BILL GUBBINS

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One of the many great things about running this website is the fact that strangers approach me about their amazing Zappa doo-dads. One such is Bill Gubbins, who quickly became a firm friend. Bill is co-author of The Hot Rats Book: A Fifty-Year Retrospective of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, who was invited to witness sessions for the album. With his tome about to hit a bookshelf near you, I asked him a few questions.

I can’t believe it’s over five years since you told me you were hoping to publish your never-before-seen photos from Frank’s Hot Rats sessions. I can’t even remember what – if any – advice I may have given you. Tell me about the gestation of this project.
In a way, it started with you, Andrew – and that’s not said lightly nor as a casual comment.
    You were the first person out of my orb – and certainly the first person with Zappa knowledge and credibility – who said, “Hey, these aren’t bad.”
   
Actually, I believe, if memory serves, you did hook me up with a publisher or two, one of which was very interested in publishing the Hot Rats photos, but we could never quite agree on terms.

Yes, that’s right!
    So, first of all, if appropriate in this context, thank you, Andrew – not just for this, but for all your help and support during the five years it took for this to all come together. Your role was not insignificant.

I’m blushing!
    Now, to the gestation…
    The Zappa Hot Rats photos had been sitting in a safety deposit box for many years, and in the fall of 2014, I finally had them scanned at Chromatics, a great Nashville photo house.
    Even though they were low resolution, they looked good enough – and there were enough of them – to consider putting together a book prototype. Or, as they say in the trade, a book maquette.
    I had it put together by spring 2015 and then began shopping it around.
    To which I received zero – and I mean zuh-eeero – interest.
    Which really surprised me because, as a Zappa fan, I’d buy new stuff like this every day if it were out there, right?

Absolutely!
    So I put it aside and began working on other projects, including The Sound Theater: a music venue for recorded music – as if you were listening in the control room of Abbey Road.
    Then Meat Light – The Uncle Meat Project/Object Audio Documentary came out and I was so blown away I wrote Joe Travers a fan email in the fall of 2017 and damn if he didn’t get back to me. So I figured, why not? I sent him the proto – I mean, maquette. He liked it, forwarded it to Ahmet, who sent a nice email about the pictures and invited me to say hello if I was ever in Los Angeles. And in March of 2018, we met and decided to work together. Ahmet is a very, very creative guy in his own right, and has enough energy to not just light meat, but the entire city of Los Angeles.
    And he did what I couldn’t: get a book deal for the project, for which I’ll always be in his debt.
    It was also fun working with him on the book-length interview; he got off some lines that were so funny – and contextually clever – they blew my post-teenage mind.
    And there you have it, “The Ballad of The Hot Rats Book”.

I am very excited to see the final product.
    So, going back to the beginning – and the summer of 69: how on earth did you get to be in the studio with Frank to take these photos? You weren’t a known photographer then?
To be clear, Frank’s invitation had nothing to do with me in the role of ‘photographer’, because I simply wasn’t one – nor was I expected to be.
    I fetished all the album and magazine credits, so I was well aware that a photographer back then was somebody like Baron Wolman, Linda Eastman, Jim Marshall, Art Kane, and the like.
    Frank’s photographer at the time was Ed Caraeff, whose work blew me away, even his pre-Frank stuff like his photo of Jimi Hendrix and the flaming guitar from the Monterey Pop Festival. That shot alone is worthy of a Master’s Thesis, even just on its technical merits – and Ed was no older than I was.
    I just had the camera, everyone seemed okay with it, so I shot. Or, really, snap-shot. But since I did have photographer ambitions, I remember thinking in terms of ‘coverage’, as in a Eugene Smith photo essay in Life magazine. You know, did I have a wide ‘master shot’ of the control room, a ‘master shot’ of the studio, a ‘medium shot’ of Frank and Ian, and then ‘close-ups’ of Frank and Ian, etcetera, etcetera. The standard magazine photo-essay format of the day.
    Look, if you had no musical talent, yet wanted to be part of the music that moved you, being a ‘photographer’ was as good an entry point as any (had I known the term, I’m sure ‘road manager’ would have appealed to me, as well).
    The David Hemmings Blowup character (based on ‘swinging London’ photographer David Bailey, of course) was also an influential genre archetype – though not one worthy of emulation, even then.

