Sunday, 12 May 2013

Any Way the Wind Blows - An Interview with Don Preston

It was hot, hotter than the Hotplate Heaven at the Green Hotel, and I needed a ride.

I was a drifter, a loner, and that’s just how I liked it. All I needed for a friend was a full pack of smokes, my precious guitar my daddy have given me and the cold hard road, and today... well, today I was going anywhere the wind led me.

I stuck out my thumb and held on to my crudely painted sign. 'Will play for a lift' it read - I couldn't count the times people had stopped, thinking the sign said 'pay for a lift' and then sped off again. Hell, I wasn't that bad, could string a note or two together, something that wouldn't hurt the ears. I was no pro, but I was a trier, and isn't that what counts?

The California sun beat down on my head, beads of sweat snaked their way down my spine making my shirt looked like I'd just been swimming, cars zoomed past. No one seemed to want to stop for a long haired drifter with a wet shirt and a bashed up old Gibson, but I had faith, I had to have.

I had traveled a long way and had gotten into a lot of cars, and a lot of cars meant a lot of conversations. A couple of nuns in an Cadillac convertible picked me up just outside of New York City and got me all the way to Vegas, and boy those girls could talk, about everything and anyone. Hell, I'm not a religious guy, but if I was I'd still be hail-marying now. And from the size and weight of their bags, I'm not sure those 'nuns' were completely on the level. Those slots were going to take a pounding with the church's collection, and that church roof? Well, that'd be waiting a while before it's water tight again.

Then I got two newlyweds in a Desoto. Those guys were free with their happiness and their cash, jeeze, I ate and drank well on that journey, steak dinners, two bottles of French champagne, and I can live with that. But then things got heavy. Turned out that they'd only known each other 2 weeks and it wasn’t too far outside Sin City before the honeymoon was over. Next I got a suicidal banker. I didn't ask why, I didn't want to know why, I just didn't stay in that car long. And then there was this old dude in a Ford pick-up looked like he'd seen a thing or two in his life, told me stories about his pappy and the gold rush. In an hour and a half we had only driven 25 miles, but he made me smile and that doesn't come for free.

So now I was here; sign in hand, thumb out waiting for that next lift to somewhere. The minutes turned into hours, it was a long, lonely road.

Looking ahead in the distance, I saw a car: a cherry red convertible with chrome alloys and my kinda music coming from the stereo. As it slowly appeared over the horizon - the ripple of the heat distorting its image - I wondered for a second whether it was some sort of an mirage, but no it kept coming closer and then, as if I was given a gift from the heavens, the car slowed and stopped at my feet.

I bent down and removed my cowboy hat ready to ask how far they were going, but when I saw who had stopped my heart skipped a beat and my mouth hung open.

"Well, are you getting in or not?" came the voice in an unmistakable Michigan drawl.
"You're... You're...," I stuttered, stumbling over my words "Don Preston... musician... Keyboard.... Mothers of Invention... "

"Grandmothers these days kid," he replied as I opened the door and got in.

The car pulled off. I couldn't believe it, this was the Don Preston, a man whose music had birthed me into the 50s, suckled me through the 60s, and brought me kicking and screaming into life after that. This was a man who'd played with the likes of Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Flo and Eddie, Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Frank freakin' Zappa! Man! This dude was a legend, and I was in a car with him...

He asked where I was going, and I replied "Any way the wind blows". He smiled, I knew he'd like that.

I chose my words carefully as we chatted, my nerves were shot but I had to ask him some questions. I noticed a half open tub of pasta salad on the floor at my feet, this guy wasn't stopping. This was my one chance. I knew that he'd just finished a tour.

So, Mr Preston, sir, how are you? Are you on your way home?

"Yeah, Well I’m ok, I’ve just got off a tour."

Good time to relax, touring must be tiring I thought, if only I actually knew.

I resisted the urge to talk about his time with Frank Zappa for all of 10 seconds. Then I just couldn’t help myself, I had to find out how they'd met.

"You mean how did I meet Frank? Well ahh, we were both playing at a festival in different bands, and we were kinda stuck on the same stage in the middle of this venue, there were like about four stages. Anyway we met each other and exchanged cards."

And you all liked each other’s music?

