Frank Zappa: 'Frenk! Frenk! Ees Aynsley playeeng?'
Charles Shaar Murray on the campaign trail with FZ and the Follies Bizarre (i.e., The Mothers in Paris)
Why is Stephen Stills not smiling? To be more precise, why are those noble, rugged features sporting an expression roughly equivalent to that of a man whose ankles are being attacked by a flotilla of evil-minded piranhas? Why, for that matter, is he wearing a green velvet jacket? Why - if you really want to get down into the meat of the matter - is he present at Frank Zappa's tenth anniversary party in this ludicrous Paris nightclub - especially since when he once got up to jam with The Mothers, the band went into their parody version of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes'. You know - the one with the jokes about Elliott Roberts' big bank book and Joni Mitchell's autographed picture and Crosby flushing his stash down the john. And what about those 'three unreleased recordings of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fighting in the dressing-room at the Fillmore East' on The Mothers' 'Fillmore East, June 1971' album?
Never mind. Stephen Stills is here and that is all that really matters. C'mon, Stephen. Get up there and play the drums. This is gonna be a great party. After all, didn't Zappa stalk over to our table and say, 'Herbie set all this up. Blame him'? Didn't Herbie Cohen, Zappa's manager, say that he saw rehearsals that afternoon and that it was gonna be really weird? Didn't the guy from Warner and his Brothers say that this whole deal was costing no less than – wait for it – £30,000?
So who are all these people present to help Francis Vincent Zappa (or 'F.Z.' as he likes to refer to himself these days) celebrate ten years of Mothering? Well, some of them are movie people'n some of them are fashion people'n some of them are from the French rock press'n some of them just seem to be the type of liggers who show up at parties in fancy duds and cluster in corners murmuring. 'Yes, but is Bianca coming?'
Herbie was right about the show. It is weird and a half. The place is called the Alcazar, and the evening's entertainment is a kind of acrobatic-musical-sexual-satirical cabaret with a cast of thousands. Every so often the waiters – all nattily accoutred in 'DiscReet' Tshirts – quit hauling round the champagne and bound onto the stage for a quick chant and prance. Meanwhile, the regular cast who seem able to switch make-up and set within seconds – scamper through a succession of sketches, parodies and musical production numbers. An angel flaps around for a few seconds and vanishes, an aerialiste does a few swift undulations around a trapeze, Mae West, The Andrews Sisters, Barbra Streisand and Sylvie Vartan are mimicked, and the whole thing is spiced up with plenty of tit. Periodically a sign reading 'Welcome Zappa' is flashed overhead. Suddenly, with the velocity of a striking poodle, Uncle Frank himself is on the stage, looking more scarecrow-orientated than ever, his hair longer than it's been since 'Hot Rats' days, dipping and wheeling through a deadpan tango right there with the cast.
So get up, Stephen! Play the drums already!
Eventually, of course, it all arrives at the big finish (whose name, naturally, is Oscar) and Frank, sneer at a rakish angle, descends smoothly from the ceiling in a setting that would have made Busby Berkeley ejaculate over the boards.
Chicks in scanty arrangements of sequins and feathers posing all over the place - guys in scanty arrangements of sequins and feathers posing all over the place - animals in scanty arrangements of sequins and feathers posing all over the place Stephen Stills in a scanty arrangement of ...
It sho' hadda lotta class. ... Which is considerably more than anybody could say about the Palais de Sport on a drizzly Friday afternoon. For a start, the place is ringed with cops. Cops by the vanload, exuding enough Gallic cool to freeze an eskimo's nostrils, cops standing around looking vaguely menacing and firing off fusillades of dirty looksat the scruffy hordes who're already hanging around outside. On a nearby wall is defiantly emblazoned 'Music populaire – music libre', and at a recent concert at this selfsame hall there was a riot of fairly impressive proportions, firebombs were chucked in through windows and a couple of people got offed.
Still, who's going to leap a barrier and fight their way past security guards to get their hands onto Frank Zappa's bod? This concert costs 30 francs, which is roughly three quid, and even by soundcheck time the faithful are already there.
The only trouble is that the soundcheck ain't. The gear was six hours late attempting to struggle its way through customs, and the band end up frantically pitching in and setting up their own stuff while the roadies set up the mixer and cart the PA onto the stage. Even F.Z. himself can be seen on his knees sticking gaffers' tape onto the wires leading from his pedals to his amp. Let's leave Frank sitting on a box near his Marshall cabinet and take a look around the stage. That sensuous figure in the black Tshirt and white pants gonging experimentally on a marimba could surely be none other than Ruth Underwood, wife of the celebrated saxophone whipper-outer and currently appearing in The Mothers without her old man.
