Thursday, April 07, 2005

Whilst I write...

So while I continue to simultaneously write two books at once, worry about my taxes and my daughter's college financial aid forms, I thought I'd post a very cool article about Ike Willis which mentions his Rock School affiliation.

Also, thanks to Dave Neidorf (again!) for providing me with those fantastic DVDs. We watched the Napoleon Murphy Brock/Rock School DVD from February 29, 2004 and of course I instantly filled up with tears at the first song, City of Tiny Lights, which features now former Rock Star All-Stars Teddi Tarnoff, Louie Graff, Allie Hauptman and Julie Slick. City of Tiny Lights, along with Heart of the Sunrise, are two Rock School songs I can hear 1,000,000 times and never get bored. I cannot wait for the Jon Anderson version on the Rock School movie soundtrack coming out next month, but to be honest, I wish it were Teddi singing instead. She owns that song. Too bad she couldn't have sung it as a duet with him.

But you know, as always, big business rules. I'm still not quite understanding why Alice Cooper's School's Out for The Summer is even associated with the movie or on the soundtrack, especially since the kids never performed it in concert to my knowledge...well, at least not the All-Star students in the movie; it might have been in a beginner show I missed...but I'd better shut up because my daughter plays bass on that song on the soundtrack and rumor has it that's going to be the first MTV video. But ugh, "Alice" is a fucking golf playing Republican and yes, yes, we all know how I feel about that.

Oh yeah, in other news, I think there's a mini west coast tour in connection with the movie's LA premier June 1 but again, at this point, a rumor so I'd better not say anything further in that regard, either.

In writing news, I am happy to announce that the baseball story I've wanted to write for years (i.e., the Phillies winning the World Series for the first time ever right after my mother, a long time suffering Phillies' fan, died of a brain tumor) has been accepted at Somewhat Magazine and will be published May 4. I'll post a link when the time comes. I love the editors at Somewhat. They are so fucking cool, and not just because they dig my stuff. I visited their links page and met the most interesting character the other day via email -- Henry Dribble. We started emailing back and forth; he's going to promote Eric's band on his site; it turns out one of his kids writes for Friends and Will and Grace; the other is a drummer for a rockband in LA...anyway, how cool is that.

Okay, I'll be quiet now. Here's the Ike article:

'Object' of affection
By Ed Symkus
Wednesday, April 6, 2005

There is no shortage of Frank Zappa tribute bands. Although the singer-guitarist-composer-conductor - and founder of his own fan club, the United Mutations - died 12 years ago, his complex pop-rock-jazz music lives on. There's always his catalogue of recordings, both solo and with the Mothers of Invention. But there are also all of those bands: the Muffin Men in England, Central Scrutinizer Band in Brazil, Zappanoia in Portugal, Children of Invention in France, Great Googly Moogly! in Sweden, as well as a plethora of US-based bands, among them Bogus Pomp and Uncle Meat.

One of the longest-running American Zappa tribute bands, Project/Object, plays at the Middle East in Cambridge on Monday, with guest members Ike Willis (guitar and vocals) and Napoleon Murphy Brock (reeds and vocals), both of whom toured with Zappa as members of the Mothers.

"Just before Frank died he said to me, 'Just do what you can to keep my music alive. Play whatever you want, but keep it faithful, if you can,' " recalls Willis, who played with Zappa from 1978 till his death in 1993. "Within a month after he died I got a call from my first Zappa tribute band, the Muffin Men, out of Liverpool. I set the criteria from there: 'Let me hear your material live.' And since then I've made my choices based on how faithful the rendition of the material was live. And the attitude - Frank always told me that attitude was highly important."

About two years later, members of Project/Object, a New York band that only plays Zappa music, and often recreates an entire Zappa or Mothers album onstage, sent a live tape of one of their performances to Willis, who liked it enough to travel from his home in San Francisco to New York, where, after checking out their attitude, he joined the band for a few gigs. And has continued to do so from time to time over the years.

Willis, who currently fronts his own band of original music, the Ike Willis Project, is probably still best known as the deep, rich voice of Joe on Zappa's "Joe's Garage." He remains an ardent Zappa fan.

"I would put him as one of the top two or three most important composers in the second half of the 20th century," says Willis.

"Do they still use the word seminal?" he asks, with a laugh. "And in terms of his guitar playing ability, Frank was just incredibly underrated."

The two met when Willis was a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, and Zappa was playing a concert at the school. Willis helped out "schlepping" some equipment for the gig.

"After sound check, the band and the crew were eating backstage," remembers Willis. "I was sitting by myself, eating and reading, and Frank walked by with a plate full of lasagna. I mentioned something about the bad food there and after a few minutes he called me over to his table. I didn't really want to bother him. The last thing he'd want is to be bothered by some knit hat-wearing, would-be guitar-playing senior in college. But he called me over and we sat and talked about physics and science and history, and hung out."

They also talked about the fact that Willis had already been a professional guitarist for 12 years and actually knew some of Zappa's rather difficult music. Later, as Zappa was getting ready to warm up, he handed him a guitar and asked if he wanted to play it.

"I started playing [Zappa's] 'Carolina [Hard-core Ecstasy]' and Frank joined in and then the rest of the band joined in. But I didn't think of it as an audition or anything. After a while he said he liked the way I played but that he had to go do the show, and asked me for my address and phone number because he had auditions every year. I did, then just moved on, but eight months later he called me in my dorm room. I joined the band the following summer."

He remembers Zappa as a perfectionist who ran strict rehearsals before each concert, often conducting the band with a baton. And he regards his days singing and playing guitar with him as a major challenge and an unforgettably rewarding musical experience.

When he isn't touring with Project/Object or with his own band, he's involved with the Paul Green School of Rock, upon which the film "School of Rock" was very loosely based, and which often has classes and concerts focused on Zappa's music.

"It's an actual rock 'n' roll academy," says Willis. "They start around 10 or 12 and go up to age 18. It's nationwide - we have schools from New York City to San Francisco. I think we're working on one in Boston. I am professor emeritus of guitar and vocals."

When he finds any free time, Willis is often hired for voice-over work and jingles. At one point, while he was still working with Zappa, he also tried his hand at acting, landing a small part as a boxer in the 1983 Gregory Harrison TV movie "The Fighter."

"When I was living in L.A., my next door neighbor was a casting agent," says Willis. "And acting was something I did between tours. Hey, being in movies is nowhere near as difficult as playing with Frank Zappa."

Project/Object, featuring Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy Brock, performs the music of Frank Zappa at the Middle East in Cambridge on April 11. The show is 18+, doors open at 8 p.m., tickets are $17. Call 617-864-3278, ext. 221.