Zubin And The Mothers

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Illustration by Warren Linn

Zubin And The Mothers
Playboy Magazine, April 1971


Article by F.P. Tullius being a chronicle of the curious musical carryings-on between the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Frank Zappa's freaky band of minstrels.

If your children ever find out how lame you are, they'll murder you in your sleep.
– Frank Zappa's closing message to tourists at the Hollywood Whisky-a-Go-Go, December 1965
Mehta knows his group. He says they're really good, that they can really pick things up fast and that he's good at conducting and rehearsing and all that stuff. I should say he's full of it?
– Zappa to a reporter, May 1970
These Mothers is crazy. You can tell by their clothes. One guy wears beads and they all smell bad. We were gonna get them for a dance after the basketball game but my best pal warned me you can never tell how many will show up. ... None of the kids at my school like these Mothers ... specially since my teacher told us what the words to their songs meant.
– Suzy Creamcheese

It was a nice California-daylight evening and outside UCLA'S Pauley Pavilion, (the house they built for Alcindor), the crowd milling about and queuing at the wickets looked to be about the size of any good sell-out crowd for the championship Bruin five. Except that its constituents were different. There were lots of lank-haired chicks with nice barefoot dirty feet (dirty bare feet always look cleaner than clean feet that have just been in shoes), lots of fringed buckskin and denim everywhere. Especially denim. Denim cutoffs with tailored leather seams, denim jackets with embroidery, with red reflectors, denim Levis for boys, for girls. Denim must be the one industry that is bullish these days. Because the latest scream is the poor look. Some of the holes at the knees even look as though they've been premeditatedly abraded with a nail file. And, in order to get the washed-out look, dumped into Mom's automatic five or six times in succession. And, to fit like that around the ass, soaked in salt and put on wet.

There had been trouble the week before at UCLA and the school was still in semi-strike, so the screams and scuffling from the multitudes outside Pauley did not come as a surprise, though, happily, it turned out to be a little sidewalk cabaret by the local guerrilla theater. There were straights here, too, with children, and wearing suits from Silverwood's that probably didn't really cost much more than a Levi bike jacket with leather lining, and maybe a hell of a lot less than a suede frontier job from Hell-Bent for Leather on Hollywood Boulevard. (We may need a new definition of who the establishment is and who the people are.) The straight Johns were here because Zubin Mehta was going to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was the third concert in a series by the Music Center, known as Contempo '70 ("20th Century music: How it was, how it is"). The denim, nostalgie de la boue crowd was here because Frank Zappa had reassembled his Mothers Of Invention (disbanded in late 1969) and was going to play. Some other misfits were here, no doubt, because Frank was going to play in concert with the Philharmonic – the world premiere of a two-and-one-half-hour composition for Mothers and orchestra (cut to about an hour for this performance), entitled 200 Motels. (Such morganatic marriages are not entirely new to music. Some others: The Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic, the Stones and the London Bach Choir – remember that drug-saturated masterpiece You Can't Always Get What You Want? – and the "Switched-On Symphony" series on TV.)

Inside, the L. A. Phils could be seen seated at one end of the basketball court and, behind and above them, two electric pianos, Hammond organ, drums, amps and other esoterica of the Mothers, who were to come on later. The chairs on the basketball floor seemed to be garrisoned by Dorothy Chandler Pavilion season-ticket holders (hereafter known as Dorothy Chandlers), while the many more "bleacher" seats surrounding the court seemed to belong to the Zappa cheering section.

Things were late, and at about ten till nine, Zubin Mehta, born in Bombay, India, strode to stage center – facing a crowd, incidentally, that seemed more empathetic in its life style to indigenous Indians than to Hindus. Seeing that considerable of the eventual capacity of more than 14,000 was still looking for its seats, he gave the audience a little lagniappe of Stravinsky. Finished with that, Zubin approached the microphone, found it dead and so repeated the Stravinsky. Then, finding die mike still dead, he borrowed another from a member of the orchestra. This acoustic boost was to prove futile, however, for the Phils were up against one of the inventors and developers – one of the Ur-people – of electrically zapped sound in Frank Zappa, of Lancaster, California, five ten, 154 pounds.

