Alex Winter, best known for his roles in The Lost Boys and the two “Bill & Ted” movies with Keanu Reeves (and this infamous Butthole Surfers “home movie”), is developing a documentary on Frank Zappa, which he will direct from his own script and produce with Glen Zipper. The Zappa Family Trust has given its blessing to the untitled project.
“There has yet to be a definitive, authorized documentary on the extraordinary life and work of Frank Zappa,” Winter said. “I am beyond thrilled to be embarking on this journey. Our tale will be told primarily in Frank’s own words; he will be our guide through this journey.”
Winter expects the doc to be finished in time for release in 2017.
“This is not an easy story to tell and we trust that Alex truly understands the complex and multi-faceted man that my father was,” Zappa’s son Ahmet Zappa said.
This is excellent news indeed and it’s been a long time coming.
Below, Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention performing “King Kong” in Essen, Germany, 1968:
“Cheepnis,” from Roxy & Elsewhere, is probably the most upful rock number in Frank Zappa’s catalog, celebrating two of the maestro’s favorite pleasures: eating hot dogs and watching monster movies. The song begins with a short monologue about Roger Corman’s 1956 no-budget classic, It Conquered the World:
Let me tell you something, do you like monster movies? Anybody? I love monster movies. I simply adore monster movies, and the cheaper they are, the better they are. And cheapness, in the case of a monster movie, hsa nothing to do with the budget of the film—although it helps—but true cheapness is exemplified by visible nylon strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider. I’ll tell you a good one that I saw one time, I think the name of the film was IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. Did you ever see that one? The monster looks sort of like an inverted ice cream cone with teeth around the bottom. It looks like a teepee or sort of a rounded-off pup-tent affair, and it’s got fangs on the base of it, I don’t know why, but it’s a very threatening sight. And he’s got a frown, and, y’know, ugly mouth and everything, and there’s this one scene where the monster is coming out of a cave, see? There’s always a scene where they come out of the cave, at least once. And the rest of the cast—it must have been made around the 1950s—the lapels are about like that wide, the ties are about that wide, and they’re about this short, and they always have a little revolver that they’re gonna shoot the monster with, and there’s always a girl who falls down and twists her ankle. [Laughs] Of course there is! You know how they are. The weaker sex and everything, twisting their ankle on behalf of the little ice-cream cone. Well, in this particular scene—in this scene, folks, they didn’t want to retake it because it must have been so good, they wanted to keep it—but when the monster came out of the cave, just over on the left-hand side of the screen, you can see about this much two-by-four attached to the bottom of the thing as the guy is pushing it out. And then, obviously, off-camera somebody’s going “No, get it back!” and they drag it back just a little bit as the guy’s going [gunshots]. Now that’s cheapness. And this is “Cheepnis” here.
It’s hard to believe Peter Graves was ever this young. He plays the wholesome scientist Dr. Paul Nelson, who plays by the rules and approves of the status quo, as against his best friend Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), the movie’s Promethean/Satanic figure, who wants to improve humanity by subjecting it to the rule of a superintelligent Venusian he talks to on his ham radio. To that end, he helps the space creature land in a cave in the West Valley, which it prefers to the doctors’ neighborhood, Beachwood Canyon (superintelligent, huh?). From its subterranean lair in Agoura Hills, the monster gives birth to space bats that enslave the powerful by biting their necks, and suddenly everyone’s a pod person. See what happens when you try to improve humanity? When will we ever learn to accept things exactly as they are?
Incidentally, Beverly Garland’s character, who Zappa remembers as “the girl who falls down and twists her ankle,” is the only badass in the movie; she tells the space creature “I hate your living guts!” and “I’ll see you in hell!” before she makes it eat lead. Also featured: the most clueless impersonation of a Mexican person in the history of celluloid.
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.
Freak Out!, the 1966 debut album by Frank Zappa and 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) and it was definitely the first two-record debut by any group. Although the album wasn’t a commercial success, making it only to #130 on the Billboard charts, it immediately established the archly intellectual Frank Zappa in the very first rank of rock musicians. In fact, Paul McCartney was said to be so impressed with Freak Out! that the album apparently provided the initial inspiration for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. At first there may not have been a lot of listeners, but most certainly the right people were tuning into Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s freaky vibe from the start.
