Mudsharks, Motels and Mothers
By Michael Watts
Melody Maker, October 23, 1971
Uncle Frankie and His Boys
Confronted by an invariably noisy audience at a typical Mothers concert in America Frank Zappa will say something like, "Will you children please be quiet so we can tune up."
If the heckler(s) persist(s) he will move closer to the microphone and say, in the dryest of voices, something like " Silence, fool(s)."
And there will be loud cheers from that portion of the audience which is not already wasted by red wine and downers. Should they persist, then a look of unutterable patience and tolerance seems to engulf his features, the expression of the teacher faced by incorrigibles at the back of the class. "Even though you people are extremely rude we like you," he will say.
Does it surprise you that Frank Zappa used to have a radio programme called "The Uncle Frankie Show"?
During a typical Mothers concert Frank Zappa will direct both vocal and instrumental pieces through a series of complicated signals – a combination of whirls, swoops, jabs and flourishes – which proceed from his right hand. These baton directions – for such they are – lead an audience through such tried and trusted favourites as the immortal "Call Any Vegetable," wherein lead singer Mark Volman will bounce back and forth at the front of the stage like a fleshy balloon; the catchy "Peaches En Regalia" (whistle it after only one hearing!); the nostalgic "Sharleena" (which is la la la, a la The Moonglows) and the dynamite encore of "Who Are The Brain Police?" (everyone's freakout).
Sandwiched in between, like a burnt weeny, is contemporaneity: "the epic, 30-minute saga of "Billy The Mountain," which tells the absurd but authentic story of a California mountain and his sweetheart, Ethel (a tree which grows on his cliff), who wreak havoc upon America when they decide to leave for a vacation in New York; and the efforts of Studebaker Hawk, private eye, who tracks them down and finally gets his when he falls off Billy's cliff. Nuts? Maybe, but funny in living colour.
Then, too, there is the ten-minute version of "The Mud Shark," dedicated to Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge. For the uninitiated, this is the thinly-veiled account of how a young lady in Seattle gets off with the mud-shark, alias dogfish, which can be caught by the enterprising with a rod and line from the window of a certain hotel. A pushme-pullme, ladies and gentleman.
All this and more does Frank Zappa present for your edification in his current medley of theatre, music, humour and scumbag frivolity. Coming soon to your local theatre (though not the Albert Hall).
At this stage of the game Zappa comes on like a 31-year-old avuncular dealer of comic American absurdities. It used to be said that he was specifically a rock and roll satirist – the mock "Sgt. Pepper" cover on "We're Only In It For The Money" for instance – but he seems much less concerned at present with commenting upon aspects of society than telling fantastic tales, which may or may not have a basis in reality, as does "The Mud Shark."
Superficially, in the way music and lyrics are linked together to form a narrative his approach resembles rock opera, with the big difference that his work is essentially humorous, like a far-out Gilbert and Sullivan – a characteristic that can hardly be applied to "Tommy." Don't push the comparison, however. Asked if he agrees his music approximates to rock opera, he says, "only under duress."
Certainly, though, his work is far removed from the electronic chamber music concept of two years ago and the work with Zubin Mehta. Primarily, this is because the emphasis is now on the lyrics rather than the instrumental. With the introduction of ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan last year as front line singers Zappa's band is now both more commercial than it has ever been and also closer to the realisation of a project he had in mind when The Mothers began of featuring theatrical presentations. "It's a little electric something orchestra with theatrical elements," says Frank disarmingly.
One of the most fascinating, and disturbing, features about him, in fact is that he apparently has his work planned out so minutely years in advance. He talks of the conceptual continuity of the group's output macrostructure, and says there is, and always has been, a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each succeeding album, live performance and interview. This is – in its language anyway – something of a put-on, but Zappa's air of massive authority, his air of never being seen to be wrong, and the almost hypnotic effect he has on the people around him, whether musicians or journalists, contribute to the feeling of infallibility that surrounds the man.
