Frank Zappa’s onetime mistress wants to release a new album, but first she’ll have to overcome a failed fundraiser and — worse still — a bureaucratic nightmare of the sort that Zappa surely would’ve lampooned.
Nigey Lennon was 12 when she first discovered Zappa’s Freak Out!. She was 15 when she sent him a demo of her own music and was surprised to receive an invitation to meet with him to discuss it at Bizarre Records. She was 17 when he hired her as a guitarist for his 1971 tour to promote his film, 201 Motels. Lennon was still a minor when Zappa — 30 and married at the time — seduced her in Berkeley, according to her book Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa.
Lennon wasn’t an air-brained groupie. Now 60, she’s a composer who sings and plays mandolin, classical piano, keyboards and percussion. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about pigeonholing myself,” she told us from her home in Long Island, which she shares with her domestic partner, a former high school biology teacher. “I can do a foul-mouthed sea shanty one day and then do a big band jazz arrangement the next. I don’t like to ‘woman’ myself.”
Currently, Lennon is finishing up the lyrics for Ship in a Bottle, her new album for Muffin Records. Among other things, it features a ditty, “Captain Pissgums’ Soliloquy,” based on the “pervert pirate” that S. Clay Wilson created in the ’60s for Zap Comix.
Lennon signed with Muffin Records in 1997. Its owner, Reinhard Preuss, told B+ B he stands ready to promote and finance Bottle when Lennon gets her act together for tours. But she’s hit a recent road block. Last month, her Indiegogo campaign to complete the album fizzled after four or five weeks, bringing in little money to go towards paying accompanists.
Lennon, a cervical cancer survivor, has had daunting challenges staying afloat despite claims in a 2001 New York Times article that she was succeeding in the boondocks of Suffolk County.
She notes that royalties from her book on Zappa “keep me off the street and continue to pay the utilities and it keeps my computer running.” (Being Frank is now available as an e-book with a new introduction by Candy Zappa, the younger sister of Frank Zappa.)
But her hopes of succeeding as a musician became complicated in 2005, when she became an apparent casualty of the Real ID law, a controversial federal statute passed by Congress that year to tighten security in the wake of terrorist attacks on 9/11 and to combat fraud by imposing new regulations on state-issued ID documents like drivers licenses.
That same year, Lennon was unable to renew her drivers license — and later her passport — because, she says, her maiden name “doesn’t match up” with her married name on her Social Security card. As a result, she says, she can’t drive a car or travel abroad on tour. She also can’t use her expired passport and drivers license to apply for employment.
“It’s very Kafkaesque,” she says, noting that the “incorrect” name on her Social Security card appeared in 1977 after her former husband Lionel Rolfe filed a joint tax return identifying her as Nigey L. Rolfe. Her now expired driver’s license and passport identifies her as Nigey Lennon, her maiden name that she says she has used for nearly all her life.
Lennon says she has run into “stonewalling” from the Social Security Administration in her efforts to clear up the situation, contending that the agency is “very rigid about changing your married name back to your maiden name. You have to submit documents.” She said that both her birth certificate and divorce papers have been rejected as unsatisfactory ID by the SSA.
Her birth certificate may be at the root of Lennon’s ID problems with the SSA. The document does not have her name on it. Her late English mother, a philologist who was not married to her father, used her own name on Lennon’s birth certificate when she was born in Santa Monica. “In essence, I don’t have a birth certificate,” Lennon says, adding with a laugh, “I’m a bastard!”
Rolfe, a journalist who collaborated on two books with Lennon during their 30-year marriage, noted that his former wife has published a number of books using her maiden name, including a well-received biography of French symbolist playwrightAlfred Jarry (The Man with the Axe) and a book about Mark Twain, The Sagebrush Bohemian, that was reviewed by the New York Times. Rolfe says Lennon has a “genius IQ” and believes that the SSA “has really fucked her over.”
This summer, Lennon renewed her attempts to straighten out her name with the Social Security Administration via her local congressman, Timothy Bishop, but doesn’t expect a resolution any time soon. “Our office has been doing everything possible to assist Ms. Lennon with her case,” said a spokesperson for Bishop who declined further comment, citing “privacy concerns.”
John Shallman, New York regional communications director for the SSA, acknowledged that the federal agency’s rules “have become more stringent following 9/11 as to ID, but we look at the totality of ID to effect a name change when it’s appropriate.”
When informed about Lennon’s case, Ron Kuby, the prominent Manhattan civil rights lawyer and talk show host, recommended that she reverse course and first pursue a driver’s license, seeking judicial intervention via an Article 78 if need be. “If she has her driver’s license, then she can get her passport renewed and then [new ID] from Social Security,” Kuby said.
“She’s a great writer–that’s her forte,” says Stony Brook composer, vocalist and engineer John Tabacco, who co-produced Lennon’s debut album Reinventing the Wheel in 2001 and the remastered version, Reinventing the Wheel Reinvented, last year. Both performed at the Zappanale 13 festival in Bad Doberan, East Germany where a statue of Zappa was dedicated in 2002. But Tabacco adds that the music business has always been hard on women, particularly intellectuals like Lennon who “don’t do girly girly stuff.”
Tabacco first contacted Lennon in Los Angeles in 1995 because he liked Being Frank, which was published two years after Zappa died of prostate cancer at age 53.
Asked why she thought Zappa was interested in her and her music, the mostly self-taught Lennon said he was always open to new things and considered her demo “the weirdest thing he had heard. Here I am, 15 years old, with heavy handed avant garde music, and he couldn’t figure me out. Maybe he wanted to figure me out. Or maybe he liked redheads.”
She admits having been in love with Zappa. “At least I thought so. I liked the idea of the muse who strikes some creative sparks in me. I need to be inspired. He turned me on to all kinds of music like Bartok’s third piano concerto. Edgar Varèse was a favorite of his. He loved Stravinsky.”
When Being Frank was first published, there were naysayers who questioned Lennon’s claims about her relationship with Zappa, among them Zappa’s widow and second wife, Gail Zappa, who has been described as famously litigious.
But others say Lennon’s account of her time with the rock icon rings true. “She captures him so well—I could almost see the hairs on his legs from reading her book,” said Lorraine Chamberlain, the wife of S. Clay Wilson (who, she noted, is now an invalid after suffering a severe brain injury from a fall or an attack in the streets of San Francisco in 2008. He will not be part of the upcoming Zap Comix reunion.)
Chamberlain, the former Lorraine Belcher, was herself an old girlfriend of Zappa in his early days as a musician and filmmaker. She was arrested with him in 1965 when St. Bernardino police charged the pair with conspiracy to commit pornography in Cucamonga. The “porn” in question was an audio tape of herself and Zappa “moaning and groaning,” Chamberlain said. “We didn’t take our clothes off.” She said An undercover cop had solicited the “porn” for $100, supposedly for a stag movie.
Lennon acknowledged that Zappa “certainly” exploited her youth and naivete, but she said she took her cues from him “and he didn’t seem to think it was wrong, so I didn’t. I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t the coolest,’ but I thought it would turn into something,” she said. “He was going to produce my album and we worked on some tracks. But it wasn’t going to work. It started out as something and then degenerated into something else.” She said their relationship ended in 1975 when Zappa became enraged at her for trying to get quotes from him for an article she had been assigned to write for a San Francisco magazine.
Although Zappa had serious shortcomings by her account, Lennon also remembers him as a “standup guy” who put her up at his place in Laurel Canyon (in the basement) after her mother and stepfather father kicked her out of their house — “He lent me money on more than one occasion,” she said. “He [was] a scumbag, but an honorable scumbag.”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the surname of John Shallman.