a quote to forestall writer's block: "Remember I was carbon dioxide." -William S. Burroughs
Hello Frank Zappa
The Life and Times of History's Obnoxious Rocker
Prelude to The Rest, an Introduction.
It was the summer of 1995 in the midst of the great re-release of all the records ever made by Frank Zappa. My good fried Django Bohren was working over at the Musicland outlet and one day brought home his first Frank Zappa promo tape, Sheik Yerbouti. Django put the tape in the stereo and turned the music down low and we started talking about whatever events were pressing on that particular day in June. A few minutes of mangled, squealing guitar and chattery lyric foolishness later our collective hearts rose in the closing moments of Broken Hearts are For Assholes when a glorious little refrain became more and more alarming. The words "A'hm gonna ram it, ram it, ram it, ram it up yer poop shoot" made me and instant and lifelong Zappa fanatic.
And Now The Rest . . .
The Early Years.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born on the twenty-first of December in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest son of Italian parents. As he puts it, "When I popped out, I was all black - they thought I was dead. I'm okay now." His father worked as a meteorologist at the Edgewood Arsenal where the United States manufactured mustard gas. Because the Zappa household was located in such close proximity to the plant, the family was issued gas masks. Frank frequently used his as a space helmet. His father used to bring home petrie dishes full of mercury. He says in his autobiography, "One of the things I used to like to do was pour the mercury on the floor and hit it with a hammer, so it squirted all over the place. I lived in mercury."
For some reason or another, Frank was a frail child who suffered from sinus trouble, asthma and earaches. His family even moved to Florida for a while in hopes that the milder climate would improve his health. It worked. Frank grew about a foot in a year and a half. His mom, however was getting homesick. This resulted in a return to Baltimore. Frank got sick again.
Eventually, Frank's father became unhappy with his situation in Baltimore and transferred to Monterey, California in 1951 where he taught metallurgy. In fact, Frank's dad had a wish to see his son become a scientist. Frank's love for explosives and accidents, however, left his parents reluctant to wholeheartedly support his ballistic mishaps. One included Frank nearly blowing his nuts off when a single-shot cap accidentally (prematurely, that is) ignited his own secret formula that, in his words, "blew a large crater in the dirt floor , blew the doors open, and blew me back a few feet, balls first."
Let There be music . . .
Frank's parents then decided that it would be a good idea to support another budding interest in the youthful Zappa - music. At twelve, Frank received his first musical training. He took a basic summer class in drumming for kids who wanted to be in the drum and bugle corps back at school. About this time Frank also bought his first album, TheComplete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume 1. This record became the cornerstone of Zappa's conceptual continuity. The record was primarily a collection of snorks, booms, blats, noise and kettledrums. Frank loved it.
In typical guerilla style, Frank had his first professional gig in 1955 with a band called The Ramblers...one week after obtaining his first complete drum kit. When he got to the gig, he realized that he'd left his only pair of drumsticks at home, all the way on the other side of San Diego. A little while later The Ramblers fired Frank because he wasn't very good at keeping time with the kick-drum and he because he played the cymbals too much.
Later in 1955 Frank's father was transferred out of San Diego to Lancaster. One of the first things Frank did was start a band. They called themselves the Blackouts, a named derived from a particular symptom of excessive ingestion of peppermint schnapps. An integrated band, the Blackouts caused quite a stir in the conservative (and, you guessed it, supremely Caucasian) Lancaster. Whatever gigs they could drum up around town wound up supplying funds for matching outfits. After all, a R&B band isn't really a band until all their clothes match. (The Blackouts actually played at a NAACP benefit concert in Los Angeles that also featured Louis Armstrong.)
Zappa also met the rather enigmatic Don Van Vliet - later known as Captain Beefheart - in his high school days around Lancaster. Together they would quiz one another on record lore and partake in various and sundry nefarious teenage behavior. Don's father was a Helm's Bread truck driver. When Frank would bring some R&B records over to Don's house, "there were piles of sweet rolls in the kitchen, like pineapple buns that didn't sell that day - the place was crawling with starch - and we'd eat mounds of them while the records were playing...there just was nothing else to do in Lancaster. Our other major form of recreation, other than listening to records, was to go for coffee in the middle of the night to the Denny's on the highway."
In Frank's senior year he became interested in writing musical scores. He also began playing guitar.
When Frank graduated high school in the spring of 1958 (with twenty units less than he was supposed to have) he felt he'd had about as much fun with the system as he could ever possibly have. The feeling was most assuredly mutual. After a while, however, he decided that he might give college a go. Not for the education, mind you, but for the ladies. He writes in his autobiography, "I had gone to Antelope Valley Junior College in Lancaster and Chaffey Junior College in Alta Loma for the express purpose of meeting girls. I had no interest in higher education, but after high school it occurred to me that if I wasn't in school, I wasn't going to meet any - so I 'reenlisted'"
After a couple of semesters, Frank accomplished his mission, got married, and then promptly dropped out of school. He spent time working at a greeting card company, designing ads for local businesses, and for a week, he even sold Colliers Encyclopedias door to door. The life of a professional musician.
For the next eight or so years of Frank's life, his musical existence was far less than glamorous. About the time he was selling encyclopedias, he was working weekends with a four-piece lounge band called Joe Perrino and the Mellotones. The management would only let the band play one "twist number" a night. The rest of the set was to include classics like "Happy Birthday," "Anniversary Waltz," and "On Green Dolphin Street." Frank got so disgusted with strumming four chords on a barstool Saturday nights that he put his guitar behind his couch and didn't play for eight months.
