LZ meets FZ: Performing for Frank Zappa

By: Lee Zimmerman


Name-dropping? Count me in!

I’ve never understood why so many people look down on name-dropping. I went into show business for four reasons: to meet girls, to meet chicks, to meet women and to meet celebrities. End of story. Actually, it’s the beginning of the story. Dig this:Lee-puppets-omatic2

In 1991, I was a regular at The Improv, but I continued to work on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, because it paid so much better. I was just finishing a show one Saturday when two members of the audience introduced themselves: Moon and Ahmet Zappa. She went on and on about how much she dug the show, telling me that her father and brother Dweezil would just love to see it. She gave me her number and we talked a few times, but she never set up any meeting.Zappas2compositThree weeks later, she’s watching me do a set at the Santa Monica Improv, only this time she’s there with the movie actor she was dating, Michael Rapaport. He plays Dick Ritchie in one of my top two favorite films of all time, ‘True Romance.’ He was up on stage, and man, was he bombing. El Stinko Supreme. After that, she wasn’t in the mood to chat, so I didn’t see much point in pushing her to meet dad.

It wasn’t until a few years later that she stood in front of my show again, at the Hollywood Palace. This time I was opening for my favorite drummer, Terry Bozzio, who had worked with Frank on the superb Zoot Allures and Baby Snakes albums.

TerryComp(If you’re counting, that’s six names I dropped in only three-and-a-half paragraphs. No shame!)

moon3-omaticThat did it. She called me the next day and said, “Every Friday night we all meet up at my dad’s house for Margarita Night. It’s Dad’s way of thanking the Barking Pumpkin staff. There’s always some amazing people there. What would you charge to do your show for us?”

Being a negotiating genius I shot back, “Nothing!”

The way I saw it, I WANTED TO MEET FRANK ZAPPA. Why queer the deal by asking for too much? What if I had actually asked for what I was worth? They might have said no and then where would I be? NOT at Frank Zappa’s house.Piggy-Bank

I was pretty sure that they could afford ‘nothing.’

She thought I was joking, but I assured her that I just wanted to give something back to the guy who had entertained me so much over the years…which was true. That she understood.

I like to earn my living, but I think it changes things when you charge an artist you really admire. It’s a personal quirk, but when it comes to performing for the people that inspired me to do this show in the first place, I’d rather treat it like a creative exchange, not a financial transaction. “You really entertain me, let me try to entertain you.” I didn’t say I was smart, I’m just explaining the way my heart works.

Gail-omatic2Three hours later, I pulled up to the Zappa house up on Woodrow Wilson and got out my gear. I walked up to the gate in front of the staircase that led up to the house and was greeted by Frank’s wife, Gail. When she spoke it struck a chord in my head; all I could hear was the sound of her sexually arousing screams on Frank’s song, “The Torture Never Stops.” She said that Moon would be here soon and that I should wait for her to arrive before setting up. Then she left me standing there on the wrong side of the gate. I found that a little rude and it stung a bit, but within minutes, Moon appeared.

krappa-omatic2She was super-enthusiastic about me being there and gave me just a few bits of information that I would need to know before we went in. “You know my Dad has prostate cancer, right?” He had been very open with the press about it; it had been all over the news. “Just be sure that you don’t set up in front of the bathroom. He may need to use it without any warning. Also, Frank almost never laughs. Don’t let that throw you. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing, okay?”

It’s not okay, but I’ll give it a shot.

con-hand-o2I walked in and everyone in the room, maybe ten people, was in this deep conversation about some conspiracy or another. Frank was sitting about 10 feet away from me in a great big chair with a full Grizzly Addams beard. Instead of anyone saying “Hello,” they all sort of nodded at me and kept talking. Gail sat down near Frank and I set up against a wall of tapes, all the while scanning the room to see what else was there. I was in Frank Zappa’s work station!gear-o2

To my left, a large L-shaped configuration of tables covered with computers, synthesizers, keyboards, papers and beyond that, a few guitars perched on a rack, but none that I recognized. On every single wall, from the floor to the ceiling were Frank’s master reels. All the other guests kept talking so I just started looking directly at the titles, thinking, “Let them look at the little fan going mental at the master’s feet, what do I care?”


