I wrote the first story about my time working for Frank Zappa almost 20 years ago (2003), and that was 20 years after the job had ended and 10 years after Frank had died. So in 2018 when Michael Laskow, the founder of TAXI (more about TAXI later), asked to interview me in greater depth about my Zappa experience for the TAXI newsletter, it was a perfect opportunity to dust off the memories and update what I’d previously written. With the benefit of time, more information, and a deeper appreciation of Frank and his lasting effect on the world and my own life, I’m happy to have had an opportunity to revisit the world of Frank Zappa and my small part in it. Reproduced here with permission from TAXI.
Richard Emmet (left), Frank Zappa (right), and David Ocker (foreground) hard at work.
I know Kenny Kerner interviewed you some years ago for TAXI, and he asked you about your time working with Frank Zappa. It’s such a cool and unique story that I’ve got to ask you to tell it again. Do you mind?
I don’t mind.
How old were you at the time, and what were you doing with your life?
It was 1978 and I was 25. I had graduated from Cal Arts the year before and was sharing an apartment on Venice Beach with a community of fleas and roaches. In hindsight, it’s amazing that there was actually a time when $160/month for an apartment that was 20 ft. from the beach seemed outrageous! Anyway, to support myself, I was playing guitar in a small house band for an equity-waiver theater company in East Hollywood.
How did you get the gig with Zappa?
I had taken a class at Cal Arts on musical calligraphy. Basically, this was a fancy, pre-computer method of creating music notation by hand that bore a passing resemblance to professionally engraved printed music. A fellow Cal Arts grad, David Ocker, had taken the same class. At some point after we graduated, I learned that David had landed a job with Zappa. I’ll continue, but first a slight digression.
There were a number of people in Los Angeles in those days who, often quietly, made enormous contributions to the musical life of the city and beyond. One such person, as most of us know, was John Braheny.
Another was the late Judy Green, a friend to composers both famous and unknown. Judy’s shop was located on N. Cahuenga in Hollywood and offered music supplies and reproduction services to individuals and institutions far and wide. It’s where we brought all the Zappa scores for reproduction and binding. If anyone is curious, check out the link below and learn about a wonderful woman and longtime benefactor of the musical arts. Without Judy Green Music, it’s unlikely I would have connected with Zappa.
Back to the story: My friend David had posted a flyer in Judy Green’s shop advertising his music copying ability.* Apparently Zappa saw or heard about the flyer. He called David and invited him over to talk about a possible staff position as a music copyist. David got the job, and when I heard about it a couple of months later, I asked him if Frank might need another copyist. David said he’d ask, and a couple of weeks later Frank called and invited me over. I drove to his house (now owned by Lady Gaga!) on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills and met Frank and his wife Gail. But instead of hiring me as a music copyist, he asked if I could transcribe a couple of his recorded guitar solos. He gave me a cassette and a ¼ inch reel-to-reel tape to work from and I methodically plowed through the complicated improvised solos. I returned several days later, handed over the transcriptions, and that was that. Here’s the opening section from one of the guitar solos I transcribed.
A couple of months later Frank called again and hired me as a full time music copyist. The job lasted about 5 years, from 1978 to 1983.
Wow, that’s mind-blowing! Musicians all over the world were awe struck (and still are) by Frank Zappa’s talent, vision, creativity, and uniqueness. Did you ever have to pinch yourself and wonder if the gig was real or just a dream?
I pinch myself now more than I did then! At the time, I knew I had stumbled upon a very special situation, but Frank kept me so busy, and the job was so narrowly focused, that I didn’t truly grasp the totality of who he was and the impact he would have on the world and on my life. It wasn’t until after his death, which hit me surprisingly hard, that the significance of the experience began to fully sink in. I have lots of memories and impressions of Frank, some of them described on my website, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Suffice it to say that he embodied a rare and potent mixture of intelligence, creativity, work ethic, humor, cynicism, irreverence, perceptiveness, fearlessness, and surprising kindness. He had an unmistakable magnetism that, when combined with the clarity of his intentions and the force of his personality, made him a natural and effective leader. Refreshingly, however, he had no need to brag or blatantly call attention to his gifts. A half an hour in his presence made it clear that you weren’t in Kansas anymore, and this wasn’t your average human. I don’t mean to suggest that Frank was a saint or was absent of flaws. Far from it, as I’m sure his wife Gail could have attested. But simply put, he was, without a doubt, the most staggeringly impressive person I’ve known or will ever know.
What was the gig like on a day-to-day basis?
