Hired by Frank Zappa – Chapter 2: The First Week

Ed Mann onstage with Chinese Lion Cymbals

by Ed Mann, Gonzo Today contributor

To put this writing in context, please read Chapter One, “Hired by Frank Zappa.”

Zappa: Day 2

The next morning, I woke up too early and startled, in my old Spanish-styled apartment in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. I knew something life-changing had just happened, but it took a few minutes to get my bearings.

What was it that happened just hours ago? Dream or reality?

Oh!… right… my new friend Ruth Underwood (Frank’s virtuosic, legendary and only band percussionist to date) called me at 12:30 AM (!) declaring an emergency situation which Frank was in, concerning his failed attempt to locate an extraordinary genius keyboardist, yet even though I had a good suggestion, Ruth refused to take the telephone number I offered, insisting that Frank himself instructed her to instruct me (whom he didn’t remember) to call Frank himself to give him the telephone number of The Guy (Tommy Mariano) personally. 

So I called Frank himself, who answered immediately yet said he didn’t remember me from The Black Page recording sessions, but then suddenly he did remember me, all the while expressing no interest in the keyboard player idea I was supposedly calling him about. Instead, Frank invited me up to his house to “mess around with some music” which we did for 10-15 minutes followed by a few questions, and then… he proceeded to offer me a job in his Band! Which made no sense, as he had made it clear during the recording sessions that he’d never use percussion in his band again, and last night was no real audition. And, I had accepted the offer. I began to realize what I’d impulsively committed myself to just hours before.

Why would Frank do that? No audition, and he knows I’m not up to Ruth’s ability to play his music in strict, written form on a marimba.

Why would I agree to commit to a job which required mallet skills within a style that was beyond that which I was capable of or even interested in at that time? I guess because Frank made everything seem so friendly and easy, just hours ago.

“Yeah, sure, relax, all of this will be Just So Easy” I tried to make myself believe, and for a moment I did. But then I realized that no, I wasn’t buying the story I was trying to sell myself. No way would playing with Frank and making him happy be anything close to “easy.”

I began to realize how much punishing work I’d have to endure, beginning immediately! And even then, any commitment to work real hard might fail. I probably couldn’t do enough fast enough to meet the challenge, as Frank’s standards were so high.

Now, I felt nervous and riddled with anxiety. In keeping with Frank’s mythological vocabulary, I was indeed Freaking Out. “Aahhh!! I’m Freaking Out!” 

I needed to call someone, a friend just to help me calm down. So I made a dash for the phone, which was on a table below a clock mounted to wall right above it. “Current PST is 6:45 AM” 🙁

I realized “I can’t call anyone right now. No calls before 10! Everybody knows that. Shake it off and breathe” I told myself, realizing that every thought and action I’d make that morning was likely to be a symptom of the Freak Out.

On the kitchen table I saw the small stack of music Frank had sent me home with. I didn’t know any of it. What’s this? Inca Roads? Manx Needs Women? Envelopes? Something or other about El Monte? Then another thing about El Monte. Then a variation of one of the pieces about El Monte. Cucamonga? Where’s that? Orange County, Montana? And numerous untitled pages with a few staff systems of untitled, hand-written ideas. A new version of The Black Page. Titties and Beer? San Berdino. Orchestral scores. 

And a cheap first-version Roland keyboard with internal speakers and 12 push button presets. A primitive consumer device, probably from the early to mid 1960’s. Frank said “take that thing home and see if you can get anything interesting out of it.”

Taking stock of It All: “OK” I said. But “this is crazy” is what I thought. I plugged the cheap synth in and pushed a few buttons. “Tuba, Trumpet, Piano, Electric Piano, Oboe, Organ… none of which sounded anything close to those instruments, and played from a keyboard which had no velocity response = all notes are of the same volume and quality – Loud and Repulsive. I didn’t have the attention span or desire to mess with it, especially in my current state of Freak Out. When Frank eventually asked about it, I said “yeah, well, you know, it might…” and Frank finished the sentence for me: “be useless.” Once he said it, then (and only then) could I agree.

I made some coffee and started studying Frank’s scores, which only filled me with the dread of “what if…?” Still, it was better than doing anything else, if for no other reason than I couldn’t think of anything else.

“Getting up to speed on this stuff is URGENT!” Urgency is what Frank evoked simply with his otherworldly eyes. And facial hair. He was like “if Albert Einstein was also Groucho Marx, Rasputin, Spike Jones, Igor Stravinsky, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lenny Bruce, The AngelDemon and a desert-fringe biker.”

