Saturday, January 23, 2016

Zappa Plays Zappa

Zappa Plays Zappa. 12/5/2015. A long line of Rock fans waited on the sidewalk outside the Warfield Theater on Market Street. It was three weeks after the attacks in Paris. Bags were being searched and everyone was being frisked. People had a sense of humor about it. What are you going to do? Tight airport style security seems to be normal now. One of the targets in Paris was a Rock show at the Batacan theatre.  
The marquee shone overhead. “Zappa Plays Zappa.” Dweezil Zappa was playing his father’s music. The Grandmothers of Invention put on a great show, but this was as close as you can get to seeing Frank again. It was advertised that the album “One Size Fits All” would be presented “in its entirety.” This meant they would play the song, “San Ber’doo.” The shootings at San Bernardino had happened less than a week before. Was the song another reason for the tight security? 
The Warfield opened in the Twenties and was home to vaudeville and other stage shows before becoming one of the movie palaces on Market Street. A Wikipedia entry says it has a capacity of 2300. It reminds me of Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theater. That’s where I first saw Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. 
My seat was upstairs in the Upper Balcony, but that would work in a theater like this. There are pictures throughout the building of acts who have played here. The Warfield closed for a while in the late Seventies. Bob Dylan chose to have a run of shows there instead of playing one show at a bigger venue. It reestablished the Warfield as a Rock venue. It’s said he saved the place.    
Dweezil starts the show by telling us why he was inspired to take his father’s music on the road again. He felt music critics and historians had dismissed Frank’s work as “comedy music,” and that they didn’t give his father the credit he deserved for his music and innovations. Critics remembered his novelty songs like “Valley Girl,” but seem to have forgotten his other recordings and contributions. Dweezil does make his own music. He has a new album called, “Via Zamata,” but tonight he would be playing Frank’s music.  
It was another crowd of aging Baby Boomers. I’ll guesstimate eighty percent were male. Zappa fans are a strange breed. There’s no middle ground. You either love his music or hate it. The fans here tonight are psyched. They know it will be a special night.  
Before they start playing the whole “One Size Fits All” album they warm up with a few songs. The band explodes with “Montana,” Frank’s humorous roast of the American Dream. The Zappa sound instantly takes me back. It’s magnificent. The band is tight. It has an edge, led by Dweezil’s guitar.  A hopeful entrepreneur will move to Montana soon, he’s “Gonna be a dental floss tycoon.” The song has some of Frank’s funniest lyrics. The new tycoon will wave a pair of zircon encrusted tweezers, “Gleaming in the moon lighty night.”  
Even from my balcony seat I can tell Dweezil isn’t singing. At first I thought it was some kind of lip synch. I was on the far left and there was a corner of the stage that I couldn’t see. Ben Thomas came to the front of the stage. He does most of the vocals and plays keyboards. His voice sounds exactly like Frank. Dweezil does the first of tonight’s killer guitar solos. 
It might be early for audience participation, but the Yip-e-i-o-ki-yay! refrain works. The crowd manages to sing it loudly. It must be all those cowboy movies we watched growing up. If this is the warmup, we’re off to a great start.
The second song is “Baby Snakes.” I forgot what a punk parody this was. The band injects it with some rocking punk edge.
The members of the band are dressed casually. Shirts and jeans. The only female is Scheila Gonzalez on sax and keyboards. She’s dressed up a bit more in a black and white outfit. 
The rest of the band: Chris Norton: keyboards, vocals. Kurt Morgan: bass. Ryan Brown: drums. Kurt Morgan has worked as an archivist for the Zappa Family Trust.  
The original Mothers were a seedy looking bunch. Their long stringy hair and second hand clothes made them look like a bunch of perverts. They just always looked suspicious. Like they were up to no good. What are those guys up to?   
Dweezil is in a red tee shirt and black pants. He’s got very short hair for a Zappa. He is Frank’s son, but the resemblance to is still uncanny. I never imagined I’d be watching Frank’s son bringing his music back to life.  
Dweezil looks friendly and oozes quiet confidence. He looks like a nice guy. Frank was certainly more intense. He could be intimidating. Sometimes he acted like he despised the crowd. Like he was stuck in some podunk, backwards small town, even if he was playing in a big city. He was demanding of his band and the audience. His show wasn’t just a night of heavy metal entertainment. Most Rock crowds just want to get out and have a good time. Frank wanted us to listen and maybe think a little bit. As the night went on his sense of humor usually prevailed and he would lighten up.
It still amazes me how quickly footage is posted on Youtube. It took less than a week for much of this show to appear on the website.   
They play “I’m So Cute” and then a song from the Mothers’ second album Absolutely Free. “Pound for a Brown.” There’s a bit of a surprise when they play the main title theme from Star Wars. The latest installment of the space saga had just opened. Now it’s time for all of “One Size Fits All,” as advertised.
The outer space theme would continue with the first song off the album, “Inca Roads.” It’s a song about aliens visiting the ancient civilization in the Andes. Did ancient aliens fight for parking in the skies above South America? Frank doesn’t sound convinced. I think he was looking for some more solid proof. I wonder what Frank would have thought of the History Channel’s very popular Ancient Aliens series? 
“Inca Roads” has one of Frank’s greatest guitar solos. The other members of the band leave the stage while Dweezil rips. It’s amazing that he can reproduce the solo. The crowd has been enthusiastic, but after this song the place goes nuts. 
Frank was a strange looking guy. The very long hair. The nose. The mustache and goatee. His beady eyes would cut right through a crowd. When he played one of his fantastic solos he seemed to challenge the audience. Do you think that was something? How about this? Can you take that? How about this?  
