“He had an amazing ability to mix that stuff together so that all the insane stuff he could give that to the world and dress it up in a way that it was palatable, and I think maybe it had to do with the fact that it was comedically delivered. So, there’s the power of comedy again.
“He delivered the truth and made it a pill that they could swallow with satire. Have you ever stopped and thought about how complicated, like old cartoon music is? Nobody sits around and thinks about it and takes the visual away and goes, ‘I can’t listen to this, it’s too complicated’ because it’s funny and it’s coupled with something that’s funny.
“You’re not focusing on that aspect of it. You take a track of like ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’, really complicated stuff, but it’s funny too, and he managed to somehow deliver this complicated music in a way that it was like a cartoon.”
Recalling how he joined the fold in ’78, Colaiuta said:
“I was playing this gig, place in Venice – I don’t even know if it exists anymore, probably not. It was called the Comeback Inn. I was playing with the Fowler Brothers.
“These guys played with Zappa; Tom Fowler was playing with Zappa and the whole family, really talented musicians… So I’m playing this gig down there with Tom Fowler and it was, like, ‘Either $5 or beer, take your pick.’
“That was the pay. So I was, like, ‘I need gas tonight, I’ll take the five bucks.’ So, I’m playing – and I bought a car for $100, I bought it was like a 1960 Ford, it was one of those really long ones, you could put like three bodies in the trunk, you could sleep in it.
“So I’m playing in the Comeback Inn and one day Tom comes to me and he goes, ‘Hey man, I talked to Dookie today, he said Zapp’s looking for a rhythm section.’ Now, translation: ‘I talked to Dookie’ means ‘I spoke to [keyboardist] George Duke.’
“He said ‘Zappa is looking for a rhythm section.’ And I’m, like, ‘Who do I call?’ So, he gives me the manager’s number, and so I’m crashing with some people in, like, Burbank or Glendale or something, and I had my drum set up in this room.
“And back then – this is pre-answering-machine, so I had my drum set up and it just so happened that I was really getting into Zappa again, and I was listening to like ‘Roxy Live’ in New York, and I’m listening to these records and I’m playing.
“And so I call them up and they’re, like, ‘Go away, kid.’ It was the whole typical, ‘Get out of here.’ I kept calling them, left them this phone number where I was staying, I don’t know how many days went by…
“All of a sudden, I happened to be in that house at that day, nobody else was home, I’m there playing my drums and they were loud, and somehow I must’ve stopped and I heard the phone ring, I pick up the phone, no answering machine, ‘Mr. Zappa will hear you Tuesday night, show up at Culver City Studios at 7 o’clock’ ‘click’.’
“I’m, like, ‘Whoah…’
“So, they call me back, and I got out there. The place looks like an airplane hangar, there’s probably, like, three lines, a hundred [people] deep, all musicians, and they’re going up there one by one.
“He’s [Zappa] on the stage. One guy would go up, they would play guitar or something, he’s gonna play guitar and sing, he’d go up there, start doing his thing… 10 seconds go by, ‘Next!’
“[Terry] Bozzio left his double-bass Gretch kit there. 15 seconds, ‘Next!’ So, I’m getting to the front of the line and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no…’ And I get up there, I get called up there and I sit down – it was like a laundry list of stuff.
“It was, like, ‘Okay, let’s see if you can read.’ So he puts ‘The Black Page’ on a stand and I turned my head away, start playing it from memory because I knew it, so he’s thinking of, ‘Oh, a smart one, huh?’
“So he takes it off and he puts this, like, 10-page thing, like, an orchestral piece called ‘Pedro’s Dowry’ on the stand. And he counts it off, and I’m having to play it in unison.”
Was somebody playing bass?
“No. Ed Mann was playing marimba. I had to play in unison, so I start playing and I’m reading it, and it’s all going pretty well.
“About eight bars go by and he comes, he yanks the music off the stand and goes, ‘Yes, you can read, okay. Now let me test your memory retention. Spit this phrase back at me. Okay. And now this one. Okay. Now, play in 19…’
“It was crazy. So I start playing, ‘And now solo in 17’ or whatever. He goes, ‘Okay.’ And it was one thing after the other, like, ‘Check, check…’ And at one point, I kind of stopped and I’m breaking the flow and I went, ‘I must’ve been up here for at least a minute already.’
“I’m thinking that to myself; I’m thinking, ‘More than 15 seconds, huh? Okay, well where were we?’ All of a sudden, after all these criteria, he’s, like, ‘Okay, stop. Come over here.’
“He pulls me on the side of the stage and he just said real deadpan, he looked me in the eye and he goes, ‘I’d be amazed if anybody could come up here and cut you right now, but out of respect I have to listen to a few more people that are left. Can you go and wait over there, please?’