Using the auxiliary mike, Mehta – who looks like a mature Sabu – gave a little caveat to the people: "I want to correct one misconception. Anyone who thinks he's come to hear a rock concert is mistaken. You are all trapped here under the pretext of hearing rock 'n' roll. I don't want any misconceptions – especially with our older patrons. [Laughter] 200 Motels will be a little rock 'n' roll but it's absolutely contemporary music." Zubin then introduced the first selection, Immobiles 1–4 for tape recorder and/or orchestra, by Mel Powell, who was described in the program as "one of the pre-eminent figures in contemporary music." Powell was seated on the basketball floor.

Mehta struck up Immobiles 1–4 and was concluding the second of the four immobiles when there came a deep, urgent voice from the floor: "Zubin! Zubin!" Music stopped and the voice was handed a mike and it was Powell with a bulletin from the front that the taperecorder part of his composition hadn't been playing since the beginning. After a brief consultation, Mehta announced that he would skip the Powell piece and go into Varese's Integrales. Edgard Varèse (1885-1965) has been called the "grand old man of the perpetual avant-garde." He is one of Zappa's models and it was Frank himself who suggested Integrales be performed. (The general view of music lovers was that the rendition was flashy and hopelessly distorted.)

Now the Mothers entered and climbed to their second-story stage. Eight of them, counting Frank. Ian Underwood on electric piano, doubling on sax. (Program: "An M. A. in music and child prodigy at the piano.") Ray Collins (an original Mother, going back to Freak Out! days) with wild titian hair, playing the tambourine and singing. James Motorhead Sherwood, "sax and other things." Zappa – slim, but mesomorphically muscled – resplendent (for him) in lime and yellow horizontally striped hip-huggers that fit his impudent buttocks like wool jersey, topped with a purple long-sleeved T-shirt. Mother Motorhead (who has "teen appeal," according to Frank) was attired in a white letterman sweater with three varsity stripes, and beneath that a kelly-green Fillmore East T-shirt – his lengthy hair tied with a ribbon in the back, giving him the effect of a rather prognathous member of the Girls' Athletic Association field-hockey team. Zappa's golliwogg hair was similarly tied and he displayed the trademark Zappa-ta facial hair, which somewhat resembles the silhouette of an explosion over Eniwetok, beneath that splendid banana nose.

A little speech by Zappa: "We're kind of tense ... the tape recorder breaks down. When you play music in a hall designed for basketball, you take your chances. Maybe same day, if music becomes competitive and violent, they'll have halls this big designed for music. ... Will Don Preston, our organist, please stop vomiting and come up on the stage?" (Program: "Don Dewild Preston – all keyboard instruments and weirdness – joined the group in the summer of 1966. He plays the Monster in the forthcoming Mothers' movie, Uncle Meat.")

The Mothers opened with an old Angels' nifty (Ooh-lah-dee-lah), My Boy Friend's Back and then, without intro, segued into their version of Integrales – which, well ... sounded like Varese's work in some spots.

Then Zappa, putting it to the Dorothy Chandlers directly beneath him, launched into an original recitative, which embroidered on an Oedipal refrain ("Father, I want to kill you!") sung by Jim Morrison in The Doors' The End:

You're uptight. Sitting all alone in your teenage bedroom. You're tense. And you got ... to ... go ... get ... your cookies! Around the wall are little cutout decals of sailing boats, donkeys and Little Bopeep. You're lying in your flannel pajamas in your teenage sheets – all you mothers out there know what teenage sheets are; they're the ones with the yellow and brown stains. You tiptoe through the living room to the kitchen to find the cookie jar – your favorite oral gratification: oatmeal raisin cookies! They're in the Aunt Jemima cookie jar. You rip her head off and stuff your sweaty teenage hand into her body. You grab a cookie – tempting raisins, a fascinating tactile sensation – you know you're gonna get off on it. You go to the icebox, open the door, take out a box of milk and pour it into your drinking hole. But he still hasn't quite got it off. He then goes into his mother's room and cries, "Mother, I want to kill you!," but she ignores him, being too busy putting silver and green and blue stuff around her eyes. And anyway, she knows where he's at. She's washed his sheets. He goes into his father's room and makes a similar death threat, but his father, busy masturbating, ignores him, too.

