RAGA MUFFIN MAN
Having been a fan of Greg Russo’s excellent book, Cosmik Debris – The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa, I was intrigued when he told me he was working on a musical project involving Candy Zappa & Nolan Porter, The Tornadoes, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Project/Object’s André Cholmondeley & Glenn Leonard, and Nigey Lennon & John Tabacco. When I heard the results, I just had to find out more.
GR: I was in a band during my junior and senior year of high school.
Since I was ahead in mathematics, most of my friends were a year older than I
was. This band didn't have a name when I was in it because we didn't play
anywhere. We practiced a few times a week at the drummer's house. Originally,
the band did songs by Toto (‘Hold The Line’), The Cars
(‘Just What I Needed’), Nick Lowe (‘Cruel To Be Kind’) and things like that.
Unfortunately, the lead guitarist wanted to move the band into a Led Zeppelin
cover band. There were already bands in the area (
IB: When did the Neonfire project become a reality – and how did you manage to snag the talents of the Tornadoes, Napi, André, Candy & Nolan et al?
GR: I wrote
a lot of the songs in 1996 and 1997 when I was mainly out of work. I
wanted to do something to occupy my time because it's really horrible when you
have nothing to do. At the beginning of 1997, I started recording demos
with a guy called Peter Obes on a 4-track cassette
recorder. The goal was to lay down the songs and then re-record them when we
had enough money to get real recording equipment. We actually got to rehearse a
few of the songs with the late drummer Don Pedini on
a couple of occasions, and they sounded pretty good. The problem was that Peter
lost interest in the whole project towards the end of 1997. To this day, I
don’t know why because he disappeared a few years later. There were other times
between 1997 and 2001 when I was out of work, so putting together the funds
required for recording equipment was not a priority for me. In 2001, I did some
writing for a guy in exchange for the equipment and the whole recording process
started. I had to learn how to use a portable 16-track studio, and that took a
few months. By the beginning of 2002, I knew enough about the equipment to
start laying some tracks down. I have over 30 songs
that I’ve written, and I chose over a dozen songs that I felt would be good
enough to start with. I did all the parts myself on keyboards along with drum
machine patterns that came with the Korg studio. I
met André Cholmondeley about five few years ago when
Project/Object did a series of gigs at The Wetlands in
IB: You talk about putting Candy in a familiar situation by getting
her to sing ‘
IB: Which songs did you hope to get Ike Willis to sing?
GR: Ike would have been on the songs that Napi sang, plus he would have played lead and/or rhythm guitar on various tracks. It would have been great to have him on the CD, but our schedules didn’t overlap. I hope he can be on the next one.
IB: After the song ‘Clear View’, there's a snippet from a live gig by Don Pedini's band, Special Ryder. Tell me a little about that.
GR: Don was a very good friend of mine and I can’t believe he’s been gone for over three years now. He was one of my greatest supporters and he and I would discuss anything related to Manfred Mann (our favourite musician) for hours. In fact, he found out about me from a Manfred Mann article I did for Goldmine magazine in 1992. Don was in a few bands in the 10 years I knew him, and Special Ryder was the last. Just for fun, I recorded Special Ryder twice – once just before Christmas 2000 (the clip used on the Neonfire CD) and the other turned out to be his last gig. His last show was just 6 days before he died. He was complaining of indigestion and he was clearly uncomfortable singing and playing that night. Don suffered a fatal heart attack at work. Of course, I had no idea that I documented his last performance, but listening to that tape is very disturbing for me. The snippet from 2000 goes like this: after the very end of the song ‘The House Is A-Rockin’ (popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan), Don said, “We’re Special Ryder at The Purple Frog (Lynbrook, New York) on a Saturday night. It’s holiday time…it’s a busy time…we’re all scorched, we’re all bent, and it’s a long day’s journey into night.” This clip on the CD captures Don’s sense of humour and desire to entertain audiences. Nigey Lennon told me that the last part of Don’s quote was from Eugene O’Neill but, to me, that comment summed up Don’s life. He had a lot of the worries that all of us have (a mortgage, a family, etc.), but music was a very important part of his life. He had to play and, when he wasn’t playing, he devoured everything he listened to at home. We would dissect songs together until they were in pieces, and he taught me to enjoy everything that comes your way. I had written ‘Road Warrior’ in 1997 and played a demo of it for Don. He was really touched by it – especially the lyrics. He knew that I captured him perfectly. I meant every word and, to me, the song reaches a special place. I had Don meet my friend Angelo Arcario (another great Italian!), and they became good friends as well. Angelo was as devastated as I was when I heard from Don’s wife that he was gone. He would have been on this CD, but some things are not meant to happen. We do have this song to remember him by. Even if you didn’t know Don, everyone has had a ‘Don’ in their lives that is no longer with us.
