The Radar Station is pleased to present this fascinating article by Art Tripp, aka Ed Marimba, aka Ted Cactus, drummer and percussionist for both Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Beefheart’s Magic Band. Here he gives his take on what it was like to work for both these very different musical geniuses.
Thanks to Kitty Marimba for helping to make this happen.
Zappa vs. Beefheart: What Were They Really Like?
by Art Tripp
“Hi, Art, this is Dick Kunc here. I was telling Frank about you, and we’re wondering if you could come down to Apostolic Studios on Friday?” “Sure, Dick. What should I bring: drums, xylophone, bongos?” “No, nothing, Art. We have everything here.”
Dick was an Apostolic recording engineer who was working with Frank Zappa in 1967-68. I’d met Dick a few weeks prior via our wives, who worked together for the City of New York. The Kuncs had us over for drinks one night, and Dick had been very interested to hear of my background. I was then on scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music to finish my Masters of Music degree, having transferred from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I’d played percussion for 3 years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 2 years as timpanist with the Dayton Philharmonic, and 2 seasons on percussion with the Cincinnati Opera. He was impressed that I played jazz, and that I had worked with composer John Cage for 6 months.
Anticipating that I’d get a few sessions of studio work (and a nice check), I gingerly creaked along in the hand operated freight elevator to the second floor loft that was Apostolic Studio. I stepped out into an anteroom lounge occupied by several long haired freaky looking guys who were laughing, smoking and drinking coffee: Motorhead Sherwood, Ray Collins and Roy Estrada.
Dick came out to bring me back through the studio to the control room. There I met Frank, Herbie Cohen, and a wild looking girl named Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica). Frank asked me to come out into the studio to play a little on a set of drums (Billy Mundi’s drums, who had just quit the Mothers of Invention). Now, I hadn’t sat down behind a conventional drum set in several years. Still, I had plenty of chops from playing other percussion instruments, and since I’d been listening to lots of new jazz, I had a bunch of styles and riffs floating around in my mind. I asked Frank what he wanted me to play. He said, “Just play what you like for a few minutes.” So I dug in and let it fly: some rhythmic stuff and a lot of free form patterns, all over the kit. After a few minutes I stopped, and looked up at Frank who was leaning on the studio sound baffle watching. His eyes were big around, and he said, “Wow, you’re a monster!”
He asked if I could play in 5/4 time, which I thought was very simple, so I played a little of that. He then called in the bass player, Roy Estrada, and we played together in 5 as well. Frank was delighted. He asked me if I was doing anything that weekend, that they were playing two gigs in upstate New York, and could I play the shows? I said that I wasn’t sure. He said that I’d make $500! I quickly agreed. Union scale for the CSO had been $132.50 per week, so I’d be making 4 times that for 2 days! He said, “Whenever I point to you, just play a drum solo. And as far as the music, just watch Jimmy Carl Black, and you’ll pick it up.” At my very first gig, Frank told me to just go out and start playing, and the rest of the guys would come out in a few minutes. So my first performance with the Mothers of Invention was a free form drum solo!
Turns out, Herbie gave us all $300, and said the other $200 would be forthcoming. I’m still waiting. But in those days we were paid in cash right after the gigs. I joined the band and left NYC for L.A. on a cross country tour. Shortly after we got settled out there, management told us they’d pay us $250 every week of the year whether we worked or not, and the excess funds would be divided up quarterly. Again, I’m still waiting for the excess. But to me it was still good money, and I was having a ball playing everything I’d ever wanted to.
After the cross country tour, we all settled into new homes in L.A. Frank had rented the old Tom Mix log cabin in Laurel Canyon. It was a huge but beautiful old style ranch house with a basement big enough for 2 bowling lanes and a rehearsal room. One day after rehearsal I walked through the upstairs living room, and was greeted by a guy sitting in an easy chair wearing a gray colored top hat. “Hello there, how are YOU? I really like your playing.” He introduced himself as Captain Beefheart, but said to call him Don (Don’s birth name was Don Glen Vliet. He later added the affectation “Van” in solidarity with Van Gogh). We chatted for a few minutes, and I went on about my business. I wasn’t to see Don again until we played on the same bill with Beefheart & The Magic Band at a big benefit concert for the L.A. Free Clinic at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood in March, 1969. Others on the bill were Jethro Tull, Canned Heat, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Ellis.