Frank wrote a ton of orchestral music and his scores were very detailed and often quite complex. He sketched the music in pencil on large staff paper, and when he was ready, I’d drive to his house and look at the new score, often 50 pages or longer. I’d take the pages back to my apartment, and begin creating a permanent score from his draft. It was an arduous process because each page began as a blank – yes, blank– piece of 13½ x 19 tracing paper. Frank wanted the score customized on a page-by-page basis, so every item in the score had to be inked onto the blank page. Staff lines, clefs, notes, and all the other elements of musical notation were individually drawn on each page. A single page could take a whole day to complete, which may be one reason the job lasted so long. Here are two pages from his Dog Breath Variations score, which is less complex than much of his orchestral work.
After the full score was finished, the copyists – David and I at that point – were then tasked with creating the individual instrumental parts so that each player or section would have their own sheet music to play from. It was a lot of work.
Often when Frank and I had finished discussing the score, I would hang around for a while and listen to new material he was working on (Valley Girl comes to mind). Sometimes we’d talk politics (I’d been collecting signatures for an anti-nuclear petition, but he refused to sign it). Often I’d listen to stories about his encounters with John and Yoko, Bob Dylan, and others. Dylan asked Frank to produce his next album, but Frank declined. He told me he suspected Dylan went through his address book and called him when he got to ‘Z.’ [Note: Another version of that story has Dylan unexpectedly showing up at Frank’s house one day and ringing the bell.]
On a few occasions I observed him during the recording process, initially at studios in town, and later in his own home studio. Among my recollections: He stopped a take at one point because the “Leslie” effect on a keyboard part didn’t match its panning position at the punch-in. Another time he asked the drummer for a cymbal roll to cover an imperfect tape splice. Yet another time he asked the engineer to do a slow board fade on an extended marimba roll during a live take in order to have one less task to do during mixdown. These sorts of recording techniques are either commonplace or irrelevant now, but with my limited studio experience at the time, they were revelations to me.
I can totally relate to those techniques. I’m proud of being old school! Tell me more, this stuff is fascinating to me, and I hope to our readers as well.
I once brought over a recording of a 20-minute chamber/choral piece I’d composed that had gotten a recent public performance. He threaded the tape onto one of his Ampex 2-track recorders and listened intently all the way through, occasionally asking questions about a particular note or section. I had no idea back then what a huge deal it was to casually interrupt his work and take 20 minutes of his time in this way. However, he gave absolutely no indication of being inconvenienced. He seemed genuinely interested in what I was about musically.
My biggest regret (and proof of my cluelessness): Frank invited me to spend a Thanksgiving family dinner at his house one year, but I was a vegetarian at the time and politely declined. Yes, I’ve experienced moments of pure idiocy!
This might be hard to answer, but were there any profound takeaways on either a musical or personal level?
How much time do we have? Seriously, there were a number of takeaways. Maybe the one that has stayed with me the longest is an appreciation of effective language use. Frank was incredibly articulate, and he had a way of bending language to his will. Whether he invented entirely new words or used the ones the rest of us are familiar with, he was a master communicator.
The other profound takeaway has been a firsthand look at what a self-directed life and total commitment to your art looks like.
I’m friendly with Steve Vai, and he once told me that he got a call from Frank, and he was flown out to work with him—I think as a copyist—when he was really young. Did you ever work with Steve, or was that during a different time period?
I did work a bit with Steve. It’s funny – as far as I know, the only time my name has appeared in a book about Zappa came from a Steve Vai quote in which he commented about something I’d transcribed. Anyway, there was a time when Frank was thinking about forming a different type of band, possibly including me as one of the guitar players. As an initial step, he gave Steve and me a new piece to learn. We thought it would be useful to practice it together, so Steve came to my apartment a couple of times and we learned the piece. I recall that Steve, not surprisingly, played it a “little” better than I did. I remember him telling me, “Mute those open strings, don’t let them keep ringing” during fast passages.
Nothing came of Frank’s “new band” idea, to my profound relief, but it was fun getting to hang with Steve. We reconnected by email a year or so ago for the first time since the early ’80s. It was great to catch up!
[And that ends the Zappa portion of the interview. In case anyone is interested in the full interview, here is the link: https://www.taxi.com/transmitter/1803/taxi-member-success-emmet/]
And now a few words about TAXI. There are many ways to describe TAXI. It’s an organization that provides professional and educational opportunities for composers, songwriters, and artists. It connects music creators with media entities that need music. And it has spawned a wonderfully supportive community that gathers once a year for the free TAXI Road Rally in Los Angeles. I’ve attended just about every Rally for the past 15 years, and it’s truly a life-changing event. Above all, TAXI is an organization that exemplifies integrity from top to bottom. Check out TAXI here: https://www.taxi.com.
*David doesn’t remember it happening quite this way, but however it happened, we’re glad it did. In any case, this is how I remember it.