Frank Zappa in Eastern Europe, 1991

Frank Zappa

Featured image: Zappa in 1971 by Heinrich Klaffs

It’s just been announced that Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted notoriety) has finished his documentary Zappa, which was made with full access to the contents of the Zappa family vault.

Alex Winter’s Frank Zappa Doc ‘Zappa’ Premieres at South by Southwest

The premiere is at SxSW in March so I don’t know what’s in the film, but I’m hoping it will cover at least some of his summer sojourn in Eastern Europe in 1991. Within the space of a week, Frank attended celebrations of the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in two capital cities – Prague in Czechoslovakia, and Budapest in Hungary – and played with local bands at events in both cities. These turned out to be his last public musical performances.

The invitations didn’t come out of the blue. Zappa’s music was massively inspirational to the artistic underground in Czechoslovakia and that had led to a visit the previous year when he met the new President Vaclav Havel and was made a consultant to the government in matters of trade, tourism and cultural exchange. This was a serious enough appointment that he registered with the US government as an agent of a foreign power (you can imagine the smile on his face when he filled in that form). The Americans soon pressured the Czechs into dropping him – the wife of US Secretary Of State James Baker was one of the founders of the PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Council) with whom Zappa had had a number of run ins during the Obscenity Wars of the 1980s – but he was still held in high regard in Prague.

Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel
Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel

He was invited to attend the presidential election in summer 1990 but declined. He did however accept an invitation to the celebrations marking the withdrawal of the Soviet Army, which had been in Czechoslovakia ‘temporarily’ for 23 years. The withdrawal had been delicately negotiated in large part by Michael Kocab, a musician and composer who was an acquaintance of Frank and was now also a member of the Czechoslovak government. Zappa then went on to similar celebrations in Budapest, having been invited by the city’s Mayor Gábor Demszky with whom he’d had lunch in Los Angeles back in April. Frank was apparently particularly amused that Gabor was going to see Ronald Reagan next.

The problem about playing guitar at these events, as was being expected of him, was that Zappa’s last tour had been in 1988 and had ended prematurely and acrimoniously (why is a tangent too far for this post, but it’s explained in Frank’s own words here). As a result, as he told the Budapest audience:

“At the end of the tour, I put my guitar in its case and I haven’t seen it since then”.

He’d been working on composition (including his last major work Civilization Phaze III, and the orchestral pieces that were released as The Yellow Shark a month before he died in 1993) and generally avoiding musicians, who he saw as an expensive complication to the process of making music. He told an interviewer just before he left for Europe:

[…] they want me to bring my guitar over and play. And I haven’t touched it for years. I don’t have any calluses! I don’t know what to do with that fucking thing. And if I don’t take it along with me I know a lot of people will be disappointed, but I know if I plug it in they’re going to be even more disappointed, [laughs] ’cause I can’t play anymore.

The celebration in Prague was on 24th June 1991 and included a concert by Pražský Výběr in the Sports Hall in Prague. Pražský Výběr had also been a symbol of resistance to the Communist authorities having been banned and, in some individual cases, imprisoned during the 1980s. They were led by Michael Kocab, moonlighting from his government minister job, and featured Michal Pavlicek on lead guitar. I’m not sure if Frank had heard any of the band’s music before but he was familiar with Kocab’s solo compositions such as the ballet score Odysseus. Anyway he tied back his hair, slowly pushed their jazz reggae vibe in the right direction and played some pretty good guitar on that well-known track, “Improvisation in A Major”. The back and forth guitar with Michal Pavlicek is particularly enjoyable.

Despite the title of the Youtube clip, Prague wasn’t his last performance. That came 6 days later on 30th June at the Búcsú (Farewell) Fesztivál in Tabán, a district of Buda which had a park often used for large events.

This time he played with a band containing some of Hungary’s leading jazz musicians – Gyula Babos on guitar, János Egri on bass, Béla “Szakcsi” Lakatos on keyboards, and Imre Kőszegi on drums – referred to as the Gypsy Friends. Jazz had always been a much more acceptable form of expression in the Eastern European Communist countries than rock music. Being a gypsy was, however, not as acceptable. The Roma had been treated as a source of unskilled labour by the Communist regime in Hungary and when the industries that needed that labour collapsed along with Communism, they found themselves out of work and subject to the old prejudices. Was Frank making a statement by giving the band that name? Mayor Demszky Gábor, now acting as translator, certainly seems momentarily surprised, as if he’s not sure what the rules are any more.

