Hired By Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa onstage with percussionist Ed Mann

by Ed Mann – Gonzo Today Contributor

Having spent a large part of my career in music working for Frank Zappa, I should say: I’m not a fan, but he’s always impressed me. 

How did I get drawn into (what turned out to be) a lifelong professional and cultural relationship? It still puzzles me, and yet there is form, logic, illogic, premonition, resistance and visualization to this story.

Over the 11 year period I eventually did work for Frank, it would get weird in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It’s still weird! I’m still recovering from this guy.

Zappa? Who is Zappa?

My first exposure to Frank’s music and charismatic mythical/mystical counter culture imagery was in 1966 when Freak Out was released. I was 11 years old at the time, hanging with kids 16-19, who for some reason allowed me in to their music listening gatherings.

One day, someone walks in with Freak Out, and they’re raving about “Zappa” and this album. I was fascinated and impressed. I can’t say I loved the music, it was very cerebral but I had great respect for Zappa and The Mothers. Mostly the Mothers, as there was something about Frank which felt purposefully inaccessible.

I liked Freak Out and I heard the social commentary in it’s message. But the music was too layered and mental for me to become a Zappa fan. Also, I was too fascinated by the content of the music and Frank as an artist. To me he was a genius oddity. I knew he wrote the music but I intuited  (correctly) that it’s realization came equally from the band. I understood immediately that Zappa’s genius was in being a catalyst and synthesist of influences and image creation.

Then summer 1966 was over. For me Frank Zappa and The Mothers were something to be observed, but I never had any desire to join the cult.

With Sgt. Pepper’s and 10x more, performers like Jimi Hendrix grabbed my enthusiastic attention, and I forgot about Zappa. I needed music that had something going on from the heart, gut and beneath the waist.

Fast forward to 1971. I was 16 and writing album reviews for my high school newsletter. A friend put Zappa’s white live album Fillmore East in front of me. “You gotta hear this!” Oh…right. Frank Zappa and The Mothers, I remember. I kind of thought I knew where the band was coming from, so I took the album and listened to it.

Even at 16 I thought Zappa’s focus on porn, spewing and mud-shark groupie stuff was juvenile. How stupid! I thought. What happened to the insightful social and political commentary, what happened to the nuance I heard on, what’s it called? Freak Out! Yeah. But I was struck with how seamlessly this live show was lashed together. The band was great, I liked Zappa’s guitar solos, and there were some great compositions and instrumental sections. 

I listened to Fillmore East probably 10 times, only for the music and musicians. So well-executed, and such a unique blend of jazz, rock and orchestral influences. I thought that the vocal routines were at least partially improvised due to the stunning delivery executed by The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, whom Frank had renamed Flo and Eddie.

Only later did I learn that improvisation was the seed, but by the time Zappa had that band on the road, everything was set. The setups, the gags, everything that I thought was spontaneous had been rehearsed and set in stone. Kudos and much love and respect to singers and spoken-sung artists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. Night after night they made it sound fresh, enthusiastic and their own. Well in fact, it was their own, originally, I would later learn from Howard and Mark themselves. So I wrote a sparkling review of the the album, focusing only on the music, and then once again forgot all about Frank Zappa.

Coming Into Focus

In 1972 I found myself at a music conservatory on a partial scholarship. I hadn’t graduated high school, but my private teacher, the great Al Lepak, was also head of the percussion department at the school, The Hartt College of Music in West Hartford, CT. 

I could relax and be myself with “Mr. Lepak,” and apparently I scared him with a few stories I shared. He could see that I was going down a dangerous path, and that if I was forced to finish high school, I’d probably die from roaring down a mountain dirt road on my motorcycle on a moonless midnight, headlight turned off, ripped on acid and adventurously drunk on warm, cheap gin.

I owe my life to Al Lepak, who one day offered me early exit from high school (awesome!) early entrance to the college on the condition that I pass my freshman year and then I’d be granted my high school diploma. THAT was a miracle. 

You could not be around heady musicians at that time and not hear the name Zappa over and over. I soon hooked up with my lifelong friend Tommy Mariano (aka Mars) at the conservatory. We shared a real love for new music, formed a band and now Zappa compositions were part of a repertoire I really enjoyed playing. I began to associate “Zappa” with new jazz, which I loved.

