In January of 1980, I had the chance of a lifetime when Frank Zappa was holding open auditions for Vinnie Colaiuta’s replacement. Everyone in town was lined up for this shot, and I was lucky enough to get a chance at the chair.
I’d met Vinnie when he played one night at the Baked Potato, where we struck up a conversation. I ‘d been listening to Joe’s Garage and was blown away by what Vinnie was doing with polyrhythms and how smooth he made the odd meters flow.
We stayed in touch, and one day, he let me know he was leaving the band and asked if I was interested in getting an audition. I was 20, had been playing odd meters for about five years, knew a little about polyrhythms from the Gary Chaffee books, but was not a killer reader by any means.
Still, the opportunity for the experience begged that I give it a leap. I spent probably two weeks listening to every Zappa album I could get my hands on, embarking on a crash course in extremely advanced drumming. I don’t think I left the house during that time, because I did NOT want to miss the call to go audition.
It came on a grey and dreary afternoon. Los Angeles had been pummeled with rain, and the sun was nowhere to be found. I drove over to a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, took a deep breath, and went inside. I introduced myself to the guy at the desk, and a few minutes later, he ushered me into the actual studio…
The band was rehearing a version of “A Love Supreme,” only it was “A Mouth Supreme” or something like that… funny as hell. A duplicate of Terry Bozzio’s double bass kit was set-up, and in front it stood The Man himself.
Zappa welcomed me and described what he wanted to play. I asked if he minded if I jotted the directions down, and he had no objection. Arthur Barrow was playing bass, and he was also Zappa’s musical director. When Zappa was away, Arthur led the band’s rehearsals. I was in some pretty heavy company and was trying to remember to breathe…
The song was in 13/8, subdivided 4/4 + 3/8, (four measures) with a measure of 12/8 afterwards. I really wasn’t sure what to play, but I knew I’d better listen to everything Arthur did, because he was holding down the fort.
We started, and it was absolutely surreal. I grew up in a small town in Delaware, and had been in music school for two years in Baltimore. I’d moved to California on a whim to meet a famous percussionist/composer named Julius Wechter (leader of the Baja Marimba Band) who, like myself, also had Tourette’s. My world had been spinning for months, meeting famous drummers through Julius and being exposed to musical opportunities I’d only dreamed of…
So now, here I was at ground zero of the ultimate real deal.
Arthur told me just keep time, and that’s what I did. We played that 13/8 deal for a few minute, then played some variations on the 12/8 measure with a 7/8 turn-around… I was able to make sense of it, but when it came to playing reggae in 13/8, I was toast. I couldn’t conceptualize it, and while it was frustrating to not continue, I had no complaints.
Zappa shook my hand and thanked me for coming in. He looked you right in the eye, and there was a value in that moment I have cherished for years.
That day taught me that ANYTHING is possible, and I mean MILES beyond what you might think. Not too long ago, I sold a cymbal to the drummer who eventually got the job. We talked about the audition, and I learned that he’d attended Cal Arts, where he learned a great deal about advanced drumming, polyrhythms, etc.
If my reading had been at a higher level, maybe things would have been different. Who knows… but when I had the opportunity to audition for Arthur Brown (as in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) a few months later, in Austin, I went in and gave it everything I had. I landed the gig, recorded with him, got my drumming heard on an MTV video, eventually got interviewed for Modern Drummer… and basically, went places I never expected to go.
I put drumming and music aside for many years after that to pursue other opportunities, becoming a professional writer, and later, an airplane flight instructor. I also worked on a book about the fundamental rhythm patterns, which took forever… It’s done, a publisher is reviewing it, and now, all I want to do is play and continue the exploration of odd meters and polyrhythms from many years ago.
I remember having a strange dream several months after the Zappa audition while I was living in Austin, wasting a lot of time in bars and being foolish with my time and health. He looked me right in the eye and said, “You just don’t have what it takes.”
Now that’s a helluva message in a dream, and I realized it was true… unless I chose to change my world, get back on track and focus on what mattered. The rhythm book became that focus, and now, the crosshairs are once again back on the correct path of playing.
It’s too late to give Frank another shot, but it’s never too late to give it your best shot. That’s what I got out of that day in North Hollywood, and with everything I’ve seen and done since then, music remains the best…