While you can argue endlessly (and people have) about whether Zappa played jazz, it seems fair to say he was ambivalent about it – that same month he’d released an album of instrumentals compiled from the 1988 tour recordings called Make A Jazz Noise Here. But he seems to genuinely enjoy playing with the musicians, who he’d only met the day before and had had a one song rehearsal with that morning. He gives them lots of space to do their thing and then jumps in when he sees fit. Or more precisely, kneels down since he plays the last few solos squatting. I wonder if he was having trouble hearing his guitar and wanted to get nearer the speaker cabinet?

The day after the Budapest concert, the leaders of the Warsaw Pact member countries met in Prague to complete the dissolution of the organization by shutting down its Political Consultative Committee. The Cold War was effectively over.

What only his family knew at the time was that Frank Zappa was dying, having been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year. He made it to the Frankfurt Festival in September 1992 to conduct the Ensemble Modern on some of the pieces which became The Yellow Shark, but was too ill to even attend the remaining concerts in Berlin and Austria. He died on December 5th 1993 and was buried the following day in an unmarked grave.

Budapest thus became his final public performance as a musician.

Useful sources:
wiki.killuglyradio.com – A fascinating interview given as Frank was about to leave for Europe
books.google.co.ukFrank Zappa by Barry Miles, especially chapter 20

New, older, oldest

The church of Saint Edmund is interesting just because of its location. Rather than being in the village of Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk, it’s a few hundred yards away inside the remains of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum.

Above ground, this is an otherwise unoccupied field surrrounded by grassed embankments; below ground is a different matter. The church seems to align with the Roman street pattern and it’s possible that the location of the current church preserves a site used for worship since the early days of Christianity.

The nave, the oldest part of the present building, was built somewhere around 1050 and remarkably includes Roman roof tiles, robbed from the remains of the town, in its construction. The picture shows flint in the wall of the 14th century tower; roof tile on the corner of the 11th century nave; and breeze block on the 21st century annex that, by the look of the sink visible through the window, is a kitchen.

Coffee mornings are such an important part of modern Christianity that it’s common to see parts of ancient churches converted to be kitchens. In this case, the 21st century annex replaces, or at least encases, some of the buttresses on the nave and chancel, much to the detriment of the appearance of the rear of the building. I’m surprised they were allowed to do it.

Hendrix In Britain

Inspired by his London flat now being their administrative offices, the Handel House Museum are holding a Hendrix In Britain exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of his death. It’s only a small exhibition but they’ve gathered some contemporary programmes, posters and photos to illustrate his life and work in Britain, plus a couple of interesting manuscripts.

The first is a battered piece of Hyde Park Towers Hotel headed paper with partial lyrics for Love Or Confusion on the front and a self-penned caricature of Hendrix surrounded by various cartoons poking fun at himself and other pop acts on the back. The second is handwritten instructions – on Londonderry Hotel headed paper this time – to tell the model Kirsten Nefer how to get to the Isle of Wight Festival. Hopefully the pass was waiting at the main stage gate as promised.

There are two star exhibits. One is the custom left handed Gibson Flying V known as Flying Angel which Jimi played at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970. While this is a lovely guitar, it usually lives in the Hard Rock Cafe Vault across Mayfair where you can see it for free so it isn’t that much of an attraction.

Much better are the Westerner hat and Dandie Fashions jacket that Jimi wore for a shoot at Bruce Fleming’s studio in 1967 where he was also filmed performing an acoustic rendition of Hear My Train A Comin’ (and saying one of his most quotable lines).

[Note: This seems to be the best copy on Youtube at the moment but it still isn’t very good quality. The 2010 film Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child uses it in the original quality and the blues really zing. The film has lots of other fantastic footage too and, as of February 2018, is available on Netflix.]

The Westerner hat is a fine thing, with alternating cast rodeo riders and individual turquoise and silver pieces on the band. But the Dandie Fashions velvet jacket is the real standout. No picture could do justice to the vibrant colours, especially the deep blues which hardly even seem to be captured for some reason. The jacket syle is conservative by 1967 standards – single breasted with five buttons and a noticeable flare to the end of the sleeves – but the fabric doesn’t really need much embellishment.

