John Leon Guarnera, better known as “Bunk” Gardner, was born in Cleveland, Ohio in May 1933. He started playing the tenor saxophone in his teens, and by 1959 was performing with Bud Wattles & his Orchestra.
In 1966, Gardner joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, playing woodwinds and tenor sax. His trumpet playing older brother Charles “Buzz” Guarnera, joined the Mothers in 1968.
Bunk plays on the ‘classic’ Mothers’ albums Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, as well as on Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, parts of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore (Vols. 1, 4 & 5), the live Mothers’ album Ahead of Their Time and the posthumous Zappa releases Lumpy Money, Greasy Love Songs, Understanding America, Road Tapes – Venue #1, Finer Moments, Frank Zappa For President and Meat Light. Bunk can also be seen in Uncle Meat (the movie), Video From Hell and The True Story Of 200 Motels.
After Zappa disbanded the original Mothers in 1969, Gardner played with Menage A Trois (with Buzz and John Balkin), and then Geronimo Black (with Jimmy Carl Black) and the Grandmothers (with Black and Don Preston). Bunk has continued to work with Preston and the Grandmothers ever since.
Gardner married his wife Bonnie in 1977, and the couple have two daughters.
In 2007, Crossfire Publications released an anthology of non-Zappa material titled It’s All Bunk, and in 2010 he recorded his autobiography, The Bunk Gardner Story, for Zonic Entertainment.
Having previously interviewed Don and Jimmy, I thought the Grandmothers’ farewell performance at Zappanale would provide an opportune moment to pounce on Bunk. Many thanks to Bonnie and Chris Garcia for enabling me to do just that.
Tell me about the experimental music you were making with Don Preston before you joined the Mothers.
Well before that, I grew up with an elder brother who had a big jazz band, and we…you know, it’s like sitting and talking with somebody and you say something and then he answers your question, and so forth. And we had close friends in high school that were musicians. So between us we came out and we had played together like that.
That was just a part of being together, playing – everybody’s writing arrangements, but we were just wanting to play.
And as soon as we got out to California in 1960, we bumped into Don and he was already doing experimental music – but in different ways.
I can remember Don would hand crank this thing where different colours would go around. So when your colour came up, you played; and when it disappeared…you know.
So that was kind of the beginning. And at that point, Frank came over and saw what we were doing with Don. And he liked the idea of the experimental thing, and so that’s how that whole association started.
And of course this is 1960, so it was over five years later that we ended up playing with Frank.
That was my next question: how did you quickly follow Don into the Mothers – how did the invite come?
Don had tried to get into Frank’s band much earlier. At some point, Frank said, “Don, you don’t know anything about rock and roll.” He actually took an audition, and he said, “No, it’s not happening.” So Don started playing with some other groups, and a year later said, “You know what, Frank – I think I know what you’re looking for,” and took another audition. Frank said, “Okay!” And almost immediately after that, Don said to me why don’t you go over and talk to Frank. So I went over to Frank’s house and spent the whole day playing all my instruments and taking an audition.
And that’s basically how it started.
Can you remember the first thing you recorded with Frank?
Well, let me say this: even in the early days – even rehearsing or whatever – Frank would record things. But I think that one of the very first things we played together was Motherly Love. And we did a lot of rehearsing. Absolutely Free – that was the first album after – Freak Out! But God, he was so bad! We rehearsed every day, even before that album. And when I say hours, it was like nothing short of six, seven, eight, nine, ten hours. A real workaholic.
Tell me about your contribution to the Lumpy Gravy album – can you remember that? I heard you played bassoon on there?
Yeah. Well, you know at that point, we would play songs and a couple of weeks later, Frank would change the name of the song. So I’m not really sure. But most of the music – maybe it was by another name…I had been playing bass clarinet and flute, on all these things. But I was the only one out of the group when we went to Capitol Records to record Lumpy Gravy. And he hired all of the woodwind heavyweights: string players from the LA Phil, and all these other people. But some of the shit that Frank wrote wasn’t easy for some of these people. And I remember during the sessions, having to stop a couple of times. So it was a new thing for them.
To be honest, it’s been so long, I don’t remember listening to the Lumpy Gravy album to hear how it sounded. And obviously it wasn’t a big commercial hit [laughs].
No, it wasn’t!
Recently, the Zappa Family released Road Tapes – Venue #1, which is a concert from 1968 recorded in Vancouver. On there you tell your story about Elmira Snodgrass. Did Frank ask you to do that?
Well first of all, every time we played – well, not every time, but Frank would record everything, whether it was a conversation or music. And we wouldn’t even know it sometimes. Then all of a sudden it shows up on one of the albums.
