A Conversation With Frank Zappa
By Dave Rothman
Everybody thinks he’s locked the Sixties, but the Grandaddy of FM radio is bigger now than ever. If you liked freaking out with Suzy Creamcheese and cruisin’ for burgers with Ruben & the Jets, wait’ll you meet Sheik Yer Bouti.
Zappa. The name alone triggers a cranial video replay of the Sixties, like a grenade fragment from the Stateside Nam lodged in our consciousness. He was the furry, underground guitarist with no commercial potential who defined the word freak; the rock ’n’ roller with brains who exposed everything that was phony about the American dream – all the stuff we figured out ourselves (not quite so concisely) when we were stoned.
So where is Frank now that everybody is doin’ the disco-self-help-Perrier two-step?
His latest album, Sheik Yer Bouti, demonstrates that Zappa can emulsify more than one decade (he already skewered the Sixties with We’re Only in It for the Money, and he knuckle-sandwiched the Fifties on Cruisin’ with Ruben & the Jets). Zappa’s been at it for 15 years, playing rock, jazz, blues, R&B – you name it. And while critics continue to identify him with the Woodstock Generation, he’s reaching more people today than ever before.
And he still plays like a Mother.
Zappa’s stature as composer, producer, guitarist, songwriter, social satirist and filmmaker easily dwarfs the competition. Now, fed up with playing musical turntables with the record companies, he’s filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Warner Bros. and established his own label. Meet Frank Zappa, businessman.
OUI sent correspondent Dave Rothman out to capture the unique perspective of this perennial performer. Rothman reports:
“I caught Zappa during a week’s layover at the Royal Biscayne Hotel in Key Biscayne, Florida. He and his band, now known as Zappa, were resting after a sojourn in Europe, where they played a string of festivals.
“People close to Zappa told me there was a good chance he could be diagnosed as manic-depressive if ‘they’ ever got a chance to look at him. There was no way I could know if he’d have the patience to give me one minute or one hour. Expect anything, they said. Radical mood swing is the core of Zappa’s personality – and no doubt the core of his creativity as well.
“When I knocked on Frank’s door, he opened it with the slightest possible shred of acknowledgment. No handshake. I knew immediately where his mood swing was at the moment – several fathoms below sea level. That long black cloud was down and was there to stay for the duration of our first interview. His disdain for the ‘interrogation,’ as he called it, remained obvious. On our next encounter, the cloud disappeared and Zappa lightened up, rapping casually with fans who wandered in, and generally enjoying himself. Surprisingly, the results of both sessions were somehow consistent: Laced in with Zappa’s unrelenting cynicism, the hilarity was always there – regardless of what mood he was in. The only difference seemed to be whether or not he was laughing.
“ ‘Did he try to intimidate you?’ his people asked me afterwards.
“ ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘That was the fun part.’ ”
OUI: How have you managed to survive in the rock-music business for so long?
ZAPPA: First thing you do is you don’t stop. Second thing you do is you keep going.
OUI: Many people seem to think of you as a Sixties phenomenon. Does that ever bother you?
ZAPPA: They’ll still be saying the same thing in 1990. The year 2000 will come around and I’ll still be on the road, and they’ll be saying, “He was happening back in ‘67, ‘68 ...” Our audience increases by twenty percent every year.
ZAPPA: Because Americans aren’t as stupid as people think they are. Somebody goes to a concert and likes it and tells his friends; and the next year we come back to that town and the audience is bigger. Everything else that’s being written about rock-’n’-roll acts in America today is generated by record-company hype. Hype is when a company sends out somebody or a piece of paper that makes claims about an event that aren’t true. I do it the old-fashioned way. I sit here and do interviews in person and tell you what’s going on. I take complete responsibility for what happens. If anything goes wrong, it’s my fault. It’s like running a candy store.
OUI: What groups have you been listening to in the past five years?
ZAPPA: I don’t pay much attention to groups.
ZAPPA: I heard a violinist in Europe who I thought was really excellent. His name is L. Shankar. He’s been working with John McLaughlin. But most of what’s in rock ’n’ roll today is company-manufactured background music. Most of it is swill designed to reinforce the various lifestyles of those market segments that buy whatever type of music you’re talking about.
OUI: How long ago did you come to that conclusion?
ZAPPA: When I was born.
OUI: What’s happening with your lawsuit against Warner Bros.?
ZAPPA: Same thing that happens with all lawsuits. You wait for your day in court. In California it’s three to five years in a civil suit. I’m sure I’ll go to court, and whatever decision is rendered, either side will appeal. We‘ll probably be in court for twenty or thirty years.