By that date Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (TMR) had been released. I’d gotten a copy, and was knocked out by the music. So after our set with MOI, I went out into the audience to listen to Don and the guys. It was a stunning performance, so I went backstage to meet everyone and get to know them. Don was flattered by my praise, and he invited me to come out to their house in Woodland Hills anytime I liked: the famous “Trout House” on Ensenada Dr.
As it happened, my new girlfriend and I frequently traveled from Canoga Park, through Woodland Hills, and down through Topanga Canyon to Malibu to eat, party, or to jam at the old Topanga Corral club in upper Topanga. Consequently it was easy to make a stop at Ensenada Dr. on the way home. Don would always welcome us, and have the guys play whatever they’d been working on, and we’d shoot the bull for awhile.
By the Fall of that year, Frank had decided to break up the Mothers of Invention. He told me that it was too expensive to take an 8 or 9 piece band on the road, and that all the groups that were making it at that time typically had only 3 or 4 guys: The Doors, Vanilla Fudge, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, etc. He formed what he called a 4 man “power quartet” comprised of himself (guitar), Ian Underwood (keyboards), Jeff Simmons (bass), and me (drums). I was still upset and resentful that he’d broken up the group to which I’d become accustomed, and that I loved; but yet I was gratified to be selected for the new band.
We started rehearsals which oftentimes consisted of just Ian, Jeff and I. Frank missed a lot of sessions. The music was good, but I soon realized that Simmons aggravated the tweet out of me. I felt that he was a prima donna type, and his ego and mine did not get along well. I’m sure he was a good player, but after having had a perfect musical relationship with bassist Roy Estrada, working with Jeff was like fingernails on a blackboard.
I began to dread the new line-up. As a result I started hanging around Don and the guys, and I could tell that Don was after me to join up. Right about that time John French (Drumbo) left The Magic Band, so they were looking for a drummer. At that point I more or less said I’d take the position, since I was looking for some stability, and it was fun being with Don and the guys. I stopped going to the Zappa quartet rehearsals, and also the rehearsals for the big gig with a thrown together MOI, with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic scheduled for the Pauley Pavillion at UCLA. Frank called, and I told him that I was switching ships, and that I wouldn’t be able to play with him any more.
But as it happened I did play one gig with the Zappa quartet. We’d been booked into Marshall Brevitz’s Thee Experience Club on the east Sunset Strip, and so was Beefheart and TMB as well; so I ended up playing drums with both groups at the same gig. I loved that club, and had spent way too much time there. But it was a hangout for all the touring rock guys, and you never knew who might jump up and sit in. My girlfriend waited tables there, so the free drinks were another allure. In fact Marshall had such a big heart for the notable musicians that he probably let them all drink for free. That probably put him in debt, and lead to the eventual close of the L.A. club.
After several months it became obvious that I wasn’t going to fit the bill as drummer for the Trout Mask Replica material. I hadn’t realized they’d presumed I’d just copy John’s parts for those songs. But at the time I was into free form playing, and also contemporary rock style drumming, and had no idea how to copy John’s style. So they got John back into the band, and I took over the other guitar parts, playing them on marimba. Soon I’d also play drums on pieces that used two drummers. So that left a pretty solid group: Don (Capt. Beefheart), me (Ed Marimba), John French (Drumbo), Bill Harkelroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), and Mark Boston (Rockette Morton).
I noticed right away that Don worked completely differently than did Frank. With CBMB there were no charts, so the music was all committed to memory. They all knew the TMR stuff, so I’d get together with Bill at my house, and he would play the parts for me, which I would write out in traditional chart form, then practice them to memory.
