Opera of bizarre
Pauline Butcher Bird's Interview
FRANK ZAPPA'S LOCK OF HAIR?
By Ravi V. Chhabra
I had missed interviewing Frank Zappa by a whisker when I first visited New York in 1991 and couldn’t send the fax questions across as desired then by his secretary (818-PUMPKIN). At that time, I had joined as a journalist with India Abroad in NYC and there were time constraints as you can imagine me being new to the city and to the job.
Having read most of Frank’s books but yours comes out to me as a work of literary tour de force. Like most of his fans globally, I was truly depressed when he died so young, with an unparalleled range of work. I wrote two obits in India’s leading newspaper Hindustan Times, when perhaps not many knew the genius Frank in India. How could I have imagined after all these years I will be able to get in touch with you – someone who slogged it out with him as a workaholic and get a super insight into Frank’s human side and his relationships - what he really was - a peek into his house and the groupies.
I take the liberty to reproduce here some of the photos in your book Freak Out my Life with Frank Zappa. Pauline’s book on Frank Zappa has been translated into Italian and Spanish and published across Mexico, Chile, Columbia Uruguay and Argentina as well as USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the book has also been adapted into a BBC Radio 4 drama, broadcast in May 2015.
“What makes you think that leaving Frank
equates with forgetting him?”
Ravi V. Chhabra: You are the first secretary to Frank Zappa and began/traversed your career with him from London to LA - Laurel Canyon, and you were always in awe of him, probably also the only ‘non-weirdo’ (read groupies) in the Log Cabin. Were you not tempted to try their kind of stuff?
Pauline Butcher Bird: What do you mean by their kind of stuff? If you mean drugs, no. Why would I when Frank did not allow it.
Ravi: Do you still listen to some of Frank Zappa?
Pauline: I rarely listen to music because I listen to speech radio all the time, ie BBC Radio 4. When I do listen it’s as background to my work and then it’s BBC Radio 3. Occasionally, when I’m doing something related to Frank Zappa, then I listen to specific tracks, not albums.
Ravi: As mentioned in your book Freak Out my life with Frank Zappa, any Zappa relic or gift besides his lock of hair that Frank gave you and is still with you?
Pauline: I have nothing else except the lock of Frank’s hair.
Ravi: What took you so long to pen your memoir about Frank Zappa. Of course, I know it’s an arduous task but still...
Pauline: When I returned to England I was busy with raising our son. When he went to university and my husband was constantly travelling I knew I had no more excuses left to try to become a writer. It took ten years before my book was published. I had spent six years trying to write radio plays. A producer told me to write something no one else could write and I realised the only thing no one else could write is my experience living and working with Frank Zappa.
Pauline Butcher Interviews Frank Zappa:
Ravi: Your favourite memorable incident with or without Frank in the log cabin, Laurel Canyon?
Pauline: I have a fond memory of working all night with Frank on his article. We hardly spoke but still it was very intense. We started at 10pm and finished at 8am the next morning. He said by my desk the whole time and drank endless cups of coffee and we smoked enough cigarettes to fill a bin.
Ravi: You met so many celebrities like Captain Beefheart, Wild Man Fischer, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix and Jim Morrison among others, who impressed you most and why? I am aware that you found Lowel George a sober man...
Pauline: I think Mick Jagger was the most impressive. His knowledge of politics and history was surprising.
Ravi: I think it was a difficult or rather painful for you to make the decision to leave Frank and forget him (as Frank often nudged you to pen down the goings on at his home). Do you still have the diary with your jottings during that time?
Pauline: Yes, I have all my diaries. What makes you think that leaving Frank equates with forgetting him?
Ravi: A personal favourite FZ album or song, any particular reason?
Pauline: Water Melon in Easter Hay is an easy one. Of those with lyrics, I think Camarillo Brillo is pretty extraordinary.
Ravi: Who is your favourite music composer/musician?
Pauline: I don’t have one.
Ravi: Did your book fetch you good money, any reprints
Pauline: I have had one re-print after the initial run of 4,000 copies. I still owe my publisher £1,000 as she gave me £4,000 advance. In other words, I have made £3,000 over six years on my book but it is still not a profit.
Ravi: I found your writing style quite similar to Jane Austen, who is your favourite British author?
Pauline: Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors, as is Emily Bronte. Probably George Elliot wins top prize.
Ravi: Any message for Frank Zappa diehard and there are aplenty thankfully.
Ravi: How did your play/theatre on Frank and Gale Honest Betrayal work financially for you and any future plans about Frank Zappa.
Pauline: It cost me over £20,000. The next stage is to get someone in London to put it on and then hopefully I might recoup some of that money.
Ravi: Are you in touch with any of the FZ band members, his immediate family members or any of the GTOs?
Pauline: I saw Bunk Gardner and D on Preston at Zappanale last year (You should go. It’s fantastic.) I occasionally communicate with Mercy of the GTOs. I have never communicated with any of the Zappa family nor do I try to. I believe Moon and Dweezil have read my book.
Ravi: How was the response in media to your book? I am currently reading the fourth book about Frank and I liked The Real Frank Zappa Book and yours very intriguing and enjoyable at the same time. I am reading at leisure the one you suggested by Pamela Des Barres.
Pauline: I had incredible response to my book from the media when it came out in 2011 in England. I had no response from any media in America. The Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Express, ran articles, and BBC Radio 4 Today program interviewed me, as did BBC World Service.
Ravi: Frank believed there were many things physics can’t explain yet. Your views?
Pauline: He may or may not be correct. I don’t know. It was his way of hanging on, I think.