Freak Out! was produced by legendary African-American record producer Tom Wilson, who also worked with Simon and Garfunkel, Sun Ra, The Velvet Underground, Eric Burdon and The Animals and Bob Dylan (Wilson produced three Dylan albums and the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). The story goes that Wilson signed The Mothers to MGM thinking that they were a white blues band. He had 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 Al Kooper’s group, The Blues Project!
They were anything but. The Mother’s uncompromising sound was an unheard of combination of corny doo-wop (which Zappa both loved and parodied mercilessly), R&B, tape manipulations, musique concrète ala Zappa’s idol Edgard Varese, free jazz, shifting time signatures, classical music touches and trenchant satirical social observations (Zappa was nasty to both “straights” and hippies in equal measure, even his own audience had their noses tweaked by Frank Zappa, one of history’s ultimate non-conformists).
The story of the early days of the Mothers of Invention is a fascinating one, but basically, the Cliff Notes version is this: In 1965, Frank Zappa, a would-be film soundtrack composer, recording studio owner and rock guitarist living in the incredibly boring San Bernadino country city of Rancho Cucamonga, CA was invited to join a local rhythm and blues band called the Soul Giants. The band was renamed “The Mothers” (as in “motherfuckers,” indicating how good of musicians they were). The Mothers started gigging in Los Angeles and soon Frank Zappa was the “Freak king” of Hollywood. (Historical note here: LA’s “Freaks” were basically weirder hippies and they dressed differently from the way San Francisco hippies tended to dress, which in 1965-66 was far more “Edwardian” than it was tie-died. The LA vs SF, freaks vs hippies issue was a short-lived one, but a distinction that is important to note. The “Freaks” were the people (mostly Valley girls) who congregated around Carl Franzoni (“Captain Fuck”), teenage Szou and her “aging Beatnik” boyfriend (later husband) Vito Paulekas. “Vito and his Freakers” participated in sex orgies and went out to art openings and the clubs on the Sunset Strip enlivening every event they attended with their distinctive dancing. This clip, from the “mondo” film You Are What You Eat was actually shot at a Mother’s performance, but the filmmakers couldn’t get the music rights and used a song by the Electric Flag instead. It’s probably as good of a representation of Vito and his Freakers as exists).
In other words, there was a “built in” scene for Frank Zappa to take advantage of when the Mothers moved to Los Angeles. He came to town, looked around and he took it over. Quickly. By 1966, Zappa was a figure who loomed large over the Sunset Strip.
The first songs the Mothers (rechristened “The Mothers of Invention” at the insistence of MGM) recorded with Wilson were “Any Way the Wind Blows” and “Who Are the Brain Police?” In The Real Frank Zappa Book, FZ described the scene in the studio:
“I could see through the window that he was scrambling toward the phone to call his boss—probably saying: ‘Well, uh, not exactly a “white blues band,” but…sort of.’”
Wilson would champion Zappa’s creative vision to the label, securing him an unheard of recording budget for Freak Out! and putting his own career on the line for the ambitious young composer/bandleader. The album’s psychedelic cover art direction was a bit misleading, perhaps, but due to the freak “hot spots” map of Hollywood, the liner notes indicating all of Zappa’s “friends and family” and inspirations (David Crosby, Tiny Tim, Charles Mingus, Guitar Slim, Eric Dolphy, Igor Stravinsky and others are all there, now the subject of a documentary called The Freak Out List) and the fact that it was a two-record set gave his new fans something to immerse themselves in and obsess over (Zappa fans are an obsessive lot, trust me on that one). Zappa understood his audience well: Freak Out! was the rock music equivalent of getting into Marvel Comics and discovering that there was an entire Marvel “universe” to pour over. It was if Zappa and his freaky scene landed like Martians during the middle of the Lyndon Johnson administration. It was fortuitous timing, right as the world was about to go from B&W to vivid color.
