Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Notes On The Perfect Day

I had a perfect day yesterday. Seeing Eric and having him up here in Bloomington (and I'm sure this sounds corny) felt like old times. I realized how much I missed him this school year. It was just odd to be walking around town with him like we constantly did all summer long, going to Landlocked Music and so on. That made the day great right there.

Meeting Jimmy Carl Black was a huge deal for me, both as a lover of Zappa's music and as a drummer. His lecture was good, he was very funny and honest about his experiences. Excuse my word choice, but he was frank about Frank. He didn't try to sugar-coat anything, and at one point referred to Gail as "that wench." We got to hear about how The Mothers Of Invention would rehearse eight hours a day, EVERY DAY, and that their repertoire consisted of at least 300 songs. Having heard live bootlegs (and the few officially released materials from that era by the Zappa Family Trust aka Gail) from that era I can definitely verify that. And you know what? They would play it well.

A major griping point I have with Barry Miles' book on Zappa (and even the average Zappa apologist's opinion on this matter, it's just easier to single Miles out because he's a complete asshole) is that he is quick to say The Mothers Of Invention (the line-ups from 1970 onwards were known only as "The Mothers," and in their final stretch it was "Zappa & The Mothers") were not a technically proficient band, and easily his weakest in terms of musicianship. This is simply not true. Again, all you have to do is listen to the material and know these guys were good. JCB was quick to admit he was raised on blues music, and that The MOI had started as a white R&B combo. By their career's end in 1969 they had evolved into a band that incorporated trained musicians (Bunk Gardner, Don Preston, Ian Underwood, Art Tripp) while still having the blues guys (JCB on drums, Roy Estrada on bass) as the rhythm section. It made for a good combination.

I could identify with JCB completely on reading music. He can't at all, and doesn't want to learn now at age 69. (By the way, he said he was happy to have made it to that age, as it is his favorite number. It made for a good icebreaker.) Personally, I can barely read music. I can look at a melodic part and play it on the piano, but I prefer playing it by ear. That's how I learned to play. I remember seeing a transcription of The MOI song "King Kong" in the liner notes to 'Uncle Meat' and being baffled that the entire thing was in 3/8 time. I would never have guessed. But I could play it. Anyway, I take issue with anyone (especially a high-horse riding rock critic like Miles) who thinks ability to read music is what makes a good musician. And yeah, I'm going to go out and say I'm a good drummer.

Another thing the average Zappologist (which I guess is an actual term) doesn't seem to take into account is the camaraderie in the original band compared to later ensembles. Roy, JCB, Ray Collins, Jim Sherwood...all those guys were Zappa's friends. JCB was quick to say that, and that later bands were just "hired guns." As extreme as that sounds...it's true. I thought about that after he said it, and I realized he was right. Knowing how to read music was a requirement for all future line-ups, for one, and he constantly recruited conservatory-trained experts. And it shows. The bands he had in the 1980's were almost too good. The songs were done without room to breathe. Most importantly though, the original Mothers had a sense of humor. Later bands, as JCB said, as much as they tried were simply not funny.

I don't know his music at all (though I have a feeling I could spot it from a mile away), but JCB seemed to have better things to say about Captain Beefheart, as Eric had predicted would happen. They worked together in 1975, and all I can say is Beefheart sounds nuts.

Someone asked him what his favorite and least favorite Zappa albums were. It's weird to say this - well, maybe not really since I've mentioned this in the below entry - but they're the same album: 'Cruising With Ruben & The Jets'. Guess which version is his favorite and which version is his least favorite...

This seemed to be a hairy issue with him some 23 years later. He argued that if Frank felt it was so necessary to redo the bass and drums, why use Art Barrow and Chad Wackerman as respective replacements for Roy and JCB instead of just using the original guys? As he mused to us, "Those guys were in diapers when we did it originally, man!" Later, he said, "He paid Chad Wackerman $10,000. I had a weekly salary of $250. Hell, I would've re-done my playing for $10,000!" Then, with a smile, he added, "I woulda done it for five thousand!"

I've read this quote several times, but now I can actually say that I saw and heard the man say it: "Frank said to us, 'Let me take charge of the band. I'll make you guys rich and famous.' *Pause* Well, that second half was true!"

I never said Frank Zappa was perfect. That would be Gail's doing.

