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  • Writer's pictureChester B Simpson

The Frank Zappa experience

"He suggested I stay for more coffee and said we should chat about music and the arts for another hour or so."

My sister introduced me to rock-n-roll while she worked at the record store but she wasn't the only one who introduced me to music. I also had friends, and they turned me on to some good music and good weed.

One of my high school friends was David Edwards. He would invite me down to his basement to listen to new music and smoke weed. We would be smoking down there, listening to loud music and his mother would open the door and yell down, “Are you boys, alright?” We’d fan away the smoke while yelling back that everything was just fine. David turned me on to the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa along with a number of other bands.

In 1971 a bunch of our friends took a summer road trip down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. David brought a tape of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Live At Fillmore East. We played it over and over again, eventually learning all the lyrics. Those same lyrics we used as pick-up lines for Myrtle beach babes.

I'm a lonely guy from outta town, you know, an'... an' I want some ACTION.

What's a girl like you

Doin' in a place like this?

You two chicks sound really far out and groovy

Ever been to a Holiday Inn?

Just let me put a little more

Rancid Budweiser on my beard right now, baby

And you can show me how

A young girl such as you

Might be thrilled and

Overwhelmed by me...

What hotel did you say you were staying at?

Wanna split right away?

These lines worked like a charm, and we had an amazing two weeks at the beach.

In 1977, while freelancing for BAM magazine in San Francisco, I heard Frank Zappa was coming to town. I floated the idea that writer Michael Snyder and I do an interview and photo session and the magazine set it up.

Frank Zappa was a musical genius and I admired him very much.

When we arrived at the hotel room, classical mandolin music played in the background while Frank Zappa sat on the couch drinking coffee and smoking non-filtered cigarettes.

Frank didn't drink booze or take drugs, especially mind-altering drugs, but he was notorious for his consumption of coffee and cigarettes.

Frank believed people used drugs as a license to act stupid, the same way other's use alcohol to make excuses.

"One group of people will say, I was drunk. Forgive me. Another will say, I'm sorry I made a fool out of myself, I was so stoned."

He had even fired musicians on stage for doing drugs on his tours.

He also felt that drugs were oftentimes a substitute for sex when people couldn't get laid.

"Fucking is the best drug of all, and when on tour with me, musicians can fuck their brains out, but don’t do drugs on my tours. I demand 150% from my musicians."

After Michael concluded his interview, it was time for me to do my photos. I asked Frank to pose against the wall, but I needed him to loosen up a bit.

To break the ice, I told him my story about a shy 18-year boy trying to meet ladies on the beach. I told him how I used the lines from his songs to pick up chicks.

He asked if his lines worked. I winked, giving him a big smile.

“Yes, every time!”

We attended his concert that night, enjoying every minute of it.

The last time I saw Frank was in 1983. I was assigned to cover a rehearsal of him conducting the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at the War Memorial Opera House. They were preparing two works by Varèse, which I was to photograph.

While I was documenting this rehearsal, Grace Slick showed up to take Frank to dinner. I took a picture of them together and then asked if I could do a portrait of him. He suggested that I show up at his hotel room in two hours and do the shots there.

Two hours later, I was knocking at his door. Frank Zappa answered, invited me in and offered me coffee and cigarettes. He was alone and we chatted a bit before I had him pose for my portrait shots. After half an hour, I said I didn’t want to take up his time and I was going to leave. He suggested I stay for more coffee and said we should chat about music and the arts for another hour or so.

He was a wonderful music artist to sit and talk with. Being a photographer, I usually don’t get the opportunity to sit around and talk with someone I really admire.

I left that evening pumped up by all the coffee, walking down the street pinching myself and thinking, “I’m not worthy.”

Check out photographs from this story: Rock-n-roll Photography

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