1971, Part 4


Man Jailed for Zappa attack

A man who attacked Frank Zappa, the pop group leader, because he thought Mr Zappa was not giving value for money, was jailed for 12 months by Judge Rigg at the Central Criminal Court yesterday. Trevor Charles Howell, aged 24, a labourer, admitted maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mr Zappa during a concert at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London.

Mr Howell was said to have run on to the stage and pushed Mr Zappa, causing him to fracture a leg and cut his head. Mr Zappa was in hospital for six weeks.
[Times, Jan 72]

So those were the consequences for Trevor Howell. The consequences for Frank himself, his career and his music were far-reaching.

He was seriously injured, and the effects would be with him for the rest of his life. For a month he was bed-ridden, a cast on his leg up to his hip. He then learned to walk with the aid of crutches, and was able to get about in a wheelchair.

"I stayed in the cast and in the wheelchair for the better part of a year. Eventually the cast came off and I was fitted with a prosthetic device - one of those things with metal joints and straps and a special shoe. Eventually my leg healed - but it came out a little crooked. One leg is slightly shorter than the other, the cause of many years of chronic back pain."
[The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.115]

But a permanent slight limp wasn't the only long-term result of the fall:

"When my head had gone over onto my shoulder, it had crushed my larynx, so I couldn't talk. As a result of that, the pitch of my voice dropped a third and has stayed that way ever since (having a low voice is nice, but I would have preferred some other means of acquiring it)."
[The Real Frank Zappa Book]

Not surprisingly, all this had an effect on Zappa's attitude. "It affected him deeply," says Michael Gray in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa (p.108), "and for at least a couple of years afterwards he was markedly more of a loner, more defensive, more suspicious, less outgoing and less open-minded than he had been before." Well, wouldn't you be?

Of course, the state of his health inevitably meant that he had to be something of a loner, remaining at home to recuperate. Besides which, staying in wasn't a problem. "I don't live outdoors. Outdoors for me is walking from the car to the ticket desk at the airport." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.235]. However, during this time, he says, "I refused to do any interviews or have photos taken." [ibid., p.115].

Touring at the moment was out of the question, and the Mothers dissolved. By the middle of the year, he continues, "The band with Mark and Howard didn't exist any more - they all had to go out and get other jobs during the year I couldn't work."

This sounds eminently reasonable, but at the time there was considerable friction between Frank and the band. He complained that they hadn't come to see him when he was ill, and had been criticizing him in interviews:

"The means by which they chose to promote their careers at my expense, while I was sitting in a wheelchair trying to help them get a job and record contract, I believe to be despicable and will always think so, even though I regard Howard as a fine singer and Mark as a great tambourine player and fat person."
[New Musical Express 17 April 76]

Maybe this was just an example of Frank being 'defensive' and 'suspicious', and it wasn't the first, or last, example of disputes with ex-band members, most prominently the on-off relationship with High School buddy Don Vliet (Captain Beefheart): "Zappa is the most disgusting character I have ever encountered. Ever!!" he is quoted as saying in the ironically-named paper Frendz in 1973. In the same article other ex-Mothers - by then members of Beeheart's band - seem to have the same view. Art Tripp dismisses Frank's music as "formal crap", and Roy Estrada, although not quoted, is described as "very bitter about the way Zappa treated him." (Only Elliot Ingber has a good word to say: "I like and respect Frank very much - he's a fine guitarist, but seems very distant from everything going around him.")

Ruth Underwood is quoted in New Musical Express as saying: "Frank is a cynic, but totally destructive. He doesn't believe in anything, not even love. He's just empty inside." [2 Sept 72; date when the comment was made not stated]

Well, Frank and Don made it up, and played together in 1975 - although they soon fell out again - the results appearing on the album Bongo Fury; Roy Estrada toured with Frank in 1976, and can be heard on Zoot Allures; Ruth Underwood was a regular member of Zappa's band from 72 to 76; even Jeff Simmons rejoined the Mothers briefly in December 73 for the gigs at the Roxy, Hollywood , extracts from which appeared on the album Live at the Roxy & Elsewhere.

Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, too, did not sever their connections. They toured and recorded for several years as "Flo & Eddie" - nicknames derived from their credits as 'The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie' on Chunga's Revenge, where, for contractual reasons, they couldn't be named. By 1976 they were reported to have "auditioned for Frank's new band - they said that they couldn't stand paying out for their own group all the time -and Frank wanted them, but Columbia Records pressured them to take their own group on the road to promote their new album Moving Targets." [New Musical Express, 4 Dec 76]

Sadly, during the tour their guitarist Phil Reed was killed, falling from a hotel window. Kaylan and Volman joined Frank's tour, which was in progress at the time, performing as support band at Cobo Hall, Detroit, on November 19th, 1976, later joining Frank on stage for a few numbers, including the old Live at the Fillmore East favourite What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?.

Another significant personnel change that resulted directly from these events was the employment of John Smothers as Frank's personal bodyguard. Smothers accompanied Frank everywhere on tour. He even "sat in on interviews these days [1977]," according to Michael Gray (Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa, p.144). A 1978 interview in the London Evening Standard says: "He [Frank] is to be found with his constant companion, a large 7ft bodyguard called Mr Smothers, who has been part of the Zappa entourage ever since Zappa was thrown off the stage at the Rainbow by one of the audience in 1971." If 7ft is correct, that's about 2.10m, which makes Mr Smothers a big man.

As well as providing Frank with peace of mind - he was now secure in the knowledge that nothing like the Rainbow incident would ever happen again - John Smothers delighted his employer with his mangling of the English language. Mistakes and mis-readings always appealed to Frank:

"I change lyrics all the time. A lot of them get changed by accident. Somebody will read them wrong and it'll sound so funny I'll leave it wrong."
[1974, quoted by Miles in Frank Zappa - A Visual Documentary]

Many of John Smothers' mistakes and mispronunciations found their way into Zappa's lyrics at this time, and a song celebrating this talent, Dong Work for Yuda, appeared on the album Joe's Garage, Acts II & III in December 1979. It was Frank's intention to record Smothers for this track, but unfortunately he fell ill at just that time, so his spoken parts had to be imitated by drummer Terry Bozzio.

200 Motels received its full release shortly after the Rainbow incident, and Frank's hospitalisation meant that he was in no position to undertake any promotional work. Another possible victim of the attack was hinted at in an interview Frank gave in November 1971. When asked if each Mothers' gig was recorded, Frank replied: "No, but this formula allows us to do so if required. However, we will be recording the performances at the Rainbow Theatre and from those we will try and do a live British album." [New Musical Express, 27 Nov 71]. The album never materialised.

Returning home for rest and recuperation, Zappa commenced composing immediately. Being in pain and confined to a wheelchair didn't mean he was going to do nothing. In fact, he achieved more during the first half of 1972 than most would in full health. "I managed somehow," he says, with undue modesty,"to produce three albums (Just Another Band From L.A., Waka/Jawaka, and The Grand Wazoo). I also wrote a science-fiction musical called Hunchentoot, and a twisted sort of musical fairy tale called The Adventures of Greggary Peccary." Phew! Not bad for an invalid! On top of his own material he managed to find time to produce a doo-wop group called Ruben & the Jets; on their album For Real he wrote and arranged one track (If I Could Only Be Your Love Again), co-arranged two arranged two more with singer Ruben Guevara (Mah Man Flash and Santa Kari), and played guitar on a fourth (Dedicated To The One I Love). [The Zappalog by Norbert Obermanns].

So the enforced break-up of his band had forced a new musical direction. Although the album Just Another Band from L.A. (released in May 72) was a record of the Kaylan/Volman Mothers, the material on Waka/Jawaka (released in July 72) and The Grand Wazoo (released in December 72) was quite different. Scored for a big band with a large brass section, and largely instrumental, it was quite a departure from what had gone before.