At the suggestion of Al Lepak, who saw that my interest was not orchestral playing, but experimental progressive music, I sought out innovator John Bergamo. “You should hook up with John Bergamo,” Lepak advised. “He’s out there in L.A. and (ex-students, now studio kings) Emil Richards and Joe Porcaro tell me he’s the go-to guy for what you’re interested in. He teaches at CalArts.” So, I applied to and was accepted at California Institute of the Arts, and in 1973 I moved to Southern CA to study with experimental percussion music master, tabla virtuoso, and post-bop bohemian guru John Bergamo.

One summer night before leaving for CA, I became possessed by this “play in Zappa’s band” idea. I became so driven that I decided to contact Frank himself. I called directory assistance in Los Angeles, seeking his phone number, which of course wasn’t listed. Then, I forgot about it and the next day wondered why I even did that. I didn’t really care, why would I do that? Weird.

It’s 1973 and I’m at a progressive experimental music school in Southern California. Once again, Zappa was put in my face.  Someone dragged me into a dorm room because “I just had to hear” Zappa’s latest, Over-Nite Sensation. OK. Wow! I loved, hated and feared that album. It was undoubtably impressive in its virtuosity, there were some great instrumental compositions, and the band also had more heart and soul than I’d heard from Zappa previously. 

But there was something evil about it too. Demonic. Thank God there was some whimsical comedy. I listened, remembered a tune called “Montana,” and then once again forgot about Frank Zappa.

Enter Frank Zappa

But he wasn’t done with me yet. During the summer of 1975, I was hanging with Guru John Bergamo when he said “Hey, I just got this call from Frank Zappa to play percussion along with Emil Richards in a chamber ensemble project Frank’s organizing, to be performed at Royce Hall, UCLA. Do you want to come to the rehearsal tomorrow?” Sure I did, thank you John! But I felt casual about it too. I wasn’t a fan, I just knew he was great.

The rehearsal was at Frank’s studio on Sunset Blvd., a beautiful wood room that could only be accessed from the alley. While the small orchestra was setting up, I decided to stand outside the door in the alley where I could smoke some weed. A minute later, a Rolls Royce stops at the end of the alley, 1/2 a block away from the studio, and out gets Frank Zappa Himself.

Whoa. Frank definitely had electricity about him. The energy changed in his presence. Wearing a baggy Hawaiian shirt and decidedly tight stylish jeans with beat up sneakers, Frank looks around, fluffs up his hair to look more disarrayed, lights a cigarette, and lifts a giant folder of music out of the car. Hmmm… ok, this is interesting. That’s a lot of music. It was like Frank was carrying a 5 gallon water bottle under one arm, cigarette dangling from his lips.

Hmmm… Why didn’t he direct his driver to let him off at the studio door? In the 2 minutes it took him to walk down the alley, I got it. This was Frank Zappa! Composer and prolific avant-gardener artist. Hollywood was his domain, especially in the summer when it was extra-smoggy. The composer will be seen, strolling purposefully in his domain. I was still taking all this in when Frank walked up to me, put out his hand, introduced himself, and I returned the gesture, took his handshake and said “Hi Frank. I’m Ed,” but nothing else. Frank gave me a warm smile and disappeared into the studio.

Frank didn’t say anything about the joint I was hiding behind my back, probably because I was a stranger standing in the alley, but I didn’t expect him to either. I knew nothing about his position on drugs, and wouldn’t have cared anyway, but now I had a vibe for the guy. So electric! 

He directed the 3 hour rehearsal meticulously. Employees and technicians were everywhere. At the end, a guitar tech walks out to help him into a white hollow body Epiphone guitar, update Frank on the latest mods, Frank plays a few notes, flicks some switches and nods he understands.

“OK, play it again from the top,” says Frank. The orchestra starts, and so does Frank. I couldn’t have imagined guitar over this music before then, but Frank proceeded to play on top of it all, improvising, and suddenly I heard this composition. Frank’s playing was kind of sloppy, but very purposeful, thoughtful and most of all very very musical. “That” I thought “was fucking great.” OK, now I’m really starting get this guy (I thought naively.) Wow… lots to think about.

