On Tour with Frank Zappa: 'Free Sex for Everybody'

Frank Zappa famously had a very individualistic approach to rock: groupies, no sheet music and extra-strong coffee instead of drugs. In an interview with SPIEGEL, ex-Mothers of Invention singer Napoleon Murphy Brock talks about the good old days on the road with Zappa.

It was a tropical evening on Hawaii in 1973. Rock legend Frank Zappa was in his hotel room along with his wife Gail when he got a call from his band manager. "Hey Frank, get your clothes on. I just found your new lead vocalist."

Frank Zappa took his manager's advice and lined up dutifully -- and unrecognized -- in the queue waiting outside the night club of the Coral Reef Hotel in Honolulu. They were there to listen to a gig by a group called Communication PL. The place was full to the point of bursting, and the mood was full of anticipation. Zappa listened for a while, then immediately decided to engage the frontman -- with his powerful voice and enthralling stage presence -- for the upcoming European tour of Zappa's new band, The Mothers of Invention.

That evening on Hawaii marked the beginning of a years-long collaboration between saxophonist, flautist, singer and comedian Napoleon Murphy Brock and the musical genius Frank Zappa. After Zappa's death of cancer in 1993, Brock tried to continue Zappa's musical legacy -- something which brought him into conflict with Zappa's widow, Gail.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Napoleon Murphy Brock talks about how he met Zappa, the challenges of playing his music and Frank's approach to drugs and sex.

SPIEGEL: Can you describe what it was like that evening on Hawaii, when you were introduced to Frank Zappa for the first time?

Napoleon Murphy Brock: In the beginning, I had no idea who he was. Then I realized that it was Zappa, the guy with whom the best and greatest rock and jazz musicians were playing. I asked myself what he wanted from me.

SPIEGEL: And what did he want?

Brock: He said that he had a job for me immediately. I was to go on a world tour with the Mothers.

SPIEGEL: You could hardly have said no.

Brock: I had promised the club manager at the Coral Reef Hotel in Hawaii to play for some weeks there. I like to keep my word. So I said to Frank Zappa that I was delighted by the offer but that, unfortunately, I had to first meet my obligations there.

SPIEGEL: But such legendary musicians as Roy Estrada, George Duke or jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty were playing in his band at that time. What did Zappa think of your refusal?

Brock: Well, he wasn't that amused, but I think that he respected my reasons for the rejection. He said that he would call me after his tour in Europe.

SPIEGEL: And he did?

Brock: But of course. At the beginning of 1973, I was back from Hawaii and hanging around in California without a job. Then I got a call from him saying that he had just landed and that I should come by. That impressed me, and I agreed. I was not to know all that was going to happen to me.

SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

Brock: To play Zappa's music is like learning an exotic language. I was used to simple things like rock, blues, soul and jazz. When Zappa laid out the first sheets of music, I had a shock.

SPIEGEL: But you're a professional musician who had been making music all your life.

Brock: Zapp's compositions are damnably difficult music. The harmonies are continuously changing, while the tempos are totally surprising. At the time, I had no idea about any of it. I had never had such a tough time as then, when Frank would press the sheet music into my hands and say: "That's what we'll be playing; the first rehearsal is next week." I made myself scarce with my saxophone and practiced day and night. I was almost in despair. Then I got the buzz and slowly started to understand Zappa's musical universe.

SPIEGEL: Zappa once said that he had to become a rock musician because nobody had played his serious pieces. His great models were the contemporary classical composers Edgar Varese, Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky

Brock: There's something in that. His body of work as a composer, along with the 60 albums he released, has not by any means been fully evaluated yet. We know that numerous scores and works he recorded on Synclavier are still lying in his home in North Hollywood in Los Angeles. The Synclavier is an early form of electronic keyboard with storage capacity for digital files. That means that he recorded music on this keyboard and saved it. When Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1990, he sensed that his illness would not leave him much more time. Musically, he then only did things that he enjoyed.

SPIEGEL: Rather the same as with Johann Sebastian Bach, who -- before he died in 1750 -- put off finishing the works commissioned by St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig so as to finish compositions like "The Musical Offering." Was Zappa a kind of Bach of rock music?

Brock: Such comparisons are always somewhat lame. But one thing is for sure: In his final years, between the end of the '80s and his death in 1993, Zappa achieved great things. I am not competent to judge because, at that time, I went in other directions. But I know how hard he worked on the realization of his ideas.

SPIEGEL: Politically, as well.

Brock: Absolutely. In the dispute about the copyrights of musicians and composers, he engaged himself early on at hearings of the US Senate. And almost every one of his LPs bears the challenge: "Register to vote." Zappa was a political animal.

