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Nigel and Lionel: happy times









First person

Life, love and wit of a
free spirit called Nigey

Nigey Lennon, secret lover and bandmate of rock 'n' roll legend Frank Zappa, has completed her dream album Reinventing the Wheel . Lionel Rolfe, her huband for 25 years, writes an intimate account of the life and music of the woman he loved, and continues to admire


Nigey left me in 1999 after more than a quarter century of marriage. When she sent me her CD, Reinventing the Wheel, I realized she had finished her Moby Dick . She had finally recorded the music she had had in her, the music she wanted people to hear.

The first time I met Nigey, she was cold, tired, hungry and 19 years old. I was 30. That gave me a little pause, but not much.

I had two children and a first wife I hadn't yet divorced. But I no longer lived with her. Nigey had no permanent place to live in and was sleeping on a friend's couch. I wasn't doing much better.

A short time before, she had been living in the basement of Frank Zappa's house on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Laurel Canyon where she had been a secret lover as well as a guest. Nigey and Zappa also shared an intense musical relationship. She watched the great musical cynic cry as he played her some Bartok, for example.

Living on someone's couch  

After a while, Frank's wife got upset. She knew he was not faithful to her, but she didn't appreciate it being thrown in her face. So Zappa prevailed on Ruth and Ian Underwood, musicians in his band, to put Nigey up. Ruth was Nigey's closest friend at the time anyway. Nigey also played guitar and sang in the band. So she was welcome to sleep on Ruth and Ian's couch. (Years later, when Ruth and Ian were splitting up, Ruth came and lived with us.)

One night she got into a fight with Ruth about something or other, and spent a couple of nights sleeping in her car. That's when I met her.

It happened that just before she came over to visit me I had read her cover story in the magazine where we both wrote for. I fell in love with her writing. It was a biting, sarcastic and witty profile of a would-be rock star. So when we met in the editor's office the next day, and was introduced to her, I fell all over myself propositioning her, suggesting she come up to my place, a woodsy house in Laurel Canyon.

She did. I guess it was because she was hungry. I opened a can of mushroom soup, which she devoured. I had some kind of meat leftovers in the refrigerator. After she was happily gorged, we went up a creaky flight of stairs to an attic bedroom. We lay down side by side, and with little discussion, made love. It seemed so simple and easy. It also felt something different than just passionate. It was incredibly comforting. I think for both of us. Ultimately, we became inseparable.

Zappa and the old school 

I was ashamed of being so enchanted with a 19-year-old. But Nigey was different. She was so precocious, so bright, so interesting to talk with, so much fun, I easily forgot she was more than 10 years younger. Mentally she seemed to be a wise old woman, and physically she was a young woman with great sexual appetites.

There was a rub, of course. She was still madly in love with Zappa, and would sometimes sneak away to see him. Oddly enough, Zappa approved of Nigey and me and seemed to like me quite a bit. We argued about music. He was impressed by who my uncle was (Yehudi Menuhin)  because he wanted approval from the old European school desperately, even if he constantly belittled the tradition.

I asked him what he would do with his electric instruments if the power went out. Turn on the generators, he smirked.

I was trying to make a point about the primacy of acoustic instruments, but it was ignored by both Zappa and Nigey. Sometimes Nigey's parroting of Zappa's musical views irritated me a lot. Perhaps my feeling was influenced by the thought that she still made love to him from time to time.

But I too had come from the wild '60s, full of bohemian bacchanals and orgies. I liked the show of pulchritude that was around Zappa -- so much the hallmark of rock 'n' roll mythology.

When we got together, I'm sure that Nigey was also impressed with my being related to Yehudi Menuhin. In the '60s, Yehudi made a series of records with sitarist Ravi Shankar called East Meets West , and they were very popular. Nigey had studied with Ravi Shankar.

When I got a contract to write about the Menuhins, Zappa's band came to London. Ruth called. We got tickets, went to the concert, and then got on the band bus. We got in a conversation with Jean Luc Ponty, the electronic violinist.

