The Mothers of Invention – Conflicted Histories

As time has passed since the publication of The Real Frank Zappa Book, and more interviews of original band members have emerged whose individual recollections contradict was had been written (and often taken as factual history) — it further sheds light on the complexity of this band, and the need for an ongoing, objective, and scholarly view of the Mother’s history from those who were actually there (well beyond the usual pop culture biographies and rock critic hokum), the musicians themselves.

Some of these conflicted histories can be read in the following transcribed interviews conducted by Steve Moore with Don Preston, Jim Pons, and Jimmy Carl Black:

Interview with Don Preston (January, 2001):

SM: In “The Real Frank Zappa” bio, Zappa writes that he decided to disband the Mothers when he saw Duke Ellington “begging for a ten-dollar advance.” I have a hard time believing that story. Did you see that happen?

DP: I think I read that, too, but that’s not what happened. A lot of stuff in that book is bull shit. It was just his imagination. There were a number of reasons why the Mothers disbanded. One of them was that Zappa was paying us all a salary. Now this kinda sounds stupid to me. He couldn’t afford the (Mother’s) salary, but he kept hiring more and more musicians. So anyhow, when he had to pay nine people in the band, it’s gonna cost a lot of money. So, don’t hire that many. He didn’t have to hire nine people. That’s what he was doing at that time. So his reasoning was that he couldn’t afford to pay all the musicians with all his money. Sure, so don’t hire that many.

The other thing was that he used to get very angry when people would respond to the solos more than his compositions. So that was one of the things that was making him angry at the time. The other thing was that we sometimes during a concert would only play 3 or 4 songs. The rest would all be improvisation. That’s the way the band was working. And working real well that way. We could handle that reponsibility and people loved it. It wasn’t just jazz but like all kinds of weird time changes, experimental types of music. So I think he wanted more kinds of control on the music. Lastly, a lot of people were geting laid and he wasn’t. That was probably a cause of friction

SM: Everyone in the band appears to have taken the break-up pretty hard, but you went ahead and continued a musical relationship with Frank through ’75. So you were really the only one of the “Mothers” who continued with him.

DP: Actually, Ian Underwood also kept close. In fact, Ian was still close and stayed in touch with Zappa even after the class-action law suit on behalf of the ex-Mothers.

(Part One.)

Interview with Jim Pons (New York, NY, April 24, 2000):

SM: You, Flo, and Eddie were tapped by Frank Zappa to join his band when the Turtles broke up in 1970, and your playing and vocals are heard on Live at the Fillmore East, 200 Motels, Just Another Band from LA, and Psychotic Playground. What was the first meeting with Frank like? What were your first impressions of what he was proposing for his “new” group? How did he characterize it? Did you have any personal reservations about the material – or the musical direction- you were heading?

JP: I had known Frank previous to my joining his band, so there was no formal audition. I was almost kind of like a friend of the family by then. (I had known Gail Zappa before they were married.) He called me from London when his bass player, Jeff Simmons, quit during the filming of “200 Motels.” He never discussed with me his ideas about his “new” group or what he was trying to do. He just offered me a job. I had plenty of reservations. I enjoyed and had always appreciated his music before, but it was extremely difficult and complicated stuff compared to what I was used to…. a lot to ask of someone who had taught himself to play just a few years before. It was very intimidating. And more so because my parts were always written out for me and I couldn’t read music. I had to take it to Ian Underwood who would play it for me on the piano until I learned it. I never knew for sure whether or not Frank knew that’s how I was learning my parts. I think he probably did. I was able to do it though, so it never seemed to be a problem. I was happy to be working again and proud that I was considered accomplished enough to play with Zappa, but it wasn’t the kind of music I enjoyed playing. It was more like a job than either of the first two bands, but it was a very good one.

SM: Were you present when Frank composed any music? If so, then do you recall the circumstances or titles of any compositions during your stint as his bassist?

JP: Yeah, I remember evenings sitting around with Frank listening to, and laughing at Mark and Howard’s improvisations. The stories of the mud shark at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle or some parties we had in Winnipeg [Manitoba, Canada] come to mind. A lot of things that he first heard from them in these impromptu sessions would later wind up in his music. It often surprised me that their sense of humor appealed to him so much. And I always thought it was interesting for such a dictatorial type, who claimed such a disdain for any “commercial potential”, that he would use so much of who the Turtles were in his show in those days. And yet, no matter who was in the Mothers at any given time, it was always Frank, and the product always came out with “Zappa” stamped all over it.

