SERGIO ALBONICO

MilesSergio.jpg

They say that all good things come to those who wait.
    When I was writing my book on Frank Zappa’s final world tour, Zappa The Hard Way (Wymer UK, 2010), I attempted to get in touch with Sergio Albonico. Sergio took the cover shots used on Frank’s Guitar album, as well as all of the photos in the 1988 tour’s official programme. Principally I wanted to ascertain whether he had any outtakes we might include in the book, but I also thought he might have some interesting insights into the tour given that he attended several band rehearsals.
    Alas, I could not trace him.
    Fast forward nine years to a few weeks ago, and my Facebook friend Hakan Tuna contacted me having spotted some comments made by Sergio on a YouTube video. He seemed eager to tell some stories.
    So I pounced again. And great googly-moogly, this is what transpired.

Firstly, could you clarify your name for me, please: Sergio or Milo Albonico?
Milo Albonico is for when I make a movie, and people call me that way now.
    When I was younger, Sergio was my first name. Then I decided to use my second name for my films, which are mostly erotic films. I am about to make one now that will feature a few stars. And I finished writing a visual book, called Anthropornology.

Okay. How did you get the nickname, “The Snowman”?
I love the light that the snow reflects. And there was quite a bit of snow in the first films I made, so I created the character of The Snowman – played by me. He appears in at least eight films. It’s basically his adventures in the land of sex, and sometimes love.[i]

Did your career in erotica start after you shot Frank?
When I met Frank in 1987, I was 24 years old. I was working as a music and cinema journalist IN LA. My career in erotica had already started because I was also making a living interviewing porn stars for Japanese magazines: it paid very well. So I was bouncing between the music and the porn world.
    It was around the time of Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention. I remember Jazz from Hell had been released and I knew Bob Rice, who at the time was Frank’s computer assistant. He said one day that I could assist at the rehearsals of FZ’s imminent tour.
    Bob knew I was a photographer. I asked him if I could take some photos. That’s how I met Frank. I knew Zappa’s music quite well already and it was great to see the process of putting together a big band like that. The rehearsals were taking place in a huge movie studio in Hollywood. Frank would arrive around 9 pm and rehearse the band until about 2, 3 in the morning.

How did you know Bob?
He was my next door neighbour!

So initially, you were at rehearsals, just taking photos for fun? At what point did you become Frank’s ‘official’ photographer?
Initially I was at rehearsals and I asked if I could take some photos. So I did.
    Two days later, Frank came up to me and said, “Let me see the photos you took.” I did have some with me already, colour slides. He took a look and simply said, “How much do you want to do the tour book?”
    I would like to say that during rehearsals, I was extremely interested in studying Sinister Footwear II on the piano. To see, hear and photograph the band was an immense pleasure for me.
    So the next day, I told Frank how much I wanted, and he said, “I need to do the album cover of my next album, Guitar. How much do you want?” I answered, “I will let you know tomorrow.” He then said, “I want a ‘red’ portrait, because red is commercial.” So I knew I had to come up with a red shot.
    But I was taking lots of great pictures every night because I was happy to be with such great people and musicians. It was a great band, and it was great to be so close to Frank every night.

Tell me about the selection of the photographs used on Guitar.
This is a difficult question. I did the first selection, of course. Then Gail Z got in the way, and everybody – and almost all the musicians in Frank’s band – were having big problems with her. Ed Mann, for example.
    Gail was a very unpleasant person to many people, including me.

So she disagreed with your selection? Did Frank offer an opinion, or intervene to help resolve the problems?
Very good intuition, Andrew!
    Well, now your question needs a correct answer. And the answer is clear to me. But it will take a long and articulate answer.
    Can you handle it?

I’m bracing myself!
So, this is what happened:
    I was selecting the photos with Frank every day. Then Gail came in the picture and she had a graphic guy from Art Hotel,[ii] responsible for the most boring covers of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series. And Gail decided that he was going to do the graphic design of the album Guitar and the tour book.
    By then, Gail was driving a lot of people up the wall – especially some of the musicians in Frank’s band.
    Scott Thunes had been nominated conductor of the band when Frank was not there. I became friends with Scott, and we went out to music clubs in LA. But Scott was also driving the band up the wall with his behaviour. Nobody talked to him because he was strange. For example, when I was shooting photos, Scott would hide, or kick with his foot, my photo equipment. But I didn’t care because I liked him. I was the only one who had some kind of friendship with him and I found out something that the others didn’t know: that Scott’s brother was dying. That is one of the reasons why Scott was behaving strange.
    Scott being the bandleader created a situation where all the musicians hated him because he was arrogant. I thought he was the funniest guy in the band and I took great pictures of him.
    I had ideas about the album cover and the tour book. But Gail was so nasty: she basically believed she was one of the queens of Hollywood, in a league with Joni Mitchell or Madonna – just because she was Frank’s wife.
    She ended up selecting my photos with her uncreative graphic artist, so she could tell him what to do and feel in power.
    Some of the best photos I took have never been published.
    Ed Mann was also having big problems with Gail, but I don’t know about what.
    At rehearsals, I never saw any women – except once: Scott’s girlfriend.
    At Frank’s house, I must say that Frank’s studio was very ordered and effective. But upstairs, in Gail’s office, was such chaos and mess everywhere – like in The Dangerous Kitchen, with Gail who basically believed she was God’s gift to mankind.
    Now I would like to say something about the music:
    There were magic moments when the band would play tunes like Whippin’ Post or Alien Orifice. Frank was at the top of his guitar playing…so creative!
    During rehearsals, Frank was – when not playing or conducting – constantly drinking coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Not very healthy.
    Sometimes some of his children would come to see him. Gail would also come to rehearsals sometimes. In the following years, I never heard anyone say anything nice about Gail.
    Frank was obsessed with this song Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk, and also the song about gay people and the one about Michael Jackson.[iii] Definitely not his best work. As a matter of fact, the Broadway The Hard Way album is a forgettable record. The album cover by Lynn Goldsmith (who is a great photographer) is a very boring portrait of Frank trying to be cool – as if he came straight out of Miami Vice. Probably Gail’s input, wanting Frank to look like a movie star.
    Gail wanted that all her kids and family all become famous actors in Hollywood.