OUI: What’s at stake?
ZAPPA: Oh, twenty million dollars.
OUI: What does the suit involve?
ZAPPA: A nice person, who is me, versus a bunch of assholes, which include all the people involved in the suit. Very simply, I lived up to the terms of my contract with Warner Bros. I delivered four albums to them. My contract says that when I give them the albums, they give me the money. They didn’t give me the money; they didn’t give me the royalties; they’ve already released two of the live albums I delivered [Live in New York and Studio Tan]; and they‘re getting ready to release another one. They haven’t paid me and they don’t have publishing licenses for the songs.
OUI: How do they expect to be able to get away with that?
ZAPPA: Because they’re a multimillion-dollar company with lawyers coming out their assholes, and because nobody would ever presume that a company that size would need to do anything like that. I’m sure it goes on every day, I bet there are other artists who they squeeze the same way and just fuck around with, and who don’t stand up to it or aren’t crazy enough to do battle with them. One of the biggest problems is finding a law firm that’ll take ‘em on. I’ve already been through four law firms.
OUI: Obviously, you think you’ll win.
ZAPPA: Well, yeah. Don’t the good guys always win?
OUI: I’m not sure.
ZAPPA: Well, if you had your choice between taking your chances and fighting, or just saying, “Well, forget it,” what would you do? It just pisses me off. I don’t like to be taken advantage of. Not by Warner Bros. or my former manager or his brother, the attorney, or any of those people. I resent it. You know, people are basically shitty. It’s when they prove it over and over again that it gets obnoxious.
OUI: Is that your philosophy about people in general?
OUI: Have you always thought that?
OUI: What about yourself?
ZAPPA: I’m fantastic. Fantastic and honest and wonderful.
OUI: And everybody else is shitty?
ZAPPA: That‘s right. Until they prove different. But I ain’t holding my breath.
OUI: Can you tell us about your new film, Baby Snakes?
ZAPPA: That’s one possible title. The other possible ones are Gas Mask and Martian Love Secrets.
OUI: Why those titles?
ZAPPA: They’re good titles. What’s in a title? Wanna call it Number One?
OUI: What is the film about?
ZAPPA: It‘s about ... ummm ... ideas.
OUI: What ideas?
ZAPPA: Various ideas.
OUI: How would it compare with 200 Motels?
ZAPPA: It’s not the same.
OUI: Can’t you say any more about it?
OUI: You have to keep it secret?
OUI: You just don’t want to talk about it.
OUI: Is there anything you do want to talk about?
ZAPPA: Anything you want.
OUI: Is it true that a radio station in L.A. played one of your songs recently and got into some sort of censorship trouble because of an obscenity ruling?
ZAPPA: I don’t know anything about it. I don’t see why they should pick on my material. They should listen to some of the disco records that are out.
OUI: Do you hate disco?
ZAPPA: No, not at all. It’s well suited for the purpose it was designed for.
OUI: Which is?
ZAPPA: To provide a rhythmic accompaniment for the activities of people who wish to gain access to each other for potential future reproduction.
OUI: You think somebody sat down and thought that out?
ZAPPA: I think that’s the bottom line. It doesn’t have much to do with music and it’s got a lot to do with sociology. Take a social climate that’s as restrictive as the American social climate is toward sex and everything else that’s any good, and people have to find ways to do things that they feel are natural. Disco music, and the places that dispense it, provide a setting and a facility where you can carry out those activities. It‘s like a playground.
OUI: How does that differ from a rock-music audience?
ZAPPA: I don’t think people go to concerts in a hockey rink for the same reason that people go to discotheques. I don’t see manifestations of the same activities taking place. It’s possible that people go there to meet their friends and eventually go off and get laid. I don’t think that usually happens at a concert in a hockey rink, but that is what they’re interested in when they go to a discotheque. I have trouble believing that going there to dance is the real reason why people go, especially when you watch the body language involved in the dancing.
OUI: How would you translate that body language?
ZAPPA: It’s different with each customer. Mostly it’s people who are tense and have emotional problems, seeking assistance from whatever source is nearby.
OUI: Couldn’t that qualify just about everybody?
ZAPPA: Being tense and having emotional problems is one thing, but being tense, having emotional problems and manifesting them on a twinkling dance floor, wearing special clothes, is a different story. You can be tense and anxious for free. But to go there and pay, and jog while you’re doing it, is a different story. That either exemplifies a special need for attention from a certain segment of the population, or it’s a very special act of desperation. I’ve always been fond of music with a good beat. [Flash of a cynical smile]
OUI: What does that say about the Seventies and maybe the Eighties – the fact that disco is happening now and wasn’t happening ten years ago?
