Thursday, May 5, 2011

"What they've got was an apparent flash from the master."

Frank Zappa taught me a lot on how to do an interview on radio.  What I learned was not to compromise.  Frank demands total creative control in his realm.  So should you in your own.  Here's how that all went about...

In the early '70s, I thought I had BIG IDEAS for what radio could become.  And I was test driving; trying every Mad Scientist experiment one could do in terms of audio alchemy on my living wireless lab, Space Pirate Radio.  The audacity of youth.  I believed anything was possible.  And this included the idea of a community of artists.  Although raised on Top 40 radio, inspired by the British and European (and even Mexican) so-called Pirate Radio stations and then charged up by Freeform FM stations, I wanted to take it further.  Old '30s, '40s & '50s radio drama, coupled with the international hook-up of shortwave, added to the immediacy of ham broadcasting...it was hi-fi/sci-fi time.  "I have a dream...actually I have a whole bunch of them!"  Meet me on the glowing cathode.

Visual Aural.  Sounds like high tech porno from Prague.  Well...maybe a bit.  But really, it's Rotwang's early answer to Clear Channel, only with the Soul remaining intact.

KTYD in Santa Barbara in the '70s was a great place for all of us On Air loons to do our Own Thing.  I'm sure if you tapped on the glass enclosed case of the breathing apparatus that houses the few remaining semi-conscious members of the airstaff, held up a large written piece of paper, scrawled in big letters with black or red ink...something simple, like..."DID YOU HAVE FREEDOM TO PLAY WHAT YOU WANTED ON THE RADIO?" they might gasp through the airtube a gargle, that the Berlitz School of Language would interpret...as "Yes."

So I had heard Frank Zappa say in an interview that there was NO FREEDOM on commercial radio.  The commercial radio stations wouldn't play his music, no diversity, etc.  Well here we were, in Santa Barbara, definitely a commercial radio station (we had commercials and some of them were the most outrageous commercials you could possibly have on the air, but that's another topic later).  Zounds!  Methinks I will invite Frank to come on Space Pirate Radio.  He can play ANYTHING he wants to play, SAY anything he wants to say...and he will witness the true freedom of our Utopian radio station.  Progressive radio!  Progress in action!

So I call Herb Cohen, his manager at Reprise Records, and see if we can make magic happen.  Frank and the Mothers of Invention are coming to play the Big Avocado...UCSB's own Metropolitan Opera House...the Robertson Gym!

This will be great!  Frank will come aboard the Space Pirate Radio airship, have the freedom to play what ever he wants, say what ever he feels.  What liberation!  What a joy!  He will share the communal ecstasy of kindred spirits.  It's all placed in motion.  A new age begins with a tiny step in radio freedom.  Except...

Now let me say here, I was a fan of Zappa, but not as in awe as others might be.  I did buy Freak Out when it first came out...I am that old.  I loved Peaches in Regalia from Hot Rats and admired 200 Motels as a film and album (I used Mystery Roach as a song in my X-Rated play at Santa Barbara City College, Void in Wisconsin).

But I have to admit my interest in Frank and the Mothers was more in how they had inspired the psychedelic, experimental bands of Germany and elsewhere in Europe.  Amon Duul 2, which was first played on commercial radio with Space Pirate Radio, saw the Mothers of Invention as a major influence, as well as Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.  However, much was lost in translation.  Guru Guru was another. The problem with these bands in Europe was that they were inspired by the freakiness of these Kalifornia bands, but not aware of how diametrically opposed their philosophies were.  The German bands were utopian.  Frank, despite the long hair and Donovan like psychedelic photo shoots, was definitely dystopian.  An East L.A. lowrider, Mad Maximillian dystopian.  And wait for it...an ultra conservative.  The mind explodes!

This will all come out in the wash later.

So there are major differences between the Mothers and their European inspired counterparts.  Politics for one.  Sensuality and Eroticism for the other.  The Euro bands had a more Romantic core to their work.  Frank saw women in a much more crass way.  After all, this was the man who wrote music inspired by the actual Enema Bandit.  The Germans enjoyed free love.  Frank had the GTO's.  Communal as opposed to dictatorial.  I'm not aware of all this contradiction at the time.  I just want to get him to play radio.