Since I couldn’t really focus, I took stock of my instruments, which were an old vibraphone and drum kit. Best to get this vibraphone re-positioned in its narrow, window-surrounded room off the living room. I guess that room was meant to be a greenhouse of sorts. But it allowed far too much sun in to be reading Zappa music, so I pinned some fragments of cloth over the windows. Ah! Perfect. Still bright, but not blinding. I would spend about 400 hours in that room during the following months, drilling Frank’s music into my head and painfully retraining my hands and wrists to move in ways that God never intended.

I attempted but failed to go on a bike ride, instead actually turning back at the end of the driveway to attend to the Urgent Situation.

After a few hours which I don’t remember, at 9:30 AM, I realized “hey! Ruth is probably awake!” Ruth probably belonged to the “no calls before 9:30” club! Sure! So I called Ruth to tell her what happened after she insisted I call Frank. She deserved to know from me, before it got into the grapevine.

“Hello?” Ruth answered. I could tell I’d woken her up. She was a night person! Of course. “Ruth… you’re not going to believe this…” “What?” she asked. “Weren’t you able to get Frank on the phone last night?” “No, he picked up right away. But he didn’t seem to remember me and then he kind of did, I guess, and he wasn’t interested in knowing about my keyboard genius friend, Tommy.” “That’s weird” said Ruth. “So what happened?” “Frank asked me to come up to his house because he was experimenting with some music. I think he even called it a jam session. Does Frank have jam sessions? Anyway I went up to his house, we noodled around for 15 minutes, he asked a few questions, and then he offered me the percussion job in his band.”

“Do you know anything about this, Ruth?”

“What?!?” asked Ruth. “You’re kidding. Shit! I KNEW he was going to do that!”

“Do what? Offer me a job?” I asked.

“Never mind” said Ruth.

“Look, good for you. I hope you said yes because I think you can do it and you deserve it and I think you will like it. I’ll talk to Frank sometime. Just go do it and have fun, you have my full support.”

Ruth was so gracious… but I could tell she was a bit stunned. I thanked her, told her I wanted her to know what happened first, from me and not through the grapevine. We said a few friendly words and hung up.

Ed Mann sings

I wasn’t ready to be all alone though. I thought about Ruth’s reaction: “What?!? You’re kidding. Shit! I KNEW he was going to do that!” Ok well that’s too deep for me to even guess at. Ruth had known Frank for 11 years by then. But I was feeling nervous and unsettled. I needed someone or something to ground me. What should I do? Oh! Yeah, I’ll call John Bergamo.

John picked up. “Yeah” he said. “John, it’s Ed.” “Head Span!”(my CalArts percussionist nickname) said John. “How ya doin man? What’s been like happening?” “John thank God you’re there man, I’m Freaking Out.”

“About what?” John asked.

“Well to start, I’ve been hanging with Ruth, and she’s been great, telling me all this Zappa stuff, and last night I’m super stoned and it’s after midnight and Ruth calls and she’s like all desperate because Frank’s desperate because he needs Tommy… you remember Tommy, right? Yeah but he doesn’t know it’s Tommy, but Ruth knows that I do… or something…? I don’t know so I try to give but she won’t take Tommy’s phone number for Frank, and she insists I call Frank personally. So I do that, but he acts like he doesn’t know what’s going on, he doesn’t remember me but then he suddenly does so he tells me to come to his house so I do and then like it’s all dark and red and I can’t see shit but he’s playing his guitar then tells me to play back what he plays… and then we mess around for a few minutes and…”

“Are you in trouble Ed?” asks John. 

“Well no, this is great I guess…” “What’s great?” “Frank offered me a job man!” “You mean like percussion job in his band?” “Yeah. But we both heard him, right? No more percussionists in his bands? You think this is real?” “Hey Mann, yeah I think it’s real. You mean like a band member?” “Yeah John but I’m feeling like, I don’t know, if Ruth’s not doing it… you should be the guy. Right? I mean you’ve worked with Frank a bunch and… shit… you introduced me! You’d want to do the gig, right?”

“Well man, like sure, in town, sessions or whatever. But not the road. I’d have to put hand drumming and my composing and teaching on hold… no man, I got a feeling this is your gig,” “But…” I got out before Bergamo cut me off. “Hey Ed, you’ll be fine. And this is great, I’m glad one of my students got the chair. When do you start?” “Tonight, up at Frank’s house. He wants to go over a bunch of stuff and then rehearsals start soon.” “OK” says Guruji John, “well then you’re gonna be busy. Keep me posted I want to know how it’s all going and I’ll be thinking of you man, so make me look good!” 

More pressure.

“Oh John, man, yes you know I’ll do my best. I think I gotta go for a walk though.” 