(Part One. Part Two.)

Interview with Jimmy Carl Black (Munich, 
March 29, 2000):

SM: In 1973 — Following the breakup of your post – Mothers of Invention band, Geronimo Black — you moved back to your home town of Anthony, Texas and worked in a donut factory. How did you handle the disappointment of what must have felt like a major failure in your musical career?

JCB: To me, it wasn’t a disappointment to leave the smog and the hustle and bustle (and I’m a poet and don`t know it) of Los Angeles. I certainly didn’t stop playing music just because I wasn’t in LA. I was pretty fed-up with the politics of the music business and still am. They don’t even like — or know — what good music is even if it bit them in the ass. All they care about is how you look and how much money you can make for them. Listen to the radio or watch MTV for a perfect example of what I’m talking about here. Besides that, I was raising five kids and I thought that my small home town (in Texas) was a better environment for them to grow up in — and I was right. Sometimes family must come before career.

SM: When you are touring – or doing interviews – do you sometimes get a bit weary of the constant questions about Frank Zappa and your relationship with his career?

JCB: Not normally, but when some guy shows up with a shopping bag full of records and CD`s and wants me to sign every one plus fifteen pieces of blank paper I wonder what the hell is he doing with all of that? I think he`s selling them and since I am getting no royalities for the recordings, it irriates me a little. Hell, he didn`t even offer to cut me in on the pie. Most people are really cool and I really don`t mind talking to them and answering their questions. It`s the so called EXPERTS that say things to me that we did, or Frank did, that are absolutely not true and they will argue with me saying that I`m wrong. Hell, man, I was there and I should know what I`m talking about on that particular subject. I usually say I gotta go do something when I encounter a fanatic like that. They think they know everything and they don`t know shit.

(Part One. Part Two. Part Three.)

15 Responses to “The Mothers of Invention – Conflicted Histories”

  1. Ed Seeman says:

    I spent almost two years with frank and The Original mothers of Invention. All that time Frank would say he never wanted only one band with one sound. He believed in having what he called a REPORTORY COMPANY of different musicians that would evolve musically as he would always changing . He never even like performing his hits because to him that was not progress. So it’s not because he couldn’t afford to pay nine musicians. He hired 15 members of the London Philharmonic to Play one piece in Albert hall just to prove a point. To Zappa changing musicians was like changing creative tools to an artist.

    Ed Seeman

  2. voice on the wall says:

    thank you ED. like i said jimmy, don and early mothers after loosing frank as the mover and shaker was also there end. i believe they didn’t get the message. frank however was still there for them look jcb 5 song in 81 and i dont believe the they didn’t get paid story. I think they just hang on to there limitations.

  3. Disciple of "Bob" says:

    So, FZ’s recollections and perspective are just nonsense, but the recollection and perspective of Don Preston, Jim Pons, et al are infallible information, knowledge, wisdom, truth, beauty, love, AND music? That’s pretty awesome.

  4. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from Disciple of “Bob”:

    So, FZ’s recollections and perspective are just nonsense, but the recollection and perspective of Don Preston, Jim Pons, et al are infallible information, knowledge, wisdom, truth, beauty, love, AND music? That’s pretty awesome.

    I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that any particular perspective is infallible, DofB. That the recollections of the original Mothers are conflicted is really not much of a surprise. Each member recalls the history of the band through their own personal experience. Does that make any recollection nonsense? Surely not. Somewhere among all the contradictions lies what really happened. Of course, we’ll never know for sure what occurred, as time and attitudes color one’s memories of the past (yet, I’d much rather draw from as many sources as I can to get a full picture, than to depend solely on just one book, or one person’s recollections).

  5. Bálint says:

    Well well… time goes by, and everyone migth remember wrong to this and that thing – but calling FZ’s thing a „bullshit” might be too hard I think (Don Preston). And talking about memories: there are things we have recordings about, so those can give some andswers, too. So:

    – FZ: he had to disband the Mothers because of financial reasons.
    – Don Preston:
    Not true (That’s not what happened”): he disbanded the Mothers because he did not have enough money to have 9 musicians.

    Heh?!?…

    or:
    Don Preston: „sometimes during a concert would only play 3 or 4 songs. The rest would all be improvisation.”
    Well I happen to have quite a few recordings from that time – and I found that the statement above is NOT TRUE.

    But okay, nobody’s memories are perfect, but it always makes me smile when I read thing like that (mostly from Don Preston), like “FZ was stealing ideas”, and about the amount of improvisations… While at the same time he makes concerts consisting almost exclusively of FZ material.