When I asked Kaylan, for example, if he thought his membership of The Mothers had been carefully planned he stopped joking for a minute and commented that no-one ever knew about that with Frank: "The guy is into 1975 already, believe me, and it's gonna be real different and he'll lose a lotta people."
The newer members of the band, like Kaylan and Volman and bassist Jim Pons (also an ex-Turtle), have a tremendous respect for Zappa but whether that extends to affection is difficult to say. Zappa is not the sort of man you can be chummy with too much. You always wonder what's going on in his head. This deference is most notable with Pons, whom Zappa picked up seven months ago after the former Turtle had been out of work since March last year. Pons is grateful, and he has busted his ass to prove it to Zappa. He can't read, like Ian Underwood, so each part has to be rehearsed exhaustingly, and since the Mothers' material is highly complex in orchestral terms that's no easy task.
Yes, life with Zappa can be hard. If the band has been off the road for a long time he will rehearse them six hours a day, six days a week. To learn new material takes about three weeks on that basis. "Billy The Mountain" took four weeks. There's a lot of discipline laid down, says Pons:
"It's very regimental, and sometimes, when Zappa walks out of a rehearsal without saying goodbye, then I start thinking, is it worth it?' But I have no complaint. In the old days he had people who couldn't take it. Now he has a band which can. And you always know that at the back of the band, in the office, there's someone looking out for us. Though occasionally we feel like chimps, being put through the hoop, I don't mind as long as I can keep my rent paid. I'm going home from this tour of the States with more money than I did with The Turtles, even though I'm now on a salary."
Not everyone has this unqualified admiration for the Zappa operation, however. Since The Mothers began in '64 there has been 18 changes of personnel and several members have been in and out of the band like shuttlecocks. Ray Collins, the old vocalist, left five times, as has Don Preston, the keyboards player, who has now returned again after a spell with various people (including TV Mama). It's a case of deja vu, also, for Ian Underwood, now on keyboards and ARP, who quit three times before. He'll be off again soon, ostensibly to form his own group with himself on guitar and his wife Ruth on drums, but he is obviously dissatisfied, too, with the fact that his role in the present band is so restricted to neat rhythm backups and the occasional solo.
In the past year, there have only been two alterations in the lineup – Pons coming in for Jeff Simmons on bass (Simmons made that album "Lucille Has Got My Mind Messed Up") and George Duke, the old keyboards man, leaving in favour of Preston.
The Most Indulgent Home Movie of All?
Know what you mean, Howie. "200 Motels," which Zappa shot in video over a period of seven days at Pinewood earlier this year, is an "in" account of the internal workings and personalities of The Mothers set within the framework of an impressionistic representation of what it is like to be a group on the road.
Within this inner context therefore, Zappa, who directed the characterisations, explores the natures of the people who make up his band.
There's Aynsley Dunbar, his drummer, who is seen as the archetypal English pop star who gets the American chicks hot precisely because of his Englishness and the assumption, in American eyes, of the sexual prowess that accompanies that fact of nationality. There's Kaylan and Volman, who are represented as the guys who come on the road looking for action and never quite getting it. There's Don Preston, in a slightly larger than life depiction of himself, playing Ogo Mogo, a black-cloaked weirdo. There's Miss Lucy Offerall of the GTO's being herself and immortalised in the song "Half A Dozen Provocative Squats." And yes, there's Jeff Simmons, who is featured in a nine-minutes animated sequence which recounts exactly why he is not in the film in which he was offered a part ("In this group all I ever get to do is play Zappa's Comedy music ... He EATS! I'm too heavy to be in this group!)
All of this is observed with a great deal of humour, not least of which is due to the fact the Zappa, conscious of his Machiavellian image, positively goes out of his way to send himself up. At intervals, for example, there appears on the screen for a few seconds a shot of Zappa's all-seeing brown-eye motif that is linked earlier on with a scene in which the members of the band, smiling right into the camera, pay false homage to his genius.
