Growing allegations of past inappropriate sexual behaviour by some members of the entertainment industry is starting to force fans to re-evaluate their former allegiances, with one idiosyncratic music documentary made by a true American maverick in the late 1970s now possibly facing similar treatment. Mark Fraser looks at a work which could come under fire for showing a convicted paedophile perpetrating a bad joke.
When the late Frank Zappa released his second major movie, Baby Snakes, in late 1979, he said it was about “people who do stuff that is not normal” and aimed at “weirdos that don’t particularly get off on car crashes ‘n’ famous names cavorting in the midst of multi-billion dollar splendour”.
One not-so-normal person who makes an appearance in the film is Roy Estrada, a Mexican-American bass player who had already established a healthy association with the rock star by the time Baby Snakes premiered in New York during December that year.
An original member of The Soul Giants, a southern Californian bar band which eventually – under Zappa’s autocratic leadership – morphed into The Mothers of Invention (MOI), Estrada played on all of the group’s first seven albums between 1966 and 1969 (eight if one counts a best-of compilation issued in 1969) before its original line-up was dissolved.
Years later, from late September 1975 until March 1976, Zappa re-employed him for a world tour that included Australia and Japan. Then, during October 1977, he brought Estrada on stage to perform during the last day of the Halloween concerts at New York’s Palladium – an event which is immortalised in Baby Snakes.
As part of the fun, the documentary shows some of the band’s backstage antics, with one of them now being undeniably disturbing when put in a contemporary context.
It involves Estrada “tormenting” a blow up female sex doll – a routine that includes him violently trying to ram its head down a bathroom sink hole.
Once upon a time this sort of thing wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Zappa movie. Aside from the fact some of his vocal material had been becoming increasingly smutty since 1970, part of his early notoriety was based on an incident in 1967 when he asked three marines attending an MOI show at New York’s Garrick Theatre to mutilate a big “gook” baby doll on stage – a piece of boundary-pushing live entertainment that failed to leave the audience laughing. Taking this into account, Estrada’s actions some 10 years later seem a bit tamer by comparison.
Nevertheless, more recent events have put all this into a different perspective; one that muddies Baby Snake’s legacy.
In December 1994, some 12 months after Zappa’s death, the then 51-year old Estrada was convicted of committing lewd acts with a child in California. As a result he served six years’ prison time. Then, during January 2012, he pleaded guilty to the continuous sexual abuse of a family member younger than 14 – this time in Texas back in 2008. As part of a plea bargain, Estrada was given 25 years with no parole. As it stands it is likely his life will end behind bars.
In wake of the renewed Michael Jackson paedophilia allegations – which has resulted in more fans turning their backs on the dead pop star and radio stations blacklisting his music – it’s very possible Estrada’s past behaviour has already rubbed off on some Zappa consumers and stifled their ability to enjoy not only Baby Snakes, but a significant amount of his other work as well.
Estrada didn’t just appear on the first eight MOI official releases – his name comes up on a number of Zappa albums issued before and after his death of prostate cancer in 1993.
These include some recent releases from his family’s trust like 2016’s Meat Light – a three CD re-issue of 1968’s Uncle Meat (on which Estrada is credited with “electric bass, cheeseburgers, Pachuco falsetto”) with added bonus material – as well as Halloween 77 (2017), a six full concert set that includes the Baby Snakes source material, wherein he can be heard (and, in the movie, seen) performing on a track called King Kong/Roy’s Halloween Gas Mask.
While it’s possible Estrada’s presence on the official LPs is being overlooked by most of Zappa’s fans, the sex doll footage poses them with a different kind of dilemma given it effectively contains visual images of a convicted paedophile metaphorically perpetrating violence against a female to garner a few laughs from the boys out the back. While trying to be grimly funny, this instead turns out to be quite nasty.
If there ever is a major revisionist backlash against Baby Snakes, it would be something of a shame as it is otherwise one crazy piece of work which should be seen by anyone with an interest in popular music. Furthermore, although it is not the most well-known rock documentary around, it won the Premier Grand Prix for a musical film at the First International Music Film Festival in Paris during 1981, suggesting there has always been an audience out there impressed by its disciplined intelligence, fierce restlessness and delirious vigour.
To its credit, Baby Snakes showcases the unique talents of another not-so-normal person, that being clay animator Bruce Bickford who, in Zappa’s words at least, “animates lumps of clay and makes them do things you won’t believe”.
To help audiences appreciate the man’s work, the documentary includes an animation which has aptly been described by writer Michael Gray as: “… a truly horror-spiked nightmare, in which as two clay men watch a film, the head of one turns into a hamburger that bites off the other’s head, and then every predatory, devouring twitch of clay churns into some other multiplying, frantic thing – all this hamburgerizing (sic) of heads and lethal metamorphosis being achieved by convulsions of dissembling clay, giving the viewer something like an alimentary canal-side view of an approaching spaghetti and chocolate mousse” (Gray, 1994).
In the promotional material for the movie, Zappa says: “Besides showing Bruce’s work, hearing him speak in the film opens up new areas of sociological speculation. Witnessing the behaviour of the various musicians involved tends to lead in the same direction, as does the behaviour of the people from the audience who become involved in the story.”
One can only wonder, therefore, if the price of gathering some of this sociological speculation will ultimately be worth it for the Zappa oeuvre if the Estrada baggage becomes too heavy.
Michael Gray: Mother! The Frank Zappa Story (Plexus Publishing Ltd, London, 1994) p 179
Frank Zappa (with Peter Occhiogrosso): The Real Frank Zappa Book (Simon & Schuster Inc, US, 1989) pp 65 and 94
Words by Mark Fraser
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