Tom Brown Internet Interview
by Vladimir Sovetov
Well, yes, boys and girls! Here is Tom Brown, the man behind Beat The Boots series boxes, speakin' to ya!
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VS: Tom, how long are you with Rhino Records? Is it correct to suppose that you are the main company expert on Frank Zappa music and for that reason chosen to work on Beat the Boots 1 & 2 series project?
TB: I was with Rhino for 19 1/2 years before being terminated for insubordination last March. As you may or may not know the company was purchased by Time Warner who then merged with AOL, and the dreaded corporate structure in all its glory then appeared. It went from being a reasonably fun and friendly place to work, to a very typical ugly big business situation, and I have never been very good at keeping my mouth shut and pretending that things are wonderful when they're not. When I began there were five of us and no one in their wildest dreams could have ever imagined the enormous success they would ultimately attain. But the last few years I was there will not be remembered as pleasant.
And yes, I was the lone in-house Zappa guy, hence my assignment to the BTB project.
VS: Were you involved in any other FZ oriented activity of Rhino. Such like Norbert Obermanns' book Zappalog.
TB: The deal for the Zappalog had already been arranged before I was hired, and although Nobbie and I did correspond briefly, I had no direct involvement in the publication of his book. My only other involvement with a Zappa related project for Rhino was that I played drums on the second Grandmothers LP, backing Motorhead on "Goin' to Idaho". By the way, the guitar player credited as Steelfinger was Denny Walley.
VS: By the way, the Rhino two volume Louie Louie collection always looks to me like another FZ's partisans deal? Was it so? Or just Conceptual Continuity of Mother Nature itself. Any your involvement?
TB: There was absolutely no FZ involvement in either "Best of Louie Louie" project. Nor was I asked to participate. Sorry.
VS: Anyway, how and when have you became a Frank Zappa fan at all?
TB: I had noticed "Freak Out!" when it was first released in 1966 selling in the music stores for the incredulously low price of $4.99, but in truth the cover appeared to be too cheap to garner my attention. Several months later my roommate wound up having a date with a stewardess he had met in a nightclub, who showed up at our door with a copy of "Freak Out!" under her arm. She told us of having The Mothers of Invention on one her flights and how weird looking, but nice they all were... except for Frank who sat by himself away from the band. She said Jimmy and Roy gave her the record, then graciously arranged to have the entire band sign it at her request... everyone except for Frank. While the passengers were departing at the conclusion of the flight, she stood at the door bidding them adieu with the album under her arm. As Frank was leaving the plane he noticed the album and said "I see you have our album, have you heard our music?" She had to admit that she hadn't, wherein Frank extended his middle finger, stuck it directly in front of her face and exclaimed..."Here's a preview" then sauntered casually down the ramp. She told us she was quite upset and disturbed by his behavior and when she arrived home and listened to the record she found it to be beyond horrible, and then presented it to my roommate. She never wanted to see it again. After they had left on their date, I became curious and put the album on and sat down to listen. The impact was immediate and I listened to the entire record in amazement while reading the liner notes. Then I played it again, being totally convinced after hearing it once that Frank was a fucking genius, both lyrically and musically. There was nothing that could possibly rival this album in the world of rock n' roll and pop music at the time, and almost instantly, it inspired me to see things with an entirely new perspective. It was truly one of those "it changed my life" kind of episodes. I proceeded to play it for everyone that came over to visit, and even forced my mother to listen to some of it. She accused me of being insane and/or on drugs. But no one can dissuade me. Frank was a goddamned genius!
VS: What a fantastic story! So Frank felt himself a bandleader at the very start, it wasn't an acquired boss syndrome of late 70s. Heh. Very interesting to note, but let's talk about BTB itself. How and when have started this rob the robbers affair?
TB: Well... the idea for BTB did not originate at Rhino. Frank came to them with the proposal, but was not willing to spend an inordinate amount of time on the project. I believe he only did three or four interviews (maybe less), to hype the release. He claimed to be upset that so many unauthorized recordings existed that he would never see a financial gain from.
I was then asked to compile a list of boots (perhaps twenty-five for each volume), which was passed on to FZ for his perusal. All final decisions on what to include in the sets were made by him.
