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Z: my first professional gig, the big break everyone talks about and I got, the foundation upon which I built my career in Los Angeles.and one of the stranger bands ever to take to a stage and play music.
I was a member of Z from September of 1993 until January of 1996, when Mike Keneally and I left the band together. This outcome was not the desired effect of both of us wanting to spend more time dedicated to pursuing Mike's own project, Beer For Dolphins, but that was the way it happened. And the unfortunate circumstances under which we left made it difficult for me to write about my time as part of the band in any meaningful fashion.
But nearly six years have passed since then, and a lot of water has flowed under that bridge. My memories are fading slightly, and it's time to get them off my chest before they diminish any further. So, with a "pardon me" to anyone unduly offended by either the length or the content within, this is the story I've been waiting to tell for quite some time.
It was with great sadness that I said goodbye to drummer Joe Travers, my Berklee College of Music brother-in-arms, in the Fall of 1992. (As a background, I highly recommend reading the "berklee years" section of the "rap sheet.") He was heading off to Los Angeles to find fame, fortune, and a way into the good graces of the Zappa inner circle. He'd always been a Zappa freak of the most authentic nature, the kind of guy who owned every release in the catalog-over sixty in all. He'd even put on a Frank Zappa tribute show at Berklee. In his mind, it was his destiny to be a part of the Zappa universe. He even asked me to come with him, but I wasn't finished with my curriculum, and I had no intentions of going out to L.A. on a wing and a prayer like he was.
All I knew about his chances were that he worked at Tower Records in Boston, and when the Dweezil Zappa Band (as they were known in 1991) came to town for a Tower in-store appearance, Joe successfully networked Dweezil's second guitarist, a Frank Zappa band alumnus named Mike Keneally. I'd never heard of him. Joe had, and by all accounts, he made sure Mike-as well as Dweezil himself-would have a hard time forgetting who he was.
They didn't. In early 1993, when Dweezil's then-drummer Josh Freese bailed at the last minute before they were due to begin some studio work, the drum chair suddenly became available. I received several frantic phone calls from Joe around this time, the last of which was confirmation that, thanks to Keneally, he'd scored an audition for the gig.and passed it. Joe had only been in Los Angeles for six months, and now he was heading off to Europe for a summer tour of festivals and large club venues with the sons of his idol and two former Frank Zappa bandmates. It was a towering achievement.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, I was kicking myself for not going with him. The only thing I had going on was an original blues-rock band called 100 Proof, and it felt silly compared to what Joe was doing. Dweezil's bassist was the legendary Scott Thunes, Frank's "clonemeister" (read: assistant bandleader) and bassist since around 1981. This guy was as in as you could get. No way that slot was going to open up, I thought. No way.
But I started hearing stories from people who knew Joe better than I that all was not well on the road in Europe. Something weird was going on between Scott and Joe. It wasn't the first time controversy had surrounded Scott Thunes in a Zappa band. I was no Zappa freak, but I had heard things about Frank's 1988 touring band disintegrating due to a conflict involving Scott and several other band members. I neither knew nor cared who was truly to blame for that band's implosion, but apparently it became the stuff of legend among those who followed Frank's every move-and the only consistent thing I'd heard was that Scott was not someone you'd want to get in an argument with.
(EQUAL TIME: Scott Thunes has a website where he discusses this in as much detail as he cares to and not one letter more: www.geoscott.com. Check out the FAQ.)
I vaguely recall getting a phone call from Joe near the beginning of the Z Euro-Tour, and he sounded distressed. For some reason, he said, Scott had it in for him, and was raking him over the coals on a daily basis. Joe just had no idea why-all he wanted to do was go out and be the rock 'n' roll drummer he'd spent his whole life training to be. Details here are fuzzy, but that's what I recall.
I remember Joe's next phone call in vivid detail. He was furious, screaming, completely out of control. Scott had apparently gotten in his face and threatened him with violence backstage in Paris. Scott was a massive 6'5" and 220 pounds (at least), a physical menace any time he wished to be. Joe was six feet tall and 160 pounds dripping wet. It must not have been fun for him. He was yelling, in a voice trembling with anger: "There's a tape you need to learn. You just get ready."
I remember feeling very, very sorry for Joe. If there was going to be some kind of eruption in this band between members, I couldn't see how Joe was going to come out on top in a struggle with ten-year-Zappa-veteran Scott Thunes. At the same time, I wasn't oblivious to the tremendous opportunity potentially heading my way.
I made the necessary call and got the tape. It was a yet-to-be-released album called Shampoohorn. The songs weren't too difficult, but there were a lot of them. The title track was a tricky instrumental, but I thought I could handle it. I didn't begin learning it until the second week in July of 1993, when Dweezil himself called me from Europe. He explained that, yes, there were problems with Scott, but he was an incredible bassist and the only one he'd ever played with. Bottom line: he was open to the possibility of replacing Scott with the right guy, but that guy would really have to be right. Was I interested in an audition? It just so happened that I was due to visit Los Angeles in late July anyway, to do some work for Berklee's 5-day program in Claremont, CA. I offered to come out a week early so I could give it a shot.
Thus began one of the most stressful months of my life. As noted in the "berklee years" section of the rap sheet, I was due to leave Boston for New York City with 100 Proof in less than six weeks. I was about to step into an awkward situation involving one of my best friends and some fairly notable people in the industry. And I had to get ready for my very first professional audition. Life doesn't present The Big Moments in perfect packages. This would be no exception.
* * * * *
I'd gotten the tape three weeks before my scheduled trip to Los Angeles. Now that Dweezil had called, I had two weeks to nail it.