You know, when somebody says, “Well, how did you get started?” And I’d say “Well, in kindergarten, there was a lady down the corner of our street, Elmira Snodgrass, who charged 25 or 50 cents for piano lessons. Then I went to clarinet. Then I went to saxophone. And then I went to bassoon,” and all of this. The evolution of music in general for me. And there were conversations with guys on the bus or whatever.
So that’s how a lot of that stuff came about on some of the albums.
That reminds me, do you know if Kanzus J. Kanzus is still around?
I think so, because at that time, Kanzus was really young – probably in his twenties. I don’t know what he’s doing but at some point, a couple of times, I bumped into him. Actually, it might even have been in Europe. So I don’t know if he’s living in the States or in Europe.
Back to the stories: in the 90s, you were telling a different one every night on tour with the Grandmothers.
When we would play with Frank, he would really embrace the audience, talking about stuff, and abuse the audience! Sometimes he would just turn his back to the audience, and say “Let’s go over this…” and just ignore them. And when we would abuse the audience, they would love it! And people remember this stuff.
So we would do things where we’d just stop playing and say, “Bunk tell a story,” and I would go “There was a knock at the door, and there she was, with a six-pack. And she’d say, ‘Is this where the party is?’ And I’d lie and say, ‘Of course. It’s my birthday!’” And go from there. And the band would enjoy stuff like that.
Of course they would!
In his autobiography,[i] Jimmy Carl Black mentions a lady named Vivian, who the Mothers met at the Balloon Farm. What can you tell me about her?
From New York. Both Jimmy and I banged her. And I think she was a dancer and could get into incredible positions! A ‘Buster Crabbe’ or something!
Tell me about Sandy Hurvitz (aka Essra Mohawk) and the album your started working on with her.
I just remember that every time Sandy came to town, if I was available, I would play with her. Actually, both Don and I played with her. I don’t know how many albums she has out, but I don’t remember listening to any to hear if we actually played on her albums.
Did you know Lorraine Belcher?
That name really does ring a bell with me. I can remember faces and things, but if she was around in those days I would have to have known her.
She probably knew Frank longer than anyone.
You must be talking about Suzy Creamcheese.
No, that was Pamela Zarubica. What can you tell me about her?
Well, she was always around. And I remember we played a concert in London with the Grandmothers, and Pamela came and said she had this very vivid dream: that Frank came to her and was asking her questions. And he said that he was in limbo.
Are you Catholic?
No. Church of England.
Okay. In Catholicism, limbo is in between: it’s not heaven, it’s not hell. So that really kind of rang a bell with me, for more than one reason. You know what, I don’t want to get into, ‘Why did this or that happen’ – I’m not gonna go there. But I thought it was very apropos: being in limbo. Not that it’s a bad place. But it’s almost a questionable place.
And another reason is – even though I’m Catholic – I never fully embraced it: there are so many questions about Catholicism. If you’re not a Catholic, then you’re going to hell. Things like that. There’s a lot of great religions in the world, but to say those kind of things: it’s not easy to accept.
What was your relationship with Gail like – back when she was young and beautiful?
All I can say is, she never liked us. Me, or the band. And I cannot give you any specific (or partly known) reason for that animosity, other than the fact…
…you were taking Frank away from her?
Yeah. I’m glad you said that because to come to any other logical conclusion, I have no idea. But let me say this: at some point early on, it developed into genuine animosity and anger.
And 25 years later, when we never got any royalties, she was, “How dare you!” Like we didn’t even deserve to have…that’s as far as I’m gonna go.
Gail declared that ‘the Mothers today’, listed on the original sleeve of We’re Only In It For The Money was different from the actual players on the record. She said the actual players were Frank, Ian Underwood, Roy Estrada, Billy Mundi. That was it.
What do you make of that?
That’s not true, because both Don and I played. And I can say this: when we working on another album, Uncle Meat or whatever, I almost slept in the studio, because I was playing bassoon, I was playing flute, I was playing all these instruments. And I never saw her at any point, in any of the studio sessions or whatever. So I don’t know how she could make that kind of statement or how she even knew what was going on.
Our names are on the album and what exactly we were doing musically, and the instruments that we were playing.
What did you think of Frank’s decision to re-record the bass and drums on We’re Only In It For The Money and Cruising With Ruben & The Jets?
