My Time With Frank Zappa

by Richard Emmet

(Revised from an article originally written for
the Portland Songwriters Association newsletter)

Those were the days when magic could happen. The days of baseball, The Beatles, black lights, Peter Max posters, the Viet Nam war, the civil rights movement, endless discoveries, catastrophes, and revelations ­­ and enough free time and optimism to feel truly connected to all of it.

The year was 1969. I was 16, living in New Haven, Connecticut. Though clueless about many things, I already sensed that whatever magic was in store for me would probably materialize through music. Looking back, the "magic seed" may have been planted that year when, hanging out at a friend's house, I heard a very unusual record. With offerings such as "The Dog Breath Variations", "Electric Aunt Jemima", "King Kong", and "The Voice of Cheese", my already atypical listening habits ­ Archie Shepp, Miles Davis, Mahler, Stockhausen, Balinese Gamelan, Bulgarian choral music, etc. ­ had to make room for a new arrival. The album was "Uncle Meat" by the Mothers of Invention.

I was curious about the ostensible leader of the group, Frank Zappa. My friends and I were convinced he had to be consuming some fairly potent drugs to write such strange music, but we eventually learned otherwise. It was clear, however, that there was a certain mystique about him, possibly connected, I fancied, with that mysterious, faraway place called California. Ensconced in my friend's incense-filled, poster-lined attic on that sunny afternoon, I wondered why I felt so intrigued by this enigmatic musician. There was no way to know that nine years later he would invite me over to his house and ask me to work for him.

Fast forward to the Spring of 1978. I was living in a one-room, flea-infested apartment on the beach in Venice, California. I’d graduated from music school almost a year earlier and was playing guitar and flute for a theater company in Los Angeles.

When the phone rang, it was my friend David Ocker on the other line. He said, “Frank wants you to call him.” And life changed.

Over a span of 30 years, Frank Zappa worked tirelessly, generating more than 50 albums, and solidifying his stature as a composer, music producer, bandleader, filmmaker, businessman, satirist, social philosopher, and political activist. At every step along the way, there were people around him - musicians, engineers, artists, and others, who helped support his creative vision. For a period of time, I became one of those people.

My friend David, a fellow musician and composer, had been hired a few months earlier by Zappa to be a music copyist. I asked David if Frank might possibly need another copyist on his staff, and David agreed to ask him. A couple of weeks later came his message to call Frank.

The deep voice on the other line was instantly recognizable. “Hello,” he said, and I introduced myself. He asked, “Can you come over at four o’clock?” and I said, “Sure.” Frank was a man who spoke succinctly. He gave me directions to his house, which was nestled in the winding hills of Laurel Canyon, and said, “Bye.”

So I drove to his house. (I discovered later that Ringo Starr lived on the same street.) Frank shook my hand and showed me around his basement studio. We chatted for a while, and he asked if I was capable of transcribing some pieces he’d written. “Transcribing” entailed listening to the music on a cassette tape, figuring out what the musicians were playing, and then writing down all the notes and rhythms. Since I also composed music and had been a musician for many years, I didn’t think this would be too difficult, so I said, “Sure!” (I thought “Sure” was a good thing to say around him.) Frank then officially hired me to transcribe these pieces, offering me a weekly salary higher than what the theater company paid. I didn’t know how long the job would last, but I was thrilled to have this opportunity fall in my lap. I worked at home for the next two weeks and brought the transcriptions back for Frank to see. He liked what I brought him but had no other work for me at that point. A couple of months later, however, I got word to call him again, and this time, he hired me as a full-time music copyist. The job lasted almost five years.

What do music copyists do, and why did Frank need them?

Zappa, in addition to creating his zany and challenging rock and roll music, also composed a huge amount of music for symphony orchestras. In order for this music to be played, a full orchestral score containing all the musical elements would need to be produced. The conductor would use this score to conduct the orchestra. And each group of players (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, French horns, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp, violins, violas, cellos, and basses - and sometimes a choir and/or rock band) would need their own separate music parts copied out as well. In other words, the creation of a piece of symphonic music requires the production of many hundreds of sheets of notated manuscript. Since Frank could read and write music, he sketched out the rough draft in pencil, and the music copyists would use this as a reference to create a professional-looking score and set of parts.

The creation of scores and parts was very time consuming. Each score page began as a blank 13 x 19 inch sheet of vellum (similar to tracing paper). Since Frank was a perfectionist, he didn’t want to use pre-formatted paper with the music staves already drawn in. Each page could contain only those instrumental staves that were actually used on that page. In other words, if measures 15 - 19 had no activity for the flutes and trombones, those staves would be left off that page. This meant that we would have to pre-plan each page and ink in all the appropriate staves manually.

Then came the fun part. Clefs, time and key signatures, notes, dynamics, tempo and articulation markings, and many other symbols would be drawn in. Frank liked to change time signatures frequently, sometimes at every measure. And he was fond of writing fast, devilishly difficult, rhythmically complex passages, often to the dismay of hapless orchestra musicians. I remember one particular page, only two measures long, which contained so many notes that I decided to count them. One thousand and four notes were squeezed onto that page. It was not unusual for a score page, which might last five or ten seconds when played, to take an entire day to copy. This of course was before computers made the job much easier.

