Spring '82. Vera Montanari, Marco Pastoresi, at the time editor-in-chief of Uomo Vogue, and I were running through our fingers a rosary of our dream rock stars for a possible cover-story. The most mythical one of all: Frank Zappa, the agent-provocateur of Freak Out! and Hot Rats, the same person who had given pleasure almost ten years before in Bologna at an incandescent evening celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Mothers.
Hollywood, a month later. The guy at CBS's press office find the eccentric request a bundle of laughs, "What, Zappa? Why not Journey or RED Speedwagon?". "Fuck them", I hiss, confirming my natural gift for dealing with what are now called PR men. "This is my number, tell Zappa to call me if and when he feels like it". A few days later came the telephone call that I'd anxiously been waiting for. At the other end of the line there was that unmistakable voice which slowly enunciates, "Hi, Guido, what's the deal?", then there came an avalanche of questions (the cover plus so many pages guaranteed beforehand, free clothes naturally courtesy of Vogue, on condition that they arrive from New York with the tailor to adjust them because he, Zappa, like a badly-made puppet, has always struggled with loads of physical defects, not the least of which being one arm that is shorter than the other). Once the flow of the Moroccan souk-style bartering had been checked ("Do you have a dark suit, Frank?", "Sure, by Armani", "Perfect, that's enough. See you Sunday"), we arranged to meet at the legendary residence that once belonged to the actor Tom Mix. "Los Angeles is a shitty city", decreed FZ. "I only stick my nose out of the door to go on tour, so either you take the photos at my house or else - so long!".
It is raining in Hollyweird and on the top of the hill above Laurel Canyon it could be Brianza. FZ only starts to get his motor running about three in the afternoon to then work without stopping until dawn in his technologically irreprehensible home-studio. In the labyrinthine old wooden house, improvised under stairs storage overflows with hundreds and hundreds of records made by Zappa himself but never released. A king-size four poster bed stands out between two dusty movieolas, trapped amongst various pieces of sports equipment and a stand showing off an improbable stage wardrobe. Two portholes the size of an LP let in the weak light of dusk during two packed hours of conversation, in an ironic vein oddly devoid of that well-known extremely poisonous sarcasm which Zappa uses to annihilate the nastier press. The the invitation to visit the recording studio where Bob Stone "my computer"; is making Valley Girl (see the album Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch) out of three different monologues by Zappa's daughter, Moon. "My relationship with Bob is purely professional", explains FZ glancing at the monitor of the telecameras which scan the outside of the villa every hour, "and it's better that way, I know nothing about him, where he lives, if he has a woman or what. Hello, goodbye and that's it, only a couple of breaks for a bite to eat and to go to the toilet". Well tanked up with coffee and Winston cigarettes FZ is good at playing the friendly host ignoring the stiff official behaviour of show-biz ritual. His wife Gail circumnavigates the 48-track with little Dweezil (eleven years old at the time) about to leave home for college after a short holiday. Father and son take leave of each other affectionately but without lingering. The session only comes to an end towards one in the morning when Zappa, after surprising me by asking my anything but expert opinion, decides to leave an organ track where it is and finish the recording in question and, with it, the first round of our meeting.
A week later. The rings under Frank Zappa's eyes, after a night without sleep, are so deep that no make-up can hide them. A couple of hours and the flash units have had enough. We adjourn until tomorrow, but in the meantime the famous sequence at the piano with FZ all dressed up in a black dinner jacket has already made history, just like the shots where, lying amongst the monumental orchestra scores for The Perfect Stranger, the musician hold Dweezil's space gun. Very happy to escape the usual weirdness of some of his past photos, FZ balks at the suggestion that he should lie inside the piano: "Hey, this is a musical instrument, you're not mistaking it for a bit of furniture, are you!" While my assistant puts the defective material in the car, FZ swears over the electronic combination which allows access to the underground bunker. When the strong-box finally gets opened, an endless wall of master-tapes and films appear, which record even the most insignificant stages of his twenty-year long career, material on which he has drawn many times for a myriad of live records. Finds of every kind stick out from four enormous boxes, posters, photographs, drawings, albums, and notebooks from when he was at college, gold records, original artefacts by Carl Schenkel which appeared on the first Mothers of Invention sleeves. The temptation to set down all these goodies for posterity in a book is very strong, but Zappa's impossible work schedule would oblige anyone to stay for at least two years in the house just to get to the bottom of all the material. Dazed, I go back down towards Los Angeles, my mind absorbed by thoughts of the next day:
The sun is already setting and Zappa, rejuvenated by a long and healthy sleep, is in very good spirits. In the permanent workshop set up in crypt no.2B, to the right directly after the entrance, a brand new Telecaster Blues model already lies in pieces, waiting to be put together again by two resident technicians following the master's instructions.
FZ turns back and forth proudly exhibiting his collection of blues and doo-wop records, as well as some Pierre Boulez sets. He puts my curiosity to the test by playing one of the hundreds of sleeveless records which are heaped on a huge mixer which once belonged to the Beach Boys. From the grooves sizzles Al DiMeola furiously playing guitar along with FZ in an improvisation never heard before.
My swooning elicits another sly smile from Zappa, who once again loses his proverbial reluctance to pose in front of a camera. Finally once the Hasselbad has done its duty, an autograph please. While he signs it in large capitals with lots of flourishes, I confess to Zappa that to my respect for twenty years of unrepeatable music I must add an incommensurable tie of affection as my wife Letizia and I met precisely at one of his concerts. "Where and when?", he quickly asks with a sparkle in his eye and a big grin. "Bologna '73", I reply, and immediately the lapidary dedication "To Guido and Letizia" is enriched by "See what happens if you get silly at a rock concert?".Goodbye Frank. Love always