In Person: The Mothers of Invention

Doon Arbus

The Mothers of Invention remember it well. They remember white bucks and pompadours and pimples and going steady. They remember rock-and-roll in the days of its innocence: songs of self-affirmation ("Rock-and-roll is here to stay/It will never die"); songs of adolescent agony ("I'm so young and you're so old/This my darling I've been told"); the shameless glorification of romantic woe ("Goin' to the river/ Gonna jump overboard and drown"); and the eloquence of nonsense lyrics ("pa pa oom mow mow," "dombee doobee dom," or "sha da da da, sha da da da da da"). Alan Freed, the lindy, or even the real Elvis Presley already seem like part of history, but the Mothers were there in their late teens and they remember.

Frank Zappa, composer, conductor, lead guitarist and unquestionably the leader, ambles on stage. He is wearing a purple high-school cardigan, knit pants, and butterscotchcolored shoes with pointy, turned-up toes. His face is made of planes and angles, like a house of cards, and is framed by a mantle of squiggly, black curls. The mustache and abrupt goatee form an upside-down anchor. He is like a wild, woodsy hermit, either very benign or very ferocious.

The other six Mothers follow at their leisure. They make an incongruous group. Each seems a distinct, Technicolor character, as identifiable as Hollywood. Billy Mundi, the rotund, unjovial drummer, is a baker from the French Revolution. Roy Estrada, caressing his electric bass, looks perplexed and determined, like a Polish anarchist. Don Preston sits within the circle of piano, organ and clavichord, well intentioned and vague, a Don Quixote before the windmill encounter. Bunk Gardner, absorbed in his collection of wind instruments, appears oblivious to everything except the anticipation of playing music. With his silver hair and trim beard he exudes the unruffled elegance of a riverboat gambler. Jim Black, the wryeyed, bowlegged beater-of-the-gong, looks like a Mexican bandido. Ray Collins, credited with lungs and ingenuity in the program, is a high-browed Viking.

Zappa has not even glanced at the audience yet. He has been adjusting dials and tuning his guitar. He has chatted inaudibly with Don, tied the shoelaces of his butterscotch shoes, and sipped pale coffee from a glass mug. His nonchalance is, of itself, a kind of frenzy. Finally he approaches the center microphone and peers past the lights, scanning rows like a surveyor.

"Hello, pigs." A few people giggle briefly.

Zappa speaks thickly, deliberately, like a 45 rpm record played at 33 1/3. It makes him seem supremely dispassionate.

"We're gonna lay some 'thick black sounds' on ya," he says, quoting a phrase from a New York Times review of a Mothers' performance.

It begins with a medley of "My Boy friend's Back" ("a rock-and-roll song which some of you may have gotten pregnant to"), followed by "I'm Gonna Bust His Head," and "Ninety-six Tears." Ray is singing and making literal, illustrative gestures. He hunches his shoulders and strides forward, the football-hero boy friend coming back. He places one hand on his hip and swats the air as he sings, "I'm gonna give him such a smack." All the Mothers are ravenous mimics; the source of inspiration is not always detectable.

Between numbers a few Mothers wander around stage. Others carry on pantomime conversations with each other or exchange quips. Zappa often talks to the audience. "The New York Times said we show contempt for our audience. See," he says, holding up his mug of coffee, "con-temptuously I drink this." He spews a mouthful out towards the audience. Most of it lands at the end of the stage. Ray, almost smiling, sweeps up the mess with a broom. They have made an art of silliness.

In the middle of the show Zappa introduces "this strange little person in her mod clothes," who is called Uncle Meat. She is a very young, expressionless girl with silky hair, who sings, sometimes in duet with Ray. They stand with their arms around each other rubbing chests and looking tender and mournful. They even dance with each other, separated by a century of style. Uncle Meat also gazes through a kaleidoscope or rattles a hypnotic rhythm on the tambourine or parries Ray's carrot swordplay using a lettuce leaf for a shield.

They are much more fun to watch than listen to, so that towards the end, when they begin to tire and the singing becomes sporadic and the kidding around loses its fervor, the music becomes relentless. It goes on and on, the volume and insistence making listening to it like a day at the ocean: Afterwards, nothing can be seen but waves. And when it is all over ending very abruptly (Zappa says, "Good night," and all seven leave the stage ), the music seems to go on without them, an engulfing, independent rhythm, like a complementary image of the show.


by Doon Arbus

from "The Age of Rock", Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, edited by Jonathan Eisen, A Vintage Book.

Read by OCR Software, so please excuse typos.


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