RAY COLLINS, who died Monday at age 75, was often pointed out around the Claremont Village as the guy who started the band the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa.
The fact that Collins spent his days wandering downtown Claremont added to the novelty. Leave it to Claremont to have a celebrity transient.
Usually wearing sandals and loose-fitting clothes, maybe a peaked straw hat with chin strap, and with a chest-length white beard, Collins looked like he should be harvesting a rice paddy.
If he worked with Frank Zappa, why was he wandering the Village, by all appearances nearly destitute?
That would be a complicated story, and one I don't have enough information to tell in full. On the other hand, I did know him, and in 2009 I was among the few journalists ever to interview him.
My column about Collins was quoted this week in obituaries in the New York Times, Billboard, Variety and Rolling Stone and also formed the basis of his Wikipedia entry.
Our interview came about in an odd way - although one should expect no less from a Zappa compatriot.
A decade ago, I learned from my then-landlady in Claremont that Collins lived in a trailer on her boyfriend's property a few blocks away.
We were introduced, and Collins agreed to an interview, but a day or two later he got cold feet and phoned to back out. He had been interviewed on the air on KSPC-FM a couple of years earlier, he said, and saw no need to tell his story again.
I didn't badger him. As time went on, when we passed on the street, he would stop to chat when he was in the mood. Many others around town had the same relationship with him.
In 2006 I began jotting down notes after our bump-ins, knowing they might be useful for a day like this.
We talked about the Pomona of his youth. One day, he mentioned that his late father, Joseph Collins, had been a Pomona police officer, and a nephew still was.
We talked several times about movies. He loved Laurel and Hardy and writer-director Preston Sturges, telling me, "You might be able to do a movie as good as those, but you'll never do one better."
Covering the 50th reunion of Pomona High's class of 1956, I was surprised to see him. He hadn't graduated, he said, because he quit going to class his senior year. "I was too into music," he told me. Also, he had to go to work because he'd married, "shotgun-style," after getting his girlfriend pregnant.
Another time, he told me he prefers newspapers to the Internet and CDs to iPods. "Who needs 7,000 songs?" Collins wondered. "If I'm walking down the street and I've got five songs, that's two too many."
Then, in 2009, an item in my column mentioned a YouTube clip I'd seen, a mid-1970s TV interview in which Zappa told Mike Douglas, of all people, about the start of the Mothers of Invention.
Collins was singing in an R&B cover band named the Soul Giants at the Broadside Club in Pomona when he fired the guitarist, Ray Hunt, in dramatic fashion.
Collins "punched his lights out," Zappa said. "He was out of the band and they needed somebody to come in and take over for a while, so I went down there and sat in with them and I thought they were real good."
The phone at my desk rang that afternoon. It was Collins.
He was polite, saying he'd heard that story for years but that it was "nonsense."
He wanted to set the record straight. Realizing an opportunity had just fallen into my lap, I arranged to meet him the next morning - before he could change his mind.
And so, on May 20, 2009, a lovely spring day, we sat at a picnic table at Claremont's Shelton Park and gabbed.
He explained that he'd merely fired the guitarist at the behest of his bandmates. "I don't think I've ever punched out anyone, ever," he said.
He spoke for an hour - about singing in the Emerson Junior High choir and at Pomona High assemblies, his stint with the doo-wop group Little Julian and the Tigers, his relationship with Zappa and his subsequent life - and he answered all my questions.
He said he and Zappa made some good music together - in the albums "Freak Out!", "Absolutely Free" and "Cruising With Ruben and the Jets," as well as prior to the Mothers, when they wrote "Memories of El Monte" and recorded a tribute to TV host Steve Allen - but that Zappa was angling to take over the Mothers because he didn't like sharing the spotlight.
Collins, who had been the lead singer but was ambivalent about fame and Zappa's direction for the band, left in 1968.
"When I walked away, I walked away with nothing. But that's my personality. Probably why I'm sitting here in the Claremont Village, going, `Huh?"' he joked.
