One time, I took Bill Bruford up to [FZ's] house and we sat and talked. I used to go and visit him on occasions but never stayed long because I always felt funny taking up his time, because I know he's a busy guy.
Zappa will be keynote speaker at the American Society of University Composers 19th Annual Festival Conference, being held this week at the Ohio State University School of Music. He said that he found the whole idea of his speaking before university composers "preposterous." Nevertheless, he is doing it.
On April 5, 1984 at the Fawcett Center For Tomorrow, Frank Zappa delivered the keynote address at the 1984 convention of the American Society of University Composers (ASUC). Fortunately, I heard about the speech in advance. I grabbed my copy of Frank's Hot Rats album hoping to get it autographed and went to the center. I managed to get a front row seat sitting next to someone holding a stack of Zappa albums (making me feel better). The speech, entitled "Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure!" was incredible, but I really doubt it was what ASUC had in mind. Frank ripped modern composers, the music industry and ASUC itself to shreds. Afterwards, about two dozen fans managed to get "back stage" and get autographs, shake hands, etc. One guy who hadn't planned ahead had Frank sign his algebra notes, to which Frank replied (paraphrased) "So this is algebra? Sure you want me to sign this? You'll probably fail." I got my album signed and hung out in the back for a bit. Then someone asked Frank if he could have the index cards with Frank's notes for the speech. "Sure, here you go". DAMN. I wish I had thought of that!
Let me give you some business news—I think we've made a deal with MCA to distribute Barking Pumpkin, and so we're getting ready to release all of the product that has been waiting around since the last album. This includes a double LP rock album, a 3-record box of the original cast recording for a Broadway musical that I wrote called Thing-Fish, an album of the Francesco music, and the first of five 7-record sets of the old Mothers Of Invention masters that have all been digitally refurbished. Box No. 1 it has Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money, Lumpy Gravy and Ruben & The Jets, plus the Mystery Disc. All these things are gonna be released at the same time.
Kelly Johnson, the manager of the Berkeley Symphony, would rather not talk about the "Zappa Affair," which was one of the symphony's most exciting, and most damaging, productions. Johnson would like to forget what he calls the "nightmare of 1984" and concentrate on the very successful current season. It seems as if no one who had a part in the Zappa concerts wants to be reminded of the experience; one past board member says her "blood pressure goes up every time I think about It." Even now, several years after the Zappa extravaganza, people talk about it with hostility and anger.
What went wrong? Why is it a sore point in the symphony's history? After all, the show was a big critical success. The way it combined theater and dance and larger-than-life puppets with Zappa's music produced "one of those rare times," said the Oakland Tribune, "when a wild new concept is fully realized." The San Francisco Examiner called it "an example of exciting and worthwhile theater." But while it was a dazzling and engaging production, It was also an expensive and disorganized one. What began innocently enough as an evening of Zappa's music, played by the Berkeley Symphony, was expanded into a multi-media performance, and the artistic visions of the people who planned it ended up being far too ambitious for the budget.
The Skaggs Foundation gave the symphony $20,000 for the Zappa project, but the grant hardly began to cover expenses. "I saw the budget go from $50,000 to $100,000 to $130,000," says Johnson, who had just assumed the position of manager and found that all the decisions had been made by the time he arrived. Among choreographers Tandy Beal and Joan Lazarus, designer John Gilkerson, conductor Kent Nagano, and Zappa himself, there were bound to be some personality clashes, which hampered the project. The Oakland Ballet was scheduled to perform, and pulled out halfway through the planning stages. After the show, bills were left unpaid, tempers were high, and the Berkeley Symphony was getting a bad reputation. No one could control the budget; the symphony was going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. Johnson describes his first few weeks on the job, and the mental strain of receiving nasty phone calls all day long from everyone involved: "I would come to work, get beaten up, and go home; come to work, get beaten up, and go home."
An outside observer, on the other hand, would say that the Berkeley Symphony's "Zappa Affair" was a real coup, and typical of the symphony's adventurous dedication to excellent performances of contemporary music.
The San Jose concerts never occurred. They were cancelled due to lack of ticket sales. Was I the only one who bought one?
Zappa was one of the first people in L.A. to buy one of the brand new $90,000 Sony 24-track DASH digital audio recorders. It was a reel to reel machine that allowed physical editing of the tape with a razor blade, just like an analog machine. [...] [Giorgio] Moroder was always trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology, so he asked me if I could arrange for him to go up to Frank's house to see his new machine. Frank said it would be fine to bring Giorgio over, so one day Giorgio and I went to the Zappa home in Laurel Canyon. [...] Frank showed us the machine, said he loved it, and that was about it. We thanked him and left. There was no great rapport or anything like that.
