For Those Of You Who Might Not Know
To celebrate 20 years of bringing you Zappa and related news via my Idiot Bastard website, I am writing an essay each month that provides answers to some of those questions no one ever asks. Yes, I am giving you 12 FUQs (Frequently Unasked Questions) in 2020!
#10: Zappa’s Snappers
While recognising this might be akin to listening to Clare Balding rambling in the countryside with interesting people on Radio 4, this month I thought I’d take a quick look at half a dozen photographers who took some great shots of FZ.
And who better to start with than Robert Davidson (born Dundee, 15 October 1942), who took the infamous photo of Frank seated on the toilet in Room 412 at The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington? At the time, Davidson was working as the official photographer for Tony Secunda, manager of the Moody Blues, Procul Harum and The Move. Secunda was helping to promote Frank and The Mothers ahead of their first ever UK concert at the Royal Albert Hall (The Move were to do an American tour as part of a Musician’s Union exchange arrangement). So Davidson was sent along to the press call at the five-star hotel on August 16, 1967.
He recalls, “When I arrived it was a sweltering day. There were 10 photographers and 25 reporters, all in a tiny room. There was an incredible hush as Frank entered the room and sat down. Somebody put up their hand and asked a question. As the temperature increased, he said, ‘Excuse me,’ removed his shirt and carried on answering questions. I was wondering where a good location would be to shoot him. This was supposed to be for publicity, but I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. Then Frank got up and disappeared. I began to wander around the apartment looking for a place to take the pictures. Walking down the corridor, I passed an open door and heard Frank’s voice. He was speaking on the telephone. I looked in and there was Frank sitting almost stark naked on the lavatory. I thought to myself, ‘That’s just the ticket for what I’ve been sent to do.’ I knocked on the open door and said, ‘Please may I take a picture?’ So he sat there and posed. Then he got up, pulling his trousers back on. I took him sitting in the bidet, standing up and smoking a cigarette. A total of twelve shots.”
Unfortunately, Secunda couldn’t agree a deal for the photos with Frank’s manager, Herb Cohen, so Davidson instead decided to produce the ‘Zappa Krappa’ poster – which became hugely popular in the UK and elsewhere, though the snapper claims he didn’t earn a penny from it.
When Frank wasn’t happy when he found out about this, and Cohen demanded all of the negatives. Davidson duly complied.
Fast forward to the early aughts, and the then homeless Davidson sees his poster on display at the Cosmic Visions: Psychedelic Posters Of The 1960s exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Underneath it says, ‘photographer unknown’. He decides to take matters into his own hands, or else be destined “to become that bloke responsible for all manner of works of art and music: ‘Anon’”.
In March 2015 – five years after Herb Cohen’s demise and Davidson’s guest appearance at Zappanale – Spanish Zappa fan Javier Marcote told the photographer that Cohen’s estate has sold the negatives to LA memorabilia company, Rockaway Records.
“Almost half a century after I thought I had lost them forever, they came back to me. Rockaway kindly agreed to sell me the 10 surviving negatives for a token fee. Suddenly, I was able to validate myself,” says Davidson.
Davidson is stepfather to the actress Sadie Frost, and today lives in Totnes.
In May 1968, Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins went with the magazine’s Chief Photographer, Baron Wolman (born Columbus, 25 June 1937), to interview Frank at the log cabin in Laurel Canyon. Said Wolman, “Zappa wanted to do the pictures right away so he and I went out behind his house and found all these bizarre photographic situations that were both wacky and fantastic. I didn’t have to say or direct anything; he just started fooling around because he was having such a great time being Frank – performing for me and my camera without direction. We took pictures for about half an hour. Seldom did I have the subject alone for so long in advance of the sit-down. Though truthfully, his music was pretty much an unknown to me.” These photos include the famous shot of Frank on an old rusting tractor used in the Strictly Commercial ‘best of’ compilation album.
Wolman shot numerous iconic images of the likes of the GTOs, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan. Very sadly, a year ago he was given the formal diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, for which there is no cure. On 4 October 2020, he wrote on his socials, “Sad to say I’m now in the final sprint to the end. I go forward with a huge amount of gratitude for the many blessings bestowed upon me, with no regrets and appreciation for how my photographs – my life’s work – have been received.” He passed away a few days later.
