'"The Mothers of Invention" came from the fact that Mike Curb, the gangstaish former California politician (he was a lieutenant governor) turned record company mogul, wouldn't let Zappa use the word Mutha, derived from an expletive.'
'Unlike my mom, or Nigey for that matter, Candy thinks Mother's Day "is a very important holiday because it honors the person who gave you life".'
'My mother was adamantly insisting that words can never convey great depth and move one emotionally and intellectually in the way that music can... I reminded her that Aunt Willa used words, and her words had melody and rhythm in the same way an orchestra does'
Zappas, Menuhins and Muthas
This Mother's Day, Lionel Rolfe was thinking about his mother, the celebrated Yaltah Menuhin, and her hatred of the crass commercialism that marks the day. That, and Frank and Candy Zappa and mothers and mothers...
I suppose it's ironic that my mother, who died a year or so ago and taught me to reject Mother's Day for its crass commercialism, didn't hang around long enough to see me publish a book called My Brother Was A Mother.
For the last 40 years my mother was a concert pianist in London. The two decades before that she was married to my dad in Southern California. It's unlikely that she would have appreciated the title's joke.
My Brother Was A Mother is a play on Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention band name, affectionately known among the cognoscenti as The Muthas. Its author is Candy Zappa, Frank's sister.
Mutha is a term often attached to another word. In fact Mutha is short hand for the full explicative, Mother Fucker.
Nigey Lennon, whose BEING FRANK: My Time With Frank Zappa is being published in an expanded edition alongside Candy's book, explained to me the real reason Frank used the term Mutha. "It's used if you want to say that guy, that Mutha, is the best player on that instrument in the world." Or a band can be a Mutha. That was always Frank's intention, she said.
"The Mothers of Invention" came from the fact that Mike Curb, the gangstaish former California politician (he was a lieutenant governor) turned record company mogul, wouldn't let Zappa use the word Mutha. So his band became "Mothers of Invention". Muthas was too black, too street, if you know what I mean. Nigey said that Frank dropped the name as soon as he could dissociate himself from Curb.
What is for sure is that he was not celebrating Mother's Day when he named his band The Muthas.
Unlike my mom, or Nigey for that matter, Candy thinks Mother's Day "is a very important holiday because it honors the person who gave you life".
She knows that there are "mothers who are deserving of special treatment who should have it. There are women who have given birth, that doesn't mean they are mothers".
She feels particularly lucky to have had a "wonderful, warm relationship" with her and "I'm glad she's my mother".
But Nigey, whose relationship with her mother was "highly dubious", thought that her opinion of Mother's Day was a real "mutha of a question" for her. "Leave my mother out of this," she said.
Come to think of it, my mother also had a very dubious relationship with her mother. Maybe that was why I was married to Nigey for a number of years.
Nigey's mother did not welcome me into the clan.
"If you're going to marry a Jew, at least marry a rich Jew," she screamed at Nigey.
Despite her difficult mother, Nigey was not as adamantly opposed to Mothers Day as my mother. Yaltah staunchly opposed it, as I learned the first time I picked out some jewelry for her on Mother's Day -- a necklace that she truly liked, I think. Still she explained to me that Mother's Day was a holiday to boycott. An excuse to make people buy things they really didn't need.
As I said, I'm not sure if my mother would have been disgusted by the humor of the term Mutha or gotten a real kick out of it. She could be either way. She was a concert pianist -- Yaltah Menuhin, the youngest sister of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. All three Menuhin children had been musical prodigies. My mother could be very serious, but she could also get very silly when necessary.
I suppose you could have said my mom was a bit of a snob and so was I. When I met Frank Zappa in the early '70s, for example, I engaged him in some intense debate about his need (and everyone else who looked like him) to make acoustic instruments electronic. I suppose there is something vaguely anachronistic about preferring acoustic instruments to electronic ones, but there's also some good arguments I won't go into here in their favor.
So I was not immediately taken with his music. Later I came to see that some of it was really beautiful -- a strange term to use for Zappa's music, and to appreciate it.