With that, Frank brought the rehearsal to an end, dismisses the orchestra, all of whom were top L.A. session players, and some of whom (I later found out) worked for Frank gratis. They just wanted to play interesting and challenging music, and in those days they were making 5-15 kilobucks per week playing TV and film music in the studios, so none of this faction needed any money. In fact, they’d been gathering at Frank’s house every Saturday for years, starting up at The Log Cabin, to play Frank’s music for him, free. No charge. 

Later I would learn Frank thought this is how all musicians should be, and while there were a few (like John) whom he wanted to pay, most play-for-pay musicians he held in muted but deep contempt. Especially his band members.

Anyway, once again, I forgot about Frank Zappa.

What? A Session?

Two years later, it’s March 1977. I was a post-grad hanging around CalArts teaching, and John Bergamo approaches, saying “Hey man, Zappa called me again. He’s got this fucking impossible piece called the Black Page he wants me to overdub on, and he said I should bring another percussionist along. Do you want to do it?” He says (Zappa percussionist) Ruth Underwood will be there too. 

“Here, look at this fucking thing,” says Bergamo as he pulls 2 sheets of music out of a folder to show me. “Now you see why it’s called the Black Page.” There were more black printed notes than white space on this page! “But don’t sweat it, Frank says Ruth already knows it and has performed it, so she’ll coach us.” Of course I said yes… yes and thank you John Bergamo… wow. A paying gig! Glad I walked past your office today!

A week later, after one rehearsal at Ruth’s house, there we were at The Record Plant in Hollywood. Nervous. This was a very difficult piece of music… and Frank Zappa was so…intimidating, direct, sharp and clear. Ok I thought, don’t get too wigged out because after all, you’re already off into building your own music which is nothing like Frank’s, so just do your best. I’ve already relayed to Frank through John that I played keyboard mallets as a hobby only. Never gigged on mallets, I’m a drummer and a multipercussionist. And Frank said he understood, “but come down anyway.” 

Then in walks Frank, hair tied tightly back into a crisp bun, elegant clothing, shirt tucked in and… Jesus I didn’t realize how tall he is! I’m intimidated. Then I realized he’s wearing 5” heeled, platform Python Boots. He seems 7 feet tall. He’s got these razor blade eyeballs, he’s reserved but friendly. Thank god our first night is dedicated to non-pitched percussion, wood and metal “found objects.”

As we piece our way through the recording, which consisted of layering percussion solo drums played phenomenally by Terry Bozzio, things relax. Frank loves this stuff. He makes a few suggestions, specifies a few passages, solos the 3 individual percussion feeds, and once when mine was soloed for scrutinization, he turned around and gave me a wink and a thumb-up!

“You’ve only had this music for a week, and you’re still reading it, but how are you able to play these polyrhythmic phrases so easily?” 

“Oh, ah, well… from learning Indian music,” I replied. 

“What? You mean that swami stuff?” Frank asked. Thankfully John Bergamo jumped in to explain, along with a brief demonstration of reciting 3,5, and 7 meters over an 8 beat finger count. “Hmm, I see,” said Frank remotely, and dropped the subject.

The rest of that night was mostly hanging out in the control room with Frank and his wife, Gail. I could tell this was a special occasion for Gail. She was on a rare night out with Frank. It was a date. I could tell she was nervous too, and oddly subservient.

Then Frank proceeded to praise the sonic properties of percussion, he loves it so much. “Yes, percussion is great… too bad percussionists are so unreliable though. Too bad I can’t take percussion on the road anymore.” I can’t nod as though I understand, after all, his brilliant conservatory-trained percussionist Ruth is right there… so I’m just listening and taking what he says all literally and not asking any questions.

“OK” says Frank, let’s do a few more takes. But I’m keeping what we have so far because it’s great.” We record a bit more, then back to the control room to listen, except Frank doesn’t playback any of what we just recorded. Instead, he once again starts lamenting the fact that as he’s learned, he just can’t take percussion on the road. “Percussionists are fickle, and undependable. It’s a lost investment.” 