“Ok Ed let’s talk soon” says Bergamo, and as I’m hanging up I hear “…oh hey Ed, Ed…” “yeah?” “So you got all them notes together, right?” “No man! No! But I will… I guess…?” “OK man good I’ll talk to you soon.” Before the phone hangs up I hear “oh hey wait Ed, Ed!” “Yeah?” “You know that shit has to be perfect, right?” “Yes! I do. I mean it does.” “So you gonna be ok?” “Yeah, sure, I am totally fine” I lied. “Ok man, bye” and again before the phone hits the button – “oh hey wait… Ed? Ed…” “Yeah?” “Just don’t fuck up…” “Definitely not! No fuckups John, I’m starting now and working hard…” “Ok man, bye…” I almost hung up and I hear “Ed… Ed?” “Yeah?” “No mistakes man. You’re in it now, boy! Ahahahaaa!!” Bergamo cackles. “See ya soon.” “You’re right John yeah I’ll call you soon.” “Bye man” almost hung up but now I know I’m being roasted and of course I hear “oh hey wait… Ed? Ed…” “yeah John” “I just giving you a hard time. You’ll be fine.” “Oh yeah no problem John thanks” “And Ed?” “Yes?” “I’m glad for you…but also glad it’s not me! A hahahaa! Frank’s a motherfucker of a perfectionist man.” “Ok John yeah well I’ll call so… bye…” “and Ed?” “Yeah?” “I’m just kidding you man, you’ll be great, and call me next week.” “Sure thing John, thanks.”

So this is for you John Bergamo, and everything you’ve said is what I keep in mind.

Ed Mann onstage with Zappa, November, 1977 – Photo: Michael Conen

It’s still Saturday morning, I’m still rattled, and still feel like I must talk with someone.

Aha! Emil Richards! King of the L.A. studio scene, former Al Lepak student. Great guy who gave back at least as much as he received, and had always been friendly to me. He’d played on a lot of Zappa albums… Yeah I’ll call Emil. 

So I do, and the conversation goes about the same as with John, including a brief roast, but shorter.

And all of that DID help. Being recipient of The Roast was funny, and an honor.

It would not be inaccurate to characterize Al Lepak, John Bergamo and Emil Richards as “selfless.” I realized how fortunate I was to be mentored by these 3 extraordinary human beings.

Still Saturday, and I remembered the whole point of all this, Frank can’t find an unusual genius keyboard player. I must call Tommy!

Enter: Tommy Mars

I’d like to emphasize to the reader that the Tommy Mars of 2021 is not similar to how he was in 1977 forward. Further, I’ve discussed all of this with Tommy, and he’s given me full permission to describe him as he was then. Which is great, because Tommy has chosen to live a very private and sober life since 1990. He doesn’t own anything digital. He doesn’t participate in podcast opportunities. His reason for allowing me to describe him is only due to our 48 years of deep friendship, which began 5 years before we started work for Frank. 

Tommy Mariano is an eccentric musical genius who is also a button pusher. After joining Frank, he would rarely call anyone by their actual name, instead choosing to use a different name, Tommy’s choice of a torment name for that moment. An abstraction derived in his mind, based on a character from ‘60s TV.

On the flip side, if Tommy loved you, he’d call you by your actual name even less. He would invent a pet name, but use that pet name consistently. To Tommy, once in Frank’s band I became “Jamie” which Tommy would often soften to a Spanish J, resulting in either phonetically sounding “Yoimie” or just “Yoim.” And sometimes he’d use my actual name. But only if he wanted something from me.

“Hel-louu?” Tommy answered, followed by scatting a blues line in syllables from a yet to be discovered language, syllables that only he can pronounce, and says “Good afternoon, Cheryl’s House of Bounteous Pleasure, who’s calling please?”

“Tommy… it’s Ed.”

“Ed who?” (He’s tormenting me.)

“Tommy. ED MANN. Remember? We had a band together in 1973? You just stayed with me for a month? I picked you up at LAX 2 months ago? Blonde hair? We met at the Hartt Conservatory? Drummer? We’ve been good friends for 5 years? Ed? Ed Mann?” (I’m now tormenting him.)

“Oh… ED!! Good to hear from you, brother. So hey… What’s up, pal?” Very much like Bugs Bunny.

“I recommended you to Frank Zappa, who is looking for you even though he doesn’t know it’s you. So call Frank’s office, and here’s the number.”

“Frank Zappa? How did all this happen?” asks Tommy.

“Well I’ve been hanging with his ex-percussionist, Ruth.” I say.

“Ruth Underwood Tommy. You know, like Ian Underwood? Yes, but Ruth Underwood.”

“Yes they were married but they’re not now. Yes she is attractive but our relationship is platonic. Because it just is.”

“No, not Underhill, Underwood. Ruth Underwood Tommy… Yeah she can really play… what? I don’t know, maybe 5’ 9.” Brown, wavy. Redish Brown… what…?”