Collins never performed after the mid-1970s. He claimed to have written a lot of songs, and he filmed himself in recent years for a documentary he never finished. He turned down requests to join the Grandmothers, a band of Mothers alumni, using the excuse that he didn't want to perform Zappa songs.
He had a complicated relationship with Zappa, whom he admired and liked personally, but whom he and the other Mothers later sued for money they believed was due them.
That created such bad feelings that when Zappa, who died in 1993, was ailing with prostate cancer, and Collins phoned in an attempt to see him one last time, Zappa rebuffed him, Collins said.
At times Collins seemed bitter and wanted nothing to do with that legacy, and yet sometimes he would happily volunteer memories or sign items for fans who approached him on the street. Last year, at a record swap meet in Claremont, I looked to my right and there was Collins, thumbing through Zappa compact discs.
During our interview, Collins spoke to me frankly about his circumstances.
He had spent much of his time since leaving the Mothers without a roof over his head. In Hollywood, he ate out of dumpsters. "Some of the best food I've ever had came out of dumpsters," he said.
In the 1970s, his daughter was attending community college in Maui, and Collins helped support her by washing dishes. He slept on the beach.
She died at 26 in a plane crash in Hawaii, he told me. That would have been the early 1980s. He returned to California.
"I felt I had some unfinished business. Which is still unfinished," he added with a chuckle, in what seemed to be a glib joke about his lack of direction.
After his Claremont friend moved away in 2004, and he no longer had a place to camp, Collins bought a 1986 Chevy Astro van and lived out of it.
He eluded Claremont's ban on overnight street parking by parking in the Metrolink lot or out of town, and during the day would move his van from space to space in the Village to avoid tickets.
His family and friends sometimes helped him, and he had gone through periods of having a place to stay, but would always run out of money, he told me.
He asked me not to publish any of that, because he knew if I wrote that Ray Collins was homeless, tears would be shed and people would want to do things for him, all anathema to the free-spirited Collins, who didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. He never panhandled and never asked for charity.
"I don't even like getting Christmas presents," he told me.
I honored his request. I understood his position and didn't want to make his life difficult.
And so, my column ended with a moment from late in the interview. Collins said he couldn't really explain why he hadn't performed in 40 years but, pointing out the birds chirping nearby, said serenely: "If you just enjoy life, it's conducive to not being successful. You know what I mean? I just enjoy life."
The morning my column was in print, Collins stopped into Rhino Records to brag excitedly that he was in the newspaper.
A few days after that, I was eating breakfast at Some Crust Bakery when Collins stopped in and saw me. He told me he didn't like the column.
All he'd wanted, he said, was for me to correct the punching-the-guitarist story. He didn't like publicity. And he objected to the column's ending, which made him seem happy. That was superficial, he said, and it wasn't the truth.
I told him I considered it a snapshot of his feelings at that moment but that I was sorry if it had bothered him. I resisted the urge to say, "My column wasn't truthful enough for you? You're the one who asked me not to say you're homeless."
Our relationship survived. We continued to bump into each other around the Village and chat.
Occasionally Zappa fans or journalists, finding the column online, would contact me to find out how to get in touch with Collins. I would phone him (he had a cell phone) or pass along messages next time I saw him.
"I feel like your press agent," I kidded him.
I heard from several of Collins' relatives due to that column. This became useful after Collins was taken to the hospital in Pomona last week, unconscious after a massive heart attack. I'd been tipped off by a witness in Claremont, but his family didn't know.
The hospital couldn't release information to me about his condition because they didn't have permission from his family and didn't even know who they were.
I provided the hospital with a name - a more active and personal role in a story than I'm used to taking, but one I was humbled to assume.
Even if Ray Collins didn't like my column on him, or at least didn't like it the morning he snapped at me about it, I'm grateful to him for sharing his story with me.
Because that allowed me to share it with you - most of it then, the rest of it now.