Monday, January 03, 2011

(This sitar business with Kenny and all the things we'd talk about back then reminded me of an old blog post I made in 2005. But it has to do with Ravi Shankar and sitars very early on, 1961 or so.)

Frank Zappa's Travels into the Future

I hate trying to do this blog sometimes.

Do you notice, as I do, when you take a look for music in the major press most days they're just discussing stock options for technologies and i-pods and stuff? Over brunch today, a friend suggested I might be interested an upcoming geekfest. And why not? The modern world seems to be completely head-over-heels in love with technology, and that infatuation has just grown over time. But that impending brainfest for young supergeeks just reminded me (and you knew it would, didn't you?) of another tech-fest I attended, a long time ago.

Imagine the times as they were then. This is going to be about a car trip on the weekend. Back when gas was less than a quarter a gallon, and in times when parents willingly acted as chauffeurs for their offspring and their friends. A family outing in the family car, and nearly every family has memories of these.

One weekend, my sister and her friend encouraged my dad to come along and see the sorts of things that interested them ("them" meaning, really, her friend, Frank Zappa, the budding musician.) Turnabout is fair play, and Frank had previously joined us for one of the great expeditions of that year's summer, a family adventure involving transport on a luxury liner steaming through Pacific waters, all twenty-six miles across the sea to Santa Catalina Island, "the poor man's Hawaii." On that voyage, the dolphins and flying fish sometimes joined in and seemed to race the bow wake. And once the vessel arrived at the docks, the island boys would dive for coins tossed by passengers waiting to debark.

We were going someplace else, not to the ocean this time, and I was invited along. We drove far across the prairies and into the heat of the summer day. In these distant times I am speaking of, air-conditioning in automobiles was newfangled and thus prohibitively expensive, and a luxury afforded only by those who had the means to purchase a new Cadillac. Everyone else drove with the windows cranked all the way down, allowing the winds not buffeted aside by the wind wings to whip through the car. The radio would have been hard to hear because of the wind.

As the heat beat down and the distances extended, the sparse opposing traffic was sometimes fast approaching, other times barely seemed in motion, like a slow-moving mirage. The oncoming dusty cars looking like the sturdiest of pioneers, wearing canvas canteens slung across their radiators. We slipped past hot desert townlets. We whisked through deserted townlets. We seemed to pause to reflect as we passed sleepy Loma Linda, a small place filled now with Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarians by religious conviction, the same place where once a young quaker boy named Richard Nixon was obliged to work in the family's butcher shop. We roared past signs saying "Ruby-doo", and all the way into distant San Berdoo.

It was there, at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds, where the residents celebrated seasonally with their own Orange Fair, that we all stared the future straight in the eye. We were headed to a showcase of stereophonica, a strange place where art and science converged and intersected.

Why I put so much description in the opening paragraphs is because I really don't remember too much of what went on at this exhibition, being as young as I was, and with everyone's attention focused on the displays and exhibits.

Anyway, I do recall one pavillion's event. A billowy tent had been erected inside an exhibition hall and an immense, overlarge wooden speaker was suspended down from the ceiling. Stereophonica replete with woofers, subwoofers, and crossovers and tweeters, and cones, oh my, and exotic music from other countries was being broadcast to the people seated in the folding chairs. All we needed to make the experience really complete was a pair of green-and-red glasses to wear while now listening to recorded music that finally sounded full and completely three-dimensional. The music I heard that day was my first introduction to Ravi Shankar, but it was the drums I listened to the most, as I'd never heard hand drumming before, or not like that, (aside from the relatively sharp sound of bongos.)

There was a small table off to one side of the foyer that offered a small selection of connoisseur records on audiophile labels sporting exotic names like World Pacific and HiFi (short for "High Fidelity", then considered the epitome of audio experience). While Hi-Fi Records offered better known artists like Arthur Lyman, World Pacific seemed a little different, recordings of rather obscure musicians from faraway places and with a bit more ethnic flavor it seemed. And the records there were pricey by the everyday standard. When albums in stores cost between two and three dollars, the one I was holding in my hands was five big ones. (I had to borrow some money from my family to get the first dazzling jazz LP I ever purchased, Richie Kamuca's "West Coast Jazz in HiFi".)

