Frank Zappa remembers San Ber'dino

By Mark Lundahl

The San Bernardino Sun, April 7, 1980

“I don’t have too many fond memories of San Bernardino.”

Frank Zappa, rock guitarist, composer, arranger and bandleader, is familiar with the inland Empire.

But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

More than a decade ago, before the Mothers of invention launched the musician with the big black mustache to international fame, Zappa lived and composed in a small recording studio at 8040 Archibald Ave. in Cucamonga.

He also earned money playing cocktail music at the Club Sahara in San Bernardino, the Robin Hood in Fontana, Sinners and Saints in Ontario and several other local bars that have since closed, burned down or otherwise been forgotten.

And he once spent ten days in the San Bernardino County Jail, an experience that later prompted him to write one of his better-known songs: San Ber’dino.

Backstage after his Swing Auditorium concert Saturday night, Zappa, 39, recalled life in the county jail’s tank “C”.

“I do remember that when I was in jail, I was served this bowl of Cream of Wheat. When they handed it to me, the Cream of Wheat fell out of the bowl in one big lump and imbedded in the bottom of it was a cockroach this big,” he said, spreading his thumb and forefinger two inches apart.

“So I took the cockroach out, saved it and put it in the envelope of a letter I was sending back home. The Jail censors got it, and then they put me in solitary confinement.”

How Zappa wound up in jail is another story that he now tells with disgust, almost gleeful disgust. The year was 1964, and according to Zappa he was framed by a “bogus investigation” handled by the sheriff’s vice squad. The reason for the action, he says, was that officials wanted to widen Archibald Avenue and evict residents in the way. Zappa’s Cucamonga studio was in the way, he said.

“One day, this detective came in and told me he was a used car salesman, and that some of his friends wanted to have a party next Wednesday, and could I make them a movie for the guys.

“So I said, “Hey, what a humorous idea. Let’s get the used car salesmen off.’

“But there was no way I could make a movie for the amount of money he wanted to pay, so I said, ‘How about a tape recording for the guys.’

“He said, ‘Fine, I’ll give you $100,” and then he listed all these things he wanted to have included on this tape,” Zappa said.

“I agreed to do it because I thought it was a hilarious idea. The very idea that used car salesmen would sit around listening to this tape and be amused by it was concept art as far as I was concerned.

“By the way, the tape, (reportedly a mix of bed squeaks, lewd conversation and cheesy music) was no more sensuous than side four of the Freak Out album,” he added.

“So he comes back the next day and gives me $50. I said, ‘I thought you were going to give me $100.’ and before I could say anything else, he flashes a badge, the doors open up, all these guys run in with cameras and start taking pictures of everything, then handcuffs, the whole hit.

“It was just like science fiction. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Zappa paused, put out his cigarette, and his heady gray eyes focused even deeper.

“The whole thing was totally illegal entrapment.

“First of all, I wasn’t aware any laws were at stake. And secondly this man was offering to pay me money and specifically telling me what he wanted to be done and recording it all on a wrist radio which was broadcasting to a truck parked outside,” he said.

“So they took me to court, and I didn’t have enough money to fight the thing. I had to plead nolo contendre.

“They were going to drop the whole thing, but there was this 26-year-old assistant district attorney who insisted that I must be punished and that I must go to jail.

“So they gave me a six-month sentence with all but ten days suspended, plus three years probation,” he recalled.

As Zappa looks back on the incident today, one thing particularly bothers him.

“When I was arrested they confiscated all the tapes in my recording studio, purportedly as

evidence. Then when the trial was over the detective came back to me and said, ‘If you’ll let the sheriff decide which of these tapes are obscene, we’ll give you back all the rest of them erased.”

“I told them I was not in the position to convert a sheriff into a judge.

“And they never did give them back to me. Eighty hours of musical recordings were never

returned, it was grossly unfair. I tried to get the ACLU to help me , but they told me the case wasn’t big enough They wouldn’t touch it. Since that time they’ve come to me and asked for donations and asked me to do benefit concerts, which I have refused to do.”

The incident 16 years ago was almost an omen of things to come for Frank Zappa.

Although respected for his classical and jazz compositions as well as his complex rock arrangements, it has been Zappa’s outspoken manner, outrageous humor and demanding attitude that have kept him in the headlines.

He still is in the midst of a complex lawsuit with Warner Bros, his long-time record distributor, which evolved after the label refused to release a four-record album called

Lather two years ago. After Warner Bros. did not issue the records as he wished, Zappa left the label.

The legal tangle should reach the courts next year, but in the meantime Zappa is receiving no royalties on his albums in the Warner Bros, catalogue -- about 10 years worth of work.

And now once again, Zappa is without a record company.

Phonogram-Mercury, which released the guitarist’s last three albums, recently refused to distribute his latest single, “I Don’t Want to Get Drafted,” because as Zappa put it, “The guy who makes those decisions was once in the army, and he didn’t like the lyrics.”

As further explanation Zappa remarked, “In times of stress, when anybody speaks his mind,

people at various levels of business get scared of their jobs. This was a guy who was scared of his job.”

So now Zappa is talking to CBS, which “has done a fine job” distributing his records in Europe, and “Drafted” is now being distributed in the concert halls during his shows.

Other recent Zappa developments include his new movie, Baby Snakes, which will be released in June. The onstage documentary, which also features clay animation work by Bruce Bickford, has been well received in showings in New York and Paris.

Zappa has also finished composing another grand-scale orchestral work, “Bob in Dacron and

Sad Jane,” written for 120 pieces. However, he still is having trouble finding an orchestra to play this and his other recent instrumental pieces. The reason: Sheer expense.

“In a more gracious era it was not the composer’s responsibility to work his ass off at a part-time job in order to pay for the privilege of hearing his music played. I find that just disgusting,” Zappa said.

“Even if I could pay for it, that I would have to in order to hear it, that’s an insult, I already did the hard part, I wrote it.

“The government should set enough money aside for the arts to the extent where it will help enough people. Right now it’s dispensed by committees who give it to approved, clean sorts … you know the type.”

With that Zappa stood up, put on a full-length down coat, and greeted some young New York fans who are following his 1980 World Tour until their “money runs out.”

Said one, “My friends tell me I’m crazy for listening to you all the time. They say I need some variety. But I tell them, “Look, there’s rock, jazz stuff, classical music in your records’

“It’s music that’s worth living for.”

Zappa smiled, “That’s what I like to think,” he said.