Because Freak Out! was deleted from the MGM catalog in the early 1970s and was not in print again in the USA until Rykodisc released the Zappa catalog on CD in the late 1980s, it’s not really an album that tons of people have heard. It’s an album that should rightfully be held in the same high regard as the debut albums by the Velvets, Jefferson Airplane, Love or the Doors and is tragically less well-known than it should be (no, I’m not saying that Freak Out! is an obscure album, because it’s not, but how many people who are hip to something like, say, Forever Changes, have never heard even a single song from it?)
Although it can safely be assumed that the music on Freak Out! is indeed pretty freaky, it’s not at all inaccessible. The very first song I’d play for someone to introduce them to the album would be “Trouble Every Day,” the same song that intrigued Tom Wilson enough to sign the band on the spot. In it Zappa describes watching the Watts Riots on TV:
As RuPaul once said, “You’re born naked and the rest is contour and shading.” And Italian portrait painter and artist Lucia Pittalis proves that point with these insane makeup transformations. Lucia uses her own face as a canvas and turns herself into these iconic characters that are simply fan-fucking-tastic. She nailed Keith Richards, IMO.
Frank Zappa makes a 1979 appearance on Make Me Laugh, an awful looking game show hosted by Bobby Van. Zappa nearly wordlessly promotes his then new Sheik Yerbouti album and wins a member of the studio audience a lot of consumer items (a garish bed spread, Samsonite luggage, a washer/dryer combo, plush recliner, etc) by not laughing at the idiotic Gallagher and another completely unfunny comic.
A typical celebrity guest on Make Me Laugh would be someone like Dr. Joyce Brothers or Charles Nelson Reilly. You can clearly tell that Frank hated every second of this.
In this brief clip from Andy Warhol’s public access TV show from the early 1980s, Andy Warhol’s TV, Warhol sits silently by while Richard Berlin assumes the duties of interviewing Frank Zappa. Zappa discusses the ins and outs of being a public gadfly; for a few moments we glimpse a few seconds of the video for “You Are What You Is,” which had been banned from MTV for its use of a racial slur but also, just as plausibly, because of the way it poked fun at Ronald Reagan.
The interview made a significant impression on Warhol. Here’s the entry from The Andy Warhol Diaries for June 26, 1983:
Frank Zappa came to be interviewed for our TV show and I think that after the interview I hated Zappa even more than when it started. I remember when he was so mean to us when the Mothers of Invention played with the Velvet Underground— I think both at the Trip, in L.A., and at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I hated him then and I still don’t like him. And he was awfully strange about Moon. I said how great she was, and he said, “Listen, I created her. I invented her.” Like, “She’s nothing, it’s all me.” And I mean, if it were my daughter I would be saying, “Gee, she’s so smart,” but he’s taking all the credit. It was peculiar.
Warhol’s memory was rather good—the Mothers did indeed open for the Velvets at the Trip on May 3, 1966. In late May 1966, both bands played the Fillmore in S.F. for a three-day stint.
Many Frank Zappa fans will be familiar with the strange and delightful work of animator Bruce Bickford—his are the claymation sequences in Baby Snakes that you fast-forward through the concert footage to see. Zappa was Bickford’s best-known patron for most of the ‘70s, and his work is featured in the “City of Tiny Lights” and The Dub Room Special videos, but the motherlode of Bickford/Zappa work came in the form of a one-hour VHS compilation released in 1987 called The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which bafflingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Bickford’s dizzying stream-of-dementia, anything-can-happen-next, constantly mutating stop-motion animations are scored by Zappa’s orchestral work, culled mostly from Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, though “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” from London Symphony Orchestra is present, as well.
Here’s a bit of background from a wonderful piece on Bickford that ran in The Quietus:
Bickford was a Vietnam veteran whose love for animation sprung out his crude home movies. His earliest experiments involved toy cars, but a need to populate these rough little films led to the creation of tiny clay figures. Soon enough he was letting his imagination spill out with strange, ever-morphing stream of consciousness tales that seemed to revolve around demons and animal heads, hamburgers and pizzas, treacherous landscapes and excessive violence – “danger and weirdness”, in Bickford’s own words. Audiences were given an early taste when The Old Grey Whistle Test aired a portion of ‘City Of Tiny Lights’ with animated accompaniment in 1979. Baby Snakes made its debut during the Christmas of that year, containing more examples and a peak of behind-the-scenes amidst the concert footage.