There was a nice nod to that character in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me though!
    So how exactly did you get your foot in Frank’s door?

    The journey from a tiny boarding-house room in Bowling Green, Ohio (directly south of Detroit, by the way) to my seat next to Frank Zappa in the Whitney Studio control room in LA – Glendale, to be exact – started with the simple act of buying tickets to the August 10, 1969 show of the Mothers of Invention just outside of Cleveland at a big tent – literally – called Musicarnival.
    Don’t ask me why, but once the tickets were procured, I became convinced that I should try to interview the aforementioned Mr. Z while I was there. Ah, youth, yes?
    This pipe dream started getting real when we arrived at the venue and, to my utter shock, I saw Frank, alone and unrecognized, buying his own coffee at the venue concession stand. (Imagine such a thing today, boys and girls.)
    Summoning up all my courage, I walked up and introduced myself to Frank, asked for the interview, to which he – what? – agreed, inviting me to the post-show presser. There I ended up giving him a ride back to his motel in an electric-blue, 1964 Dodge Polara, and from that procured an invitation to formally interview him the next day at the motel (the Mothers had a day off). That went well enough that Frank then invited me to come to LA and stay with him two weeks hence and watch the Hot Rats sessions.
    And, yes, affirmative: I discorporated many times during the experience!

I bet! You told me that on arrival at Chez Zappa, Janet Ferguson answered the door and asked, “What the fuck do you want?”
The persistence of memory, Andrew, the persistence of memory…
    While it is possible Ms. Fergey used the word ‘fuck’, it is also possible she did not.
    However, either way, she said it with her EYES, so I feel comfortable with the assertion.

So what do you think Frank saw in this dorkish teenage fan-boy to grant such access?
Of this I have always wondered myself. And I don’t have any conclusive answer, but will offer the following hypothesis, using the Cleveland post-show press conference as an example.
    At the conference, he was asked about everything BUT his music: politics, drugs, obscenity, revolution, etcetera, by people who probably hadn’t really listened to most of it. Nothing against that, but I was the only one who asked him about his music and, it was clear, had really listened to it.
    Another important point about Frank, one that’s not mentioned much, is that he was a world-class TEACHER.
    I mean, if he could teach Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black how to play 12-tone music he probably could have taught Donald Trump how to be honest, right?
(laughs)
    And my interest, in a sense, was in having him ‘teach’ me about his music and his art, not his views on politics or drugs or obscenity or whatever.
    Just to have a conversation with him – about anything – was incredible simply because his knowledge base was as wide as it was deep. An example, if I may.
    Here’s a story that’s not in the book: when I was at the house, I asked him about electronic music and its influence on his work.
    And he responded with, in effect, a graduate-level tutorial on its history, leading practitioners, and its influence on him and his work. And it’s just the two of us and I’m soaking in every word.
    To give you an idea how wide his knowledge was, to this instant, I can remember him telling me about Tod Dockstader, and describing, in wonderful detail, a 1963 Dockstader composition called Water Music.
    Now, Andrew, Tod Dockstader is obscure today: he was a guy in Colorado – a professor, I think – who put out his compositions on Owl Records, certainly a DIY label if there ever was one.
    Given Frank’s level of study, sure he’d know about the usual avant-guard music suspects – Stravinsky, Varese, Webern, Schoenberg – but to know about Tod Dockstader?!?
    And Frank was so incredibly articulate that when he talked about the piece, you could actually hear it.
    In fact, Dockstader was so obscure that it took me a couple of years to find the records Frank told me about. And when I listened to them, they were exactly as Frank described.
    So maybe it was as simple as having someone to talk to who was as interested in that stuff as he was.
    And I was pretty low maintenance and clearly didn’t have any agenda other than simply being there – and being curious about him and his music.