Ed Caraeff (born Santa Monica, 1951) is a photographer who art directed and designed hundreds of record album covers from 1967 to 1982 for artists including Captain Beefheart, the GTOs, Ruben And The Jets, Elton John, Steely Dan and Tom Waits. His most notable photograph is probably the one of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Caraeff’s work can also be seen in the following Official Zappa Releases: Hot Rats, The Grand Wazoo, Mystery Disc, Greasy Love Songs, Finer Moments and Meat Light. He also took the photo used on the cover of Pauline Butcher’s book, Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa (an alternate version featuring Janet Ferguson amongst The Mothers can be found on the poster that came with Burnt Weeny Sandwich).
Caraeff later focused his efforts on a restaurant in Santa Monica.
Norman Seeff (born Johannesburg, 5 March 1939) is a photographer and filmmaker, who moved to the US in the late 1960s. He was soon snapping folk like Patti Smith and Andy Warhol in New York, before relocating to LA in 1971 and working for United Artists. This resulted in multiple Grammy Award nominations for graphic design. His subjects included Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, Martin Scorsese and, of course, FZ.
His images can be seen on the following Official Zappa Releases: Joe’s Garage, Baby Snakes (the ‘front‘ picture where the make-up girl’s tongue is sticking out), the I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted single and the 2012 edition of Läther.
Seeff recalls, “I remember standing six feet away from Frank and asking, ‘How far are you willing to go?’ He looked at me with a hardly hidden sneer and said, ‘Anywhere you want to go.’ So we hit him in the face with a cream pie – we ended up getting cream in his ear, and he was rather tweaked. But being Frank Zappa had committed to life as an adventure, he quickly let it go and we ended up working together frequently after that.”
Seeff was also responsible for photographing and designing the FZ-produced Grand Funk Railroad album, Good Singin’ Good Playin’. He also filmed a photo session with Frank and Moon (and the rest of the family) around the time of Valley Girl, parts of which can be seen in Alex Winter’s 2020 movie, Zappa.
Next up is John Livzey (born 15 January 1945), who took the cover photos on Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar, You Are What You Is, and the Valley Girl single (“I said, ‘Come on, cheek to cheek,’ and they got together. You can see the little pink wallet in her hand.”). He also took all of the photos in the Halloween 81 booklet.
The last time he photographed Frank was, “right before his death, for EQ Magazine. They hired me to shoot a picture of his sound guy, Spence Chrislu. Frank had these big circles around his eyes, he looked very sick; it was shocking. He went and sat down in his chair and he says, ‘Well, Mr. Livzey, YOU’RE looking pretty good these days.’ Of course, the obvious answer – and it would have been fine if I’d said it, because he had fed me the straight line – was, ‘Thanks, but you don’t look so hot.’ But I didn’t have the chutzpah to say it. He still had his sense of humour.”
And, finally… Lynn Goldsmith (born Detroit, 11 February 1948) is a recording artist (remember Kissing With Confidence by Will Powers?), film director and one of the first female rock and roll photographers. Her images adorn over 100 album covers, including Baby Snakes (the ‘back’ shot with the dangling rubber snakes) and Broadway The Hard Way. She took many other photos of Frank, including some with his family – like this one.
Goldsmith first spotted Frank walking into a New York hotel in the mid-70s, and wrote to him saying if he would give her an hour to make pictures, she would make it worth his while. He agreed, and the resulting photos ran in a number of magazines. “He trusted me from then on,” she says. During a later photo shoot, he told her he, “wanted to look like a Hollywood film director with a megaphone, a girl prop, etc. Frank was more comfortable being a funny man rather than a handsome man, but I thought he was very handsome and I wanted other people to see that.” After working for hours doing the shot he wanted, she then asked him to put on a keffiyeh which Patti Smith had given her: “He refused. He said, ‘I will not put that schmatta on my head.’ I cried, and told him I always do what he asks me and why shouldn’t he just let me make a few rolls of film with an idea I wanted to do.” Eventually he did, and the cover of Sheik Yerbouti (originally to have been called Martian Love Secrets) was born.
You can watch her talking about the session here.
Honourable mentions to: Cal Schenkel, Ed Seeman, Bill Gubbins (the Hot Rats sessions), Phil Franks (Chunga’s Revenge), Emerson-Loew (Apostrophe and more), John Williams (Bongo Fury and more), Gail Zappa (Zappa In New York), Sergio ‘Milo’ Albonico (Guitar and the 1988 tour book), and all the others who captured for posterity images of Frank’s lovely fizzog for us.
This article is dedicated to Baron Wolman.
© 2020 The Idiot Bastard
Photo of the Idiot Bastard with Robert Davidson taken at Zappanale in 2010 – probably by Uncle Ian.