I was hired by Frank in June of 1977 and worked for him nearly continuously till the Autumn of 1984.
When I quit from my 7 years with him, I talked with Bob Rice who replaced me as Synclavier operator. I told Bob "You can say anything to Frank, but make sure it's true or you'll get found out. And don't tell him you can doing anything unless you can actually deliver on it." Later I talked to Bob again (when he was on his way out) and he reminded me of that advice and that it had been very accurate.
On the last tour I used two 100-watt Marshalls for main amps and two small Acoustics to run my three MXR digital delays through. The only other effect I use is a stereo chorus.
It's a customized Stratocaster. The only thing on this guitar that is Fender is the body. Everything else on it is custom. It has a custom neck, it has customized electronics, custom pickups, Floyd Rose tremolo.
I just started using this particualr guitar in July, and usually when I go on tour I take a number of guitars and I change them during the show. The ones I brought on the 82 tour I changed a lot. On this tour I just play this one guitar.
Frank was looking for a piano player, but he needed someone who was a particularly great reader. Steve DeFuria (his then Synclavier programmer and now VP of Corporate Strategy at Line6, and one of my oldest friends) and I knew a piano player from our Berklee days who just moved out to Los Angeles, and we gave Mr. Piano a hearty recommendation. Frank once again cautioned us that he "had to be a great reader" and we told him that Mr. Piano was a former Berklee teacher and could read a fly running across a page. Trouble was that Mr. Piano had a bit of a superiority attitude, which we assumed he would tone down in the presence of someone so esteemed as Frank Zappa.
Just to be sure that Mr. Piano had a fair chance at the reading part of the audition, Frank gave him 2 pieces of music to work on a week before the audition was to take place. One of these pieces is called "The Black Page," which was pretty dense with notes and a real challenge to play. Challenge enough that Mr. Piano kind of gave up learning it as precisely as needed and decided he was good enough to wing it during the audition instead. Fatal mistake #1.
When the audition started Mr. Piano gave Frank a little of his natural superiority attitude—fatal mistake #2! Frank's acerbic side reared up and about 4 bars into "The Black Page" he stopped Mr. Piano as said, "Can you play the song backwards?" Mr. Piano now starts to sweat a little bit as he realizes that he's in for more than he expected.
After about another 4 bars of playing Frank stops him again and says, "Can you switch hands so that the right hand is playing the bass clef and the left hand is playing the treble?" Mr. Piano is now really obviously nervous since he's way deep in unfamiliar waters (Frank Zappa's natural environment), his playing is completely inverted, plus he's still attempting to play the song backwards (from end to finish). As a result, his attitude comes back to earth in a sudden crash, just where Frank wants it.
After another rather limp 4 bars Frank comes in for the death blow. "Can you play the song without using your thumbs?" Now Mr. Piano is a quivering mass of jelly and can't even get a bar through when he stops and says to Frank, "That's impossible. No one can play it this way!" To which Frank replies, "You're a pretty good player, but you're not that good. I know 3 drummers who can play this with no problem."
And with that, Mr. Piano player was on his way, his ego definitely in a different place than when the day started.
IB: What memories do you have of Napoleon Murphy Brock on the 84 tour?
ST: He was great. I loved the way he stayed in bed 'til it was time to leave for our first gig (San Diego? Three-hour drive away.) without even remotely getting his room ready to leave. We out-of-towners (me, Ray White, Napi) were put up at a residency apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Kitchen, utensils and plates. That type of thing. We were there for about three month's worth of rehearsals and so we were very much 'living' there. Napi's room was a fucking mess. We were due to leave at, oh, say, NOON, and I went to go get him and, bless his heart, he was lying there asleep or something. I went in to wrangle him and it was obvious that he wasn't planning on driving with us in the van, but intended to use his own very large old-school boat of an American car to drive himself. Mistake number one. He very seriously completely missed the entire first sound-check. This is a serious no-no and I only did it once in the seven years I played with Frank, and that was for a pretty serious reason (I'd lost my passport) and Frank had even threatened to fine me for it. I told him to go ahead, I couldn't help it. So whatever, dood. He didn't. So for Napi to whip that out at the beginning of the tour was pretty righteous. The next two weeks were repeats of this type of thing. After a while, Frank just figured he was too high to proceed. I have no idea if drugs were involved—I'm just guessing—but you'd have to have a serious priority-issue if you thought that what you were doing was more important than what Frank needed you to do. I wish he'd stayed.