Electronic noise

Nigey told him who my uncle was. He knew Yehudi's Bartok, which is indeed some of his best work. I asked him if I wasn't right to suspect that the electronics took away a lot of the essence of the instrument. Absolutely, he said. He conceded, frankly, that playing an electric violin reduced all the subtle nuances of the instrument to something kind of akin to a tinny, radio broadcast. He said he gravitated to the electric violin just because of that. He said he knew he lacked something as a violinist, and the electric violin hid these shortcomings.

Nigey and I stayed together for many years, and we wrote a number of books and magazine articles together. She wrote about Mark Twain and Alfred Jarry and with me, a book about Los Angeles history. Nigey always took her music more seriously than her writing, which she tossed off so easily she was sure it had no real value. She was wrong.

Only once had we had contact with Zappa since the early '70s. We edited the old Jewish paper,  The B'nai B'rith Messenger , then one of the city's pioneer papers. Nigey is Greek and Irish without a hint of Semite in her. But she was a crackerjack editor. Zappa was having his war in the '80s with Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president, about her involvement with an anti-rock 'n' roll group that thought the music was satanic.

The Messenger got involved because it turned out that the group Gore was involved with was also anti-Semitic. I talked with Zappa a few times because of this story we were working on. He asked me if we both wanted to come up to his house for dinner, for old times' sake.

For different reasons, we both said no. When he died, though, I think Nigey rued that decision. His influence had stayed with her all those years, if not in body certainly in spirit.

How she wrote her book  

I encouraged her to write a piece about him which ran in The Independent in London. From that, she kept writing -- day and night for several months -- until she had finished her book, Being Frank: My Time with Frank Zappa .

While Nigey was a facile and humorous writer who is a lot of fun to read, her real love was always making a record. During all the 25 years we were together, she was working on it. At one point she went into the studio with some other musicians and recorded a version of Reinventing the Wheel . She performed live, and I actually sang with the group which was called Hog Heaven. I was Maurice the sleaze bucket, and a fairly successful one at that. Women would always come up and ask for my phone number and give me theirs.

When she sent me her CD, I realized she had finally completed the thing she was trying to do. Here in Los Angeles she worked with Victoria Berding, who is a theatrical singer of real talent, and Candy Zappa, Frank's sister, who is no mean slouch at the blues either.

But she really found her match in John Tabacco in Long Island, and it's in his studio she'd been happily recording this CD.

Tabacco became fascinated when he read about how her plans for an album produced by Zappa never materialized. From her description, he figured out that the material would be kind of a melding of Zappa, Bartok and country western swing -- which were her roots.

'White trash'

Nigey liked to describe herself as "white trash," certainly compared to my background. Her family were dispossessed cattle people from Arizona who fell on bad times during the Great Depression. So she felt a great connection to western swing.

Once when she was tapped to sing and play a concert with Patsy Montana at the Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park, she said it was an amazing thing for her to be doing. She only wished her grandmother, who had revered Montana who used to sing with Gene Autry, had lived to see it.

Nigey is not a great singer or even a great instrumentalist. She plays guitar and keyboards, but primarily she is a composer and impresario -- all true of Zappa as well. And here she has something special.

I told her when I wrote back that I thought she had finally succeeded in doing what she had been trying to do as long as I knew her. And that was make a record of the music she kept hearing in her head.

Like any composer, she wanted an orchestra to play her music. Frank let her once conduct his band in a rendition of one of her earliest pieces.

A lot of people have tried to do what Zappa did since his death, but when I heard Nigey's CD, I decided she may well be the best to carry on his tradition.

Lionel Rolfe 

Frankly better than Zappa:  Rolfe's review of 'Reinventing the Wheel'

*Rolfe writes more about Nigey in his new ebook Death and Redemption in London and L.A (http://www.deadendstreet.com) and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, available from amazon.com and http://www.dabelly.com

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On my request, Lionel Rolfe wrote these articles exclusively and quickly for The Music Magazine. Thank you Lionel for this unflinching and warm personal piece, and the insightful, no-holds-barred review. -- Ram


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