There were two elements to the music. First, there were the strange song forms and time signatures. Dweezil's writing style was far from traditional, with short sections appearing only once, patterns changing when you least expected, and 4/4 a scarcity throughout. That was all fine; my gift was the ability to process material like that and learn it quickly. But there was another side, one that involved technical expertise. Every once in a while, he felt it necessary to throw in a 16th-note lick-or several consecutive ones-that I just couldn't play. Technique had never been my strong suit, and I'd never gotten into "shredding" all that much. But these licks were there, and I had to learn them. I practiced them to the pain threshold, cheating wherever I could, hammering-on, using open strings, skipping notes-you name the corner, I cut it.
By now the band was back in Los Angeles, and Joe called to see how I was doing. Fine, I said. Good, he said, because we're sending you another tape. Just two songs. One of them is kind of hard, the other one is this "medley" we do. Call me when you get it.
I received the tape four days before I was due to leave, and it scared the shit out of me. The "medley" Joe referred to was a twenty-minute, 200-song, rapid-fire medley of tunes from the 1970's. The "kind of hard" song was an instrumental named "Purple Guitar," a nine-minute collection of exactly the kind of 16th-note licks I had tremendous difficulty pulling off. And it was in the key of F, making it twice as hard (guitarists and bassists everywhere understand why). I called Joe and freaked out, saying I didn't really think I could play "Purple Guitar." He vehemently disagreed. I said I'd do what I could in the paltry four days I had left.
By now it was impossible to hide my preparations from my 100 Proof bandmates, and I broke the news that day. The band's leader was incredibly upset. He felt deeply betrayed. The stakes were getting higher; if I didn't get the gig, then I'd just potentially destroyed my relationship with 100 Proof for nothing. I also had a girlfriend I'd been with for the past two years. Her feelings about it were understandably mixed.
Never in my life have I practiced as much as I did in those four days. First, I spent eight hours writing down all 200 songs from the '70s medley. Then I tried to play them along with the tape. It took about ten tries before I performed a passable version. Then I did it five more times. Fifteen times, twenty minutes, plus the eight hours spent writing down the tunes-you do the math.
I spent every remaining moment I had working up "Purple Guitar." I don't know how many times I played it. The song's climactic lick-a withering combination of 16th-note triplets and 32nd-notes-was not only impossible to play, but for me, impossible to hear. This was rare. I called Joe, who instructed me to call Mike Keneally to ask him about it. This was my very first conversation with Mike, and he was quite helpful in telling me what the notes were. But I still didn't understand all of the rhythms in it, and when I asked him to explain it for the third time, he became a bit brusque and spoke slowly, as if I wasn't hearing him. I thanked him and ended the conversation quickly.
The last day came, and I still couldn't nail "Purple Guitar." I could play the medley and the songs from Shampoohorn alright, but if Dweezil was looking for perfection, I was fucked. All I could do was work as hard as I could, and as such I kept practicing right up until the moment I left for the airport.
* * * * *
I flew on a Sunday, and Dweezil called the very next day to have me over for the audition. It would be at Joe's Garage, the Zappas' private rehearsal studio. Holy shit.
When I got there, Dweezil was busy working on something in the control room. We shook hands and said hello. I felt awkward just standing there, so I brought my bass into the live rehearsal room and asked one of the techs if he could show me where I was going to set up. I am not exaggerating when I say that the stage in the main room at Joe's Garage was as big as any stage of any theater. It was simply huge. I imagined Frank's 1988 band rehearsing on the stage upon which I stood. Then I thought of Scott Thunes leading the rehearsal in Frank's absence, and quickly dashed the image from my mind. The tech had me plug into Scott's Carvin rig. That felt really wrong, but I wasn't going to say anything about it then.
Soon thereafter Joe and I began jamming, our first time since November of 1992 at my Berklee senior recital. My memory gets fuzzy here, but somehow Keneally got up onstage and started playing with us. I was understandably anxious to start playing the material I'd learned, but shouldn't we wait for Dweezil? Nope, he said. And the drilling began.
We ran through several tunes on Shampoohorn, and I did pretty well. My hands were tensing up for no reason, and I tried to calm them down but they wouldn't cooperate. Finally I started silently cursing myself, using combinations of words I hadn't thought possible. That worked much better.
I kept looking back at Joe like he was some kind of security blanket. Keneally, meanwhile, was watching my every finger movement like a hawk. I remember thinking to myself, doesn't he need to look at his fretboard while he's playing? Apparently not. He was also singing all the vocal parts. Where was Ahmet? Probably not coming, Mike said. I started to notice a stern tone in Keneally's voice. I chalked it up to the "welcome to the big time" phenomenon. I just figured that this was the way it was at this level.
Mike wasted little time in finding out if I was even close by calling the harder Shampoohorn tunes first. If I recall correctly, it only took about five songs before he cut to the chase and called "Purple Guitar." Dweezil still wasn't in the room. I thought that was the weirdest thing: this is Dweezil's band, I'm doing a private audition to potentially replace his bassist (who apparently hates his drummer), and his second guitarist is leading the evaluation? I started to realize just how much weight Keneally carried in the band.
We began "Purple Guitar," and I thought I was done for. Surely Keneally was going to catch every little flub I made, and that would be it. Dweezil wouldn't even have to come in at all. But as the tune progressed, I kept using the silent-self-cursing technique, and it was working. With every lick the tune got harder, and every time I came to one I cursed myself worse. Keneally began to smile near the end of the song.
Then Dweezil walked in. The tune had a minute left in it, but it was the hardest minute of all. The licks came and went, I smiled outwardly and cursed myself inwardly, and somehow, incredibly, I exceeded my abilities and played the section better than I ever had in practice. Dweezil had an open-mouthed smile the whole time, as if he was about to double over in laughter. When we finished, my palms were dripping sweat.
Finally Dweezil strapped on his guitar and came up onstage with us. We worked through a couple more Shampoohorn tunes, and to my extreme surprise, he couldn't remember them! He was playing riffs, stopping us in mid-song and going, "Wait a minute.oh yeah, this is how it goes.uh, yeah, let's do the first verse again." I was incredulous. Keneally never made mistakes; he may have even been more accurate than Joe, the single most accurate musician I'd ever played with. Didn't Dweezil write this material? The very thought of him not knowing his own stuff relaxed me to near normalcy.