Key quote: 'Ruth is a-mazing. When Jean-Luc Ponty and her ol' man Ian were in the band she felt overshadowed by those cats. Now she's makin' those cats look saaaaaad.' Napoleon Murphy Brock, later that same night. Napoleon Murphy Brock? Who, you may well be asking, is Napoleon Murphy Brock? Get this, NMB is the black guy over there with the saxophone and the flute and the moustache. He is The Mothers' latest lead singer, and Frank disvovered him in a Hawaiian nightclub leading a Top 40 soul band. At the end of the set, Napoleon was summoned to the presence.
'I said, "Who is Frank Zappa?" They told me he was the leader of The Mothers. I said, "Oh, right. He's the guy who has his picture taken sittin' on the toilet.'"
So Frank told Napoleon that he'd like him to join The Mothers and leave the following week on a European tour. Napoleon turned him down because he and his group had been booked into the nightclub for another seven weeks and told Zappa to call him when he got back. He ended up joining the band, playing sax and singing backup on 'Apostrophe' and graduating to lead singer of the touring band. So that's Napoleon. He will be back later on in the show, ladies and gentlemen. Behind drums is Chester Thompson, about whom little information is currently available. Relevant piece of information: in the previous incarnation of The Mothers, there were two drummers. The other, Ralph Humphrey, proved superfluous.
Next exhibit is Tom Fowler on bass. With his medium-length hair, floppy moustache and nondescript clothes, he's a little short of visual thrills, but he pegs down the bottom end as cute as you please. Next along is George Duke, who's been a Mother on and off for three or four years and has a couple of solo albums on the jazz charts. He's now playing synthesizer as well as clavinet and electric piano, and he's also doing a fair bit of singing and dialogue in addition to his other duties.
Then there's ... well, there's that skinny guy with the silly moustache who composes all this foolishness, and has just basked in the warmth of a Top Ten album, namely 'Apostrophe (')'. It is possibly the smallest touring line-up that Zappa has ever led, a mere spindly six pieces. The previous line-up also boasted an extra drummist, Don Preston, a rhythm guitarist, and two more horn players. This version is playing essentially the same parts, but it sounds a lot cleaner and less cluttered.
Anyway, Frank is just beginning to get the sound he wants out of Chester Thompson's drums when the Visigoths descend screaming from the mountains. Migawd, they've ... let the kids in. Right in the middle of the soundcheck.
Of course, one of them zooms right down to the front and starts leaning over the barriers shouting "Frenk! Frenk!" at the Godmother, who is sitting on his box puffing morosely on a Winston, doodling on his guitar and no doubt wondering what a person such as himself could say to a vegetable. "Frenk! Frenk!" the young fellow howls in irresistibly piteous tones. "Ees Aynsley playeeng?"
Frank gives him the old headshake routine and he wanders away looking all disconsolate and gets down to the evening's real heavy business, which consists of getting blasted. Honestly, kids, I cannot recall ever having seen (or smelt) so much cannabis being consumed at an indoor concert in all my entire chickenscratchin'acetastin'motivatin' life. The air was thick with the reek of the foul stuff. All over the place, the delicate, soothing sound of Zappa shouting at his sound engineers was drowned by the insistent rustle of cigarette papers. Even after the band had sorted out their sound and quit the stage, the auditorium was periodically briefly lit by a cigarette lighter cooking up some hash. Behind me, one little devil was snorting an illicit substance. Either that or he had a filthy cold and should have stayed home in bed taking aspirins.
A li'l ol' lady comes trotting by with a tray fluting, "Chocolats! Chocolats!" Halfway down the front row she passes this scraggy-looking guy who closely resembles the 'John Wesley Harding' period Dylan. His pitch is 'Hashish! Hashish!' The number of stops he's making at 100 francs a time show that there's clearly money to be made in this field of endeavour by an enterprising young man with his wits about him.
What makes the whole deal so delightfully incongruous (apart from Zappa's widely publisized loathing for all drugs except Winstons, coffee and saxophones) is that police cordon around the hall. Outside, the fuzz in force. Inside, kids jumping up and down gleefully waving chillums. Dashed clever, these Frogs.
Cutting all this acute sociological observation stuff short, let's flash forward to the Actual Performance and zero in on a tune entitled 'Approximate'. 'It is called "Approximate",' announces Frank in his most pedagogic manner, 'because while the rhythm is specified, the notes are not. It will be performed for you in three sections. The first with instruments, the second with the human voice and the third with the human foot.'
