INTERVIEW with JIM PONS

New York, NY
April 24, 2000

Part 1 (below)
Part 2

by Steve Moore

With a remarkable music career behind him -- first as bass player for The Leaves and The Turtles, and later with Frank Zappa's Live at the Fillmore East troupe, Jim Pons recently resigned his post as video director for the New York Jets -- a position he held for 27 years. In this exclusive Throttlejammer interview, Jim discusses his memories of Frank Zappa and the 60's music scene, his journey from music to sports, philosophy, and his current involvement with The David Center.

What was growing up in California like during the fifties? What were your earliest musical experiences, or influences?

I remember some of the earliest radio disc jockeys playing music that was called rock and roll. It was extremely exciting music but my folks hated it, so I had to put my little transistor radio under my pillow at night. I'd listen til the batteries died. Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard were the guys I liked best. I grew up on the masters themselves.

How did you come to join your first commercial band, the Leaves?

I actually started the Leaves when I was in college in 1963 - 64 in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles (Cal State Northridge).The Beatles had just come on the scene and I can remember thinking that being in a band like that would be a lot of fun. It was kind of a joke in the beginning starting a band with a few of my fraternity brothers. None of us knew how to play, but our hopes were modest... to be able to sing "Louie, Louie" at our parties. I picked out guys that looked good and bought all the instruments, and we taught ourselves how to play. The band was called The Rockwells in those days, and between the surf and dance music, there were a lot of 3 chord things that were easily learnable, so we developed a fairly extensive song list. Before we knew it we were getting asked to do parties for other fraternities and sororities on campus. There weren't a whole lot of bands around in those days. Our first actual show was in the school gym with Capt. Beefheart and His Magic Band if I recall correctly). We were still students by day, but at night we'd go into Hollywood to see the real hippies at Ciro's and the Whiskey a Go-Go and the other clubs along the Sunset Strip.The Byrds were sort of like the house band at Ciros, and when they got their first hit record they had to quit to go on tour. We decided to audition to take their place. We had changed our name to the Leaves by then and we surprised ourselves by actually getting the job. It was there where Pat Boone discovered us, signed us, and got us our first record contract. We recorded a song everyone in Hollywood was doing in those days called "Hey Joe". It became a big hit. Number 1 in most of the western states and top forty on Billboard. What had started out as a fraternity spoof was about to become real life.

You replaced original Turtles bass player, Chuck Portz, just in time for the group's biggest commercial hit, Happy Together. Did you feel at that time that music would continue to be your main career goal, and that you had truly "arrived?"

Playing in Hollywood every night with so much activity up and down "the Strip" it wasn't long before I had met most of the people in the other bands. (Jimmy Carl Black may have mentioned a place called Ben Frank's where everyone hung out after hours.) I got to know him and Frank during those days, as well as the Turtles and lots of others. I became pretty good friends with Mark and Howard. So when Chip Douglas left the Turtles to produce the Monkees (It was Chip who had replaced Chuck Portz) they called me. That's when the path of my life took a big turn. I had to quit school because there were concerts, TV shows, and sold out tours booked for the Turtles. All of a sudden I had to go "on the road". I think I actually did feel like I had somehow "arrived", but I had already felt a bit of that when the Leaves exceeded my wildest dreams. At the same time it was almost so fantastic that I doubted it could be real enough to last.

You, Flo, and Eddie were tapped by Frank Zappa to join his band when the Turtles broke up in 1970, and your playing and vocals are heard on Live at the Fillmore East, 200 Motels, Just Another Band from LA, and Psychotic Playground What was the first meeting with Frank like? What were your first impressions of what he was proposing for his "new" group? How did he characterize it? Did you have any personal reservations about the material - or the musical direction- you were heading?