Frank got a couple of records, too, a real extravagance on his part (truthfully, it was a real extravagance on everyone's part -- this was when gasoline was less than twenty-five cents a gallon, remember -- and my family members were most reluctant to part with even a loan). So he bought two records, but I can't remember what they were. The HiFi company seemed a bit fussy about their product. The engineers concerned with public wellbeing suspected the cardboard album covers might scratch the vinyl during shipping, so inside, the record was sealed into and nestled in a soft protective plastic bag rather than the usual paper sleeve. You had to open the bag with scissors.

It wasn't until I was much older that I learned people at that time generally thought anyone who listened to jazz (even on jazz records) as being a weirdo. Although, I had one friend who told me years after the fact that she thought my listening to jazz way back then meant I was cool. I had never so much as suspected that before, and I'm not too sure I believe it now.

Anyway, World Pacific eventually provided the easy-listening (Bud Shank sound, kind-of) soundtrack to some Bruce Brown surfing movies, so I got to hear lots of that music in the auditoriums, too. This was back in the days when Bruce would provide the soundtrack music from a reel-to-reel tape recorder he'd brought along for the occasion, and he'd push the button at the appropriate moment, while other times during the feature he would narrate live, his voice amplified by a handheld microphone, his script illuminated with the aid of a flashlight he'd also have to hold, or sometimes a subdued gooseneck lamp. All these technical assist items seemed quite low-tech like they had been pulled from the shelves of the audio-visual department of whatever high school he was showing his film at.

And while Ravi Shankar still may not exactly be a household name, many people by now have heard of him, though I'm sorry to say I can't recall the name of his drummer of the time. Though Richie Kamuca has not exactly gone down in history, I still think that an exceptionally fine record of West Coast jazz. And even those Arthur Lyman records seem to have made an influence on people, because a few of the dance tunes he covered ("Hava Nagila" and "Miserlou") made their way into Dick Dale's surf guitar repertoire, although I don't know for sure the real influences there and that may be stretching a point.

And Zappa, a lot of people are familiar with his name and reputation. I have since heard he eventually went on to do a little work with some of the World Pacific jazz musicians he was drawn to (he obviously continued following the label and their offerings) and surf music since has become rather well known. And all gaining renown from such humble and amateurish beginnings.

So that's how it was. We couldn't afford a Cadillac with air-conditioning, and stereo equipment (unless you built it at home yourself) was horrendously out-of-reach, too. And truth is maybe some of us still can't afford those things. Yet somehow, with a little ingenuity, people managed to make do with what they had.

I was going to try to write a little bit about community here, but I think you may have got the drift. Frank at that time was just another friend in town. And this would have been a fairly generic version of things I did last summer except for his famous name.

You know, I probably should have waited to write about this, as the recounting seems the equivalent of a black and white photograph viewed in a technicolor world. But some memories are like that. As to why I wrote about this today, I dunno, I guess I figured somebody other than me one day might be interested in the swirl of influences. I mean, basically, on the surface of things, all that happened is we had driven 35, 40 miles just to listen to somebody play us a record.

And as to the influences and local color thereabouts, look at a book review over on Amazon, one I wrote awhile back. I was going to recommend getting the book, "Cruising the Pomona Valley, 1930-1970", but in just a few years it's OOP and an expensive collector's edition already. Anyway, Phoenix looked back at the vicinity, a geography where many things offered locally were touted as the World's Most Superlative Anythings. If that happens to remind you, as it did me, of a "cult classic" movie title recently referenced here, that surely must be the most amazing coincidence. And while the story line (as I read it in the article) at first seemed loosely based on an improbable real life character in our environs who was talked about in shushed tones in our geographical radius, um, I dunno, really -- all those radio and tv evangelists sometimes seem to have gone to the same school or something.

Before I forget, and as an historic aside, Frank, as a young man hard strapped for cash, put a couple of those puppets he'd help make up for sale at Raku, the local arts store. The puppets had elegant hand-printed price tags affixed with slender black ribbons and I only recall seeing his name as the artist.

That's all I can remember about that summer. Though maybe next time I will tell you about Frank's adventures working at the local greeting card factory, if I can dredge up some colorful anecdotes that is. I could call him a printer's devil and really try to spice it up somehow. Or I could tell you about a boy I knew who grew up to be a poet laureate here in the United States. Which story do you think you would you rather hear? (I think I knew Frank better, so that might be slightly more interesting, you know).

(update 7/4/05 "OOP" and an expensive collector's edition per the major online retailer. The good news really is: if you want a copy of "Cruising the Pomona Valley 1930-1970", get directly in touch with the author and get one straight from him. Jump to Charles Phoenix from here.)

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