Saturday, February 9, 2019

Help! I'm A Rock - The Mothers of Invention

The Doors and The Byrds were Hollywood. As house bands and Strip mainstays, the scene centered on them. One of the bands essential to the L.A. rock scene, and yet not a fixture on the Strip, was The Mothers of Invention. The Mothers got their start instead at Cosmo Alley, one of the most memorable of the Beat era coffee houses. Cosmo Alley was in Hollywood across from the Cinerama Dome and down a back alley near Sunset and Vine. Barbara Dane, a relatively obscure folk and jazz singer, did her tenure there. "It was the epitome of what people imagined a Beat café would be: the waitresses wearing long black tights, long straight hair and lots of eyeliner etc.; lots of poetry and jazz, other experimentation with forms; guys with goatees and berets lurking in dark corners, all of that." The Cosmo, as a coffee house, could stay open later than the bars, so musicians like Ornette Coleman and comedians like Lenny Bruce, hung out after hours. Dane continued, "I got to know Lenny Bruce when he was working in burlesque because he would come in late and after Cosmo Alley was emptied out he'd sit and run his new material by us. Then we'd pass through the back way into an all-night burger joint which had a mynah bird in a cage near the cashier. Lenny persisted in teaching the bird a certain phrase which it finally learned: 'The pope sucks!'"

As the era progressed and the Beats were incorporated into the hippie movement, Cosmo Alley, under the management of Herb Cohen (who also managed The Unicorn), began to rely on the teen scene; yet being off the beaten path, artists who played the Cosmo had to have a strong draw. In 1965, Frank Zappa, a would-be film soundtrack composer from Rancho Cucamonga joined rhythm and blues band The Soul Giants. The band was renamed "The Mothers" despite, or because of the inference, and The Mothers started playing in and around L.A. Soon Zappa was the "Freak King" (Freaks were odder, more flamboyant hippie-types, the Oscar Wild(e) hippies, certainly a great draw for the out of the way Cosmo Alley). The Freaks congregated around boho artists Carl Franzoni and Vito Paulekas. "Vito and his Freakers" engaged in open sexual encounters and frequented pop and op art openings and the clubs on the Strip, enlivening each event with their distinctive dancing. According to Sheila Weller in Girls Like Us, "Paulekas and Franzoni trained a young group of 'Freakers' in the sensual body movement that soon became synonymous with mid-1960s dancing. When you walked into Ciro’s in 1965 and heard the music, and saw the stoned dancing, you were jolted by its radical fluidity, gentleness and introspection." In simpler terms, there was a built-in scene for The Mothers. 

Freak Out! , the 1966 debut album by The Mothers of Invention, was one of the first two-record sets of the rock era (Dylan's Blonde On Blonde beat it by a week). The album wasn't a commercial success, making it only to No. 130 on the Billboard charts, yet it immediately established Frank Zappa in the top rank of rock artists. Freak Out! was produced by legendary African-American record producer Tom Wilson, who also worked with Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground, Eric Burdon and The Animals and Bob Dylan (Wilson produced three Dylan albums and the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). Wilson signed The Mothers to MGM thinking they were a white blues band, not unlike Big Brother. He'd heard just one song. “Trouble Every Day,” when he saw them at a club on the Sunset Strip and incorrectly assumed the group was something like The Blues Project or MC5. They were anything but. The Mother's inimitable sound was whacked combo of schmaltzy doo-wop, R&B, blues, production gimmicks, free jazz, shifting time signatures, classical music touches and trenchant satirical social observations; indeed, Zappa was rock's ultimate non-conformist. 

Freak Out! was dropped by MGM in 1970 and left unavailable until Rhino rereleased the set in 1988, leaving the album virtually unknown, even among avid Zappa fans; even among those who would trek out to the midnight theaters in the Valley to watch 200 Motels. Often an album's notoriety and critical acclaim is dictated by availability and marketing; such was the case with Freak Out! and why the album gets no real rubric accolades when it comes to longevity. This will change over time; Freak Out! was revolutionary and evolutionary; we have never danced the same again. 

According to Suzy Creamcheese of Salt Lake City, Utah: "These Mothers is crazy. You can tell by their clothes. One guy wears beads and they all smell bad. We were gonna get them for a dance after the basketball game but my best pal warned me you can never tell how many will show up…sometimes the guy in the fur coat doesn’t show up and sometimes he does show up only he brings a big bunch of crazy people with him and they dance all over the place. None of the kids at my school like these Mothers…specially since my teacher told us what the words to their songs meant." 

When the 2nd Mothers LP was released in 1967, Frank had left L.A. "When it came time for us to do our second album, Absolutely Free, MGM proclaimed that we couldn't spend more than $11,000.00 on it. The recording schedules were ridiculous, making it impossible to perfect anything on the album. It was typical of the kind of bullshit we had to put up with until I got my own studio. Gail and I moved to New York in 1967 to play in the Garrick Theater on Bleecker Street. The first place we stayed, before we could find an apartment, was the Hotel Van Rensselaer on 11th Street. We were living on a small room on one of the upper floors. I was working on the album cover illustration for Absolutely Free at a desk by the window. I remember the place being so dirty I couldn't keep the soot off the artwork."

Listening to this album is like being locked in a room with a hoard of stand-up comedians - there's no escape. The album takes the form of a couple of wacky narratives or oratarios, as they're described on the sleeve; the first half devoted to vegetables and prunes (which, we are informed, are not vegetables - though pumpkins seem to be). Light on guitar, the LP’s fatal flaw, there is one reprieve in the verbal humor, the instrumental "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin". There's some impressive guitar work in this piece that set one on edge for what was yet to come in the Zappa 70s.

The second disk is like a Broadway musical, with a mini-musical within. If there's a general theme it escapes me, but there's something about high-school, cream cheese and  brown shoes. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" is the mini-musical within a musical. and plays with numerous musical styles, too many to list, but including crooner, musical, doo wop, blues, 60s R&B, 60s British invasion, jazz, avant garde classical and lounge; the rock base established in Freak Out is sorely missed. The changes between styles often happen at break-neck speed, and the different styles sometimes overlap, all of which adds up to an exhausting listen best enjoyed after a few beers and a J – get through it once and prepare yourself for Joe's Garage. Say what you will, the freak out continues.