ZAPPA: It’s been around for a long time; it’s just that people finally caught onto it and figured out how to use it. We live in a very special time right now. At no other time in history has there been such mass disillusionment in terms of reliance on governing functions. Most people don’t want to come to terms with that. It’s been proven over and over again that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but most people don’t like to look at naked emperors. In the process of turning around to avert their eyes, they saw the discotheques and a few other things and latched onto them.
OUI: Do you feel the urge to change society at all?
ZAPPA: No, because there’s no reason to assume that my idea of what‘s better would really be better. I resent it when other people try to inflict their ideas of betterness on me. I don’t think they know. And I can’t see any authority on the horizon that’s got any answers that seem worthwhile. Most of the things that are suggested are probably detrimental to your mental health.
OUI: Like what?
ZAPPA: These fake religions, for one. I think they’re really bad. But what can you say? Some people think that running is spectacular; I think it’s stupid. Other people think that tennis is where it’s at; I think that’s stupid. The rest of ’em wanna join est or be Scientologists and I think that’s all stupid. But I’m not saying I’m the only one who knows; I’m saying that, for me, it’s totally wrong. Considering the way I live. I just don’t have any use for it. But if somebody asks me how I feel, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell him. I think that stuff is stupid.
OUI: Have you ever tried running or tennis?
ZAPPA: I used to play tennis when I was a kid, and I ran when I was in grammar school. Now I tour. It’s more challenging and more fatiguing than all of the above enterprises combined.
OUI: Do you think there are any true religions? Are there any that you look at and say: Those people aren’t being misled?
ZAPPA: Organized religions by their very natures are misleading. The bottom line is always money. What that’s got to do with your spiritual well-being still eludes me. It’s always the bucks, no matter how they disguise it. If you need that sort of assistance to keep yourself together, you may be paying a higher rate to a fake religion than you would to a psychotherapist. Which is not to say that a psychotherapist is going to give you any better value per dollar either. lf you’re going to deal with reality, you’re going to have to make one big discovery: Reality is something that belongs to you as an individual. If you wanna grow up, which most people don’t, the thing to do is take responsibility for your own reality and deal with it on your own terms. Don’t expect that because you pay some money to somebody else or take a pledge or join a club or run down the street or wear a special bunch of clothes or play a certain sport or even drink Perrier water, it’s going to take care of everything for you. Because it all comes from inside. As a matter of fact, that’s where it stays.
OUI: How old were you when you figured that out?
ZAPPA: About eighteen.
ZAPPA: I kept looking for results. When you’re a kid, your parents have recommendations for what they think you should do with your life, and they guide you to the best of their abilities. They make suggestions, and if you’re intelligent, you test the results against the things they suggest. If you keep drawing blanks, you better do something else. My father wanted me to go into engineering. My mother just wanted me to stay out of trouble. Pretty normal. That’s what happens to most kids.
OUI: Do you care what they think now?
ZAPPA: My father’s dead and I don’t know what my mother thinks. She’s a nice person and everything, but even if she completely hated what I was doing. it wouldn’t make any difference. Because I don’t do it for her.
OUI: That’s not as easy for some people.
ZAPPA: You can’t spend the rest of your life waiting around for your parents to say, “What a good kid.” What’re they gonna do, give you an extra cookie? The more we progress into the robot age, who’s to say that the values of the parents who have been cranking out generation after generation of unhappy little persons ... who‘s to say that their values are anything to aspire to, anyway?
Even if you had all the certification in the world, would that make any difference? Certification from one source or another seems to be the most important thing to people all over the world. A piece of paper from a school that says you’re smart, a pat on the head from your parents that says you’re good or some reinforcement from your peers that makes you think what you’re doing is worthwhile. People are just waiting around to get certified.
OUI: What are people lacking that makes them need that certification?
ZAPPA: Let’s look at it very carefully. The lifestyle that I have is probably neither desirable nor useful to most people. Most people are probably better off getting the certification they desire and spindling their lives away the way they’re doing. I don’t think they’d enjoy living any other way. There are millions of people who acquire all sorts of wonderful feelings from watching a football game and drinking a bottle of beer. It makes them really happy. Doesn’t do shit for me. But for them it’s life itself. As long as they can believe in the beer and the football, then they’ve really got something. And it’s probably more useful to them than religion. So why take it away? Why tell them what’s really going on? Let ’em be happy.
OUI: But that’s what you’ve been doing for fifteen years – telling people how bad things are.
