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Ray Collins: My new old Friend

by Tim Corvin

I was about 14 years old when I discovered the music of Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention. I always felt that life would be more enjoyable with more humor and creativity, and Frank’s music provided me with that. It was often crude humor, and as a youngster perhaps it was the shock value that amused me, but Frank and the band’s overall outlook and attitude towards life seemed to match my own quite well.

By the time I was in high school in Montclair, California, the popular rock and roll music of the mid-‘70s no longer stimulated me. I wasn’t into any of the commercially popular bands and sounds that surrounded me. Instead, I was deep into my Zappa albums. I’m reminded of that anytime I reconnect with old school friends. The first thing they usually tell me is, “What I remember most about you is that you were really big into Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.”

Another aspect that fascinated me about the band was that they were formed in my community. During the 20 years I lived in the Ontario area, I learned of the surrounding “Zappa Haunts” and would occasionally meet people who claimed they knew Frank and the band back in the day. They would tell interesting stories about knowing him, but I doubt that much of it was true.

Over the years, I moved on to other music interests and my enormous Zappa/Mothers collection rarely left the shelf. But in recent years, my interest has been revived. I had been living in eastern Tennessee for the last 16 years and whenever I thought of my old southern California homeland, I would sometimes think of the Zappa history there and the stories I use to hear.

I have creative juices that occasionally erupt and cause me to devote much time and energy into long projects. I have a great passion for creating video documentaries of a musical nature. So the inspiration hit me to create a documentary about Frank Zappa’s pre-fame years spent in my old community—the years he spent there as a young struggling musician trying to find his niche while barely surviving, just as I did in the same community as a young actor many years later. My Zappa documentary idea began to materialize after I took a job in western Arizona and returned to the west.

During my countless hours researching this project, I discovered that The Mothers’ original lead singer, Ray Collins (whom many credit as the key to the band’s early success) was alive and well and living in Claremont, a neighboring college town full of liberal artists. He was a regular in the Claremont Village where I occasionally shopped over the years, particularly the Folk Music Center and Rhino Records, which specialized in rare and hard-to-find albums.

When he was described to me (long white beard, straw sun hat, loose fitting clothes), I realized that I had on occasion seen him around the Village over the years, never knowing who he was. I wouldn’t doubt it if I had one day come out of Rhino Records with a Mothers of Invention album and told the old guy blocking my sidewalk path, “Get out of my way old man. I gotta get home and play my new album,” loaded with the old guy’s beautiful vocals. To hear a sampling of Ray’s work, go to  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttrXan2syvc

Two months ago, I came to town to begin pre-production work on my documentary project and, of course, finding and meeting Ray Collins was one of my priorities. I discovered that Ray was homeless and living out of a van, by choice. He wasn’t a bum, never asking anybody for anything and never accepting charitable offers, but for whatever personal reasons, he was happy living an aimless existence hanging around as the unofficial greeter of the Claremont Village.

Before meeting him, I had been forewarned that Ray is a very private person who doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t like to talk about his past history with The Mothers, so I didn’t bring my video camera or equipment. My only intention was to meet him (as a fan) and perhaps learn a little about the band’s early formation in the area. But I found Ray to be the total opposite of what I had been told. Ray spoke very freely, very willingly, and in great detail about his association with Frank and his history in the music business, with the Mothers of Invention and outside of them.

Early on, I began to think that he just might grant me an interview, so my lead-in to the request was telling him about my documentary project. Before I could get to my request, it was he who suggested to me that I interview him for it, even making amusing suggestions like, “We can make it a comedy skit. You can interview me while holding a banana for a microphone.”  I thought I had struck gold. A rare on-camera interview with Ray Collins would no doubt be the highlight of my production.

Ray and I obviously hit it off quite well and I spent most of that afternoon with him. The highlight was his accepting my invitation to accompany me to the old Pomona bar district, where he gave me a personal tour, pointing out where the old clubs were and telling me interesting inside stories of the band’s experiences in them. I thought I was in heaven! It was a day I will never forget.

After taking him back to the Village, he let me snap a few photos of him, which I later learned was quite rare for him to allow. One of the villagers said, “I was friends with Ray for over 10 years before he allowed me to take his picture.” He had given me his cell number earlier and before leaving he said, “Give me a call whenever you want to do the interview. If you can’t reach me, I can be found at Some Crust Bakery every morning.” I was so looking forward to it.                 

A few weeks later, I was back in town to begin production. With my assistant, my camera and my equipment ready to go, I called Ray with great excitement but he didn’t have me on the phone with him for more than 10 seconds. As soon as I told him who I was he immediately said, “I don’t feel like talking Zappa history. Goodbye (click).” It was quite the emotional roller-coaster ride to say the least. Damn! I just didn’t have my camera with me on the right day.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to share a few more long and wonderful chats with Ray. Each time I returned to the area to work on my production, I always made time to sit and share morning coffee with him at least once while I was in town. I let him know that although I was interested in interviewing him, I wasn’t going to hound him about it and wouldn’t mention it again, which he appreciated. My project and his music past were discussed in more detail, but only when he brought up the subjects.

During our last conversation, he was beginning to warm up to my project again and the hope for an interview wasn’t dead yet. He’d say things like, “If I ever do decide to let you interview me….” I’m certain that with a little more time it would have happened. 

The last time I saw Ray was just before I left town after my last stay. I stopped at the post office and spotted him crossing the street. I yelled out, “Hi Ray!” He turned around, looked at me, waved and said, “Goodbye” before resuming his walk. I thought it was a strange way to return a friendly greeting but, knowing him, I dismissed it as just his quirky way he probably returns all greetings. But now I can’t help but to think that he may have known that his life was about over. The following morning, he had a massive heart attack and, after a week in a coma, he died on Christmas Eve. It really was “Goodbye.”

It’s unfortunate that my interview with him never transpired, but that’s irrelevant now. I am quite fortunate and grateful that I did get to know Ray and develop a brief friendship with him shortly before his passing. I may have only known him briefly, but I will miss him, and his music will live on. I’ll see to it that it does.

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