He is as good as his word. After a moderately deranged performance of 'Approximate' (assuming that that was what it in fact was), Fowler and Brock stashed their axes and approached the microphone. 'Come up front, Ruth, and let the people get off on your vibes,' commanded Zappa, his moustache twitching ferociously in the cool night air. (My theory is that a breeze was blowing from the audience towards the stage and that Zappa was unintentionally getting stoned, but that's as may be. 'Get down, Ruth!' Ms Underwood complies smilingly, and then the ensemble runs through the piece vocally. They then return to their instruments and perform it again, this time in complete silence.
This was one of the few incidences of yerractual Mothers craziness that took place in the set. Of course, there was Zappa's ballet with Brock during 'Redonzo'; a graphic demonstration of the mating habits of a small cowbell (wielded by Ms Underwood) and a large one (wielded by F.Z.); a demonstration of how F.Z.'s characteristic style of conducting can gradually inflate itself into a full-blown Mime Sequence (see Broughton E., Bowie D., Marceau M., etc.); and a continuous stream of visual jive from the extravagant Brock to keep things from getting too serious. F'rinstance, at one point Zappa announced that George Duke would play a piano solo, at which point Duke launched into a monologue about a onenight stand with a Voodoo Queen, embellished with assorted snorks and cackles from the synthesizer.
Apart from hot flushes of 'Dog Breath', 'It Can't Happen Here' and a few other choice goodies from the olden days, the set principally consisted of the kind of stuff that Zappa's been serving up on 'Apostrophe', 'Over-Nite Sensation' and now 'Roxy & Elsewhere'; i.e. jokey little songs with lyrics about dirty feet, Sears ponchos, dental floss, phoney gurus and mistreated, arctic fowl, set to a kind of souped-up 'Hot Rats' instrumental sound and garlicked up with loads of guitar solos. Brock's manic saxophone, stylized soul vocals and demented stage capering serve to lighten things up slightly, and as long as he's involved Zappa could well write some slightly heavier songs. As it is, F.Z. seems way too firmly stuck into his current little niche for comfort.
Apart from his recent little contretemps with the Massed Promoters of London, Zappa is: (a) ignoring most of the rest of the rock world ('I only listen to rock and roll records for purposes of research. Black Sabbath have one song that's real good. It's called "Supernaut". I also like Harry Chapin's "W.O.L.D.", and Mott The Hoople have three songs on their last album that I like a whole lot'); (b) unhappy with the rigmarole of having to talk to dumb journalists who don't know what 12-tone is, can't read music and don't even know how wide recording tape is; (c) at work on a new and unspecified movie project and (d) still dressing funny. Over supper, he was treated to the uncommon spectacle of three journalists all trying to conduct different kinds of interviews. There's an amiable young fellow from the Evening News asking questions like 'Do you consider yourself to be an anarchist, Frank?' and yours truly getting all historically orientated and trying to ferret out bits of interesting info about past aspects of Motherlore. As a result the conversation gets irreparably fragmented.
Hey, Frank – how's project XS going? You know – that satirically orientated heavy metal glam band that Mike Des Barres was talking about some while back?
'That project has been cancelled ever since that guy started talking about it in the press.'
Michael, what hast thou wrought?
'He was talking about doing an album and a tour before I'd even auditioned him. I just heard about him from his girlfriend and talked to him on the phone, and it was a really dumb, punkish thing to do to start talking about it. Anyway, that project has now been dropped.'
Other tidbits unearthed during the rest of the conversation will be incorporated into a fairly extensive programme of Zappa features planned by the author in conjunction with Ian MacDonald and presented for your reading pleasure in the near future, so for the time being let us return to Napoleon Murphy Brock, who's sitting in a hotel room clutching a glass of vodka and orange juice discoursing on the True Zappa.
'Everybody thinks that Frank Zappa is really way out there, but he ain't. He's just totally down to earth. You know that song "Stink-Foot"? It's just .. you know that when you're wearing a pair of tennis shoes, no air gets into them and when you take 'em off people just go, "What is that?" That's all that that song is about. To understand Frank, you just have to go for the simplest meaning in any lyric and you'll be right there.'
Flashback to the previous night's party and Zappa explaining the absence of Ruth Underwood by informing the assembly that 'Ruth's back in the hotel in the bath with her legs up against the wall.'
'What I meant,' elucidates Zappa at the supper-table, 'was that Ruth's mind was in the bath. With its legs apart.'
See also article:
Monsieur Zappa's Rock Circus