Right there where I stood, was the Zoot Allures master. I was sure they couldn’t see me as I brushed my fingertips across it. Next to it were a dozen or so carefully dated concert videos from the Zoot Allures tour. I took my right index finger and lightly touched the spine of every video and audio tape in that row, thinking that somehow I could soak up some of the powerful energy they possessed.

album-compMy eyes swept further up the row and I could see more project titles that I knew, like Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Joe’s Garage. I was pretty sure that the recordings were laid out chronologically. At this point, I’m really going mad but, for some reason, stood glued to that spot. I could have very easily just strolled around and feasted my eyes on treasure after treasure, but my instincts told me that might be rude, so I just took in what I could see from behind my stage. I couldn’t believe that my little puppet dealie had somehow gotten me into this genius’ home and, not only that ~ into the exact same room where he thought up all that incredible music!

And it went on like that all around this very large room…Frank Zappa’s personal archives. His entire life’s work, laid out before my eyes. Finally, there was a pause in the conversation and everyone just looked over at me, as if on cue. Gail says, “Wow, those are some mighty small Marshalls you got there.”

bc22_marshall_mini_guitar_amp“I know. You should see the size of my ‘crew sluts!’ That knocked the tiniest little chuckle out of The Man. (FZ has a great song about the groupies who service the roadies called ‘Crew Sluts.’ Now they know that they’ve let a crazed fan into their home.)

Moon talked me up a little bit, and then she had me start the show.

jimi-o22I did my finale first; Jimi Hendrix. That’s what I always do when I’m not sure if I’m going to get to do more than one song, I open with Jimi. Near the end of the piece, I quoted another Frank song, pointing out that Jimi’s next move was “Strictly commercial!”

He laughed. He laughed at everything. I almost relaxed.

Frank looks up at me and says, “Wow, that little finger was really movin’!” It’s actually a dig, because if you look closely, Jimi’s fingers don’t move, his hand does, with basically one finger on the high e-string sliding up and down. It’s the sort of detail that only guitar players point out.

When I pulled out Tina Turner, Moon says, “Now, this is the one I wanted you to see, Dad. Lee, did you know that Tina sang back-up on Over-Night Sensation? She has a house not too far from here.”

Tina-CompI knew all those things. I hit play and cruised through the rest of my marionettes, stopping to chat in between each one. The puppet they all liked best was probably David Byrne. Turns out he was another nearby neighbor, and Frank seemed to be a fan.

barking2I finished and now I am beaming. I’m nowhere near relaxed, but I’m very proud of myself. Gail and Moon whisk me into the kitchen, a little tickled by Frank’s reaction. They asked me if I wanted anything, anything at all; “A CD of one of his albums? a Barking Pumpkin T-Shirt? Anything?”drum-o2

I want Frank to autograph my drum kit.

Gail says, “No problem! And, it’s not like we’re asking you to leave, y’know.”

“I know,” I said, “but, I’m kinda freaking out. I just met Frank Zappa! I don’t know if I can handle this.”

free-o2Those are my exact words. What a smoothie. I have always been at ease with celebrities, but this was different. Famous happens all the time, so fame doesn’t impress me; meeting creative people who became famous because they create undeniably extraordinary art does. And with Frank, we’re talking about a talent that comes along maybe once a century. I couldn’t keep it cool. His contributions are unmatched, his music stands alone; not to mention that he was THE defender of free speech in the 80’s, even testifying before Congress. Frank was The Man.

We all go back inside to get my autograph and then I notice for the first time that one of the assembled guests is the great Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. I LOVE The Simpsons. Another guy sitting there was named Phil Ortiz, the head animator for the show. (A few years later I ran into Phil at the Retro Fest in Hollywood and he Simpsonized my face. He drew me standing arm-in-arm with Otto the bus driver, noting that we shared the same hair. I treasure that drawing!)


I hand Frank my Sharpie and my drum kit. I say, “I gotta tell you, I’m a huge fan of yours…your music, your films. And I REALLY love your interviews.” This is where it gets terribly fuzzy. And stupid.sharpieHe finishes signing his autograph, (‘FZ’), and hands me my kit. He looks up and says, “Then you know what you should do? You should take some of my interviews and make a puppet of blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah; blah. Blah blah blah?”Comp3

“Wow! That’s a GREAT idea!”