I had known Frank previous to my joining his band, so there was no formal audition. I was almost kind of like a friend of the family by then. (I had known Gail Zappa before they were married.) He called me from London when his bass player, Jeff Simmons, quit during the filming of "200 Motels." He never discussed with me his ideas about his "new" group or what he was trying to do. He just offered me a job. I had plenty of reservations. I enjoyed and had always appreciated his music before, but it was extremely difficult and complicated stuff compared to what I was used to.... a lot to ask of someone who had taught himself to play just a few years before. It was very intimidating. And more so because my parts were always written out for me and I couldn't read music. I had to take it to Ian Underwood who would play it for me on the piano until I learned it. I never knew for sure whether or not Frank knew that's how I was learning my parts. I think he probably did. I was able to do it though, so it never seemed to be a problem. I was happy to be working again and proud that I was considered accomplished enough to play with Zappa, but it wasn't the kind of music I enjoyed playing. It was more like a job than either of the first two bands, but it was a very good one.

Were you present when Frank composed any music? If so, then do you recall the circumstances or titles of any compositions during your stint as his bassist?

Yeah, I remember evenings sitting around with Frank listening to, and laughing at Mark and Howard's improvisations. The stories of the mud shark at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle or some parties we had in Winnipeg come to mind. A lot of things that he first heard from them in these impromptu sessions would later wind up in his music. It often surprised me that their sense of humor appealed to him so much. And I always thought it was interesting for such a dictatorial type, who claimed such a disdain for any "commercial potential", that he would use so much of who the Turtles were in his show in those days. And yet, no matter who was in the Mothers at any given time, it was always Frank, and the product always came out with "Zappa" stamped all over it.

What were your bass rigs during your professional music career? What amps and instruments did you use? Did Frank get involved in "suggesting" specific equipment that he preferred for his musicians to use?

I used whatever I could afford in the very beginning. But I was very much influenced by what I saw other musicians using and as soon as I could afford a Hofner bass like Paul McCartney's I bought one. It had a nice acoustic sound which was very unique at the time. All the Leaves had Vox amps (like The Beatles). I also had a hollow body Guild which I used for a long time. I probably saw Bill Wyman or Chris Hillman using one. In the end I wound up with the old reliable classic Fender Precision bass which I still have. The Turtles had a marketing deal with Ovation for a while but I wasn't too sure anymore what amps we were using. After the first couple of years (when I had to be on top of details like these) I never got that involved in how the sound got out. As long as I could hear it I got into a habit of using whatever anybody gave us. Amplifiers appeared on stage at night in one city, then something else might be on the stage the next night in the next city. I don't recall Frank making any suggestions about what kind of bass I played, as long as I played it right. By the time I was with him I was playing my Fender exclusively.

What was the Pons family reaction to their son joining Frank Zappa? How did your Mon and Dad relate to routines about groupies and "a mountain is something you don't want to F**K with."

My father lived to see my days in The Mothers. He was older and very conservative but his reservations had all been voiced much earlier on when I was just starting in the music business. By the time I was with Frank I had achieved much more success than he had ever thought possible and he had accepted it as honest labor. He warned me about the pitfalls of loose women and excessive drinking, but I don't think he ever really listened to what Frank was actually saying.

On their current Turtles website, Flo and Eddie attribute their "spiritual awareness" to your influence -- specifically by your introduction and discussions on the philosophy expressed in the book"The Impersonal Life" during their early Turtles touring experiences. How have you used your spiritual interests in your daily life? In sum, what is your philosophy?

Ok. You asked. It's a complicated question, but I'll go easy. For as long as I can remember, maybe as far back as the nuns and priests of my grammar school years, I've had a fascination with the most fundamental questions like "Who am I?, Why am I here", and "Where am I, anyway?" And, "Is there a God who started all of this?" For me the answer to the last question came first, and without a doubt. "Yes". The physical universe, no matter how old it is or how it started, could not have created itself. I had no problem giving the name "God" to whatever did create it. That, in turn, raised the most compelling and fascinating questions... like "Is it possible to have some kind of relationship with the creator? How? How does the creator relate to me?" These were the things I pondered through my twenties and early thirties while I was indulging in the high life. I remember discussions with Mark and Howard as we examined things like psychedelic drugs, eastern religions, Scientology, transcendental meditation, etc. I remember a crowded car trip somewhere in the deep south, all of us high on something, and very sincerely chanting (whatever the popular mantra of the day was) in order to reach some place of enlightenment. It was a strange coexistence of the profound and the mundane. The spiritual and the hedonistic. I was fully immersed in the good times we were all enjoying, but I was still searching for something with real and eternal meaning. (I used to say "God. Make me good... but not yet.")