I guess I’m looking at the situation through 21st century eyes, where such photos might be tagged and all over Instagram by teatime. Did Frank ever actually see any of your snaps?
I know he saw the Cleveland photos, because he asked for some copies.
    I think – think – I sent him proofs of the studio photos, but I’m not 100% sure.

Okay. Tell me about the Cleveland photos.
So we arrive at Musicarnival and are blown away that the members of the band are hanging out with the paying customers. What?! So I began shooting Don Preston and Motorhead, who were doing a Super 8mm movie on the lawn area near the concession stand.
    I figured if they’re there, maybe Frank would be there. He was, and I kept shooting.

Did you manage to shoot the Mothers anywhere else?
So we drove Frank back to the Highlander Inn, where they were staying, then he invited me back the next day to hang out with everyone because they had a day off. So I shot there as well.
    The only other shots that weren’t Frank were at Sunset Sound – of Don Preston reading documents about the break-up of the group.
    I got a few off, but it was clearly a private moment, so I headed out to Sunset Strip.

And did you exit Frank’s orbit as swiftly as you entered it?
Yes. I sent him a thank you note and he sent me a nice letter back. Then that was it.

You didn’t have any further contact with him?
I met him again twice on Mothers’ tours. Once in Columbus and once in Toledo – did an interview from that’s still floating around on the Internet.[i] That be it.

Well, that’s pretty sweet: me ‘n a friend tried to get an interview with Frank when he visited the UK in 1991, but that sadly didn’t happen.
    Back to the studio sessions: did you photograph anyone else there?
Just Ian and Frank, except quick shots of engineers Dick Kunc and Brian Ingoldsby.

Can you recall any specific track you heard being recorded.
The only tracks I didn’t hear any recording of were Willie The Pimp and The Gumbo Variations.

What did you think when you heard the final album?
I loved it, but was surprised that Peaches was shorter than what I heard. Which is why I’m as excited to hear The Hot Rats Sessions as anybody else: I can’t wait to hear the original full-length Peaches.

Yes – that’ll be awesome. I understand The Hot Rats Sessions box includes some of your photos, as well as some by Andee Natahanson?
    You previously exhibited a selection of your photos at Zappanale, and we have this amazing book out soon. Are there any more of your snaps of Frank and the Mothers that we won’t get to see?

Every even remotely good photo is in the book – so no sequel to this one.

Okay. What I’ve seen of your photos are astonishing, and I can’t wait to see the final book. Thanks for your time and your friendship, Bill. Take care.

***

AHMET ZAPPA

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Ahmet co-authored The Hot Rats Book with Bill and answered a few more questions for me.

Ahmet, what was your reaction when you first saw Bill’s photos?
I was obsessed. It was like eating tacos for the first time, and I think we can all agree that tacos are the prince of foods.

And muffins, of course.
    Aside from the forthcoming nuggety goodness contained in The Hot Rats Sessions box aside, was the Zappa Trust able to unearth any other goodies for Bill’s book?
There weren’t additions necessary because Bill’s story and his photographs are what’s incredible about this moment in time.

Cool. And were you able to secure any useful insights from any of the other musicians involved – especially Ian Underwood, whose contribution to the album is immense.
I absolutely did, and I hope others will as well when they read the book.

I can’t wait to do just that!
    Finally, is the Trust actively trying to get back the iconic Gibson Gold-Top guitar Frank used on the album that is thought to have been ‘liberated’ by a ne’er do well at the Amougies festival?
It would be awesome if the thief who stole it would do the right thing and return our stolen property because it’s a pretty awesome guitar.

***

Photo of Frank and Bill in the bathroom at 7885 Woodrow Wilson Drive, courtesy of Bill. Photo of Ahmet sketching backstage at The London Palladium taken by John Campbell on 14 May 2019. For more Hot Rats at 50 wonderment, go here.

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[i] Bill’s ‘Conversation With Frank Zappa’ appeared in the May 1974 edition of Exit magazine. A transcript can be read here: https://www.afka.net/Articles/1974-05_Exit.htm