Some moments in music history are serendipitous. Unplanned, seemingly uneventful experiences in people’s lives that lead to unexpected results. Such is the tale we will unfold in this article, leading to one of the most fruitful collaborations between a musician and a visual artist, with multiple iconic album covers thrown in for a good measure.
It is New York City in the summer of 1967. Strolling through Greenwich Village, a number of Californian girls noticed a young Frank Zappa on the street. They started shouting “Canter’s!” and “Ben Frank’s” at him. Upon hearing the names of the Los Angeles eateries that served as hang-out meccas for west coast counterculture, Zappa’s ears pricked. He quickly dished out guest tickets to his performance later that night at Garrick Theater on Bleecker Street, where his band The Mothers of Invention had a 6-month engagement. Tagging along with the west coast girls was Sandy Hurvitz, who a few years earlier at the tender age of 16 and under the moniker Jamie Carter, released the single The Boy With the Way. Ms. Hurvitz came to see the show that night and quickly got a new moniker, for not many nights passed before she became the opening act for the Mothers and joined them on stage singing harmonies. As a proper Mother she won the dubious honor of being named Uncle Meat, in the best tradition of Zappa naming people exactly the opposite of who they are.
Frank Zappa’s love of painting as a teenager extended to additional artistic endeavors when he became a professional musician and a band leader. He created performance ads and the cover art for the band’s forth coming second album Absolutely Free. Realizing how critical the visual aspect of his music is, he decided to hire an artist to work on the cover and imagery of his next planned project. Sandy Hurvitz recommended he checks out the work of her former boyfriend, a self-taught artist who dropped out of Philadelphia College of Art after one semester. Zappa remembers: “He came up from Philadelphia and showed me his portfolio. The stuff was great, but the only way to hire him was to find a place for him to stay in New York. And guess where it was?”
And so entered Cal Schenkel the Zappa universe, sleeping on the floor of the eccentric musician’s apartment. Serendipity.
That next planned project? Nothing less than the album We’re Only In It For The Money, featuring one of the most iconic album covers of all time. But before we get to that chapter, there is more history to cover.
Cal Schenkel and Frank Zappa have crossed paths once before. A year earlier, in 1966, Zappa was recording his debut album Freak Out at TTG studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The room was full with a colorful mix of characters banging on things and making weird noises. The track was the side-long The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet. Zappa’s plan was to “rent five hundred dollars’ worth of percussion equipment for a session that starts at midnight on Friday, and bring all the freaks from Sunset Boulevard into the studio to do something special.” Serendipity hits again, for who should stroll along Sunset Boulevard that night but artist-wannabe Cal Schenkel: “I am hitch-hiking down Sunset one night, when a carload of Hollywood crazies stops and I jump in. They tell me they are on their way to a ‘session’—why don’t I join them? I had no idea what they’re talking about until we arrive at TTG Recording Studio. We’re directed into a room with about 100 people dancing and pounding on kettle drums and screaming ‘Help I’m A Rock!’ Leading this madness is a strange looking fellow that I see all the time at Canter’s. Little did I know that a year and a half later I would be working for this man.”
Cal Schenkel’s first duties as the sole member of Zappa’s art department included ads and posters for the shows at the Garrick Theatre, known as ‘Pigs and Repugnant’: “The first artwork that I did for him was a display in front of the Garrick reading PIGS PIGS.” Schenkel also created visuals for the live show by way of melting plastic for the light show, and ads for Zappa’s next album Absolutely Free, including a Billboard ad that read “Pigs Order Now – before they shut off the gas.”
Schenkel’s first major assignment came with The Mothers’ first tour of Europe in September and October of 1967. He was in charge of set and light design for each concert. Equipped with a new Nikon camera he was also assigned with the duty of camera man, taking photos of the band during performance. Those were the 1960s, mind you, and the following episode, told by Pauline Butcher in her book Freak Out!: My Life With Frank Zappa, is highly plausible. She is driving a car with Zappa and Schenkel after the band’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Frank to Calvin Schenkel: “Did you get some good shots?”
“During the concert? No. I was hungry. I went out to eat.”
“You went out to eat?”
“I brought you three thousand miles to do one fucking thing—take photographs of the show—and you go out to eat? How long does it take to eat?”
“We couldn’t find anywhere. It took a while.”
