Frank Zappa and Margarita Fridays, by Rip Rense


by Rip Rense

(Originally published in The L.A. Weekly  c. 2014)


I drove out to that curious little postage-stamp of a cemetery called Westwood Memorial Park one recent sunny morning—you know, the place where black Porsches double-park to unload aggressively coiffed starlets who theatrically deposit posies at the slot filing the remains of Marilyn Monroe.

I had come to visit a friend, not that I had any confidence I would feel fulfilled by the gesture. It was a compulsion I felt periodically, and still feel, even though he’s been gone two years. A cemetery employee steered me to the resting place, as unassuming a gravesite as my friend’s personality wasn’t. He rests length-wise, I was told, under the gentle boughs of a shady camphor tree, in an unassuming, yet-unmarked, grassy plot.

I stood there a while, tried speaking a few words— “well, strange you should wind up like this—rather anti-climactic”—but derived no satisfaction from the exercise. Instead, I allowed my mind to wander through memories of the last few years of his life, how uncharacteristically sociable and, occasionally downright happy he became— despite an ongoing battle with the horrible complications of cancer.

I first met Frank Zappa in 1975, when I interviewed him for the old Valley News (now Daily News). After the session, as I rose to leave, Frank suggested that I instead “take my coat off and sit down,” and we talked for several more hours, there in the basement studio of his Hollywood Hills home, just to talk—the first of many conversations to take place over 18 years. Seems we had similar attitudes about a lot of things.

“Why would I want to do that?” I can still hear him say, during our second talk, also in 1975, when I’d naively asked if he ever felt like getting out for fresh air, at the mountains, or the beach. “Why would I want to do that when I can stay here and work? If I want the beach, I can look at a picture.” (I still wonder if his sneering “Let Me Take You To The Beach,” written at about that time, might have had something to do with that question.)

It was during that talk I first realized that Frank Zappa— musican/composer/satirist/bandleader/social commentator/crusader against censorship/lifelong champion of avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse—was about as fascinated with music as is humanly possible. He lived almost entirely for it, for the black dots and lines he taught himself to arrange on staves when he was a teenager (and stopped arranging only when his body would no longer allow him to sit at a keyboard). He simply adored the manipulation of sound waves and the way they tickled his ears. His terse credo, “Music is the best,” was terse for a reason.

Frank Zappa & Synclavier II

It is really not an exaggeration to say Zappa was a composer of Beethovenian drive; his preoccupation with music was comparable to that of the late reclusive super-genius pianist Glenn Gould. Time and energy were undependable, inadequate allies for Frank; he made do with them, ever stretching their limits through insomniac nights with the only drugs he ever abused: caffeine and nicotine. He would sit, often until dawn, poring over great reams of composition paper (or, in later years, a computer screen), working with an urgency that became terrible and poignant as his health declined. It is well known, of course, that he also took time, too, with wife Gail, Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva Zappa, but I never knew Frank to really love anything outside his sound-world other than his family. Conventional socializing, or “relaxing,” seemed incontrovertibly alien to him; the idea of small-talk would practically make him hold his nose. It was a criminal waste of good work time.

Until, that is, those last three or four years.

It was then, as Zappa doggedly fought the pernicious and crippling effects of mestasticizing prostate cancer, and its equally punishing treatments—composing at his Synclavier keyboard when he sometimes was barely able to even walk, or speak—that his devoted staff of technicians and secretaries had the temerity to sneak up on him with a bloated, crass, unapologetic American social tradition: TGIF Margarita Night! That’s right, the guy who burlesqued middle-American cocktail lounge sensibilities (or insensibilities, perhaps) in 1966 with “America Drinks and Goes Home” was more or less visited by those same sensibilities—albeit with tacit irony—right in his sacred retreat. It was “Zappa Drinks and Goes Home,” you might say, and it was the best, most improbable medicine anyone could have offered.

Frank Zappa’s Utility Muffin Research Kitchen


At Gail Zappa’s behest, the blenders roared every Friday evening about 6. In short order, Frank’s staff of invaluable studio wizards and office workers became duly sloshed and took to verbally slaying the dragons-of-the-week in tones that can be gently described as rollicking. At first, the Boss merely tolerated this, grudgingly accepting it as a necessity for non-workaholics and continued quietly writing, oh-so-carefully listening, deftly editing, and tweezing, as he liked to say, in his pristine, ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art basement studio, the “Utility Muffin Research Kitchen” (a reference to the Zappa song “Muffin Man,” more recently amplified to “Utility Muffin Research Kitchen & Baby Milk Factory” in honor of the Iraqi “dairy factory” that was actually manufacturing bio-chemical weapons during the Gulf War). This soon proved problematic. Running leviathan computerized keyboard systems required assistants—assistants who were not snockered—so, in time, the labor fiend was forced to observe the Friday breaks.

He actually took a Margarita in hand.