“Listen Tommy! Last night, or actually early this morning she… what? She, as in Ruth! Right, Ruth Underhill (I give up) called me asking if I knew a great multi-polar keyboard player and of course I suggested you and tried to give Ruth… right Ruth Underseam… I tried to give her your phone number but she insisted I call Frank… So before I know it I’m at his house and then he offered me a job. I have no idea why. No not as drummer, playing percussion.”

“No, Tommy, listen: Frank is looking for a keyboard player of unimaginable prowess. What’s that? Of course, someone who is also extraordinarily handsome. And well dressed yes, of course. Yes, someone who also has a very high IQ. I don’t know if he wants you to scat. I don’t know if he wants you to play recorder. Well I’ll ask him if you can scat or play recorder when I see him tonight.”

“Tommy! Get a pencil. Yes to write with. No I would not advise sticking it… ok. Just call Frank, ok? Frank Zappa. Right. Ruth Underscore sure. What? Ian. Ian Underwood. Right they’re totally unrelated it’s just that both their last names happen to start with Under. Hahaha! Yes, what a coincidence. Ok. Right. You got the number right? Zappa’s office number. Frank Zappa Tommy, call his office. Ok. Ok. Ok. Let me know. Ok man. Right. Love you too. Ok. Yes I enjoyed your phone-answering routine. Call Frank. Ok? Ok. Bye.”

The Music: Gut-wrenching Detail

That afternoon, I started going through the music Frank had given me. 

I was happy to see that some stuff, like “Moving to Montana” was simple enough to learn quickly, only requiring lots of practice and technique adjustment for the fast-triplets section. I began to understand that playing his music on a mallet instrument required turning my natural technique upside down in order to play it correctly. Oh, and memorization. I’d memorized a few jazz and be-bop tunes, so I wasn’t worried about Montana. Until I realized that within 4-6 weeks, I’d also have to memorize hours of other and more complicated music. “Ok, take it as it comes. Each day is a new day. We don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re forced to go beyond…” and other meaningless euphemisms and half-truths.

I went back to The Black Page, which I’d read through probably 25 times but not perfected technically or memorized. That was a good choice, and by the end of the afternoon I’d memorized most of the phrases as sections, but not the entire piece as a whole, still needing to look at the music to connect the sections together. That day I also learned that some sections were technically “impossible” within my own abilities as of June, 1977. I learned that what worked for me was to first play these ultra-fast sections very slowly, speeding up until I could understand the whole phrase as one event.

Ed Mann onstage with Zappa, November 1977 – Photo: Michael Conen

It might be two connected 32nd note phrases of 11, but thinking of each note was not the way to bring it up to performance speed. This concept is actually one that John Bergamo showed us years ago in the context of Indian classical drumming. In Zappa’s context and played on mallet instruments, it meant finding key notes within the 22-note flurry, aiming for those and then filling in the missing notes.

Another way of saying this is “take a breath, hope for the best, and then throw your body at the instrument,” focusing only on keeping the quarter note pulse constant. Later, I would learn that those key notes could be reduced to 1 note, the first note of the entire 22 note phrase. Thinking of the entirety of 22 notes as being one breath and one event, not 22. One breath, one event, with 22 parts. That method is 100% John Bergamo. This became a method I’d use constantly in learning to accurately perform Frank’s music. Thank you John!

Night #2: Ed reports to Frank’s house

I arrived at 8:30 as Frank had requested. We sat down in his well-lit composing and piano room part of his basement. Wow! Beautiful Bosendorfer Grand piano. Mansion. Rolls Royce. Frank had indeed done very well.

In a dark red corner of the dark red part of Frank’s basement was a $20,000 new Em-u Systems modular synth (which Em-u discontinued immediately due to low sales and the availability of the far more functional Yamaha CS-80, at $5,000 just one year later.) To Frank, price didn’t seem to matter. He’d buy every most cutting edge new synthesizer immediately at any cost. 

Frank’s fascination with synthesizers began as a result of Don Preston’s influence. Before Frank hired Preston, he would attend his solo synthesizer shows in the early-mid 1960s. At that time, Frank knew very little about the practical use of synth’s, and Don, otherwise a jazz musician, liked him and choose to be his synth mentor. In turn, Frank schooled Don in rock piano stylings, and soon hired Don, which would mark the first appearance and use of Synthesizers as a primary orchestrating voice in a Zappa Band. Amazingly, few know this, and Frank never gave Don credit for that, either.

Back to Ed’s night #2 with Frank, sitting on a fold up chair next to the piano: “Hey Ed! Good to see you and I’m enthused about your contribution to the band! So let’s start to draw out your percussion setup. First, I must tell you that my days of buying percussion instruments are over. I have some things but you’ll have to buy the rest.”