First of all, I didn’t know that he re-recorded the rhythm section for We’re Only In It For The Money: I don’t believe that. But when I heard the re-recorded Ruben & The Jets – and I mean this: I threw up. And let me tell you why. The rhythm track with the original rhythm section, I thought was beautiful. When I heard the re-recorded session…and for any musician it was so obvious that you heard this fifties – or even sixties – music with an eighties rhythm section. At first I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ Because Frank’s humour was a little strange, in a lot of ways.
Anyway, I burned the album and made an ashtray out of it. And then I heard later that he took it out and put the other back in.
I get sick emotionally for a couple of reasons: because I thought the original band contributed so much to that album, and I felt the solo that I played…I even get emotional talking about it – actually, on our last tour, we sing two of the tracks from Ruben & The Jets.
Yes, I saw you in London.
Anyhow, I didn’t know he re-recorded it. But let me say this – and maybe I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself: I heard that he paid the drummer and the bass player 10,000 dollars each to record.
I barely got $500 to play. So I think it showed how times have changed. Financially, we were down here: never getting acknowledged for any of our contributions, whether it was personally, musically or anything, And I have to add this: it reminded me of my father in terms of, “I can do it myself, I don’t need any help!” and not acknowledging any kind of contribution, and you know…[long pause]…stuff like that stays with you for the rest of your life. So it hurt.
I can understand that.
Jimmy Carl Black says you played a gig in Providence, Rhode Island in 1968 with the Charles Lloyd Quartet. Was that with Frank – do you remember that?
Oh no, I do! Charlie Lloyd had a great band, and a good saxophone player at the time. But you know what, my recall – and let me even before I say that, Jimmy’s memory was – and I mean this – incredible. He could go back to certain days, certain times. And me, I can’t tell you something that happened last week.
Don says, the same: “I'm lucky if I can remember my name!”
At some point, our secretary Pauline Butcher…
…have you met her yet? She’s here.
Oh, good. She wrote a book, and would always call me on the road asking for specific things. And I said, “You have got to call Motorhead,” because again his memory was so much better than mine. I have people coming over saying, “God, don’t you remember? I was there at that concert,” and all this. And – no!
So can I ask you about the Royal Festival Hall concert that resulted in the Ahead Of Their Time album?
Yeah, I do remember that: I was playing clarinet in the orchestra. And looking back at the video, I thought it was classic – in terms of not just being a rock and roll band, of the social satire and everything that went on with that whole concert. I don’t remember anything before or after [laughs], but it was so unique. The improvising that went on, in the moment. And some of the dialogue, we just made things up. And when I hear some of that stuff back, it blows me away – like “Take that progress and stick it under a ROCK!”
I think it really showed the improv qualities of the band. And not necessarily musically. It was just the weirdness of the interaction with everybody. And I think this is really pivotal: because Frank was so serious, I think it made us want to make him laugh as much as us. And it didn’t matter what we would do, it would crack him up.
It’s so easy to take yourself too seriously. And sometimes, after a concert, if somebody made a mistake, Frank would walk around looking at the negative before the positive. Which again drove us to wanting to make Frank laugh. And it came naturally to us!
Okay, here’s something you should remember: how did you meet your wife, Bonnie?
I’m not sure where Bonnie met Kanzus. But Bonnie was like her father: she would walk into a place, and within 10 minutes was talking to everybody. And her father would walk into a bar, and within 10 minutes was buying drinks for everybody.
Anyhow, she became friends with Kanzus and he said, “You’ve got to meet the Mothers!” So I guess we were playing in Chicago, and she bumped into Jimmy, and Jimmy brought her up to the room and just started…I mean, it was much much later when Bonnie and her sister went to Europe and we met them in Germany.
How long have you been married now?
Oh shoot! 43-44 years. But we’ve actually been together longer than that – since 1968, when we first met. And then she went to France and lived with a guy for a little while, and then came back.
It’s been a long time.
On a track on Meat Light—The Uncle Meat Project/Object Audio Documentary, Frank suggests to Jimmy that the Mothers go on the road without him – if he wanted to make more money. Was that ever seriously debated by you and the other guys?
In the early years – and I mean this – we were starving. Every time ‘What’s going on?’ would come up, they would cite all these expenses as the reason why we weren’t touring. And let me say this: sometimes, Frank would treat some of the guys in the band like shit. At one point – you know, Jimmy played trumpet in high school – and I remember in New York, we played at the Garrick Theater, and Frank told Jimmy, “Go in the bathroom and start practising to play our music.” Jesus Christ! To accept that I thought was really out of line. And threatening that if he couldn’t play some of the music then maybe he didn’t deserve to be in the band, even though he was our regular drummer. That kind of shit. For me, on a personal level, that’s not acceptable.