To be fair, it didn't take him long to get back up to speed. An hour later, we played the whole '70s medley, front to back. I made it through with only one mistake. My confidence was growing. I looked back at Joe. He was ecstatic.
The audition continued over the next two days. We played nearly the entire Shampoohorn album, as well as some new material (like "Boodledang" and "Here," which eventually ended up on various versions of Music For Pets. The only time it got rough was when Dweezil was making me learn a piece called "Dinosaur" on the spot, and there were some very difficult, near-atonal consecutive licks I just couldn't get my hands around. This had never happened to me before. I was the guy who supposedly could hear and learn anything. I eventually got it, but only after a ten-minute struggle that left my face flushed with fear and embarrassment.
The social aspect of it all felt very awkward. Dweezil was very nice and cordial throughout, but he had an aloof manner to him that, being a Jersey guy, I just didn't get right away. Keneally was an aggressive, quick-witted quipmaster, one who didn't suffer fools gladly, and I became careful to watch my words around him. And Ahmet never showed up for any of it. Wasn't he in the band?
By Thursday night, I began to worry that something was wrong. I only had two more days before I had to start working for Berklee, and Dweezil knew it. I'd been performing fairly well in my own self-critical mind, but was something else at play? Did Scott find out or something?
My fears were put to rest just before midnight on Thursday, July 22, 1993, when Dweezil called Joe's place and asked for me. He wanted to know if I planned on moving to Los Angeles. "Well," I exclaimed, "if I have the gig, yeah!" He went on to say they had a busy schedule coming up in September, and it was important that I get out to L.A. as soon as possible-say, no later than the end of August. I agreed. Some more seemingly minute details were discussed without a definitive answer. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore, and I blurted out, "So, is this it? Do I call my parents and tell them that I'm moving, that I passed the audition, that I got the gig?"
"If that's what you want to do, go ahead. You're the guy."
was 3:00 AM back in New Jersey, but that's exactly what I did: I called
my parents, woke them up, and told them that I was moving to Los Angeles.
It takes less time to destroy than create, and in a short two weeks
I left the band 100 Proof, left my girlfriend, and left the east coast
* * * * *
When I began working with Z in mid-September, I learned a few things that made my Big Life Transition even more unsettling than I'd anticipated.
First, I found out that Mike Keneally and Scott Thunes were actually very close friends. Scott's release from his obligation to Z was performed via a phone call from Dweezil, and after so many years in service of the Zappas, I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant moment for either of them. I was mercifully spared the details. But Mike was especially unhappy about Scott no longer being in the band, and though I didn't recognize it as such then, he took it out on me from time to time. I just assumed he was quick and conversationally rough with everyone. I was 23 years old-what the hell did I know from band politics? In truth, it wasn't nearly the kind of abuse Joe had reportedly taken from Scott on a regular basis, but something was going on-something Mike copped to years later.
Mike was a different guy in those days. The story that best illustrates just how much: Joe went out to dinner one night with his roommate and Mike. When the food came and Joe's roommate asked what Mike was about to eat, he replied, "Don't concern yourself with my food." Really.
Then, the bombshell second thing I learned: Frank was dying, and fast.
The prostate cancer diagnosis he'd disclosed in 1991 was catching up to him, and the vibe about it was dark. It was affecting everything we were doing. There was talk about going out on the road, but it was always off in the future. In reality, no one was going anywhere because Frank's condition was deteriorating rapidly. Soon enough I had the chance to see for myself.
It was a Zappa tradition to have "Margarita Night" every Friday night. They'd invite friends of the family up to their house in Laurel Canyon for drinks and conversation. Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and youngest sister Diva would all be there, along with Frank, Gail, and some people you've probably heard of. I went for the first time in late September of 1993-in celebration of Diva's birthday-and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous.
The house didn't look big from the outside, but inside it was tremendous-it was, as they say, deep. I found myself in Frank's den, practically clinging to Joe's arm (we went together) as I gazed at the collection of wall-mounted "ZAPPA" and "FZ" license plates he'd been sent from around the country. Going from room to room, I almost walked into a life-sized poster of Mr. Zappa. My knees almost buckled when I realized that the life-sized poster was actually Frank himself. "It's nice to meet you, Bryan." (He said he'd heard good things from Dweezil about me. It was eerily reminiscent of a wedding reception for a mafia don's daughter-and I was the husband.) It was indeed Frank, but he looked much older and grayer than before, and was sporting a long pirate's beard as opposed to his trademark goatee. The most striking thing about being around him was the aura of power. He was a very powerful person, and you felt somehow small next to him. I also felt guilty for having met him, knowing that there were tens of thousands of true Zappa freaks around the world who would have given their left nut to have been in my position.
Z worked only sporadically during this time. We recorded "In My Mind" and "My Beef Mailbox" for the American version of Shampoohorn. I also found out about this gargantuan project Dweezil was working on, a 75-minute instrumental album with the working title of What The Hell Was I Thinking? Apparently there were tracks from as far back as 1991 slated for this album, which would contain guest appearances by every famous guitarist known to man: Steve Morse, Eddie Van Halen, Albert Lee, Angus Young, Yngwie Malmsteen, Brian May.the list went on and on. One of the tracks was a trio version of the solo groove from "City Of Tiny Lights," and the players were Dweezil, Scott Thunes and Terry Bozzio. Dweezil wanted me to overdub the bass part, which I did. It was only October, and already I was on a track with Terry Bozzio. Holy shit.
