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Monday, March 30, 2009

Blast From The Past: Frank Zappa At AES

After my post regarding Frank Zappa last Friday, I've had a lot of requests to post another story. Here it is.

Sometime during the 80's when the AES (Audio Engineering Society) conference was still being held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York city, I happened to meet Frank in the one of the hallways between hotel rooms (a lot of the manufacturers showed their gear in hotel rooms rather than in the relatively small banquet hall). He asked me to tag along with him up to the Synclavier room (Frank was a power user) and of course I did.

As we were about to enter the hotel room, a teenaged kid comes up to Frank and asks him to come over into the corridor and listen to him play. Frank, being ever so polite as he always was with anyone he did not consider a fool, told him he would be back to listen to him in a few minutes after he finished his business with Synclavier.

Of course it was never just a few minutes with Frank, since everyone there (probably about a hundred people) wanted a chance to talk with him. So after about an hour, the kid comes in the room and taps Frank on the shoulder. Frank sees the kid and says, "I promise I'll be out in a few minutes."

About 45 more minutes go by and the kid comes back again, taps Frank on the shoulder again, and looks at him with these big doe eyes and says, "Frank, pleeese?" It's hard for anyone to resist a kid pleading like that, so Frank says his goodbyes and heads out into the hallway with the kid, who takes him to a quiet corner near the elevators.

The kid had a little battery powered Pignose amp and a Travis Bean guitar (the one with the aluminum neck and long out of business), and begins to play for Frank. To everyone's amazement, he's not playing with a pick or anything like the usual guitar style that millions of players use - he's cradling the guitar so it's perpendicular to his body and tapping on the frets with both hands.

The kid is scared though, and pretty much fumbles through the song. Frank senses this, and at the end of the song says, "Hey, that was great! Can you play me something else?"

The kids confidence instantly rose through the ceiling and he proceeded to rip off a song with his unique style that bordered on virtuosity. We were all amazed. Frank gave him his card and told him to call him if he ever got to LA (don't know if he ever did).

The kids name? Stanley Jordan, who eventually went on to a pretty nice career as a jazz guitarist using his unique style.

Frank could be totally brutal with players (or anyone for that matter) with an attitude, and was especially good at cutting them down to size (some good stories there too). But he was also sensitive to players who valued heart above technique and was always open to people showing him what they could do. I'm not sure how much Frank helped Stanley in his career, but at least for one moment on a cold Saturday afternoon in New York, he lifted him towards the sun.


Don D said...

I met Zappa back in 1977, on the set of Saturday Night Live. He did a song called "I Am The Slime From The Video" and the prop guys on the show built a slime machine -- a flat wooden box with some holes drilled across a side wall that would ooze green slime when achemical reaction was triggered remotely. They set the box on top of a monitor in the upper balcony area of the audience bleachers. During the dress rehearsal, the box didn't ooze much goop and the effect seemed feeble. Dave Wilson, the director, asked for more slime or he'd kill the shot.

For the live broadcast, he got more slime. Lots more slime. The thing kept oozing into the next two segments. Recalling The Exorcist, it was the color and texture of pea soup. The crew wasn't entirely happy with this slow, relentless vomit puddle forming on the floor. Nor were the audience members sitting directly under the overflowing ooze-collection pan. But, as I reacll, Zappa thought it was pretty funny. His song had resonance for the rest of the show -- at least to the people in the audience.

Howard Soroka said...

I met Frank at the garage door of the Montreal Forum after a show, in about 1976, or maybe 1977. I was reluctantly hanging with my friends, who wanted to try to catch a glimpse. After an interminable wait, the garage door opened, and a limo or two pulled out and drove away. Another limo came, and stopped at the door. Frank got out and, obviously very tired, came over and shmoozed with the small group of fans who were waiting for him in the cold. I told him it was my dream to play in his band, and he told me to send him a tape c/o Warner Brothers in LA. I never did (the very thought was ludicrous), but I also never forgot how gracious he was, and how appreciative he was of his fans.

It was quite a thrill, at the time.


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