It was a rare, early Hollywood television appearance for future rock music renegade Frank Zappa. Lean and hungry and unknown, the 22-year-old composer appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1963.
He wore a pressed suit and thin tie, and short, well-greased hair — standard for those pre-Beatles, pre-psychedelic days. But Zappa was there to perform sounds on a bicycle with drumsticks and a bow (the bike belonged to his sister Candy).
Allen was no slouch in the world of beatnik-era hipness himself, but he couldn’t help cracking one-liners during Zappa’s noisy, atonal demonstration, and he kept pronouncing his guest’s name “Zoppa.” “Well, Mr. Zappa … I congratulate you on your farsightedness,” Allen said. “As for your music, don’t ever do it around here again!”
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore — Dec. 21, 2010, would have been his 70th birthday — but his self-image and musical output from 1963 until his death in 1993 were soaked in the lore of Southern California, where he grew up.
A list of local place names that appear in the satirical songs of his avant-garde-meets-novelty-rock group, the Mothers of Invention, would be long.
Burbank, Downey, El Monte, Fullerton, Glendale, Hawthorne, Irwindale, Lomita, Newhall, Pacoima, Palmdale, Rolling Hills, Shadow Hills — he loved, hated and sang about all of them. In retrospect, it seems that Zappa and the Mothers played in other cities during their heyday in the late 1960s only because they had to.
Zappa was raised in Lancaster. He showed an early gift for music and started writing orchestral music at age 14. The first love of the culture-hungry teenager in the desert was the percussive, avant-garde electronic music of composer Edgard Varese. His second love was 1950s doo-wop and rhythm and blues, which inspired him to take up the guitar.
After high school he ambitiously pursued both, seemingly unrelated, passions. Only months after appearing on the Allen show, the young composer conducted his discordant orchestral works at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, after which an audience member asked, “Do you consider this to be music?” On the surviving tape, Zappa sounds defiant but, frankly, hurt.
Meanwhile, as an aspiring producer of rock ‘n’ roll records, young Zappa made frequent trips into Hollywood, hustling tapes of local bands he would record at his own Studio Z (“Record Your Band!”) in Cucamonga. Some of these were bought by small Hollywood labels (Del-Fi, Donna, Emmy), and released as 45s. Today they’re collectors’ items. Few sold well, with the notable exception of Zappa’s own “Memories of El Monte,” recorded by the Penguins of “Earth Angel” fame.
If he had had the stomach to work for other people, he could have been a successful film composer.
On the Allen show he mentioned having recently composed the “score” for a low-budget film, “The World’s Greatest Sinner,” by cult character actor and director Timothy Carey (“My name is God Hilliard!”), now best remembered for his eccentric performances in early Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes films. When “Steverino” asked, “Who’s in it?” Zappa stifled a laugh. “Tim Carey and a cast of a thousand people that he found down on Main Street someplace.”
This, and the score for an ultra-cheap western called “Run Home Slow” (1965), hinted at Zappa’s talent. The multilayered, virtuosic brilliance of his late-'60s masterpieces — hybrid rock-jazz-classical albums like “Burnt Weenie Sandwich,” “Hot Rats” and “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” — were only a few years away.
In retrospect, one can see that as the ‘60s heated up in Los Angeles, Zappa was one of the artists who started the West Coast hippy scene when he released (or unleashed) the first Mothers album, “Freak Out” (1966), which told of a subculture in Hollywood of self-described “freaks” who wore their hair long and dressed in mismatched clothes from thrift shops.
It was a social revolution, and Zappa helped to create it, which was ironic for two reasons: He himself considered “freaks” (a small group of people who hung around Canter’s deli in 1965-66) to be better and smarter than hippies, and he was strongly anti-drug his entire life. “I don’t like bumping into furniture or vomiting on people” was his stated position on the issue.
One can’t help thinking that the gadfly spirit of rock music’s bad conscience — the intelligent older brother who sneered at love songs as well as rock-star arrogance — will be mocking and poking at youth culture for as long as it lasts.
One assumes he’d also laugh at the idea of his own high school, Antelope Valley High, being renamed after him (once proposed but shot down), or that there would be statues of him erected in town squares: in Baltimore, Germany and Lithuania.
But then, Frank Zappa laughed at a lot of things.