One of the Baby Snakes snippets involves a castle that “would make a great disco” but leads to the creation of monsters. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, though maybe that’s missing the point. The immediacy is what matters, and the fact that these films have the potential to go absolutely anywhere from one moment to the next. They are also clearly the product of a single mind (and single-mindedness), despite Zappa nabbing director credits on The Amazing Mr. Bickford compilation and the ‘City of Tiny Lights’ promo. In a way, Bickford is an outsider artist doing his own thing at his own pace, and was simply fortunate enough to have Zappa serve as a momentary sugar daddy.
Such are the working methods and approach to narrative that very little final product has actually been released. The Amazing Mr. Bickford and Baby Snakes made use of snippets with little or no attempt to explain or understand; they unfold beneath Zappa instrumentals and just exist, nothing more. Bickford returned to his Seattle basement in 1980 and has carried on obsessing ever since. MTV commissioned some idents and a half-hour film, Prometheus’ Garden, was completed in 1987, but otherwise he toils away with seemingly little end in sight.
‘The Amazing Mr. Bickford’ and more, after the jump…
Frank Zappa appeared on What’s My Line? on September 23rd, 1971. This is truly weird: June Lockhart, Soupy Sales, Gene Rayburn and Arlene Francis ask the questions. Soupy Sales—who was known for being a super hip guy, of course—had a friend in common with Zappa and correctly guesses his identity with ease.
Zappa was on the popular game-show promoting his 200 Motels movie. The LIFE magazine photo that June Lockhart refers to in the clip is the one above, where the composer/rock star was seen posing with his parents in their own home. Interestingly, the Edward Beardsley painting in the family portrait is the same one used for the first Alice Cooper album, Pretties for You, which came out on Zappa’s Straight record label.
Did Frank think “I’ve got the perfect album cover for you guys, an oddball painting my parents own!” or was it a gift to his parents after the album came out?
The Monkees are often referred to as the “Pre-Fab Four” in reference to the fact that they were a TV knock-off of the Beatles, recruited from a help wanted ad in Variety. Still, no matter how “uncool” they were supposed to be, the Monkees casting was a rare example of stroke of genius by committee. It’s difficult to imagine anyone but the four of them having the same chemistry, both comedically and (eventually) musically. And to further refute their “uncool” rep, John Lennon called them “the Marx Brothers of Rock” (he was right about that) and the Beatles even hosted a party for the Monkees in London when they toured England. (Furthermore, Mike Nesmith was present at the Abbey Road recording sessions for “A Day in the Life” and Peter Tork played banjo on George Harrison’s eclectic Wonderwall soundtrack).
Even that most far-out of the really far-out musicians of the day, Frank Zappa himself, made not just one, but two onscreen appearances with the Monkees: First in a TV segment where Mike pretended to be Frank and vice versa (which certainly foreshadowed Ringo Starr’s portrayal of Zappa in 200 Motels) before they destroyed a car with a sledgehammer to the tune of “Mother People,” and again in a brief cameo in Head.
Frank Zappa put together a formidable band in 1988, for what became his last tour; he later called it the best band he’d ever taken on the road. Zappa told an interviewer from Guitarist Magazine:
[The band] was unique because it combined a very strong five-piece horn section with all kinds of electronic stuff, with effects on the percussion section, on the drums, multiple keyboards—a very interesting blend of this horn harmony and very strange sound effects. [...] All those little effects and things coming in, that’s just the way it was on the live show. We had three stations generating samples; there was Ed Mann, who had this whole vocabulary of dog barks and bubbles and weird shit, then there was Chad Wackerman who had all these strange percussion things hooked up to a big rig, and then there was the synclavier, which I could play when I wasn’t playing the guitar.
The sets included, in Zappa’s words, “deranged versions of cover tunes”: the band played “I Am The Walrus,” the theme from The Godfather Part II, “Purple Haze,” Boléro, “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Ring of Fire.” My favorite of these is Zappa’s take on “Stairway to Heaven,” sung by the peerless Ike Willis. It’s like listening to Spike Jones—the band performs a meticulous arrangement of the song, down to the horn section reproducing Jimmy Page’s solo at the end, but comments on the lyrics at the end of every line with a gag sample. If you share my appetite for this flavor of broad shtick, listen for the “songbird who sings” and the forests echoing with laughter. You’ll never hear the original the same way again.
