Still Flying Their Freak Flag High

Octogenarians they may be, but these musicians still reek of cool

The love and respect Don Preston and Bunk Gardner share for each other is obvious. Original band members of Frank Zappa’s legendary Mothers of Invention from the 1960s, they have been performing together in various groups for 65 years and at the Grandmothers of Invention concerts at eastside club Zebulon Sept. 18, their banter between each song was half the show. Before they performed Zappa’s classic 60s anthem, “Suzy Creamcheese,” a song they recorded in 1965, Bunk had to be repeatedly reminded by Don of his vocal part: “Suzy Creamcheese, oh, baby, oh mama”.

  During another classic bit, a duet adaptation of comedian George Carlin’s brilliant monologue, “I’m a Modern Man,” Don forgot his lines and had to be gently prompted by Bunk, which caused some improvisation. At another point Don asked the audience, “How many people here know that Stravinsky and Schoenberg hated each other and carried on a nasty correspondence?” which provoked a time-out discussion among the band members.

These veteran avant-garde musicians are tremendously healthy, active and energetic at an age when many people are drooling in a wheelchair. Keyboardist and synthesizer pioneer Don Preston, 87, and tenor saxophonist Bunk Gardner, 86, made a rare local appearance playing the music of Frank Zappa and originals by Don Preston. Don’s dazzling keyboard wizardry has obviously not been diminished by age, nor has Bunk Gardner’s incredible sound and amazing technique on the sax.

  Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were an iconic band from the 1960s which combined wicked humor, an unusually high level of musicianship and arguably some of Zappa’s best tunes in their breakout album “Freak out,” followed by the albums “Absolutely Free,” ” Uncle Meat,” “We’re only in it for the money” and the cult hit tour movie “200 motels.”

Recently returned from Europe, The Grandmothers kicked off their LA show snazzily decked out in blue glitter Italian-reverb jackets as they performed one of Zappa’s doo-wop songs from the back-to-the-fifties “Ruben and the Jets” period before blasting off into their unique sonic universe, which combines stunning virtuosity, uncompromising atonal improvisation and their offbeat perspectives as survivors of the 60s rock scene, sometimes reminiscent of comedians Cheech and Chong. Maniacally hard-driving grooves with bizarre, whacked-out arrhythmic melodies played with an impeccable precision by keyboard and sax were the springboard for Bunk Gardner’s blistering sax solos, which at times seemed to evoke Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders.

Instead of his usual bank of synthesizers, Don Preston made do with an electronic keyboard, a micro-Moog synth, and a few electronic gadgets. Preston, who has recorded with many top artists including the Residents and John Lennon as well as the Moog synth tracks for the film “Apocalypse Now,” was in his usual superb form and even sang several numbers. The quartet was filled out by Rich Garcia on drums and Anders Swanson on contrabass.

These lifelong compañeros have such an immense repertoire they often play mixes and medleys which give an aural glimpse of their long history together, including their performances as the Don and Bunk Show. Their closing medley included a Martin Mull blues, which Don sang: “I woke up this afternoon and saw both cars were gone, I woke up this afternoon, and saw both cars were gone. I got so disgusted, I threw my drink across the lawn.”

Even to people who find their different and challenging music difficult to listen to, their artistic integrity is undeniable and nothing short of inspirational. Where many musicians, in a career as long and dedicated as theirs, might have drifted into playing more lucrative types of music, Don and Bunk have stuck together, playing the cutting-edge music they believe in despite the financial hardships. That they continue to perform such physically demanding, and socially questionable music with so much joy, vitality, and musicianship in their late eighties is a testament to their commitment to and love of the music and each other. It also seems to be keeping them in amazingly good health.


A. Heimer can be reached at [email protected].