The Landfill Chronicles: Frank Zappa, Chapter 3.3
Frank Zappa’s Last Interview — The Landfill Chronicles: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art — Chapter 3.3
Conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
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Chapter 3: FRANK ZAPPA — Part 3: “From Squeach the Kitten to The Yellow Shark
ROCKING THE FICTITIOUS FOUNDATION OF NORMALCY
Our conversation pauses for a moment.
Frank’s daughter Diva, in her early teens, bounces down the stairs, pokes her head into the viewing room where we’re talking and announces herself with a bright “Hi, Daddy.” She’s the youngest of Frank and his wife Gail’s four children. (Eldest daughter Moon Unit collaborated with dad on the 1982 novelty tune “Valley Girl” from Frank’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch album. His sons Dweezil and Ahmet are into the rock biz with the former leading his own band which the latter sings with on occasion.)
“How’s little Squeach?” inquires Papa Zappa.
“Squeach is fine, but I don’t think that’s the name of it,” says Diva. “ But you can nickname it whatever you want.”
Diva bounds back up the stairs while Frank explains their exchange. “We have a new kitten,” he says. “It’s the runt of the litter. It’s adorable. I’ve been calling it Squeach because that’s the noise it makes. Diva wanted to call it Toaster, but I guess she’s changed her mind.”
Squeach. Toaster. Names that could pop right out of one of Frank’s zanier songs that celebrate such quirky characters as Suzy Creamcheese, Mr. Green Genes, Lonesome Cowboy Burt, Billy the Mountain, Big Leg Emma and the Duke of Prunes. Then there is Frank’s fixation on food in his music, ranging from early tunes like “Call Any Vegetable” and “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” to such later music-to-eat-dinner-by albums as Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Lumpy Gravy. Of course, you also get a wide array of bizarro song titles, including for starters “The Orange County Lumber Truck (Part 1 & 2),” “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque” and “G-Spot Tornado.”
Frank’s career catapulted off the ground in the mid-‘60s as a result of his wildly experimental and unpredictable band the Mothers of Invention. On Mother’s Day 1964, the name The Mothers was coined. The group had evolved from a bar band called the Soul Giants that recruited Frank as a substitute guitarist after their regular guitarist got into a fist fight with another band member.
Soon after, Frank pushed for playing original material, and the rest is outlandishly weird music history. Early Mothers-inspired “freak outs” in Los Angeles made the local authorities nervous, so Frank and crew headed to New York in 1967. There they worked the Garrick Theatre on Bleecker Street as an improv house band performing experimental music with satirical and impromptu slapstick for several months with special sit-in guests, even including Jimi Hendrix on one occasion.
Returning to Los Angeles the following year, Frank and the Mothers formed the nucleus of a musical community. A member of that scene, Pamela Des Barres of the Zappa-discovered GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously), recalls the unorthodox scene. In the liner notes to the Zapped album that served as Warners/Reprise’s 1970 promotional sampler for Bizarre/Straight, the labels that Frank was given to promote new freaks, Pamela wrote: “Somehow in some mysterious and mystical way, a little crack formed in the Americana prefab facade that allowed true, far-fetched inspiration to peek, sneak, lead through for an infinitesimal period of time; a drop in the bucket that made a mighty splash. I am proud and honored to have been a part of the streaming baptism of lunacy that attempted to shake, rattle and roll the fictitious foundation of normalcy.”
Frank gathered as many bizarre acts as he could find and formed his record companies with the help of his then-manager Herb Cohen. Among Frank’s proteges were Tim Buckley, the GTOs (Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ry Cooder performed as part of the supporting cast with Lowell George helping Frank to produce), Alice Cooper (Frank is said to have encouraged Cooper to dress in women’s clothes) and, of course, Frank’s high school friend Don Van Vliet, aka the great Captain Beefheart.
BEEFHEART TO MOTHERS
Frank remembers Beefheart in the early days carrying his worldly possessions — his art, poetry books and a soprano sax — around in a shopping bag. Frank recorded his dada-esque masterpiece Trout Mask Replica for Bizarre in 1969. Produced as an anthropological field recording in Beefheart’s house, the album was deemed the year’s “most unusual and challenging musical experience” by rock writer Lester Bangs. After a few days of using a portable taping system that recorded the different instruments in various rooms in the house, Frank complied with Van Vliet’s paranoid demands that the rest of the sessions take place in a real studio, where all his vocals were captured.
Even though Frank recorded a wealth of albums with the Mothers (including Cruisin’ With Ruben and the Jets and Weasels Ripped My Flesh), he disbanded the group in 1969 not long after they played a series of East Coast dates on a package tour with jazz stars Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Duke Ellington and Gary Burton. Over the years, Zappa went on to work with a diverse crew of artists ranging from L. Shankar and Jean-Luc Ponty to John Lennon & Yoko Ono and Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) of the defunct Turtles.
Of all the collaborations and outlandish albums Frank recorded, which performances from his huge catalog of work does he take the most pride in? “Certainly, I enjoy listening to some recordings more than I do others,” he says. “I can’t stand to hear some of my classic albums because I remember the horrible conditions under which they were recorded. It hurts to listen to them.”
