EXCLUSIVE: The Bizarre Relationship Of Frank Zappa & Lionel Rolfe Is Revealed
by Nigey Lennon
If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re familiar with Lionel Rolfe, co-publisher of Boryanabooks (with his lovely wife, the eponymous Boryana Rolfe). You’ve probably read his various musings on literature, politics, and classical music — with a decided emphasis on “classical”. Coming as he does from a family of world-class classical musicians, Lionel has never been one to suffer rock ‘n roll fools gladly, nor find it in his heart to excuse the wretched excesses of popular culture. On the contrary: over the years, he has practically made a career out of thumbing his nose at pop icons of various stripes, from the Grateful Dead at their inception in ’60s San Francisco to the advent of punk music in the ’70s to whatever passing trend happened to be floating down the gutter in his artsy Silver Lake neighborhood a few minutes ago. He’s truly an egalitarian hater of anything with distorted guitars. Thus, being married to me, a purveyor of music that involves abusing guitars on occasion, must have been a sore trial to him, especially when I insisted on introducing him to Frank Zappa.
Lionel and I first crossed paths in 1972 and married in 1975. (We separated in 1998.) By the time we met, I had briefly performed with Frank’s band, as well as contributing a couple of uncredited bits to his recordings. At that point my direct involvement in his music was over, but Frank and I remained friends, if a bit edgily. I still had a forlorn hope that Frank might see his way to produce my debut album, something we had previously discussed, although the odds of it actually happening were growing slimmer by the minute. At any rate, I was spending an inordinate amount of time at his band rehearsals, and one day Lionel decided to tag along and see what all the fuss was about.
Picture the scene: a cavernous, airplane hangarlike building (a former movie sound stage) on Sunset Boulevard near Bronson Avenue, where Frank and his musical minions toiled in a workmanlike fashion five days a week for several hours a day. The band rehearsed on a raised stage in the middle of the enormous space. There were blazing spotlights and a mighty sound reinforcement system which replicated the ambience of a nightclub or small auditorium. Positioned dead center on the stage, haloed by the the main spot, was Frank’s chair, where he chain smoked Winstons, guzzled endless cups of 40-weight coffee from a Shop Vac-sized thermos pot, and generally tyrannized the musicians when he wasn’t standing up to play guitar.
Nearly anyone wandering into this rock ‘n roll purgatory would have found it intimidating, with its blinding lights, ear-splitting noise, and locker-room ambience, but not Lionel. As soon as we entered the building, he strode up to the stage without any invitation from me or anyone else. Looking boldly up toward Frank, he said “Hello, Mr. Zappa” in a challenging tone.
Frank glanced over at me with a sour expression, as if to ask “Who the f— is this clown?”. I hastily introduced Lionel, at which Frank scowled. He apparently wasn’t in a good mood that day, and when he was in a bad mood he had the endearing habit of being extremely ungracious (to put it politely). “Yeah, well, pleased to meet you. Now have a seat if you wanna hang around. We have a lot to get through today,” he snapped. We skulked over to a couple of folding chairs in front of the stage and sat down without further badinage, but during the rehearsal, I caught Frank stealing glances at us out of the corner of his eye. He still wanted to know who the f— the clown was.
During the break, Frank seemed a bit more relaxed, almost conciliatory about his earlier abrupt behavior towards us. We even chatted a bit. I mentioned that Lionel’s uncle was Yehudi Menuhin, the classical violinist, and Frank shot him an almost approving look. Then of course Lionel had to blurt out, “Nigey tells me you’ve written some orchestra stuff. So why do you play that thing?” — indicating Frank’s electric guitar and amplifier stack.
Oh shit, I thought, and waited for the inevitable — for Frank to make mincemeat out of Lionel. To my surprise, he merely shrugged. “Because when you want to drown out the orchestra, you need amplification,” he replied with a wry expression. I realized he was actually kind of enjoying being razzed, and was starting to relax when Lionel countered with, “Yeah, but what do you do when you have a power failure?”
“We get a generator,” Frank said curtly, as if Lionel were a total idiot. He then made a point of looking away from us, and began packing up his music charts. Clearly, we were dismissed.
