Backstage With The Grand Wazoo

By Neal McGarity

The UMBC Retriever, May 13, 1974

For the first time in SGA history, a “sold out” sign is seen posted across the box office window. Young people of all ages, sizes, and colors file into the gymnasium as if they were part of a unified pilgrimage. Frank Zappa is back in town, only this time around he is more than just some guy who posed for pictures sitting on toilet seats. Although every record company executive in the business had predicted failure years ago, Frank Zappa sells records. Finally.

Backstage near the classrooms which have been converted to dressing rooms, a man paces nervously about the hall. He is about 40 years of age, with conservatively styled hair. His name is Dion Demucci. At one time he used to be a rock n‘ roll star in the 1950’s. Now he looks like a furniture salesman. I spoke to him simply because he seemed so lonesome and out of place. “Dion, how did you ever wind up on the same bill with Frank Zappa?” Looking as if he were surprised that anyone would bother to ask him any questions, he replied, “That’s what I’d like to know.” [1]

Down the end of the somewhat long and dark hallway a series of frustrated guitar riffs can be heard pouring out of a room. It had to be Zappa – no one else could sound so frantic, yet so orderly. When I walked to the end of the hall I was surprised to see that the room was extremely small and completely devoid of band members, beer, pot, and food. It was only Frank, his guitar, and a few fans who were asking him about his early life in Baltimore. “I think I used to live around Park Heights Avenue, but then we moved into a cardboard house in Edgewood – they really made them cheap in those days.” Although I had always suspected otherwise, Frank Zappa is shockingly human. I was expecting to meet the awesome creature that stares so righteously at his audience on all of his album covers. Instead I was witnessing a skinny, friendly Italian kid who likes to fiddle with his guitar and smoke a lot of cigarettes.

In the course of his conversation about Baltimore, Zappa goes out of his way to assert his age. “Hell, I can remember walking into candy stores and hearing guys like Roosevelt talking over the radio.” As he reminisces, his mop-like hair follows his every movement. “I mean, that was over 25 years ago.” It was after less than five minutes in Zappa’s dressing room that I realized two things. Number one was that he just wouldn’t be Frank Zappa without his mustache and chin piece, and number two was that I had better start asking questions before he became interested in his guitar which he had been playing off and on between words.

I complimented Frank about his performance at The Lyric a few years ago. [2] “Yeah, we had a pretty good time ... but they won’t let us play there anymore.” Frank’s “good time” had consisted of some really satiric shots at groupies and sexual attitudes in general. In retrospect, his UMBC performance would be quite a bit more tame. I got Zappa to talk about the censorship problems he had had when recording with Verve records. The folks at Verve had a bad habit of censoring key lyrics from some of Frank’s songs. After Frank left Verve, “Mothermania” came out – an album containing previously released material with lyrics that were not the same as the originals in some cases. “That happened because I put ‘Mothermania’ together. Instead of sending them a final master tape, I sent them lacquers. You can’t play back a lacquer. They couldn’t listen to it, but they released it anyway.” Perhaps this was really Chunga’s revenge.

Drifting out of conversation and into the world of Music, Zappa props his feet up on a desk and begins to tinker with his guitar once again. He is wearing a pair of white platform shoes which feature a hand-drawn characture of himself at both tips. Brown shoes never did make it with Frank. “Frank, how would you describe what you do in your own words?” He stops playing his guitar and replies without much thought, “I don’t know, I just ... do it.” “What about the theory that your music will be the highest form of music in the year 2000?” He brings his hand to his chin and ponders this for awhile. Finally he moves his head (he’s always moving his head) and speaks from between the hair which always follows his face. “Well. I dunno, it could very well be – but that’s only if we’re around by the year 2000.”

A Frank Zappa conversation would not be complete without some political comment. When asked about the whole Watergate affair, Zappa acknowledged that “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” Suddenly the relaxed atmosphere of the room was destroyed. It’s showtime and everyone must leave – Frank’s got to get ready. Walking back down the long hall you can hear Zappa trying to get two hours of guitar licks into a fifteen minute warmup. You can tell he wants to be a good guitarist. Approaching the end of the hall you can see the dimly lit room that Dion is stationed in. There is a young man and his girlfriend talking to the faded rock star. The young man asks Dion if he would listen to a few of his songs. He agrees and listens politely, while the singer’s girlfriend sits and hopes.

The room next to Dion’s is the playground. The rest of Frank Zappa’s band are romping playfully about the room. The blackboards are full of incoherent musical notation, and empty cups and paper plates are scattered across the room. A couple of members of the band are doing strange exercises on the floor. Keyboard man George Duke laughs at their contortions. “One thing about Frank – he doesn’t need all that to relax. Frank knows how to relax.” In another corner of the room trumpet and sax can be heard in battle.

It was after ten minutes of chaotic warmup that the bandmembers took the stage. Zappa strolled on casually five minutes later, puffing away on a freshly lit cigarette. He parked the cigarette under the strings at the neck of his guitar, and introduced himself. George Duke was right. Frank can relax. Zappa wasted no time setting in motion the music that only he and his band (whoever they happen to be at the moment) are capable of expressing. Thank God, you’ll never hear Three Dog Night do one of his songs.

Opening with some material off of his “Apostrophe” album the band established their overall tightness quickly. There is no doubt that Zappa works his band hard. There is a tremendous amount of soloing, tempo changes, and tricky vocal parts which can only become effective (as they were) with dedication and practice. By the end of the first half hour of the show is was clear that Zappa’s producing abilities were not confined only to the studio.

I wondered how long Frank would play before he became mischievous. Musical delinquency hit about an hour into the show during the middle of an extensive jam. Zappa slowed down the tempo and asked for “two voluptuous female volunteers” to participate in a spur-of-the-moment dance contest. The two star-crazy girls that made it to the stage seemed ready to show off their dancing prowess and whatever else they could. Zappa started the contest with a complicated Sousa-like piece while the girls were being thrown under legs, over backs, and all around the stage by various members of the group. After the crazed band members simmered down, Zappa enticed the one remaining girl (the other had left in a fluster) to dance by playing a danceable rock n’ roll riff. The girl fell for his bait and began dancing alone. Zappa, of course, started playing faster and faster until the music was impossible to dance to. (asking for applause for the dancer all the while he was playing)

As if he hadn’t already won the hearts of his audience, Frank treated the audience to a medley of his “hits” from the past. “Wowie Zowie“, “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” and an a capella version of “It Can’t Happen Here” were handled quite well. After having played over two hours of highly polished Mother Music, Zappa played an encore to give his audience their money’s worth.

When the house lights came on it was interesting to note the puzzled expressions on many faces. Apparently, quite a few people did not know what had hit them. Only Frank Zappa really knows what he is doing, and to him, that is all that seems to matter.

1. The reason Dion was touring with FZ was that his manager, Zach Glickman, was Herb Cohen's partner in DiscReet Records. (C. Ulrich)

2. Lyric Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland, October 17, 1971. (C. Ulrich)

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