For the new stuff, sometimes the material would come together in rehearsals, but more often than not, Don would bang out a bunch of stuff on the piano (he didn’t know how to play piano or read music) while it was being taped. Later he’d point out riffs to Bill who was tasked with transposing them to guitar, and also putting all the parts together. It dawned on me later, after I’d done a little of that routine myself, that Bill usually played what he thought sounded good, then Don would say that that’s what he meant for it to sound like all along.
Frank worked more traditionally. He composed parts on the piano, wrote them down in music score form, then had Ian Underwood play them back to him, since Frank –as with Don– was not a pianist; but he did read music. At other times he’d compose on his guitar. Most often then, he’d produce charts which we read and learned during rehearsals, that early on were at the Log Cabin, then later at a rented hall near the old Lindy Opera House on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A., below Hollywood. There frequently was plenty of room for improvised sections in among the written music. Ian usually ran the rehearsals, which were always effective, timely, and satisfying.
In contrast the CBMB rehearsals never had an established start or finish time, and they often could continue on until the cows came home. It wasn’t until later in the band’s run that we established an 11:00 A.M. starting time, with a “must quit” finish time at 6:00 P.M. A Trinidad, CA restaurateur –Sam Merryman– gave us full use of his restaurant’s party house located on lovely Moonstone Beach. At certain times of the year, we’d stop rehearsing to watch the whales migrating past, blowing spray as they went. Rehearsals there were more productive than ones in the past. There was slightly less wasted time, and with the recent addition of Alex St. Clair in the band (late 1972 – ed.) there were fewer interruptions for “talks”. Don still rarely sang at the rehearsals, but he tended to butt out of the mix.
I personally got along well with both Frank and Don. Right from the beginning lots of time was spent with Frank discussing music, modern composers, and ideas for avant-garde antics or stage routines. He was a fan of several contemporary composers: Stravinsky, Edgar Varese, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, to name a few. He was heavily influenced by those and other modern composers. It was always easy to know what he’d been listening to lately by the type of compositions he came up with. That’s not unique to Zappa. All composers are influenced to varying degrees by what others have written. In all the time in chats with Frank, I don’t ever recall discussing any rock ‘n roll musicians or singers, with the possible exception of Tiny Tim or Wild Man Fischer.
Frank was one of the premiere guitar players of the 1960s/early 1970s. At one point he was ranked in the top three, along with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. He also played passable drums, having initially started in music as a drummer.
Don of course had been heavily influenced by black blues singers, such as Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. His jazz influences were John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Some of his lyric/poetry writing style had been influenced by Herb Bermann, an L.A. actor, writer, and poet. Don oftentimes turned his poetry into song lyrics by simply superimposing them on top of existing band music. He was also a big fan of actor Richard Burton.
Don had never studied music, and was oblivious to formal rhythm, music notation, or music theory such as pitches, scales, chords, or keys. Yet he had a good ear, and was especially adept at singing and playing harmonica in the delta blues style. He didn’t know the first thing about a soprano sax, but he could play convincing free-form style.
Oddly each man was ill at ease around other people, except in one-on-one discussions, or with their closest friends or family. Each had their respective method of covering up that awkwardness or apprehension. Frank tended to participate only in subjects of which he was very familiar, so as to be knowledgeable and commanding. Otherwise he would turn attention to the other person’s experiences, usually with the aim of gathering material for use later, either musically or in a stage setting. If one told a unique or outlandish story to Frank, it might find its way into a song, or even an invitation to come up to the microphone in a concert to relate the story (occasionally in tandem with someone else doing the same thing on an adjacent mic).
But Frank was not much of a chatter, and would rarely participate in B.S. sessions. He was basically a workaholic who spent most of his time composing, and later, recording. Early on he occasionally socialized with us. He even attended a party at my house one 4th of July. He also had a couple of pool parties for us at his home. But over time he became increasingly reclusive. I’ve heard that with later bands the relationship to the musicians was strictly business.