ZAPPA: If a person wants to write music and lyrics, he has a perfect right to express his views on a certain subject. I would feel wrong if I were to express anything that I didn’t believe in. I write what I like to write. Those who like to listen to it, listen to it. And the ones who don’t, watch football and drink beer, jog, go to discos and so forth. I never claimed to be a man for all seasons. After all, I’m merely a 1960s phenomenon. When you’re trapped in the Sixties like I am, it’s real hard to deal with the future. It’s like yelling through the wall of the time capsule of your reader’s mind.
OUI: Do you ever feel a sense of power from having reached so many people over such a long period of time?
ZAPPA: I don’t think I’ve reached that many people. Shit, Barry Manilow reaches more than anybody, doesn’t he? Do you think he has a sense of power? ls it manifested by white clothing? Just because somebody hears something you say, or reads something that you write, doesn’t mean you’ve reached them. With reading comprehension being what it is in the U. S., you can safely toss that one out the window. If you want to judge by the listening habits of people who buy records, the first thing they do is put it on and talk over it. To most people, the album is the cover. The cover tells them how to interpret the audile contents. The record is used as background music to support the lifestyle of the person who buys it. If they’re upwardly mobile, they might go for a little fusion music or Barry Manilow. If they’re laid back, they might go for something else. Records are collected as artifacts to support their certification.
OUI: Are you concerned whether or not anyone out there really listens to your music and really cares about what you’re saying?
ZAPPA: I can’t care. It’s impossible to care. How do you care for something that doesn’t exist? It can’t exist because there’s no one who could hear what I do who has any idea of what went into it and what it really means and what it really says. Statistically, the odds are just too great. There’s no way that they could comprehend it. Not because I’m so far out, but because there isn’t a mechanism for comprehending what happens when a person writes a piece of music and goes through the whole process of getting it onto a record, to the time it finally gets into the home and gets played on God-knows-what equipment. So much gets lost in the translation. Even if you sat there listening to it with a microscope, there’s no way you’re gonna find out what it means.
OUI: You’re talking ideally, as a perfectionist ...
ZAPPA: What else is there? What are you going to settle for? Somebody tapping their foot to your song? Humming your tune? Remembering three of your words? Is that communication? Then you ask me if I should care about what takes place when the record gets into the home. People have preposterous ideas about what those songs are about and what the music means. They start spouting all this shit that’s so far off the mark, it’s revolting. But if that’s how they derive pleasure, who am I to deprive them of it? Let ’em enjoy it. It’s there for their edification. But total comprehension is out of the question.
OUI: Are you talking about living life on the most serious plane possible?
ZAPPA: No! How can you? Because to get really serious about everything. you’d have to know what it is, wouldn’t you? You’re never going to know, so forget about it.
OUI: That’s not your attitude toward music.
ZAPPA: That’s a different story.
ZAPPA: I can’t talk to you about music because you don’t know anything about music. I can talk to you about politics or sociology and all that peripheral stuff. but I can’t talk to you about music. There’s not enough information in common that I could say to you so you’d be able to understand. Besides, the people who read OUI don’t give a fuck about music anyway. They’re very lifestyle oriented. That’s probably why your editor was afraid to talk to somebody who was trapped in the Sixties, because somebody who’s lifestyle oriented has to be totally up to date. Otherwise, the clothing industry would fall apart; the charts wouldn’t mean anything. High school really did a lot of damage to the American mentality. So much of what you see passing for real life today is just an extension of the desire in high school to be a cool person. that other kind of certification.
OUI: We have high school, but every other culture has some form of transition from childhood to supposed adulthood.
ZAPPA: Go to Europe and check it out over there. The whole cool-person syndrome is nothing like what’s happening here. The cool-person syndrome is peculiarly American. Part of that has to do with the way the educational business is run in the U. S. It’s not based on how much you can teach your child: it’s based on how much money the suppliers of basic materials can make off your child. Somewhere along the line most people pick up the desire to be a cool person, which is just another way to make them buy things. Once you’ve decided that you need to be a cool person, it makes you a possible victim of anyone whose products are the equivalent of bottled smoke. Somebody tells you to buy this particularly useless item and you’ll be a cool person. No matter how stupid it seems, you have to buy it. Pet Rocks. Pringle’s potato chips. whatever it is – the newest, the latest. Since the cool-person thing is something you learn in school, and since the school business is pretty suspicious and definitely tied up with the government, it makes you wonder whether or not the desire to be cool is part of a government plot to make you buy stupid things. Of course, this is all neither here nor there. These things will all be taken care of when Nixon gets back. I wouldn’t be surprised if the American people elected him President again.
OUI: If being a cool person is totally an American syndrome, how and why did it happen here?