Zappa: “Yes, once upon a time, live musicians actually sang and played this.”
“The next piece that we’re going to play . . . Maybe I should tell you what we were doing . . . The, the signals that we were giving, I’ll explain to you very simply: This means ‘free improvisation’ and the finger signals told the performers which of the fragments they were to uh, play at any given moment. Anyway, the next piece that we’re going to play is in standard notation, and it’s actually pretty tame compared to the “Opus 5.” It’s called “The Collage Two,” and it was written last Thursday.”—Frank Zappa
Something truly amazing for Frank Zappa fans, a 1963—yes, 1963, you read that right— concert that was taped for KPFK radio on May 19th of that year at Mount St. Mary’s College. A young Frank Zappa put up $300 of his own money in order to hear his compositions played by The Pomona Valley Symphony Orchestra (who do a surprisingly great job considering the intensely difficult music they were asked to play.) There was an intriguing excerpt from this concert on The Lost Episodes rarities compilation, and where there’s an excerpt, usually there is a full recording…
The concert was taped by Chilean recording engineer, geographer, anthropologist and documentarian, Carlos Hagen, who had moved to Los Angeles the year before and was doing radio production for free-form underground FM station KPFK. Hagen provided many of the “Dear Friends” radio show tapes used by Firesign Theatre archivist Taylor Jessen in his essential Duke of Madness Motors book/DVD rom publication. I believe the story goes that Taylor found a copy of Hagen’s 1963 Zappa tape in the KPFK vaults in 1999 when he was researching Firesign tapes and sent it to the “Vaultmeister” of the Zappa Family Trust.
In a 1992 interview Frank Zappa talked about the recital:
Actually, the first time I had any of it [“serious” music] performed was at Mount St. Mary’s College in 1962. I spent $300 and got together a college orchestra, and I put on this little concert. Maybe less than a hundred people showed up for it, but the thing was actually taped and broadcast by KPFK. (...) By the time I graduated from high school in ‘58, I still hadn’t written any rock and roll songs, although I had a little rock and roll band in my senior year. I didn’t write any rock and roll stuff until I was in my 20s. All the music writing that I was doing was either chamber music or orchestral, and none of it ever got played until this concert at Mount St. Mary’s.
In the liner notes of The Lost Episodes, Zappa pal, Rip Rense describes the event:
It took place in 1963 at, of all pastoral places, lovely Mount St. Mary’s College, a private Catholic institution perched in the lush Santa Monica Mountains above West Los Angeles. (...) The program included a piece called “Opus 5,” aleatoric works that required some improvisation, a piece for orchestra and taped electronic music, with accompanying visuals in the form of FZ’s own experimental 8mm films (Motorhead Sherwood described one such film depicting the Los Angeles County Fair carnival, double exposed with passing telephone poles).
The concert consisted of:
* Variables II for Orchestra
* Variables I for Any Five Instruments
* Opus 5, for Four Orchestras
* Three Pieces of Visual Music with Jazz Group
Zappa conducted, played the zither and introduced the pieces. The was an intermission and a “Question and Answer Period"afterwards.
Carlos Hagen discusses the concert before it begins. The music starts at approx 14:30.
One of the strangest movies ever made, The Brainiac (a/k/a El baron del terror) is also the subject of “Debra Kadabra,” the first song on Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart’s Bongo Fury.
The song’s lyrics conflate a late-night broadcast of the 1962 movie on KCOP with an event from Beefheart and Zappa’s teenage years in 1950s Lancaster, when a cosmetics accident temporarily transformed Beefheart into something like a B-movie monster. One night, while the pair were in high school, Don Van Vliet (Beefheart) doused himself in some of the Avon prodcuts his mother sold; perhaps unsurprisingly, he suffered a severe allergic reaction (“His face looked like an alligator,” Zappa recalled). To convalesce, he went to a family member’s house in East L.A., where no one from high school could mock his disfigurement.
Cover my entire body with Avon co-log-nuh
And drive me to some relative’s house in East L.A.