Despite this decidedly inauspicious introduction, Lionel accompanied me to other rehearsals. Luckily, after Frank realized Lionel wasn’t likely to go away, he gradually began to accept him. They still engaged in rather spiky exchanges from time to time, but their repartee seemed good natured, at least on the surface.
At that point Frank had three African-American musicians in his employ, and a mutual rapport was soon very much in evidence among the three of them and Lionel. As anyone who knows Lionel will readily attest, he makes friends easily, probably because he’s always on the lookout for a good audience. During his coffeehouse days in the ’60s, he had learned to shuck and jive with the best, and jazz musicians were among his favorite people. One afternoon I had to run an errand at Guitar Center a few blocks away on Sunset Boulevard, and I decided it was safe to leave Lionel at the rehearsal space for half an hour or so. The rehearsal was over for the day, but Lionel was hanging out with a couple of the guys, shooting the breeze and apparently having a good old time.
My errand achieved, I hastened back to the rehearsal space. I parked my car on the street and came around to the load-in area behind the building, where the entrance was. As I approached, a rather droll scene was unfolding.
The large van belonging to one of the black musicians was parked in the middle parking space with its rear doors flung open. A blue cloud and a characteristic botanical odor were wafting forth from the van’s interior, and lo and behold, there stood Frank glowering as only he could glower, and haranguing the van’s occupants — the three musicians and Lionel, who’d been in there getting high. Frank, as is well known, never approved of drugs and had been known to fire musicians simply for smoking a little pot on the road. Fortunately no one got kicked off the gig, and if Frank did hold Lionel responsible for corrupting his employees, he never mentioned it.
Frank and I eventually had a major disagreement, and reached an impasse where neither of us wanted to speak to each other. This marked the end of my relationship with him, as well as my visits to his rehearsals. After that, neither Lionel nor I had any contact with Frank until one day in 1985 when we were both working at the B’nai B’rith Messenger, the oldest Jewish weekly newspaper in Los Angeles (now defunct). Frank had gone on a highly public crusade against Tipper Gore and the PMRC over the censorship of lyrics on rock albums. At the Messenger we had a rather ditzy young intern who claimed to be a friend of Frank’s wife Gail, and one day she handed Lionel a letter addressed to him from Gail. The gist of this letter was, as far as Lionel could ascertain, that the PMRC was engaging in anti-Semitic tactics in the course of its campaign to persuade the public that rock lyrics needed to be censored — an issue that would presumably interest Lionel as editor of the official newspaper of L.A.’s large and powerful Jewish community.
Of course Mrs. Zappa didn’t know just how disinterested Lionel was when it came to the subject of rock music. The Messenger was also a very conservative publication, and its publisher, an Orthodox rabbi, was even more disinterested in rock music than Lionel was. Every attempt was made by editor and publisher to evade the issue, in the hope it would just go away. But the intern kept reminding Lionel about the story until he finally got so tired of the subject that he told her she could write something about it. To nobody’s surprise, her resulting article required so much work that he finally had to rewrite it from beginning to end.
In the course of his editorial surgery, he realized he needed to call Frank and ask him some questions in an attempt to make sense of the whole business. When he did get Frank on the phone, the first thing Frank said was “Put Nigey on. I want to talk to her.” I wasn’t around when Lionel made the call, but after Frank answered Lionel’s questions, he invited us up to the house for dinner. He also chatted genially with Lionel, and repeated that he was looking forward to seeing us.
For various reasons, I didn’t want to see him at that point, so we never got back to him. Neither Lionel nor I ever saw him again. But when Frank died of prostate cancer eight years later, and I found myself feeling very upset about it, Lionel encouraged me to sit down and write about my relationship with him. That was how I wrote Being Frank: My Time with Frank Zappa, which Boryanabooks has now issued as an e-book. For a guy who has no use for rock ‘n roll, Lionel Rolfe has certainly had a lot to do with one of its most notorious perpetrators.
Please don’t hold it against him.
Nigey Lennon is the author of eight published books including Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe and The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California. With Lionel Rolfe, she is also co-author of Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, which Boryanabooks will soon publish in e-book formats.