I made a couple of visits up to the Zappa house in October (one of which is detailed in Act 3 of The Life Of Bryan), but when November came, everything stopped. Joe was much closer to the family than I was, and told me about visiting with Frank at his bedside in late November for a private listening of final mixes from Trance-Fusion, Frank's last self-managed release. Joe was visibly shaken; the center of his whole life was crumbling. Mike wasn't great about it either. Again, I felt guilty for even being close to it.
One day in early December, during a softball game we played with Dweezil every Sunday, the entire Zappa family minus Frank-including Dweezil, who was late-walked toward the diamond. Dweezil simply said, "Sorry I'm late-Frank died yesterday."
There were twenty of us playing, and we all just stopped in our tracks. Word hadn't gotten out to the press yet. The family had just come from a private service, and announced that they were having people over that night for a gathering. It was incredibly strange; to a person, the family seemed fine. If they weren't, they weren't showing anyone.
When we showed up at the house that evening, the scene was a cross between a party and a wake. Some corners contained quiet conversation, others raucous, riotous dialogue. The moment that summed it all up: Ahmet-who I'd gotten to know once I joined the band-burst in the front door holding two cases of beer. Everyone got quiet to see how he was faring, and then, with perfect comedic timing, he looked at the crowd like there was something wrong with them. He capped it by shrugging his shoulders and asking, "Who died?"
I gave my most sincere regrets to Dweezil, Gail and the family, walked past Drew Barrymore and Ed Begley, Jr., and left shortly thereafter. I just didn't know what to say or how to act at all.
Needless to say, we took the rest of the year off.
* * * * *
In January, official word came down that we were releasing the American version of Shampoohorn in February, and an American tour would follow in March. We started rehearsing every weekday, from around 2-7 PM. I finally saw what the band was capable of, and it was scary. Ahmet was a psychotic episode on cue, a born frontman with a booming voice and Mike Patton-like delivery and stage presence. Joe was filling the role he was born to play, executing difficult material with the flash of a Tommy Lee. Dweezil really was an incredible guitarist, especially considering he had no formal training at all, yet he was writing and playing stuff that most Berklee graduates would have a hard time with. But I quickly discovered the band's secret, and it was Mike Keneally.
The man could sing anything, play anything, hear anything.and execute it all at once, easily. My favorite part of rehearsal was watching Mike figure out new ways to parody whatever part he was supposed to be playing, or adding harmony (both vocally and on guitar) to parts where harmony didn't exist. It was no wonder Frank chose him-he was like a musical precision-guided missile, the rock band's ultimate weapon. When I finally became intrigued enough to pick up his solo album, hat, I stopped seeing him as a band member and began seeing him as a mentor. It was difficult to keep focused on Dweezil's material at times, but Mike saw to it that I was-mainly by ignoring me when, during breaks in rehearsal, I played choice licks I'd learned off his album.
That February, we had a record-release party for Shampoohorn at The Palace in Hollywood. My first, true professional gig ever. I wish my memory was better, because there were a lot of famous people there, but the only ones I remember were Kennedy, the former MTV VJ (she was friends with Dweezil), Steve Vai (who I met for the first time that night), and Gail's friend Beverly D'Angelo, who came on stage and sang an a capella torch song called "I Can't Fuck Without Falling In Love," and then proceeded to show her bare breasts to the entire audience. (Joe, being the drummer, never saw them. Poor guy.) My senses were nearing overload-and that was all before the show. Then, when we started, I realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do onstage during a rock show. It wasn't like I'd practiced my "stage presence" at Berklee. It felt wrong whenever I moved my feet, and I couldn't do it in rhythm anyway. What I really wanted to do was stand perfectly still and stare at the fretboard all night, but that felt wrong too. I had fleeting moments of feeling comfortable, and I played everything fairly accurately, but I kept waiting for it to get fun.and it never did.
But that was OK, because the next performance was going to be on live national television for The Conan O'Brien show. We'd be doing "My Beef Mailbox," complete with a 4-bar slap bass solo on fucking NBC. And the guest: David Letterman, in his first-ever return to his old set. This one was just too much for me to handle. Even self-cursing wasn't enough to get me to relax, and I ended up holding my breath for most of the song. In the bars leading up to the solo-and I've never admitted this to anyone before-I lost the '1'. The worst panic I've ever felt went racing through my legs, the kind like you're about to drive over a cliff. I almost buckled, and if it wasn't for me looking back at Joe with eyes as wide as globes and him playing the most obvious drum fill in history, I might have chumped it. Somehow I got through the solo by playing the four most reliable slap licks I knew in succession. One thing I'm sure of-I didn't breathe.
The only human moment I had that day came right before the performance began. I turned around to Joe. He was sitting behind the kit with his game face on, fully prepared to rock the country. I said, "Hey Joe-thanks for getting me this gig!" He smiled back. "You're welcome!" He then proceeded to play his ass off. Effortlessly.
* * * * *
The consecutive pressures of "first show ever" and "first national TV performance ever" were about to be followed by "first show back in Boston for Berklee students" and "first nationwide tour."
Don't get me wrong-it wasn't all scary and bad. We were traveling nicely, on a tour bus, and we stayed in very swanky hotels. I was starting to really settle into the music. I knew the medley cold, I could play "Purple Guitar" just fine, I was on Mike's side of the stage (he was even starting to be nice to me), and it was all beginning to make sense. The Boston show went really well. We played a packed house to rousing cheers, and even I had moments where I wasn't expending every ounce of energy I had just to keep up. After four shows, we coalesced as one of the scarier bands to come down the pike in quite some time.
Highlight shows for me included a gig at The Theater of The Living Arts in Philadelphia, where I finally played a concise, decent slap solo (they were making me solo every night, which to me in 1994 meant "slap as fast as you can for thirty seconds and hand it over to Joe"); the Shank Hall gig in Milwaukee, where we switched instruments (Mike on bass, me on drums, and Joe on lead vocals) for an impromptu rendition of Van Halen's "Unchained"; and Park West in Chicago, where Ahmet told the crowd to "give me all your money, suckers!"-and they obliged, throwing singles and fives onto the stage while we played "For The Love Of Money" as background music. Plus, every night Ahmet would do a sick pantomime we called "The Horsey Dance" in which he would befriend a little girl, then fuck her mercilessly from behind before shooting her in the head. Z was a silly gig, and though I never truly felt comfortable for a variety of reasons, we had a lot of fun onstage.