SPIEGEL: When he gave a concert in Berlin's Sportpalast in 1968, representatives of the legendary German commune "Kommune 1" asked him to read out a declaration of solidarity with the communard Fritz Teufel, who was in prison. Zappa refused. The concert promoter Fritz Rau feared that the audience would storm the stage. He secured the equipment during the concert until Zappa was playing the guitar alone.

Brock: That sounds a lot like Zappa. I experienced him as somebody capable of building up a distance, who would not allow himself to be usurped by anybody. And, at the time, he already had very powerful bodyguards with whom there could be no fooling around.

SPIEGEL: Between 1973 and 1976, you toured worldwide with Zappa and his Mothers of Invention. What was the most important thing about that time for you?

Brock: Music is best -- that was and is the most apt motto for the Zappa empire. But we were also part of the student political movement. At the beginning of the '70s, that meant protests against the Vietnam War, flower power in San Francisco -- and free sex for everybody.

SPIEGEL: And that worked?

Brock: The gentleman enjoys himself and says nothing. I remain silent.

SPIEGEL: We know from Zappa biographies that he certainly knew how to relax after concerts. In her autobiography, Rosemarie Heinikel -- who was known as Rosy Rosy and who was an icon of the hippie era in Germany -- describes a night with Zappa after a concert in Munich.

Brock: So what, if that helped the music? Frank could move pretty fast; naturally there were other women. But great artists naturally need their muses. They are immortalized in their works.

SPIEGEL: The song "Jewish Princess" on the "Sheik Yerbouti" LP features the line: "I want a brazen little Jewish princess with titanic tits." It's supposed to be a parody of Barbara Streisand. With that, Frank Zappa landed himself with a charge from a Jewish organization in the US.

Brock: Which was in fact rejected. You should not forget that Zappa was the child of southern Italian, Syrian-Greek immigrants with Jewish roots. He had a right to create such texts. In 1985, even some senators' wives -- like Tipper Gore, married to Al Gore, who would later become US vice president -- started proceedings against Frank on account of offensive texts. Back in 1965, Frank had already spent nights in jail on the West Coast for recording groaning sounds with his girlfriend for a stag party. The federal police had laid a trap for him, and the verdict was six months in prison for "conspiracy to commit pornography."

SPIEGEL: But all that became part of the past when he met his future wife, Gail, a civil servant's daughter who he married in 1967.

Brock: Frank was a family man. When he was in L.A. between tours, the family was his absolutely top priority. He had four children with Gail and busied himself intensively whenever he could. His son Dweezil is a gifted guitarist, with whom I was on a US tour in 2006/2007. His youngest son, Ahmet, is a TV host and children's book author. When he was young, in the Zappa family home, Ahmet always had to brew the extra-strong, extra-large black coffee that Zappa took down to the basement studio for his night sessions.

SPIEGEL: Black coffee was his only drug?

Brock: Absolutely. He tolerated no drugs whatsoever on stage, not even a joint, still less harder things.

SPIEGEL: From 1968 on, Zappa gave frequent concerts in Germany.

Brock: Frank adored Germany. He loved the perfection of the organization and also the excellent food, also maybe the odd groupie. We always had a lot of fun. The German audience is fantastic and really interested.

SPIEGEL: Today, Zappa's widow, Gail, goes to court against anyone who, in her opinion, is exploiting Zappa's legacy. Even the legendary moustache is protected by US trademark law.

Brock: As an artist, I keep out of that. I'd only say this: Gail Zappa should recognize that these music enthusiasts, like the initiators of the Zappanale festival in Germany, are not doing this to become millionaires. These friends of Zappa are ensuring that Zappa and his superb work do not fall into oblivion. Anybody playing around with the Zappa logo for T-shirt advertising or toilet seats should be given a warning, I agree. But anybody seriously performing this music should receive backing from the widow. After all, she is earning the performance fees. And her husband collected inspiration from all styles of music and interpreters and was himself a great plagiarist, before making something entirely his own. That she of all people should be acting against supposed plagiarists does not lack a certain irony. But I have not yet given up hope that she will at last address herself to securing the artistic legacy of such a creative husband instead of waging a trivial war against the community of Zappaists worldwide.

SPIEGEL: This year, you will be playing again at the Zappanale in Bad Doberan with a young band in honor of Frank Zappa.

Brock: Exactly. There's now a Zappa College of very young people who treasure this music and -- thanks to their excellent training -- are also in a position to play it. Along with 19 other bands, we shall be presenting our latest productions in Bad Doberan from Aug. 11. I am very happy to be there. What I especially like out there is the old-time railway that runs to Heiligendamm. It's called Molli. Frank would have done a song about that.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Brock, many thanks for this interview.

Interview conducted by Sebastian Knauer

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