I guess 1984 was probably my least favourite. Allan Zavod was the primary keyboard player on that tour, and he's also a wonderful player. [...] But we didn't have Tommy [Mars] on that tour; not to say anything bad about Allan Zavod. I missed Tommy for his musicianship and his approach.
That was also the first time we went out without percussion. We were doing the MIDI thing, and we had all these DX7s MIDIed together. While that seemed wonderful at the time, the DX7 was kind of a doinky thin little sound and it just wasn't the same as a real marimba. Chad wasn't really using real drums—he had the kick and the snare—but the rest were pads. He didn't even have cymbals, did he? Did he have a real hi-hat? I don't remember; I think he probably did. It was a different sound. Frank was into it; it was like new, but I think the bottom line, when I go back and listen to things from that tour, the sound of the band just wasn't . . . [...]
There were personnel problems. We had too many singers at first for one thing. The band for the first couple of weeks of the tour was different from then on. We had Napoleon Murphy Brock back in the band in the beginning, and Ray and Ike and Frank and myself, so we had five people that could really sing; well, if you include Frank in that (laughs). Four people who could really sing and Frank. It was just too much. What we did was they put me up one inversion higher from all the harmonies I used to sing, so now instead of a triad with Frank, Ray and me which was the 1981 tour, it was Frank, Ike, Ray and me, with me singing an octave higher than Frank's parts all the time, so it was a triad plus an octave. Not that I couldn't do it, but it was 'Why do we need to do this?' Some things I wasn't singing because Nappy was there, and one of us had to drop out because it was just too many. It did make possible some interesting things vocally from time to time. But there was some friction with Nappy and some of the other guys and he ended up leaving. The rest of the tour continued with everyone else. [...]
We also had a problem with the repertoire. I remember one night, Scott Thunes and I ganged up on Allan—I think it was in Munich. We took him out to one of these big beer halls and sat him down and said 'Look Allan, we got to learn some more stuff, because we were getting tired of playing the same stuff all the time. He didn't have enough of the repertoire learned and memorised to enable us to do what we normally did. By the end of most of the other tours, we would have as many as like two hundred pieces that we could select from. Not just stupid little songs, but Zappa songs. That wasn't happening in 1984. So we kind of prevailed upon Allan to get some more stuff going, and by the end of the tour, it did improve a bit, but that kind of slowed things down a bit. That was one of the drawbacks of that tour.
Q: What happened in 1980 and 1984?
E: 1980 I was drumming. Those bands, he didn't want percussion in them. No actually, 1980 I was doing another project. '84 was when we started this band with Vida [Vierra] and Mike Hoffmann. It was a different concept, you know. I went to see the band and I thought 'It needs percussion'.
Alain: What did happen with Napoleon Murphy Brock?
FZ: I gave him chance to be back in the band and he failed. So I had to fire him in the middle of the tour.
His name was Chase. He was the road manager for Jean Luc Ponty when I first joined Jean Luc Ponty. They had a few managers but he was the first one. I was out of Ponty for eight years and I hadn't seen Chase for maybe six years. And I don't know how he found me, but I was in Arizona, I'd just come back from the Grand Canyon, with my father. My father came to visit me in the US; he said we'd go for a holiday. My girlfriend lived in Phoenix, Arizona. So my father and I went to Phoenix, put our bags down, took the car and went to the Grand Canyon, just the two of us. Then we got back, got into bed, we were tired after three or four days of traveling and the phone rang.
How did this man find me? It's eight o'clock at night and he says: Frank's looking for a keyboard player and I know you're the guy. You're the guy, you're the right person! Get to L.A.! Here's Frank's number. So I called Frank. He gets on the phone right away. He knew who I was because I'd been with Jean Luc Ponty, he'd followed my career. I didn't know that. So he gets to the phone and he says: Can you come now to L.A.?
In those days (it was in '84) the airlines only flew till 7.30, now they fly in each hour. I was an eight hour drive away from L.A. so I said: I can't fly but I have a car, I'm gonna get there for two o'clock, why don't we do it tomorrow? He said: no, no, come now. OK, then.