There were also poignant moments, like when we played "Peaches En Regalia" in New York City and Dweezil broke down onstage, grieving publicly for the loss of his father. In fact, the whole tour served as a way to get over Frank's death, both for the other members of the band and the crowds that came to see us play.
As for me, I had my challenges, as always. I didn't have my own touring gear together. Actually, I didn't have my own gear, period. It was one of those things I just didn't spend enough time thinking about back then. So when Dweezil asked me if I wanted to use a nice new rig from Peavey-his endorsement company-I said, "Sure, I'll try it." For some reason, it worked OK for the first two nights. Then, after that, I couldn't get a decent sound out of it. So I kept diddling with the EQ night after night to try and make it better.
This greatly angered both the front-of-house soundman and the guitar tech for the tour (who shall remain nameless buttheads for the duration of the story). I don't know when it happened, but somewhere along the line, these two guys simply decided they didn't like me. Either that, or I committed some "new guy" sins for which they wouldn't forgive me. (Probably a combination of both). As the days went on, they started giving me more and more shit about me "fucking with the fucking knobs all the time." This only made me want to fix the problem more, as I very much wanted them off my back. But you can't polish a turd, and this particular Peavey gear sucked dick. (Not all does; I use a PeaveyDPC1000 power amp in my rig to this day.) So I couldn't fix it, but I kept trying. And they kept getting all over me for that. And, eventually, every move I made.
One night, two weeks into the tour, I walked onstage to find the EQ knobs covered with a huge swath of black electrical tape. I angrily approached the guitar tech and asked him what was up. His reply: "Well, you couldn't make it sound good, so we fixed it for ya. It sounds good now." He shot me a "fuck you" grin. I cursed him roundly and walked away.
After the show that night, Dweezil called me onto the bus for a meeting. He said he'd learned that I'd been treating the crew badly, that I'd cursed one of the techs, and that there was no place for that kind of behavior in the band. I didn't even bother trying to explain it away. After all, this was Dweezil's tech, not mine (I had to share him with Dweezil and Mike; of course I was last priority), and I wasn't about to start another tour squabble. I was supposed to be the nice guy, the anti-Thunes, remember? Shit, if I'd known it would have caused that much trouble, I would tech-ed for myself. But at that point, all I could do was apologize, realize that I'd been rolled by a complete asshole, and swallow hard.
For me, it ruined the tour. Knowing that Dweezil was backing them, the crew was openly hostile to me from then on out. I withdrew for the last three shows, spending most of my spare time in my bunk on the bus. I could only imagine how Joe felt in Europe, having a fellow band member-a famous one, a guy that he probably looked up to in his youth-giving him the same treatment, or worse, for a period of six weeks.
* * * * *
Dweezil's plan was to get right back into the studio and start working on our next release. He was a songwriting machine, and had enough material in his head to do a whole record just as fast as we could record it. The resulting project became the Music For Pets sessions, a period spanning from April of 1994 to late 1995.
(Act 18 of The Life Of Bryan, entitled "Dissecting Pets," is the best recollection I'll ever produce of these sessions from a musical standpoint, and it would be silly to repeat all those details here. I recommend reading that and coming back here for more general storyline information through that period and beyond.)
It wasn't supposed to be that way. We actually had a finished version of the record by the Fall of 1994. The tracking had been fairly smooth, though the same techs from the tour were now working in the studio with us, and the animosity carried over. It didn't stop us from getting some remarkable stuff down on tape, and the fact that we were doing it in Frank's famous Utility Muffin Research Kitchen studio in his house made it really mean something. I very much looked forward to coming up there every day and waiting to see what new song Dweezil had in store for us.
But sometimes you don't realize you're running barefoot on gravel until somebody gives you track shoes and tells you to try it on concrete. By mid-1994, I'd finally gotten Keneally to notice that I'd fallen in love with his music-and I could play it as well. I don't know if it was him hearing me play the bassline to "Uglytown" in a Z rehearsal one day, or going on the road with Joe and I, but the Thunes-related weirdness had all but disappeared. So much so, in fact, that he asked Joe and I to record a few tracks for his upcoming sophomore release, Boil That Dust Speck.
I thought all sessions were like the Pets sessions until I went down to San Diego and tracked with Keneally. It was like a different world, a totally relaxed vibe. I could feel it in my mind, in my hands, and all over my playing. Plus, the sound I got to tape was incredible. Keneally himself was working the control board, as opposed to Dweezil's cronies (the same ones who were giving me so much shit all the time). It didn't hit me until we went back up to do more Pets work that something was awry in the vibe of the whole session.
Some of it had to do with Dweezil and Ahmet's relationship. Ahmet was only 19 when I met him, compared to Dweezil's 24. As Ahmet turned 20 and 21, you could see that he was growing tired of being Dweezil's lead singer, and wanted to do crazier and crazier things with straighter material. Sometimes he just wouldn't show up at all.
Then there were the release dates. There were delays in getting the record out in both Europe and America for different, business-related reasons which were never fully relayed to me. Every time the release got delayed, Dweezil would take us back in the studio to record more tracks. Inevitably, each group of sessions had their own sound, and when tracks from different time periods were combined in one final sequence, the album ended up sounding disjointed. This led to re-mixing and re-sequencing.until March of 1995, when Music For Pets was released in France. We even went across the Atlantic for a one-week promotional trip to Paris. It looked like things were finally getting off the ground.