Turn it to Channel 13
And make me watch the rubber tongue
When it comes out
From the puffed and flabulent Mexican rubber-goods mask
Make me grow Brainiac fingers
But with more hair
At the appropriate moments in the song, a trumpet quotes the score from The Brainiac. Barry Miles’ Zappa biography has a bit of the maestro discussing the movie’s relationship to “Debra Kadabra”:
Oh God, it’s one of the worst movies ever made; not only is the monster cheap, he’s got a rubber mask that you can see over the collar of the guy’s jacket and rubber gloves that don’t quite match up with the sleeves of his sport coat. When the monster appears there’s this trumpet lick that isn’t scary. It’s not even out of tune, it’s just exactly the wrong thing to put there, it doesn’t scare you… That’s what the song is about and when you hear in the background DA-DA-DA-DA-DAHH, that’s making fun of that stupid trumpet line that’s in that movie… When he’s saying “Make me grow Brainiac fingers”, that’s what he’s referring to, because Vliet and I have both seen that movie and it’s so fucking stupid.
In 1978, after many years of living in London and Tangiers, William S. Burroughs decided to return to his home country. For a small group of artistic weirdos, this was a significant event, and a convention was held in his honor at the Entermedia Theater from November 30 through December 2, 1978, on Second Avenue and 12th Street in New York City (it’s no longer there). Much earlier, it had been announced that Keith Richards would be on hand, but after his heroin arrest in Toronto, his management calculated that it would not be wise to appear at a festival honoring the legendary deviant drug addict William S. Burroughs. Frank Zappa was enlisted to read the “Talking Asshole” section from Naked Lunch. Patti Smith, who wore “a glamorous black fur trench” in the words of Thurston Moore, objected mightily to having to follow Zappa and had to be placated by Burroughs confidant and organizer of the convention James Grauerholz, who explained to Smith that Zappa’s appearance was a last-minute necessity and not intended to show Smith up. You can listen to Smith’s contribution, in which she addresses Richards’ absence, here. At the “event party” for the convention, the musical performances included Suicide, The B-52s, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. The inclusion of The B-52s is most fascinating, as they hadn’t even released their first album yet.
Other participants included Terry Southern, Philip Glass, John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Allen Ginsburg. You can read a writeup of the event from the December 4, 1978, edition of the New York Times: “Of the other performers, Mr. Burroughs himself was the most appealing, and this had less to do with what he was reading than with how he read it. Although he has created some enduring characters, he is his own most interesting character, and he was in rare form, sitting at a desk in a business suit and bright green hat, shuffling papers and reading in his dry Midwestern accent.” An LP and cassette documenting the event were released in 1979 and they fetch top prices today at Discogs.
The Nova Convention took place on November 30, December 1, and December 2, 1978, with the principal performances being held on the last two days at the Entermedia Theater, on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street, which had in the fifties been the fabled Phoenix Theater. Attending were an odd mixture of academics, publishers, writers, artists, punk rockers, counterculture groupies, and an influx of bridge-and-tunnel kids drawn by Keith Richards, who made the event a sellout.
Saturday night the Entermedia was packed, largely with young people waiting to see Keith Richards. There was a small hitch, however, which was that Keith Richards had cancelled. He was having problems as the result of a heroin bust in Toronto, and his office convinced him that appearing on the same program with Burroughs was bad publicity.
But the show had to go on, and the composer Philip Glass, playing one of his repetitive pieces on the synthesizer, was thrown to the wolves. The disappointed kids who wanted Keith Richards shouted and booed. Then Brion Gysin went on amid cries of “Where’s Keith?” and found himself hoping that the riot would not start until he had done his brief turn.
In a last-minute effort, James Grauerholz had recruited Frank Zappa to pinch-hit for Keith. He volunteered to read the “Talking Asshole” routine from Naked Lunch. But as Zappa was preparing to go on, Patti Smith had a fit of pique about following him. James did his best to make peace, saying “Frank has come in at the last minute, and he’s got to go on, and he’s doing it for William, not to show you up.” Patti Smith retreated to the privacy of her dressing room, and Zappa got a big hand, because that’s what they wanted, a rock star.
