My Brother Is an Italian Mother

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C.R. Zappa, 1968, Jazz & Pop


It was about 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday, May 5, when I phoned Los Angeles to see if my brother, Frank had arrived from New York. The phone rang several times before anyone answered, but when someone did, it was Frank. It was good hearing his voice again, especially since it was only costing me thirty-five cents for the first three minutes, plus tax. He told me about some of his latest business ventures, how glad he was to be back in California, and how bizarre his newly rented pad was. We exchanged greetings for our respective wives, and agreed to meet on Tuesday after he had gotten somewhat settled.

It has been a little over a year and a half since Frank and the Mothers left California for New York. They did so because of the heavy-handed methods used by the police in Los Angeles to deal with the kids on the Sunset Strip. Work was hard to get; reaction to long hair, no underwear, and elements of change was reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, and the Mothers need money to live on. So it came to pass that the Mothers split for New York's Greenwich Village.

During their stay in New York, the Mothers successfully performed for six months at the Garrick Theatre doing a cleverly animated, pornographically delightful musical review. Some people liked it so much they came back repeatedly. Two Long Island school boys, affectionately dubbed Loeb and Leopold, held ticket stubs for some sixty-five performances. A classic study in compulsive behavior. But there were those who reacted rather violently to the show. One flaccid matron was sure that the Mothers were secretly anti-christ Commie swine bent upon polluting crew-cut American pubertines. Here authoritative observation was made on the basis of one evening's performance (to the tune of $3.50).

Meanwhile, in between the Mothers' usual four-hour-plus rehearsals and the six nights per week shows at the Garrick, Frank found the time to: (1) organize, direct, and have incorporated NT&B Advertising, his own ad agency, (2) encourage executives at MGM-Verve and Capitol records to end their high-level debate on his album Lumpy Gravy (1968) and release it, and (3) prepare for a tour of Europe that would take them to London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, and Lund. After the Mothers finished their engagement at the Garrick, and before they left for Europe, they did concerts at Town Hall in New York, Miami, Cincinnati, and Detroit. And on top of all that they recorded their third album We're Only In It For The Money (1968) on Verve.

In the meantime, back in California, things were getting better all the time. Business concerns in Los Angeles were remarketing and reorienting their sales pitch for the growing hip culture in Hollywood. Actually, weekend iconoclasm was coming into its own as an economically exploitable circumstance; witness the sale of sterling silver love-bead necklaces for a modest $500 in better stores everywhere. Naturally, in this atmosphere of increasing toleration for new ideas, the Mothers gave some serious thought to returning to California. Making the move back from the East to the West had its own kind of difficulty, especially since Frank is a suburbanite at heart (a syndrome acquired during our adolescence). He decided that his return to California was going to be a pleasant one.

He was going to rent a house. Not an altogether unusual idea, but which house could he possibly choose? I mean, what kind of house do you suppose he'd live in? Well, his austere utilitarianism got the better of him this time and he made only minimal demands on comfort. So he let his wife, Gayle, do the advance leg work. She and their seven-month-old daughter, Moon, came out to California one month before Frank. Together they collaborated on a suitable place, and, after an exhaustive search, they found one. The house she selected is a stunning early American dwelling right in the heart of Hollywood. The exterior is tastefully done in scrub pine and eucalyptus bark. To enhance this rugged facade, clumps of moss treated with Karo syrup are neatly tucked into delicate crevices. This unusual effect gives the house the appearance of a blighted avocado.

But the outside does not accurately reveal much about the inside. Once inside, the whole image changes. Through the front door, one enters a room with awesome proportions. Directly across from the door is a massive hearth, wide enough to accommodate a spit or an iron cauldron. The decor is cheerful Runic done in malaga, mauve, gold ochre, and muted khaki cream. On the floor, struggling to cover only a portion of the room, is a stylish floral patterned rug. Overhead is an eye-catching period chandelier, which employs fourteen tallow and paraffin illuminants. On one of the living-room walls are mounted two mahogany-stained shadow boxes. Each contains a ceramic duck, a miniature storm lamp, and tiny dolls dressed in colorful Japanese, Scandinavian, and Latin-American costumes. This clever blend of warm decorating techniques and zany originality on the part of the designer was scarcely noticed by Frank when he arrived. What he was most interested in was the seemingly endless room the house afforded.

When I saw Frank on Tuesday, he was in the process of searching for some other redeeming features of the house. I couldn't have suggested a better idea, so I followed with great curiosity. We went from the living room downstairs onto the second floor. From the landing at the bottom of the stairs I could see a bowling alley that was once the primary recreation of the former owner. Between the bowling alley and the wall was a walkway that led to a foyer. As we walked toward the foyer we passed several doors, one of which was metal with a dial and a handle. I stopped, opened the door, and looked in to see knotty-pine panels, shelved, and floor. It was a walk-in wall safe about the size of a service-station rest room. The former owner must have put a lot of people on, or else he was operating a bank for small investors.

At the end of the hall was the foyer. It opened out onto a circular driveway that was bordered by wilted and unkempt rose bushes. I turned around in time to see Frank disappear through another door at the opposite end of the foyer. When I reached the door, Frank was descending a stone staircase leading down into a dark, musty cave. I followed him into the cave, which turned out to be the entrance to a tunnel that has since been sealed off by cement and stone. Frank said that it once led to Harry Houdini's house, which is across the street. I wondered who could have built this bizarre house and have included a tunnel to Houdini's.

Upstairs again, Frank and I sat down to listen to some of his vintage R&B records and to chat pleasantly about high school teachers we have known. Frank likes to reminisce about those duly appointed defenders of high school mediocrity who, more than once, prophetically earmarked Frank for failure. And it in way, they were right. He hasn't once, since graduating from some obscure school in the desert, had any desire to wear white socks with oxford shoes, pleated pants with a salt-and-pepper sports coat, or destroy the mind of an adolescent with absurd societal dogma. He just plugs along getting wealthier, more proficient in his music, and better adjusted than if he had become a success as a banker or a grocer.

Frank's daughter, Moon, was there too, performing body functions in time with the music. Pauline Butcher, Frank's secretary, came in and we were introduced. She had been sorting out correspondence and bills in preparation for her duties. I asked Frank what his schedule was that necessitated a full-time secretary. He answered that she is going to help him while he works on his first book for Stein and Day, publishers in New York. It will be an encyclopedia of useless information, gathered from obscure sources and sold to anyone subterranean enough to understand it. He said that he was also commissioned by Life magazine to do a feature article on the rhythm and blues of the 1950s and the rock music of today. These literary attempts are not outside Frank's realm of ability: not in the least, because I can remember when we were in high school how Frank used to write clever polemics for all to read. But, as often happens, the maintenance men either paint over them or add little figures to the letters to change the meanings of the words.

I asked Frank if the Mothers were going to be doing any shows in the near future, and if he had any plans to do some guest spots on television. He said that the Mothers were scheduled to do concerts in Los Angeles, Fresno, and Miami, and that, as a matter of fact, he was going to tape the Les Crane Show that evening. After our discussion Frank had to get ready for the show, and I had to get home. I gingerly cuddled Moon, said goodbye to Gayle, and picked up a few old Johnny Otis albums to listen to on my mono. I said goodbye to Frank, and then left. On my way home I couldn't help thinking that what Frank does and how he does it has become a recognizable phenomenon. As a composer and performer, he's amazingly proficient. As a creative person, I know he has all the qualifications. As my brother, he's really a mother.