One of the benefits of working for Frank was the opportunity to watch him in action. I had a chance to observe him interacting with his musicians, directing them during recording sessions and band rehearsals. He had a clear sense of what he wanted and instinctively seemed to know how to elicit the best efforts from people. He was down to earth, very focused, and extremely intelligent. He also had a great sense of humor. And I’ve never known anyone who worked longer hours. From the moment he woke up, he was busy composing, recording, editing, rehearsing, performing, or engaging in countless other business-related activities. Watching him, I learned the meaning of total - and perhaps excessive - commitment to one’s art. His waking and sleeping schedules were not tied to traditional notions of day and night. He worked as many hours as he could, slept when he was tired, and ate when he was hungry. The people he employed for production (musicians, recording engineers, technicians, film makers, etc.) could be called to work at any hour of the day or night. Frank created his own universe that revolved around his needs. To a large degree, his family had to accommodate this lifestyle as well. Not necessarily a good living model for most people, but that was his world.

Several incidents from my time with Frank stand out in my memory. I don’t claim that these events paint a complete or balanced picture; they are just random samples of things that happened. Some of these anecdotes may not be entirely suitable for the eyes of young readers, so if you are young or easily offended, please be warned. I’m writing about Frank Zappa after all, not the Dalai Lama.

I arrived at Frank’s house one evening, but he wasn’t quite ready to see me yet. He asked me to sit for a spell while he put on a video for me to watch. I sat down in an old rocking chair in front of the fireplace. The video turned out to be X-rated, and the rocking chair turned out to be very flimsy. While I was leaning back, the rocking chair broke, and I tumbled backwards into the fireplace, which fortunately wasn’t lit. Frank, who hadn’t left the room yet, pulled me out of the fireplace and found another chair for me. We both had a good laugh.

On another occasion, I showed him an instrument I’d built consisting of numerous hollow brass tubes suspended from a wooden bar. When stroked, it produced an ethereal tinkling sound. He took the contraption into his studio and recorded several minutes of improvised tinkling. Not long afterwards, my invention made its debut, perfectly placed, in his poignant song “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” from the “Joe’s Garage” album.

One evening I brought a friend over to meet Frank. He greeted us at the door and ushered us downstairs into his studio. There, booming from the massive control room speakers, came the recorded sounds of Frank and a woman apparently engaged in acts of considerable hedonistic gusto. (I’m trying to put this politely.) I noticed that the woman was very expressive. I remember looking around, wondering what would happen if Frank’s wife, Gail, walked in. Frank certainly didn’t seem concerned about it. And my poor friend had no idea what to think. As the woman’s sounds grew louder, I finally got the nerve to ask Frank, “What were you doing to her?” His succinct reply: “Entertaining.” To this day, I don't know the truth about that tape. Was it real, or was it staged? I don't have a clue.

Shall I continue? Okay. Frank once described an encounter he’d had with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I don’t remember the occasion, but for some reason, they were about to go on stage together in New York. According to Frank, Yoko was talking incessantly in a high-pitched voice and John was getting more and more exasperated with her. Finally, John shouted at her: “Shut up you little Jap!” And Yoko socked him in the face. Ah, those golden days of peace and love. Frank’s reaction? “From then on, John was okay in my book.”

Frank would often play me recordings of new pieces he was working on. On one occasion he played a tape featuring his daughter Moon Unit. It was full of such cultural gems as: “Gag me with a spoon” and “Grody to the max.” At the time, I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard. So of course it became one of his biggest hits: “Valley Girl.” You never know.

Speaking of Moon Unit, I happened to reconnect with her when she was in Portland in 2001 to promote her new book, “America the Beautiful.” She related a charming story that revealed something about Frank’s parenting style. For those who don’t know, Frank and Gail had four children: two boys - Dweezil and Ahmet, and two girls - Moon Unit and Diva. Diva is the youngest. One day Diva refused to go to school. In fact, she refused to leave her room. Gail spent quite some time trying to persuade the obstinate child to get up and go, but to no avail. Then it was Frank’s turn. He ordered Diva to take a piece of paper and list her two most prized possessions. He told her that if she didn’t leave for school immediately, those two things would be taken away from her. From under the door slid the piece of paper. On it, Diva had written: Mom and Dad. Frank then told her, “Okay, you’re smart enough. You can stay home.”

And finally, the compassionate side of FZ:

I had been with Frank about four years when, in the summer of 1982, I got married. A few months later, I made one of my regular trips to his house to deliver the last few pages of the score I’d been working on. As the meeting wrapped up, he announced that he had nothing more for me to do and that my job had now come to an end. My heart sank, but I told him that I knew this day would eventually arrive. I then thanked him for everything and said I should get back home to give my wife the news. When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was Frank, saying, “I thought about it and I don’t want to put you out of a job when you just got married. I’ll find more work for you to do.” And he kept me on staff for almost another year. It was a completely unexpected gesture, revealing a kindness and generosity I hadn’t foreseen. It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.

It is a virtual certainty that if you spent time around Frank, your life would change, become bigger, grow more intense. With very little overt effort, he affected people profoundly. I’ve always wondered what it was about him that seemed to magnify reality for those caught up in his orbit. Yes, his artistic output was distinctive – sometimes brilliant, frequently hilarious, and often completely juvenile. But Frank was more than his art. He had something, a certain quality, hard to define but impossible to ignore.

A little over twenty years have passed since my time with Frank. During those two decades, I developed a career as a composer, occasionally prospering and sometimes barely surviving. I’ve written music for low budget films, TV and radio ads, audio books, cd-roms, corporate videos, sporting events, and many other projects. For a composer working outside the mainstream Hollywood and concert music venues, it amounts to a modestly respectable track record. But the roller coaster nature of this calling has come at a high price. My marriage eventually ended, leaving scars that run deep. And the music work, never a sure thing even in good times, has all but disappeared in this terrible economy. And Frank is gone.

Now I write songs occasionally, just for fun and to see where it goes. You never know what’s next. A phone call many years ago taught me that. So if your phone rings and sends you on an adventure, cherish the experience. Our allotment of such blessings, if any, is one of life’s eternal mysteries.