Cal Schenkel’s first contribution to an album cover was for Lumpy Gravy, considered as Frank Zappa’s debut solo album. The photographs on the front and back covers were already in place before he joined the project, but he added the graphic collage in the center spread and included photographs from the European tour. His contributions extended beyond visual to three words uttered at the beginning of the album’s second side – “That’s very distraughtening”, thus providing the title to the first track on that side. Another vocal appearance was “Round things are boring” at the end of side one.
And we come to one of Cal Schenkel’s crown achievements as a visual artist – the cover art for We’re Only In It For The Money. Part of a project called No Commercial Potential, the album was Zappa’s way of satirizing the hippie movement smack in the middle of flower power peak, the summer of love 1967.
A fine example from the album is Who Needs the Peace Corps?, a song that mocks hippies and people who follow the hippie fashion for the style of it. The ‘Peace Corps’ referred here is not the government organization, but rather the hippie movement.
And what better way to give that satire a face than one of the visuals best associated with the summer of love, the front cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album was only a month in record stores when Zappa traced a portion of that cover and gave it to Cal Schenkel.
In contrast to the iconic Beatles cover, Zappa wanted the Mothers clad in drag instead of the colorful Beatles costumes, thunderstorms in a dark sky instead of blue skies, and rotten vegetables on the floor instead of flowers. Cal Schenkel’s job prior to the photo shoot was to handle the props, build the plaster mannequins and help Zappa set it all up. Here is a rare film with Zappa, his wife Gail and Cal Schenkel working on the Zappa mannequin:
The photograph featured on the album cover was taken by famed photographer and film director Jerry Schatzberg (later director of the excellent movies The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow), already well known for his cover of Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde. What got Schatzberg the job was a photograph he took the previous year for the cover of The Rolling Stones single ‘Can You See Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?’ The band was dressed in drag, just what Zappa was looking for.
The people who participated in the photo shoot included the Mothers with Zappa, Gail Zappa with Moon, still unborn, producer Tom Wilson, Jimi Hendrix who was in the US for his Monterey Pop Festival appearance, and Cal Schenkel, holding a box of eggs.
Schenkel kept working on that cover art after the photo shoot, adding the bulk of the characters that appear on it as cut outs. Zappa gave him a list of about 100 people, of which over 80 ended up appearing on the cover. Notable faces on the cover include Nancy Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Rodan, Nosferatu, Eric Burdon, Albert Einstein, Don Vliet (Captain Beefheart), Big Mama Thornton, David Crosby, and last but not least – Ludwig Van Beethoven, a second choice to Zappa’s ask for the bust of Edgard Varèse.
The fun stopped when the suggested album art was put in front of the record label suits at MGM/Verve. They first asked to cover the eyes of all the people who were still alive at the time. Although Zappa was furious, he obliged, realizing how much more creepy the cover became with the addition of black bars covering some of the characters’ eyes. Still the label was reluctant to put this image on the front cover, and only agreed to put the album on the market if the front/back gatefold be reversed with the inner one, showing only the Mothers in drag.
After five months of back and forth negotiations Zappa relented and the album was released with that cover in March 1968. Justice was done only years later when the album was re-released in LP and CD formats as originally intended, with the satirical cover on the front in all its glory.
One last piece of irony related to this episode is that the printing of the album cover was done by the printers for MGM who were actually printing the Sgt. Pepper album in the US. Schenkel remembers that this turned to be quite helpful as he knew close to nothing about printing jobs, and they were able to help him match the look: “In fact we printed the insert sheets with the Sgt. Pepper sheets on the same press run.” When it was all said and done Zappa was $4,000 short in his bank account, the amount it cost him to finance the production of the album cover from his own pocket. I would say the result was well worth the investment:
There is no shortage of photographs capturing Frank Zappa in a multitude of facial expressions from that period of time, some of them curtesy of Cal Schenkel – when he did take them, that is. In contrast, very few pictures exist of Schenkel himself, but one excellent photograph was taken in 1968, one he was not supposed to be in. Life Magazine planned an essay called “The New Rock”, which also included the famous picture of The Who wrapped up in the British flag. The assignment was given to fashion photographer Art Kane, and his original idea for a photograph that featured the Mothers of Invention was to stage them protesting in front of the White House with signs showing their faces, screaming. When Zappa heard the idea he said “That’s the worst fucking idea I’ve heard in my life.” Realizing that some of the Mothers were fathers, Plan B called for a shoot with each Mother cradling a baby. Professional model babies showed up for the shoot, with their real mothers in tow, terrified about the prospect of those other Mothers holding their precious ones for the length of the session. It only got better, as the photographer remembers: “The babies were peeing all over the place! One baby on top peed on Frank Zappa’s head, which then ricocheted onto another guy’s cowboy hat, then dribbled onto another guy. It looked just like the fountains of Rome.”
