Moving from the Bay Area to Las Vegas at the dawn of the 1980s meant leaving behind friends who shared my enthusiasm for a great many singers and bands. Given Las Vegas’ blue-collar nature, I had to seek out fellow fans of more eclectic artists, including Frank Zappa. Zappa loomed large as an influence during my high school years; I even recited some of his twisted lyrics for a debate competition once. I had seen him perform twice in the mid-’70s, both wild New Year’s Eve shows in Southern California.
One of my first jackpots as a local was striking up a friendship with George Tennell, who would go on to co-host the strange and wonderful radio show Difficult Listening as George Difficult on KUNV. We met the day after John Lennon was murdered, and in discussing all things music it didn’t take long to get around to our mutual admiration for Zappa. Though his Zappa collection was far more impressive than mine, we each had enough exclusive material to keep us swapping tapes well into the new year.
It was during that time that Zappa released the album You Are What You Is, and we were amped with anticipation over his concert at the Aladdin Theatre the following October. It would turn out to be Zappa’s final appearance here. His first, in the summer of 1977, was marred by the suicide of his road manager at the Aladdin Hotel after the band had left for their next gig.
My wife hadn’t seen Zappa before but had listened to my stories about the two SoCal holiday shows and liked the new album. We all had excellent seats in the bowl, and it was fun to attend the show with a newbie and a veteran. Zappa was in his element, displaying his own brand of supreme confidence as he strode from center stage wearing his guitar to stage-right with a baton to conduct his “orchestra,” which included Steve Vai on guitar. Setting the tone with earlier favorites “Black Napkins” and “Montana,” he then led the band into an extended set from the new album, but just as quickly veered back into his extremely successful Sheik Yerbouti LP, which had proven shelf-life even before MTV came along.
One of the first things that attracted me to Zappa and his music was his unabashed glee in trashing convention, and he seemed to relish the notion of flipping off Sin City at every opportunity. At one point during a long, jazzy jam, he crooned lounge-style about gamblers “pulling that handle on that f*cking slot machine, and nothing is coming out.” The show was really hitting its stride when he got to “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes,” and when he made the “winking” motion with his hand while telling us where to “ram it,” I don’t believe I’ve ever laughed harder at a rock concert. The only person laughing harder was my wife. I couldn’t have asked for a better moment to capture the whole evening.