Frank was fond of mildly putting people on the spot, challenging them to do or say something; egging them on, sometimes to the point of perverseness. One night at our show at the Shrine auditorium in L.A. Frank had invited a few of the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously) onto the stage to do some dancing while we played, which we often did at L.A. area concerts. This particular night the dancing morphed into a sadomasochistic display. Frank had arranged for L.A. music scene notable Kim Fowley to come on stage to participate in a make believe S&M act with one of the girls. Fowley had a real whip, and during the performance he got too serious, and actually attempted to whip the girl. Frank was allowing it to go on, but at one point he got bumped into, and almost knocked down. His demeanor immediately changed from lasciviousness to fear; and with that our equipment manager, Kanzus, had to run out onto the stage to restrain Fowley, forcing him off stage. Frank had let it go too far.
Don loved to talk, and was a master at deflecting any attention to his actual workaday thoughts and notions by quickly moving the conversation to far out subjects which were hip or artistic. Having thrown out a notion, followed by a questioning, “You know what I mean?”, one found oneself participating and agreeing with the premise. Who doesn’t want to appear “hip”? Soon you’d begin talking in the same manner, focusing on artistic subjects, avoiding common everyday topics, eschewing the mundane in favor of the imaginative. Don was an unlimited cornucopia of hip thoughts, expressions, pictures and moods. He could paint with words, and was very clever with puns, usually to support some symbolic statement. Hardly anyone that spent significant time with him did not become almost spellbound with his unique ingenuity in that regard.
Frank for the most part did not like attention focused on himself, except in performance situations. He was most comfortable alone in his studio– thinking, writing, recording. Don, on the other hand, loved to be the center of attention, and usually quickly found a way to get it.
Both were charismatic and intelligent, with good senses of humor and a feel for the absurd. Frank would not suffer fools, and tended to ridicule slower witted people. One sensed immediately that Frank was intelligent, and not likely to waste time on trifles. During interviews or in other appearances he was very protective of his family, and would never go along with poking fun at his image. In contrast, Don had a commanding voice timbre, which, along with his Rasputin eyes, immediately drew attention toward himself. He had a magnetic appeal, and it had the same effect on the common man as well as on very influential people. One need only watch videos of Don’s appearances on the David Letterman show to see how he had a commanding presence while simply sitting in the guest chair, and how discombobulated Letterman became. Don was aware of the effect he had on people, and it was something he used to his advantage time and time again.
It’s interesting to consider how each man interacted with their wives. I’d visited Frank and his wife Gail (and 6 month old daughter Moon) at their basement apartment on Charles Street in Greenwich Village, and continued to see them at their homes in Laurel Canyon and Hollywood Hills. Frank was a traditional Italian male in regards family. He was the bread winner and master of the household, who didn’t take a lot of hands-on interest in domestic matters or the raising of their children. From the time we moved back to L.A., Gail had a nanny to help her with child rearing and household duties. Yet Frank was a family man who loved his children.
This was the “free love” 1960s, and Frank, like the rest of us, was not immune to a roving eye. Gail was well aware of the groupie scene, but presumably she wasn’t too worried about an occasional dalliance by Frank, as long as it did not interfere with their family circumstances. Truthfully Frank did not partake of the groupie scene in that regard as did the rest of us.
Don was not married when I met him. He had some sort of relationship with a gal named Laurie who evidently co-habitated with him, even sharing his bedroom. But by early 1970 Don all of a sudden showed up at the “Trout House” with a pretty girl by the name of Jan. She was lovely, intelligent, and had a radiant demeanor. Although the circumstances under which they met was a little cloudy, they both believed it was very cosmic, and the result of destiny. Jan was from a nice home and family in the Valley.
Don and Jan became inseparable. They quickly were married at a courthouse in L.A., after which they stopped by my house in Laurel Canyon for a little celebration. They seemed to make a perfect couple, yet Zappa claimed that they wouldn’t stay together for 6 weeks. In fact they were together for 40 years, until Don’s demise in 2010.