“He literally said that: ‘Can you please wait over there?’ And I’m, like, ‘Okay.’ So I go over there on the side of the stage, and I remember [guitarist] Ike Willis was there, and he looked at me, he goes, ‘Did he tell you to wait too?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“The last guy that went up there, man, I feel so bad for this guy, I really did. To this day, because it was brutal to go through that.
“He gets up there and he kind of looked like Robert Plant or something, and he walked up and he had on a cape, he wore a cape, he sat down and played, and after not very long, he [Frank] said, ‘Okay, next.’
“And the guy wasn’t having it. No, he goes, ‘What?!’ And he puts on this fake British accent, he goes, ‘What do you mean?’ He [Zappa] goes, ‘Next, that’s enough.’
“And they literally had to come with the hook and, like, take the guy off the drums.
“And so they’re dragging him off the stage and he is still ranting and raving, he’s going ‘I know your rhythms! I know your rhythms! I know the rhythms of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I know the rhythms!’
“And he’s getting the hook and they’re dragging him off the stage, and I’m watching this in disbelief and I’m thinking, ‘Oh…’ I felt bad, and then the manager comes up to me and he goes, ‘Ah, Mr. Zappa would like to hire you, when can you start?’
“I’m, like, ‘Now…’ Yeah, I was in shock.”
A hundred people, he wants to hire you… And then what happened?
“The bread was, like, very low, but I didn’t care at that time. To me, it was like a fortune. It was something like $500 a week [$500 per week in 1978 is around $2,000 per week in 2019 money] or something, and I went, ‘Great, I can get my own apartment and pay rent now.’
“So then he picks me up and goes, ‘I’m taking you to dinner.’ That night, he picks me up – because he had a driver too – picks me up in his Rolls-Royce, takes me to dinner, then takes me up to his house, introduces me to his wife.
“He said, ‘I’d like you to meet Vinnie, this is our new drummer,’ and takes me to meet Gail, takes me up to his house, picks me up in his Rolls-Royce, and I’m thinking, ‘This is nuts, how did this happen?’.
Focusing on his time in the group, Vinnie said:
“Sometimes you’d be playing a gig somewhere, and you can’t really see that well, he’s calling, he’s got something that just says ‘Number 19’ on it.
“I’m shuffling on the floor to pick it up, and it’s just, like, gazillion notes, and he just stops whatever we’re playing and starts conducting, ‘Three, four…’
“And you better play it right, you better play it right. You get yelled at, and nobody really knew if they were gonna get fired if they screwed up too many times, you know what I mean?
“It was really demanding that way, so we were rehearsing for this stuff and putting all this stuff together and memorizing things that he’s telling us and he’s changing them all the time, and it would be, like, ‘Go back to that thing we did yesterday, that was the 3rd revision.’
“He’s throwing stuff out there, and it’s like clay, and he would put together this complex show that way, and it was like this mixture of a lot of memorization, being able to read really well, and improvising.
“And for me, I think that one of the things he liked about the way I played was that, you know, he played guitar solos and I’m improvising with him, kind of having this dialogue with him.
“He liked that I understood polyrhythms, bizarre groupings of rhythm that I was able to sort of play with him because he loved all that stuff.
“His heroes were Edgard Varese and these 20th-century composers who wrote all these complex rhythmic things, so he injected that kind of stuff into his music and put it in that context. It was kind of unheard of, really.
“It was like the Comedy Central meets Bootcamp meets Julliard. That’s what it was like, and then ‘bam’, we’re going on the road. We flew to Europe and then it was, like, all flights.
“We did have some bus stuff later, but it was flights, and man, you know, we’re, like, 20. You could do that stuff. We’ll rehearse during the afternoon after these long rehearsals, then sometimes play two shows, long shows with drum solos, and guess what?
“He recorded constantly, he carried a two-inch tape machine around, and so it was always being recorded, most of it. He used to call me up and go, ‘You got to come up and hear this.’ I’m, like, ‘What’s going on?’
“It would be something, like, ‘I took the guitar solo from Leverkusen,’ or, you know, Dortmund, ‘and I put it on top of the track two months later from Berlin, and you got to hear this.’
“He got excited about mixing and matching stuff like that, so sometimes I’d just go up there and listen to these things he would just put together.”
The drummer added about the band:
“There were a couple of different incarnations. At one time, Steve Vai was in the band, then Warren Cuccurullo was in the band, there was Ike Willis, Ray White, and they were both singing and playing guitar.
“And Denny Walley was another one, and Arthur Barrow was playing bass, Peter Wolf was playing keyboards, Tommy Mars was playing keyboards, and Ed Mann was playing percussion.”
Was it fun at all?
“Oh, yeah. It absolutely was fun. Because like I say, ‘Here I am, this is my first time. Wow! I’m in Europe. I’ve never been to Europe.’
“We’re on the road and we’re playing this great music, and here I am with Zappa in front of these audiences and it was like, you know, you got a lot of energy, it’s all new and the music’s great, you can endure that.”