Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Zappa's Drummers

No, I wasn't one. But I played one back in "the day." (Please don't ask what day that was – suffice to say that this shot was taken when I was 18, and the U.S. was still making moon landings.)

For a drummer, Zappa music is SO fun to play along with. I'd pop on the headphones, put my scratchy copy of Just Another Band From L.A. on and emulate Aynsley Dunbar's parts for 20 minutes. To this day, that album and many others are embedded in my muscle memory (I know, I know, there's no such thing, but whatever).

At the time, it just didn't seem like there could be anyone better than Aynsley. But as we know, Frank's music has a way of bringing out the best of whatever great musicians he has in the band at the time, reflecting their talents and musical character. So when Ralph Humphrey, then Chester Thompson came along, it didn't seem like anyone else could fit the music better.

I remember attending my first Zappa concert and seeing Ralph and Chester together, and it bent my brain. Some musicians are inspired by phenomenal demonstrations of musical prowess. Me, I was just intimidated. That's probably why I never ascended into the professional realm. (I did do a couple of things with my bands, Think Tank and the Trilobites, that I'm not ashamed of. Maybe I'll post samples someday.)

Then came the Terry Bozzio era, and all bets were off. The guy was explosive beyond belief. Again Frank had located a huge talent and given him a platform to excel. Can you really imagine anyone else playing on Sheik Yerbouti?

Then, the eight-armed polyrhythmic monster Vinnie Colaiuta took the drummer's throne, and yet another new dimension in drumming was at hand. While I love all the Frank drummers, if I had to pick just one, it would be Vinnie. That guy... There's an in-the-moment immediacy to his playing that's just unrivaled. In my booklet, anyway. As he walked to his car after one of the Santa Monica shows featured on Tinseltown Rebellion, I stupidly asked Vinnie how he could play with such polyrhythmic complexity, as if there could be any answer to that besides talent and lots of practice. He was nice, and said something along the lines of, "I just do it."

To me, David Logeman was the first break in the ascending curve of drummer awesomeness. It's not that he isn't a great drummer; after all, he was able to play Frank's music. But no, he wasn't a Terry or Vinnie. I heard at the time that Frank had trouble locating a drummer for the 1980 tour (if I had time to do research, I'm sure I'd turn up details). I heard that David was the 54th one to audition. When Mike Keneally was in Arcata one time, I mentioned to him that David's performances were "workmanlike," and Mike immediately agreed with this characterization, repeating the term. I remember one show when David made a slight but discernible mistake on the complicated middle part of "Jumbo, Go Away," and Frank abruptly stopped the show, saying, "Logeman, that's inexcusable!" and making the band start over. (It wasn't as cordial as when he did that with Chester on "Montana" on YCDTOSA Vol. II. I guess he went on the play with Jan & Dean?!? Finally, I went to Disney's California Adventure a few years ago and there at the entrance was David and his Surf City All-Stars on a portable stage. They had a little thing where David took a drum out amid the spectators and had them attempt to play the solo on "Wipeout." Of course it was cute to see kids have a moment in the sun as a drummer, and yeah, OK, I stepped forward and gave it a try. After the fun, I mentioned to David that "That was easier than playing 'Charlie's Enormous Mouth,'" and he looked slightly startled that anyone would remember that song. I wanted to talk to him more, but he and the band were subsequently towed away, still playing on the portable stage, behind a big gate and I never got the opportunity.

Finally came the Chad Wackerman era. At first I wasn't that impressed with Chad. I thought he was kind of Logeman-perfunctory and stiff with the parts, and his drum sound seemed thin, with a "papery" snare drum. But he evolved mightily, and approached Vinnie-ish levels on The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. His drums sounded really great on that album, too.

As for Jimmy Carl Black, well, all I can say is that his work never inspired me very much. I don't think he was very happy playing things outside the blues/bar band envelope. And I didn't like the things he said about Frank when he was in the Grandmothers. I went and saw them at a club in Hayward, Calif. on Halloween, 1981, the same night that Frank was on MTV. The Grandmothers liked to say that Frank had ripped off their ideas and wouldn't let them play to their fullest potential, and yet, all they did was play carbon copies of things that were on Uncle Meat, etc., the way Frank had arranged them.

I had the opportunity to interview and do a newspaper story on Arthur Trip in the early 1990s. he was a chiropractor in McKinleyville, Calif., at the time. He'd given up drums and percussion, and has now moved on.

So, for the Aug. 3 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, I'll focus on some of the great drumming and drummers on Frank Zappa music. Feel free as always to send in any relevant requests. And if you have any awesome insights, call in and we'll talk about it one the air.


Kevin L. Hoover said...

Oh, and how could I forget? Beginning this week, Zappa's Grubby Chamber is preceded by the highly wonderful Chas Lewis' "The South Side."

Tune in at 8 p.m. Pacific and check it out!

EkoVox said...

You know, I have watched Lawerance Welk and have seen Paul Humphrey on the show on several occasions.
Of course, he played for a great number of band leaders, but just the thought of playing for Zappa and Welk is difficult to comprehend and somehow not.

EkoVox said...

The first Zappa album I ever listened to was Burnt Weenie Sandwich, given to me by a friend of my older brother. WPLJ was very influential to my musical upbringing. The song, not the drink.

Klemen Hlupič said...

This is a list of drummers who have performed on officially released Frank Zappa recordings...

Dan Hinds said...

Interestingly, when people mention Chad Wackerman, they often talk about the sound of his drums, and less about his actual playing. I wonder how much control he actually had over the way his drums were recorded?