Their attachment continued throughout their lives together. Jan rarely came to rehearsals, but she came along on all tours, and accompanied him for every meeting and get-together from then on. So I have no idea if Don partook of the groupie scene prior to the Trout Mask Replica days, but my guess is that he wasn’t all that promiscuous. He was simply too strange, and interested in other endeavors. In later years Don and I would get together for a few drinks at a tavern, or at his home art studio, while he continuously drew on an art tablet; but other than that, Jan was always present. Yet children for them would have been out of the question. Jan never told me how she felt about the subject, but Don was definitely not the father type.
Frank was very serious about his music, both as an instrumentalist and as a composer. Due to the type of music we played, and media hype, the tendency of the fans was to believe that Zappa was a “wild ‘n crazy” guy, but in fact he was just the opposite. Although he had a good sense of humor, which tended towards satire, poo-poo/ca-ca jokes, and the seamier side of people, he was as serious as a heart attack about composing and playing. Frank was near completely fixated on music composition and song writing. In the earlier days he pretty much started when he got out of bed, and was usually at it until the wee hours; and it’s likely that he kept a similar routine for most of his career. He was a heavy smoker (alternating menthol and regular), and probably put down several gallons of coffee every day. But he did not use any drugs, and thought people who did were stupid. The only time I ever saw him even take a drink was on a rare occasion during a plane flight where he’d have an aperitif, like banana liqueur.
Don too was obsessed. But his was more of a fascination and preoccupation with art and the abstract: surrealism, Dada, and other avant-garde forms of expression. He had started sculpting and painting at an early age, and was considered a prodigy. His artistic proclivity soon led him to music, specifically Delta blues singers, their methods and expressive subject matter.
Don’s whole life and identity appeared to be an abstraction– a representation of art that inhabited the workaday reality. He was both uncomfortable and uneducated in worldly matters, but felt at ease in the realm of imagination, art, poetry, and the surreal. In fact his monumental abilities in that regard were often used as a defense in order to deflect attention away from himself, or to change the subject if he felt out of his depth. A running joke (albeit with factual significance) was his rearing as an only child– that being spoiled, unchallenged and sheltered in youth manifested an other-worldly or “far out” temperament. An only child myself, that promoted a kinship. Don had been doted on by his family, most especially by his mother, Sue, who put me in mind a little of Bruno Antony’s mother (Marion Lorne) in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It’s safe to say that his coddled upbringing, along with his prodigious artistic talents coalesced to evolve Don into his career as painter/sculptor, then musician.
Don was not a frequent drinker, although he wasn’t averse to the rare overindulgence. During one British tour he discovered the liqueur Green Chartreuse, which he felt was soothing to his vocal chords, and thereby benefitted his singing voice. That lead to a funny incident at a show, where he evidently drank too much of the Chartreuse, and got pretty loaded during the performance. After the show we were having a few more drinks on the band bus, when Don noticed that Alex (Alex St. Claire), one of our guitar players, was not on the bus. Emboldened by the alcohol, Don went charging off the bus to “get my friend Alex”, just in case Alex had gotten into trouble. Nothing ever came of it, but we all thought it was pretty funny.
I feel certain that Don probably sampled LSD during the Hippie early 1960s, but I never knew him to take any type of drugs during the years I was in the band. Reportedly he developed a taste for cocaine during his later musical career, although I have no personal knowledge of that. He simply had a unique and natural prodigious imagination and the gift of gab.
Politically neither man had much involvement or conviction, and I doubt that either ever voted, although Frank –being an iconoclast—frequently lampooned certain politicians. But it was done as satire and contempt rather than support for or against any political philosophy. He was a big believer in liberty, and against censorship in any form, so he may have fit the mold of a Libertarian. In fact he supposedly was approached by the fledgling Libertarian Party to run for office. Frank declined. He did get involved in a feud with Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife) over her efforts to force record companies to label their recordings’ content, and testified against her efforts in Congress.
