Saturday, March 3, 2018

Remembering Frank Zappa and The Mothers in 1971

May 18, 1971 was the date of a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA.  I was a few weeks shy of 14, it was my first concert, and a life-changer.  And I had front-row seats, right under Frank's nose.

The Mothers at this time were the band of the albums Fillmore East – June 1971Just Another Band from L.A.; and to a lesser degree, Chunga's Revenge and 200 Motels (soundtrack).  

I distinctly remember the lineup including: Zappa, Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan (vocal), Ian Underwood (keyboards and sax), Aynsley dunbar (drums), Jim Pons (bass) and another keyboardist whom I assume was Bob Harris (in the photo above, behind Frank's left).  I vaguely recall seeing Don Preston, but I'm not sure about that.  There is a setlist of songs that were played at, much of which seems accurate to me.

I don't recall enough of the concert to provide a continuous narrative, but have strong recollections of specific moments, many of which have been added to by my bother Tony and our friend Brent Tannehill.  Here they are.  You'll need to know the albums I named above to follow all the references.

Zappa Himself

  • He was wearing bright "Easter colors," possibly pink pants and a yellow shirt
  • At concert opening, he introduced singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan as formerly of The Turtles, which drew expressions of surprise from the audience (including me).  Mark and Howie smiled appreciatively at their intro.
  • Zappa spent the concert on the far right side of the stage (stage left).  For the long stretches when he wasn’t playing, he leant casually against the proscenium arch and watched the theatrics approvingly, with much mirth and smiles
  • Visually, Zappa was an arresting site to anyone who first saw him for the first time in a photo.  Up close and in person, the effect was even stronger.  The blackness of his hair, the razor sharp nose, the emaciated body, the greasy mediterranean looks, were all very striking
  • His constant smoking was a surprise to me. It seemed to me like a very "bar band" thing that was uncommensurate with progressive Rock and Roll.  He wedged his cigarette between the nut and the tuning pegs of his guitar, and played while the thing burned away
  • His guitar was the SG with silver tailpiece he was known for during the period (and which Dweezil has been playing a likeness of in his Zappa Plays Zappa concerts).  His amp gear included Orange Amps, and of course he used the wah-wah a lot.

From “the Groupie Routine”

  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were generally very visually entertaining, and good actors
  • Mark Volman had his shirt off to portray the pregnant groupie.  It was really out of my experience to see a portly fellow display himself that way. 
  • Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan were generally being pretty lewd with each other, e.g. Howie rubbing Mark’s rubbing his belly lasciviously.  That kind of homoerotic-tinged acting was pretty out there for me. 
  • The “number one with a bullet” thing over and over really made us laugh
  • The crazy noise distortion “I can’t STAND it!” part had great visuals from Zappa, he "fucked his amp with the guitar" a la Jimi Hendrix, with crazy legs dancing
  • As Jim Pons played the slow two-note riff that happens through much of the routine, he would just rock his weight from left to right feet in a slow rhythm.  Looked like a wedding band guy playing "a casual"
  • My reaction to the bit about the “enchilada wrapped with pickle sauce shoved up and down in between the donkey's legs until he can't stand it no more”...let's just say it was a kind of sexual fetishism I had no frame of reference for.  And all the more so because they repeated it many times, making me wish they'd stop.  Remember, I was 13.
  • I remember the bits about ’Bwana Dik’, which were really funny
  • "The Mudshark dance," consisted of Mark and Howie, putting their hands together in a fish-shape and making a swimming motion, often between their legs
  • The climax where they performed “Happy Together” was a surprise that created a lot of laughter

From “Billy the Mountain”

  • Frank announced that this was the first-ever performance
  • Jim Pons doing his George Putnam imitation had us in stitches.  
  • I remember “Studebaker Hoch” being the main character
  • Memorable Aynsley Dunbar moment:  coming from behind his drums to do “THE STUDEBAKER HOCH DANCING LESSON & COSMIC PRAYER FOR GUIDANCE featuring Aynsley Dunbar...  Twirlie, twirlie, twirlie…"
  • And he played the hell out of drums, including the 8-measure solo from the Fillmore album.  His drums moved around a lot from the force of his playing, and he kept on having to drag his bassdrum back towards him.  His energy was a big mover in that band.  And a very photogenic guy to boot.

Other things

  • Ian Underwood was pretty hidden behind the keyboards the majority of the time.  He seemed to crave no spotlight whatsoever or was concerned with showmanship.  Mostly you'd only see him when he "whipped out" his alto saxophone and played it high and sideways over the keyboards.   
  • The playing of Peaches en Regalia, with Aynsley Dunbar's note-perfect intro, got us all very excited
  • The crowd demanded an encore, but we got the feeling that Zappa hated encores, so instead of a song, they quickly did the “left hand from the heart-ah, right hand from the heart-ah” routine that eventually was part of Billy the Mountain.

Our Bootleg Tape Debacle

A recording of the concert might exist to this day were it not for teenage foolishness and naiveté. Tony smuggled in a small tape recorder for the concert; he remembers it being cassette, I remember it being a tiny reel-to-reel.  (You have to understand that affordable consumer-level recorders still were very rare in 1971, and the cassette medium too.)

At the end, proud of his accomplishment, Tony (15 years old) played the recording as we walked to the car.  We took a circuitous route that brought us behind the auditorium, where we could see Frank, along with band members, women, and roadies leaning against a truck.  I remember seeing the glow of one of his Winstons.  This motivated Tony to show "how cool he was" by making it even more audible to those around us, including Frank and party.  Next thing you know, Herb Cohen (we're pretty sure) makes a beeline towards us, and demands the tape.  To try to make it smart a little less, he offered $5 for it.  When we handed it over, rapidly unspooled it and threw it high up into some eucalyptus trees where we could never get to it, and walked back to the truck.

Well, however tragic, let's just call that a concert memory we'll never forget!

Thanks to Murray Gilkeson for the concert poster.


Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,

I read your description on Frank Zappa's education in music theory: perhaps you should add theoretical studies under Dr. Leonard Stein, the distinguished pianist and exigist of Schoenberg's posthumously published theoretical writings. When I studied with Leonard Stein during the mid 1980s at the Schoenberg Institute in USC (now in Vienna), I asked Dr. Stein whether Zappa was his former student in music theory (which was the rumor during the time and I believed cited in one publication): Leonard neither denied nor confirmed the question whether Zappa was his former student.

Gandalf said...

so what'd he do - just stare at you?