ZAPPA: You’re assuming that all nations of the world are on an equal footing with the U.S. in terms of cultural development. The U.S. is a mere pup tent of a civilization. We’ve got two hundred years of stupidity behind us and we think we’re right up there with everyone else who’s been doing it for thousands of years.
OUI: We’ve got more money and power than anyone else ...
ZAPPA: In some regards. The U.S. is one of the few places where people can afford to be as hedonistic as they are.
OUI: Do you ever feel guilty being a part of that?
ZAPPA: I’m not a part of it. I’m merely a citizen. I resent every tax dollar I have to spend to support it.
OUI: But you’re still a part of it.
ZAPPA: What do you mean? Just because I went through the meat grinder doesn’t mean they got me.
OUI: But you do pay taxes and you are living in the Royal Biscayne.
ZAPPA: See anything royal about this Biscayne? Have you noticed the wallpaper? So this is the Royal Biscayne. Do you think I’d be more moral if I lived in a fleabag hotel?
OUI: But the fact remains that anyone living in the U.S. has more opportunities than he would have anywhere else.
ZAPPA: Someone in the U.S. would find it pretty hard to get a good education. But then, what good is an education? The richest people in the world aren’t particularly smart or happy. And the happiest people in the world aren’t particularly smart or rich.
OUI: So where does that leave you?
ZAPPA: That leaves me making music. But we can’t talk about that.
OUI: We can’t even talk about my partial comprehension of it?
ZAPPA: No, because that would lead to misconstructions, or misconstrusions, if you prefer. Besides, you don’t wanna talk about my music. It’s trapped in the Sixties. It’s a little time capsule that’s not supposed to be opened for another couple hundred years.
OUI: Do you treat the people who are closest to you differently than the people you do business with?
ZAPPA: I don’t have any close people. I have a wife and three kids.
OUI: How close are they?
ZAPPA: They’re my best friends, the only friends I got.
OUI: Is everything else business?
ZAPPA: Yeah. The people in my family are the only people I know that I don’t have to give a paycheck to.
OUI: What do you try to teach your children?
OUI: Then how do you see yourself as a father?
ZAPPA: We just hang out. They have very fixed ideas about who they are and what they want to be and how the world works. We very seldom discuss it. They have their own realities. Looks pretty good to me. But I’m no judge of anyone else’s reality, of course.
OUI: What if it didn’t look good to you?
ZAPPA: I’d probably rant and rave. But that’s only because it’s probably a biological urge. Occasionally if I see them fighting I tell them they’re acting like a bunch of jerks. Everybody wants to be a cool person, so that usually works.
OUI: What is your relationship with your wife like?
ZAPPA: We’ve been married eleven or twelve years. I guess we get along pretty good.
OUI: Is she close to your music?
ZAPPA: As close as she could be. She doesn’t write it, but she’s in the house when it’s being written. So there is that proximity factor. She’s no Linda McCartney, if you get the drift.
OUI: Do you do anything that has nothing to do with music?
ZAPPA: No. Everything on this planet has something to do with music. Music functions in the realm of sculptured air. Polluted as our atmosphere might be. air is the thing that makes music work. Since all other things that occur in the sound domain are transmitted to the ear through that swirling mass, depending on how wide you want to make your definition, you could perceive quite a bit of human experience in terms of music. You could listen to a traffic jam and figure out if it was a good composition. There’s the other extreme. Music on paper is the same as food when it’s a recipe. A score for a symphony is a recipe for a sound sculpture. Conversely, you could look at a piece of a score and see organizations of notes on the page. You can look at any other piece of visual material, and if you squint at it a little, you could see a score there. Like this wallpaper could be a score, maybe – for a disco beat.
OUI: David Walley, in his biography of you, called No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, says that you will turn anything into music if you think it will work well.
ZAPPA: David Walley is a tragic case. Here’s a guy who wanted to be a writer and came to me with the idea that he’d like to do a biography of me. I said, “I don’t want a biography.” He says. “I’ve already made a deal with a publisher and I’m going to do it whether you submit to the interviews or not.” I say. “Oh, shit, what am I gonna do. I don’t know if this guy can write.” But at that time, he was a fan of ours and used to follow us around. So I had to make the decision whether or not to do the interviews. I had to decide whether or not I wanted a so-called biography on the market. So I did a few interviews with him. He would show up at my house with a girl. He probably said to her. “Come with me. baby. I’m goin’ over to interview Zappa.” Then he would ask me a question. I’d start to answer it and he’d start talking about his father in military school. I had a couple of nights of this. I played him a couple tapes. you know. This guy was really a case. So he goes off and writes this book. Then he sends me some galley proofs at a point when ten thousand copies of the book have already been printed and are sitting in the warehouse. The galleys were just ridiculous. There were such inaccuracies. He sold a lot of copies, but as reference material for who I am and what I’m about, I would say it’s not too reliable. At least when he did one about Ernie Kovacs, he couldn’t really hurt Ernie because Ernie’s dead. People even stick that fuckin’ thing in my face and tell me they want me to autograph it. As you can see, I have very little regard for people in the writing profession.
