Saturday, February 26, 2011

1999: My Dinner with Frank Black

,Frank Black has since reunited with the Pixies, and continues his prolific solo career. Roy Zimmerman gigged here in Tucson last month, and his upcoming appearances are posted here. The two of them shared a stage again last August at the Great American Music Hall in SF.

Being in LA again reminded me of everything I love and hate about it. Flying in, you can take in the awful vastness of it, and look down on the morning overcast that's both smog and fog, and you're never sure how much of which. Down on the ground, when you're on the coast, you know it's mostly fog. Conversely, when you're in Pasadena or Pomona and you can barely make out the mountains a few miles away, you get that sickening certainty about what's going into your lungs. All the clean air regulations imposed since I last lived there, in 1978, haven't appreciably improved the atmosphere - there are just that many more cars to make up the difference.

But on that other hand is the great confluence of culture that comes from throwing millions of people together. The variety of options available to me on the radio dial, in the movie theaters, and in the music clubs was overwhelming. And driving through the gray vastness of it all, you could catch glimpses of truly delightful architecture, as well as more intriguing restaurants than you could sample in a year. Not to mention all the great museums I didn't have time for.

I'd placed myself back in LA for two reasons. One was to visit my grandmother, who, at 88, is somewhere in the slow-moving checkout line in the supermarket of life. And the other was to sample one of those many cultural options: my old high school buddy Roy Zimmerman was holding forth that evening at McCabe's Guitar Shop with one of my musical idols, Frank Black (AKA Black Francis of the Pixies, AKA Charles Thompson).

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Roy pulled up in front of the terminal in his '73 Nova and swiftly navigated the roads up to his home in Pacific Palisades, where I met his charming pooch Superdog, a dachshund/chihuahua mix. Then we grabbed some lunch in a little Mexican place nearby. Afterwards, Roy picked up some equipment out of a little office he rents there, and we set out for Santa Monica. Roy had guitar lessons to teach that afternoon, so he gave me the keys to the Nova and I had about four hours to kill. I set sail for my old stomping grounds in Westwood. Though it was now about 2 in the afternoon, the streets were more or less gridlocked, often charging me two or more red light cycles to clear a few blocks.

Eventually I reached my destination, the original retail outlet for Rhino Records. Back in the 70s, before Rhino became the world's premier reissue label, it was just a goofy little store with hilarious memorabilia on the walls, the world's most knowledgeable clerks, sarcastic little reviews affixed to various albums, and shockingly cheap prices. Today the six bucks that used to get me six used LPs got me just one used CD, which is still mighty cheap. The CD in question was the latest release from Mr. Frank Black, and as I made my way back into Santa Monica, I stopped from time to time to enjoy a beer, a coffee and a milkshake at various little haunts along the way, reading the lyric sheet along with the LA Times and the LA Weekly.

Around 6 I showed up for soundcheck at McCabe's. Since its founding in 1958, this little store has probably hosted more great musicians than any other space of comparable size. John Hiatt had just passed through; next night was David Lindley. Pictures of the greats, Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, Gracia, lined the walls. As the retail portion was shutting down, I could hear the patrons namedropping to each other: I was playing this up at Leonard Nimoy's place last week; yesterday I was jamming with Stephen Stills, etc. Customers would sit down with various instruments and spew forth expertly and deftly, while I checked out the museum of vintage guitars all over the walls. In the back room, clerks wheeled away display cases and set up exactly 155 chairs.

Roy came out on stage with my idol, who looks quite a bit like Curly of the Three Stooges. In between setting levels with the sound engineer, Roy introduced me. "Charles, this is my friend Mark; he's the editor of the Tucson Comic News." We chatted a bit about Tucson and the gigs I had seen him play there. In fact, I told him, my wife had fallen in love with me at one of his shows. We'd been going out for about a month and she still hadn't made up her mind about me. But when she saw me dancing with wild abandon and joy to Frank Black's music, well, that was the clincher.