Having known Candy, I can now see that the Zappa family was fiercely more proletarian than I ever was.
Frank undoubtedly loved his doting mother RoseMarie as much as Candy did. He had a pretty happy proletarian, even petite bourgeoisie upbringing in Lancaster in the high desert north of the San Gabriel Mountains, and later south of the mountains in that area where the San Gabriel Valley becomes the Great Inland Empire.
These days his Mom's still alive, in her 90s, a cute, little, old Italian firebrand who lives a block away from her daughter Candy in North Hollywood. She's still an obviously intelligent woman, with a sharp tongue, just like her daughter and famous deceased son, but out of a definite time and other place. Most of the time she was the traditional mother in the kitchen, who took a job that took her away from her beloved family only rarely.
"Mom was the epitome of Mommy-hood," Candy wrote. "She really stayed at home and took care of all of us. She didn't wear a string of pearls and high heels with a shirtwaist dress. She was beautiful in whatever she wore. Sometimes she wore pedal pushers, sometimes long pants, saddle oxfords, tennies. She had her own style. Mom loved to follow trends and always kept an immaculate house."
The Muthas were actually born in a restaurant in Upland that Frank and Candy's parents ran for a while -- it was called The Pit.
"It was your basic run-of-the-mill American-style food place, serving such delicacies as hamburgers, fries, Cokes, and generous portions of different kinds of meats and pastas," according to Candy.
"Dad loved to cook, and Mom worked the counter, although I don't think she took as much interest in it as Dad. In the morning, she would get me and Carl off to school and then head back to serve the locals burgers, fries and other deep-fried treats," she wrote.
"Frank took a lot of interest in the restaurant. He took charge of the rear of the place and installed bamboo curtains on the windows. The fire department quickly ordered them removed. Undaunted, Frank set up a stage and brought in some musicians to play on the weekends for the local college students and anyone else who was invited or just happened to come by.
"As it turned out, this would be the only time in my life that I was on stage with Frank. One night I sang a couple of songs, one with Ray Collins, who became one of the originals Mothers of Invention. We performed I'm Leaving It All Up To You and then I sang Long Tall Texan. The crowd went wild. Frank seemed proud of me and glad I was on stage with him," she wrote.
The Zappa clan came West in December, 1951, in a Henry J that the elder Zappa had purchased just for the trip.
Once they settled in, Papa Zappa proved to be a resourceful provider, and often times made pretty good money as a teacher and rough-hewn scientist. They lived in Lancaster and then Claremont and there was little rarified about the environment. Candy went to Pomona Catholic Girls High School.
There was a lot of creativity in the way Frank's parents did things, which Candy writes about in her book, but this still was the land of tract homes and backyard barbecues in the postwar suburbs.
Candy, who is also a damned good vocalist her brother should have used more, is very much her mother's daughter. She writes about her famous brother, but she also writes about the her parents and other siblings as well growing up in in the high desert and the eastern reaches of the San Gabriel Valley in a better time.
"I don't remember graffiti, gangs, shootings or any of the activities that go on today," she said of the places of her youth. "It might not be the happiest place on earth," she dryly notes.
My knowledge of the San Gabriel Valley was confined to going with my mother and father in the '50s to look and almost purchase a large craftsman mansion in Pasadena. It had a large garden and even orchards, but was considered a white elephant.
And it was a white elephant -- someone in its more recent sad history had painted it white, quite out of sync with the way it was intended to be. I often wondered how my life would have been different if my family had moved to that house. It had several acres and some orchards and the house was basically quite grand.
My only other San Gabriel Valley experience about that time was attending Mt Lowe Military Academy, which now has been buried beneath a county park in Altadena.
When we didn't buy that house in Pasadena, we moved to another in Long Beach.
On one of those glorious Southern California summer Sunday mornings, the sun was everywhere in my parents' bedroom.
It was their bedroom and they got their privacy. But sometimes my brother Robby and I used the room because it could double as a family-like master bedroom as well. It was a mild summer morning, but maybe it was spring. It was not easy for the sun to get through the windows, hung deep into the two-foot wide walls of the large two-story home we lived in.
