My Zappa Story
THE THRILLING CONCLUSION, UPDATED 12/14/06
PART ONE: PRELUDE
Some time during my high school years, I became aware of Frank Zappa and The Mothers (of Invention). I figure it might have been in 1974 or so. A classmate of mine, let's call him Tiny, was also a fan and therein formed an outlaw music appreciation bond.
Tiny and I both graduated in the Summer of 1976 and ended up going to different colleges. We kept in touch, though. While I started slogging away at an electronics degree at a community college in the boonies, my pal went to a state university in the heart of the big city. He became a DJ on the college radio station, and this became the catalyst for today's tale...
Right around October Tiny rang me up with some exciting news; he was going to interview Frank Zappa for his radio station! Even more exciting news: he wanted me to help him out with this project!!
Well, there was no way I was ever going to meet any of The Beatles, but here was FRANK ZAPPA being delivered to me on a silver platter! Never mind that we're a couple of clueless eighteen year olds with no idea about how to conduct a proper interview. I mean, FRANK ZAPPA!!! You know, as in "FRANK ZAPPA!!!!"
We decided to get together and hammer out some interview questions. Armed with a legal pad and ball point pen we scribbled out the most idiotic, fan-boy queries imaginable. (My big contribution was, "What kind of equipment do you use?" AWESOME!) I also lent my buddy a Zappa bootleg I had ("Metal Man Has Hornet's Wings") for "research purposes."
I arranged with a local media studies program to borrow a nice portable stereo cassette recorder, a couple Electrovoice microphones and desk stands for the big day.
PART TWO: MORE PRELUDE
As the big day approached we found out that a fellow from the college newspaper was also going to interview Frank, as well. The good news is, we would get to him first!
For no good reason that I can remember, my buddy decided that I should use his 35mm camera to take photos during our interview. (Pictures? For a radio interview? Uh, OK.)
This means that on that day of days I would be schlepping the tape deck, two mikes, two stands and now a camera! But, I mean, this is FRANK ZAPPA, right? No problem, man!
PART THREE: THE BIG DAY ARRIVES
It was a windy, slate-gray Friday in November when we were scheduled to interview Frank. This was a good thing, as Monday through Thursday were real ball-busters for this freshman (8:00am - 9:45pm) and I had Friday afternoons "off."
I got home from class, loaded up the tape deck, mikes and stands and drove our family's swank 1972 Vega over to my pal's house at 3:00. He came bounding out of the front door with his camera, our legal pad full of inane questions and the Zappa bootleg I had previously lent him.
Giddy as a pair of eighteen-year-old, we drove to the Buffalo Holiday Inn. We pulled in to the parking lot and, laden with av equipment, marched up to the front desk to keep our 3:30 appointment with destiny.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Zappa is expecting you," I'd like to imagine we were told. "He is in room 1313. Go right on up!"
We took the elevator to the top floor, walked down the hall and knocked on the door.
A very big, line-backer-slash-hardened-criminal kinda guy answered the door.
"Yo' here for da innerview? C'mon in."
Yes, there in that Holiday Inn rock-star suite was the one, the only Frank Zappa! (Did I mention this was FRANK ZAPPA?!?!? He even a had a complimentary fruit basket and everything! "This," I thought to myself, "is big-time show-biz!")
PART FOUR: HERE WE GO!
Frank and my buddy set themselves down on a couple of chairs on either end of a coffee table whilst I set up the tape deck. Their backs were to a big, plate glass window that over-looked the Buffalo River in the background.
As I set the levels, "Smothers" (the scarey bodyguard-guy) asked which ocean that was outside. My pal explained that it was a river that ran between Lakes Erie and Ontario.
"You're all set, " I announced. "Blab all you want to!"
"Let's BLAB!" said Frank in a playful, cheesy DJ voice.
With that, my pal started peppering FZ with the inane questions we had assembled:
Did you ever finish 'Uncle Meat?' Not Yet.
Was it really gonna be four hours long? No. That was a stupid bit of journalism that somebody put in the Rolling Stone.
