Being Perfectly Frank

December 1, 2007 at 5:10 pm (Waxing Nostalgic)

I woke up this morning with a strange craving. I wanted to hear some Frank Zappa. Over time I have been a BIG Zappa fan. I got a little burned out on it, but every now and then I get a craving to hear Cosmic Debris, The Muffin Man or Uncle Remus. A cassette copy of Apostrophe sits on my pile of stereo gear, so I figured I’d get my fix listening to Stinkfoot, Black Napkins and stories of Nanook, Father O’Blivion and the dreaded Yellow Snow.

I was quickly reminded why I don’t play it more often. The cassette is stuck in the dual cassette player. Since the other part of the ‘dual’ is sealed over with duct tape to keep folks from putting stuff in there, the whole unit is now good for nothing more than supporting the amp and looking cool. Bummer…

I pulled out one of the three four-foot-long oak CD troughs stored under the bed. Damn, I wish the cassette player still worked. While I have a fair amount of CDs and record albums, my pride and joy was the seeming hundreds of various bootlegs and copies of imports on tape. I was a tenacious copier, to say the least.

I found a bootleg CD from Paris, dubbed Any Way The Wind Blows. It had City of Tiny Lights and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It. That will get the memories a stirring…

 

Back in 1976, when Saturday Night Live was fresh and funny, a lot of counter-culture icons got mainstream exposure. Frank Zappa was always a friend of the show. When I saw Peaches & Regalia and I’m the Slime performed live, complete with slime oozing out of NBC’s monitors, I knew I had to investigate further. I went to Django Records, the cool vinyl store, and picked up a copy of Hot Rats, which led to Overnite Sensation, and eventually Sheik Yerbouti. Joe’s Garage was released, which I bought brand new. By 1980, when Mister Zappa came to Portland, I decided to take the wife out for a concert.

It was on a Saturday night at the Paramount Theater, which is now the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was a work day, and I was doing what I do now, a register jockey at a small convenience store/wine shop. It was two blocks from the show, and Saturdays were always quiet. If I saw thirty people all day, it would be considered busy. Since I was an experienced, hardcore party animal and acid head, it wouldn’t hurt to start the party early, would it? I washed down a hit of acid with a beer, and settled in with a book to waste the afternoon away. The Ex was waiting in line, holding our spots.

I’d neglected to factor in the line. Since I had beer, and I was the closest store to the Paramount, I had every drunken fratboy Zappa fan in the universe coming in for refills, complete with a bellowed “ZAPPA! Woooooo!” I cleaned up vomit, broken bottles, and dragged at least one guy out by his heels and left him on the sidewalk. Detox got him, as his buddies were too drunk to scoop him up. They just left him.

Frank was doing two shows, 7:00 and 10:30. Our tickets were for the second show. By the time I finished work, I had a massive headache, was tired of hearing the word ‘Zappa’, and could give a fuck less. I stopped by the line, told The Ex I was going home to change and have a beer, and would be right back. I had my ticket, and told her I would find her inside.

I intended on going home and staying there. (I really should have saved the acid for later in the day…) After a beer and a joint, (and another hit of acid) I perked up. The Ex called, wondering where I was. “”Dean and Linda (school friends) are here, and we have third row seats! Get your ass down here!” For her to be excited about *my* music was rare, and I should take advantage, right?

She wasn’t kidding. We were dead center, three rows back. When the lights went down, and Mister Zappa emerged from the shadows, we went berserker! I don’t remember the first song, but the second was Muffin Man. As Frank played the solo, his silhouette thirty feet tall against the purple velvet stage curtains, I was at once hooked, mesmerized and carried away. I couldn’t tell if it was my heart or the bass line, but it thumped me to my core.

If I thank my Ex for no other thing, I thank her forever for getting me to go to that show.

A year went by, and the Zappa gang came around again, this time promoting You Are What You Is. Among the usual obscure subjects, it focused on televangelism and racism. By this time I was buying the albums the day they came out, and knew the album intimately.

Circumstances had changed as well. I was now divorced, and in a relationship with a thirty-year-old hippie chick from Detroit Rock City. I went with her and Malcolm, a co-worker who supplemented his day job dealing weed and LSD. We were determined to obtain good seats by any means necessary, so we arrived early the day of the show to hang out in line, trip and soak up the atmosphere.

This was festival seating, and worked like this. You got in line, and the first 50-100 got numbers. Everyone else waited in the Park Blocks, where it was legal to drink 3.2 beer. We were among the first 20, but nobody knew when they handed out numbers. We’d struck up a rapport with a pimply sixteen-year-old, and asked him to hold our spot while we went for a quick beer. As fate would have it, they issued numbers while we were gone.

Of course, we tried bribing Mr Pimples with everything under the sun, but he wouldn’t commit to saving us seats. We were fucked. So we decided to party it up, and take our chances.

When Lynda got off work, we went to the Virginia Café for a few hard drinks. After getting her caught up with us, it was time to find a place in line.