OUI: Did it mean anything to you when Ralph Gleason called you a “contemporary philosopher”?
ZAPPA: Ralph Gleason also called the Mothers a “Sunset Boulevard version of the Fugs.” So what can I say? Does it mean anything when people say things about you? Don’t mean shit. It’s all little drops of ink on little pieces of paper that’re meant to be sold. They blow with the wind. Somebody from a record company gives him a nickel and he writes something positive for a change. That business is so fake. lf you think the record business is bad. all the support systems for it are really obnoxious.
OUI: Like punk merchandising?
ZAPPA: The record business thrives on trends. We can’t wait around for The Beatles to get back together again; we’ve got to get some new act going real quick. A boutique owner puts together a bunch of guys off the street, sticks safety pins in their faces, gets the new line of clothing together and presto – we have a musical trend. As soon as one guy gets a record contract and a few things appear in the papers, twenty other groups form along the same lines and it looks like that’s what the record companies are buying. The record companies do buy it and, in order to make it look like a real trend, they start giving little presents to people who write for papers and magazines. A few more articles come out talking about the trend. Trend is then manufactured and put out on the street where all the cool people have to find out what it’s all about. Whether they like it or not, they buy the clothes. They get the safety pins. The market gets totally saturated, the trend dies out and a new trend comes in – right off the assembly line. Just another example of post-Beatlemania desperation.
OUI: What do you think of shows like Beatlemania – or Janis & Jimi, which closed shortly after it opened?
ZAPPA: Nostalgia merchandising. These people are really trapped in the Sixties. You see, the record companies are gradually being taken over by accountants. Puds out of college that get certified as economically smart. They count out boxes of records and when they see that a certain type of thing is moving more units than another, they apply pressure to the executives, who then invest in that direction and drop anything that’s not on the same profit level. So, if there was ever an aesthetic decision to be made at an executive level, it’s gone now.
OUI: Is that why you’ve started your own record company?
ZAPPA: That’s one reason. The other is that it gives me more equity in what’s going on.
OUI: Do you think there’s anything detrimental about having blatant sex in music as opposed to implied eroticism?
ZAPPA: Depends on what you call erotic. You really think there’s anything erotic in today’s music? Eroticism of a class variety is absent from American culture. What passes for eroticism in America is really pretty corny. But then again, there’s not much else in the culture that’s fine grain, if you know what I mean. It’s a pretty coarse culture.
OUI: Would you like to try to make it fine grain?
ZAPPA: Not necessarily. I don’t think that’s my function. That’s like going to the North Pole and trying to find a French restaurant.
OUI: So what is your function?
ZAPPA: I just do what I do. Sit in my l960s time capsule and do my job.
OUI: Do you think there’s anything detrimental about music getting more pornographic?
ZAPPA: Give me an example of pornographic music. Make sure you include all the latest Supreme Court interpretations for what “pornographic” means. Show me how pornographic music can exist; then differentiate it from erotic, and then ask me the question again. Personally, I think Indian music is quite erotic, very seductive. Some good shit there. Glandular. It’s nice. You’re not talking about any of the Eagles’ records, are you? You wouldn’t be talking about Stay, by Jackson Browne, which you must admit – is getting pornographic. If you’ve heard the original, you know that Jackson Browne’s version is getting there. You know where he says, “The roadies don’t mind”? Know what that means. don’t you? Hey, huh. He’s slippin’ it in there, boy. A lot of people would be hardened by such a thing. Then you can take things like that Prudential commercial on TV: There it was! Like a rock!
OUI: Have you been asked any intelligent questions lately?
ZAPPA: No. I don’t think questions are particularly intelligent anyway. The only ones that seem to matter are: What time is the plane? Where is the men’s room? What time do we go on? These are the important matters of the day. Everything else is an exchange of little pieces of partial comprehension.
OUI: So you don’t see any value in talking about art or philosophy or social satire?