What was it about? I'll finish it one day and then you'll see.
While all this was going on, I was snapping pictures of the two. I had to be careful to not meter off the picture window, otherwise we'd just end up with two silhouettes against a background of the river.
"What kind of equipment do you use?" (AH! "my" question!) A Gibson SG with a built-in bi-polar pre-amp and a Vox Superbeatle packed with fiberglas.
It dawns on me that we're bungling this assignment. My pal's interview style was to simply read the idiotic questions we'd prepared and then then say, "Yeah, great!" after each answer. No follow-up, no conversational quality. We made James Lipton look like... like.. well, somebody other than James Lipton.
The interview ground to it's end and we thanked Frank for his time. At this point, my pal finally ad-libbed a question! Spotting a record jacket on the floor, he asked, "Oh, is this the new album?"
"Yeah, take a look," said Frank as he handed him the "ZOOT ALURES" LP.
"Hmmm. 'Black Napkins' eh?" My pal mused. "That's an old song isn't it?"
"No," replied Frank. "That's brand-new on this album."
(Here's the point where things really "jumped the shark!")
"OH, BECAUSE I JUST HEARD THIS SONG ON A BOOTLEG AND IT SAID YOU PERFORMED IT A LONG TIME AGO!"
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Now Frank is VERY interested in these two eigtheen-year-old idiots!
VERY INTERESTED, INDEED!!
PART FIVE: WHAT'S MINE IS YOUR'S?
"Do you have this album with you?" Frank asked.
"Yeah! It's down in the car!" crowed my buddy. "Craig, why don't you run down and get it for us?"
WTF? Number one, it's my album. Number two, since when am I your errand boy? But, you know, this is FRANK ZAPPA!!!! So, I high-tailed it down to the parking lot, snatched the LP out of the car and double-timed it back to the rock star suite.
"Ah, here it is, Frank!" buddy-boy announced. "Craig, give the record album to Mr. Zappa." (I added that last part to make my "friend" sound extra high-handed. Nice touch, don't you think?)
Frank held the album with both hands and glared at it with his beady, black eyes. Clouds of what looked like dry ice vapor seemed to be coming out of his ears.
"Mistah Zappa wanna buy that record from you," Smothers rasped in my ear.
"That's a really great album, Frank!" my clueless, yet status-seeking friend remarked.
"How much ya want for it?" Zappa monotoned.
"Uh, well, it cost me eight dollars..." I stammered.
"How about a couple tickets and some backstage passes to the show?" buddy-boy piped up.
(Hey, goof-ball! We already have tickets to the show and about the last thing I wanna do is draw this out! Oh, and P.S. - it's not yours to barter with in the first place!)
"Done!" replies Frank. "Now, where did you get this record?"
As Frank's stink-eye bored a hole into my very being a flood of thoughts burst forth. I had gotten the LP at a local record store that previous Summer. I didn't want to rat out may pals at "Play It Again Sam!" What to do? What to do?
"Uh, I bought it through the mail," I squeaked. Good, good.
"From whom?" cross-examined counsellor Zappa.
"Um, well, it was from an ad in the back of Rolling Stone!" Ah - quick thinking on my part! This was back in the days when bootleg dealers would run classified ads for "Rare Records" in the back of RS. This would take the heat off my friends and put it squarely on the doorstep of folks who were nutty enough to ply their wares in a national publication.
But wait! I'm not off the hook yet!
"Bring me a copy of that Rolling Stone to the show tonight," replied Frank.
"Oh, no problem, man!" my buddy replied.
PART SIX: EXIT, STAGE RIGHT
In a daze, I gathered up the av equipment whilst Tiny hammered out the backstage pass details with Smothers. The deal done, we made our goodbyes with FRANK ZAPPA. I was ladened with so much junk all I could do was gamely hold out a mike stand for Frank to shake as we left. He got a slight chuckle out of this.
As we left, the college newspaper scribe, Alan Millman, arrived.