On a broader basis, too, the film capitalises on the fun to be had with obscenity. The script is laced with phrases and references that at the least are vulgar and at the most downright filthy, but the humour is inherent in one's own attitude to obscenity, which is a redundant taboo in the private lives of most men – certainly in the case of musicians. Anyone who gets upset by a song like "Penis Dimension" is just being stuffy. What Zappa does is to use obscenity in a constructive context, to remove it from its mindless adjectival framework, so that it becomes both witty, perceptive, and true to the actual nature of ordinary language. Zappa belives that his characterisation of the lifestyle of rock groups, with its accent on groupies and casual sex, is not lowlife because that is how rock bands genuinely behave.
His style of directing is a continuous montage of shots, of images plied swiftly upon one another, so that scenes rarely last more than a few minutes. He has obviously intended to arrive at a surrealistic equation, but in fact this cinematic approach ultimately detracts from the quality of the film. He has striven for so much pace at the expense of thematic clarity, with the result that too often the movie looks cluttered.
Furthermore, the brevity of the episodes has prevented him from expanding on his themes and developing them sufficiently. One feels he would have been more successful with a greater emphasis on narrative style and continuity. There are so many aspects of group life – dope, for example – that he could have gone into at more length. As it is, the movie is frequently more of a visual feast than anything else.
There are anomalies, too. Theodore Bikel plays Rance Muhammitz, a sort of Mephistolean character, and Ringo Starr Larry the Dwarf, alias Zappa himself (who has only a very small part in the movie). Both of these are used as linking characters, and although Bikel is a much more impressive actor than Ringo, neither seem overly important to the construction of events. Of added interest is the fact that Keith Moon appears as The Hot Nun.
In terms of acting, indeed, Jimmy Carl Black, the old Mothers' drummer, who plays the redneck Lonesome Cowboy Burt, and Janet Ferguson, a hard-bitten, gum-chewing groupie, are splendid, but then Zappa has so obviously intended that the movie should be thought of as a directional, rather than an acting, medium.
Having spent eight days in the company of the Mothers I could appreciate the "in" references to the group, and the movie is indeed the most ambitious attempt yet to describe cinematically the group way of life, but I fear that a) its obscenity will preclude its general release, and b) to most of the rock audience it will only appear as a kind of expensive, indulgent home movie.
His Unique Hand Signals: I developed them in '67. It just occurred to me one day that, like, you're playing away and the rhythm section is dragging, so it's natural to reach over and beat time and speed 'em up, so you would take that and extrapolate on that.
So if you can make 'em speed up why can't you just take it and (waves right hand around) and shape it any way you want. Who's to say it's not rock and roll any longer when the time is not straight? So I've tried to take the tempos into flexible areas in order to emphasise certain stage things that were going on or musical sound effects that we could put in that were also cued by signals. We developed a vocabulary of those, and in about '68 we started doing the vocal vocabulary.
Rock and Roll As Opposed To "Serious" Music: I would say I'm a rock and roll musician. Rock and roll is the determinate of the state of mind. You can play frivolous rock and roll, you can play serious rock and roll, you can play funky rock and roll, mediocre rock and roll and comedy rock and roll.
Art: Art is what you like. You have two painters who both work in oils, both painting the same subject. You like one of them, you don't like the other. Which one is art? If I enjoy something that to me is artistic, even if it's a f...king billboard. There have been billboards that I love, just like the Mona Lisa or something, because I know how hard it is to do that. But all the art critics in the world will not convince me that the Campbell soup tins are what's happening.
Nostalgia for Late Fifties Rock and Roll: There always has been an anti-intellectual sentiment in the United States. I think it's cultivated by the government because it's a convenient way to maintain a certain, special kind of control over portions of the social structure. Anybody who does think, who does have a mind, is of necessity, a dull, boring, unpleasant, sexless creep. Brains don't make it. The virility cult is on the upswing now as opposed to long hair and ugliness.
Respectability: If you go out and be a musician in the States there's really not much hope that anybody is going to esteem you, especially if you're playing rock and roll. It might be different if you're violinist and you schmaltzed away on a stage some place, but if you're going out there to play rock and roll you just kiss it off. But I don't mind that respectability tag. It's nice to see that somebody gets it that's a musician. But look what a horrible price they have to pay – those bowties, tuxedos, and squeaky shoes, playing Beethoven all your life. Anyway, I find those people lack humour, and if there's one thing I like it's a good sense of humour.