ZAPPA: If it sells magazines, it’s valuable. If it doesn’t, what is it? Of course, you’d have to go a long way to beat the text of this Perrier ad [pointing to a book called Leisureguide, on the back of which is a full-color ad for Perrier water. his eyes suddenly beaming]. I like the part about the “delicate gases ... trapped over one hundred and forty million years ago in the volcanic eruptions of the Cretaceous era ... are released and rise through porous limestone and cracked marls to add natural life and sparkle to the icy waters of a single stream.” This guy’s got a good racket. That’s bottled smoke. And you are cool if you drink it! And of course here it says “no calories.” But those delicate gases of dinosaur rot ... It’s not often that you see something that fine. Then there are ads for women’s cosmetics. Any woman who buys one of those products because of all that’s written in those ads is ... hurting. You know – kinda young, kinda wild, Charlie.
OUI: Have you read any contemporary poetry?
ZAPPA: I don’t read much at all. I just stick to the important stuff. I divide my time between Perrier ads and Scientific American.
OUI: What do you get out of Scientific American?
ZAPPA: One issue had this centerspread with this incredibly worded ad for a pinball machine; it was really exceptional. It had a text that was designed to appeal to the inquiring scientific mind, stating how this would be a useful artifact to have in your scientific home – you smart person, you, who subscribes to this wonderful magazine. You can be a scientific cool person with a pinball machine. Why wade through mediocre stuff? Go right to the heart of what’s brilliant in America. Go for the advertising copy, since that’s where the action is. So much skill and so much science goes into those little raps.
OUI: You might appreciate a small book of poetry called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or one called Crow, by Ted Hughes.
ZAPPA: I don’t usually gravitate in that direction. That’s serious shit, written by people who have things to say. I can only comprehend that stuff partially, so I stick to Perrier ads. I think I comprehend that ad pretty well. There’s only one thing better than reading Perrier ads. That’s watching people order it in restaurants, savoring its delicate gas bouquets. Right away you know the people who drink that stuff are into tennis. They’re healthy; they probably run a little bit, drink Perrier, get up and start the cycle again. And when they’re not doing that, they’re snorting cocaine. These people are truly modern. These people aren’t trapped in the Sixties, no way. They’re trapped in the future.
OUI: Would you consider writing a serious love song?
ZAPPA: Not for myself, not for my group.
OUI: Why not?
ZAPPA: It just wouldn’t be right. What passes for hamburgers in this country is pretty preposterous. So you can carry that to the extreme and say that what passes for love in this country is pretty preposterous.
OUI: Where is there a better attitude?
ZAPPA: You got me. You really stumped me on that one.
OUI: Are you afraid of getting old?
ZAFPA: I’m already old. I was born old. Doesn’t scare me at all. I had a mustache when I was eleven. What’s so great about being young? You don’t have any rights: people poop on you all the time.
OUI: Is there anything you liked about the Fifties?
ZAPPA: I think the music of the Fifties is really good. I suspect it’s much better musically than much of what’s available now. Not in terms of production, but in terms of content. One good believable song about some guy’s girlfriend and how they broke up – a sincere one – is better than twenty albums of English rock that’s ever been produced. Or better than one hundred albums of laid-back L.A. studio acoustic-guitar swill. Did you ever hear Edna, by the Medallions?
ZAPPA: Well. You haven’t lived yet, have you? How about Can I Come Over Tonight, by the Velours? That’s art music, there.
OUI: When was the last time you cried?
ZAPPA: Two or three months ago.
OUI: What about?
ZAPPA: Must’ve been some movie on TV. If something wants to come out of my eyes. I let it come out. If it wants to stay in there, I don’t squeeze it out. There are certain things that make water come out of my eyes that are irrational. I’m not a terminal weeper or anything like that.
OUI: Do you ever worry that you might be too rational?
OUI: Does anybody ever say that about you?
ZAPIA: No. Most people don’t think I’m rational. They’re too busy featuring their hurt. They find it irrational not to feature your hurt. That’s how fucked up they are.
OUI: Don’t you feature your hurt?
OUI: What about a song like Trouble Comin’ Every Day? Or a song like The Torture Never Stops?
ZAPPA: That’s not my hurt. That’s a commentary. That’s about as close to featuring your hurt as writing an article for a newspaper on world conditions. That’s journalism.
OUI: Is your music close to journalism?
ZAPPA: Some of it. It’s pretty biased journalism, but I don’t mind that. Until they modify the Constitution, I can say whatever the fuck I want about these subjects. And if I happen to be rational, then that’s just too bad.
OUI: Why is your group just called Zappa I now?
ZAPPA: Because it’s not really the Mothers of Invention; so why call it the Mothers of Invention? Why be trapped in the Sixties? Know what I mean? It’s a good name. Two syllables, not too taxing. It looks good in print and it happens to be my real name.
