Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black dead

"If you're a musician, play my music. 
If you're not a musician, play my music."--Frank Zappa

Siegsdorf, Germany--As you might imagine, I'm a fan of the music of the late Frank Zappa. Jimmy Carl Black was the first Mothers of Invention drummer from 1964 to 1969, with occasional cameo appearances on Zappa albums into the early-1980s. But something happened after that that caused a rift between the former Mothers (Zappa disbanded the original lineup in 1969 due thanks to no money coming in).

Money--and artistic credit--are many of the complaints of former Mothers alumni raised against the late musician and composer. Even Captain Beefheart claimed he'd been ripped-off by Zappa when he was an artist on Bizarre/Straight records, though this is debatable. Both Frank Zappa and his widow Gail barred Mothers alumni band "the Grandmothers" (Black was a member) from playing any of the songs they performed with the original lineup, including a ban on the name "Grandmothers, and were even banned from playing parts that they had authored in the first place.

The Zappa Family Trust is apparently getting very vigorous lately in banning others from doing cover versions of any Zappa music, which is odd considering some of his own last wishes were that people play his music after his death.

It's all a strange attitude considering that the Mothers were a very improvisational band, and it cuts-to-the-core issues of copyright law and the concept of authorship. Frank Zappa was a mixed-bag as a person: a countercultural icon and outlaw mixed with a 19th century attitude of proprietary capitalist ownership. Kind of like a bitter old shopkeeper. But it's been Gail Zappa and and an army of lawyers who have been running the business affairs of "Zappa Inc." since as early as the 1970s. Zappa tended to sign the checks, makes some calls, and write the music from that time until his death. So, was it all him, some of him, or him and Gail who "ripped-off" the ex-Mothers? There don't appear to be any clear answers, but who made most of the money?

Jimmy Carl Black and several other former bandmates of Zappa's have asserted over the years that their contributions to the late-composer's early rock oeuvre have been overlooked and that they've rarely been paid anything for them. For many of us Frank Zappa fans, this is disappointing, but not unexpected.

Along with the Velvet Underground, the Mothers of Invention were one of the most influential avante-garde rock groups of the 1960s. Jimmy Carl Black is to the Mothers what Moe Tucker was to the Velvets, a kind of "trash-can" R&B styled drummer who was just pure magic. From all of his work on "Freak Out" (1966), to "Absolutely Free" (1967), to "We're Only in it for the Money" (1968), and all the assorted studio-outtakes that Zappa padded post-Mothers LPs with after the break-up, Black had a take on drumming that was primal and alive because it was imperfect. When something's perfect, it's dead, which could describe some of Zappa's late-catalog work.

My brother met Jimmy during the early-1990s on one of the Grandmothers/Grannies tours. He was pissing next to him after the show and remarked how incredible it must have been to play with the great Frank Zappa. "That's true," said Black, holding himself in his hands and clearly buzzed, "But the man won't let me play any of the music I used to play with him, and he won't let me make a living." What's sad is that the music was still really good coming from these guys. There should have been reunions with Zappa, but they never came. It all strikes me as stupid and sad.

Sure, Zappa had other, more technically precise drummers in his later solo-career, but none of their work had that special quality that Jimmy Carl Black and the rest of the original Mothers of Invention brought to the music, and that quality was a rawness and sincerity that lacked very much self-consciousness. Life after the Mothers has been hard for many of them, still is, and it was hard for Black.

Jimmy Carl Black, "the Indian of the group" (he was of Cheyenne ancestry), dead at 70 of cancer. May he rest in peace, and be sure to throw back a drink in his memory.

Jimmy Carl Black's website:
Zappa Family Trust-o'rama at the official website (it's much uglier than this site):