IB: The only cover on the album is Dylan's ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ - what made you pick that particular song?
GR: That’s an easy one! I’ve
mentioned that I’m a big Manfred Mann fan – in fact, my first book was written
about Manfred and it was authorized. Manfred is known for his arrangement
skills, and he has not arranged better songs than Bob Dylan’s. ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ was a number two single in
IB: What happened to Candy's original vocals on that?
GR: Ah yes, poor Angelo! Along with my girlfriend, Angelo Arcario was with me when we recorded Candy’s vocals at Nigey’s house. Angelo is also very supportive of my work and, in his excitement, he disconnected the 16-track before I had a chance to save Candy’s vocals! Instead of getting mad, I had Nigey ask Candy if she would redo her vocals. Candy was in the shower! When she came out, Candy calmly knocked out all three vocal parts – one after the other – and it actually came out a lot better. I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better, either!
IB: You say that songs like ‘Clear View’ and ‘Change In The Weather’ were written when you were feeling down. Listening to these songs must surely remind you a little of those bad times?
GR: Although the memory of those times doesn’t go away, I’m more interested in what the songs do musically and lyrically. The musical impact of those songs removes me from the atmosphere in which they were written. Every time I listen to those two songs, the positive messages they convey are the only things I take from them.
IB: There's some great violin on ‘Change In The Weather’ – tell me some more about Joe Deninzon.
GR: Joe Deninzon has been called the “Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” and rightly so. In just two hours recording with him, Joe created two different violin presentations of ‘Change In The Weather’. One track was done with an acoustic violin, and the other with an electric violin and wah-wah pedal. Absolutely wild! I will work with anyone that’s as open to experimentation as I am.
IB: Though I should probably ask your sister, where's The House Of Mini?
GR: I’ll ask my sister Denise to get information for you if you need it, but ‘The House Of Mini’ refers to the miniature dollhouses that she and my late father put together when she was a kid. Denise loved to pretend to hold elegant dinners with imaginary characters, like a lot of young girls do. Compared to now, she felt that things were much better, simpler and happier when she was younger. The song is mainly about the inability of returning to those old days. A lot of that inability comes out in her vocal presentation. She’s not a professional singer by any stretch of the imagination, but what professional could project the emotion that she did in the song?
IB: What was Nigey Lennon and John Tabacco's contributions to this project?
GR: John mixed everything except for ‘Bottom Feeder’, and both he and Nigey came up with lots of input as to what elements of what I recorded should be included for the best overall mixes. Their contributions were just as important as the playing.
IB: Do you plan to work again with any of these folk – or any other Zappa alumni?
GR: Sure, I’d like to work with all of these people again, plus Ike and others like Ed Mann. It’s just a matter of figuring out who would work best on each song.
IB: Will the next album take so long to complete?
GR: No way! Like my books, the first one takes a long time and the others follow a short time later.
IB: Is it feasible that you'll ever tour Neonfire?
GR: You know, André and I have discussed this and it’s a possibility. André and I are both very busy, and if we can work out a schedule that works for us and for the other musicians, we’ll go ahead and do it.
IB: Most Zappa fans will be aware of your Cosmik Debris book, so tell us a little more about yerself.
GR: Cosmik Debris has done extremely
well, as I have reprinted it many times. It just keeps going on and on, despite
practically no promotion. I don’t have time to promote any of my books! My
regular job is teaching college mathematics and SAT courses as well as tutoring
private students. The SAT exam is the one that most colleges and universities
IB: Any plans to revise Cosmik Debris again?
GR: I have lots more new Zappa information that I’d like to include in another edition, but I’ll wait until next year before I update it again. It’s a big job to do a book update!
IB: What are you plans for the future – musical or otherwise?
GR: Well, I was asked to write a book on The Mamas & The Papas, which I did a few years ago. This guy pretended to be a publisher, and he didn’t do anything with it. I’d like to release it when I have the time because it’s really good. I’ve got at least two Tornadoes CDs to release. The first one, Now And Then, is a late October 2005 release. The other, Charge Of The Tornadoes, will be issued in the first part of 2006. There’s enough material left over for a third one. Between Now And Then and Charge Of The Tornadoes, all of the tracks that they recorded in 1962-1963 with FZ engineering will be covered. They sound better than ever. As for Neonfire, I have lots of other songs to record and I’ll start recording them once 2006 begins. Thanks to everyone who has supported my work, and let’s keep it going!
Sadly, it seems unlikely that this interview will ever appear in a future edition of T’Mershi Duween. Photo of Greg at the ‘Bottom Feeder’ sessions appears courtesy of Greg.