This was new, and a burden that no other band member had to bear. Frank purchased keyboards and amps needed by others. He had several drum kits, but his drummers usually bought their own just to match their styles and desires. But it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to own a bunch of new percussion instruments.

“So let’s draw it up. I want it to be huge” said Frank. “Here’s my idea: Vibraphone and marimba in a line. A few drums and knick knacks here, small bass drum here, and a gong there.”

That was Ruth’s setup.

“Frank, considering all the fast instrument changes in your music, how about we put the marimba and vibraphone on a 45 degree angle to each other. That’s much faster when switching instruments.”

“Sure, whatever works best for you.”

“Well, how about a whole rack of gongs? High to low?” I asked.

“Oh, well sure if you want to buy them.”

I did, and so we continued.

The Ed Mann Zappa setup

“I have a huge concert bass drum, chimes with pickups, a vibraphone with pickups, and we can start with my wood, (top of the line) wide-bar concert marimba, which also has pickups” Frank said. “But for rehearsals only. I don’t want to take it on the road, so you’ll have to buy a smaller, more suitable marimba, like Ruth’s, have pickups installed and buy a case for it. In fact I think Ruth wants to sell hers. She has no further need of it, so call her and ask.”

Which I did, the following week. And what a dumb mistake it was to follow Frank’s nudge. As soon as Ruth picked up the phone, I said hello and “Frank advised me to…” and then, instantly regretted calling Ruth to ask such an arrogant and presumptive question. I realized that of course she didn’t want to sell her marimba! 

This phone call was a setup by Frank, a way to passive-aggressively jab at Ruth, and I took the bait! I began groveling apologetically, trying to take back that I had even called to ask such an insulting question. I never would have done that on my own. Thankfully, I think Ruth realized I’d been set up. Thankfully, Ruth was very gracious, expressed no feelings of insult, and very politely told me “well thanks for offering Ed, but I think I’ll hold on to it for now.” 

That’s how gracious Ruth Underwood is.

I rambled off an apologetic but embarrassed “Thank you Ruth. I’m sorry.”

“No problem Ed” said Ruth. “Believe me I totally understand.”

I repeated apologies as we said good-bye. But to this day I am completely embarrassed and filled with self-loathing for having made the call at all.

Back to the instruments and setup planning:

“Frank, I’d buy all that stuff, but I don’t have that kind of money right now” I responded.

“How about this?” offered Frank. “I’ll lend you the money for what you need and once we’re on the road I’ll deduct a small amount each week, interest free, to pay off the debt?”

“Sure!” I said, naïvely assuming that the movie scoring and recording industry in Los Angeles would never end. I wanted to be there, and to do so, I wanted to have all these instruments.

“In that case, how about adding a xylophone?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, that would be great” responded Frank.

“How about all the gongs, will you lend me that money too?”

“Sure” said Frank.

“And piatti?” (orchestral crash cymbals.) “Or better yet, for loud electric music, a pair of Chinese Lion cymbals.”

“What are those?”

“They’re Chinese cymbals which are curved back at the edge. A lot louder and more raw and cutting that Western Cymbals. And do you know what Chinese opera gongs are?”

“No, tell me.”

“They’re small gongs which deliver a big punch followed by a pitch sweep, either down or up depending on the design.”

“Where do you get this stuff? asked Frank.

“Chinatown in San Francisco” I replied. I’d lived in San Francisco in 1975 and seen Chinese gongs and cymbals in many small shops in Chinatown.

“Sure” said Frank. “If you want to fly yourself up there to get it.”

“You’ll front the money for that?”

Yes, Frank would. By the time we were done drawing and had established a plan, the setup was Big.

Frank reveals key methodology 

Frank said “Here, I want to show you this so you’ll understand my chord voicings.”

Frank dug into a closet and retrieved a book from the top shelf. The book was a hand-bound collection of mathematical proportions, drawn up for Frank by his recently departed father.

“My father drew these for me when I got successful in music. He told me that if I designed my melodies, rhythms and harmonies to coincide with these proportions, the music would be much stronger and stand a greater chance of success. These proportions are the ones he learned to yield the best results in his work for the Air Force. But some are not new. He learned those by studying the designs found in nature.”

Wow! This book was easily 50 double sided pages, each page containing 5-10 graphically drawn proportions along with the coinciding numerical equation written in mathematical form. Frank showed me most of the book, but focused on just a few examples. “This is why you’ll see a lot of consecutive perfect 4th intervals. And variations of phrases written to happen at time intervals which are separated by 1/4 of the previous phrase length. But 3rds? I don’t use 3rds very much. That’s why you’ll usually see my chords written as a “2” chord. In other words, not D major, but D2. The 2 replacing the 3 found in normal voicing. A “2” chord is strong, because the harmonic interval of a major 2nd is strong. And the completion of the chord, the 5th is strong. And the interval between the 2 and the 5 is a 4th, which is strong. 1-2-5, that’s a “2” chord which is strong in every part of it’s construction.”