As to when I was first asked to compile a list it was in 1991, probably about four months before they wound up being released. The turn around and production time was amazingly brief.
VS: Sounds like the lists for both, BTB 1 and 2, were compiled simultaneously. Was it so? The release date for BTB 1 is July, 16, 1991 and BTB was released almost a year later, June, 02, 1992. So my guess, that probably the idea of the second volume was a result of commercial success of the first? Or Frank wanted them both at the very start?
TB: I believe that there was a clause in the contract that stipulated that if both parties were aptly rewarded with decent sales figures, there would be a box 2. But the lists were not compiled simultaneously. I think I first heard about the plans for BTB2 in February 92', when they approached me to compile a second list in addition to going through my FZ collection for printed artifacts to be used in the booklet. One of my co-workers in the department, Tom Troccoli, was also a big long-time FZ fan and had an abundance of reasonably rare shit of his own to contribute. He used to work and hang out with Cal, years ago. I thought the book turned out great considering the brief amount of time we had to work on it. Of course everything had to be approved by Frank and Gail, and it was constantly changing because Gail would find a mention of someone from Frank's past that she didn't like, or an old photo, or any reminder of Herbie Cohen, and it would be gone. I will now freely admit to something that no one has ever noticed out of Rhino Records...the face on the pop-up drummer on box 1 is mine.
My friend the art director, sent a photo of myself to Spain when he was hired to do the artwork, without telling me. Pretty cheap, huh? But it's a fun and goofy thing for me. I believe most people think it's just a bad rendition of Ralph Humphrey.
VS: But anyway, if I remember it right, there was some nice conceptual idea behind the whole project, not only, just beat the boots, but to select the most important and unique from the artistic point from hundreds of them. Is it so?
TB: That's what I attempting to do when I was compiling the lists of boots for Franks perusal, but unfortunately many of the titles I deemed worthy and fitting your description were rejected for one reason or another.
VS: OK. But what about trying to remember now at least why did you propose the titles that finally were accepted, I think it will be really great to know the reason from the source, so to say.
TB: It was simple. The criteria I used for picking them all was, (except "Unmitigated Audacity") did they possess decent fidelity and contain material that could be deemed as hip and groovy. The cover art was a distant third but was also taken into consideration. Unfortunately, many of the suggested titles which I thought to be of superior quality were rejected.
VS: OK. By the way, for some reasons, I think someone probably wrote about it in aff-z, it seems to me that the decision to release BTB series boots in original unaltered form was the only way to get an authorization from some kind of Archive Preservation Organization (can't remember the name). Am I right? Why and who they are to be so important?
TB: I've never heard of the Archive Preservation Organization, and whoever they may be they never once entered the picture regarding the decision to release BTB.
Since the recordings were/are bootlegs and unauthorized to begin with, there was no need to obtain anything resembling a clearance (unless a song would appear written by someone other than Frank). I have no idea where you might have heard that their approval was necessary, but there's absolutely no truth to it.
VS: I see, and BTB1 CDs are still on sale, but BTB2 are not. What's wrong with them? Why Rhino decided against re-issuing BTB2 CDs? They are of a better quality than BTB1 and Swiss Cheese/Fire! is the only official source of complete Sofa Suite.
TB: The decision to reissue either set of BTB remains entirely in the hands of Gail Zappa, not Rhino Records. She retains the rights to the material, but after proving herself a pariah within the music industry (not that every record company without exception is run by lying, cheating weasels), and virtually impossible to deal with, the titles remain untouchable until she has transformed herself into a reasonable and rational person. Which ain't going to happen.
You didn't ask, but I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify and offer my defense in behalf of the piss poor audio quality of the "Unmitigated Audacity" title from box 1. Even though the sound is rancid on the original boot, the devious plan I had in mind was as follows...a much superior quality tape of this show was available and I was going to get it into Bob Stone's hands when the mastering was being done, when Gail surprised us all by stepping in and forbidding it. It was a great disappointment to me as it was a terrific performance by one of my favorite groups of material that doesn't appear in whole on any legitimate release. It essence, this leads to the reason of why BTB2 is overall a better sounding set than box 1. I went out off my way to make sure that all the titles I submitted for approval for BTB2 were among the better sounding boots.