"Yeah, very much, like he had the same records that I did and vice versa so we kinda gravitated toward each other that way and I had a band that was rehearsing, it was an experimental band and I invited Zappa to come over and he came over and really liked it a lot. Bunk was in the band at the time. We were improvising to films of microscopic life and other weird films and Zappa came over a whole bunch of times bringing some film with him as well, but that’s how we kinda got to know each other."

I'd heard a lot about Frank Zappa from magazines and documentaries, but here was my chance to really find out, so I asked what he was like when they first started off.

"He was very warm, very nice, very intelligent, later on he became a bit of a tyrant trying to get the best out of the music that he could. But at that time he was more interested in just getting someone to play his music and he was grateful to have someone play his music."

A tyrant eh? I dug deeper, did he change?

"Not really, I mean uhh… I think really when I played with the 74 band I did see a change. Then he was more business-like, he was more demanding of the music, but still having a lot of fun."

Anyway, I said, enough of Frank, what about you?  You've performed with so many amazing people and played at so many amazing places. What has your career highlight been?
"Well I would have to say that probably one of the early highlights would have to be playing in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. That was a place that I know as a child because I had a number of records that were recorded there like the rites of spring for instance. I had a 78 recording of that. So when I get there and I’m sitting on the stage I was kind of overwhelmed, it was such an incredible thing."

Wow, I thought with a hint of jealousy, incredible… So who were you with at that time?

"That was the first band, you know Jimmy Carl Black, I believe Ray Collins and Billy Mundi, Roy Estrada, Bunk Gardner and Ian Underwood I think was in the band by that time actually no, Ian wasn’t in the band at that time I don’t think."

Now you’ve had so many highpoints, there must have been low points?"Uhh… Well one of the problems with that question is that people don’t remember that bad parts of their lives as well as they remember the good parts… I can’t answer that other than one of the low points was when the band split up!"

We laughed for a while at this, the guy had an amazing life and career, who would want to remember the bad times?
He slipped a CD into the deck and we listened without talking for a while. I studied the CD cover, ‘We’re only in it for the money’, it was worth the silence. I studied the cover art, a parody of the Sgt. Pepper album, I spotted Don, in the front and thought to myself 'wow this man has played with so many amazing people', I wondered aloud if there was anyone he would like to have played with?

"Oh ha ha ha! Well, I would say one of the person I would love to have played with was Elvin Jones, 'cos I played with him for two years when I was very young and I only played bass, so I would have loved to have been able to play with him when I was more developed and also play keyboard with him."

The album finished and I searched for my favourite, the tune ‘Anything’ from the album ‘Cruising with Ruben and the Jets’, I couldn’t see it in his collection so I asked him what his favourite song was?

"One of my own songs? One of my favourite songs is called ‘Inner Blues’ that was on a trio album I did. [The Don Preston Trio 2001 – Transformation]"

As we pulled off the highway I guessed that my time would be over soon. I remember the kids in my home town thinking I was crazy to still be drifting like I did, I wondered what Don thought Frank would say if he knew Don was still touring with the Grandmothers? He replied, "Ha ha, he’d probably be amazed as I am."

Don said he was turning off and I knew what that meant, time for me to leave him. We pulled up on the side of the road, I got out and we said our goodbyes. But I had to ask just one more question, and there could only be one to ask…

Do you use a chicken to measure it?

"Actually I did have a number of chickens to measure it and I find that people are always presenting me with these chickens you know when I go on a tour. So I’ve collected about 5 of them so far. So yes, I have used a chicken to measure that I have quite a few chickens!"

I watched as he drove off; my hero. I would never see him again but that lift would stand as the greatest I ever had while I was on the road. I might never have another chance to rub shoulders with greatness, but at least I still had my music. And, as he disappeared into the sunset, I shaded my eyes as the sun glinted off something shiny on the back seat of his car. I thought for a minute that it was a spark of his genius but no, it wasn’t until I went to pick up my belongings that I realised - aww shucks - it was my Gibson.

You can find out more about Don and his fascinating career at:
or look up the 'Grandmothers of Invention' on Facebook.


  1. Catch the live interview on Phonic FM Sonic Tonic, on the last Sunday of the month 12-2.

  2. A great read! We're only in it for the money is one of my favourite albums. I love the idea of them playing to films of microscopic life!