The scope of such a compromise, in Frank’s mind, can only be imagined. At this point—late 1991—he strongly suspected that his time might be short; he had been feverishly (literally) devoting every carbohydrate of energy he could conjure to finishing a half-dozen major projects—including the opus that he regarded as the most ambitious of his life, a sprawling 113-minute Synclavier/orchestral netherworld called Civilization, Phaze III, composed over a period of ten years (released posthumously in 1994). Sacrificing even a few hours of work time was not terribly desirable—but he assessed the situation with characteristic clinicism (or was he merely rationalizing?).

“Nobody else will work, so I can’t get anything done.”

After several months of de facto participation in TGIF Margarita Fridays, Frank seemed to join in the proceedings with less resignation. The staff eventually began to voice suspicions that the composer might be “getting used to” the little soirees. His dry, baritone, staccato laugh, after all, routinely underscored everyone else’s as the weekly slew of international socio-political absurdities (often including Dan Quayle) was raucously skewered. One momentous Friday afternoon, Zappa stunned all concerned by announcing that he was going to quit working a few hours early and “take a nap so I’ll have enough energy for Margaritas.” This was sort of equivalent to Da Vinci announcing that he would be fitting in scientific experiments around, oh, Parchisi. In time, Zappa’s plain enjoyment of these events—a novel experience to him—reached such a level that, during his final year of life, he took to encouraging people to stop in—sometimes even phoning to extend invitations. I noticed that recipients of these summonses—including some whom had known Zappa for years—often showed up with the same slightly startled look.

Ultimately, the little TGIF nights evolved into affairs rather like old-fashioned salons—festive gatherings of accomplished personages at the home of another accomplished personage. Salon night, in fact, was Frank’s preferred term. Hundreds—thousands, perhaps—came to pay respects from all over the world: diplomats, conductors, composers, guitarists, actors, directors, writers, an entire small orchestra… persons as varied in orientation as singer Tom Jones and legendary nonagenarian conductor/composer/lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky. Zappa—notably after a trip to Eastern Europe in which he took appreciative note of old-world manners—had taken to greeting guests warmly, with a smile and an almost deliberately courtly handshake. It was charming for its sincerity and mild awkwardness.

Tender and oddball moments at the Friday salons were legion. One night, about 30 members of the classically-trained European new music group Ensemble Modern—which had just recorded and performed Zappa’s most well-received orchestral venture, The Yellow Shark— crowded into the studio and rowdily clamored for Frank to play guitar. Although the virtuoso had not touched the instrument in months, he at last yielded to pressure and reached for an acoustic. The room fell into the kind of respectful silence that only musicians can supply. “After all these years,” Frank said, pregnantly, “This is the only thing I can remember.” With that, he ham-fisted the opening chords of a tune he probably first learned as a teenager in San Diego, a tune that recurred like a Wagnerian leitmotiv throughout his huge body of work: “Louie, Louie.” The Ensemble Modern players fell apart in laughter.

One of the most spectacular salon evenings produced what might just have been the most peculiar recording session in history—peculiar, that is, for the disparate styles of the participants: The Chieftains (the Irish folk music ensemble non pareil ), the magnificent drummer Terry Bozzio, blues guitar legend Johnny “Guitar” Watson, jazz/fusion violinist L. Shankar, and several Tuvan “throat” singers from northern China. The Chieftains piped and plucked, Bozzio thumped, Shankar fiddled, the Tuvans whipped up a Mongolian folk ditty in their unique, nasally, double-toned drone (the song concerned their nomadic life as herdsmen), and Watson strummed minor chords, periodically offering the Tuvans chuckling, pithy encouragements like “Sing about them sheep, now.” The master of ceremonies particularly relished recounting that eclectic night, despite the fact that pain forced him to retire early (some of that session will be released on Dance Me This, one of several forthcoming albums Zappa managed to complete).

At still another salon evening, I witnessed one of the most extraordinarily interesting conversations I’ve ever heard. I still kick myself for not having brought a tape recorder. It was the night that filmmaker Leonard Shrader stopped in, at the encouragement of a friend, just a few months before the composer passed away. Shrader, brother of director Paul and director of Mishima, the biography of the Japanese artist/author Yukio Mishima, is an imposing story in himself—what with a life spent mostly in Japan and a resume of adventures that includes hiding U.S. G.I.s who went AWOL from Vietnam.

The evening did not begin with promise. Zappa was in such discomfort that speech, let alone conversation, required fearsome effort. The filmmaker was about as unused to socializing as the composer and obviously uncomfortable about imposing on an ailing man he had never met. Yet as the two mutually curious and brilliant minds engaged one another, both Shrader’s timidity and Zappa’s pain seemed to disappear. It was one of those stupefying examples of mind-over-body, the kind of constructive diversion that happiness-therapy advocate Norman Cousins would have applauded.

The discussion, several hours in length, hop-scotched through all manner of esoteric history (the Mongols’ innovative weaponry and peripatetic conquest of Europe); wildly incisive, possibly prosecutable, economic theory; origins of humankind; the nature of time; hygienic habits of Renaissance royalty, etc. Ultimately, as with any good free-wheeling yack session, all the subjects began to appear irrevocably part of one framework; linkage was explored and implied. Both participants were dazzlingly knowledgeable, penetrating, occasionally fanciful. My paltry contribution was on the subject of the first human utterance. I suggested that a good candidate was the Mandarin word for “hungry,” which is, more or less, a grunt. That led to the following question from Frank: “What do you think the first story was?”

