San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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June 26, 2003

I Pledge Allegiance to the Grand Wazoo

I was working in a silkscreen shop as a printer about five years ago, over in Mission Hills. It was pretty low-key in the sense that we could listen to music or watch videos while we ran a job. In the early nineties, our radio was churning out the likes of Nirvana and Soundgarden, as well as Beatles, Public Enemy, and believe or not, Styx. Mr. Roboto fans would have been thrilled. Our boss was a hippie, a fan of classic rock, but also a fan of this band called the Mothers of Invention, which included a familiar name - Frank Zappa. Until then I had known him only as the ‘Valley Girl’ guy.

I was in high school at the time, playing guitar in a classic rock cover band. I was so into it that I tried looking as sixties as possible, except for the…(choke)…mullet. Nonetheless, I felt that I was pretty sophisticated musically, having trained my ear on Zeppelin, Hendrix, and countless other classic rock bands. Zappa was one guy that had eluded my ears, until Charlie brought the Mothers into work one day. He had come into work one day with about seven Zappa albums, from the Mothers of Invention stuff all they way to Overnite Sensation. My interest was piqued, because I was a guitar freak, and I had heard that Zappa was quite the guitar player. I read off the names of the albums: ‘Weasels Ripped my Flesh’? ‘Apostrophe’? ‘200 Motels’. I thought, “This guy’s weird. He’s gotta be on drugs.” I ended up being wrong about the drugs, but very right about the weirdness.

From the moment he hit play on the CD, all my expectations of what Frank Zappa might have sounded like went out the window. I had him pegged for sixties blues-rock. Nope. The song was called ‘Plastic People’ and it lasted a couple of minutes before my co-workers and I started complaining. 58 minutes later marked the end of the torture that had later been declared, “The time Charlie brought in that crappy music…” I decided that I didn’t like Zappa or the Mothers. No way. That was music? I thought, what the hell was Deep Purple thinking, immortalizing him in ‘Smoke on the Water’? Little did I know, a seed had been planted.

A few years ago, when Napster was helping big e-commerce sites lose precious bandwidth, was when I accidentally revisited planet Zappa. I had been an in-house graphic designer at an Internet startup. Everybody who worked there had a T1 connection and the Napster client. It was a huge downloading party that lasted until the suits pulled the plug, about a year later. It was plenty of time to refamiliarize myself with music I disliked. So here’s how it happened. I had been sifting through a user’s Shared folder, looking for something good, when I came across a file called ‘Montana-FZappa’. I clicked ‘Download’ and never looked back. 15 discs and three years later, I’m writing this story.

I love the guy’s music, what can I say? My friends think I’m crazy. I think they’re crazy, listening to that Drum and Bass stuff. I listen to music (sniff!). I can say a million great things about it, but you’d have to listen to know what I’m talking about, so I’ll move on to another subject – the fact that Frank spent some years in San Diego as a kid. Whether or not he was fond of the city is beyond me, but I do know that his earliest musical epiphany—his discovery of Edgard Varese—happened while living in El Cajon. I’d also read that he once attended Mission Bay High School and shopped for blues singles at a record store on the ground floor of the Maryland Hotel in downtown. This last factoid stuck with me, because I vaguely remembered visiting a record store there once. It was probably not the same one, but I decided to make a trip downtown and check it out anyway.

The Maryland is/was kind of a flophouse, an old San Diego hotel with white antique mosaic floors. I played shows with a ska band on the bottom floor coffeehouse once. The Gashaus, as it was called, was accessible through the hotel, and the bands had to keep their gear in the basement until it was their turn to play. The basement area could have been a set for The Shining. It was horror movie creepy, where your footfalls echoed loudly and one felt that they were being watched! Next door was the record store, which at the time had great old vinyl. I think I bought a Queen album there once.

I had returned, only to find the place emptied out. They’re refurbishing the hotel, upgrading it to fit in with downtown redevelopment. There had been low-income senior citizens living there, all evicted when the new ownership took over. There was nothing to indicate that either Gashaus or the record store had ever been there. What had I expected to find? Nothing. I just thought I’d retrace young Zappa’s steps while there was still a chance. I kicked around a bit and then took off.

Sometime later, I made it downtown to see Mike Keneally play at a jazz club called Dizzy’s. Mike was a local San Diegan who became the guitarist during Zappa’s 1988 tour, and remained a good friend of Frank’s well afterwards. He has also become a legend in his own right. I was able to chat briefly with Mike after the show. I think I said something witty, like, “I love your music…” Oh, brother. I’m not really good at talking to my hero’s. I did, however, avoid questions about Frank. I didn’t want to pester him with stuff people probably ask all the time. We kind of looked at each other knowingly, and then briefly talked guitar. Afterwards, I was contented with a parting handshake.

Walking back to the car, I thought about seeing Mike, being in downtown San Diego, and just the whole six degrees of separation. It’s funny how small the world is sometimes. I was pretty darn happy to be a Zappa fan that night. It’s like being in a secret club (of lunatics, you may think).

“Moving to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon….Aaaaaarf!”

Posted by sfilippone at 10:02 PM | Comments (2)

June 03, 2003

Scar Tissue

I still can see the scar everytime I get a haircut. I was probably 6 years old, playing a daring game of slip and slide...on the concrete.

First it was Frankie, my next door neighbor, diving off the brick stoop and bellyflopping onto the wet, slippery concrete. Trying to outdo each other, each dive became quicker and more brazen, until my turn came up for the last time.

I had misjudged the edge of the stoop, slipping and falling backward on an invisible banana peel (picture a Warner Bros. cartoon...). Well, my skull didn't misjudge the stoop, made of those red bricks with nice sharp edges.

Wham! Stars, blinding pain, darkness, then me howling. Oh, and blood, lots of it.

Frankie's mom drove me to the hospital with my dad. I had somewhat calmed down until I saw the sign. It said HOSPITAL. Then they said "Doctor." I said, hell no. Howling and bleeding, I locked them out of the car :)

Eventually, I did get those stitches. I still don't remember how they got me out of that car...

Posted by sfilippone at 10:04 PM