The Lost Episodes: about the album

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By Rip Rense

The House of Zappa, high in the Hollywood Hills, is a little like the spectacularly unfinished maze that is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. It seems to have endless rooms and nooks and cubbyholes and closets. The exact number of floors is open to speculation. There isn't anything that you could exactly call a front door, just different means of approach - the most widely used being a wobbly spiral staircase that leads to a suspended walkway that leads to a terrifically sunbathed kitchen (the heart of the house). There are stairways to stairways, studios within studios, and an office with a submarine hatch for a door. The whole place is tucked away among towering conifers and shrubs that could date back to the Pleistocene. Lewis Carroll would have been comfortable here.

Somewhere in the depths of this conundrum is what is known as the "basement" - the rambling rooms where Frank Zappa spent much of his adult life, and most of his final few years. This was the nerve center - the niche where he labored obsessively, compulsively, night after night, before retiring upstairs to day-sleep (while all the regular folk outside "did their scurrying," as he liked to put it). Herein is the pristine ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art studio, christened the "Utility Muffin Research Kitchen" years ago (a reference to the Zappa songs "Muffin Man" and "A Little Green Rosetta") and more recently amplified to "Utility Muffin Research Kitchen & Baby Milk Factory" (an amendment inspired by the Iraqi "dairy factory" that was actually manufacturing bio-chemical weapons during the Gulf War).

Here is also the adjoining studio/listening room which may be entered through a one-time hospital door marked "surgery." It is an environment that suited its owner like a cape-suited Bela Lugosi. To sit on the big soft black leather couch in the middle of this room is essentially to sit inside a good Zappa album cover. There are lavenders and forest greens and dark aquas and crimsons, raw-wood walls oddly chiseled for acoustic precision, and a clutter of objects that carry their own obvious or idiosyncratic meanings: encoded Zappa-related license plates sent by fans ("RDNZL"- Vermont, "ZAPPA" - Mass., "PLOOKED" - Calif., "HOTZITZ" - S. Carolina), floor-to-ceiling stacks of master tapes; a stuffed armadillo; the framed sheet music for the densely-packed FZ composition, "The Black Page"; a framed letter from composer Edgard Varèse dated Aug. 15, 1957, explaining that he would not be able to speak to Frank due to impending travels; a series of incrementally larger wooden Russian dolls painted in Zappa's likeness; a lifesize cardboard cutout of Varèse; a childhood painting by Diva Zappa depicting nothing more complex than the creation of the universe; a poster of Ronald Reagan done in Third Reich style proclaiming, "He has the right to do anything they want"; awards ranging from the Grammy for Jazz From Hell to the 1977 Downbeat Readers' Poll "Pop Musician Of The Year"; the twisted-junk sculpture used for the cover of 1969's Burnt Weeny Sandwich; a plaque from actress Beverly D'Angelo for excellence in "chicken measurement" (a reference to the Zappa movie, Uncle Meat); the Thing-Fish doll; Yellow Shark hot water bottles (an actual rejected marketing pitch from Germany); an autographed photo of Orange County arch-conservative TV fixture Wally George...

It was in this room where Frank loved to sit listening to playbacks of his latest works (or favorite Johnny "Guitar" Watson records, Stravinsky, or sea shanties) rhythmically bouncing his foot over crossed legs, smoking eternal Winstons, drinking espresso, and working...And doing a little work. And occasionally, working. And when he had a break, working. (He worked a little, too.)

And it was in this room, on the black leather couch, that long-time Zappa engineer Spencer Chrislu sat to talk about The Lost Episodes - one of Frank's final projects.

"A lot of the records he had done over the years were based on live performances," said Chrislu, who assisted FZ in assembling and mixing parts of The Lost Episodes. "Frank had never really put together an album of some of the favorite leftovers from the studio."

The reason? As FZ said in an interview about this project, "There are fewer selections of studio outtakes, because if you went into the studio in those days, you tended to use 99 percent of the material."

Chrislu continued: "That's what this was all about - finding and piecing together studio bits, because they were different performances, obviously, and had different 'guest stars' - like Sugar Cane Harris on 'Sharleena.' That was the inclination behind it - giving the fans something that they were interested in, including an array of talent, like Don (Van Vliet), and the different members who came in and out of the band..."

Zappa worked on The Lost Episodes intermittently during 18 months of 1992 and 1993 - the same time he was working intensively on The Yellow Shark, Ahead Of Their Time (both released in 1993), Civilization Phaze III (released in 1994), and several other yet-unissued projects. Despite an excruciating, life-draining struggle with prostate cancer, the man remained prolific, working on (and planning) innumerable undertakings until shortly before departing for his "final tour", as his family put it, in December, 1993. The Lost Episodes was assembled mostly in private; it seems to have been done piecemeal as a kind of after-hours, possibly recreational project. There were four or five working versions before FZ arrived at the present line-up.

"It was a very patchwork sort of thing", said Chrislu. "We never really sat down and said, 'Let's work on The Lost Episodes'. We'd be in the middle of one thing, and he'd just say, 'Hey, go see if you can find the original tape of "Sharleena"', and I'd go pull it out and we'd mix it, and work on something else. It was sort of a stealth project. I didn't even know he had it finished. He just walked in one day and said, 'Sit down and listen to this.'"

The Lost Episodes bears an unmistakable autobiographical aspect. It begins during Frank's earlier days in Lancaster, California, travels through the crude Pal Records/Studio Z era into the Mothers of Invention's mid-'60s New York period, the late-'60s Hot Rats line-ups, and finally into the early '70s with some of the composer's favorite ensembles. (There are really only two serious chronological detours on the CD: "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted", recorded in 1979, and a Synclavier track composed in 1992 used for Don Van Vliet's reading of "The Grand Wazoo".) Along the way, the listener "meets" dozens of people important in FZ's life.

Like the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series of concert material, The Lost Episodes also seems like a kind of "thank you" to old friends and colleagues. (It certainly allowed FZ to revisit many wonderful and amusing moments from his career.) Former Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood, reached by phone, put it this way, "It doesn't take the most perceptive person in the world to think that maybe part of this project was his way of paying tribute to all of the people that had been in his life-to whatever extent they had made a contribution."

Chrislu agreed, but added that the greater priority was given to creating "another one of those behind-the-scenes, making-of-Frank Zappa projects" (Warts And All was a discarded early title for the album)- citing the inclusion of early recordings, for example, of Ronnie and Kenny Williams (the inspiration for "Let's Make The Water Turn Black") and seminal Zappa/Captain Beefheart collaborations like "Tiger Roach." Mostly, the engineer got the impression from his conversations with FZ that The Lost Episodes was a gesture to the fans.

"Frank always understood his fan base," said Chrislu. "He would make choices for tracks, and I would say, 'That's crazy - who's going to buy that? How many versions of "Sharleena" can you put on a record and expect people to buy it?' And he'd just turn to me and say, 'You don't know my fans. Not that they'll buy any crap that I put out there - but they just love hearing a different version of things. You know - oh this one had Chad Wackerman on drums , and this one had Vinnie Colaiuta, and listen to the difference.' He said, 'That's how my fans are.'"

"So," Chrislu added, "this is sort of a tribute to his fans, a sort of dropping the veil and just saying, 'this is what went on behind the scenes, and here are some explanations, here's some fun stuff that never made it anywhere else - and this is for you guys.'"