His Villainous Image: I think it's unwarranted. I think it's strictly the byproduct of people who come to the dressing room and do a 15-minute interview between shows and say, "well, that wasn't very weird, maybe I'd just better grease it up a little." I think that in terms of my own physical appearance it's easy to cast me in the role of some villainous type. In general rock writers like to make categorisations of different styles of music and love to have various things to put into those categories. You have the soft rock, you have the hard rock, you have the avant garde rock, and then you've got the dirty guys, the freaks, and surprise! surprise! – guess who get's stuffed in that box?
Let me ask you a question: am I weird?
The Kaylan/Volman Coversation Piece
The scene: imagine the roar of a GMT bus, smoke drifting from a roach clip, and a back seat sited next to the portable toilet. Departure point is Springfield, Massachusetts; destination New York.
"Hello, British public. I'm here in the back corner of a rancid bus on our way to Carnegie Hall. Heyyyyyy."
" I like it. Great. Use it."
Maybe you can state briefly how you came to be in showbiz.
Oh man. We went to high school together. We sang in a choir. We started a rock band. We played at school, played in a club.
What was the name of the band?
Crossfires. Surf music and rhythm and blues.
Did you just sing, or play any instruments?
Saxes. I played tenor and he played alto. We started out playing clarinets.
Not bad. I mean, I would let Ian take any solo he wanted. Oh sure, man (laughter). We're not afraid to play in any band. If any band would have us. Frank took the chance.
And He's paying for, it now with his career.
Why don't you play saxes in this band?
Haven't you figured it out yet? We did once. We have. We don't like to. Not only that, it's another thing to lug around on the road, and when you're just schlepping at one of two songs and Ian's better at it and can make himself sounds like 50 of us, then you say: " Listen, Frank, I'm bringing my guitar, so I can write in my room, and I'm bringing my suitcase and maybe a tape recorder so I can get out of it and Moody Blues into the cosmos until the early hours of the morning. Otherwise, why bother?
Okay, next question.
Was that a question?
Sure. So how did you form The Turtles?
They were the product of an identity crisis.
Oh, I like that phrase.
Yeah, I think I read it in a Yoko Ono interview (More laughter).
We were playing at this club, The Crossfires. We were making 40 dollars a week.
So we had this club we were working in, and one week end we were The Crossfires and the next week we came back as The Turtles. Ha! Everybody went " whaaaaat!!"
And then we had a record out that was a hit and we said goodbye to the club and the beachtown and went out with The Caravan of The Stars.
Had a whole buncha hit records, took a lotta acid, got real cosmic, met The Rolling Stones, went to London, Lulu hated our second record and reviewed it in the Blind Date.
What did she say?
I hate their second record. It was right after "Happy Together." Nobody ever cared about the early stuff The Turtles did in Europe. You know, "It Ain't Me, Babe," the stuff in the States – nobody gave a rat's ass for it. And Lulu in Blind Date, she reviewed "She'd Rather Be With Me," and she said, "man, I really thought this was a group but THIS RECORD WILL NEVER MAKE IT IN A MILLION YEARS!"
She was a young John Mendelssohn, you know what I mean?
"She'd Rather Be With Me" was number one in a lotta places in Europe so all it went to prove was that...
We were in trouble, that's what it proved.
From there we just started progressively. Y'see, we met with an unfortunate problem.
An identity crisis.
Our record company never afforded us the financial security nor status security that other groups of our magnitude and calibre...
And so, after five years of doing the hits, and living with each other, and trying to be cosmic, and putting it together as a group, which really was a fallacy, because it just was even more of an ego trip, than the individuality we wanted to forsake the self for the group unity – it's all bullshit, all those weird little sexual trips, man, all the rip-offs, bread and stuff – so we broke up. It wasn't worth it.
You're on Marc Bolan's "Electric Warrior" album. How did you get together with him?