[NOTE: I will say this - Frank was very cordial to us during this whole ordeal. He very easily could've cut us short and thrown us out five minutes into the alleged "interview" yet he didn't. He certainly could've raised holy hell with us over the whole bootleg fiasco, but he didn't. (Mind you he would later go on to release those "Beat The Boot" box sets through Rhino Records to do just that!) I have the overall impression that he actually liked his fans! This is a man who remembered what it was like to have spent $5 of his birthday money on a long distance telephone call to his musical idol, Edgar Verese.]
We drove back to the suburbs with my pal chuckling about what a smooth operator he was and what a great deal he made with his buddy's bootleg LP.
Now all I had to do was buy a copy of Rolling Stone, pick up my associate and head down to MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM for the show.
PART SEVEN: ENTER, BACK STAGE
Initially, my brother, Scott, and I were going to the ZAPPA concert together. Thanks to my buddy's motor-mouth, I now had to blow off Scott, so I could go backstage with that copy of Rolling Stone. I gave my brother the extra ticket and he called some friend of his to share in the windfall.
I ran over to a local newsstand and grabbed that month's issue of RS. Then it was back home to get Scott and his lucky friend. The three of us breezed over to Tiny's house to pick him up and away we went, to the Auditorium.
Scott and his pal (I wonder who it was, my memory fails me here) went in the front, being as they were ticket holders. Tiny and I went around to a back entrance. Lo and behold! Our names were at the gate along with not two, but two pairs of tickets and passes! Huh - as if a couple dweebs like us would've had dates!
With our backstage passes proudly stuck on our coats, we marched to the band room like a couple of kings.
Yep, there was Smothers, all right!
"Yo' got the magazine?" he asked in his best Scoring-An-Eightball voice.
"Here it is," I replied. "The ads you're looking for are in the back section under 'Music Classifieds.' Right... here!"
"OK, boys. Thanks. Enjoy the show." And with that Smotheres exited my life forever. WHEW!
Turning around I noticed Frank and the band tuning up, chatting and generally milling about. We gave Frank one last wave and, fighting the urge to grab something off the food service table, went up front for the show.
It was a great concert, all right! And thanks to the passes, we could hang around right in front of the stage. I guess the day didn't end that badly after all.
PART EIGHT: RADIO, RADIO
Well, "the big day" had passed and it was time to get down to business.
Tiny, who had a darkroom in his parents' basement, developed the film I had shot during the interview. (My favorite picture was one of Frank eating an apple from the complimentary ftruit basket. I kept a print of it for years, but I don't remember seeing it lately.)
I, meanwhile, set about assembling a half-hour radio show. I transferred the interview to 1/4" reel-to-reel tape and then made a hand-written transcript. I did my best to edit the Q & A into coherent chunks that I then interspered with blasts of Zappa music, It was a real work out for my splicing blocking, let me tell you!
(At this point in our already overly-long story, I will condense some things to paper over some holes in my memory and to expedite the denoument.)
On broadcast day, my buddy and I went to the college radio station for his airshift. We got there early enough for him to suggest we hang out at the student center.
"Yeah, sure," thought I. "Why not?"
Once there, Tiny ran over to some goofy, coin-operated contraption that had a couple of college-types hunkering over it. Well, we were at a college...
Excited, Tiny asks, "Ever play foosball?" (Hey, remember this is 1976, people!)
"No," I replied. "Looks like fun!"
"Oh, it's a blast!" buddy-boy says as he puts a quarter on the table, next to the coin slot. Apparently this is done to signify that the quarter-placer wishes to play the winner of the current round.
Game over, my "friend" then commenced playing foosball for the next 45 minutes, while I stood around watching him. Oh, joy. Let me tell you, there's nothing better than standing around a student union watching someone else play foosball.
Tiny's air shift was just about to start, so he reluctantly broke himself away from his winning streak and we scooted over to the student radio station. Once in the broadcast booth, we threaded up the tape and when the string of PSAs ended, we hit the play button.
