'Going on the road with Frank Zappa at such a young age  was a bit traumatic...', remembers Steve. Tommy Mars recalled a particularly traumatic incident for Radio 1's 'Air Sculpture', the first part of a two part Frank Zappa documentary broadcast on 20 November 1994. Tommy: 'I remember one time that we were finishing up rehearsal; it was the second or last day of rehearsal when everything had to be memorized and it was a particularly difficult body of material that we were doing. And the show 'Entertainment Tonight' was filming us at the same time and Steve Vai was in the band and this was his first tour [the autumn 1980 US tour, from October to December]. I forget the tune we were doing but it was [an] incredibly difficult tune and we all had to have our music memorized. Well, they were up on Steve's hands and, you know, with the camera, and I don't think he had ever had the film crew next to him before. And it's - if you haven't had it - it's a little bit unnerving sometime[s] and rather violating. Let alone the fact that this was his like first or second time he'd ever done it straight from memory and we're going out on the road in three days and we have this Halloween show that we're going to be doing live on MTV and so... Steve started to like forget some parts and he made a few clams.
'And Frank got really pissed at him and, like, devastated him and said, you know, "I don't even know if you're roadable" and, you know, "If you clam up on this little thing imagine what you're gonna do on 'Saturday Night Live'." And poor Steve revered Frank so intensely... And he didn't really screw up, he just made a couple of little clams. And I think maybe Frank was just feeling weird about something and he lashed out. And, I mean, it really was terrible on Steve. He, like, lost it and he said, "Frank, I'm sorry, I didn't want to disappoint you." And Frank, his retort to that was, "You know, I don't know if you're roadable." And this is like the kiss of death to Steve. To me, it was just like, "Well, paps [sic] isn't in a very good mood, Steve." So, you know, I talked to Frank after that. I says, "What were you doing? Do you want this kid to have a nervous breakdown tonight?" He says, "Why? Do you think he took it that hard?"'
Steve toured with Zappa and played on several albums including 'Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar' (1981), 'Tinsel Town Rebellion' (1981), 'You Are What You Is' (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch' (1982) and 'The Man From Utopia' (1983). Shortly after leaving Zappa Steve released two eclectic solo albums, 'Flex-Able' (1984) and 'Flex-Able Leftovers' (1984). Steve then replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, recording an album entitled 'Disturbing The Peace' (1985), then made his infamous appearance in the film 'Crossroads' (1986). After leaving Alcatrazz Steve recorded two albums with ex-Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, 'Eat 'Em And Smile' (1986) and 'Skyscraper' (1988) then joined Whitesnake for the 'Slip Of The Tongue' (1989) album. Steve then released his solo instrumental album 'Passion And Warfare' (1990) and formed his own band, Vai, who released one album, 'Sex And Religion' (1993), before disbanding. Steve's latest release is a solo instrumental EP called 'Alien Love Secrets' (1995).
Steve made a guest appearance on the first night of the 'Zappa's Universe' concerts on 7 November 1991 which led to another concert of Zappa compositions in April 1995. 'Conductor Joel Thome had originally put 'Zappa's Universe' together in New York, and those shows were the basis for the record. I played several pieces on that, and received a Grammy for playing on 'Sofa'. Anyway, Joel has been trying to put it together again, and we have been working on five or six pieces of my own. When he arranged to do the Zappa music with the Seattle Symphony, I was really excited to do it.'
DJN: Do you think your technique is at its peak now [shortly after the release of 'Alien Love Secrets'] or were your chops sharpest when you were playing with Zappa? SV: Well, my technique with Frank was not nearly as good as it is now. Although I may have had more chops, you know... I mean they were sloppy chops. Maybe back with David Lee Roth during 'Eat 'Em and Smile' (1986) my chops were maybe at their height but right now my taste factor is so much better. My maturity as a musician and a guitar player are at their peak. DJN: There's a rumour that you transcribed the solo in 'Inca Roads' from memory while you were on the tour bus. SV: Oh, huh, huh. Where did you hear that? DJN: It was in a guitar magazine - 'Guitar World' from last year [April 1994, page 54]. SV: Oh, that's funny! I thought I only mentioned [it] to somebody once. But yeah, I did. I love that solo so much. DJN: Would you say it was your favourite Frank Zappa guitar solo then? SV: I'd say that's probably my favourite. It's between that, 'Watermelon In Easter Hay', 'Zoot Allures' or 'Black Napkins'.
DJN: What are your favourite musical memories of playing with Zappa? SV: We were doing 'Zoot Allures'... We were playing in New York and it was the soundcheck and we were doing it in the soundcheck and Frank did one of the most incredible solos I've ever seen him do, ever. He was just... He was just on and he was connected and he went for it and it was the most incredible solo I ever saw him perform. And believe me, I've seen and heard more than probably anyone else, you know. DJN: Was it recorded? SV: No. No. And I remember I had a dream once that it was recorded and we listened back to it. But it was just a dream [laughs].
DJN: What was the most challenging guitar playing that you did with Zappa? SV: Oh boy - I could write a book about that... Just songs that were really hard to play on the guitar execution-wise. You know - they weren't made for the guitar. Songs like, um, 'Moggio', and 'Envelopes' and 'Drowning Witch', umm, 'Sinister Footwear', uh, 'The Black Page'... Stuff like that was just like - woah! Stuff I really loved too like 'RDNZL' - we have this incredible version of 'RDNZL' [Steve plays on 'RDNZL' from 'You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore Vol 5' (1992)] and 'Sofa' - he used to let me really, really play. DJN: You've said that you've had some of your most profound musical experiences playing with Zappa. Could you explain what you meant by that? SV: Well, with Frank, I mean...[sighs] I didn't realize it until afterwards when I saw how difficult it is to create and come up with inspiring things. I would flashback on Frank and like soundchecks and stuff where he would just sit there or stand there in front of the band with a smile on his face or breaking into laughter... He would just compose the wildest stuff right there on the spot. Really beautiful stuff and then throw these weird twists and turns in it. And the way that he manipulated the forces of music to do his bidding was quite a spectacle. There's your quote [laughs]!
DJN: The title of your 'Alien Love Secrets' album (1995) is almost the same as your widely misunderstood Guitar Player column from a few years ago ['Martian Love Secrets']. SV: Yeah [laughs]. Widely misunderstood, yeah. DJN: Is that where the title comes from? SV: Pretty much. I always liked 'Martian Love Secrets' and I wanted to use it some place else with more significance. But the word 'Martian' sounds so confining. You know, 'Alien' sort of gives it a bigger picture. But the actual phrase came from... It was written on the wall... 'Martian Love Secrets' - it was written on the wall of a toilet in the men's bathroom at the Record Plant in 1970 that Frank Zappa read. So there you have it!
An edited version of this interview was originally published in the Frank Zappa fanzine ''T'Mershi Duween', issue 46. Details about ''T'Mershi Duween' can obtained from:
''T'Mershi Duween' PO Box 86 SHEFFIELD S11 8XN England
© Douglas J Noble 1995