Don didn’t know any more about politics than he did about particle physics. He was a huge animal and nature lover, and much of his painting was heavily influenced by those subjects, so for that reason he was a darling of the Hippie Generation. He may have been aware that Richard Nixon was President at that time, but that would have been the sum total of his knowledge of politics. We used to do a bit on stage where I would walk up to the mike and aim a toy raygun at the audience (the type that spewed sparks out the front). The house lights would go dark, and I’d shoot the silly thing. I would then announce that it was my “Reagan” (after the then California Governor). It was intended to have comical but deep symbolism: a little spray of sparks shooting out into a huge auditorium.
Frank and Don had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years– mostly congenial, sometimes collaborative, sometimes discordant. They had met in high school during the late 1950s in Lancaster, California, located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Zappa was a drummer, and just learning guitar, whereas Vliet was experimenting with his passion for Delta and Chicago blues singing. They formed a natural musical kinship. When Frank moved to Cucamonga and eventually opened his Studio Z, he and Don made some early blues and R & B recordings.
Following the Studio Z days each man went his own way. By the mid 1960s Don had joined a band formed by fellow Lancaster musicians (Alex Snouffer, Doug Moon, Jerry Handley and Paul Blakely), which was the kernel of the eventual The Magic Band; while Frank had joined The Soul Giants (Ray Collins, Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black), which soon became the Mothers of Invention.
There likely was contact between the two over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1968 that they worked together again, when Frank offered Don a deal to do an album on Frank’s new label, Straight Records. Much has been written about the Trout Mask Replica sessions, but suffice to say that Frank had very little input as producer, instead letting Don do whatever he had in mind. I was not at the sessions, but through numerous reports to me from the participants it gave a pretty good picture of what happened.
Because they had been so well rehearsed, most of the double album’s basic tracks were recorded in a whirlwind 8 hour session—most of them in one take. With little to do, Frank actually fell asleep during one of the takes. While Frank was in the studio prior to the session he recorded a phone conversation between himself and Don. Don put Jeff Cotton on the phone to read “The Blimp”, which Frank eventually added on to a Mothers of Invention track called “Charles Ives”, which was then included in the TMR album. But Frank never realized that “The Blimp” was a lampoon of Frank and MOI: Frank being The Blimp, and MOI being The Mothership.
The chief difference between Frank and Don was in their respective perceptions of reality. Frank was very pragmatic, and had a good understanding of the music business, whereas Don’s mind always inhabited the abstract, seeming at times to be incapable of comprehending anything practical. Touring with Frank was normally like clockwork, but with Don it was difficult to get him out of the hotel room and onto an airplane or a tour bus.
Frank considered Don to be loopy, and hard to manage, but he was very aware of Don’s seemingly limitless artistic ideas and word play. Still, after Don had become entangled in contractual disputes with several record companies, Frank had Don join him as a solo artist in the Bongo Fury album and subsequent tour in 1975. That was to be their last collaboration.
Don always believed that Frank was stealing ideas from him, and was very dismissive of Frank. He tended to make negative jokes about Frank, as I’m sure Frank did about Don. However when Frank died in 1993, Don was deeply affected. I’d gone over to his house, and had expected some disparagement, but instead I was surprised to see how shook up Don was. We sat there for quite awhile with Don reflecting back about their friendship. I hadn’t realized that beneath the surface Don had a deep admiration for Frank.
There was a great loss to the music and art worlds when they both died too young. It would be hard to imagine the history of rock ‘n roll without their music and influence.
© Green Moustache Music
Art Tripp played percussion with the Cincinnati Symphony for 3 years, played percussion for 2 years with the Cincinnati Opera Company, was the timpanist for the Dayton Philharmonic for 2 years, played drums/percussion with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for 2 years, and played drums/percussion with Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band for 5 years. You can read of his life and career on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Tripp