Yoko and Bottoms

You may recall from our first newsletter, that back in the roaring 60's, after Meatball left Berkeley for London, he met up with Yoko Ono and her husband Tony (this was a year before she met John Lennon). Meatball had done a radio documentary of Yoko's performance for KPFA in Berkeley and Yoko and Tony were so delighted, they asked him to work on a film.

"They were down and out in London. They had no money, they were living in an unfurnished flat, they couldn't even get back to New York. They were sleeping on a mattress on the floor and Kyoko (who was four years old then) and I got the two folding cots. Yoko had a few dented pots to cook from and we'd eat rice and other odd roots I think she found growing in the vacant lot next door."

Yoko and Tony talked someone into giving them a little money to do a film, Yoko called it Number Four (later retitled, Bottoms). And that's what it was, Bottoms, 260 bare bottoms, 90 minutes of bare bottoms!

Let's see if we can describe this. The bare bottom filled the entire screen, solid flesh. The image was really four quarters, in the upper left quarter of the screen was the left cheek, the upper right, the right cheek, bottom left the left thigh, bottom right, right thigh (see Figure #1).

The bottoms were in motion because it was filmed while they were walking. They were walking in place on a large turntable, with the camera tight to the bottom, so the image filled the entire screen. What was fascinating was the motion, the left upper quarter of the screen (cheek) would move with the bottom right quarter, and so on, so each quarter of the screen was in constant motion.

Every fifteen seconds it cut to a fresh bottom. For the fat ones, the camera was moved back, to get the whole big thing in the screen, for the skinny ones the camera was moved forward, so you always had the same four quarters filling the screen.

Now, you may wonder, 90 minutes of this right in your face, isn't it a bit boring? Hardly, bottoms have character, so every fifteen seconds a new character was presented before your eyes. People found it absolutely mesmerizing, watching these four quarters in motion. And then, of course, there was the sound track.

The Soundtrack

"Yoko wanted me to do a soundtrack that was similar to the radio documentary I had done of her performance. Since her performance had little sound, the documentary was made up of comments by people in the audience, their impressions, their criticisms, ‘This really isn't art, you know,' as the performance was going on."

The soundtrack for the Bottoms film was to be interviews with the people who were participating in the film. Like, "Why would you drop your knickers and let someone film your bare backside?"

Remember, this is 1967, in London, and Yoko is virtually unknown and there was no pay for the participants. But Yoko and Tony had put announcements in casting papers etc. and actors would show up expecting to audition for a movie and were being asked to drop their knickers instead. Some actors were delighted; "Wait'll my mom sees this on the big screen." Others refused, were offended, but their comments too were part of the soundtrack. Meatball interviewed almost every one of them.

The shooting went on for several days. The filming was discreetly done behind a curtain. Artists came in, actors, producers from television, people off the street, the media was invited, reporters stopped by and they too would often end up on the silver screen. It was winter in London, grey and dreary and nothing was happening; the media loved this. Yoko suddenly was a celebrity, appearing magazine covers and papers around the country.

But back to the sound track. The interviews were cut to the rhythms of the film, they too cut about every 15 seconds to someone else talking about what a wonderful idea, great art, or "no way will I drop my drawers for this silly flick." Sometimes the room would be jammed with people jabbering away, waiting their turn, so the voice of the person being interviewed would be shouting over the din, and this would suddenly cut to someone talking very quietly, intimately in a silent room, this too had a powerful effect of sensory overload and then deprivation when hearing the soundtrack, this blast of energy suddenly cutting to soft intimacy.

Yoko wanted 365 people to drop their drawers, but she did get 260 to do it. And it was a 90-minute feature film.

The Film Censors Board

Now, they arranged for a movie theatre in London to agree to show the film. "But the English are strange people. In many ways they allow much more freedom of expression than we do. They have a long tradition of burlesque and bawdy comedy that is still a vital part of their culture, where just about any sexual innuendo goes. If you've ever seen Benny Hill on TV, or Are You Being Served on PBS, you'll know what I mean. Americans think we are the freest country in the world, but you have to live abroad to appreciate what others are getting away with. I saw bare breasts on TV in London back in the sixties! Almost choked on my marmite sandwich."

But the English do have their quirks. The country has a film censors board, and London has its own separate Film Censors Board. "We had to get their stamp of approval on the Bottoms film before it could be shown in London. Tony dropped off the only print we had for a screening by the Board. Ten o'clock the next morning the phone rang, they had just viewed it and said, ‘Come down here and remove this film immediately.' They were not amused, in fact, incensed, outraged, thumbs down all around, no way would that film be shown. Period."