Nine o'clock I'm on the road with my father, we're driving and about twelve o'clock we're still not there, so I called Frank again and I said: Look, I wanna be good for the audition, I'd be so tired, maybe we'd do it tomorrow. No, come now, you have to come now. Don't worry if you're tired, I understand. So I get into car and I said to my father: Dad, I have to get some sleep, you have to drive. My father had never driven in America. So, he's driving on the freeways of L.A. and I'm sleeping, I got a one hour sleep, which was good.
We got there three o'clock in the morning, Frank was there, the whole band was there because they said this guy must be good, if the boss is stayin', we're gonna stay, we're gonna check this guy out. Some of them knew me anyway. I had my father with me so it looked good, you know, good family upbringing, Frank was a big family man.
And he puts the most impossible music—Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch—can't read it, he was making a joke. I tried. He took the music and said I can see you can read and then he said: we'll play. So we just played a couple of chords. I was playing with everything I've got and he liked that. I could see they were all smiling and he was looking and smiling at his band so I got more confident and then he played and I accompanied him. Then he stops the band and he says: Excuse me, he says, can you hear me? Very rude. He was just testing—can I take his personality, will I fit into his band? He's already made up his mind, but he wanted to test me, checking out my vibe. So I said nicely, yes I can hear you very well. He says you're playing too many notes. So I played beautifully. So now he knew he could give me orders and that I could understand them and that I was strong, so he could rely on me to give him information. He wanted me to give him ideas, too. Frank Zappa was very strong but he always looked for others too around him for ideas. He wanted to bring out the best in everybody and sometimes on the tour I'd play something and he'd say listen to this idea or some other. He would always go for the challenge.
Anyway, so we played and he said: OK, we'd like to have you. The only time in the whole history of Frank Zappa ever did he give the job on the spot right away, except for me and George Duke. Normally he would say we'll call you or we'll let you know. He was looking for something. I know what he was looking for. He needed someone who was classically trained and jazz trained, good rock deal, someone who would be able to be new at something, research it and get it. The keyboarders at Frank Zappa's band were very important, especially me. I had to anchor the band. The strong harmony, pulling it together was very important and you had to be able to accompany. The last keyboard player who played—Tommy Mars—couldn't accompany very well. He was great, he knew all the material but he couldn't accompany very well. Frank used to say when I solo, don't play. But with me, because I was jazz trained—I'd been with Woody Herman, Glen Miller, Maynard Ferguson, Jean Luc Ponty—I studied and taught at Berkley, so I knew my stuff. We'd have a terrific relationship. Nothing bad to say about Tommy, he was a fantastic musician, but they wanted something different this time.
Every night on tour I'd go to my hotel room and then next day whatever I'd learned we'd rehearse. We never had a sound check, it was always rehearsal. Sure you tried the instruments, but we rehearsed for two hours every day before the gig. And if the rehearsal went well, that night it would be on the list. See, every night we'd play a different program, different order and different things. We always had a meeting before the show and he would say: This is what we'll play. So we never knew what we'd gonna play. It was always up to me, whatever I could learn, they would play, it was a lot of pressure.
The concert Sunday at Pier 84 by Zappa, his current septet, seemed designed to prove that Mr. Zappa is cleverer and hipper than anybody else. It was tricky, crisply executed and spiritless.
For his band members, Mr. Zappa's music is a challenge to the fingers and the memory. The songs vamp along on basic blues or doo-wop chords, but at any moment they're likely to break into lightning-fast unison playing or sound effects, demanding that all the musicians watch Mr. Zappa's cues. Neither the filigree nor the songs are particularly melodic—in part because Mr. Zappa has taken over as his band's lead singer, and his range is limited—and on Sunday, the second of two shows by Zappa, virtually the entire two-hour set was played at one volume level.
Mr. Zappa's lyrics put down homosexuals, heterosexuals, women, Republicans and pop stars, with varying degrees of choler. He seemed more intent on his guitar solos, which used a variety of exotic scales and complicated picking techniques. Unfortunately, the solos were both unconnected to what the band played and incoherent by themselves. Like the rest of Zappa's music, they were a textbook case of empty virtuosity.
The bad news is that when Frank was touring in 1984 that was the first tour where he was bringing a Sony 3324 digital recorder on the road with him, and he was recording 24-track digital documents of the shows, and he recorded the US leg of the tour but he did not bring it to the European dates.
"Welcome to Drammin . . . drammln-drammin-hollin-hollin-hollin-hollln!" are Frank's first words tonight. [...]
The compulsory opening instrumental and guitar solo is ["Chunga's Revenge"], featuring Frank on his Fender, which he will use for every solo during the concert. Thls number also features Bobby Martin on French horn. He played alpenhorn on the US tour this summer, but didn't bring it with him to Europe. He hopes to purchase another one in Switzerland, though.