Thankfully, things took a hopeful up-turn a couple of years later when he bought a recording studio from his friend Paul Buff with the money he earned for writing the score for a western called Run Home Slow - a movie written by one of Frank's old high school English teachers. This was, as Frank put it, "The beginning of a life of obsessive overdubbage - non-stop, twelve hours a day." He spent all his time at Studio Z, and started recording music with a group of guys that later became members of the Mothers or Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. (You can hear a great deal of these tunes on a posthumous record called The Lost Episodes.)
A humorous digression:
"There was," Frank Zappa said of Studio Z, "music coming out of that place 36 hours a day." The conservative folks of the San Bernardino county law enforcement community looked down on such wanton disregard of social etiquette. (Besides, Frank had long hair.) One day a gentleman disguised as a used car salesmen walked into Studio Z and asked Frank if he could make a "special movie" for a stag night he was planning. Frank, half starved and thinking quickly, estimated that a sex film would cost at least 300 dollars, but he could knock out a" special audio tape" for next to nothing. The man accepted the offer for $100.
Frank and a young lady named Lorraine then bounced around on the bed and made a few funny noises. Frank then stayed up all night editing out laughter and added some sleazy sex-movie music. The car salesman showed up the next morning asking for his tape. He told Frank he only had 50 dollars. Just as Frank was shutting the door in his face, the fellow turned around and flashed a badge. He was Detective Willis of the San Bernardino Vice Squad. The day before he had broadcast his conversation via his Dick Tracy wristwatch to a van stationed across the street. Apparently in talking about a misdemeanor offense with someone else, it becomes a conspiracy - a felony offense in California.
At any rate, Franky went to jail. "There were 45 men in the jail cell, the toilet and the shower had never been cleaned, the temperature was 110 degrees so you couldn't sleep by night or day, there were roaches in the oatmeal, sadistic guards, and everything that was nice."
The time after.
When Frank got out of prison, Studio Z was demolished to make room for the road to be widened. Frank had fallen behind on payments anyway, and that was the end of the Cucamonga years.
Frank then joined up with a band called The Soul Giants. As the name would indicate, they played primarily soul and R&B covers. Frank thought they were a rather capable group of misfits - particularly Jimmy Carl Black, a Cherokee Indian, a Texan, and a man intrigued by beer. Frank played the gig for a while and then decided that it was time for some original material so they could get a record contract. Somehow he convinced the band to accept his idea of a popular group that combined modern experimental music with popular material. To signify the shift in the band's musical direction, they changed their name to Captain Glasspack and the Magic Mufflers. It didn't help.
A Zappa sound byte on starvation . . .
"When you're scuffling in bars for zero to seven dollars per night per man, you think about money first. There's always the hope held out that if you stick together long enough you'll make money and you'll get a record contract. It all sounded like science fiction then, because this was during the so-called British Invasion and if you didn't sound like The Beatles or the Stones, you didn't get hired. We weren't going about it that way. We'd play something weird and we'd get fired. I'd say hang on and we'd move to another go-go bar - the Red Flame in Pomona, the Shack in Fontana, the Tom Cat in Torrance.
"While this was going on we were called Captain Glasspack and His Magic Mufflers. It was a strange time. We even got thrown out of after-hours jam sessions. Eventually we went back to the Broadside in Pomona and we called ourselves the Mothers. It just happened by sheer accident, to be Mother's Day, although we weren't aware of it at the time. When you are nearly starving to death, you don't keep track of holidays."
Just another man from L.A.
After the band changed their name to The Mothers, they found themselves in Los Angeles in the middle of psychedelia and an enormous freak scene. They found a manager, mustered up a couple of gigs and finally in November of 1965 they began to record their first record. From that point on, for the next twenty-five years, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention went on the road. After the original line-up split in 1969, Frank has taken his crazy road show from place to place and recorded enough material from his tours to fill up his 60 plus albums. (Including my beloved Broken Hearts Are For Assholes.)
Finishing with a horrific thud in a forest with no sound and hard dirt - perhaps an ug.
(A.k.a., conclusion - denouement, waxing philosophical at six a.m., etc. This part I am not plagiarizing. The rest to this point could be considered a rather deft paraphrase.)
He has become, to those who care to know him, an iconoclastic representation of what America would be if all of us were smart enough to "get it." Zappa's music, while drastically modern and experimental, is always borrowing the stuff that kind of sticks to the bottom of pop culture and incorporating it into his music. Be it the goofy hair and distorted weenie guitar solos of the eighties, or the sophomoric, mildly embarrassing lyrics of fifties doo-wop love songs; bad politics, religion, and cheerleaders; or drunk orchestras. Frank Zappa's music is the music of the fly on the wall, of active observation. Listening to his music you begin to see the way in which the "tense of the times" seems to lead his artistic direction; the highest mead of a great creator of popular culture. In the final breakdown I see Zappa's musical philosophy as a reflection and extension of his simple rules of life - active creation of life as you live it, each moment, each day, each word you speak or hear. There's no better example of this than in the way his music was performed live. Each performance changed from day to day depending on the news, the crowd, the venue. Every second provides a different point of view. Just as life refuses to stay the way you want it all the time, Zappa's music confronts the listener and - be it lyrically or musically - pushes the limits of what society has deemed comfortable and acceptable. It tests the limits of our acceptance of the abstract.
For my money...
At any rate, take my word for it, Frank Zappa is real damn cool. If you want to really test the waters and see if you like or dislike his music and point of view you should listen to one of the early Mothers albums. My money says We're Only in it for the Money is the best, but Freak Out or Absolutely Free would work nicely. Also, you should by all means run down a copy of Joe's Garage - in a word, genius. For live stuff look for Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar or one of the volumes of You Can't do that on Stage Anymore. And whether you decide you like his music or not, you should read his autobiography. It's called The Real Frank Zappa Book. I guarantee that it'll leave you rolling. Funny stuff.