October 2012

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The first time Melody Maker feels confident enough to send me abroad without fearing an international incident as a consequence, I’m dispatched to interview Frank Zappa in Paris, where The Mothers Of Invention are celebrating their 10th anniversary.

This is September, 1974, a trip I was reminded of after reading the review in this issue of Zappa’s first 12 albums, re-mastered as part of a campaign that sees 60 of his recordings re-released in batches of a dozen per month until the end of the year. At the time, I was thrilled enough to be going to Paris, since I’d never been there and was looking forward to finding some dark bar on the Left Bank where I might drink cognac, smoke ostentatiously and perhaps fall in love with a beatnik girl, that kind of thing. I was less excited about the bits of the trip involving Zappa and his music, and this was entirely due to the month I spent when I first went to art school sharing a room in digs with a couple of fellow students. Bill was a garrulous Scouser with a taste for good weed and Blue Cheer. Graham by contrast was worryingly eccentric with some peculiar habits, such as sleeping with a large stuffed rabbit with which, from the grunts of ecstasy that nightly came from his side of the room, he seemed to enjoy a disconcerting carnal familiarity.

Among Graham’s other passions was Mahler, whose depressing symphonies he listened to standing in front of a wardrobe mirror, waving a conductor’s baton and wearing only a top hat, underpants and spats, a no doubt stylish look I was nevertheless not tempted to emulate. Other than Mahler, Graham played only Frank Zappa albums, mainly Uncle Meat, his favourite, which we were forced to endure at startling volume, repeatedly, while Graham cuddled his rabbit, amorously. I had not really been able to listen to Zappa since. But, hey, there’s at least a party to look forward to in Paris. It’s at swish nightspot The Alcazar, where I end up sitting next to a spectacularly fucked-up Stephen Stills, who may not if asked have been able to tell you where he was. The cabaret that follows a lavish banquet is amazing. Trapeze artists, 30 or 40 of them in various states of undress, swing across the stage, dangle from ropes, descend from great heights on escalators. Naked women frolic in bubble baths, making Stills whoop loudly. For the show’s climax, the stage is transformed into the legendary Moulin Rouge dance hall, can-can dancers kicking up a storm, a riot of skirts and frilly underwear. The trapeze gals are back in action, too, a blur of tits and tassels. Crescent moons and gondolas descend from above, each festooned with yet another naked beauty as still more Gallic stunners are delivered onto the stage via escalators. The stage is so crowded, there’s barely room for Zappa, who makes a short speech before being borne aloft on one of the moons, waving daintily.

The next day, Zappa cancels all his interviews, overcome by a mood so foul he carries it into a surly show at the Palais des Sports. He does, however, extend an invitation to join him for dinner at some swanky restaurant where even the cheapest meal on the menu costs at least twice as much as I earn a month on MM. Zappa’s mood continues to be for whatever reason completely sour, unsettling everyone around him and making him unapproachable. Charles Shaar Murray, here for the NME, is confident however of impressing Zappa with his wit and erudition, telling Frank he’s currently compiling what Charlie floridly describes as an analysis of Zappa’s “output macrostructure”, which I take to mean Zappa’s albums to date. Frank looks at Charlie as he might at a dog who’s just shit on his shoe, Charlie in his leathers, afro and mirror shades. “Do you know you look like Mike Bloomfield?” Frank asks Charlie, who with a swagger says he does. “He was a fucking idiot, too,” Frank says, ignoring Charlie for the rest of the meal, which no-one really has the appetite for.

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