1971, Part 3

The Pit of Hell

Less than a week after the disastrous fire at Montreux, Frank and the Mothers were onstage at the Rainbow. The first show of two scheduled for the evening of Friday December 10th was almost over. Amidst applause the band returned for an encore. Being England, home of the Beatles, Frank had chosen I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It's not entirely clear from various reports whether the band actually completed the number - In The Real Frank Zappa Book (p.114) Frank says 'I think we played I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' but at the time had no idea what happened next. What I, horrified, read in the paper the next day was this:

Pop musician hurt during act

Mr Frank Zappa, aged 31, the pop musician, broke his leg last night in an incident at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London.

A man dashed on to the stage and Mr Zappa fell into the orchestra pit. A man was later being interviewed by the police.
[Times, 11 Dec 71]

These sober paragraphs scarcely did justice to the seriousness of the situation.

"The band thought I was dead." says Frank in The Real Frank Zappa Book. "I had fallen fifteen feet down into a concrete-floored orchestra pit, my head was over on my shoulder and my neck was bent like it was broken. I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed."

It was a miracle indeed that he was still alive. Whether you take the height of the fall as 10 feet (Miles, Frank Zappa - A Visual Documentary, p.55), 12 feet (Michael Gray, Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa, p.107) or 15 feet (Frank, The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.114) it was a hell of a long way down. How had it happened?

"In those days," Frank explains, "I didn't carry a bodyguard; 'security' was supplied by the local promoters. In the case of this concert, the security consisted of two big West Indian guys, at either side of the stage. During the encore, they were off smoking reefer someplace.

In their absence, a guy by the name of Trevor Howell had run up onto the stage, punched me and knocked me over into the pit."

Michael Gray, in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa, describes Howell pushing Frank "sharply in the back. Zappa fell forward, caught his foot in a lead, twisted and fell twelve feet down into the orchestra pit. He was unconscious for several minutes . . . " Although Frank never mentions it, Sounds (18 Dec 71) adds that "a monitor speaker fell on top of him."

Fortunately Mr Howell was not to get away with it. What exactly happened is unclear. According to Frank: "After he punched me, he tried to escape into the audience, but a couple of guys in the road crew caught him and took him backstage to hold him for the Police." Michael Gray has him "set upon by some of the audience, but . . . dragged off before he could be seriously hurt." Miles claims, sinisterly, that "Zappa's roadies then taught him a few manners."

In any event, Miles continues, he was arrested and charged with "assault with malicious intent to commit bodily harm. Bail was set at 100."

"Chaotic scenes ensued outside the Rainbow where the audience for the second concert were joined in the street by the audience from the first. Wild rumours that Frank had been killed flashed through the massive crowd, and for upwards of an hour no one knew what was happening. Eventually the crowd dispersed, most of them none the wiser about the evening's dramatic events.
[Miles, ibid.]

The theatre was quickly cleared and Zappa was rushed by ambulance to the Royal Northern Hospital, Holloway. He was later transferred to the London Clinic. Carol Osborne, press officer for Kinney Records, said on Monday that the hospital had put an armed guard outside Zappa's room to protect him against the people who had been trying to get in to see him. He's still badly concussed.
[Sounds, ibid.]

I was taken to a public hospital. I remember being in the emergency room which, like the rest of London at that time of year, was freezing cold. They were clearly understaffed - a guy two beds down from me had his balls smashed in a brawl someplace, and was howling, unattended.

They couldn't give me any anesthetic because I had a head injury, so after a while I just passed out, and woke up later in a bad-smelling room with beds all around, in a circle, with curtains hung between them. I remember the curtains parting in front of me and a black nurse coming in and seeing my face; like she had just seen a monster. I was pretty mashed up.

I was later transferred to the Harley Street Clinic where I stayed for a month. I had a twenty-four-hour bodyguard because the asshole who had hit me was out on bail, and we didn't know how insane he was.
[Frank, ibid.]

So, why did he do it? Singer Howard Kaylan, quoted in Sounds, said after the incident on Friday: "It all happened so quickly - it was just such a crazy thing. Someone said the guy's girlfriend was in love with Frank, or something."

"He gave two stories to the press. One of them was that I had been "making eyes at his girlfriend." That wasn't true, since the orchestra pit was not only fifteen feet deep but twice as wide, and the spotlight was in my face. I can't even see the audience in those situations - it's like looking into a black hole. I never even saw the guy coming at me.

He told another newspaper that he was pissed off because he felt we hadn't given him "value for his money." Choose your favorite story."
[Frank, ibid.]

At a press conference this week, Herb Cohen, Zappa's business manager, said it was unlikely Zappa would be able to leave hospital for two or three weeks, and would probably be physically recovered in about another 10 weeks "but when he'll be able to work again I can't say," he added . . . Zappa is now fully conscious and, according to Cohen, "really pissed off."
[Sounds, ibid.]

" . . . on the 12th [Frank] had an operation, which a clinic spokesman said was for 'an adjustment' to his ankle. His condition was said to be, as they say, satisfactory.

The day after - Monday the 13th - the rest of the Mothers flew back to America, leaving Zappa in the clinic."
[Michael Gray, ibid.]

The rest of the gigs in Britain were cancelled. Thus ended a sorry year.

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