The Dorothy Chandlers seemed unperturbed by how near the knuckle this struck, and then the Phils below, in a little arch-Happening, walked off, blowing discordant sounds. In rebuttal, Frank directed the band to hit different notes, and on about the fourth one, came up with his middle finger extended, while the Mothers screamed "Aaaah!" as it they'd been goosed. The Battle of the Bands was on.

Intermission
It was an anonymous Roman who first recognized that the mother of invention is necessity. It is not known if Frank Zappa acted on this pearl when he formed the Mothers on Mother's Day, 1965, but some sort of felt need must have been met, because they soon became the leading underground rock group in the United States. Born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940, Frank grew up in Lancaster, California, a Mojave Desert town. Towns such as Lancaster always have American Legion Posts, where in the Fifties they held dances that they hyped over the radio: "Come and meet old friends and make new ones. No Levis or capris, please." And then the next day, the news on the same station would say there were five knifings at the dance. Guys got high on white port and lemon juice and wore leather jackets, peggers and hair in a ducktail. Girls wore full skirts with five petticoats.

The Mothers became regulars at the Whisky on Sunset Strip and were featured regularly in the Zeidler & Zeidler full-page freak-out ads which appeared in the Freep (Los Angeles Free Press to non-Californians) and were the fore-runners of all the freaky ads you see now. The term freak out (the title of his first album) was popularized by Frank, who described it almost pedantically back then as "a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole." He formed a society called die United Mutations, to accept freaks – that is, anyone who wanted to make a decision for freakiness. Groups of unpaid dancers in the early days always vied to appear at the Mothers' performances. Vito and His Dancers became a frequent attraction. Vito, a sculptor, middle-aged hippie and charter member of U.M., has now left the country. Freak Out! also introduced to the world Suzy Creamcheese, a fulsome embodiment of teenage Middle America.

The songs in Frank's albums – almost all written by him – have such titles as America Drinks & Goes Home, Who Are The Brain Police?, Hungry Freaks, Daddy and Cheap Thrills (In the Back of my Car). A critic once said that Frank's songs and his renditions of them are "conglomerates of humor, satire, chance nonfiction and the grotesque, punctuated with snorts, oinks and boings, sprinkled with bits of Motown, Sacco and Vanzetti, R&B, Rosemary De Camp and Stravinsky." Frank said of his own music, "We're presenting a chemical monstrosity, not really a panacea. But it is a useful household preparation, something like ammonia." If Frank Zappa is not a household word to you (like ammonia), it may have something to do with the fact that most amplitude-modulated stations can't stand his freaky-porno-sacrilegious thumb-in-the-eye and they would be more likely to say "shit" over the air than "Zappa." Few know it, but Frank was a pioneer in the use of amplified and electronically modified instruments, being credited with laying the groundwork that influenced the design of many commercially manufactured electromusical devices. Probably most importantly, Zappa was the first to realize that kids didn't want "pretty notes" – that is, amplifiers that play mellow tones. "That's for the flabby, martini-drinking generation. Kids want sound." he said, "And if your ears hear it as a whine, a whistle, fuzz – the feedback scream that NBC pays engineers millions to get rid of – that's music to us today. And the kids love it, if you hate it. You go to one of their concerts. You want to find out what your daughter is up to. So you go, and you walk in, and you say, 'That damn amp is up so loud I can't make out the words.' The kids love that because they already know the words, and they know you don't. The amplifier is their Weapon of Destruction." Zappa once suggested giving that name to an amplifier built by a company for which he acted as technical advisor. "Or maybe just Death," he added. Among the Mothers' other albums are Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, a quasi-nostalgic revisitation to the Fifties' high school r&b, Uncle Meat, Lumpy Gravy and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Hot Rats is Frank without the Mothers. Weasels Ripped My Flesh is the first "live" Mothers' album and Chunga's Revenge, the latest. His album titles read like the menu in some infernal, Mephistophelean restaurant. Freudian scholars will notice a certain addiction to unsavory food items.

Onstage, the Mothers are by far the most demonstrative of rock groups. It's multimedia from the word go, and you can expect to see bits of business such as a doll mutilated, a gas mask put on, a bag of vegetables unpacked and examined, a variety of "obscene" sign language and a performance of what Frank calls "dead air." This is forewarned by spaced intervals of sound (honks) – then silence. Mother Motorhead may then give Frank a shoeshine. This maddening insouciance is maintained until the audience begins to crack. Then Frank strolls to the mike: "It brings out hostilities in you, doesn't it?"