"Now, even if you have a thing for bottoms, you are not going to get turned on watching this film, anything butt .. 'er but. Tony and I hopped in a cab and rushed across town to pick up the film. They were so pissed we thought they might destroy our only print."

Big Gloom sets in in Grey London

But Yoko's no quitter, that's for sure. Two young guys who dropped their pants for the film were producers for ITV, Independent Television. Back then there was one commercial channel, and two BBC Channels. That's all the TV you got, two channels during the day, with the third coming on in the evening.

These two shrewd producers who loved the idea of the film, said, "Look, give us ten minutes of your best asses, no pubic hairs and no wicker chairs." Now, occasionally while watching 260 bare bottoms, one might get a glimpse of a pubic hair, but by then you were so hypnotized watching this, it didn't raise an eyebrow. "None of us could figure out where that person found a wicker chair to sit in before the shooting, because she had these perfect, freshly imprinted wicker cross patterns on her cheeks. It's a mystery that intrigues me to this day."

The producers also said, "Along with your best bottoms, give us your most intelligent comments from the soundtrack." And that Saturday afternoon, at 2 PM in London, on the only commercial television channel, they did an interview with Yoko Ono talking about the film and followed the interview with ten minutes from the film. "It was our finest hour, and of course, finest bottoms."

Well, after it was shown to everyone on TV on a Saturday afternoon, how could the Film Censors Board not allow it be to shown in a movie theatre? Can you imagine the wonderful publicity the Censors Board would receive? They'd be the laughing stock of the city. We had 'em, but good. The Board reconsidered and gave their stamp of approval on Bottoms.

Opening Night

"People hooted and shouted and one bloke leaped on the stage, dropped his pants and mooned the audience. A fine opening night. It was a movie theatre that usually showed X rated films. So when the usual patrons unsuspectingly wandered into the theatre looking for a little buzz, and saw bottom after bottom and that was it, for an hour and a half. They didn't know what the hell to make of it. Some spit and left in a huff. Attendance dropped off rapidly. Still it ran for a few weeks."

Meatball has a birthmark on his right cheek (we're not talking face here). And when the ad for the movie came out in the London papers, there was a still from the film, it was Meatball's bottom, he could recognize it from his very unique birthmark, "I held the ad up and looked into the mirror and sure enough, that was me alright." On his right cheek was the birthmark and on the left cheek was the face of Yoko Ono! Yes, a photo of smiling Yoko was superimposed on his left cheek. Alas, we don't have a copy of that ad.

Later, when it was to be released in this country, the U.S. Customs confiscated the print. They may have destroyed it. Eventually it did get into the U.S. It's been written up in film magazines, some say it was her best film.

"Right at the time I left London, Yoko met John Lennon. A few years later when they were living in New York, she told me that John loved the soundtrack. Well, maybe she said, he liked the soundtrack, but I remember it as John loved it."

Wake Up, America

Abbie Hoffman made us laugh a lot back in the 60's. We liked his political savvy, his outrageousness media antics, but mainly his sense of humor. The Yippies, Youth International Party, caught the attention of the media. Like the time they ran J. Edgar Piggus for President of the United States. It was one candidate we could get behind, even though it had to be write in ballot because J. Edgar was a real pig.

One day, after ZBS was formed in the early 70's, Meatball got the idea to produce a record by Abbie. He was going to use tapes that already existed, interviews, demonstrations, that funny political humor of Abbie's. But when he presented the idea, Abbie said he'd like to do some new stuff, sing some songs, have some fun.

"We hired a band called The Joint Chiefs of Staff, that was really their name. Abbie came up to ZBS for a week. We recorded him singing songs that were anything but political, Cool Water, Ave Maria, etc. There was a tank of nitrous oxide in the studio, the stuff they fill balloons with, and Abbie and the band would take a hit of that and just burst into giggles. It made your voice sound like a chipmunk."

After Abbie returned to Manhattan, Meatball put the record together with Abbie singing on one side, and more serious stuff from demonstrations on the other. A month or so later, Abbie came up again.

"We had just listened to the tape, we were walking out of the studio next door, discussing some changes, when Abbie got a call from a friend. Rolling Stone Magazine had just done a big expose on Abbie. It was about his recent book, Steal This Book. The researcher he hired claimed he, not Abbie, had written the book and Abbie had stolen it from him. The article was scathing. Rolling Stone let him have it with both barrels."

