Assorted Tales, Assorted Dates
by Michael Dawson, aka Biffy the Elephant Shrew

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2000 by Michael Dawson

First time: March 24, 1973; Saturday night at the San Diego Sports Arena. The bill: Ruben & the Jets (for real), the Doobie Brothers, and the Mothers. The lineup: FZ, Ruth Underwood, Ian Underwood (on clarinet & sax, no keyboards), George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sal Marquez, Bruce Fowler, Tom Fowler, Ralph Humphrey, and special guest Don Preston, who sat in for the second half of the show only, sharing Duke's keyboard setup.

Frank began by welcoming us to "the Sports Aroma" and asking: "Are you the kind of audience who wants the show, like we rehearsed it...or would you rather hear SOMETHING WEIRD?" After a big cheer for the latter, Frank replied, "Good! That's the kind of audience I like." The music began with a medley of "Exercise Four," "Dog/Meat" and "50/50" (instrumental). The remainder of the show consisted entirely of then-unreleased material, primarily instrumental, heavy on improvisation. At one point FZ conducted the audience. The sounds we were told to make included "your favorite note in an Eric Clapton guitar solo--you know, the real high one that goes WEEEE" and "a sound of great gastric relief...yes, this is a farting noise, ladies and gentlemen!" At another point, Frank went off into an improvised rap about the laboratories where they create "imaginary diseases." I also remember Frank joining Ruth on percussion. The only actual songs that I can remember were "Montana" and "Cosmik Debris." Unfortunately, there is apparently no tape of this show, so you'll have to take my word for it that it was the BEST ZAPPA SHOW EVER.

Second time: August 11, 1974, at the Golden Hall, which was not golden at all, being a prefabricated concrete coal bunker in San Diego. Due to equipment problems, the band was onstage, still soundchecking when the audience entered the hall. (Nice of Frank not to make us wait outside until he was finished, like most big rock stars would have done.) The Mothers were down to a six-piece now: FZ, Duke, Ruthie, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson. Since it was getting late, Zappa decided to start the show while the techs were still working, and they played "Uncle Meat," "Pygmy Twylyte," "Cosmik Debris" and "Help, I'm A Rock" through the ailing sound system. Declaring "That seems to be as good as it gets," Frank led the band off and Tom Waits came on to do the "opening" set, performing solo at the electric piano. He was mercilessly booed; some schmuck near me kept yelling "Somebody shoot that fucker!" After a break, the Mothers returned and Frank brought back Tom Waits to tell his "12-inch man" joke while the band played "Ol' 55" behind him. The remainder of the Mothers' set was a mix of stuff from Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe with as-yet unreleased material like "Inca Roads," "T'Mershi Duween," and "Dupree's Paradise," and even a rather reluctant version of "Mudshark," and an improvised blues closer in which FZ lamented the poor sound we had been subjected to. I remember Tom Fowler and Napoleon lying on the stage and kicking their legs in the air during the final encore of "Apostrophe."

I didn't see FZ the next couple of times he came to town. I was not crazy about the music of the Zoot-NY-Sheik period, my disappointment being emphasized by the excellence of the older music that was coming out at the same time on the unauthorized Warners albums. I made a half-hearted last-minute attempt to catch an April 1980 show, but that didn't work out. So...

Third time: 20 years ago today (well, tomorrow as I type this on the west coast), the day after John Lennon was murdered. I didn't see how anyone could play a rock concert that day and not acknowledge the horrible events of the night before, especially someone who had once shared a stage with the man. The least interesting of the Zappa shows I saw...lots of material that would show up on Tinsel Town Rebellion and YAWYI, plus all the cheap-shock stuff like "Bobby Brown," "Enema Bandit," "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes," "Honey Don't You..." and "Ms. Pinky." "Black Napkins" and "Torture" were nice. This was one of the panty shows...strings of undies all over the stage.

Fourth time around: one year and three days later, which would make it, um, carry the 1, uhhh, December 12, 1981 at the Fox Theater in San Diego. A much more musically interesting set, including such goodies as "Envelopes," the "Baltimore/Moggio" medley, "Alien Orifice," "Drowning Witch," and much more, including an electric-cooled pony harness--er, I mean, lots of YAWYI songs again, and a couple of cool doo-wop medleys ("Man From Utopia/Mary Lou" and "The Closer You Are/Johnny Darling"), all topped off with one of the few performances of "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips." Frank spent a lot of time conducting the band while Steve Vai did the stunt guitar parts.

Last call: a warm July evening in 1984, still in San Diego, but outdoors this time. Napoleon was back! (Not for long, though.) Up there with Ike and Ray, having entirely too much fun, occasionally flopping on their bellies when FZ would invoke the night's secret word, "matches." (You need to bring some if you want to use the toilet after Ray's been in there.) Frank began by requesting that anyone within earshot who would be made to vomit or to go to Hell by the use of bad words should leave, and to give them time to do so, he would play an instrumental. And so, perched on a stool as the sun faded, Zappa lit into a smoldering "Zoot Allures." The show that followed had more buffoonery than the others I'd seen: abusing a Raggedy Ann doll during "Honey Don't You Want A Man Like Me," brandishing an oversized glove for "Oh No" ("You think that you really know the meaning of glove...You say glove is all you need..."). Napi did his operatic "Evil Prince" aria. An uncharacteristically wistful Frank concluded the show by noting "This is a nice place. I like playing here."

Sadly, he never came back.

Your pal,
Biffy the Elephant Shrew

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