“Can’t Afford No Shoes.” Few Rock songs mentioned the recession or the possibility of depression. “Can you spare a dime? If you’re really hurtin’, a nickel would be fine.”  
  The next song on the album is “Sofa.” I think it’s the first Rock song about a piece of furniture. Even for Zappa it’s an odd song because some of the lyrics are in German. The German lyrics did add an air of mystery to the song. After Frank toured Germany, he became fascinated with all things German.
In the late Seventies we had some German tourists visiting the infamous apartment at 1244 California. I played “One Size Fits All.” OK, I’ll admit I was trying to freak them out. How would they react to the lyrics in German? They were already inspired by the song when Frank started singing in German. At first they were stunned, but then they really got into it. “Does he always sing in German?” “Oh yeah!” Sofa was later released as a single in Germany. 
When the Mothers did “Sofa” live Mark Volman, the former Turtle, pretended to be a sofa. Volman was large for a rock singer. He and his singing partner Howard Kaylan were a hilarious comedy duo.  
“Po-Jama People” is another jab at the “plastic people” of today’s America. 
Zappa can be educational too. What exactly is a “Florentine Pogen?” This was back in the days of “looking something up” in the encyclopedia. A Pogen was an Italian nobleman that was a member of the ruling class in Florence. It’s not clear what, if anything Zappa meant. Why did Zappa write this? Can you ever really ask that? It ends with a refrain about “Chester’s go-rilla.”  
“Evelyn, A Modified Dog” is almost a spoken word piece. Evelyn, the dog, has undergone “further modification.” Zappa displays his vocabulary. “Arf, she said.”   
Many years ago we had things called “parties.” At first they were furtive affairs held when parents were out of town. Later we had them at our own apartments. People would gather and play things called records and dance! There was usually copious amounts of alcohol. I used to sneak on a Mothers of Invention record once in a while. It always got a reaction. Most of it was negative. “What the fuck is that?” It was probably a better time for Stax or Motown, but I always found it funny how intense the reaction was. A few people were curious, but most just couldn’t stand Zappa’s music.  
“Ber’dino” is a rocking song that Frank usually played near the end of a show. It always got the crowd going. It’s a look at the despair of living in the Valley. Frank knew about living in the Valley. It’s another twisted American dream. “We’ll spend the rest of our lives in San Bernardino!” A scary thought, but it’ll be OK because even though we’ll be living in the desolate valley, we’ll be able to rock!  
Was this song one of the reasons for the enhanced security before the show? It seems to be a stretch that there could be some connection to the shootings in San Bernardino, which were less than a week before the show. Maybe that’s where we’re at now. You just can’t be safe enough.
“Andy” and then the instrumental “Sofa No. 2” finish the “One Size Fits All” portion of tonight’s show. The crowd loves it. Everyone is standing and applauding. It’s a triumph for Dweezil and the band.  
“One Size Fits All” was one of Frank’s more accessible, commercial albums. It peaked on the charts at #26. It was the last record billed as “Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.” The last band billed as the Mothers was: George Duke, Tom Fowler, Ruth Underwood, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Chester Thompson. Frank’s idol Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a guest. Captain Beefheart played some harmonica billed as “Bloodshot Rollin’ Red.”
Cal Schenkel created another great cover for Zappa for “One Size Fits All.” A red sofa is zipping through outer space. Astrological diagrams hang in the void. In the foreground a hand holds a smoking cigar butt.     
Unfortunately Frank had an aversion to San Francisco. He found the Hippie movement stupid and pretentious. “Hey Punk, where you going with those beads around your neck?” Maybe love wasn’t the answer. Frank was more pragmatic. Did it make any sense to love the police while they were beating you? The Mothers did play the ballrooms in the Sixties, but later Frank avoided San Francisco. 
Which meant I didn’t get to see him as often. He did play the local colleges:  Berkeley and Stanford. He conducted the San Francisco Symphony doing some of his work. He didn’t tour as much. Many newer Zappa fans never got to see him live. 
Next are a couple of more obscure Zappa songs: “The Evil Prince” and “Sinister Footwear.” The band more than handles the avant garde sounds. “Dancin’ Fool” is one of Frank’s “novelty hits.” It was a playful rip at the Disco scene. 
In the Seventies Zappa and the Mothers played at out of the way college campuses. They could have drawn more people with one show in the big city, but they played places out on the prairie like Normal, Naperville and a show I’ll never forget:  DeKalb! The home of Northern Illinois University. Maybe he was searching for a demographic. College age fans bought a lot of albums. It was a thrill to see him at a local college gym.  
The hits keep coming: “Apostrophe” is the instrumental title track from Frank’s most commercial album. It went to number ten on the charts.  
“Cosmik Debris.” I vaguely remember this was a “new song” when I first saw the Mothers. Zappa aims his savage sense of humor at New Age gurus. James Santiago does a guest shot on guitar. (He’s married to keyboardist Scheila Gonzalez.)  Santiago and Dweezil have a grinding guitar duel. When Dweezil gets to the punchline, “The price of meat has just gone up...” he points the microphone at the crowd. Most of us yell the next line: “And your old lady has just gone down!” 
“Zomby Woof.” Jay Golden joins on electric violin. Frank played with some great violin players, including Jean Luc Ponty and Sugar Cane Harris.    
They play parts of “Thing Fish,” and then the band goes into the riff from “Muffin Man.” Zappa veterans recognize the song as a sign that the show is coming to a close. Things are winding down. Dweezil introduces the band again. The whole place is standing and cheering.
It must be quite a triumph for Dweezil to get his father’s music onstage again. He’ll be back in February playing from his new record, “Via Zamata.” The Mothers of Invention’s first album, “Freak Out,” was released in 1966. Dweezil hopes to do a “Fifty Years of Frank” tour!