The tape played, the splices held and I'm sure the college students who were listening in, all eight of them, enjoyed it. At least I'd like to think so.
Tiny took the mike, introduced his first album cut and started up turntable #1. The first track of the new Sparks album blared forth and he cut off the mike.
"I gotta run out for a minute," Tiny said while cuing up turntable #2. "I'll be back." And with that he ran out of the broadcast booth to Lord knows where. The bathroom? Back to that damned foosball table?
Minutes passed and I noticed that the Sparks song was about to end. Now I'm starting to worry. Where's the DJ? Hell, I don't even go to this school! What to do? What to do?
As the tune faded out, I sprang into action. I cross-faded to turntable #2 and hit the button. Ah, a seemless transition to Blue Oyster Cult. Just like a professional radio engineer!
"KA-RAAAAAAAIG!" I heard a bengal tiger roaring my name out in the hall.
"Such fury!" I thought. Except that was no bengal tiger. It was my good buddy who had suddenly remembered he had wandered away from the booth during his air shift.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOOOING?!?!" he screamed. "I was gonna feature that Sparks album in its ENTIRETY and you've gone and ruined it!!! KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF THE BROADCAST EQUIPMENT!!!!"
Having delivered his tirade, he turned on his heel and ran back out of the room.
Well, screw this!
First, I do all the heavy lifting recording and photographing this friggin' interview. Then my ass-wipe buddy gets me in hot water with one of my heroes by crowing about and ultimately giving away my ZAPPA bootleg. Then I spend a week editing together his stoopid radio special only to be ignored while Mr. Superstar-Student-DJ plays foosball. And now this clod is YELLING AT ME because I tried to help him out?!?!?
"Fuggit! And Fug him!" thought I.
I walked out of the broadcast booth, out of the student union and into the parking lot. Firing up the engine of my parents' 1972 Vega, I drove home.
"But what about the photos?" you might well ask.
Well they figure in the concluding chapter...
PART NINE: THE CHRISTMAS FINALE!
A week or so after the radio station incident, the new issue of FOXTROT, Buff State's college music newspaper, came out. I would typically pick up my copy at the "Play It Again Sam" record store that was down the street from the college.
Grabbing the issue from the rack, I eagerly flipped through to find the Alan Millman Zappa interview.
Aha! There it is! Ringed with really dark, newprint-y, half-toned versions of the photos I snapped!
More "aha!": There's the photo credit!
And even more "aha!": The credit reads, "Photographs by Tiny Baloney." (Saw that one coming, didn't you?)
I stood there open-mouthed.
My one moment of glory was snatched away by my good buddy. To say I went into a teen-aged funk would not be an understatement.
Of course I shared my agony with my (actual) other friend, Bill. He related that Tiny had told him that he purposely grabbed the photo credit to somehow teach me a lesson for "being such an asshole" at the radio station the other week. "Yeah, he just disappeared, man!"
Oh, what a bitter world! I licked my wounds through my final exams and the attendant holiday season ramp-up.
Dawn broke on Christmas Day, 1976. At that time, my family was still pretty much intact, with my older sister even living at home between semesters. Presents were unwrapped, breakfast was eaten and wrapping paper was baled up.
Then the phone rang.
"Craig," my mother called. "It's for you."
"Uh, Merry Christmas," came the reply on the other end of the line. It was Tiny.
"Uh, look, I'm sorry about that photo credit. I turned it in with both our names on it and they ended up just using mine," he explained.
"Oh," I replied. "Well, Merry Christmas. See ya in 1977."
Well, if that isn't a Christmass-y feel-good ending, I don't know what is. Two inarticulate teen-aged boys not quite communicating with each other on the telephone.
Tiny and I worked on some other projects after this. One project was a band called "The Atones" during the Summer of 1979. And just to bring things full circle, the only cover tune we performed was "Trouble Coming Every Day" from The Mothers' "Freakout" album.
"God bless us. God bless us, everyone," said Tiny Tiny. (Cue the Christmas music...)