Frank Zappa Makes it Tough on Hard-Put Mothers Fans
by Carman Moore
Mothers fans are the most hard-put, put-upon, and hardy crowd in music. The stresses they're put to are so thorough that, as a group, they are usually split down the middle. The split of course has to do with the split down the middle of thin-framed, heavy-brained music director named Francis Xavier Zappa. His passion is music -- he's thin because of it; he's happy because of it; and he's relatively broke because of it. Zappa likes two kinds of music -- '50s style rhythm and blues and avant garde classical music. So he's a stubborn cat, and he plays '50s r&b and far-out modern, sometimes together and sometimes one at a time, which is where the crack in the fandom occurs.
So your mind is strange and you're young and you dug "Lumpy Gravy" for symphony orchestra, Mothers, and weird dialoguers and you thought Wow there's this new one called "Ruben and the Jets" and you bought it and you're furious because where's the cacophony and where are the pigs and ponies of yesterday and so forth -- so you liked "Rube" and you are at the Fillmore and you've taken your verbal insults and are ready for your r&b and you get it in the form of "The Bacon Fat." You're happy. You even join in on the chorus "dilly, dilly, dillly, dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, whomp." Then they're doing a thing called "Charles Ives," and it's very weird. You want to leave but yo told your best girl that you're a Mothers fan.
Zappa was guest lecturer on Friday at 6 p.m., just before the Fillmore concert, at a joint meeting of my History of Popular Music class and Charles Hobson's Afro-American Music class at the New School. The public was invited, as they will be for four other concerts and lectures this semester, and after a few polite moments, they started getting into him with questions about his relationship to the public, the revolutions, and why all the funny stuff. Did he ever think about the possibility of becoming another Mozart? Does he like the Beatles' music? The answers can be heard on a WBAI re-broadcast in a couple of weeks, but I'll reveal that, according to Zappa, he puts all that different kind of stuff in his music because it gives him a kick to hear it and because he likes to laugh. At any rate it was a wild set, and it ended with an audience member's sudden comment, "But you're so human! I thought...."
I had dinner with Frank at the Sing Wu, and Zappa talked about plans for a musical theatre piece which would require him raising a couple hundred-thousand for a stage contraption...a big box with a gross of window shakes, each with a contorted body painted on it, which would be rolled up one at a time while a soprano, standing at mid-box would sing to the band's music. Then there'd be a knee-high, foam-rubber model of an audience at the edge of the stage onto which the singer -- after the shades are all raised -- would hurl herself. Three washing machines and film are also involved. Zappa's head rides off into many directions. But, you know, someday we'll all be sitting at the Fillmore or somewhere, and the above will occur and it'll probably revolutionize rock and roll.
Well, at the Fillmore on Friday night they were out of sight -- or as Zappa would have it, out of the question. If you're one of the people who groove to all music in a fairly intelligent-but-visceral manner the Mothers were storming your soul last weekend. They are probably the best equipped musicians in rock and roll. They can not only play r&b, new classical jazz, and sigh-ka-delic to perfection, but they also create in them. The speed tonguing of the horns in "Uncle Meat" was breathtaking. As usual, Don Preston, the number one keyboard man on the pop scene was raging in his solo on electric piano. The piece grew and swept all before, except of course the Mothers' r&b fan faction. All of the funny stuff -- Motorhead and Roy Estrada screeching, singing opera, and felltiotizing an alto sax -- was on the beat, in the right un-key, and at the psychologically right time in the piece.
It becomes clear, as the years and fads roll on, that Zappa and his big, loud, perfectly disciplined Mothers of Invention are the only group around that you're sure will always be around and running just far enough ahead of their public to keep the listeners annoyed, half satisfied, and crowding into theatres to see where Zappa happens to be a this time.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]