VS: Can't believe it! I never heard before that while Frank was still alive Gail had right to influence decision making process in studio. But of course, on other hand, it explains while BTB1 CDs are still on sale. There are of the worst quality than CDs of BTB2, so may be wouldn't be substitutes for future official releases of the same stuff. Of course, if they Zappas, still think about any future releases.
TB: Frank was not interested in devoting much of his personal time to this project, and let Gail act as the main liaison between Rhino and Frank. But the chances of them being reissued at this point are beyond remote in my opinion. You'd have to deal with Gail regarding this question. Good luck.
VS: Anyway, why no one of Australian 73' tour boot was included? You know, with that great Mar-juh-reen ad lib. Their just weren't available, or it was once again bloody:-) Ponty's question?
TB: There were a great many titles submitted (including the one you're referring to) that didn't make the final approval by Frank and Gail. I did in fact hear that this specific one was in fact turned down because of Ponty's involvement.
VS: And do you still have the long lists of the initial propositions? Or may be you can just name off hand some boots you still think were really worth to be admitted?
TB: The original lists are somewhere in the house, but please don't ask me to look for them. However, I can recall some of the titles that were included and subsequently rejected. They are as follows...
There were a few others but in my opinion these were probably the best ones. There's really not a huge amount of truly great sounding boots to choose from, as you know.
VS: Very interesting. So you sent them just list, not boots themselves. And Zappas decided mostly looking on date of the gig so to say?
TB: We provided him with tapes of a few of the titles, but not all. However, he did request a performance date, track listing, times and personnel for each title, which we provided, but I have no real idea why he would approve or reject the titles that he did.
VS: And once again about Gail being the boss. Of course, 1991 and 1992 wasn't the years of picnic for Frank, using his own words, but did you met him himself. How he looked? Had you any chance, for example, to ask him about something that bothered you as FZ fan for years and years? You know, who the hell was Korla Planktun or Pup Tentacle?
TB: I had no one contact with Frank during either BTB project. I never even spoke with Gail directly. It was all conducted through channels. I would give the list to the Rhino liaison and she in turn would deliver it to Gail who would theoretically pass it on to Frank.
Although several years previous to this I was lucky enough to spend an evening at his house when an old friend of mine (Arthur Barrow), invited me to go with him, but it was a very relaxed and amiable visit, and I made no effort to quiz him on his past or present projects. He was a great host and treated us by playing us material from "Jazz From Hell" which was yet to be released, and gave us a personal demonstration of his synclavier. It was a fan's dream evening and I didn't want to turn him off by interjecting fan-type questions. Sorry.
VS: No problem. Once again back to our subject - BTB series. I think that you must have a great collection of Frank's boots to be able to do the job. How really big is it in fact? How much time it takes to amass them?
TB: I found and bought my first FZ boot in 71', "200 Motels" (Zubin Mehta with the Mothers at UCLA) , and have somehow been lucky enough to accidentally wind up with 170 of them. Give or take a few. It's not as if I devoted my life or was scouring the record shops daily to find them. Most of the time they would show up in front of me somewhere, when I would never expect it.
It doesn't hurt to work for a shady record company or have friends that would find and send them to me either. It's just a weird and unexplained cosmic accident.
VS: Yes, that's how it works on this Planet, but let's get serious again. What do you think about Zappa's boot business in general. From my own experience I can't buy Frank's own idea about world-wide conspiracy to make blue sums of money selling his unofficial stuff. I believe it's very hard to make any money on his stuff at all, official or not. I mean if someone really think about going in pirate business, he would be much better with Eric Clapton or Paul McCartney boots than with Frank's.
TB: I have to agree with your assessment, but the number of albums pressed when a boot is produced is invariably in the low numbers. Most of the time it may be only one or two thousand. There are exceptions of course (Italy for one, where boots are legal and/or tolerated), but you have to remember that the production costs are minimal, i.e. no royalties have to be paid, and profits go directly to the bootlegger who definitely won't be getting rich, but he might be able to pay his rent and buy some drugs for a few months.
VS: Was BTB project commercially successful for Rhino?