“And here, listen to this:” (Frank plays a full major chord with the bass note being the tonic.) “Boring, right?”

I ignore an impulse to mention any example which I think isn’t boring. This is Frank’s world, it’s his music, somehow he has this insane power to make people want to please him, so “sure” I say.

Frank Zappa bust in Bad Doberan, Germany (photo by Clemensfranz via Wikimedia Commons)

“Now listen to this” says Frank, who proceeds to play the same chord but with a minor second, not the tonic, in the bass. “Beautiful, right?”

That was indeed unusual, dissonant and beautiful. I was starting to get it, and from that moment, I was changed. Going forward Tommy and I would extend Frank’s formulas sequentially and superimposed on top of each other. The result was poly-tonalities which he liked, and became part of his music simply as a result of him directing a “thumb up” gesture when we’d play it.

By that point, I was saturated and dazed. The night finished with me telling Frank I’d fly up to San Francisco tomorrow to get gongs and cymbals, which worked for him because he didn’t get up until sundown.

“But come up tomorrow night” Frank said. “The whole band as it is will be here, and I want you to meet Terry Bozzio. And your friend Tommy did leave his number at the office, so I’ll arrange to audition him next week.”

Day 3 of the “Hired by Frank Zappa” Experience

I fly to San Francisco, get the instruments, fly back and bring them to Frank’s House at about 9:00 pm. As I approach the door, I hear really loud, amazing drumming. Frank sees me in front of the camera connected to a monitor, and opens the door. The room is blazing. Not only is Terry Bozzio there, but also bassist Patrick O’Hearn, pianist Peter Wolfe and his technician partner Thomas Nordegg, and new guitarist Adrian Belew, who Frank discovered on a night out on the road being seen at a club in North Carolina, playing in a cover tunes band. I realized that everyone except Terry had been there 2 nights ago when I “auditioned.” These were the shadow people!

Terry stopped playing/soloing after about 10 minutes, and I’m stunned. I’d never heard drumming like that before. He played double bass drums as though his feet were hands. He played with power that challenged Billy Cobham’s.

“Maybe I’m not a drummer” I thought. At least on Terry’s level. Eventually I would come back down to earth, and remember that “a good drummer” really meant “a great musician.” Some, such as Jim Keltner, are exactly the opposite of Bozzio. And that’s why Keltner is continually hired by pop and rock artists. Keltner will play the most sparse beat imaginable, maybe add a small fill to transition into a new section, and if he did, that fill is remembered forever. Keltner plays The Song. Terry was completely different, and what he brought to Frank was brilliant and exactly what Frank wanted. Terry Bozzio too is an amazing musician and drummer.

After introductions, Frank said “so let’s hear those things.”

I played the gongs, and Frank loved them.

“How about the cymbals?” asked Frank.

I played the cymbals, but very softly.

“No, play them loud like you would in the band.”

“Slam! Deafening Roar!” That’s the sound of Chinese Lion Cymbals played loud.

“Oh man!” erupts Bozzio. “Jesus Ed, you should have warned me!” he complained while still covering his ears.

Frank laughed. “Ok Bozzio. Now you get it. That’s how loud you are.”

“Yeah but Frank, that’s what’s needed to play your music” says Terry.

“Uh-huh” says Frank.

I wasn’t sure if Terry liked me. Ruth was different. She played softly, like an orchestral player. I’m a lot different than Ruth. Nevertheless, I didn’t dwell on that thought, and Terry recovered his friendly tone.

“Rehearsals start the week after next, so practice this stuff a lot, I expect to hear good results when we start” Frank says.

“Next week I’ll be auditioning Tommy Mariano. So I’ll see you at rehearsals.”

Frank handed me a big stack of music, and the night came to an end.

The Week Before Rehearsals 

Day 4 post hire was thankfully a Saturday. And I wasn’t scheduled to report for duty until a week from Monday. Stacks of music to learn. “My God” I thought as I dug through the cumulative stack. 

I knew Frank was a great composer, but I didn’t realize how prolific he was. Let’s see, when was this piece written? 1965? And more, every year since. 1/3 of the stuff had never been recorded. Some weren’t even titled, beyond a working title which was always a number. “#7.” In 1965 pieces such as these would have been considered to be technically impossible. In 1976 The Black Page was considered to be technically impossible. Until Frank used the power behind his razor blade eyeballs and intimidating facial hair to force/motivate and pay Terry Bozzio and Ruth Underwood to practice forever, and learn it if for no other reason than wanting to please Frank. Then, it officially became possible, and in so doing, it raised the bar of what was newly possible for musicians to play.

