Saturday, February 9, 2019

Zappa's Canyon

Jim Morrison's swagger didn't fit into the social ghetto that was Laurel Canyon and yet, while his music was by far the more diverse, Frank Zappa was right there in the midst of the enclave, Mike Nesmith at his side, schmoozing with Joni, Mama Cass and all of the Papas.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were described as ugly, repulsive, gross, sarcastic, satirical, iconoclastic, and nasty, just the kind of names they liked to be called. They have also been called brilliant, super-talented, inspired, and real. Whatever, the self-taught Zappa was quickly recognized as the country’s most cognizant contemporary musician.

What Zappa and the Mothers said, both musically and verbally, was often belligerent and rebellious, but usually stimulating. They put down The Establishment, parents, high school and prehistoric traditions of morality. They put down the bad guys. It was a philosophy of freaks.

In 1964, Zappa joined The Soul Giants, soon converting them from a bar cover band to performing his original material—they morphed into The Mothers on Mother's Day, 1965. The band was barely able to make a living until impresario Herb Cohen (Pete Seeger, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce and Linda Ronstadt) took them on and began booking them at hotspots like Bido Lido's and the Whiskey A-Go-Go. Their debut album, Freak Out!, launched them as The Mothers of Invention. It was only the second double rock album ever released—a groundbreaking mélange of musical genres both innovative and irreverent. That tone continued with their second album, Absolutely Free, along with shows that were part concert, part free-for-all circus with stuffed animals and vegetables.

Zappa With His Parents
Though Zappa was regularly a part of the Laurel Canyon scene, what he never embraced was the casual drug use; for Frank, it was all about the music. And yet the scene at Zappa's house, a log cabin he rented for $700 a month, played like an acid clip from a 60s B-movie: Fade inA car pulls into a driveway of an old log cabin. People are wandering in and out of an enormous 70-foot living room. In the basement, musicians take turns bowling on a Day-Glo painted bowling alley. The adjoining guest house sports a duck pond and two trees growing out of the living room. Couples are huddled in artificial caves built into the hillside. As a couple emerges from the car and into the living room, someone tells the young girl that the cabin was once the house of movie cowboy Tom Mix, and that Harry Houdini used to live across the street. She looks around at the outrageously dressed girls, taking care of a baby named Moon Unit, and the cute young guys playing guitars, and realizes she's inside the epicenter of the Laurel Canyon music scene. It's a scene I'd like to see.

That same house entertained a myriad of musicians and celebrities. One house guest was John Mayall, who had just broken up the Bluesbreakers and was taking in the Los Angeles scene. The strange-looking GTO girls made a lasting impression. "Obviously flamboyant comes to mind," Mayall chuckled. "Quite a shock to see for a person visiting from England."

Between guests, Zappa held auditions for his Bizarre and Straight record labels. One band from Phoenix, Alice Cooper, had been turned down by every record company and was going nowhere in a hurry. Fortunately, Cooper was dating Zappa's babysitter, and so Zappa agreed to hear Cooper's band at the cabin "at 7 o’clock." "We were so excited we got there at seven in the morning," said Cooper. "We set up in the living room and started playing our set. Frank came down the stairs with a cup of coffee, and he goes, 'What the hell are you doing?' You said seven. 'Seven at NIGHT.' So he listened to about four songs and he's, 'Okay okay, you're signed, I'll sign you.'"

A young guitarist named Bill Harkleroad, aka Zoot Horn Rollo, showed up at the Cabin to audition for Captain Beefheart, Don Vliet, and found members of the Stones, the Who, the Mothers and a myriad of session musicians roaming about. "Within a few minutes I'm in a jam session with Frank, Don Vliet, Mick Jagger and Art Tripp," said Harkleroad. "Frank and Don were my rock world heroes." He was so nervous he could only play a few notes.

Alice Cooper recalls another Jagger visit, when the Stone showed up inebriated with girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, and the straight-edge Zappa kicked them both out of the house. "I was sitting there, just a kid hanging out to record," said Cooper. "And I went, 'Frank Zappa just threw Mick Jagger out of his house—because he’s drunk.' To me, that's so far in another universe that I couldn’t even believe it."

It was about this time, 1968, when Baron Wolman was asked to photograph Frank. He recalls: "I was worried about going to photograph Frank Zappa. I knew his reputation as a creative eccentric and I was like, 'Oh shit how am I going to deal with this?' Because I didn't even know his music; I mean, of course, I was familiar with his music, he was brilliant. But only if you really knew music could you understand that brilliance; for the most part it wasn't listenable, at least to my ears. Besides, there was nothing I could say to Frank Zappa that would in any way make me an intellectual equal. I knew I could take great pictures but I knew that I couldn't keep up with his mind. We got up there and I said to writer Jerry Hopkins, 'You do the interview first then I'll do the pictures,' but Zappa wanted to do the pictures right away so he and I went out behind his house and found all these bizarre photographic situations that were both wacky and fantastic. I didn't have to say or direct anything; he just started fooling around because he was having such a great time being Frank; Frank being Frank - performing for me and my camera without direction."

A Piece Found in a Hollywood Junk Store With the Initials F.Z.

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