And then a talked-about European tour never materialized, the American release date was pushed back, and Dweezil took us into the studio again to record more tracks for the same project. If you think we were working every day from April of 1994 to March of 1995 on recording this album, you're wrong. There were lots of days in which we did nothing. Sometimes whole weeks went by. I didn't have any other gigs, so I spent a lot of my time (a) working out, to the tune of six days a week; (b) enjoying the fruits of nightlife in L.A.; (c) taking trips into the mountains; (d) taking trips to the beach; (e) playing video hockey with Wes Wehmiller; (f) being the bassist for Mike Keneally.
In late 1994, Mike had asked me to officially become part of his band. I'd happily accepted. Honestly, it wasn't a big deal at the time. Mike played four or five gigs a year, tops, and had a record deal with a tiny independent label in San Diego. I was more proud of winning him over personally than I was aware of any potential professional ramifications it might have on my future.
Besides, I was on a salary the whole time. A small one, but a steady paycheck nonetheless. Mike was on the same one. Our deal with the Zappas was simple: we got a regular paycheck, and they had first-option control of our schedule. Basically that meant that we were free to play with other projects just so long as we were available whenever they called. Mike was already doing some other side work, but nothing that had interfered with his duties for Dweezil.
By the time May of 1995 came around and the American release of Pets was again delayed, this time until September, I finally started to get restless. You can only work out and get drunk so much.
* * * * *
Mike Keneally found a club in a seedy part of the San Fernando Valley. It was called Bourbon Square, and he'd booked himself a gig for July. The band would be Mike, Joe and myself. We played a 45-minute set for about twenty people, mostly hardcore Z and Zappa fans. It was a hell of a lot of fun. The promoter thought so too, and she booked Mike again the following month. And the month after that. Z hadn't played an American gig in nearly eighteen months.
When September came, and the release of Pets was pushed back yet again to January of 1996, Joe nearly came unglued. More than any of us, the layoff from live work was driving him crazy. He needed to be onstage on a regular basis to feel balanced. I didn't, but I was getting frustrated anyway. Ahmet was showing up less and less to rehearsals and sessions. Keneally just kept on booking gigs.
By now there had been several occurrences where someone else had asked Keneally or I to do a gig or short tour (OK, more Keneally than I), and we'd brought the requests to Dweezil as per the proper protocol of our employment agreement. In just about every instance after mid-1995, Dweezil responded by saying we had work coming up, and that unfortunately the answer was no because he needed us that week or month or whatever. More than once we ended up doing nothing during the time in question. He was the one who was paying us, so it was his prerogative to do so, but I can't say it engendered good feelings all around.
Finally, in late 1995, Z worked up a live set for a potential Music For Pets American tour. It was a scattershot collection of tunes from Shampoohorn, Pets, and even Dweezil's 1991 solo album Confessions. We took our act to The Viper Room in Hollywood and-to my surprise-we played a knockout show. The time spent recording and then rehearsing the same songs over and over again gave us a polish we didn't have the last time out in public. The Pets material sounded fresh and angry. We even had a new medley-an '80s medley-that went over really well. I had a better sound and was ten times more confident than in 1994. Keneally and I were bonded in a totally new way. Joe and I were free to let loose at any time. Dweezil had a ton of new material to show the world.and Ahmet was there just enough to make it work. Maybe this would be worth the wait after all.
Then came the Keneally/BFD gig at the January NAMM show of 1996. The performance was a landmark by our standards. It was held in the most happening venue of aftershow-party NAMM, the bar in the Anaheim Hilton. The lineup was the "official" Beer For Dolphins at the time: Mike, me, and Toss Panos on drums. We played for 90 minutes and, with all humility, destroyed the room. The seasoning we'd gained from seven shows at that shitty little venue was now spilling out all over people who could help us. And the funniest thing happened-suddenly I felt extremely comfortable onstage. I lost my inhibitions, my feet started moving, and I was even singing background vocals with full-throated abandon.
Afterwards Keneally was a house of fire. The show had convinced him beyond a doubt that he had to do more with his solo career. He wanted to make it his number one priority. I was excited. I was going to be a part of two bands, both well respected in the music industry, both with major activity slated for 1996. My profile, stuck in neutral for the better part of the past two years, was about to go up.
It then occurred to me that being the bassist for both bands at once could pose a serious problem. My reaction: I chose to ignore it for as long as I could.
* * * * *
In January of 1996, Joe was home on his annual retreat to Erie, PA to visit his family. Both Keneally and I exchanged several phone calls with him to talk about what Mike's shift in priorities might mean for the band. Joe sensed danger. Gail had a record of being very unpredictable when it came to issues like these. And even though Z was essentially Dweezil's band, it was Gail who seemed to be making the final decisions. After all, Zappa Records was the family's label, and Gail was now the family's leader. More than once, when it came to money or business decisions that affected us, Dweezil would refer us to Gail. He seemed to prefer it that way.
Mike wasn't oblivious to the potential conflict, but he was optimistic. After all, he'd been working for the Zappas in one form or another for the past eight years. All he wanted to do was block off a series of dates in March that he had booked, and he was willing to work on a per-project basis rather than on retainer (which would free him of Dweezil's right to first-option on his time). Of course, the Pets release date had now been pushed back to.March 5. He was fairly confident that the issues could be worked out. Joe wasn't so sure, and after talking to him about it, neither was I.
Keneally and I had conversation after conversation in the second half of January, talking through the potential scenarios. I told him it was in my interest to make sure that there wasn't some kind of nuclear situation, because I was just Bryan Beller, some bassist with one gig out in L.A.-not Mike Keneally, solo artist and former Frank Zappa sideman-and I could ill-afford to lose my steady paycheck. He told me not to worry, and that he was going to do everything in his power to (a) make his name big enough to carry us both, and (b) and avoid a conflict in the first place.