When I asked Scott if his brother and father’s deaths had any bearing on his demeanour at the time, he denied this – saying he wasn’t in any state of negativity about anything until the tour reached Springfield and he had to deal with “the baby antics” of Ed Mann.
    Why do you think Frank didn’t intervene to resolve the problems – including those with Gail?
I think Frank was too busy with the music. All I can say is that to chain-smoke and chain-drinking coffee like he was doing is not the way to do when you also have a urinary infection.
    Scott is a great guy. He plays great bass and looks good on stage. You know he is a good person. But I don’t believe he was the right person to be bandleader in a big band like that. The music sounded great. Well, when you have Bobby Martin at the keyboards…Bobby would have been a better bandleader. Bobby is a fantastic musician. Great singer, too. And then you have Ike Willis and Frank on vocals…I mean to say that when Frank was there, Scott was not the bandleader anymore: Frank was conducting, singing and playing guitar non-stop.

Sergio2.jpgI assume you took all of the photos used in the tour programme during rehearsals – did you see any dates on the actual tour?
Yes, I did?

How many dates? And did you take more photographs?
Yes, I took more photos. For an advertisement for Carvin amplifiers featuring Frank, for example.

You mentioned to me that you have remained friends with Chad, Scott, Ed and Bobby – do you ever discuss the 1988 tour with them?
I don t discuss the 88 tour with them. And I live in France now.

…where the girls is all salty!
    I assume you were part of the entourage for the US dates – what did you witness of the in-fighting back then?
At the time, I was also working with another band: the Miles Davis band.  And I was also working directly with Miles.
    I remember one time I said to Frank that I was also working with Miles. I don’t remember precisely what he said, but he had a lot of respect for Miles and Miles’ band.
    There are bands that are like a big family, such as Santana. And in Miles’ band, everybody got along well – like true professionals.
    But then there are other bands where there are personality conflicts.
    What I witnessed in Frank’s band was basically that Scott was a prankster with everyone. He was not the right person to be bandleader. Of course Chad had the biggest problem with him because they were the rhythm section. Scott was basically making it difficult for Chad to play, and for no specific reason. So I just saw that Chad couldn’t stand Scott anymore, and soon nobody in the band was talking to Scott anymore.

Robert Martin told me he had a better relationship with Scott than most of the band, “partially because he respected my heavy classical background.”
Watching Bobby every night playing keyboards, sax and singing…well, one night I approached him shyly and asked, “It’s incredible: you play keyboards, you sing like a lion (Whippin’ Post…his performance was AMAZING – such perfection), you play sax too…how did you learn all this? It’s some difficult music that you are playing…” And he looked at me and said, “Oh that’s easy, playing keyboards and the rest. What is difficult is that I am building my house in the woods all by myself and I am having difficulties with the electricity and installing the water pipes.” So I said, “Do you mean you are building a house just by yourself?” And he answered, “Yes.” Like it was not such a big deal.

He’s one cool dude.
What a great shot he gave me for the tour book. That’s a great shot.
    All of the musicians in Zappa's band were such nice people: Mike Keneally, Kurt McGettrick, Albert Wing, Paul Carman...and the sound techs, Marque[iv] and Bob.[v]
    Mike was the new guy in the band. After one week I was there and I didn’t know him and I was probably a bit shy around all these super musicians…well, he came up to me and said these exact words: "We have not been introduced. My name is Mike Keneally." What a gentleman. Never saw something like this before or after. Such humility and greatness at the same time.
    Now, Jeff Fey...

You met him?
Yeah. I would bring the photos to Art Hotel and he wouldn’t even look at them. At one point I said something about an idea, and he answered, "I am busy." I had absolutely no input. They chose the worst photos. The most boring layout. If you look, they put a boring shot on the front of the tour book and a super shot in the back.

Did you ever discuss Frank’s music with Miles?
With Miles, you don’t discuss music. I did once and he stopped me and said to me.”Are you a psychiatrist?” I did other things with Miles.

So what – a-ha! – exactly did you do with Miles?
I hired him to play on some music. He made about 40,000 dollars for two hours work. Not bad! He spent all of this money in the evening in a Versace shop.

Was George Duke in Miles’ band at that time?
George Duke had produced one tune on Tutu.[vi] He was not part of Miles’ band. He played only as guest soloist a couple of times during Miles’ concerts.
    I consider George Duke one of the greatest. Period. Untouchable.
    I only met him twice. Never had the pleasure of talking to him.
    My favourite George Duke album is Don’t Let Go.[vii]

You mentioned Santana earlier. What was your role on their Spirits Dancing In The Flesh album?
Executive producer.

I note that two former Zappa alumni were also involved in that album: Chester Cortez Thompson – as producer – and Peter F. Wolf – as arranger. What can you tell me about those guys?
Never met them. Peter Wolf produced an album that I love: Mosaic by Wang Chung. He is starring in Baby Snakes.

I loved Hold Back The Tears by Wang Chung – back when they were Huang Chung!
    As well as being a photographer and adult actor, are you also a musician?
Yes. At this moment I am working with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo.

Wow!  What more can you tell me about the project – you play keyboards, right?
Right. I play keyboards.
    I am now in production of this film I am directing. In the cast there are some known actresses and actors. I cannot say more because I am shooting it now and it’s a film that takes place in different cities. I am interested in some music that Mark wrote and he is okay with it. When he will see the finished film we will make final decisions.
    I can tell you the names of two of the stars in the movie: Angel Piaff and Dolly Wilde. There’s lots of characters in this movie. Surprises.
    The movie begins with the statement that “The Cinema Is the Real Life”.

Was FZ aware of your adult movie career?
I told Frank I had worked for Larry Flynt in 1984. As a matter of fact, I had worked on the layout of the Hustler fantasy with Thing Fish.
    When I told him he said, “It’s good you got out of there.”

Sadly Annie Ample, who appeared in that Hustler layout, passed away a few years back.
I didn't know. I know so many people who are gone. Jaco[viii] was my friend. I helped him as I could. He stayed at my place when he was ill.
    Zawinul,[ix] another friend.
    Another friend who was like a father to me was Russ Meyer.[x] I miss him so much. He was so much fun! I got to have sex with Haji[xi] thanks to him.

Did you have any contact with Frank – or Gail – post-1988?
No. But I am also friends with Terry Bozzio. And I am still in touch with Bob Rice.
    I am super friends with Gary Panter.[xii] Frank didn't like the Gary Panter covers. Gary himself told me that in 1981. I loved the Panter covers. Gary is a wonderful person: generous and kind.

Okay, cool. Thanks very much for your time. Good luck with the new film – and I’ll keep an eye out for your new visual book too!

Interview conducted on 11th October 2018.

 

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Sergio’s photos of Miles Davis and Frank (the latter rejected by Gail for the Guitar album) used with kind permission.‎

 

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[i] “The Snowman” appears in Milo’s films, Pussy Heaven (2000); Les Anges Du Desir (‘The Angels Of Desire’, 2007); Les Clan des Siciliennes (‘The Sicilian Clan’, 2007); and Levres En Chaleur (‘Lips In Heat’, 2007).

[ii] Jeff Fey, who also worked on the cover art for Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, Jazz From Hell and the Zomby Woof 3” CD single.

[iii] Jezebel Boy and Why Don’t You Like Me?

[iv] Marque "Marqueson" Coy: Zappa's monitor engineer (1981-1988) and manager of the Joe's Garage rehearsal facility in LA.

[v] Bob Stone: Zappa's studio and live recording/mixing engineer in the eighties. Bob sadly lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2005.

[vi] 1986 album. Duke wrote the track Backyard Ritual, which he also co-produced with Tommy LiPuma. Duke additionally wrote and produced the track Cobra on Davis’ 1989 Amandla album.

[vii] 1978 album which features Napoleon Murphy Brock and was engineered by Kerry McNabb.

[viii] John Francis Anthony "Jaco" Pastorius III (1951-1987) was an American jazz bassist and member of jazz-fusion band Weather Report from 1976 to 1981.

[ix] Josef Erich "Joe" Zawinul (1932-2007) was an Austrian jazz keyboardist and co-founder of Weather Report.

[x] Russell Albion Meyer (1922–2004) was an American film director, known for sexploitation films such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).

[xi] Barbarella Catton (1946–2013) was a Canadian-born actress of British and Filipino descent, and a former exotic dancer known for her role in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.

[xii] The cartoonist/designer responsible for the cover art on Zappa's Studio Tan (1978), Sleep Dirt (1979) and Orchestral Favorites (1979) albums – as commissioned by Warner Brothers.