Charles unrolled a huge BLM map of the state of California and affixed it to the wall behind the stage, then gave us a hilarious mini-lecture on the history of the Salton Sea and his experiences shooting a video there. Just before he went backstage I asked him to autograph a CD booklet and I gave him a copy of my book The CIA's Greatest Hits. He seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. I asked him how he had hooked up with Roy to begin with. "I heard one of his songs on the radio, and then we saw he was playing at Luna Park. Pretty soon I was going there every week, drinking way too much Guinness Stout and laughing my ass off."

Roy asked me to save a seat in the fourth row for his wife Melanie, so I sat in the empty hall and watched it fill up with twenty-somethings. I was guessing the crowd was about evenly split between Frank's fans and Roy's, but Melanie estimated it was about 90% for Frank. The truth was probably somewhere in between, but either way they managed to sell the place out with very little publicity; the gig had been arranged on such short notice that there had been no notice in the Times' or the Weekly's calendar sections.

If you guessed there was little overlap between the two audiences you'd be correct. Roy is a satirist, a brilliant writer of comedy songs, first with his folk/rock band the Foremen and now as a solo act. Much of it is overtly political, while the later songs focus more on relationships, but all of it is mighty amusing, with or without Guinness Stout.

Charles is a surrealist; while some of his songs tell a story, and are not without humor, they're less literal and more oblique than Roy's. He made five albums as the leader of my beloved Pixies, with material ranging from gentle pop to ferocious punk. His five subsequent albums as Frank Black are nearly as eclectic, with an ever-growing craftsmanship. One thing he has in common with Roy is a predeliction for clever rhymes: while the former has combined "queryin'" with "Hyperion," the latter followed "obstacle" with "knobs tickle."

Many of the fans expected Roy to be the warmup act, but in fact they sat on stage together with acoustic guitars and traded songs back and forth, each playing solo. Frank Black was first, and he began by pointing to the map and asking the audience for help in pronouncing the name of an Indian tribe from up north. Then he sang a new song, "Humboldt County Massacre," about the ethnic cleansing of those unfortunate folks. Roy followed up with his excellent song "TMI (Too Much Information)" and immediately began winning over the Black fans. It was great to hear them cracking up all around me.

Charles himself was a big Zimmerman fan, and watched with a grin on his face, sometimes interjecting "Oh, I love this one," or "Do you stil play that song, "Branded?" Between songs they chatted amiably, though Charles later confessed to some nervousness, as Roy is the king of banter, and "at rock shows you never really have to talk to the audience." Roy would deftly guide the conversation into a brief monologue which served to introduce his next song. Charles knew he would need to do the same, but his speeches were as oblique as his tunes: the apricot seedling growing from his car's vinyl roof, or his cat's problems with a urinary tract infection. Then he'd shrug and launch into another excellent number.

Both guys played mostly songs I had never heard before, and the acoustic setting made it easy to pick out the lyrics (plus I had just read some of them before the show). Roy's stage presence and timing were impeccable, though he later confessed to some nervousness over the unfamiliar audience. Charles took nifty little rhythmic guitar breaks in the middle of his songs, though he later confessed to self-consciousness over his playing. We all assured him he was wonderful, and one of Roy's pals accurately noted similarities to Pete Townshend's playing. Charles was also in fine voice (he's been taking lessons, of late) with none of the hot-pokers-in-the-eyes shrieking of yore (not that there's anything wrong with that) and sometimes adding in his own backup vocals.

Melanie and I hoped they would play at least one song together, and we sort of got our wish. For the final encore, Frank Black suggested that they each play a different song at the same time. Roy got into the spirit of this suggestion immediately, and, just as if it were April Fool's Day, they proceeded to simultaneously flail away at their guitars and shout over each other, having a great time, though nobody could quite make out a word they were singing ( I did pick out that Charles was performing his only Pixies number of the evening, "Nimrod's Son").

Afterwards we all went out to dinner down the street at another wonderful Mexican restaurant and chatted about the show. It was a triumph for both of them. The Frank Black fans got a great kick out of Roy, and the Roy Zimmerman fans were mighty impressed with Charles. As the more famous musician, it was a generous move on Charles' part, but it was so much fun for all involved that it will likely be repeated at some point.

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