On January 29, 1996, I picked Joe up from the airport. We both knew that Keneally was going to call Gail the next day, and he was apocalyptic. "I guess this is the last day we're gonna have a band," I remember him saying. So I went there, and asked him what if the whole thing went sideways-would he go with Mike? No way, Joe said. He'd worked his whole life to become a trusted member of the Zappa family, and wasn't about to sacrifice that for anything. Then he asked me-what about you? At that point, I honestly didn't know.
The next day, no longer able to wait for Mike's report, I called him. He wasn't home, so I went to go work off my stress in the gym. Ninety minutes later, when I used a Bally's pay phone to check my messages, I found he'd left a long one. I'll use what I wrote in Act 7 of The Life Of Bryan, because it's sure to be more accurate than anything I can remember now:
Sure enough, there was Mike, on my machine, saying something like this..."hey, man, it's me...I talked to Gail, and it went pretty well, all things considered...we discussed how I felt, and how she felt, and she asked me to fax her the dates I have booked already, and that she'd get back to me...". He then went on to say.that if things didn't work out, and I couldn't stomach leaving Z, that would be OK and he would completely understand, but that he saw us together as a partnership that could last a very long time...
It was less than thirty minutes later, as I pounded my legs into submission on a Stairmaster, that I took the nightmare scenario to its logical conclusion in my head and reached a decision: If he gets fired over this, I'll go with him. I thought the possibility of that actually happening to be very, very remote.
I got home from the gym several hours later to find no further messages on my machine. I called Joe to see if he knew anything-and if I recall correctly, he had already spoken to Dweezil and warned me that the situation was highly volatile. I called Mike right after I got off the phone with Joe, but Mike was out. It was around 6:30 PM, and I decided to take matters into my own hands and call Dweezil myself.
(I purposefully did not write about the actual events in my original telling of the story back in Act 7 of the LOB; it was too raw to go there at the time. I sincerely regret if any part of this recollection is not entirely accurate, but I'm pretty damned sure this is how it went.)
Dweezil was indeed home to take the call, and he was as angry as I'd ever heard him. He didn't yell-that wasn't his style-but he made it very clear that things were not cool. First, he was pissed off that Mike hadn't called him directly. This confused me, because we both thought that Dweezil would just tell him to go to Gail as he had in the past regarding other business matters. I said so as gingerly as I could, wanting to avoid escalating the confrontation and realizing that this was probably the first opportunity he had to vent about the situation to someone directly involved. It didn't help.
Dweezil then said he considered what Mike and I were doing to be a "mutiny," that we had taken advantage of the Zappas' generosity and steady paycheck to form a side project on their dime. I gamely insisted that nothing we had done up until that point had interfered in any way with Z's schedule, as spotty as it was, and furthermore, we'd turned down other work as per his first-option request. I was quickly being put into the position of defending Keneally to Dweezil, an argument I saw little chance of winning.
It continued into more dangerous territory. Music For Pets was going to come out in March, he insisted, and they had all sorts of money tied up in promoting the record to coincide with an upcoming tour. I could have said that we'd been told that on six different occasions and it never happened.but I held my tongue and instead said that there had to be a way to work this out, that surely a couple of Keneally's hard dates in March could be worked around, that we could in fact do both projects. I never wanted it to come to this, I pleaded-why would I? I'm the one in the weakest position of all! I don't have a name to fall back on, this is my first gig in Los Angeles, and I don't want bad relations with the Zappa family, for Christ's sake! I had everything to lose from a "mutiny." Didn't I? I asked him: have you spoken to Mike?
He then said in so many words that Mike was history. And that I was going to have to make a choice.
I couldn't believe it. After eight years, just like that. Gone. What would become of me, a mere two-year guy with no other credits to speak of, if I found myself in a similar position later on down the road?
I asked him again-more like begged-if there was any way to work out the irreconcilable differences between him and Keneally that had appeared over the past four hours. I don't want to have to do this, I said. I want to stay in this band. I want to tour behind this record. But I want to be able to work with Keneally as well.
"Then.I guess.I'm out of the band. I can't believe this. I can't believe this."
The conversation ended soon thereafter, on a polite but ultimately sad note.
Did we form a band within a band, one of the big no-no's in professional music? Yes, we did. Did we collect a paycheck while we did so? Yes, we did. Did Mike cause a scheduling problem in March of 1996, and did the Zappa family have money tied up in promotions scheduled for that month? Probably.
Did the whole thing have to be blown to bits because of those scheduling conflicts? That depends on who you ask.
* * * * *
The immediate aftermath wasn't pretty. In a twist of fate, Mike's March dates fell through and were rescheduled for April and May, in what became Keneally's first tour. In retrospect, a bitter irony.
Joe was despondent about Z's demise, but he had no regrets other than us not being able to tour behind Pets. He said all along that he wasn't going anywhere, and he didn't. He still enjoys a good working relationship with the Zappa family, and has been given the privilege of becoming the "Vaultmeister"-the guy who's responsibility it is to comb through Frank's 30-year archive of unreleased live recordings to determine suitability for potential future release. It's a high honor, and he earned it.
It should be obvious after reading this that I owe my whole fucking life to Joe Travers, and believe me when I tell you that it sucked the biggest dick in history to have to leave the band he got me into under the circumstances that occurred.
Music For Pets finally did come out in March of 1996. It was another cruel irony-Dweezil, after six false starts, really was serious about the record coming out that year. The sting was worse when we opened up the CD to find that our pictures had been altered. We now had "dog heads" on our bodies.
We were listed as "sidemen" in the liner notes, while "Bing Jang" and "Arkansas"-the names of the Zappas' two dogs-were listed as the band members that took our places. Was I angry? Sure I was. Now it just seems funny, but emotions were running high all over the place back then.
