Frank Zappa stared at me, “Can you read my charts?”
by Russell Buddy Helm all rights reserved copyright 2013
Frank Zappa stared at me, “Can you read my charts?”
“I’ve read psychotic charts before.” I responded with an unintentional snarl.
Frank looked shocked, and a little scared. People did not insult him. “Well, I prefer rock n roll.” he said defensively. “Me too.” I answered mutely.
Aspergers Syndrome was not discovered yet. Being rude was accepted behavior for a drummer, if they were good. But the mood in Frank’s big playset studio had turned sour. Ralph, the sweetest and best jazz drummer had stormed out. I had asked him why, as he jammed his shell tom toms into their cloth travel cases.
“Frank and I… don’t…get…along!…” was all he could utter.
Jean Luc was throwing a sulking fit. George was trying to smile and get along. Ruth was just ignoring the melodrama. I was sitting at the kit looking at the charts for ‘Overnight Sensation’ and trying to focus on the notes but they kept moving around. I recognized one of the time signatures, 9/4. I was trained for this, but I was having some kind of stress reaction. I had had them before. Like when the CIA tried to recruit me when I was nineteen years old. They wanted to control me. They wanted to use me. I was feeling the same way about Frank Zappa. He was a total control freak.
Peggy, my self appointed LA manager from Coconut Grove had asked me, “You want to play with Frank Zappa?” I said sure. Why not. My music career was over. The Bethlehem Asylum was gone. I was going to go back to art school and paint. That would help me pay for tuition. Duh…
“Sing it more Black.” Frank instructed the white singer. For some reason that hit me wrong. In Macon, Georgia, that might have gotten him a broken nose. I was spoiled, listening to Duane Allman night after night, everything else pales, including some one as good as Frank. I missed Charlie’s saxophone and Christian’s excellent voodoo piano skills. George Duke is no slouch but there was a mystical quality that I wanted; something with more heart in it. We took a break. Everyone stood around silent, waiting for Frank’s next pronouncement. I decided to change the mood of the Mothers of Invention rehearsal. I kicked in with a funk groove, something that everyone could enjoy. George smiled and dropped in a chord pattern that was like Quincy. Everyone started playing, even Jean Luc got up and sliced off some tasty licks on electric violin. Frank had no choice, he had to get in the groove or be totally lame. He played for awhile. Everyone started to relax. I had hijacked the greatest band in LA. Then Frank stood up abruptly, waved his hand in the air and shouted.
“That’s enough! Stop! OK! Ten Minute Break! Frank’s gotta take a shit!”
Everyone stopped playing. Even George. I watched Frank unstrap his Les Paul, hand it off, without looking, to his hovering valet/roadie and swagger across the huge soundstage to the bathroom. Everyone sat there silently and watched while Frank locked himself in the bathroom, unzipped his jeans and farted.
Something snapped inside my twenty two year old head. I had to get out of there, right now.
Before I knew what I was doing, I had launched myself across the soundstage and was pounding on the bathroom door.
“What!!!” Frank yelled through the thin door.
“Frank! It’s Buddy!” I yelled through the door. ” I gotta go!”
There was a pause. Then a reluctant pissed off retort, “Okay, I’ll be right out!”
I was in a daze, a fog of desperate apprehension. I watched myself pounding on the door again. He screamed, “What!!!”
“Frank’s! It’s Buddy. I really gotta go.” I heard myself saying.
“OK, OK Godammit!” I heard his belt buckle and zipper. I pounded on the door again.
“!!!Alright! Alright!!” He screamed.
I got up close to the door so he would hear me.
I walked out of the sound stage.
Walking down the narrow hall of Bizarre/straight records toward the front, Sunset Blvd, sunlight, fresh air, felt like a Roman Polanski movie. The walls were getting closer, diminishing to a narrow crack in the front of the building where a young man slouched against the wall outside the manager’s closed office door. I finally arrived at the end of the long shrinking tunnel hallway. I stood next to the young guy, waiting in line to see Herb. I was in an altered, paranoid state, just from trying to drum with Frank. No drugs. He hated drugs. He couldn’t control people who were high.
The young man looked over at me and said, “What did they send you to the principal for?” I was suddenly in high school again, and this was a guy who could be in my band.
“I can’t work with Frank.” I said still in shock.
He cackled out loud. His eyes lit up with glee and a big toothy grin opened up, “NOBODY can work with Frank!” He laughed. When he finally settled down he said,
“What do you play?”
“I need a drummer.”
“Who are you?”
He looked hurt but took it like a man. “Tim Buckley.'”
” I heard greetings from LA. I liked it. Salsa. You’re much taller on record.”
He winced again. “Thanks. Where are you from?”
His eyes opened wide, he stood up straight and asked me in the most sincere voice I had heard in LA,
“How is Fred Neil?”