians to adjust whole sections of the presentation if necessary, relative to each other.

"Because of the instrumentation and because of the whole thing being spread out across the stage, there's no one person in the band who can hear all of the parts at any one time. You really can't tell – I don't even trust my own judgment from what I hear onstage because I don't have any perspective of it. I hear more of George's amp (George Duke, ex-Cannonball Adderley and Waka Jawaka keyboard man) cause it's right behind me and I can only guess what's going on in other parts of the stage.

"So when everybody listens to a tape of it all have an equal shot at tightening things up. I think it's a very practical way to do it and it's all for the benefit of the audience cause they get a better program out of it," which is spoken with the smiliest smile Frank has smiled since the conversation began.

Once the band is to the point where all the "musical technical" stuff is memorized it's time to work on the choreography, always a vital part of any Mothers assemblage onstage.

"It's structured up to this point: I say 'at this point everybody will move', I won't say exactly what they're supposed to do. One implication is that they're to twitch rhythmically at a certain area, cause if you start saying '2 to the right, 2 to the left, back up' and all that stuff, it's gonna look hokey. But just the idea that a sudden burst of kinetic energy is released onstage at that musical moment where it means something is very effective.

'"I think that it tends to emphasize what the music is doing. The other main advantage is that when you work in a hall that holds 10-15,000 people, anybody who's halfway back in the hall sees you the size of a peanut. And if you're standing absolutely still while you're playing the visual element of the program suffers greatly and the person in the audience starts to nod out. It's hard for them to retain a long interest span on inanimate objects. But if you keep it moving a little bit..."

Returning to the gig on the bus after dinner at Bavarian Delight, Frank mused into a song called "Montana," a story song almost as outrageous as "Billy the Mountain," the mammoth production epic that was the highwater mark of Flo 'n Eddie's tenure with Zappa. "Montana" is considerably shorter than "Billy The Mountain" when performed onstage ("Billy" took 4 weeks to put together and 6 months to perfect on-stage before it was recorded) with an interesting story to it:

"I might be movin' to Montana soon,
just to raise me up a crop of dental floss.
Raisin' it up, waxin' it down,
in a little plastic box I can sell uptown.
By myself I wouldn't have no boss,
but I'd be raisin' my lonely dental floss."

The last thing anyone ever mentions to Frank Zappa these days seems to be Flo 'n Eddie, ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who've risen to the heels of success now, not quite a year since leaving Frank's company. While there are those of us who maintain that Flo 'n Eddie's disposition to Frank is considerably kinder and more good-natured than say, the attitudes of his ex-bass player Orejon (now back with Captain Beefheart, himself not the world's most fanatical Zappa-booster), Frank nevertheless maintains a strict attitude in their direction, especially concerning the hype Flo 'n Eddie disseminated to get some initial publicity when they left the Mothers.

"I was amazed that they could be so low-grade cause they were saying some outrageous lies and stuff just to get some kind of copy in the papers. View it as you wish, sensationalism, mere sensationalism."

Zappa and the band spent two and a half hours on-stage for their Florida audience and no one yelled out for "Louie, Louie" even once. Or "Caravan" with a drum solo, for that matter. Or "Help, I'm A Rock." Instead it was "The Zombie Woof," you see, as Frank says: "A 'Zombie Wolf' would come from New England but a 'Zombie Woof' is interdenominational, he's Interfaith, you know what I mean? That's all I can tell you."

1. Arthur Levy is a "former Zoo World editor/CBS publicist and all around knowledge brother & good guy". See Gary Lucas blog. Gary Lucas and Arthur Levy backstage in 2008 >>

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)