I was always reading about some different kind of spiritual discipline, but the last thing I was willing to consider was that the Christanity of my youth would some day call me back to embrace it in a new and completely satisfying way. That's exactly what happened. The most reasonable answer (but I can't say I arrived there by my reason) to all of these questions turns out to be that God did provide a way for that kind of relationship with me. He sent his son whose name was Jesus Christ to live among us for awhile and to teach us about our father. I always believed that God must honor a sincere seeker of the truth, and he led me back to this after all those years of searching. But as sure as I am about it now, I remember how just the mention of it would turn me off back in those days. I'm aware that your readers, too are probably more interested in a discussion of my professional career. Let me just say that in a life filled with the wordly riches and glamour of show business (and now professional sports) I consider my relationship to God through Christ to be the most satisfying and rewarding thing I've ever experienced. In any discussion of who Jim Pons is now this needs to be spoken of and (hopefully) listened to. It's valuable stuff in a culture that's losing its concept of value.

With your thoughtfull reply, it's a little ironic that you were the Voice of the "Bad Conscience" in 200 Motels. You also handled much dialog in "Billy the Mountain" How much improvisation did Frank allow in the "live" presentation of the "comedy" music?

I did the voice of the bad conscience during post production. The movie was made in England, and Frank's bass player quit before filming, but he didn't replace him with me until he got back to the States. (That's why Wilfred Bramble - Paul's Grandfather in "A Hard Day's Night"- was first cast to play the part --later replaced by Martin Lickert). Frank did give me a lot of dialogue in "Billy The Mountain". As with the music, he expected you to do your part as he wrote it..... unless you improvised something that made him laugh. If you could make him laugh he'd let you go as long as you wanted. In fact, that's what fueled Mark and Howard. Frank really, REALLY seemed to enjoy that part of it. But if you changed something he had written -- into something that didn't work -- it was NOT funny. And he could make you feel real bad about it

You and Aynsley Dunbar provided the rhythm section for Frank's singular guitar in the ensemble. Dunbar has been quoted as saying that Frank was "very open" to ideas about arrangements, or "problems" with the music, and welcomed suggestions, while Jimmy Carl Black, the original Mother's drummer, has said, flat-out, that Frank was only receptive to his own ideas. From your experiences, which is closer to the way you interacted with Frank?

It was very rare that he ever showed any sign of uncertainty about what he wanted. In that sense I have to agree with Jimmy Carl Black. But I was completely in awe and respectful of Frank's musical inspiration and vision, and I don't remember ever thinking that I could (or should) suggest anything that might dilute that vision. I asked him to simplify some of the bass lines once in a while when I thought he was getting carried away. He gave me something once that even Ian couldn't read. I told him, "Thanks for the compliment." Aynsley and he had a different kind of relationship and I think Frank depended on him a lot more. Aynsley was a fantastic drummer and a lot of fun to play with.

I had the pleasure of seeing you at the Lyric Theatre in 1972 and heard "Billy the Mountain" for the first time. It was a hilarious show. I have observed, from the times I saw Frank live, that he always seemed to be very proud of the "comedy" music and enjoyed presenting it, but he became very somber, and almost, defensive on stage when he presented his more complex "serious" music. Do you relate to this observation, or am I just way off base with this?

No. You're correct. At least that's the way I would characterize his disposition on stage. Its probably because the comedy portions left some room for improvisation which he did not encourage in the serious musical segments (at least not for me). During the dialogues he let himself relax a bit and just listen.... come out of the serious business of guitar playing and band leading. At these times he would often hear things he'd never heard before and I think that was refreshing for him. The object each night, got to be, "Make Frank laugh". Then we could be sure he was enjoying himself and would be in a good mood after the show.