During these proceedings, Cal Schenkel was taking pictures of Art Kane taking pictures. When the senior photographer started protesting, Zappa invited Schenkel to move in front of the camera and become part to the picture. Schenkel is on the right, middle row. When the picture appeared in Life magazine on their June 28 1968 issue, it was accompanied by the following text: “In the beginning of a song he (Zappa) will demand the following: ‘4/4 for a certain number of bars, 17/8 for three bars, to 22/8 for one bar, all played so far you don’t know what time it is.’”
Zappa’s next two albums were a continuation of the No Commercial Potential project. The first was a 180 degrees pivot into the world of Doo-wop with Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. Schenkel remembers the album as another “reaction to all the flowery psychedelic stuff that was all so beautiful, that I couldn’t get into — or achieve if I wanted to. Since I wasn’t in the drug culture, ‘psychedelic’ didn’t appeal to me particularly, and I also was not really interested in that look. I liked the rougher-edged, funky look.” The album cover was the first to feature one of his illustrations, which he said was inspired by the work of cartoonist Carl Barks. Comic books were an early influence on him: “I just grew up on the comics stuff. There was probably some family influence as well. My grandfather was an artist, and he mostly did landscapes, and my great uncle was an artist and writer, who did really bizarre fantasy illustrations along with his manuscripts. I remember being fascinated by the garish pulp and paperback book covers he had around.”
The album cover was a mixed media project that involved cut-outs of solid color paper, painted for further effect. Cal Schenkel considers it one of his favorite among all the covers he created for Frank Zappa.
Looking at the cover, you immediately notice the detail around Zappa’s guitar, a red Stratocaster all scratched up. Zappa asked to mimic as close as a possible a photograph of Pee Wee Crayton playing a guitar on one of his album covers: “Calvin duplicated Pee Wee Crayton’s hand chordal position on the guitar and most of the details of the guitar itself for the picture on the front of the Ruben album. All the cracks in the pick-ups and everything are illustrated in that. Definitely a detail man.”
Frank Zappa’s last contribution to the No Commercial Potential project was an intended soundtrack to a movie that was never produced, named Uncle Meat. The story line, a science fiction fantasy capturing the shenanigans of the band on the road and their sexual adventures, somehow managed to link to the dog people on the cover of Ruben and the Jets. The double album was recorded between October 1967 and February 1968, but released only a year later in April 1969. It is a great achievement of music editing and overdubbing included all music styles under the sun, from orchestral works to blues, free jazz, rock and of course, doo wop. Here is a taste:
As you look at the album cover of Uncle Meat you might wonder about the repeating theme of dentistry-related objects. The chain of events that led to this starts with Zappa and the Mothers migrating back to a warmer climate in May of 1968 and settling in Laurel Canyon at what is fondly known as The Log Cabin. Previously owned by silent movie star Tom Mix, it used to be a Hollywood mansion, and now deteriorated into a large structure made of logs that Zappa and family rented for $700 a month. The place constantly hosted his entourage of band members, secretary, a groupie-turned baby sitter and one Cal Schenkel, who made for himself an art studio in the attached tree house. You had to climb around a giant Eucalyptus tree to enter the studio. This is where he created the cover for Ruben and the Jets. Nice story, but what about the dentistry?
Cal Schenkel later moved out and rented a studio which was a former dentist’s office. When he moved in he found artifacts left by the previous tenant, including photographs of teeth. What better imagery to grace a Zappa album cover? Schenkel remembers: “I rented a studio on Melrose that was an old dentist’s office, which was where a lot of the Uncle Meat source material came from. Uncle Meat was a rush job for the cover, but the book that came with the record was more collaborative, and a lot of dentistry visuals crept in.”