By now I’m starting to wonder what all of this was about. I didn’t have eyes to be in Frank’s band and I had forgotten about that weird driven night 4 years earlier when I tried to get his phone number. I was following and developing experimental music with John and my friends in the Repercussion Unit, which drew from other influences. And John certainly had no eyes toward being in a Frank band. So why is Frank going on about this victim of fickle percussionists thing? He had employed a lot of percussionists, regularly, especially Bob Estes and Emil Richards. He loved percussion. None of this made any sense to me. 

But then, a clue: “Hey Ruth… how’s your cat?” Frank asks.

Ruth responds, “Oh… he’s better! He didn’t die! I’ve had him on a diet of high quality beef and chicken and I guess it worked because he’s fine now.” 

“Geez,” says Frank “I was sure he was terminally ill, I mean, because he was so sick you had to leave the band 3 years ago.” Aha. Now I was starting to get it. And why did Ruth leave the band anyway? That’s for later. Frank continues, “We got it for tonight so let’s go have lunch” (it’s 3 AM.)

The Fork

Into the Rolls Royce we all pile, wife Gail driving us to some ultra-hip upscale Beverly Hills after hours restaurant for the Stars. The host recognizes Frank right away and escorts us to a table. The menu is outrageous, the finest of everything. Frank ordered cheese fries and Coca Cola. The waitress sets the table, which makes Frank happy because now he has a weapon: the fork. 

Frank begins jabbing at wife Gail with the fork. Playfully at first, but he also doesn’t stop when she asks him to. “No, not now Gail,” I imagined Frank thought. Frank has a captive audience and continues. He didn’t have to say it, because it was obvious: “Guess what? You’re the band, Gail, and I’m the conductor. Now let’s try this again.”

By now John and I are uneasy, Ruth sits with a pasted on smile acting like nothing weird is going on, and Frank is getting more intense with his fork. The food arrives. “Go ahead, eat that” says Frank to Gail. Gail protests weakly. She’s uncomfortable but she’s been through this before, so…she timidly takes a bite. Which only pushes Frank deeper into his public humiliation routine of taunting and stabbing his wife in a restaurant.

Now I suddenly understand the Overnight Sensation album. Yes, there is an evil and demonic element. Gail announces that after one half of an attempted bite, she’s “full” and goes to the ladies room. Frank eats 2 cheese fries with The Fork. Gail returns and Frank stabs her only a few times, but the fun is over. Frank is bored and it’s time to go.

I don’t think any of us really ate much of anything at the upscale Beverly Hills 3 am restaurant of the Stars, but what mattered (I thought) was that we were seen on the scene. And, I had met Frank Zappa, the genius, prolific boundary-pushing composer, musical guitarist, rock star, tyrant, angel/demon, patriarch, benevolent and cruel provider and tormentor, the unpredictable mercurial Wizard King of Hollywood and Laurel Canyon.

It felt as though my odd sporadic fascination with this unusual composer had come to completion. I felt like I then understood why I tried to contact him at age 18, even though I didn’t know his music.

The next night at The Record Plant, Frank arrived alone. No Gail. He seemed a bit depressed, but on point. Ruth did all the mallet overdubs alone, as she had The Black Page memorized since 1976. I was relieved. No way did I want to be on the receiving end if Frank had an episode, and I might.

As we were packing up, Frank says to John and I, “Well, I’ll still pay you guys because you came all the way down here. So I’ll file an extra 2 sessions for tonight.” But John and I both refuse any money for night #2, which Frank did not expect, and it makes him noticeably uneasy. At this moment, he’s not in control. “Really?!” asks Frank. “Nothing?” He’s truly surprised. This will not do. 

“No, look,” he says, “here, I’ve got $120 in my wallet, please take $60 each,” and hands us the cash, but John and I still refuse. We didn’t play on night #2, so we didn’t want any money. Frank accepts, and he feels a bit uneasy, but he’s also a bit pleased. “OK well do you want to hear the album?” (it was to be 1977’s Zappa in New York) and proceeds to play us most of the tracks. Now Frank is feeling good again. 

