Friday, September 08, 2006
A friend of mine is a music movie junkie, so I was lured out a few nights ago to see a double bill. A storm was brewing and the harsh light and wind made the environment seem a bit desolate and on the edge. Due to time constraints and my career demands, we couldn't attend the budget matinee. But I got a large buttered popcorn anyway, which substituted for dinner. We watched movies about people I had known, which was an odd experience for me. There were maybe seven people in the theater, each having a different exprience.

One of the films was a BBC documentary on Captain Beefheart, and the other a Frank Zappa movie made up of George Pal claymation figures and a Halloween concert. I liked the Mexican hat dance moves the lead singer did, as that reminded me of the show at Padua Hills I saw with Frank et al. This is the first time I have seen seen Frank since he died, except in photos I happen across and occasionally in my memory.

And truthfully my feelings after the movie were a bit melancholic. I sat for awhile in the car under an oversized Chinese Elm, a bit quiet and gradually aware the evening now was tinged with loss. A little sad, however amusing Frank was throughout the film and however bright his pink jumpsuit. He always went for the weirdest clothes when we all windowshopped at the Melody Store at the Pomona Mall, the world's first pedestrian only, forced thrust at the modern shopping experience somewhere in tomorrowland.

And I have a really hazy memory of stopping up to the house where Beefheart and crew were living in about the time they were living as a music cult, and then another visit later to what became known as the trouthouse but when I was there it was early, predawn after a night of not exactly carousing throughout Los Angeles on a visit, but ... you know ... on a long cruise of sorts here and there ... and no one was moving about. And I wasn't even sure who it was we were trying to visit, except that the person driving must have known them well enough to stop in. As I recall it had just finished drizzling and the sun was trying to break through the clouds, and it was chilly so it must have been winter. The long chain that made the porch railing was wet and cold. I heard that some girls were known to sit on the chain like it was a swing.

That was a different world. When I first met Frank, it was all different from that, and a different place as well.

Flashback in time several years due to a thought about Gold Stamps.

This was a little village on the perimeter of the great society of Los Angeles. Our goods and services seemed like second rate imitations sometimes compared to what the glittery televised world offered. We did not have a major telephone company, like ATT, but a hick pretender called General Telephone. Just a name like that was either designed to be totally generic ("Generally speaking, we're a telephone company and generally we provide service" as Frank would solemnly intone like a commercial announcer) or to make you want to snap to attention whenever the phone rang. It was nearly impossible to get a private phone line, most lines were party-lines. When we first moved there, you still had to place long distance calls through the operator by telling her what number you were calling by city and number. Area codes were waiting to be invented. We did not have a real supermarket for many years, but a smaller grocery store with much smaller carts.

We did not even have the sophistication of a real trading stamp like S&H Green Stamps when you went to the drug store, but a pretender stamp, The Gold Stamp. The spinster sisters who ran the pharmacy would hand them out in small perforated units, one tenth of a stamp for each dollar spent. As the pharmacy was the only place in town that handed out Gold Stamps, you can tell it would take quite some time to fill a book for merchandise.

Nonetheless, over the years, the stamps would accumulate in the kitchen drawer that held the boxes of matches and screw drivers. Sometimes, if someone had a particularly bad head cold, a long confetti like string of gold stamps would appear in the drawer as a reward of some kind. Talk about recognizing fool's gold, but I would say it couldn’t help but make you feel rich. I would find myself opening the drawer and running my fingers through the strands of trading stamps like a miser allowing gold coins to run through his fingers but only to occasionally amuse whoever was in the kitchen at the time.

Frank happened to show up the day my sister had a sponge and a little bowl of water and was attempting to fill a Gold Stamp book. He sat at the table in the kitchen with her and looked through the catalog at some of the merchandise the company was offering. If you think the stamps were second rate imitations of S&H Green Stamps, you should have seen some of the items in the catalog. I began a stamp collection, I had a couple Gold Bond, a spread of four S&H Green Stamps, and a big strip of Blue Chip. Blue Chip stamps had just been invented and were being given out double or triple the amount to lure people into the new supermarket on Foothill. That was my stamp collection.

We had one taxi-cab providing service in a one stoplight town and an older semi-retired guy on a bicycle made the pharmacy deliveries. My mother would often complain, "This damn one horse town."

If you go to the Running Greeting Card Studio Hall of Fame, they are now located in Morgan Hill, California, you might see some of Frank Zappa's greeting card art. Maybe they have his Valentine card, an S&H Green stamp on the cover and when you opened the card, it said "Redeemable for one kiss."

Or maybe the next one in the series.

Elementary Things

I remembered the town I grew up in as a small, civilized place with several drugstores, a feed store, a soda fountain, small bookstores, and a Christian Science Reading Room. It was more of a village than a town. We had only one traffic light. There was big water tower by the train tracks.

Years before we moved there, a young man had either climbed to the top of the tall tower or had found a tall ladder someplace else and painted in large letters on the tower, "John Loves Mary."

The owner of the water tower, though he didn’t know who had done this, decided he didn't mind such a sentiment and left it alone. I rode past that water tower almost every day on my bicycle. It was something of a town landmark, and was visible from the windows of the passing trains, too.

Years later, the tower had suffered from the corrosive effects of time and was in need of some fixing up. The city fathers were on the case. So the owner of the tower bit the bullet and put out some hard earned cash for paint, and the bright white newly painted water tower dazzled in the sunshine. Until one morning the town awoke to see a new message painted on the tower, "He Still Does." That was my earliest understanding of what love might be.

I don’t believe it was Frank who immortalized that in greeting card format. The front was a drawing of the water tower with "John Loves Mary" on the tower, with a little white cloud passing overhead and a few little check marks that were supposed to be birds flying. Inside, a drawing of the same tower saying "He Still Does". This card had popular local appeal. We all knew the story because we'd lived with it for years. I liked it.

You couldn't help but be exposed to odd songs that had found their way on to California radio. The most notable for me at that time was one that barely had lyrics and was performed with a raw skill by an East Coast band. The title said it all, "I’ve Had It" (a big hit in 1959 by the Bell Notes). Listen to these lyrics:

When I saw her on the corner,
Then I knew that I was a goner
I've had it, Yeah, I've had it

La-la la la la la-la la la la la
La-la la la la la-la la la la la
La-la la la la
La-la la la la
I've had it!

(A few years later, in a place known as Berkeley, Country Joe McDonald wrote a song called "The Masked Marauder", which in turned inspired a group by that name. The lyrics to that song are strangely similar to "I've Had It" if you ever happen to put them in a column side by side. Actually, they’re exactly the same and probably plagarized ver batim from a lyric sheet:

La-la la la la la-la la la la la
La-la la la la la-la la la la la
La-la la la la
La-la la la la

The words are the same, but the notes have been changed to protect the innocent. Oh, just kidding of course ....

Frank liked odd words like la-la, like the flip side of my Ace record that Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns had recorded, "Tell Me, Chicky Wa Wa, What You Gonna Do?" He especially enjoyed the B-side title of a new record I’d gotten, "Chicka Chicka Honey" and would pronounce it in a serious disbelieving tone.

Well, in the real world, I saw Don here and there in Arcata a few years back and I didn't say hello, because I never really knew him. I saw Joe at a picnic in Washington state a handful of years back and I did say hello. And sometime I will likely tell you how I first met Joe near the intersection of Telegraph and Oregon Street in 1964 and my conversation later that evening with the fella who would become his manager about Frank Zappa and more or less exactly what was said. And obviously Joe was something of a fellow traveler, as he then obviously liked words like la-la, too. I mean these were the days of the old fish house and the trouthouse, and so on.

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