By the way, since we were speaking of the the Creation earlier, do you know anything about "Divan".....the unrecorded but widely presented (all over Europe) opening to "Billy The Mountain" wherein God creates the universe while sitting on his maroon colored sofa watching his first two creations (a girl and a pig) perform for him? If you do, I've told you enough. If you don't, you and the readers may be interested. We put a lot of time into rehearsals for it including German lessons for all of us for several months. It was all done in German and wildly succesful in Western Europe. I played the part of God.

Were you present at both the burning of the stage at Montreaux - immortalized in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"- and also when Frank was thrown 10 feet offstage by the crazed fan in Europe? If so, then how come you didn't prevent these things? (Just kidding). What do you recall thinking about when these events took place? Any details you'd like to add?

Yes and yes. The fire broke out in the last few minutes of a 90 minute show... during the encore we never should've given. We were playing "King Kong" and I looked up to see flames in the second or third row of the balcony. They were small enough that I remember thinking someone could put them out in a matter of seconds by beating them with their coats. We continued playing, but it seemed like everyone else was over reacting. People in the front came up on stage and ran through us and past us to get to who knows where. Immediately our stage managers told us to put our guitars down and get to the side of the stage. I saw the fire fall down from the balcony to the seats below and then I realized that it was becoming a serious emergency. People were screaming and scrambling in all directions to find doors which, in an old theatre like that, were few and far between. Our bus driver ushered us downstairs through some kind of kitchen area where we were safe from the crowd for a minute but there were no doors and no where else for us to go. Unbelievably smoke was already coming down there with us. It was an old building, burning fast, and it sounded like it was about to collapse on top of us. The bus driver used his fist to break a glass wall that led to the outside through which we escaped. It had been less than two minutes since we were playing. An unreal episode, but one that we still thought was going to come under control until we got out onto the street and watched the building burn to the ground. It turns out that members of Deep Purple were also watching from their hotel across the water. The next day after suveying the damage and walking through the rubble of what used to be the stage, Frank uncharacteristically allowed us to vote on whether or not to continue the European tour. It would take at least two weeks to get reorganized, but we still had several weeks of sold out concerts remaining. It also meant having to replace everything destroyed in the fire... instruments, lights, sound system, all of Frank's guitars. We voted to continue.

The next scheduled performance was even more devasting, and it turned our to be our last with the Mothers. Frank got pushed into the orchestra pit of the theatre we were playing in London. My recollection of that event is hazy probably because I still hadn't gotten over what had happened in Switzerland. It was so unreal. Like in a dream. I remember images of Frank lying there, our road managers holding onto, and screaming at the assailant, the feeling of stunned disbelief that everybody felt. I think I myself must have blacked out by then. I don't recall much of anything after that except visiting Frank in the hospital before we left to come home. Everyone was sad and quiet.

What did you do after you left Frank's band in 1973? Did you want to leave? Was there ever a hope that Frank would again tap you to play bass with him? Was there a "reunion" of the Flo and Eddie version of Zappa's band ever planned for a tour, as far as you know?

Frank was hospitalized with severe injuries and we were told at the time that he may never be able to play again. After several months of waiting and wondering about the future, we decided to go back out on the road as the Turtles. The only problem was we were involved in a lawsuit with our old record company (who owned the name) so we couldn't call ourselves that. We had given the nicknames "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie" to our two roadies (Denny Jones and Carlos Bernal... how 'bout that for a plug) several years earlier and somehow we started using that name for ourselves. We put a new band together with some holdovers from the Mothers, but it was the Turtles all over again, and Mark and Howard and I were together for another couple of years. It was at least that long before I heard that Frank was playing again and by then I was ready to get out of the business altogether. There was never an option to rejoin him or the Mothers.

Do you ever hear from the musicians you played with? Flo and Eddie for example, or Aynsley? Did you get a chance to talk with Frank before he died? If not, what would you have liked to say to him?

I've kept in touch and speak to Mark Volman pretty regularly. The same with John Beck from The Leaves. Other than that, when I left the music business and moved from Los Angeles to New York its been a different life. I spoke to Gail shortly after Frank died but that was the first contact I had with their family since 1971 or '72. I guess I would have thanked him for being my friend, for giving me a chance to work with him, and for a lot of great, unforgettable memories.

Continued...on next page

Go To Part Two: The Jim Pons Interview


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