On November 2nd, 1995 I drove to Montreal to see one of Frank Zappa’s former conglomerations playing under the nicked title Band From Utopia at a pretty nifty nightclub/venue called the Spectrum. But I didn’t travel alone to witness this musical monstrosity, nope, I went with my own band (from dystopia*).
The band was called Bob Loblaw, and it consisted of myself and my great friend and roommate JP on guitars, Tall Paul on bass, and fellow Carleton music student Mike Essoudry replacing Charles on drums (the name of the band had come from Charles if I recall correctly. When he suggested it we all heartily agreed and immediately stopped coming up with suggestions which, as any band will tell you, was a rare treat). This was our first time all travelling somewhere together – heck, I’m not sure if we had even played a gig together yet – and as our band was pretty wacky and rather Zappa-esque it was an apropos adventure to share.
While Charles had been a fantastic drummer with an uncanny feel and a huge pile of rhythmic musicality (I would sit on my amp at the beginning of rehearsals and just marvel watching him warm up), his technical and theoretical chops came up short in an environment where we were changing time signatures a dozen times in a song, sometimes even changing meters bar-by-bar (for example we had a jazz/punk song called Bacon** where the solo section went four bars each of 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4/, 3/4, 2/4, 1/4, finally ending with another bar of 5/4, and another song called Chicken Poulet that came out of a fast 15/8 section into a segment that was counted 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1 in an endless repeat). Mike, on the other hand, was a mathematical counting rhythm machine and while we all missed Charles we were pleased to have nabbed Mike for the band. Plus he wrote super-wacky tunes that fit right in with what we had been writing.
I mention this because of a memory from the trip to Montreal. I was driving the Big Red Tomato (my Toyota minivan) and as we crossed the bridge onto the island I started counting the distance between the regular slats in the road like they were bars of time. About 80% of the bumps were farther apart than the rest so I was alternating between counting them in straight fours and hitting the shorter ones with a triplet count. And I tell you I was nailing it! All of my ones were synched with the bumps like I was driving a metronome. Mike spoke up from the back, “Hey man, that’s pretty good…” and my rhythm-challenged ego swelled to thrice the size.
We got to Montreal and watched the show from the front table of the balcony and it was stellar. I immediately noticed that the musicians all had beers with them onstage which – while normal enough for most bands at every level – was a complete no-no with Mr. Zappa (the very drug-adverse musical icon went further to insist that if any of the band members did any drug whatsoever during a tour – even on days off – they were immediately fired). I remember thinking that the guys were probably having a lot more fun on this tour than on any they had actually done with their recently-deceased chain-smoking bandleader, though I would bet dollars-to-doughnuts that each and every one of them would have much rather had their old boss on stage next to them than an open bottle of Laurentide any day.
I mean, Zappa was an icon and most serious musicians of his ilk and era would have given their hind teeth to be a part of his group. He recruited the best of the best and he made them all better, often crafting his music to specifically suit the traits of each individual musician.
Anywho, like I say the show was great and it was a real treat to hear such wonderful music played live by (many of) the people that had actually been involved in making it in the first place. I suppose this show is the closest I ever got to seeing an actual Zappa concert***, though I’m sure it didn’t even come close.
Golly, I miss Frank. The fact that he died at the age of 52 (the same age as I am at the time of this writing) is just a tragedy. For the record I should add that it was Charles who called me and told me of his passing, less than two years before the date of this ticket story. An hour after getting the news he and I (and possibly Mike, who I didn’t yet know) were writing a music exam together. I doubt either of us did very well, distracted as we were by the untimely death of one of our heroes.
*Oh, it wasn’t that bad. Yet. But it eventually became a very difficult group of personalities to work with. We blended together like oil and water (and mayonnaise and urea formaldehyde) which made for some very, very exciting music and some very, very heated exchanges. I honestly think if we managed to stay together that you would have heard of us by now. We’d still be playing small half-empty venues and making no money (see: Look People for example) but we would have made a whole lot of wacky music. I suspect that I was a big part of the problem but I sure didn’t think so then.
**Bacon, lettuce and mayo
The favourite sandwich of Mr. Plato.
Oh he could eat you
Both night and day-o
Oh what a wise man
Was Mr. Plato
Oh what a wise man
Bacon lettuce and tomato.
Is not good luck,
So part your hair
Part your hair
Part your hair.
(The lyrics were discovered scratched into the wall of Paul’s continually and utterly trashed apartment after a particularly raucous party.)
***Though (and I find this very strange) one day in 1988 or so I was taking my cat for a walk (strange, yes, but not the strange part) and I found on the sidewalk near my house in Moncton a ticket stub for a Frank Zappa concert from 1984 in Halifax. Though I was not yet a Zappa fan I knew enough to know that he was legend so I picked up the stub and added it to my concert ticket album out of sheer reverence and respect. Like, what was that four year old ticket stub doing sitting in the middle of that suburban sidewalk all alone? Strange.
But yes, taking a cat for a walk is also rather strange; it feels strange and it looks strange. Don’t do it, it doesn’t really work.