TB: They did very well, and at the time were responsible for the largest overseas/export profit that Rhino had ever seen. In a sense Rhino was operating much like the actual original bootleggers, as they made no effort to pay any of the musicians for their performances on the albums, or for any of the copyrighted photos used in the BTB2 booklet. Frank alone got all the money from the deal, and again, the production costs were nil. I was actually surprised by the financial success of the project and evidently there were a lot more people interested in these items than I initially believed existed.
In closing, let me share a related story that concerns the original bootlegger of "The Ark" and "Tis the Season To Be Jelly", among others. I cannot reveal his name to you, but he was a close friend of the vice president of Rhino, and showed up at the office one day to request that he receive a special thanks in the booklet for BTB2 (there were no credits listed for BTB1). This was actually approved by the vice president and submitted to the art department to include in the booklet. This was revealed to me by the head of the department (Geoff Gans), who was a friend of mine and when we were spending a fair amount of time together working out the logistics of the booklet. We were both in agreement that this was indeed beyond the fringe of audience comprehension, not to mention unmitigatedly audacious. If Frank or Gail were ever to discover that one of the original bootleggers was actually receiving a thank you credit, there would be hell to pay. Besides that, it was an incredibly weasely gesture on the part of the vice president of Rhino. We arranged to conveniently lose the name and the bootlegger will forever be looking for another avenue to display his claim to fame. Isn't the music business great?
VS: Unbelievable! Absolutely insane! But I couldn't help but ask more, I mean did the tapes were really stolen? Is it possible to reveal some part of the story without people being really sued?
TB: I assume you're referring to the Ark tapes, and from what I've heard they were stolen, but you know as much about it as I do. I have no idea by who, or how.
VS: And as a side note. Do you think, Ryko is really happy now that their outdone Rhino in purchasing the whole Zappa catalog? I mean it isn't an easy business selling stuff like "Frank Zappa's 200 Motels" after all.
TB: It is to the contrary concerning Ryko's happiness. Purchasing the Zappa catalogue turned out to be the nightmare from hell for Ryko. Not only did they provide Gail with twenty million dollars in one lump sum, but they gave her approval over everything. Don Rose, the owner of Ryko at the time was a huge Zappa fan and bent over backwards to placate her every whim, which was rarely reasonable. Not only were the final sales figures disappointing, but it put the crew at Ryko through much agony and ultimately cost Don ownership of his company when he was forced to bring in partners to pay for the debacle. They made a Herculean effort to obtain the rights to "200 Motels" (the only FZ title of which the rights did not remain with him), because it was at the top of the fans want list, and after two years is had still barely sold ten thousand copies, world wide. A tragedy. And how much of an effort did Gail put forth to reclaim the rights to one her late husbands seminal albums? Zip, zero and none.
VS: Good. And what are you doing now, Tom? With the Rhino behind you and no other Zappa deal ahead. Just play drums?
TB: I haven't played in five months when we did what will probably be the last Zoogz Rift album. I joined Zoogz Rift and His Amazing Shitheads in 88' (blatant plug number one), and have been with him almost exclusively since then. But his health has been deteriorating and no one wants to hear his stuff anyway. I don't know if you've ever heard of him, but it's Beefheart/Zappa as channeled by ZR. Most Zappa/Beefheart fans that I've met seem to be amused and entertained by him, but the numerous albums he's managed to produce have never sold well. But I truly hate the music business and have no plans to pursue a gig at this point.
Since leaving Rhino I've been attempting to write a book about my bizarre and zany adventures in 1967 when I was drafted just before the Summer of Love (blatant plug number two). I'll be pitching it to the book agents very soon so I may then start my rejection slip collection. It's anti-patriotic, anti-religious, not to mention politically incorrect, and I'm hoping someone will think it's outrageous and funny. It certainly wasn't too funny at the time as I spent one year in the stockade at Ft. Ord as a result of two Special court-martials before I mercifully received an Undesirable discharge for my trouble. But as H. G. Wells said, "The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow." We might even be able to laugh one day over Gail's non-efforts to make any of the thousands of unreleased FZ tapes still in the vault available to his fans. Unfortunately we'll probably all be dead by then.
VS: I hope at least we won't smell funny then. But now thank you very much for being so candid with us, stupid Frank Zappa fans.
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