Also, yesterday saw a 3/4's reunion of The Heliocentrics. It was weird...but no bad blood between any of us, so that's cool. If they're starving for a drummer, who knows...I just know I better get paid this time around.

After the lecture, Eric and I decided to approach him for his autograph. I was seriously starstruck. Never mind that his playing was influential to me, his line "Hi, boys 'n girls, I'm Jimmy Carl Black 'n I'm the Indian of the group!" from the intro to 'We're Only In It For The Money' stood out to me as being both bizarrely funny and the first introduction to any of the hundreds of musicians Zappa played with. Handing him my copy of 'WOIIFTM' and a Sharpie, I said, "This was the first Zappa album I ever owned, and it's still my favorite. Your playing made me want to be a better drummer."

With a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Oh, you're a drummer?"

"Yeah."

That's all that needed to be said. I was telling Kate and Eric this last night, but drummers aren't so much a tribe or a brotherhood so much as a species. Get two drummers together and before you know it we'll be picking nits out of the other's hair and eating them.

No, we're not that primal. Not since the Digital Age.

I thanked him. It's true, though. I was in a Beatlemania-like trance that all I could say was the truth. I didn't even bother trying to be cool, I just said what popped into my head. Playing with Kinks or Who CD's, fun as it may be, isn't particularly difficult. It's a physical workout, that's for sure, and I'll be the first to tell you that rock 'n roll is my religion. When I play with a Zappa album, though - and I do, I really do play with whole albums of his beginning to end - to quote "Harry, You're A Beast" from 'We're Only In It For The Money' - "It's not merely physical."
It's more than a spiritual experience, too, though that's always nice. It's mentally stimulating. I actually had to concentrate and think rather than be a wind-up monkey banging on the drums.

Approaching my playing that way, as you can imagine, crept its way into how I approached, say, 'Tommy' by The Who or 'Preservation' by The Kinks. It's all mixed together, now...and that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

I spent some quality time with Kate - who got to meet Eric and greet each other with "I've heard a lot about you!" - and I have to say, things are good. My best friend came to town - great! I met a pivotal figure in my musical career - awesome! I'm getting closer to someone who is smart, good-looking, sweet, has a good taste in movies, and is able to maintain a life independent of me (and feels the same about me - even the good-looking part) - well, that made my day perfect. I only get a couple truly perfect days a year.

The Zappa class today ought to be interesting. I don't think Hollinden knew I was a drummer. I know he's a musician, who knows, maybe he needs a drummer?

When it comes to my creativity with movies or writing or even my own body - I would never sell myself in those areas unless I was starving and it became my only option. (Though I don't know of many parts of the world where someone HAS to make a movie or write a story to put food on the table.) But when it comes to music, I've always had this dumb little fantasy of being a session player. I mean, being in a band would be great, except modern music pretty much sucks. And it sucks hard, with a few exceptions. Never mind that the guys with real talent (Condon, are you reading this? Because I'm talking about you and pretty much everyone from FCR...) are the ones recording in their spare time when they're not working for "the man" at some stupid 9 to 5 job. Those are the guys that in a perfect world would be running the music industry, not praying they'll get discovered by some accountant from Warner Brothers. (Another example of this would be my dad - great guitarist, but he has mouths to feed.)

It's that mentality alone that tells me as a drummer who isn't shitty and actually owns a drum kit that there is no shame in me playing with anyone. You can get a cheap-ass Behringer guitar from walmart.com for just under $100. My drum set originally cost $620, throw in $250 for the extra rack toms, $120 for the ride cymbal, and $110 for the crash cymbal (and $15 for the drum rings, which make the drums sound studio-ready) and that's $1,115. Never mind I need to replace my hi-hat soon. It's not like buying a guitar where you can say you have it and you're trying to learn...you have to really want to be good at it. It's an investment.

Enough about my desire to whore myself out as a drummer. (Though I should put out a flyer or something saying I'm available if the price is right and the music is good. And if I can store my drums somewhere.)

But if you know anyone who's looking, send them my way.

Alex

1 comment:

M@ said...

That whole thing about your drums is exactly why I bought the matte finish Martin D15 when I decided to learn the guitar. I knew that if I had spent that type of money then I would HAVE to learn how to use it.

Going go be in B-town soon. I'll let you know when.