So, it's all set.  Till...the last minute.  Cohen tells me, Frank doesn't want to do the radio show.  But he consents to an interview after the show.  Rat turds.  Hot Rat turds.  The concept, the euphoria, the freedom is gone.  It's now Dick Clark with Syd Barrett.  If I had been smarter, I should have said no.  But it's Frank Zappa...let's improvise.  When I was Entertainment Editor for KTMS, I had no problem with those kind of on the run, Access Hollywood, Showbiz Tonight, toady catch as catch can backstage, soundbite type glamour interviews.  But this was meant to be different.  It's all new and there is no net here.  We will learn from our falls, as long as our spine is not broken.

Now it's different.  Instead of getting Frank in a comfortable environment, I will have to try and create some sort of artistic rapport backstage, surrounded by others, after an intense performance.  Like smoking on the Hindenberg.  Safe.

Actually, it started out pretty cool.  I was invited to the soundcheck and this was quite special.  I recorded it and it is hidden in the SPR archives.  Frank was not the aggressive persona he liked to play.  He played beautiful guitar solos that never appeared in the actual show.  I'm in the bleachers, taping away.  He's doing a wonderful piece of guitar work, stops and yells out to me..."Is that too loud?  Does that hurt you?"  Not at all.  It's sublime.  This feels good.  I am optimistic that some of the spark that I had hoped would happen in the studio can be generated in the field.

Showtime.  Concert goes on but with none of the softer, sensual moments of the soundcheck.  It's like a different persona comes on for the crowd.  Hmmm.  Aftershow, backstage, the interview...I'm not sure this is going to translate Space Pirate Radio style.  Is there a style?  Well, it's new...and we are still experimenting here.  Now realize, this is before Howard Stern and all those idiotic morning zoo type of jocks.  It's late night, freeform with all my influences: Mad Magazine, Ernie Kovacs, the Goon Show, Firesign. Music and humour.  Both avant-garde and progressive.  Can this alchemy work?  Lead or gold?  Maybe, yes.  Maybe, no.

I meet Frank Zappa with microphone and this Frank is different from Frank I met in soundcheck.  He has his entourage with him, wife Gail I assume (no introductions), a bit of a harem (Sheik Yerbooti?).  I start the interview tongue definitely in cheek.  Conceptual artist, try new concepts.  "So, Frank," I ask..."What do you think of the new revolution?"  "What revolution?" Frank replies.  "The one that will happen when President Ford is assassinated in Lincoln Theatre."  (Now I think this pun is super high concept...surely the Zappmeister will be dazzled by this unique take on the traditional interview.  Light years ahead of the Colbert Report.)

"You're full of shit," Frank responds to my creativity.  We're friends immediately.  I knew I could set the right tone.  "No one has the guts to play my music," Frank implies.  But Frank, it is pointed out...We (KTYD AM & FM) played your song Billy the Mountain at 3.p.m.today, a song with the F word quite pronounced.  Even manager Herb Cohen in the room sez, "It's true Frank. I heard it driving up."  Frank's response: "Well the F.C.C. will throw your butts in jail."  It was at this point I realized that with Frank Zappa, if you loved his music...you were an asshole.  If you hated his music...you were an asshole.  It was a no win situation.  There was only one spotlight and it was on Frank.  No wonder so many talented musicians and artists came and went through the doors.  Again, I noticed that after the tape recorders were turned off, he became more human.  It seemed like it was a role he had to play.  Frank vs. the world.  To the outside world he was a freak, but his family mindset was ultra conservative, atomic bunker type.  Very strange.  When he got sick later in his life, he moved to the left, or so it seemed, but it was too late.

Missed opportunity.

But it changed how later Space Pirate Radio interviews would be held.  No more compromises.  I really only wanted to talk to the artists I truly liked or wished to get to know on a creative level.  And it had to be friendly.  Like with Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, with his wife Janet...we went out to dinner first, got to know each other, felt comfortable before going in front of the microphone.  The chat was perfect, easy going, spontaneous and sincere.  And it was fun.  No bullshit.  This pattern continued in all my later interviews: Bryan Ferry, Bill Bruford, Edgar Froese, Steve Hackett, Pete Bardens, Thomas Dolby, Richard Butler, Mike Oldfield as well as my non-music guests (the film & literary types).

Just friends, hoping for a bit of Utopia.