Dandie Fashions was founded in October 1966 by Alan Holston and Tara Browne, the Guinness heir who famously “blew his mind out in a car” before the year was out. Although the shop had been in part an outlet for his tailoring business Foster & Tara, Browne’s death didn’t stop Dandie Fashions becoming for a while one of the elite scene outfitters in London, Browne’s share of the business having been sold to John Crittle, an Australian born tailor and also future father of ballerina Darcey Bussell.

As well as at least two jackets for Hendrix, they produced custom jackets for Paul McCartney, clothes for various Rolling Stones and the original Major Tom silver suit worn by David Bowie during Space Oddity in his short 1969 film Love You Till Tuesday. In 1968, Dandie Fashions became Apple Tailoring and the relaunch party was John and Yoko’s first public appearance together. As with many Apple businesses, it wasn’t a success. Freddie Hornik, one of the other key members of the Dandie team, went on to breathe new life into a fading Granny Takes A Trip and made it a big success on the burgeoning glam scene and on both coasts of the US.

All of which is a long way of saying, get to the Hendrix In Britain exhibition before November 7th to see an iconic piece of London counterculture tailoring before it heads back to Seattle.

The Hendrix Flat

When the Handel House Museum in Mayfair announced back at the beginning of the summer that they were opening up one of Jimi Hendrix’s London flats to visitors for a short period, I was excited enough to buy a ticket on the morning they went on sale. They weren’t quite that sought after but I did feel disgracefully smug when overhearing numerous people being informed at the desk that they could visit the exhibition but the tickets for the flat had sold out weeks ago.

The composer George Handel lived at what is now 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the early 18th century and composed many of his major works there, including Messiah. When Hendrix’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham was looking for a place for them in the summer of 1968, the one she found was an attic flat on two levels at 23 Brook Street. For a while they thought they were in Handel’s house, the blue plaque being rather ambiguously located, and Jimi even bought some of his music to get a feel for his neighbour. Both houses are now part of the Handel House Museum with number 23 providing extra exhibition space and, in the case of Jimi’s flat, administration offices.

The first thing that strikes you are the steep and narrow stairs to get up to the flat – apparently a few of Jimi’s visitors returning after a night out came something of a cropper on them. The second, and main, thing that strikes you is how small the flat is. The larger room overlooks Brook Street and is a reasonable size but had to accommodate a double bed (which seemed to be the main piece of furniture rather than solely for sleeping), a TV and hi-fi (there weren’t really any adjacent neighbours, one of the attractions of the flat in the first place, since 23 was one end of the row and 25 didn’t have an equivalent attic extension) and various other items, more decorative than practical in many cases. The second room is much smaller and according to a (now disappeared) forum source was used for band jams. The top half of the flat, up even more perilous steps, wasn’t available to visit and has been extensively changed since the 1960s but would have housed the kitchen, bathroom and even smaller spare bedroom which was reputedly used by George Harrison on occasion.

The rooms are mostly empty, with just a small display case in the bigger room containing an ornate brass perpetual calendar – ironically only for the years 1954 to 2003 – and a glass ashtray, both of which were in the flat when Jimi lived there. On the walls of that room are also photos taken in the flat, including the one featured on the cover of the programme. But what really brings the place alive are Kathy Etchingham’s various recollections of their times there – visiting John Lewis to buy fabrics; having a late breakfast at the Indian Tea House across the street on the corner of South Molton Street; drinking milky tea and watching TV together, one of Jimi’s private pleasures being Coronation Street with Ena Sharples being his favourite character.

The smaller room just has a TV screen showing an interview with the Experience in the flat on January 7th 1969 for the CBC programme Through The Eyes Of Tomorrow (samizdat video of the interview playing in the flat, or here’s the full interview). During the interview, Jimi is sprawled on the bed in the main room with the glass ashtray visible and in use, while Noel and Mitch are interviewed together on the floor in front of the fireplace in the second room. The beginning of the end. :)

The flat didn’t have a doorbell at ground level so it really was a private retreat and, although it’s thought Jimi might have spent as little as sixty nights there, you believe Kathy when she reports Jimi saying it was his first (and as it turned out, only) real home of his own. The things in the exhibition downstairs are great, but the space he occupied – given just enough context by the exhibits – is actually much more evocative of the life he was leading.

The flat visits have now ended but the exhibition (more of which later, hopefully) is open through to November 7th 2010. The Handel House Museum would like to make the Hendrix exhibition, including presumably the flat, a permanent fixture but as ever the stumbling block may be finding the funding.