Abbie and others had been trying to get the rock bands to become more politically involved. Remember, the Vietnam war was still going on and on and on ... and things were pretty crazy.

The people who were running our government had simply gone nuts, bombing the living hell out of the jungles. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam than in all of World War II. So, a little political involvement maybe wasn't a bad idea.

But apparently Rolling Stone wanted to keep Rock and Roll pure. When Abbie got off the phone, you could see he was really shook up by the article that had just been read to him. Within minutes, Abbie and his wife had gathered up their things and were on their way back to Manhattan. As he was getting into the car he said to Meatball, "Listen, make those few changes and the record is okay."

Big Toe Releases Album

We made the changes and sent the masters to the people putting out the record. It would be on our label, Big Toe, our first record, but distributed by a record club. A few weeks later, Abbie called and said he didn't want the record released. Other articles had appeared, the Village Voice, etc. and he had a crisis on his hands. "I think he was concerned how people would see him, goofing off, having fun, instead of attacking the system." But the record club had given us an advance and were already promoting it as their next release.

We were a commune, we had no leader, we functioned by group consensus. The decision was, those involved with the record got to make the decision. Bobby, our engineer and moralist, said, "No, stop the record." Roach and Meatball said, "But Abbie gave his okay, and now that his image is at stake, he's going back on his word. Let it be."

Years later Meatball sadly admitted, "Bobby was right, we should've stopped it. Not because it hurt Abbie, it didn't. The record just wasn't very good. In fact, it taught me not to produce other people, better to produce my own." It was right after that he started writing the Fourth Tower of Inverness.

After the turmoil with Rolling Stone had died down and the record was released, Abbie wasn't angry, in fact, he wrote an amusing Disclaimer that we taped to the back of every album.

Abbie was a stand up comic; he followed in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce. He loved performing for the media, and he had really thick skin. "I mean, physically you could see the skin on his face was actually thick. We figured that's how he survived as long as he did. People think he was this big egomaniac, maybe he was. But what he was doing was dangerous. He got so many death threats, there were times he thought he was going to be assassinated. Behind the ego was someone who cared about what was going on. In fact, I have never met anyone who cared more about this country than he did. He was trying to wake people up. He certain woke up some of us."

Making Moon Over Morocco

After finishing the production of The Fourth Tower of Inverness in the fall of 1973, Meatball went off to Morocco to visit the American expatriate writer, Paul Bowles, in Tangier. A few years earlier, when he was living in London, he had hopped down to Tangier to interview Mr. Bowles, so Meatball knew he was a great source of information regarding Moroccan magic practices.

"One evening in Paul's apartment, while we were discussing Moroccan music, Paul put on a record of trance music he had recorded at a festival. As he was describing the details of how the drummers bring the men into and out of the trance, a young Moroccan who was also listening and swaying to the music, suddenly started dancing. Paul leaped off the sofa, yanked the needle off the record, and gently led the man back to his chair. It took me a moment to realize he had tranced right out. Paul later explained that this same man had gone into a trance at a festival, and took out a knife to cut himself. His strength was such it took five men to subdue him. Paul wasn't looking forward to that happening in his living room."

Meatball traveled around Morocco, recording anything that sounded interesting. The story started to take shape, stimulated by the sights and especially the sounds. "At night, as the moon became full, it seemed as though all the dogs of Tangier were out whooping it up. Once, around 3:00 a.m., an owl landed in a tree outside my room and started hooting. I set up the mikes, turned on the machine and went back to sleep. Later when I told Paul about recording an owl, he was surprised. He said Moroccans believe owls are messengers of evil and they will kill them if they can. This was written into the story. Whenever Jack hears an owl outside his window, something is about to happen."

After he returned from Morocco, Meatball started writing scenes that would be set in some of the lavish locations he had recorded. For example, he recorded a courtyard in a villa owned by a friend of Paul's in Marrakech. It was an enclosed tile courtyard with a fountain in the center and caged birds that would let out a squawk or a shriek now and then. It was the perfect setting for the Comtesea de Zazennia. Her character was based on a real Countess who lives in Morocco.

"I couldn't do a Moon Over Morocco, without paying homage to the great classic, Casablanca. I decided we would have a nightclub like Rick's, but something more humble, still also named after the owner, in this case, Kasbah Kelly. Kelly was slightly based on Paul Bowles, only slightly, but some of Kelly's words are things Paul said."