[...] Some other guy in the band said Frank wasn't too satisfied with Alan [Zavod] on the fast complex stuff, no matter how good a jazz musician he might be. So this might well be his only tour with Zappa, as far as we understand.
[...] No recording truck was brought along for the European part of the tour, but recording equipment will be rented for the London Odeon Hammersmith concerts. Hopefully those performances will be as inspired as this one is.
[...] Before the second and last encore things really start happening. Some funny noises are made by the various musicians and Ike tries to impress with a rather abortive feedback on his guitar. Frank thinks this is very funny and goes "SPOO! . . . oh no, terriffic!", and the whole band cracks up and launches into this evenings version: "Dancing Spoo." Frank had to explan the word to me after the show. He gave a definition in his well-known exact way: "When you jerk off and manage too keep quiet, spoo is the little sound the white stuff makes when it comes out." The bar monologue at the end of the song is modified to "what are you doing here in Drammin-drammin-d rammin-hollin-hollin-hollin, love your spoo . . . " etc.
[...] According to Frank the concert was videotaped, and he might edit pieces of it into the video he'll make after this whole tour in February.
In Norway, we have played several times in a place called the Drammenshallen, or, as band vets refer to it: the Drammin-drammin-drammin-drammin-hollin-hollin-hollin-hollin. The last time we performed there was in the fall of 1984.
Some months before that date, Ike had used the word 'spoo'—roughly the equivalent of jizz—in a conversation. I don't know where it came from, or if he made it up. In any event, 'spoo' turned out to be 'the mystery word' onstage that night.
When we came back to do the encore, Ike arrived first, and was kneeling down in front of his amplifier, doing kind of a low-rent Jimi Hendrix "wee-wee-wee-wee." As I walked out and witnessed this act of near desperation, I said "Spoo!" to him—he got it right away. [Translation: "You're jerking off in front of your amplifier, Dr. Willis, and I know it."]
Steve Behm: Is the lawsuit taken care of, or is that still in the works? Should we talk about it?
FZ: No, I still have two lawsuits, one against Warners and another one against CBS, which is one of the reasons why they're not distributing Barking Pumpkin anymore. We caught them with their fiscal pants down during an audit. So that's in the state of New York. And the other one against Warner Brothers is in the state of California.
Basically what it comes down to is illegal or bogus accounting practices, which they not only do to me but they do to everybody, but most other people don't bother to fight them. I've got another lawsuit still outstanding with Warner Brothers and a suit against CBS, which will probably go to trial before the end of the year. And they're all over accounting practices.
[...] All the contracts are based on this idea of good faith that people do what they say they're going to do on the paper. But, so far I've sued MGM, and I've sued Warners once and I'm going to sue them again, and I'm suing CBS, so so much for good faith.
Recently, Zappa quietly moved his pressing and distribution for his Barking Pumpkin label from MCA to Capitol, following what he claims was a potentially litigious refusal by MCA to press product. "MCA was already pressing a three-record boxed set for a play called Thing-Fish, which dealt with AIDS," he claims, when "a little lady at the quality control room in the plant" heard the lyrics and was outraged by them.
When a plant manager then refused to finish manufacturing the disks, Zappa decided to terminate his MCA deal and moved to the new vendor. But, he adds, he also ran afoul of "a Christian printer that refused to print the lyrics for the set, so I had to go find another printer who would actually print the lyrics."
Ironically, Zappa notes, he has included his own oversized "warning" sticker on label releases during the past year, well in advance of the current public furor.
Because of a dispute with MCA (Musicians' Cemetery of America) Records, which had contracted to distribute Barking Pumpkin Records in 1983, I invented MY OWN STICKER.
MCA planned to release Thing-Fish. The deal was done—they were up to the test-pressing stage. A woman in the 'quality control department' of their pressing plant listened to my album and became quite upset. Because she was offended, MCA backed out of the deal.
I had the mail-order company going nearly two years when we were putting together a deal for new masters to be released through MCA. [...] We were manufacturing records for a distribution deal with MCA, and they called and said, "You've got to sticker the record." (A woman in quality control had heard Thing-Fish.) As far as I know, before then, no one else had been asked to sticker their material. That was the origin of Frank's "Warrant/Guarantee" sticker. MCA still wasn't satisfied. Maybe they'd been asked to actually censor. Whatever, they cancelled Frank's contract in 1984.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos