Emily Alana James Internet Interview
by Vladimir Sovetov
Z: Hello there, welcome to the show.
No, we're not going to play 'Cheepnis' - that's right -
but we are collecting underpants,
and we are collecting brassieres,
we are collecting small articles of feminine underclothing.
We are making a quilt . . . really - trust me.
TTR. Panty Rap
And we all know that it was made... a
Sewn by the hands of one brave and beautiful woman with a nice A vowel symmetric first name Alana! Listen to her story now.
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VS: Would you mind to introduce yourself just to start things rolling on? Some facts and dates you think are really important for us to know.
AJ: My name is Emily Alana James and I now go by Alana. At the time of the Tinseltown Rebellion album I was going by Em. I live in Colorado, USA and in County Cork, Ireland. I do many things as well as art. My specialty, is research and program implementation that helps vulnerable young people have the support they need to lead happy and productive lives after the odds have been against them early on. I am very proud of the whole Zappa project as it shows what fun and excitement you can have in life if you just have the courage it takes to follow your wildest whim. Doing the quilt was a wild whim that has definitely added great stories to my life off and on for years.
VS: Very nice. I like your first name very much. Alana. Sounds very Slavic for my Russian ear. Is it Irish?
AJ: It means loved one or person who brings love or light, depending on the derivation you are following, I like it as well.
VS: OK. And now FZ and the undies. Who was a mastermind of quilt idea? How it was born? What was the main source of inspiration? The music or the lyrics so to say:-)
AJ: Frank told me that collecting the underwear from fans started when his drummer asked him to get panties so he could sniff the crotches. It was Frank's idea to make it into a quilt. His thinking had not gone very far however, as all he could add was that I should stuff the bra cups, one of the first lines of thought for most people when thinking about using underwear in a quilt. The queen of spades idea developed because I wanted to make the soft sculpture image playful and Frank couldn't be a King or a Jack - that just wouldn't fit his image.
VS: I see. But why card at all? Was it a logical end of some sophisticated FZ image development in your mind? Did you contemplate any other possible variations of representing his non-oridinarity?
AJ: It wasn't about Frank Zappa for me, it was always about the joy and interest that fans bring to whomever they follow. It was in appreciation of the women who spent hours drawing on their underwear only to prance down an aisle and present it to Frank. I was scanning for playful images that would be recognizable to most people, cards were a good answer because the royalty also uses images of people and I could substitute Frank's image. But never in honor of him as much as his fans. I think that is where the dynamic tension between Frank and myself always lay. He was all about self promotion, I was always about art and the hilarity available in fan-dom.
An interesting component of all this for me was the letters I received from all over the world. It is interesting that while the underwear was primarily from women, the letters were primarily from men.
VS: Good. And now the question that probably must go first. How and when did you meet Frank? Were you a fan? Or just another dada artist?
AJ: Just another Dada artist? Dada is a very difficult art form to do really well, I wasn't aware there were many around.
I had back stage passes from an old boyfriend of one of my best friends. Four of us attended the Ft Collins concert in 1980. I am not really very good fan material, too many varied interests to go that deep and the visual arts are more important to me than the musical arts. Frank's music, at least at that time was full of discord. Over the two and half years I worked on the quilt he told me enough stories I understood some of what he was trying to do, but I was never a fan.
VS: So simple. But a lot of people got back stage passes back then and the outcome was just Frank's personal Hello to remember or some signed memorabilia, I mean not a creative idea and the nice object of art. How you were introduced to Frank? And why he decided that you are that very person he really needed to make this brave soft monument of real life absurdity?
AJ: I was introduced to Frank only because I sent in the message through my friend that I wanted to do the quilt. He would have said yes to anyone who asked. He couldn't have cared less how it turned out, only that he followed through on what he said he would do. After all he told fans to bring underwear and he would have it made into a quilt. He told me he had intended to visit a local college in hope of finding someone. I saved him the trouble, that's all.
VS: So, the idea of the quilt just popped up in FZ mind somehow, you just heard him saying about it, by the way in what circumstances if you are not a fan, and then you just volunteered to do it. right? It could be anyone else, Elton John or Mick Jagger, as well?
AJ: I think that is the way synchronicity works. In one regard it could have been anyone, but in another it had to be Frank, the person he would attract as a fan would not probably also be a fan for Elton John. I am not saying this well, what I mean to get to is that Frank Zappa fans are special - they love play on words, esoteric comments, outrageous behaviors and all of those qualities made interacting with them in letters, over the years, very enjoyable. I guess I just lucked out.
VS: And how much time it took to amass all this stuff? Was it really unwashed? Did you use gas mask or what then?-) Any technical details on the process of producing such chef d'oeuvre?
AJ: There has been more misinterpretation on this issue than any other. I even had an old high school teacher of mine tell me I was "above the stench" of that project. I think America's over emphasis here is part of what Frank was getting to, especially in songs like,"Take me I'm clean" which was a phrase used by a French girl who was trying to pick up a member of his band.
The bag of undies I received was an accumulation of one concert tour. The box was about the size of a large monitor box. Frank called prior to sending it and told me they were discussing whether or not the undies should be washed prior to shipping. I said, "absolutely not" as the point of the piece was to capture the essence of the relationship between fans and the artist they adore. I was prepared for the worst, and, in typical Frank fashion, he played up the "miasma" of the whole thing. But there were no "swamp-like putrid odors likely to give disease" involved. In fact, what I received was no worse than any laundry most people have at the end of the week. I don't know if the roadies threw out things they didn't want to deal with, that has been suggested, or if really the conversations that always occur about gas masks are just much ado about nothing.
I was very glad I made that decision. If you look at the outside border of the quilt it is made of panties that were special, unusual or creative. Some of the drawing women did would have been lost or faded if they had been washed.
Let me add another interesting fact about that border. In order to keep the top line of the quilt straight a piece of cardboard is inserted in each pantie prior to stuffing and making the buns. I was traveling the country at that time and so would pass the cardboards to people whose path would cross mine. They would write a message to posterity, fully knowing that no one would ever see it, and those messages are enclosed in the border. Speaking of DaDa, this approach is very ala Marcel Duchamp. I saw Frank during that period in his studio/home near LA. His cardboard almost didn't make the quilt as it got enclosed in a rather lame pair of panties that I didn't need to use. Only because I was running out of stuffing and decided to break into the rejects did I find Frank's cardboard. One pair, towards the bottom left as I remember, has two cardboards, one is Frank's. He had a one word message: Science.
VS: Heh! Sounds like Silence than you think about it been sewn in forever. By the way, while talking about secret meanings, my friend Biffyshrew once pointed out that image on the back of the quilt is based on a scene from the Beatles' movie 'Help', with FZ's head replacing Ringo's. So the question. Is that a reference to Ringo replacing FZ in '200 Motels'?
AJ: At that time record stores were making as much money as they could selling things to fans - buttons, posters, and one of the options was a line of tapestries. They were made of a taffeta like material. I am interested to hear about the Ringo like stance. At the time I was very pleased to find a soft commercially made product that would add some zest to the back. After spending 2.5 years on the front, I was not interested in doing much with the back. The reference, however is left in the head of the artist who silk screened the tapestry. My guess is that he/she was an opportunist more than a Zappa fan.
VS: Good business sense we call it. But anyway, let's return to the glorious front of the quilt. When and on what stage did you show it to Frank?
AJ: I made certain that Frank saw it as it went along. I visited his home/studio during the time I was making the border. I showed him the center section about 3/4ths complete during a concert in Denver - probably 1982. He saw pictures at the end. While he made positive comments to me about the finished product, he disowned it publically. When MTV called for comments he said "No comment." I think that was because it was no longer all about him and not easy publicity. Also he was not doing rock and roll that year, was spending time with the San Francisco symphony and I think the underwear publicity didn't fit his schedule. By the way, he never saw it complete, only in pictures.
VS: Well, probably you are right. But going back to the years of doing it. Did you like to be Frank guest? What was the main impression made by his home and household on you? Anything special and bright you still love to remember?
AJ: I never liked him. Full of himself to the exclusion of everyone around him, that was consistently my impression.
VS: I see. I see. But maybe something curious, bizarre, disgusting? You really have nothing to remember about this visits? Or visit? How many times it was?
AJ: Nothing that I want to say in print. I think it is important to remember that he is no longer living and therefor my impressions would add nothing of value to the members of his family.
VS: And these stories you mentioned. Some insights that Frank gave you? What they were about? Something concerning Vinnie Colaiuta dirty habits? Or Project/Object concept secrets?
AJ: Personal stories about the band, the French woman wanting to pick up a band member by saying, "Take Me I'm clean." Nothing extraordinary.
VS: But we fans really love them. A really stupid guys, you know. And what about that French girlie? I would really like to know details.
AJ: As I remember it the band was hanging out in a bar in Paris after their gig. One of the members had been hitting on a young woman who had played hard to get. When he got bored and moved on to someone else, she came back to him and said, "Take me I'm clean." There were several moments like that on the Tinseltown Rebellion tour. It must have been the makeup of the band that brought it on.
VS: And what all other stories were all abouts? Any other road fatigue craziness lore that you still can't get out of your mind?
AJ: I was always interested, in that time of sex drugs rock and roll, that my friend who mixed his music one tour said that no one who worked for Frank would be high on anything during a performance. He wouldn't allow it, too high of standards for the quality of the music was what I was told.
VS: Thanks. And what happened after it. Tell us about exhibition history of this glorious rag. What was an outcome? Money, fame or just a true artistic satisfaction?
AJ: The quilt has been shown twice in a gallery setting. The first time, the unveiling was a big deal, fully filmed by Playboy close circuit TV. The second time was at CORE New Art Space, a cooperative gallery of which I was a part. Then my life moved on and it sat in the crate I designed for it, for years. After Frank's death I was interviewed by a radio DJ in Phoenix Arizona and he suggested, that if I was looking to sell it, the Hard Rock Cafe might be an interested buyer. They were. I sold it to them for $6,000 and it now, as far as I understand, is part of their Vault collection where they keep their best items.
One outcome that was important to the rest of my life is that I did not like fame, not even the small amount the unveiling allowed me. Fame, as in people you don't know coming up to you on the street and knowing things about you, feels like having a conversation where the person doesn't look you in the eye; they look over your shoulder instead. It isn't a relationship with you it is a relationship with your past that continues in your present. Not only is it disconcerting, but, for a person that moves through life as quickly as I do, it would tie me down.
I took on the quilt project to get famous, at the end I gave up wanting fame. It has turned out that was a great outcome.
VS: Were there any other projects with Frank. Planned, aborted or secretly done?
VS: And you never met Frank again?
VS: Anyway, what was life after it? More great stuff? Or less?
AJ: Life has lead me to:
1.. Get a Masters in Non Profit Management and I am half way through a doctorate in Education.
2.. Work my way toward expertise in how American education can be more appropriate and beneficial to children and youth experiencing homelessness.
3.. Buy a house in Ireland where I live part time near the ocean, with the dolphins and the seals and rent as a beach house when I am not in residence.
4.. Develop a system through which people can contact and learn from their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects.
5.. Continue my art, first in a series of portraits of life and then with a series, just starting, of living in Ireland.
6.. Begin writing a book on what it take to reinvent your life, which I have done several times, and on having the courage to LIVE FULLY.
Do I owe this all to the Zappa Quilt project? No, I owe it to having the courage to be who I am. Was the Zappa Quilt project important in my development? Beyond measure! It not only gives me a story that consistently brings pleasure in just how outrageous life can be, but it was a success that has made the feeling of success possible in other arena's.
VS: Thank you, Alana. For the quilt and interview as well!
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