This syndrome has always been true within academic, orchestral, experimental and chamber music circles, but only rarely from electric band, avant-garde “rock” artists. The only other electric group I can think of who raised the bar of what’s technically possible is John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Of course there were many bands who innovated new musical styles, but all of it was relatively easy for advanced musicians to transcribe and learn. Frank was a hybrid. In his essence, equally orchestral, experimental, jazz and rock. None of his versions being even close to “generic,”except for times when he used generic forms to be a vehicle for shocking and outlandish lyrics, or authentic, sweet doo-wop, or the occasional non-snarky, broken hearted vulnerable rock tune, such as “Doreen.”

Ah, but I’m wandering.

The Stack. Practicing music. I habitually took one puff of a pipe and was immediately plunged into a paranoiac state. For the first time ever. “Jesus God please save us!” ran through my mind, followed by “Never do that again, it’s a waste of weed.”

What to do? Ah! Yes, cigarettes. I dashed out to the corner store and bought a pack of expensive, boxed imported cigarettes. They helped! While it took me a week to finish that box, it was also the beginning of what I knew to be necessary: Zappa conditioning. A big part of entraining to Frank was the smell of cigarettes and coffee in the middle of the night. THAT is the authentic Zappasphere. To this day, rehearsing or performing Zappa music doesn’t feel right unless those smells are present. Like Indian musicians burn incense, Frank burned cigarettes and drenched his zone in the smell of really strong coffee. “The Black Death” as Patrick O’Hearn called it.

Sunday morning, mid-late June 1977. The fear-inducing Stack. What to do? Oh – I’ll call Tommy! He probably spoke with Frank yesterday.

“Hey Tommy! Did you call Frank?”

“Yes, I did” Tommy answered in a very sober tone. No more carefree scatting about an imaginary “House of Bounteous Pleasure.” “He sounds very serious” said Tommy. “He asked me more questions than I can remember. But I assured him that I know most of the classical repertoire, most movie and TV themes, and that I can cross pollinate everything, you know, like playing Bartok stride style like Art Tatum. But he seemed to become hesitant when I mentioned Jazz in response to being asked if I could improvise.”

“Ed, what is this? Frank’s written so many tunes that draw from jazz. He’s been a jazz innovator. I’m starting to wonder if I’m right for this gig. What’s the style of his recent bands?”

“I think he’s in a reaction stage.” I said. “He seems to react negatively to his own latest successful bands and styles. Now, a lot of the music is really hard rock. I think after producing those gorgeous and critically acclaimed jazz recordings like Waka-Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, he became repelled by the idiom itself and the success he found in it. It’s weird. And yet right now he wants a mallet playing multi-percussionist and a master-of-all-styles keyboard player. The keyboard player he’s already hired can improvise like crazy. He seems to be influenced by McCoy Tyner. So, I really don’t know. But what I’ve heard hits much harder than his great 72-74 band with George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom and Bruce Fowler, Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thomson and Ruth. Every single one of those people are jazz players, except Ruth. Now he seems to be pushing all that success aside too, like he’s repelled by it.

“Ooh-Kay…” said Tommy. “That makes sense. He seemed very mercurial to me on the phone.”

“So what’s happening?” I asked. “Did he invite you to audition?”

“Yes, I’m to report to his house on Monday night. But I don’t know man, I’m going to tread lightly, give him a wide berth and not expect anything,” said Tommy. And that decision was wise, I came to understand.

I realized that even though Frank always acted friendly to me, I better not get too attached. And yet that too became difficult. To meet the standard of excellence required to perform his music, I had to become his music. It filled my head. There wasn’t any time to play or even think of any other music.

I knew that Tommy was right, but of course, I didn’t follow his advice. I didn’t immediately put a protective boundary between myself and Frank until one year later. In large part because in 1977/78, Frank chose me to be the primary recipient of “the new guy” treatment, which felt like a blessing but was also part of a control mechanism and setup. “The new guy” treatment meant Frank demonstrated pretty consistent friendliness, rarely if ever criticized you publicly, heaped on the praise and acted as if he considered you to be his friend. Yet in interviews, he would always state that he had no friends. That hurt, but I continued to act like a friend.

Eventually I realized that to work with Frank, I’d have to accept what can only be described as a “conditional friendship,” meaning that it was necessary for me to consider him a friend, and act like one, while also understanding he didn’t consider himself to be my or anyone else’s friend. After the first year, he’d turn it on and off. Alternately praising you, vilifying you or ignoring you. Often in one day. Except for “the new guy,” which I came to understand as using you to make his veteran players uneasy. Which worked for a while, until the vets learned to put up a protective boundary. “The New Guy” treatment, after the first year, would gradually or abruptly stop or alternate, depending his mood, or what he wanted from you, otherwise remaining shifted to the NEW new guy.