There were also thick curtains over the windows, but the sun still found its way in on several focused streams that threw their light into the darkened corners of the morning. The air would have been thicker and darker except that my dad had told me to open the door to the second-story patio. This allowed some additional air and light into the bedroom.
It all felt very cozy and family like. My parents, Benjamin and Yaltah, were lying in the bed, and my brother Robby and I hung back in the shadows. My mother had brought out her shoe box full of letters from "Aunt Willa", otherwise known to the world as Willa Cather, the great writer from Nebraska.
Yaltah read one of the letters which described me as a baby, in most complimentary terms, and laughed at the memories. At other points she cried as she read.
Aunt Willa, she explained, was the mother her own mother Marutha had never been. If not quite intellectually, certainly in her heart of hearts, my mother thought of her mother as a witch. As a practitioner of Voodoo, Marutha was somewhat believably cast in that role. She had dolls for those she particularly disliked. Yaltah always felt she was one of the victims of her mother's satanic works.
No wonder she didn't like Mother's Day! As I watched her life unfold, it was plain to me that Yaltah Menuhin had good reason to feel the way she did. For the last decades of both their lives, mother and daughter talked only one time, and that was after Yaltah's brother Yehudi had cajoled Marutha and Yaltah into a telephone call. After a valiant attempt, Yaltah hung up and never talked to her mother again. Her mother died shortly before Yaltah did. Marutha was one hundred and four when she died. Yaltah was seventy nine.
That summer morning as my mother read the letters it seemed as if Cather was amazingly romantic. She talked about how the pictures my mother had sent her showed I must have been the most beautiful baby in the world. She also advised my mother, who must have been contemplating divorce at the time the letter was written, when I was a baby, to stay with my father even in the face of intense scorn from the elder Menuhin.
It was only many years later I began to realize that my mother's "Aunt Willa" was not just some crazy aunt. She was an incredible artist and writer with a strange and not easily analyzed connection to music. Willa was no musical snob. She loved the music made by itinerant Mexican workers, for there were many such men and their families on the plains in the 19th century. She wrote powerful if not sometimes disturbing accounts of a black pianist playing great jazz of his own. She loved opera and as a result of her friendship with the Menuhins, at least in part, she came to love chamber music.
Still, for many years it was not easy thinking that "Aunt Willa" was also a great writer. References to her were so commonplace in my home that I felt her presence in nearly everything connected to my mother.
To my mother, Willa Cather was the woman who had taught her what art was, what being an artist meant, and what the search for Truth was about -- whether on the piano or typewriter keyboard.
Shortly before she died my mother and I had a surprisingly acrimonious and personal argument considering the subject.
I think she may have been disappointed that I did not continue studying the classical guitar in my youth. She felt I was good at it -- a conclusion with which I disagreed.
My mother was adamantly insisting that words can never convey great depth and move one emotionally and intellectually in the way that music can. They cannot duplicate the quarrel and rapture of a great musical moment.
"What good does talking and arguing do?" she asked me. She looked meaningfully at me, since I am indeed given to talking and arguing sometimes.
"What about people who use words like Aunt Willa did?" I shot back.
I reminded her that Aunt Willa used words, and her words had melody and rhythm in the same way an orchestra does.
My mother had no reply, and she obviously was thinking about what I had said, and the implications of that.
One of my last memories of Yaltah occurred early one morning -- at five -- as Ivan Ezekiel, a next-door neighbor, drove us to the Hampstead train station. It was still dark and windy and biting cold. Instead of taking the Gatwick Express, I was catching a local train to the airport.
As we said goodbye, my brand new white hat that I had purchased for my trip to London was blown down onto the station platform, where large black pools were forming from the driving rain. I hoped it wasnšt fate trying to tell me something, but just then the wind suddenly gusted. The hat ran past me and landed in one of those pools.
"Damn," I said, chasing after it.