    Hey, sorry guys, but its just funny…

  6. Bálint says:

    “Everyone in the band appears to have taken the break-up pretty hard, but you went ahead and continued a musical relationship with Frank through ‘75. So you were really the only one of the “Mothers” who continued with him.”

    The “only one”… AND Roy Estrada, AND Jimmy Carl Black, AND Ian Underwood… So this is the “only one” thing. AND some other musicians not from the original Mothers, but from later incarnations, who came back again to play with “not very nice” FZ: Ruth Underwood, Bruce Fowler, Terry Bozzio (for Thingfish, for example), etc.

  7. voice on the wall says:

    bad zappa good don preston, bunch a hoogwash………..zappa was way advanced to let a money issue come in his way.

  8. Clark Gwent says:

    First gig I ever saw -69 the Mothers in Bristol UK, matinee

    5 songs

  9. peter says:

    I really don’t understand what everyone is confused about. Frank was the Boss, chief creative force behind a group that relied heavily on improvisation. Squabbles will naturally follow.

  10. Tjodolf says:

    What Peter said.

    Don’s “bullshit” part refers to the story about Duke Ellington begging for a ten-dollar advance. That can’t possibly have happened.

  11. Paul Sempschi says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Don’s disbelief over the Duke Ellington story, though perhaps it could have been a misunderstanding on Frank’s part OR mot likely to illustrate a point re:where the Mothers stood financially.

    Yes, the Mothers did do a lot of improvision and YES, they did have their ‘standards’ by which they would improvise: King Kong, Uncle Meat, Green Genes, etc., not to mention the ‘Big Melody’ (68-69)… though if concern over artistic stagnation was an issue, why would the Mothers perform more original compositions than the later bands?

    I still dont think it’s fair to say that the Mothers alumni somehow lost their ‘way’ without Frank though, as we’ve seen JCB’s prolific material, not to mention the exemplary work of Little Feat and certain incarnations of the Magic Band… yeah, they werent as prolific as when they were with Frank and yeah, they may not have taken as many artistic risks (to Frank’s credit), but let’s not dismiss their own efforts and abilities, same as we must not dismiss Frank’s skill as a bandleader.

  12. epistrophy says:

    Funnily enough I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book about Duke Ellington, almost entirely composed of interview quotes with the man himself, family & band members.

    I will dig it out and copy the relevant quotes here, but, in short, Mercer Ellington took over Duke’s financial dealings from the mid-’60’s on, and he makes it quite clear that a story like the one Frank told could well have happened.

    Frank was fond of saying that he put the money he made back into his ear (as opposed to up his nose); and that’s why he had a 9 piece band when he couldn’t afford one. After three years and 40,000 dollars debt, and then (possibly) witnessing Duke Ellington in such a position, I would imagine a young Frank Zappa saw a disturbing vision of the future and acted accordingly – no matter how much he liked the characters in his band and their particular talents.

    It’s obvious that he was very fond of those two elements (characters + particular talents), as he was still releasing concerts of their material right up until the year he died (Ahead Of Their Time). Though it’s also true that Frank’s imagination was not about to be limited by anything or anybody. I’m not sure if I would own quite so many of his albums if they all had the same line up, no matter how much I like the early Mothers.

  13. metafunj says:

    A quote from epistrophy:

    It’s obvious that he was very fond of those two elements (characters + particular talents), as he was still releasing concerts of their material right up until the year he died (Ahead Of Their Time). Though it’s also true that Frank’s imagination was not about to be limited by anything or anybody. I’m not sure if I would own quite so many of his albums if they all had the same line up, no matter how much I like the early Mothers.

    Yes I agree most bands with static members have trouble keeping their music interesting after about I’d say 15 years. I think Frank prevented this by playing with so many different musicians with different backgrounds and incorporating their talents and sometimes ideas into his music. I think more artists should disband and do solo projects rather than rehashing the same music. Metallica and Dream Theater come to mind.

  14. voice on the wall says:

    the first tie i saw FZ was on a poster wall

  15. nikita coltrane says:

    A quote from epistrophy:

    I will dig it out and copy the relevant quotes here, but, in short, Mercer Ellington took over Duke’s financial dealings from the mid-’60’s on, and he makes it quite clear that a story like the one Frank told could well have happened.

    Don Preston can call bullshit if he likes, but there’s no saying he saw the things FZ. What would FZ have to gain from making shit up about Duke Ellington, ffs?

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