The night winds to a close, no lunch (thank god), and Frank reiterates his lament of no possibility of having percussion in his band anymore for 10 seconds but the routine was flat by then and it was clear he couldn’t trigger Ruth with it, so he shifts gears and says “it was great to have percussion here in the studio. This stuff really punches up the track, and thank you.” John and I leave, and we both feel happy and relieved. Mission complete. I met Frank. I met Ruth! Cool, and now back to my own music.

The Setup

2 weeks later, end of March 1977, the phone rings, and it’s Ruth! She’s inviting me to visit her at her house that night. I didn’t expect that, but I liked it and it continued. Every week we would spend hours at her house late at night. Strictly platonic, she was 11 years older than me and I viewed her as an icon. We would talk music. She would tell me all her Frank stories, which I really wasn’t ready for, but I could tell she needed to talk to someone, and she had chosen me at least for that night, so… fantastic! Sure Ruth, I’m honored, I like you, and I’m a good listener.

Ruth talked about how important he’s been for her, how much she loved working with Frank, how much she loved his music, how she and Ian Underwood met Frank in the late 60’s when they were both students at Juilliard during his 6 month residency with The Mothers in NYC. Ruth and Ian went to every show, they both were fans and wanted to be in his band, he wrote music for her hands, how she wished she could improvise like John and I, how she loved being on the road, breaking mallets and drum heads and going to the music store to maintain her rig. 

“Cool,” I thought because it did sound like fun. After a few weeks of this I began to get an odd feeling. Why is she telling me this stuff?

Ed Mann with Zappa at the Hollywood Palladium, Halloween 1978

It almost felt like… is she grooming me for a gig with Frank? No. Nah. Her cat is better now, and anyway… what gig? Frank made it clear about percussionists in his band. We all understood that if it weren’t for her dying cat (who looked fine to me) she would have stayed with Frank forever. But Ruth got deeper. 

“Don’t ever offer Frank a joint!” Ok, well, I won’t. And I’m never going to see him anyway so…? But yeah if I do I absolutely will not offer him a joint. “If you want to really understand Frank’s musical essence, think of the fastest roll imaginable with hard mallets played loud on a xylophone.” Ok well that’s a painful thought but if I ever want to fully understand Frank (which I don’t,) that’s exactly what I’ll think of. 

Why is she doing this? I’m not going to be playing in Frank’s band. Frank spent 2 long nights making it abundantly clear he’ll never employ a percussionist in his band again. But if it were to be anybody, it would be Ruth, not me. I’m really not interested in playing conservatory-type music. I’m writing music with my mentor John, that’s more like Indian influenced experimental jazz, and I’m a drummer, not a Juilliard-trained mallet player. This doesn’t make sense I thought. But hey, she’s Ruth and she’s inviting me to spend time with her at her house and talk with me, so this is all cool.

The Phone Call

3 months later. It’s June, 1977. I hadn’t seen Ruth in a month. At midnight, the phone rang and it’s her! “Hello Ruth! What’s up?” It’s late, I’m stoned, and physically tired after having finished painting my entire apartment in one 12 hour day. 

“Ed,” says Ruth, with an odd sense of urgency. “Frank’s in trouble. He needs an unusual virtuoso multi-stylistic keyboard player, rehearsals start soon and can’t find anyone. He asked me to call you to see if you had any ideas.” 

“Oh wow, Ruth this is perfect. I have just the guy! My friend Tommy Mariano just moved to LA from Connecticut 2 weeks ago… and you gotta hear this guy. I can’t describe him, but he’s 100% unique and a genius virtuoso. Here’s his telephone number…” 

“No,” Ruth says. “Frank says you have to call him with the number.” Ok, well that is odd…

“Ruth here, let me just give you Tommy’s number.” 

“No,” Ruth insists. “Frank requests you call him right now to give him the telephone number,” and she gives me Frank’s number. I tried 4 years ago but now I have it, at 12:30 AM when I’m far too stoned to not act socially weird.

“OK Ruth, thanks. This will mean a lot to Tommy, so I’ll call.”

Frank picked up after one ring. “Hello?” 