I wasn't going to get it. Another gust of wind blew it to the feet of a nearby Englishman by the edge of the platform. He was a businessman with a massive hat and an immaculate business suit. He grabbed for my hat and handed it to me ever so politely. I marveled that the hat wasn't dirtier. And I was glad the hat wasn't ruined.
The train was due, and I had a lot of luggage to get onto the train. So I didn't have time to be effusively American in my thanks, but I'm sure my face showed my appreciation.
The one thing that did make me nervous was my mom's joining in the chase for my hat. She's a bit wobbly, anyway, and her running straight down into the rail corridor scared me terribly.
I envisioned her veering off the platform in front of an incoming train.
My concern for the time was needless. When I looked up at the dingy electric sign, we had seven minutes before the train was due. We ducked into a shabby, glass-enclosed passenger shelter where I could watch the clock ticking off the minutes. There, clutching my fugitive hat for security, I hugged my mother, and wondered if this would be the last time I would see her.
But it wasn't much later that the end came. As it happened, I had talked to Yaltah by phone only three days before her death in 2001, and she sounded fine. We were making plans for my visit in a couple of months.
Instead, my cousin Jeremy called me one night at my office where I worked for a news wire service in the press room of Parker Center, the main police station in Los Angeles. He told me Yaltah had died.
He said that he thought her death, of a heart attack, might have been caused by the very strenuous program she had played the night before at a children's concert.
She regularly played at the Orwell Park School. She played preludes of Chopin and Debussy, then danced down the aisle with the kids behind her, full of abandon, life and glee.
Some who saw it said she was the most exuberant they had seen her in a long time. She died the next night in the arms of her loving neighbor, Bunny Moses.
Bunny became angry as she saw Yaltah seize up and die. "Youšre not going to die," she said with death-defying fury.
By the time the ambulance got there, it was too late.
At the concert at Orwell Park she had played all the preludes, which Chopin wrote when he was in Majorca with his friend George Sand, and also played some preludes by Debussy, and followed up with Clair de Lune as an encore -- an appropriate selection considering she was "a great lover of stars at night," the school's headmaster Andrew Auster said.
English papers noted in their obituaries that Yaltah had been enjoying a renaissance when she died.
She had given a haunting performance of the Mozart B-flat major Sonata at a memorial concert for Yehudi in November of 2000 in London that was much applauded.
It was the same work that she had played with Yehudi in 1938.
She played it with Nicola Benedetti, the fourteen-year-old violinist from the Yehudi Menuhin School who later played so movingly Chausson's Poeme at a memorial for Yaltah put on by her good friend Rikki Gerardy in a small church in Highgate, October 14, 2001. Yaltah had played with Benedetti on several occasions, and the young violinist felt close to her.
In any event, the concert, which also featured Yaltah's nephew Jeremy, began on a late winter afternoon, only a week after what would have been her eightieth birthday.
It was held in Highgate, London, where her brother had lived at 2 The Grove, just a stone's throw away from the church. The building next door to Yehudi's had been where Coleridge wrote about Kubla Khan's "Stately Pleasure Dome".
Despite all the familial and historical resonance in it, the place seemed but an empty stage as the audience disappeared into the Highgate night.
Hers was a story full of frustrations, rejections, and inadvertent timing mishaps. To be sure, there were advantages coming from being a Menuhin.
Being a Menuhin handicapped her but it also gave her tremendous advantages.
By June of 2001 when she died, Yaltah was embarking on a flowering, a renaissance, after a long period of mourning of her husband, Joel Ryce. Her tale was truly like that of Cinderella. She became the artist she was meant to be. She was playing more and more concerts, and was in a very real sense continuing the Menuhin tradition -- and fulfilling the dream that Cather gave her.
So this Mother's Day I was thinking of Muthas -- my own, Candy's and Nigey's and all the others in the world there are.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A., another book, Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, and a just released paperback edition of Death and Redemption in London & L.A. He is also working on a book on his mother and her relationship with Willa Cather, tentatively called Yaltah and Willa.
Published on 18 May 2003
to the editor