Today, Frank Zappa holds such establishmentarian titles as leader and musical director of the Mothers of Invention and president of Bizarre, Inc., an underground-rock conglomerate located on Wilshire Boulevard, which includes Bizarre Records and Straight Records (he is fond of little put-ons in his Bizarre liner notes, such as "Captain Beefheart vocal, courtesy Straight Records"), a management firm, a public-relations agency, several music-publishing companies, a film-production company and a book division that will start off with publication of The Groupie Papers. (He may be on the way to becoming the first underground tycoon – the Daddy Warbucks of Freakdom.) Frank lives in Laurel Canyon, a pass between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, where he works in the basement of his house, which he shares with his wife, Gail, his daughter Moon Unit, one and a half, and an infant son they call Dweezle. His first film, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, a documentary about the Mothers, is being previewed at this writing. His next. Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People, is in production.

He is musically knowledgeable; his instructions to his group may go like this: "Play 4/4 for ten bars, then 17/8 for three bars, then 22/8 for one bar, all played so fast and tight you don't know what time it is." He fancies himself a serious musician and once said: "I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons. Those kids wouldn't know music if it came up and bit 'em on the ass." He is, he said, "a composer who works with rock, rather than a simple rock musician with no consciously artistic pretensions."

–––

The Phils and Mothers returned and Frank took the mike to say, "Mr. Powell has left and he took the tape with him." (Martin Bernheimer, Los Angeles Times: "[Powell] later explained his action in terms of 'revulsion at the wretched debasement of new music ... exploitation of pop mobs ... mockery of art ... cynical attitude of the Philharmonic management. Powell insisted his displeasure had little to do with the musical mishap. He also claimed that Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Philharmonic, attempted to bar his exit, threatening never to schedule his compositions again. Fleischmann dismissed Powell's behavior as 'ridiculously unprofessional.'")

Zappa then gave a brief preamble to 200 Motels: "I wrote this a while ago when I thought symphonic music was where it's at, and when we rehearsed this week, I heard all the errors I made, but we left them in – so you're gonna hear them too. It's not really a great piece of music, but I think we can get off a few times." (200 Motels represents strains and snatches written by Zappa in motels and hotels here and in Europe on his road trips. The whole mother is two and one half hours long, but one sequence, which required, among other things, a soprano soloist, three dancers, a chorus, a narrator, an industrial vacuum cleaner, a noisy 16mm projector and a dental-health film, was deleted, cutting this performance to about an hour.)

"All right, Zubin, hit it!" cried Zappa, initiating the world premiere of 200 Motels. What really happened, as it developed, was not two bands playing together but two playing apart – a battle of the bands. And here, the Mothers' superior decibel energy gave them the edge. A good eight-piece hard-rock group with their Fender Stratocasters peaked and their fuzztones stomped into action can make a 100-piece symphony sound positively puerile. As to the flavor of 200 Motels, it was eclectic, to say the least. It began with a good, hard-driving rock passage and then segued into a leitmotif that soon began to be identified, each time it came round, as "Brigitte Bardot '57." Then the Phils came in with an atonal passage, during which the Mothers – having a 75-bar rest, or so – insouciantly lit up Winstons. Other echoes that could be caught throughout the piece:

Dvořák's New World Symphony, Victory at Sea (Guadalcanal March and Beneath the Southern Cross), Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Copland's Appalachian Spring, Thomson's The Plow that Broke the Plains and honky-tonk jazz. All this was punctuated by Zappa telling the audience, "Laughing is very easy, all you have to do is go 'Ha-ha-ha!'" followed by nearly 14.000 risible patrons doing just that; Mother Motorhead making yodeling sounds; a little soft-shoe in unison by the Mothers; a voice from the upper deck intoning a mighty "Oooooaaaah!" followed by Zappa yelling, "Shut up, you idiot!"; a member of the symphony brass tearing his music to shreds and throwing it into the air, followed by the string section crying "Barf!" (Could this be the promised "bodily noises"?); the Phils and the Mothers exchanging friendly insults, topped off by Zappa crying, "Horse-shit!"; the Phils goofing a few bars, with Mehta apologizing with a big operatic shrug to Zappa; Mother Ray holding up a toy giraffe, which then gave birth to a rubber chicken; some flickering blue flash bulbs on the jungle gym that held the stage lights (a sort of dime-store light show); a UFO gliding down from way up above – turning out to be a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee; a sequence in which only one Mother played and the others faked it silently.