Speaking of Uncle Meat, remember Sandy Hurvitz, the girl Zappa named Uncle Meat? She was signed to Bizarre Productions, a label Zappa formed with his manager Herb Cohen. They started working on her debut album with Zappa as producer and the Mothers backing her up, but after a few sessions Zappa handed the production duties to Ian Underwood, who was less than enthusiastic about the album. The result is what sounds a bit like a piano-backed early 1970s singer-songwriter concoction in a demo form, but it does have its charm. The reason I’m telling you about this album, called Sandy’s Album Is Here At Last, is that Cal Schenkel designed the album cover, a funny take on the connection between Hurvitz and Zappa.
Also in 1969 we find one of Cal Schenkel’s best known album covers, not for Zappa this time but for the equally eccentric Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. The Captain with a beef against society had a well-rehearsed group of musicians called Magic Band, all living in a communal house amd practicing at all hours of the day. They cut a double album with 28 tracks, recording all instrumental tracks in 6 hours. Zappa produced the album and the result was one of the most influential experimental albums of all time, Trout Mask Replica. Here is a fine example:
Such an album deserves an iconic cover to match, and since vegetables were used on We’re Only In It For The Money and a the previous album was called Uncle Meat, the next logical thing to do was a visit to the fish market. Cal Schenkel tells the story: “I went and found this carp head at some fish market. I took this trout head and hollowed it out—the thing stank like hell—and Don had to hold it up to his face for a couple of hours while we shot. He was really good-natured about it all. I have this incredible piece of 8mm film of him playing the baritone sax through the trout head. It was like an actual animated version of that cover.” The picture was shot in the aforementioned dentist office.
1969 proved to be a pivotal year for Frank Zappa. Along with the move back to the West Coast, he ended the Mothers of Inventions as a working band, recorded with other musicians and released his game changer album Hot Rats. Any credible music magazine and blog holds this album in very high esteem musically, so no need to expand on it here, other than mention that Cal Schenkel designed the cover. The iconic photograph was taken by Andee Cohen (later Nathanson), featuring Miss Christine Frka, that groupie-turned baby sitter who was also a member of the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously). Nathanson said about that photo: “I wanted to say something about the emergence of female power. Christine was a Tim Burton character mixed with a silent film star. The photos from the shoot that day were so good. The combo of me and Christine really worked.”
We can’t skip over to the next project without some taste from Hot Rats. Zappa talked about the making of the album: “Some people think that the Hot Rats album was completely scored out. Well, it wasn’t. Here’s how the Hot Rats album was made. It started out with basic rhythm tracks that were done by a four-piece rhythm ensemble and all the rest of the parts were over-dubbed on top of that and much of it was written right there in the studio.” Peaches and Regalia is a standout track on that album, demonstrating not only the musicians’ abilities, but also the studio wizardry of Zappa: “The rhythm tracks took approximately ten hours, but to complete ‘Peaches and Regalia’ took 100 hours in terms of over-dubbing for that one song and there’s only four people playing on the album at any one time on any of those tracks.”
Before we leave the 1960s, one more episode concerning Calvin Schenkel, albeit without his involvement in the proceedings. This time he was immortalized in the Zappa family tree, at least temporarily. The event took place at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital when proud parents Frank and Gail Zappa’s got there for the delivery of their second born. When asked by the nurse what they are going to name the child, Gail answered ‘Dweezil’. Zappa explains: “Gail’s got a funny-looking little toe which had been the source of family amusement so often that it had acquired a ‘technical name’: it wasn’t really a toe – it was a ‘Dweezil.’ I thought then, and continue to think today, that Dweezil is a nice name. Fuck the nurse if she didn’t like it. The nurse pleaded and pleaded with us not to name the child Dweezil. Labor pains and all, she was going to make Gail stand there unless we gave her another name to put on the form. I couldn’t see letting Gail suffer just to argue the point, so I rattled off an assortment of first names of guys we knew: Ian (Underwood), Donald (Van Vliet), Calvin (Schenkel), Euclid (James ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood). As a result, Dweezil’s original birth certificate name was Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa. The nurse thought that was ok.” Dweezil, unimpressed by the luminaries he was named after, rectified the situation later in his life. Every good thing comes to an end.
Part 2 of this article, focusing on Cal Schenkel’s work with Zappa in the1970s, is coming soon…
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Categories: Album Art