Ravi: Did you have any role in any of the other books by or about him?
Pauline: I mention it in my own book. Frank was commissioned to write a book by Stein & Day to be delivered at the end of 1968. It was supposed to be on the political outlook of young Americans of the day. They gave Frank carte blanche on what to write. He was not a prose writer and found the article he wrote for Life Magazine extremely difficult. I think it made him realise how much work was involved and he just did not want to give up his music to do so.
I may send this interview across to Megan Zappa and to Ahmet Zappa/ZFT, who signed a mutual agreement with me for a musical project I am still midway. I have spoken to both for a project and they were very kind to me on the phone. I respect and love them all.
Surely, this interview gives my soul a strange satisfaction. My sincere thanks Pauline or as Frank would call you Par-leen affectionately!
MY TRIBUTE in Hindustan Times newspaper:
Zappa's opera of the bizarre
The absurd cannot be described easily. It is based on ideas and not any specific practice. Frank Zappa, the famous rock musician is one of the few masters of this art form.
Ravi V Chabra talks about the man and his music.
Frank Zappa - the American guitarist, composer, performer, and social documentariest has enjoyed considerable success since the late sixties with a varied collection of work that very loosely falls into the category of Rock music with more than 40 albums to his credit and half a dozen films, he is still going strong.
Francis Vincent Zappa II, the eldest son of a Sicilian father and a first generation French/Italian mother was born in Baltimore on 21st December, 1940. Since his childhood he had a fascination for the weird - like his preoccupation with gas-masks. However, the so-called King Freak of the Sixties-Seventies was essentially a normal American kid.
At the age of 13, Zappa took to the drums in his school marching band and was almost addicted to works of an obscure European composer Edgar Verese called 'Ionization'.
Frank joined his first band while still in school in 1954. 'The Ramblers' had him as their drummer and the group played a lot of 'Little Richard' king of music, and while at Mission Bay Frank started to write serious music. It was not long before Zappa formed another High School band 'The Blackouts' in 1956, featuring three black, two Mexican and three white kids- one of them being Don Van Klient later known as Captain Beefheart. Zappa was not particularly fond of education.
He graduated from the Antelope Valley High School in 1958 that fortunately for him happened to be a Friday the 13th. He has since often said 'Education is a fake'.
Zappa knew the place for him could be none other than Hollywood, so he moved in 1959 to an apartment at Echo Park where he remained for a year or so, eking out a living from various jobs in the advertising field. He worked as an art director and a copy writer. Although, Zappa was unimpressed by the educational system, he often teamed up with his old school teacher Don Ceveris, and in 1959 wrote the music for an extremely low-budget Western called Run Home Slow. The movie was notable for being the first Western touse electronic music.
Meanwhile Zappa had set a combo in his garage, and he subsequently met Don Preston- a Jazz musician.
In 1959, Zappa began harmony course at the Chaffy College California. It was here that he managed to persuade most of the students to form a 52-piece orchestra to record a score for the film. The world's Greatest Sinner whose contract he had managed to get. Most of his music was and is a satire with strong emphasis on the bizarre (also one of his earlier record labels). Zappa's second album Absolutely Free was a satire too, inspired by the typical at the nightclubs, the album has a number called "America drinks and goes home".
The same trend has been carrying on in the peculiar Zapparesque form where he talks in the tapes in a heavy eccentric accent, most of the time uttering cheap nothings, at times giving commentaries on the 'Muffin', or mocking at the 'Jewish princess'. It is not therefore surprising that Zappa originally named his group Mother so and so, and each of his player was a mother.
However, Mothers broke apart after Captain Beefheart, Ry Cooder, Lowell George and Roy Estrada left. Zappa decided to simply call it Zappa and a few years back launched his own record company by the name of 'Barking Pumpkin Records'. He had not looked back since. Some of his remarkable albums are "Sheikh yer booty', 'Bongo fury', 'Hot Rats', 'Weasels ripped my flesh', 'Thing Fish', 'You are what you is', 'Zapped', 'Zoot allures'.
Zappa's latest album is called 'Broadway the hard way' and includes numbers like 'Elvis has just left the building', 'Promiscuous', 'Dickey’s such an asshole' and 'Jesus thinks you're a jerk'.
How can one define the absurd? Why does the absurd exist? Why is the absurd a major concept in contemporary art forms?
The absurd, many critics have opined, originates from a revolt against system- disillusionment, despair. A kind of anti-establishment philosophy. But then what else can one expect from those who are brilliant and can create without the positive support of the "system" or the established norms. What happens when Einstein fail in school, yet become great scientists! Does it not reflect upon the absurdity of the 'system'?
There cannot really be an adequate description of the absurd- it can only be felt. It can be laughed at, scorned or appreciated. This is precisely what keeps happening to Frank Zappa's music and his bizarre antics on and off stage. He appears to be the ultimate fallout of the (not readable) is Black music.
Zappa babbles cheap nothings and people respond. He wears the funniest of clothes and once even modeled in a weird Mary Quant outfit. He is simultaneously abhorred and dubbed a genius. The man is a through professional (possesses a conductors' degree in music) and knows exactly what he is doing. His albums are instant sell-outs. He has played with Jean Luc Ponty, Ry Cooder, George Duke, Captain Beefheart and Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar amongst others.
Frank Zappa is probably the only Rock musician who has been a versatile conductor as well as composer in all forms of music. He has performed with some of the best orchestras in the world and even writer music for the London (not readable). In fact, many recent music encyclopedias have categorised him as a genius composer-guitarist.