A flare gun, a fire, and a trip to the hospital Frank Zappa’s terrible week
We’re dipping into the Far Out vault to revisit one of the most unfortunate series of events in Frank Zappa’s long and varied career.
December 1971 would likely not have been a month full of pleasant memories for the late Frank Zappa. It was during this month that he experienced two incredibly dangerous incidents at his shows—and all within the space of a week.
It was a week which would see Zappa nearly caught in the middle of a massive blaze and also then be pushed off the stage fall into the orchestra pit to find himself in a critical condition in hospital. The fire which engulfed Montreux Casino during the middle of his set would thankfully not produce any casualties, despite its mammoth size. While ‘The Rainbow Theatre Incident’, just six days later, would see Zappa dramatically hospitalised after being pushed into the orchestra pit by an audience member.
Let’s start at the beginning, as we know from Julie Andrews, it’s a very good place to start.
Frank Zappa was an agitator extraordinaire. His music was deliberately provocative and emotive, he relished the idea of freaking out the neighbourhood and encouraged it wherever he moved to. As well as being in the middle of it all, Zappa was a serial supporter of all things subversive. He was the jester in the court of rock and roll and his live shows followed suit. But on December 4th in 1971 at the Montreux Casino, Geneva, Switzerland things took a decidedly serious turn.
Frank Zappa and The Mothers took to the stage and began to perform their irreverent and intellectual music. Playful and poised, the set was magical and transcendent as usual until the moment a deranged fan fired a flare gun at the band.
The venue’s heating system then exploded. It started a fire which would sadly leave several fans injured, the band’s equipment destroyed, and the venue in smouldering ruins.
Tough the injuries suffered by fans were tragic, it could have been so much worse. There were several reasons that the fire did not cause any loss of life—the show started in the afternoon, there were no chairs in the auditorium, and Ansley Dunbar’s drums had a malfunction during the set which caused many of the crowd to leave.
It was a hellish situation which saw the loss of an incredible building, the loss of equipment, and the injury to some members of the crowd. It also saw the birth of one of the most famous songs ever written, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’.
“We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline / To make records with a mobile – We didn’t have much time / Frank Zappa & the Mothers were at the best place around / But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground / Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky…”
Six days later and Frank Zappa was facing another catastrophe and yet another fan was to blame.
The band were performing, with rented instruments following the fire, at The Rainbow Theatre in London and were in the middle of their second encore when a crazed fan by the name of Trevor Charles Howell took to the stage with his mind set on causing havoc. The attack followed a somewhat sarcastic performance of The Beatles song ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and saw Howell lose his mind.
Howell stormed the stage and pushed Zappa to the concrete floor of the orchestra pit below, falling many feet to his likely death. “The band thought I was dead,” Zappa would reveal in his 1989 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book. “My head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken. I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib, and a fractured leg. One arm was paralysed.”
Howell tried to flee the scene but was stopped by the crowd as he tried to get away. He was duly passed over to Zappa’s roadies who held him in what we can only assume was a polite manner until the authorities took him away.
Howell later admitted that he became jealous of Zappa after his girlfriend said she had become infatuated with the star. The attack would leave Zappa in a wheelchair for many months before he eventually made an almost full recovery.