It would be years before either Mike or I spoke to Dweezil again. I did run into Ahmet at a gas station not too long after it all went down. Joe and Ahmet were good friends, but I never got to know him very well. One thing I did learn is that when he's not "on" (doing the "crazy Ahmet" thing), he's an incredibly down-to-earth and kind guy. Even when he was "crazy Ahmet," he was hard not to like. At the age of 22, he was just coming into his own when we left the band, and as you now know, he's been on a variety of TV shows ever since, doing what he does best-splattering his crazed persona all over the screen. It's easy to forget that, with all this talk about the drama behind the scenes and the band's musical content, that a lot of people who followed Z did so because of Ahmet. When we were playing live, he was the audience's main focus. He was an attention magnet. That guy had a lot of balls to do some of the things he did onstage with us. Ultimately, the band constrained him.
Ahmet was a free spirit, and understandably so. Dweezil, on the other hand, was a workaholic. I got the idea that he would spend the rest of his life in the studio if the world let him. There he could tweak every sound, punch in every note of every part to his heart's content, until it matched his vision of perfection. I identified with that side of him, and I really did want to get more inside his head. I don't know why, but we never managed to get there. As a matter of fact, the whole time I was in Z, from the first time I was up to the house to our final phone conversation, I felt a little bit like an interloper-an outsider, a non-true believer, Joe's friend, Keneally's bassist.not one of them. That could easily be me projecting, but that's just the way I felt.
I can see Dweezil reading this and saying to himself, what the hell is he talking about? I admit, this does appear to be a fairly negative reading of my whole experience with Z, which is hard to figure considering what good has come from it. That's because, on a day-to-day basis, it was indeed difficult for me to find a comfortable place within their organization. So, in the interest of honesty, perspective and fairness, let me present the positives:
1. I got into a band with people named Zappa in it, and that's good for your career. Dweezil and Gail are well aware of this phenomenon, and probably feel that people take advantage of it without due notice. Well, I'm giving notice: I would not be where I am today if Dweezil hadn't decided to take a chance on me, fire Scott Thunes, and take me on as a member of Z. My entrance and exit both could have been a hell of a lot cleaner, but such is life.
2. I learned the ropes of touring and studio work. Were there myriad delays in the release of Music For Pets? You bet. Did the fact that we kept going back in the studio add to my seasoning and make me a more well-rounded professional bassist? What do you think? And after that debacle I had with my gear on the road, you'd better believe I got my act together but quick.
3. My musical horizons were broadened. Dweezil had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what kind of music I liked. He only recommended two albums to me during our entire time together: Self's Subliminal Plastic Motives and Jeff Buckley's Grace. The former is now in my top 20; the latter may be my favorite album in the world.
4. I got the chance to play on a professional gig with my rhythmic soulmate, Joe Travers. I didn't appreciate it enough back then. I wish we played together more often now.
5. I met my musical soulmate, Mike Keneally. As you are probably well aware, we enjoy a partnership that continues to this day, and are about to enter our eighth year of being in the same band. Hard to believe, considering the initially mixed emotions he had about me replacing Scott Thunes in Z.
6. I became a better player. Dweezil, through the constant drilling of pop material and impossibly difficult licks, made me learn to play less when necessary, and play more when required. He stretched my technical abilities to the limit. I really liked a lot of the material, and if I had to, I could still sit down and play most of it today.
So, with no qualifications attached, my deepest thanks go out to the Zappa family for making it possible for me to be where I am today. I wish it had all worked out differently.I truly do.
* * * * *
What's left to tie up? Dweezil's instrumental opus What The Hell Was I Thinking was never released in any form. Too bad. I have rough mixes of it, and they're fucking incredible.
Z operated in some form after Mike and I left, with bassist Chris Maloney and a guitarist named (I believe) Jack Jones, but they never released any material and never played again in public under that name as far as I know.
In 2001, Dweezil released a solo album called Automatic. It contained the first official release of "Purple Guitar," the tune that gave me so many nightmares leading up to my audition. It's nice to know that it's finally out there, so everyone will know what I'm talking about when I say that this was probably the hardest song I've ever had to play, period.
Finally, in April of 1996, in the midst of Keneally's first tour, I met the man whose shoes I never did fill-the one and only Scott Thunes. It turned out that we had a day off in San Francisco, and since Scott moved back to his hometown area (Marin County, to be exact) soon after his break from Z, a visit would be convenient. Mike offered plans for lunch, and Scott agreed. I didn't have to go, but it was "OK" with Scott if I was there.
He was both larger and nicer than I'd imagined. I'm not exaggerating when I say that his hand literally swallowed mine upon a shake. It was fascinating to watch him and Keneally hold court over breakfast; the conversation was lightning-quick, and of a very high mental caliber. He went on to say a lot of the things he eventually said in his Bass Player interview (which caused a great deal of controversy) and on his website, www.geoscott.com-that he had little use for rock music, rock bassists, and the antics of rock musicians in particular. He added that he was through with music and was happy in his new life as a soon-to-be husband. He pulled no punches when it came to Joe and Dweezil, and I simply replied that Joe was my best friend and I owed him a lot. I also stammered an awkward apology for.whatever. Overall, he could have been much rougher on me than he was, and he made it a point to say that he didn't have a problem with me personally. As we got up to leave, he took his massive hand and pretended to slap my face back and forth, Italian-grandfather-style. I left feeling relieved, but also small, awestruck, and fortunate not to have been the object of his ire.
Mike, Joe and I often talked about how our experience with Z made us feel like we were working with Frank, but a Frank that had been split in two. Dweezil got the serious, workaholic, anti-social, composer/studio-rat side, while Ahmet got the quirky, crazy, obscene, cult-of-personality-fostering outgoing side. Together, with a modern Terry Bozzio/Chad Wackerman acolyte on drums, a freak-genius, multi-talented composer/utilityman on guitar and backing vocals, and an overachieving, "accidental tourist" bassist from New Jersey, it was one hell of a band.
So, when's the reunion?