"My first post-wheelchair appearance," Frank says, "was as a reciter, in a performance of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Lukas Foss [The Real Frank Zappa Book (p.116)], but, almost incredibly, by the summer he was planning to go on the road again, with the Grand Wazoo Orchestra, in Europe and America. The European leg of the tour was to consist of three dates in September, in Berlin on the 15th, The Hague, Holland, on the 17th, and in between, on Saturday the16th, London - not at one of the usual concert venues, but an all-day outdoor event at the Oval Cricket Ground, Kennington. "EXCLUSIVE - ZAPPA ROCKS BACK AT THE OVAL" announced Sounds, when the dates were finalised in August. Surely nothing could go wrong this time?

Well, nothing major, perhaps, but, we read in The Real Frank Zappa Book (p.116): "At the Press conference arranged by the promoter of the London date, I discovered the depths to which the British will sink in order to sell a concert ticket."

In an article written as Frank and the Grand Wazoo arrived in Berlin for their concert at the Deutschlandhalle, Charles Shaar Murray reports this incident:

The Master of Bizarre business, Herbie Cohen is there to organise the proceedings, and is most indignant about a stunt that took place the previous night at the Oval.

Studious devotees of the pop scene will know that the man who heaved Frank into the orchestra pit at the Rainbow performed this scurrilous act because his young lady was in love with Frank and he wished to take what he considered appropriate action.

At the press conference the lady in question appeared, to present Frank with a bunch of flowers. The authenticity of said lady was rather dubious and Mr Cohen was annoyed about the whole tasteless stunt, which he claimed was engineered by the organisers' PR man, Peter Harrigan."
[New Musical Express, 23 Sept 72]

(Having recounted this story in The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank begins the next chapter with the words quoted at the beginning of this article: "As a result of all that, the British have earned a special place in my heart.")

So that's the story of 1971, its disasters, and its consequences, and now you know why Britain is not Frank's favourite place on Earth!

There's just one more story worth telling here. It didn't happen in 1971 - in fact, it didn't happen until 1984 - but it's a good one to tell, while we're on the subject of British PR men. I haven't found any other reference to it in the extensive Zappa literature, but at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1984, Frank opened the second show on September 24th with this little tale:

"Some of you people might have been in the first show, during which we were making fun of a person named Roland Hyams. Some of you may know why, and a lot of you probably don't.

Anyway, you should know this: we hired a publicity person to take care of advertising these shows in England - a real English publicity person who does English groups, like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart . . . We say, "Well, maybe he would get it right if he did us."

And you know what this motherfucker did? He was supposed to bring some really important journalists to Brussels, to see our first show in Europe . . . Anyway . . . it really wasn't the journalists' fault, you know - this all refers to a little article that was in the Manchester Guardian on Friday. The journalists were sworn to secrecy, that they wouldn't spill the beans about what happened . . .

They were supposed to go to the airport, and the guy calls them up and says, "Sorry, I overslept." So they miss the plane. Then the guy gets to the airport - oops! he forgot his passport, so he has to go home and get the passport. Even later.

Well, they get to Brussels . . . and in the cab on the way to the hotel, Roland Hyams vomits! We don't know what Roland was eating the night before, or what he was doing, but he was in trouble.

So, in order to make the journalists feel more at ease, he promised that he would take them to a whorehouse! - which he did.

I spent a long time talking with these journalists - hours upon hours, doing all this wonderful publicity for these concerts. They did not go to the concert in Brussels: they were out at dinner with Roland Hyams! They got back to the show, just in time for the encore, and came to the dressing-room, said they had enjoyed it very much, and told me they had a great time at the whorehouse the night before. The reason they had such a good time is because they had told the whores that they were the members of my band! . . .

Oh, the bad part is . . . this guy has already been paid for doing the work. We called him up tonight and said, "Now, Roland, be a good guy and give the money back!" He said no, he felt that he had done a really good job and didn't want to do it. So, Roland, you're in some deep shit!"
[Transcribed by the author]

(The band also performed alternative versions of Carol, You Fool, Chana in de Bushwop, and Baby, Take Your Teeth Out: Roland, You Fool, Roland in the Whorehouse, and Roland, Take Your Teeth Out, respectively).

Yes, once again, the British had come up trumps!

To give the man himself the last word, how would he sum up having to play here?

"Well, sometimes it's fun and sometimes you end up in hospital."
[Melody Maker, 1974]

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