I say “Hi Frank, it’s Ed Mann, John Bergamo’s student, we recorded overdubs on The Black Page?” 

Frank feigns a moment of recall, and he says “Oh yeah… right. I remember you. What are you doing right now?” 

“Well Ruth called me and I have a great keyboard player to…” 

But Frank isn’t interested. “Come up to the house right now, we’re messing around with some music…” and he gives me the address and directions.

By now it’s late. I’m really stoned. 1977 was when Columbian Santa Marta Gold was going around. It was the strongest, most deep and uplifting weed any of us had ever had, and I had just taken a toke before Ruth called… and I’m apprehensive. Is this an audition? I don’t want to audition. We’ve all heard the stories of Frank’s auditions, which go on for 40 seconds (a rude thank you, no) to days and days (he’s interested. Plus he has someone accomplished to torment.) 

He had flown an east coast virtuoso percussionist woman friend of mine out to audition after Ruth left. It went on for a week. She was practicing his music 6 hours a day and then working with Frank 6 hours a day. In the end she was exhausted, and in despite her virtuosity, which was every bit on a level with Ruth, plus (like Ruth) she was Jewish with ample breasts, she didn’t get the gig! I didn’t want any of that. 

But, I figured, wait. It’s early morning. This won’t be an audition. There’s not enough time, and I’m not an orchestrally focused musician mallet player, I’m not a woman, so what the hell? Just go. If Frank Zappa invites you up to his house? Just go. I repeated it like a mantra all the way up into Laurel Canyon to Frank Zappa’s house, in the early AM hours of the night…

Frank’s Lair

I arrived at Frank’s House, way up Woodrow Wilson drive well after midnight. The perfect time for Frank. The world was dark, quiet and ominous. Strange entities were out, the werewolves, the evil demons, the occult gods of creativity. This was Frank’s time of the day, and I understood why he would sleep all day and get up as the sun went down. “I can think more clearly when the airwaves are clear of human dissonance” Frank said, I got it.

The basement was his Lair. Red wall paper, red lights, red carpet and a few of the guys from the band are there. In the middle of this room sits a beautiful concert marimba and a music stand full of… what is that? It’s so fucking dark… hmm… ohh! Charts for his music? I thought we were just going be casual here… “I don’t know… no, no Frank…” I thought and then I realize the practical and obvious truth. I tell Frank it’s too dark, I can’t even see the music let alone read it. He has no light on the music stand. I can barely see anyone. Everyone is a shadow figure. 

Ed Mann and Frank Zappa, Sweden, March 1979

Frank recognizes that what I’m saying is true. There is no way to see that music under dim red lights in a dark red velvet room with dark red carpeting at 1:30 AM. “Do you know any of my music?” asks Frank. 

“No,” I say, “I’ve heard a little bit, but no.” Frank begins to ask about specific compositions… but it’s no, and it doesn’t seem to bother him.

Then he says, “OK, well here. I’ll play something on guitar and you play it back for me on the marimba.” That’s easier for me, so I’m into it and we do that for a few minutes. “OK now solo over this,” and he and the guys play a groove. We do that for 2 minutes. Then again in different keys. 

It hasn’t been 10 minutes since we started. “Do you sing?” asks Frank. 

“Not lead but I can harmonize.” 

“Where did you learn that?” Frank asks. 

“Listening to the radio from about age 3.” 

“Oh… Do you like do-wop?” 

“LOVE do-wop! I grew up in New Jersey and that’s what was played.” 

“Rock?”

“Oh yeah I grew up playing in rock bands. Learned a lot from harmonizing Beatles, Motown, the Phil Specter wall of sound hits, Mamas and Papas, and then the whole Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, Byrds, L.A. country-rock thing…” (Frank snorts) “…my friends and I would sit in a car drinking beer and singing all the stuff, teaching each other the harmonies.” 

This seemed to please Frank. “So you know rock music” said Frank. 

“Yes, really more experience in garage bands and playing local dances than anything else.” 

This too pleased Frank. “What about rhythm percussion?” 

“There are Brazilian, Italian and Latin virtuosos of those instruments” (I don’t think Frank knew that) “and I’m not that, but I can hold down a groove.” 