Shrader mulled that one over a while, said that he’d like to mull it some more. Frank offered this: “Whatever it was, I’ll bet it was a lie. You know, ‘I wasn’t with her, I was out hunting and gathering’.”

Matt “The Simpsons” Groening was a favorite attendee of the salons. One evening’s arcane chat strayed from favorite bad horror films (From Hell It Came, featuring the walking tree monster, The Tobanga, was the composer’s preference) to a discussion of Zappa’s Dada-esque philosophy of creating art: “Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All,” or AAAFNRAA. This led, not illogically, to an exchange about the nature of time. In part, it went like this:

“I think of time as a spherical constant,” said Frank, “which means that everything is happening all the time. It provides an easy explanation for premonitions, ghosts, flashbacks, because the whole concept of time that human beings have had is taking something they can’t really comprehend and settling for a mediocre explanation of how it works. They take a linear approach to it, slice it in segments, and then hop from segment to segment to segment until they die, and to me that is a pretty inefficient way of preparing a mechanical ground base for physics. That’s one of the reasons why I think physics doesn’t work. When you have contradictory things in physics, one of the reasons they became contradictory is because the formulas are tied to a concept of time that isn’t the proper model. So in my model, time is a spherical constant and everything is happening all the time. And we just don’t have access to those segments of the sphere that we might want to access. Except on rare occasions where something goes wrong with the human condition or some wiring is changed. In some people the wiring may be genetically altered, and you may be able to look not into the future, but just look ‘sideways,’ and come up with a glimpse of the way things ‘will be’ down the road in normal person time—except that you’ve just seen it now, because it’s happening now as well as later.” Responded Groening: “That’s like reruns!” “Exactly!” said Zappa.

There were joyous evenings, like the time Moon dropped in with a street puppeteer who put on a beguiling show for the assembled guests. And the time a small group gathered to view a BBC documentary on Frank’s life that ended with what I believe is far and away his most overtly sentimental and beautiful composition, “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” It’s music that has a benedictive, looking-back-over-the-shoulder quality. The moment proved overpowering to the composer, who covered his eyes. Gail, seated beside him with his hand in hers, declared as the “Easter Hay” chords began, “Oh, please don’t do this to me.”

There are other memories, not so recountable, of the man’s struggle to stay healthy enough to finish his last pieces of beloved music. Sometimes, when the pain became grotesque, he’d reluctantly retire and miss the TGIF conviviality. On those occasions, his staff members carried on anyhow, their boisterous laughter redoubled in an effort to carry upstairs into the ears of the boss and boost his spirits. Just days before he “left for his final tour,” as his family phrased it, Frank was asking to have his hospital bed wheeled down to his Synclavier, so he might do a little more work.

My favorite memory of those many special nights, as I write this, was the last such salon I attended, in the summer of 1993. It was, in fact, the night of the great talk with director Shrader. In the presence of two lively and encyclopedic minds, I had correctly relegated myself mostly to the role of eavesdropper. Afterward, however, I was ready with a contribution. It was a real AAAFNRAA; a non-sequitur; a pure absurdity. Of course, I knew that few people appreciated absurdity as much as a guy who named his entreprenurial business Intercontinental Absurdities. Besides, as he said on the Mothers Live at the Roxy album, “I love monster movies.” I readied my tape recorder.

“This requires a bit of set-up,” I said. “In one of the cheesiest of the old Universal Frankenstein movie sequels, Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor, the crazed shepherd played by Bela Lugosi, plots to have his brain implanted in the monster’s head. Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), aids in the plot. The monster eventually revives from surgery—with Ygor’s brain—then rampages through the house, which, like all Frankenstein houses, is surrounded by angry villagers. Ygor/Frankenstein opts to lure the villagers into the house, which is outfitted with gas jets, and do away with them en masse. And this is what he yells.

I hit the tape. Out came the gravelly voice of the great Lugosi, screaming, “Bohmer! Turn on the gas!” I played it repeatedly.

Zappa literally doubled over with deep laughter, his face crinkled, tears in his eyes. On the AAAFNRAA scale, it was apparently a ten. I played the tape again and again, and he laughed on and on, as did I, until at last he became collected enough to bid me goodnight. We shook hands, for what turned out to be the last time, and, as I rose leave, I heard the final words I ever heard Frank Zappa speak—quintessentially sardonic, ironic, somewhat bitter, painfully blunt, and hilarious:

“Turn on the gas!”

Earlier in the evening, I’d remarked to him how wonderful all the Margarita/Salon Nights had been. (Miraculous, perhaps, would have been a better word—Zappa outlived doctors’ predictions by years, and I’m convinced the Friday fests are partly responsible.) “Maybe you’ll write about them some day,” he said, with the unmistakable tone of a suggestion. And so I have.

And as I walked away from Westwood Memorial Park that afternoon, I turned to glance once more at the graceful boughs of that shady camphor tree.

Maybe next time, I’ll bring a Margarita.

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