Roy Estrada claims he left the band before the official break-up.
Roy left the band several times.
When he left – in the summer of 1969, I guess – do you think that had any bearing on Frank’s decision to break-up the whole band?
No. I was very close to Roy, and a couple of times – I don’t want to get into personal reasons why Roy left – but again part of this stemmed from the way Frank would treat him. When I would see that kind of treatment of guys that were there much longer than me, I said to myself I had no chance of actually being friends.
And this thing about Roy being a Mexican and his self-esteem, it would really get to him.
So that was a couple of reasons why I think at some point Frank would come to me, and I would say, “Frank, if you want him back, I’ll go talk to him.”
Okay. After the Mothers, you played with Geronimo Black – and a band called Gorilla Balls?
Well, all I remember is Geronimo Black. That name – maybe we recorded some stuff – but that name doesn’t do anything for me.
Is it true that Tom Fowler was responsible for pushing you out of the Grandmothers in the 80s?
Yeah, oh yeah. He hated me; I hated him. And this is no exaggeration – maybe a little – but in my entire lifetime, I’ve never met a bigger asshole. He would call me up on the phone and say, “I have grave doubts about your ability to play this measure of music.” Stuff like that.
You know, the core chemistry in the band…I said to Don, I will never ever play with somebody that. I don’t know whether it’s an ego thing, but there’s a natural organic dislike of somebody.
You touched on it earlier, but what can you tell me about the royalty lawsuit you filed against Frank in 1985? Are you allowed to say more about that?
No, no, that’s not right. It wasn’t until the early 90s. And we’re talking I believe almost 25 years later.
I think what happened was, the manager, Herb Cohen, and Frank sued each other and by chance we got to talk to Herbie, and he let us know what happened with our money. At some point, Frank went to Warner Brothers, paid them our royalties and took all of the tapes.
It was our bad luck to hire a lawyer who was a scumbag, and we ended up with pennies.
Are you happy to talk about how you beat prostate cancer?
I guess you could say happy!
I’ve always been into taking care of myself. I have almost 40 years of getting up, going swimming and working out. And Don and I are kind of vegetarian. So it was a shock to know that I had cancer. I went to an acupuncturist, I went on a detox, and within about six months it was gone. And I haven’t had any problems since. So I’m really happy about that!
I just view that as life, and I accept that.
Can you remember when you last played with Roy Estrada?
I don’t specifically remember that, but I would have talks with Roy about his low self-esteem.
Yeah, he was worried about his weight…
Oh, always worried about his weight. And speed. And Coca-Cola: you know, things that are not good for you. But he would never accept how good he was!
Jimmy Carl Black suggested to me that Roy was responsible for your dismissal from the Grandmothers in the mid-aughts[ii]– is that true?
Er…I don’t think so. I think at that point the bass player, Tom Fowler, was probably more responsible for that than anything.
Can you remember when you last spoke with Jimmy Carl Black?
Well, we always spoke. Jimmy would say things like, “You know, you’re my best friend,” or whatever. And whenever I was in the area, I would go see him and Moni. But I know that at the very end – we talked frequently – and Jimmy had absolutely no regrets about the way he’d lived his life, and was very open about it. And honestly, Jimmy lived 10 or 15 years longer – I mean this – for how he engaged…you know what, I’m a total lightweight in that area. I don’t know how he did it. It’s a testament to the man.
With the Grandmothers about to stop touring, how much longer do you think Frank’s music will endure?
We talked about that earlier: there are some artists, like Madonna or The Doors – you can go down the list – that generations will still buy their music. I feel the same thing about Frank’s music. Nobody has been more prolific, not even close: way over 200 albums. So just from that standpoint, there will always be…and look: this is the 29th year of Zappanale. Again, I think that’s a testament to the continuation of future generations embracing his words and his music, and all these other components that go with it. Unfortunately there are very few videos of the band, like the Royal Festival Hall, that really show what we were doing there [laughs]. It certainly wasn’t normal, in any way shape or form. And I didn’t ever consider us a rock band, because I’m a jazz musician.
Anyway, there were so many other components to it that we couldn’t be categorised. And for me, that really made it unique.
Interview conducted on 21st July 2018. Photo of Bunk with The Idiot Bastard taken at Zappanale in 2018 by Norbert Reiner Preuß.
[i] For Mother's Sake: The Memoirs And Recollections Of Jimmy Carl Black 1938-2008 (Inkanish Publications, 2013).
[ii] See my August 2008 interview with JCB in Frank Talk: The Inside Stories Of Zappa’s Other People (Wymer UK, 2017).