WE HAD LOTS OF LAUGHS
Frank holds fond memories of his live shows. “What I like the best doesn’t depend so much on the quality of the composition as it does on the memories of how much fun they were to record,” he says. “I’m especially thinking of some of the live shows with my 1984 band that were recorded in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series. We had lots of laughs.”
He adds, “Those recordings may not be the best performances of the best compositions, but when I listen to them I get transported back to the concerts and still laugh at what was happening onstage.” For example, he tells me, one night in Seattle, in the middle of the show, his guitarist Ike Willis started to do an imitation of the Lone Ranger, blurting out, “Hi, ho, Silver!”
“I still don’t know how and why it happened, but I cracked up every time he did it,” Franks says. “It must have been road fatigue. He’d keep yelling that in the most inappropriate places. The whole show was riddled with bad Lone Ranger jokes and me not being able to sing the right words. I enjoyed that night.”
Frank continued touring until 1988 when his road band self-destructed before the tour reached most of the planned U.S. dates. The tour, captured on the excellent The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life double CD, could well have been the last time Frank played guitar in concert. Nowadays, he hardly ever plays his guitars. That’s surprising given his prowess on the instrument (though he states that he could never lay claim to being a virtuoso) and that he recorded several impressive guitar albums, including the twin-CD Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar.
A guitar hero who rarely if ever settled for a clichéd riff, Frank learned to play as a kid by swiping blues licks from such r&b greats as Guitar Slim, Johnny “Guitar” Watson (who worked with Frank in the mid-‘70s) and Clarence “Gatesmouth” Brown. Citing a lack of motivation to play the guitar these days, Frank spends most of his time composing on his Synclavier 9600, the high-tech digital keyboard and sampling computer.
I’m curious about how Frank — the punster, the satirist, the humorist, the composer — creates. He obliges, harking back to the old days when he was doing a lot of lyric writing. “I’d write lyrics when I was traveling,” he says. “I was on a flight back from Germany when I came up with the idea for the song ‘Dumb All Over,’ “I scrawled out three pages worth of ideas on the plane. I couldn’t wait to get into the studio to record it. The reverse of that happened with ‘Inca Roads.’ I came up with the melody first. I took it as a challenge to find words to go with it. A lot of songs may start with one or two words. You hear a funny expression and away you go. Some lyrics were based on folklore from the band when we were touring. ‘Punky’s Whips’ is an example of an absurd situation that happened to be a true story. All I had to do was find some musical way to dramatize it.”
THE CLASSICAL FRANK
Frank had been fascinated with and influenced by such classical composers as Igor Stravinsky, Varese, Boulez and John Cage in addition to having his bands perform arrangements of pieces by Bartók, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. He notes that most of the material he writes these days are orchestral compositions on his Synclavier. It’s plugged into his home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, a couple of rooms away from where we’re sitting.
Later we spend two and a half hours with two of his trusted studio workers, mix engineer Spencer Chrislu and Synclavier operator Todd Yvega, while they painstakingly sample all the notes on Frank’s 97-key Bosendorfer Grand Imperial piano. That’s where Frank’s newest, soon-to-be-released gem of an album of his dissonant, whimsical and haunting orchestral works, The Yellow Shark, is being prepared for release at the end of the year.
Performed in concert in 1992 by the 25-member European contemporary classical music group Ensemble Modern, The Yellow Shark is a suite-like collection of new arrangements of such classic pieces as “Dog Breath Variations,” “Be-Bop Tango” and “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress” and such new works commissioned for the project as “Get Whitey” and “None of the Above.”
EM and its conductor Peter Rundel spent two weeks in 1991 in Los Angeles at Frank’s Joe’s Garage studio rehearsing the difficult pieces. They then spent another two weeks supervised by the musical-perfectionist composer last summer in preparation for a series of eight concerts in Berlin, Vienna and at the Frankfurt Festival where Frank was one of four featured composers (the others were John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Alexander Knaifel). The album represents the best performances of each piece from the different concert venues.
Frank, who personally conducted the whirlwind “G-Spot Tornado” on the Frankfurt Festival’s opening night, is pleased with the results, but notes, “I was only able to attend the first and third performances in Frankfurt. I got sick and had to fly home.”
Did the exuberant audience response to the shows, captured on tape, help ease the pain? “If I hadn’t been sick, the experience would have been exhilarating,” he says. “Unfortunately, I felt so excruciatingly shitty that it was hard to walk, to just get up onto the stage, to sit, to stand up. You can’t really enjoy yourself when you’re sick no matter how enthusiastic the audience is.”
Addendum: Yellow Shark was officially released in November 1993, a month before Frank died: In listing the recording as one of his favorite albums, singer Tom Waits said, “The ensemble is awe-inspiring. It is a rich pageant of texture in color. It’s the clarity of his perfect madness, and mastery. Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right. Frank reigns and rules with the strangest tools.”
Upcoming: Chapter 3, part 4: Frank’s illness, his politics, his legacy.
Is he the epitome of the rugged American individualist? “That’s flattering,” he says. “But that’s not completely true.”
His fame: “I have a large and devoted audience overseas,” he says. ”But a lot of people in this country don’t know that I still exist.”