Back to the twisted and thickening plot of this odd tale:

That weekend and the next week I worked 10 or more hours per day, slowly going through Frank’s charts. And I did notice progress. I was becoming a better mallet player, each day I’d find that sections of music would become memorized and all I had to see was the the first note of a phrase to play the rest from memory. I also became more aware each day that if I were to succeed, the entire summer would be the same. 

I stopped smoking weed completely. I would not even have 1 beer at night, ever. It was clear that I’d committed myself to a goal in which there was no room for any mind-altering substances. This was boot camp. And, I was fine with it. I felt no weed withdrawal symptoms even though I’d smoked a lot of it every day since age 16. At CalArts, the percussion department and others would have pretty regular beer parties, but I never felt one urge to drink alcohol that whole summer of 1977.

On Tuesday, Tommy called to characterize his first audition with Frank. I assumed he would be hired instantly, but learned that was not the case.

“Ed, man, I spent 4 hours at Frank’s last night.”

“And he hired you, right?”

“No” Tommy reported. “I played my ass off, I played everything, but he seemed hesitant and unsure if I could cut the gig. So he gave me a huge stack of charts, which I’m supposed to learn today and play for him tonight.” 

Tommy was living in Santa Barbara at the time, which was a 2 hour commute each way.

“What?!” I asked. This was the last response I expected to hear. In fact, I was shocked. It didn’t make sense. Tommy was an established master of piano, B3 organ and Synth playing. He has the entire repertoire of western music committed to memory. He can improvise like no one else. He’s a genius. Even though he is 4-5 years older than me, I’ve always felt inferior in his presence, even though he loved my drumming when we played together. We seemed to anticipate the same punches and phrases in completely improvised music, which was always styled as jazz. I, on the other hand, because of being a multi-percussionist, kit drummer, hand drummer, experimental sound explorer and hobbyist mallet player, had developed more slowly, probably because of dividing my attention between so many different instruments.

And yet I was hired in 15 minutes, but for Tommy the audition would go on for 5 days. Go figure.

Wednesday after Tommy’s Tuesday audition: “So how did it go? You’re hired, right?”

“Not yet, and maybe never,” replied Tommy.

“What?! Why?”

“I don’t know. For some reason Frank says he’s not sure if I can cut the gig.”

This was crazy. “So what’s the state of things now?”

“He sent me home with even more music. Have you ever heard the piano intro to “Little House?”

I hadn’t.

“Well, it’s not easy, I have to rearrange my technique in some places, and Frank wants me to learn that and 2 other pieces, “Sad Jane” and “Envelopes” by tomorrow. There’s some pretty complicated stuff there, but Frank says he doesn’t question my ability to execute the notes, it’s something or other about my phrasing and style he’s not sure of.”

Then, I understood. Just like Don Preston, whom I’d met and played with in his studio a few months earlier, Tommy was a hard core jazzer. Essentially what Frank wanted was doo-wop and traditional rock rhythms in his chording, according to Don. And this is probably why Frank was uncertain about Tommy, who could play rock his own way, but didn’t have much or any experience or interest in playing generic rock. 

By the following Saturday, after a punishing week of commuting from Santa Barbara to Laurel Canyon every night, getting to bed late, getting up early to practice Frank music, rinse and repeat into exhaustion, Frank finally said “ok” and offered Tommy the job. One of the best decisions he ever made. But man, not without a huge amount of resistance and torture. It was almost like Frank recognized Tommy’s genius, and wasn’t sure if he wanted any other geniuses besides himself in the band. Or, he might have simply chosen to seize an opportunity to torment a captive genius. Who knows, and I’m just guessing.

There’s a lot more to say about Frank’s contradictory and sometimes purposefully self-defeating behavior. But I’ll save that for later.

And so, we come to the end of chapter 2 in this author’s Frank Zappa Odyssey. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet, but we will. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the astonishingly Brilliant, the depressing acts of self defeat, the Fun, the Punishment, the Kindness, the Cruelty, the very Smart, the purposefully impulsive Dumb, the understanding that Everything Frank deployed upon his employees and fans was A Test. This is all a Test, I’ve come to understand now. 

And regardless of anything, I’ll always love Frank Zappa, as a person. I don’t love a lot of his behavior, but like others, I love something about him that I can’t even describe. So this is not intended to be a broad stroke slam of Frank Zappa. It’s just the truth that I experienced with him.

Frank was not a God. He had all the human flaws that most everyone else has. That is what I find to be Interesting.

Next chapter: Rehearsals Begin!😱

Thanks for reading and see you then 🙂

Ed Mann

August 16, 2021

Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.

(c) 2021 Ed Mann, Gonzo Today

All Rights Reserved

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.