“Play any other instruments?” 

“Piano, self taught by ear from age 3 when my babysitters would play Elvis records, according to my Mom.” 

“And you can hear chord changes and learn them by ear?”

“Yeah, along with playing drums and singing backup in rock bands that’s probably what I’ve done most.”

I didn’t realize it at the time but, I now suspect my pedestrian level rock experience and vocal harmonizing played a big part in Frank’s asking me to be in the band. “A trained percussionist who can improvise and rock including piano,” he said. “That’s kind of unusual.”

The Offer

“Great!” exclaims Frank. “Do you want to be in the band?”

I was not ready for that, what about the legendary long torturous Zappa audition thing…? I felt like a Jerry Lewis character. Do I want to be in Frank Zappa’s band? 

I’m thinking quickly. Let’s see… I was making money as a drummer but the truth was that my most steady gig was every Saturday night at an Elk’s Lodge in El Monte (not kidding) working with an accordion player who looked like Central Casting’s submission of a suburban square school administrator for a TV show in 1958. I’d simultaneously play kick drum, hi-hat and bass guitar. The accordion player played Hawaiian standards and polkas. Every tune went the same: He would play the melody twice on the accordion, then the melody on a cheap vibraphone with a maraca, then to the bridge and melody out on accordion. And… “Cha-cha-cha,” at the end. A few drunken Elks applaud weakly.

It was time to respond. “Uh… sure? You mean like replace Ruth?” 

“No,” says Frank adamantly. “If I wanted Ruth I’d call her. I want you to just be yourself. You can hear the music. Learn the lines, but experiment. Reharmonize, orchestrate, add parts, subtract parts, if you get a weird idea don’t look to me for approval, just do it. If I don’t like it I’ll tell you, but I want you to learn my compositional vocabulary and then experiment with it. I want you to play some but not all sections exactly as I write them, and I want you to solo. If I point to you, just solo. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, just do it. Most of all, take an experimental approach. Consider it to be part of the job description.” 

“OK Frank,” I said. “I can do it that way and do a good job I think, so yes I’d love to be in the band.”

Frank offered me his unmistakable golden handshake and I knew we’d sealed a deal. After only 15 minutes. 

Oh wait, Jimi’s Strat?

There was obviously still time to extend this visit, so Frank retrieved a burned Stratocaster from a dark corner which I immediately knew had to have come from Jimi Hendrix, and said “See this? Jimi Hendrix gave this to me.” NOW I was excited, and Frank knew it. Yes! I’m forever a stone cold Hendrix fan, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

“Can I play it?!” I asked. 

“Sure, go ahead” said Frank as he handed me the Strat. Ooohhh… my God. I looked at every contour, the detail of the burn, the feel of Hendrix resonance that was palpable in the guitar. The front and back were burned badly. I played fragments of Hendrix that I knew, Hey Joe, Up From the Skies, Little Wing… it was like being in the presence of God for me, and Frank could tell, and it didn’t make him too happy, but he’s the one who brought out the guitar, so…

“Did you like Hendrix?” I asked Frank. 

“Ahh… he’s ok. He sat in with the band. Mostly just a bunch of meaningless feedback and noise.” Immediately I understood that we both knew that wasn’t true, so I said nothing while Frank tolerated my spiritual allegiance to this Strat. 

And then I understood – of course Frank liked Hendrix. He was probably in awe of Hendrix. He’d never say it, but he brought out the guitar and there was absolutely a hint of pride in his voice when he said “Jimi Hendrix gave this to me.”

It was time to go. “Frank, what about my keyboard player friend, Tommy?”

“Have him call me tomorrow,” Frank said. “And you meet me here at 9 tonight so we can plan.”

Sure thing, Frank!

I had just learned more about my new employer.

Ed Mann

July, 2021

About Ed Mann 2 Articles
Ed Mann is a contributor to Gonzo Today from July 2021. A percussionist with Frank Zappa’s band for 11 years, Mann’s articles on his experiences are some of the most widely read in the history of Gonzo Today. Ed Mann is not related to GT Publisher Kyle K. Mann.