From July 1 through July 13, the Red Gallery in London is putting on an exhibition dedicated to the Nova Convention. The exhibition is curated by Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz; Moore, who was present at the event in 1978, supplies a short piece called “Nova Reflections” to the exhibition catalogue; here are some snippets of that:
What I remember of the Nova Convention, in my teenage potted reverie, was a palpable excitement of the importance of Burroughs’ return to NYC. He had been living and working in London for some time, and before that, was residing in Tangiers. My awareness of the poets and performers on the Nova Convention bill was obscure, but I did realise everyone there had experienced a history in connection to the man. The poet Eileen Myles performed, and I have a hazy memory of what she has since reminded me was a polarising moment that night: She and a femme cohort came out on stage and performed the so-called William Tell act where in 1951 Burroughs tragically sent a bullet through his wife Joan Vollmer’s skull, killing her instantly. According to Eileen she was hence persona non grata backstage, and frozen out from the coterie of avant lit celebrities shocked at her “reminder” performance.
Glass’s idiosyncratic high-speed minimalist pianistics was natural, gorgeous and sublime. Zappa came out and read a Burroughs excerpt “The Talking Asshole” which seemed appropriate and was mildly entertaining. Patti hit the stage in a glamorous black fur trench, purportedly on loan from some high-end clothier. She rambled on a bit, brazenly unscripted, testing the patience of the long night when out of the audience some fan-boy freako leapt on stage and bequeathed her with a Fender Duo-Sonic guitar. She accepted it cooly and before long was gone. And we stumbled into the 2nd Avenue night.
In his catalogue piece, Moore leads with an anecdote about photographer James Hamilton, whose astonishing pictures of rock icons are collected in the book (Moore was intergral in putting that book together as well) You Should Have Heard Just What I Seen. Hamilton was covering the event for the Village Voice, and while it’s not stated as such, presumably many of Hamilton’s photographs, are featured in the exhibition.
Here’s Timothy Leary, Les Levine, Robert Anton Wilson and Brion Gysin engaging in “conversations” about Burroughs’ work:
And here’s Frank Zappa reading “The Talking Asshole” from Naked Lunch:
Preview video of the “Nova Convention” exhibition at the Red Gallery:
Painting of The Mothers of Invention by the great Cal Schenkel
This is the footage that matches much of the Ahead of Their Time live album that came out in 1993. It’s essentially a comedy “play” featuring Zappa as “The Imaginary Director” with Mothers Don Preston, Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, Roy Estrada, Ian Underwood, Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood, Arthur Dyer Tripp III and various members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Filmed on October 25th, 1968. Part of the long out-of-print Uncle Meat VHS release from 1987.
Longtime afternoon TV talkshow host Mike Douglas was so square—and seemingly so self-aware of his basic squareness—that he ended up being one of the most unlikely “hip” people on American television in the 60s and 70s. Mike Douglas didn’t try to be “down” with John and Yoko, Malcolm X, The Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, The Vanilla Fudge, Angela Davis, Moby Grape or any of the other counterculture types who occasionally came on his normally staid Philadelphia talk show, but he was unfailingly friendly and cordial to them all and genuinely interested in what they had to say. That Patti Smith made a couple of early appearances on his show (she brought her mother, a huge fan of his, to one of the tapings) says much about how agreeable and open to new things the guy was, but he never pretended to be anything that he wasn’t. (Fun fact: Mike Douglas provided the singing voice of Prince Charming in Walt Disney’s Cinderella.)
A great example of the often incongruous people a viewer could tune in and see randomly assembled on a given day on The Mike Douglas Show occurred when Frank Zappa appeared to promote his Zoot Allures album on November 9th, 1976. The “Dy-no-mite!” co-host that week was Jimmie “J.J.” Walker star of Good Times and the other guest that day was Kenny Rogers. There’s a brief interview before Zappa, performing with the unseen house band, does a scorching “Black Napkins” one of his signature mid-period compositions. Then there’s more conversation before Frank shows an excerpt from A Token of His Extreme featuring Bruce Bickford’s freaky claymation.
Imagine how strange seeing this on TV after school was. But it wasn’t so much that it was strange as that it was the Seventies…