I still have no idea what he said. All I know is that it was really, really, really fucking important to remember what he said. A voice in my head kept saying over and over, “You must remember this! You have to be able to recall every word, stupid! Pay attention! Frank Fucking Zappa is giving you more than just an idea for your show using his material, he’s giving you his blessing to do so! Whatever you do, memorize his every word!” But my inner narrative was so damned loud and insistent on this point that I couldn’t hear a thing, not one word that this man said.

I just smiled like a re-re and gushed about loving this great idea, and then I noticed that as he looked up at me and went to put the cap back on my Sharpie, he missed and put a straight line right up the side of his left thumb. I’ve always loved the thought that he was forced to remember me every time he looked down for the rest of that day and next morning. “Oh, yeah. That puppet guy was here.”puppet-o2

I left. I could have stayed and joined in that remarkable conversation, basking in a performance well done, but no. Every fiber of my being told me that I had to GO. Go home.

“This will be funner to remember than to actually do.”

obit-o2Frank Zappa died about six or seven weeks later. Moon and I talked just before that and she cried pretty openly on the phone to me how he didn’t have much longer. What words can one say? Nothing helps. I know.

LisaMontage3Then in ’03, I got a call from Lisa Loeb, the pop singer that Dweezil lived with. (Total name-drops at this point? 13, I believe.) She wanted me to build a Hello Kitty puppet that could play the guitar in a music video that Dweezil was directing. I couldn’t be there for the shoot, because I was visiting with my own father just before his death, so I sent my very talented ex-wife Debra Jo instead. (A former Playboy Playmate of the Year, that makes a grand total of 14 celebrity name-drops!) Anyway, she nailed it. She had that Hello Kitty doing windmills, man. It was shot in the apartment that Dweezil and Lisa shared, and Dweezil just loved hearing Debra Jo tell my story. Somehow he wasn’t there that night, but he’d heard about it. (I just love that video…such a great song. It’s on YouTube, so please look it up: “Underdog” by Lisa Loeb.)

Anyway, I know one thing. The NEXT time I meet Frank Zappa, I’m bringing a fucking tape recorder.


~ Read more of Lee’s Work ~

13 Responses to LZ meets FZ: Performing for Frank Zappa

  1. checkerhead says:

    Lee – Loved working on this piece with you, loved the story, and am still choked by the fact that you no longer have “THE” drum kit with the autograph on it. Can’t wait for your next story!

  2. Dave, I just love what you’ve done with the place! No really, man, I can’t tell you how cool this piece is now that it’s illustrated…great job, great images.

    • checkerhead says:

      A pleasure sir… A pleasure.

      • This is an article about Margarita Nights at the Zappa’s that was written for the LA Weekly about a year after Frank passed. They mention my visit briefly…Man, writing this with you has been deeply satisfying. Thanks.

        • checkerhead says:

          Lee – Thanks for posting that link – it’s a GREAT companion to your piece and really helps fill in some of the back story about what you wanted into. On a personal note, it also made me feel a bit better about being somewhat of a work-a-holic myself.

          Lots of fun being able to share this slice of the internet with you sir!



  3. Dana Smith says:

    A great big wet kiss of a remembrance. And, as it happens, I’m reading about Picasso’s life, and like Frank Zappa, they had the courage to create, and not fear expanding the box they were handed, in fact not fearing to smash all previous boundaries… Boundary smashing admiration seems a natural inclination of the busking community. Thanks for bringing this story to these pages.

    • I love what you say here, and thanks for the kind words: you’re so right about the way buskers and specialty acts look at groundbreakers. I can’t say it any better…what you say is so accurate. And it surprises me that none of us has named a kid “Tesla”.

  4. Robin Chestnut says:

    Great story Lee! Keep em coming.

  5. Scott Segelbaum says:

    Great story. I felt I was there….getting nervous for you. Fantastic memories. Well done!

    • Thank you, Scott! Of all people, you know what it’s like to meet musicians that really mean something to you…music has a quality to it that nothing else has.
      Glad you liked it.

  6. Paul Gordon says:

    I remember this story, noting as much detail, with the actual underside of the kit with a big FZ on the center-ish bottom.. featured prominently. Great tale well told, Lee!

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