During all this, the audience seemed attentive but not really turned on – not exactly the kind of concert where you need 500 rent-a-cops to keep tilings in order. At the end of 200 Motels, there was a minute or two standing ovation – although one cynical critic suggested the ovation might have been prompted by the audience wanting to hear the Mothers in encore.

So they did. Zappa announced to the Phils: "Any of you fellows who desire to play rock, join us – you'll not get any overtime – and we'll play our version of King Kong," Eight or ten Phils (all of them young) brought their axes up – mainly brass and reeds, including one awkward bassoon. Zappa: "When I go like this, horn players pick any note at random, attack it and swell it up. We need a cello. [An obliging cellist walks up.] It's a very simple melody. Key of E-flat minor for as long as you can take it."

The session began with the bassoonist starting off a little badly by bumping Mother Motorhead with the swan's neck of his instrument – but then, in later passages, coming on so strong that there is no doubt that, if they ever get this on LP, you'll hear one of the great bassoon riffs in rock-symphony history. The beauty of the bassoon is that it is a double-reed instrument with bass and tenor registers. This affords it tremendous flexibility, so it can come in on the low shots and then suddenly space you out on the high sniff – often before you can even realize it is the same instrument. Also, bassoons have a very small solomusic literature – and so you can bet your ass if you invite a bassoonist into a session, you're gonna get wiped – he's hungry.

200 Motels will not break upon an unsuspecting world with the cultural shock of Handel's Messiah, but it seems beyond belief that a figure of the virtuosity and energy of Frank Zappa has been so long neglected by the media – for example, television. His eye and ear for Southern Cal schlock-pop detail are faultless. The boy in You Didn't Try To Call Me (Freak Out!) tells a girl who rejected him: "I reprimered the right-front fender, man ... and you didn't try to call me. I thought you were my teen angel, man." Then there's Ruben Sano himself, who was:

Nineteen when he quit the group to work on his car. ... There were already 11 other guys in the band so when he quit nobody missed him except for his car when they had to go to rehearsal or play for a battle of the bands at the American Legion Post in Chino. ... Ruben has three dogs, Benny, Baby and Martha.

Or the boy in You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here:
You tore a big hole in your convertible top
What will you tell your Mom and Pop?

Or Willie The Pimp (Hot Rats):
Man in a suit with a bow-tie neck
Wanna buy a grunt with a third-party check.

Or the hopper in Mother Mania, who is "only 13 and she knows how to nasty."
Or the guy in the song Later That Night:
Don't go, baby, don't put me out on the street.
You threw my best sharkskin suit out on the lawn, right on top of some dog waste.

It may be, of course, that Frank has been upstaged by the Hoffmans and the Rubins who have purloined his cheerfully mad, earthy Motherness from the underground and the bandstand and brought it into the streets and the papers. What is certain, though – after the concert – is that classical and rock are as unmixable and unblendable as the rock and scissors of the pantomime game (Consciousness II vs. Consciousness III). For classical is a product of Western Christian sublimation (meaning to repress the sexual impulses and to "sublime" them), while rock is ami-sublimation. "The big beat matches the body's rhythm," says Frank. And then, in another place, "To deny rock music its place in the society was to deny sexuality. Any parent who tried to keep his child from listening to or participating in this musical ritual was, in the eyes of the child, trying to castrate him."

"Getting your shit together" is a vogue phrase now. It's what everyone really is trying to do – even Nixon and Agnew, though they wouldn't use the phrase. Frank seems to think that the Big Beat can be successfully Osterized with the Big Bands (symphony), satisfying a lower-middle-class yearning he seems to have long had for the technical expertise and precision of symphonic music. But getting it together may not be that easy. We may have to do it alone.

At any rate, whatever Frank Zappa does, you know it will be up front, whatever else it is. The blacks have a nice portmanteau phrase: "Goheadon!" Meaning, keep doing what you're doing.

Goheadon, Frank!