How Frank Zappa Saved Adrian Belew From Being a Weekend Warrior

Prog master Adrian Belew almost didn't have a career.
Prog master Adrian Belew almost didn't have a career.

Adrian Belew, a man widely considered one of the most innovative guitar players of the 21st century, once toiled in a Beatles cover band, an Elvis impersonator band, a Holiday Inn circuit band, and many other aborted failures. Before he was even 30, Belew was on the verge of throwing in the towel on his musical career.

"I was in every kind of band you could have, and none of it had made any difference success-wise," he recalls. "There I was, 27 years old [and] feeling that maybe the world had passed me by."

Frank Zappa became Belew's savior when the mustachioed maestro chanced to see Belew playing in one of those bands and spotted a wasted talent. In short order, Belew was trying out for, and then being offered a position in, Zappa's band.

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"If Frank hadn't come along at that time, I was kind of at the end of my rope. I sometimes wonder what would have happened," he ponders. "I don't think I would have been able to go more than a few more years without feeling like a grandiose failure . . . I might have had to be one of those people who plays music for fun and has an actual job . . . Heaven forbid!"

Belew's stint with Zappa opened plenty of doors, and soon he was playing with Talking Heads, David Bowie, and numerous other marquee musicians before becoming a driving force in King Crimson. Belew's progressive approach to guitar playing, along with his technically challenging songwriting, which powered Crimson, the Bears, and his solo efforts cemented his reputation as a thinking man's musician.

Belew's current musical outlet is his Power Trio, featuring bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph. While this trio performs music from throughout Belew's career -- namely songs he composed for King Crimson, the Bears, and his solo albums, as well as Power Trio-specific works, this band almost never materialized. Like his early career aspirations, Belew was on the verge of giving up finding the right players to see his vision through. The problem: The players he knew capable of performing his challenging music already had reached the stage where "they do what they do." In other words, bending them to Belew's musical mindset was proving to be a difficult proposition.

"You bring them in and they're going to do their thing, not the other way around," Belew says. "I wanted to have players that would do my thing."

Once again, happenstance prevailed for Belew when he was invited to be a guest at Paul Green's School of Rock in Philadelphia. Green introduced Belew to Julie and her brother Eric -- now with Dr. Dog, and the Power Trio's original drummer. Just 20 and 19, respectively, Belew was impressed with the pair's musical maturity.

"When I say mature, I mean in taste," he says. "I was kind of shocked to see two players that, for their ages, were well beyond where they should be and can play the music I like," he says.

"They were in line with my way of thinking and were pliable because they were young," he adds.

"It was an odd suggestion," he continues, about Green's initial prompting to hire the siblings. "They were 20 years old and I'm not 20 years old. I thought it could go one of two ways: Either it would make me look like an old man or it could rejuvenate me, which is what happened. It kind of put the joy back in playing for me."

That's nothing less than three of a perfect pair.

Adrian Belew is scheduled to perform Tuesday, November 18, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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