We did a show with him in Detroit when we were The Turtles and he had made his first tour over, and we loved him right from the first album.
I just liked what he got away with. I don't care how good a cat is if he's into it so much that he can get away with it. That's even the way The Mothers look at things in a large sense. That's why we can get off on American commercials, because it's not what you see, it's how you see it and how you can project into the humour of the situation, or the balls of it, or the anger or whatever.
It's a great thing to have – that kind of absurdity is still alive. And we just went over to England with The Mothers, and we didn't really have the chance to let him know. We walked up to the door and knocked on it, and said, "June! [June Child was Marc Bolan's wife. – Ed. Charles Ulrich] Marc! How're you doing?' And that was it.
He said he was going of to record and wanted to know if we could make it, so I went out of town and Howard went down and sang on "Seagull Woman." What was the album called.
"Prince of the ... Land? Ocean? Children?" Oh yeah. "The Guy With The er ... Golden uh, Unicorn Earring." Gypsy elfin phantasy life.
Marc knows we rip him off only because he's the world's biggest star ... But don't get too pompous, Bolan, you understand me!
So what happens is, he gives us both credit on that album, and from there we owe him a favour for the rest of his life (Laugh). Because he's hanging on our reputation.
And he knows it. But it's cool, because he a great little guy. We've sung on everything else he's ever done since, and he owes us a lotta bread, you know what I mean?
He hasn't paid us ANYTHING. He took us to dinner at this cheap restaurant in England and gets us really drunk and invites us down to his session, and the next thing you know YOU'RE SINGING ON EIGHT OF HIS TUNES. Your pictures on the record and stuff, and you're going "wow"! ... and Visconti, if you're listening.
(Together) Wise up!
In fact, Howard and I cut a record not too long ago, a demonstration record, just for fun, under the auspicious name of a group called "Studebaker Hawk," and we gave it to Bolan, and they were gonna have it released on Fly.
He overdubbed some guitars, and Mickey played some congas, everyone clapped along.
It was like Heavy FRIENDS, you know. It was like Delaney and Bonnie. Only Leon couldn't make it. We tried for him.
No, Leon couldn't. And Denny didn't call.
Bobby Keys had a busted hand, I think he said.
Didn't get there, either, didn't get there, either (Shakes head sorrowfully). And George couldn't make it.
BUT Rita said she was coming and NEVER CAME. You can never BELIEVE Rita these days.
And Stephen, y'know – we didn't even ASK him.
And David let alone.
LET alone, Jerry Garcia came by.
AND JONI! ...
Was there in spirit. Even though Carol was with James. so it was all right. It was okay. We were all thinking about them so it was almost as heavy. And we did have one of their albums in the studio.
Nothing ever happened to that record, by the way. Where is it, Visconti? And John Sebastian wasn't on it, either. He was in Jamaica.
He was touring with three other guys at the time.
Careful. That's slander. (Sings). " That's libel. I read every word in the bible."
Well, this is New York Second Avenue and Fifth Street. There's the famous Apollo Theatre! I worked there.
Who with? The Turtles?
No, no, that was when I was playing with Joe Tex (laugh). God, the ears of the press perk up at the mere thought that anybody in this group could have any soul! Haha! You see, everybody thinks Zappa is a tyrant. But he's not really. I am. He'd be nothing if it wasn't for us.
You made him what he is today?
Oh yeah. Frank, if you ever read this, remember that. You're riding on our reputation.
Well, he has offered to write a song for my new Broadway show, "Thirty Five Minutes From [Sheboygan]. (A town in Wisconsin. – Ed. Charles Ulrich)"
The Sad Story Of A Large White Rat Who Comes To The City In Search Of Comic Garbage.
And all he can find is a home in King County.
Really. And four Melanie albums which it eats and dies.
(Fast spiel). Lemme tell ya somethin' Frank – we get along pretty well with Frank. He lets us do what we want, and we let him do what he wants. (Laugh). But we write all the material and he steals it. He steals everything. This is reality, readers. Your reality means nothing to me out there. Reality is in this bus.