At this point, Malcolm and I had dropped at least four hits of acid apiece, and had been drinking all day. Since the show was about two hours away, we dropped two more hits, and walked toward the Paramount. As we walked, a fellow stopped Malcolm, they chatted briefly, and things were exchanged. Malcolm told us to stay put at the fountains on Park and Salmon, and went into the now-long-gone c-store in the bottom corner of the Paramount block. He came out with one 12 oz bottle of Foster’s.

“Do you really think we need more beer?” I asked as he handed me the bottle.

“Just enough to wash these down with.” He slipped me a handful of pills, and said, “Tylenol 3s. I got nine of ‘em for a buck!” He took five, and gave me four.

Down the hatch, with the rest of the Foster’s. I’m ready to stand in line.

We decided to walk from the beginning of the line, looking for our non-existent ‘friends.’ We passed our little pimply friend, and just as we got to the end of the numbered folk, the cops pulled up the barricade in the Park Blocks. So we fell in behind the numbered ones and became 51, 52 and 53!

We ended up three rows in front of Pimples, who was a shitty seat scavenger. We’ll be smoking what could have been *your* dope after the show, Junior!

And what a show it was. From uncontrollable giggles during Harder Than Your Husband to the drifting magic of Watermelon in Easter Hay, it was one of my peak musical experiences. When they finished the main set, with Yo’ Mama, I’d achieved musical nirvana.

I was still high a day and a half later.

The third time I saw Frank was on his birthday in 1984. The Paramount had been remodeled into the Schnitz, and when he took the stage, he said the same thing George Carlin did. “Man, they really fucked this place up!’

I was kinda curious to see how much would be left after the throng was finished with it.

It was reserved seating, and my sister had given me a ticket for Christmas. I was stuck in the uppermost balcony, between a whiskey-sippin’ redneck and a sixteen year-old girl. The seats were so cramped I had to sit sideways most of the time. The band looked like ants, compared to the last two times. While it was good, it wasn’t the psychedelic blowout of yore.

On the way back to the Biltmore, a limo crept by. The window was down, and there was Frank himself! He was smoking a cigarette. I grinned and waved, yelling, “Hi Frank!” He waved back, and gave me a ‘stupid-human’ grin. I was thrilled!

Frank left this planet about fifteen years ago. It was a sad time in my life, and a stark reminder of my own mortality. I’d been living hard for a long time, and it started me thinking about slowing down. I mean, he didn’t even party and he was dead. Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.

In the early ‘90s, I got to meet and hang out with Ike Willis, the voice of Joe on Joe’s Garage. Ike played guitar and was the dynamic lead vocalist on most of the later albums, and lived in Portland from time to time. We did some radio stuff, and spent a lot of time partying, with me listening to him reminisce. (The no-party zone only applied to Frank. The rest could do what they wanted, as long as the music didn’t suffer.) I’d sit attentive as he told stories of touring, life at Frank’s house and other stuff. I remember once, riding in a car back from North Portland, and after a presumed hit of crack, his story of the road manager and his life with the Manson family. I wish I could capture that story for a future campfire spook-out. I don’t remember the story, but I remember getting nervous!

Another fun story was the time Ike partied with Sherman Hemsley, Danny Bonaduce and a “five-gallon bucket of drugs.” I won’t share details, but I’ll never look at Mister Jefferson the same way again!

In the mid-‘90s, after Frank had passed, Ike joined The Band From Utopia for a gig at the Starry Night. While I didn’t get backstage, Sis and I got front row center, where we stood, smoking joints and grooving to the tunes. Whenever I’d catch Ike’s eye, I’d pelt him with a joint. (For those wondering why he was spending so much time adjusting his monitor…) It was a fun show, but it showed me once and for all that, while these were musicians of the highest caliber, Frank was the glue that brought them all together.

Now his son Dweezil is touring as Zappa Plays Zappa, keeping the family name and music alive. While I would have enjoyed the music, I can’t force myself to go after seeing the real thing so often and so spectacularly. I’d rather not spoil or even taint the memories I have. I will, however, encourage anyone who’ll listen to go, and buy Frank’s albums as well. His solo albums between 1970-1984 are gems, and you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

I should warn the uninitiated, Frank strongly opposed censorship, and pushed the boundaries of good taste and socially acceptable subject matter. His frequent use of the N-word might upset folks today, but keep in mind; the songs were usually sung by black men twice his size who could snap him in half without breaking a sweat. They knew what was in his heart, and knew he was raising social awareness, not slamming them or their ancestry. He also picked on fat people, stupid people, hypocrites, midgets and even redheads. (Bastard!) This is not to make excuses for him, but to warn you. Listen to the album before you play it for your friends at the office.

As I finish this, I’m listening to Shut Up and Play Your Guitar! It’s a collection of instrumental outtakes, and could be the best elevator/shopping music ever. In fact, I may take it to work to play. It will be my anti-Christmas music.

Thank you, Frank.

Frank Zappa

December 21, 1940

to

December 4, 1993

RIP old friend…

 

   

 

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