"I needed a piano player, another Sam. I thought about my friend from Philly, Dave Adams, who was a cartoonist and penned under the name of Quattlebaum. Dave's a very special guy, he is knowledgeable about all sorts of metaphysical things, including yoga and voodoo. That's why I named him, Mojo Sam the Yoodoo Man, part yoga and part voodoo. I thought I'd write him in as himself. "

"Then one day I suddenly panicked. Moon Over Morocco was ten hours long, I had been writing on it for months, we were scheduled to start recording in two weeks, but it had never occurred to me to ask Dave if he wanted to do it. Besides that, Mojo was a main character but Dave had never acted before in his life. And he'd be working with all these professional actors! Good grief, I couldn't believe my stupidity ... well, actually, I could. But anyway, I called and he said, 'Sure, no problem.' Just like that, no problem."

There is a scene in Moon Over Morocco where the palace is being bombarded by watermelons, caused by the magic of Little Flossic (played by P.J. Orte). To get just the right sound of the watermelons sailing through the sky and then crashing into the palace, Max stood on the second floor roof, dropping all sorts of things: cantaloupes, pumpkins, giant zucchinis and watermelons. Bobby placed a mike just a few inches off the sidewalk to capture the hit and squish. The watermelons won hands down, in fact, when we slowed down the sound, playing it back about half speed, we could even hear the seeds squirting out of the melon as it exploded. Great sound.

The Shanks Story

Shanks was one of the Founders of ZBS. He came up from New Orleans, where he did a music show. He played music nonstop, you couldn't tell where one cut ended and another began, it was one constant flow of music. We planned to syndicate his show, but we couldn't get enough stations interested to make it worthwhile. So, here he was, in upstate New York and nothing to do.

"We have 33 acres here, rich river bottom soil, just drop a seed on the ground and turnips the size of your head will pop up. Shanks started reading books on organic gardening. He set up a roadside stand. He not only got all of us to work on that enormous garden that stretched half way to the woods, we did it all by hand. We planted 500 tomato plants and that night the cutworms came out and snipped the stems off 300 of them. Back then, Shanks had this big Afro haircut, and the next morning when he walked out into his garden, he started shouting, pulling on his Afro, shaking his fist and screaming an oath, "Death to all Cutworms!"

Cutworms are little grubs, they sneak to the surface at night, crawl over to the freshly transplanted tomato plant, and snip the stem just above the ground. "Timber", and over she goes. And then with a grubby little cutworm chuckle, they sneak back into the ground.

Bobby, our engineer, who solves all life's problems with electricity, (his hero is Nikola Tesla) decided to run wires out to the garden, beef up the current through a transformer and give those cutworms a good jolt. What it did was drive the earthworms to the surface. It didn't kill them but they looked a bit dazed, like "Whoa, what the heck was that?" The cutworms didn't mind at all, maybe even gave them a nice buzz.

Someone told Shanks, if you put rusty nails into the soil, cutworms really don't like that. So Shanks collected pails of rusty nails and stuck 'em all over the garden. It worked. And even now, every year when we plant a garden, as we're pulling out rusty nails, we think of Shanks.

We had an immense amount of tomatoes left over that fall, the ground was red with tomatoes. There was going to be a killer frost that night and no one knew what to do with all those tomatoes. Now Meatball, who was brought up on a farm in Michigan, said to these freshly transplanted city folk, "We'd never let our tomatoes go to waste. What we used to do is have a Big Tomato Fight."

Everyone fell silent as he described the joys of his youth, "There's nothing quite like the sound of a fat ripe Beefsteak tomato whistling through the air and hitting someone square in the back. What a neat sounding thump/spatter!"

Sure enough, all the boys got out in the field and the games began. Tomatoes were whizzing through the air, people were laughing so hard they couldn't breath. Suddenly everyone would gang up on one person, then turn on each other, it was every man for himself. P. J. heard the ruckus and came out to watch the event; "I saw her dashing back to the house, with the sky filled with arching tomatoes, red missiles seeking their target. It was a great success, we got rid of most of the tomatoes. I can't remember who caught one on the back of the head, almost knocked him over."

Even to this day, after the first frost, Max and his boys have their Big Annual Every-Man-for-Himself Tomato Fight! An event they look forward to with great relish, so to speak.

And so the moon rises and the tomato sets, and that's all for now folks. Watch for the third newsletter, when ZBS, Those Early Years, will continue.

Go to Part Three