Frank Zappa fans have clamored for the release of Roxy: The Movie for about 40 years now. I’m one of the lucky ducks who saw its world premiere at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, and I am here to tell you that it is good.
About halfway through the screening, I noticed that my face hurt because my mouth had twisted up and frozen in the stupidest grin of which it is capable—the kind of grin that could destroy a family, or end a career. As I type this, some twenty-four hours later, my face is still ruined. The Roxy shows, represented on disc by 1974’s Roxy & Elsewhere and last year’s Roxy by Proxy, are among the most joyful presentations of Zappa’s music. The songs are celebratory, the performances are exuberant, the musicianship is virtuosic but not stiff or fussy, the sound is totally bitchen, and Zappa himself seems more relaxed and cheerful than (or at least not as sour as) he appeared at other points in his career. Biographer Neil Slaven attributes the light mood and spirit of camaraderie prevailing at the Roxy shows to the recent addition of Napoleon Murphy Brock, the outstanding tenor saxophonist and singer who belts “Cheepnis”:
Brock’s arrival brought important changes to the context of the group. He had a distinctive and flexible voice and struck up an immediate and overtly warm rapport with George Duke, sharing the broad and quick sense of humour that Frank had drawn out of the keyboard player. Their on-stage badinage, which both celebrated and satirised black consciousness, contrasted with Frank’s own studied bizarre humour and there were moments when one sensed that he was happy and relieved to become a sideman in his own group.
The woman with her hand down Zappa’s pants is named Joan, we learn
Before I saw Roxy, my favorite Zappa concert video was A Token of His Extreme, the 1974 special taped for public TV that features many of the same personnel: keyboardist and singer George Duke (a great artist in his own right), percussionist Ruth Underwood, bassist Tom Fowler, drummer Chester Thompson, and Brock—the One Size Fits All band, whose praises I sing. But Roxy trashes it. I just drove by the Goodwill and threw my Extreme DVD out the window. Roxy gives you one more drummer in addition to Thompson (Ralph Humphrey), trombonist Bruce Fowler playing impossible parts, and one of Zappa’s best-ever bands playing in a hot club rather than a cold TV studio. And there is so much to see at a Zappa show, and so much of the visual information is funny. Hearing Napoleon Murphy Brock and Bruce Fowler argue with their horns is bracing; watching it is hilarious.
I’m just old enough to remember when going to the Roxy was like this. People sat comfortably at tables, smoking, while waiters circulated with their backs to the stage, taking drink orders. (This is one of those rare cases where the past was actually better than the present.) However, I am nowhere near old enough to remember the denim-clad innocents and aging weirdos who apparently peopled the Sunset Strip during the early 70s. The audience participation, one of Roxy’s big treats, builds to an orgiastic climax on “Be-Bop Tango,” during which a “professional harlot” who has just entertained some of our boys at Edwards Air Force Base and original Hollywood freak Carl “Captain Fuck” Franzoni shake what the good Lord gave them (though He probably had other uses in mind).
Alex Winter, who is working on an authorized Zappa documentary, moderated the post-screening Q&A. Ralph Humphrey and Bruce Fowler came down from their seats to join the panel. Editor John Albarian, archivist (or “Vaultmeister”) Joe Travers and producer Jeff Stein explained that the over 40-year delay in the movie’s release was due to technical problems. A malfunction that took place four minutes into the first of the filmed concerts meant that the footage and sound could not be synced until the advent of digital technology; another glitch took out the crew’s intercom, with the result that much of what they shot bore no relationship to what was happening onstage (e.g., the camera is on Zappa’s foot while George Duke takes a solo). Albarian consequently had to do a lot of “cheating” in the editing room, which he said was made easier by the band’s wardrobe (black T-shirts and blue jeans every night). I couldn’t tell; more importantly, Humphrey, who like actually played these shows, told us he couldn’t tell either.
Ahmet Zappa introduced the film and joined the panel afterwards, and when he wasn’t fantasizing about sodomizing the Vaultmeister, he was sharing valuable information. He told us about a tape he’d recently heard of his father jamming with Eric Clapton in 1967 (“bonkers”); that his uncle says his late mother, Gail, saved America in her capacity as a CIA agent; and that Captain Beefheart once ended an argument with Frank by plunging his hands into an ice chest, letting the cubes slip between his fingers, and declaring “Diamonds!”
Penguin In Bondage
The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat
Inca Roads (the “cocktail” version)
Echidna’s Arf (Of You)
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
I’m The Slime
Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church)
Roxy: The Movie will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 30. Don’t forget to buy it with your money!