OUI: Would you ever want to go into TV?
ZAPPA: Sure. Talk show. We tried it one time, but the mentality of the people who allow things to get on TV is, well ... they weren’t too favorable about putting me on the tube. They do it all by computer, just like in the movie business. They have computer printouts of what Mr. X’s name means in terms of dollars at the box office. They’ve figured out which personalities will attract the most viewers. They also have a list of people they don’t want to have on TV. And my name’s on that list! Remember. TV is only an extension of the government. They’re not just there to sell you soap; they’re there to make people believe all the rest of the shit that’s going on.
OUI: Do you really think they’re intelligent enough to put together a conspiracy like that?
ZAPPA: They’re intelligent enough to try, but in order to make it work ... that’s a problem sometimes. Look at every country in the world that has TV. Some countries are obvious about TV being government-owned and operated. In the U.S., TV pretends to be free, but it’s completely government dominated. In the same way that a President or member of Congress can use the IRS to apply pressure to an individual citizen, they have networks that have X number of stations or independents that are all tied together and they’re all under pressure by the government to keep things the way they are. You don’t want to rock the boat or you ain’t gonna have an FCC license.
OUI: So how much do you want to rock the boat?
ZAPPA: No more than is rational. The important thing to remember about the boat is that it’s supposed to go someplace.
OUI: How could young people these days make things better?
ZAPPA: There are several positive steps that have to be taken. First, you have to get rid of the Electoral College. Until then, your vote doesn’t really mean much when it comes to electing the big stuff. The other thing you have to do is reinstate the write-in vote. That way, if you know somebody who’s really cool. you could write in and make him a candidate. Then you’re not gonna be stuck with freeze-dried candidates.
The other way would be not to get so ripped all the time. It’s not gonna do me any good to say: Drugs are the work of the devil! I won’t stop people from getting loaded, but I don’t think it’s productive to stay loaded all the time and just disappear into Fantasyland. People stay so loaded that, after a while, they don’t know that things suck.
OUI: Do you think they’re happy?
ZAPPA: I don’t know. That’s not my world. But they walk around bumping into things, pretending they’re having a wonderful time. There hasn’t been a drug invented yet that’s as good as sex. If they ever come up with one like that, naturally that’s going to make a great dent in the birth-control situation.
OUI: Is your sex life as weird as your music?
ZAPPA: What makes you think my music is weird?
OUI: Just a preconception that many of us have.
ZAPPA: First of all, you have to get rid of your preconceptions. You’re talking to a human being who happens to be pretty intelligent, who works real hard to do what he does – and there’s nothing weird about that at all. Remember, I’m rational. I think you’re weird. What’s weird about my music? As an accurate journalist and a person with a conscience, it’s your job to bring the truth to the people of the world. There isn’t anything weird about my music. Weird is a skeleton in the closet, wearing a rubber mask with warts all over its nose, and all that kind of shit. That’s not what I do. The thing that makes my music unusual is that people only hear one kind of music all the time over the radio. It’s wallpaper to their lives. Audile wallpaper. There’s one acceptable beat and there are three acceptable chord progressions. There are five acceptable words: baby, love, tears, yat yat. Just because I don’t deal in those terms doesn’t mean I’m weird. So tell these people: I ain’t weird; I’m rational. I’m a person who can choose to write stuff like that, or choose to write stuff that includes all the notes on the piano played at once, followed by a cement truck driving over the piano, followed by a small atomic explosion. Nothing weird about that as long as you do it in a meaningful way.
OUI: Have you done anything interesting while you’ve been here in Florida?
ZAPPA: The other night we were out cruising in the limo when we passed a place that had a sign out front saying war T-SHIRT NITE, so all the guys went “Arrreeeyarrrghhh!” We go in and there’s one hundred guys and three girls and a couple of barmaids and a band. There were a couple people dancing. We sit down and have a couple drinks. Pretty soon the place starts filling up and the band starts playing. Then they announce the wet T-shirt contest. They have some guy who’s the M.C., and in order to prove he’s really a cool guy and not merely an M.C., naturally he has to join in with the band and sing a couple Elvis Presley numbers. Well, a-one for the money and all that shit. He had one of those Bible-person haircuts that looks like it’s made out of chewing gum and it’s real neat around your ears and sort of poofy up front – the Jehovah’s Witness look. The Bible cut. He has on a Marine sportcoat. After he sings his numbers, with a flourish and a drum roll, it’s time for the contest. They have these five girls: Big C from Boston; a skinny dark-skinned-nationality-type girl; then there’s this large girl with blonde hair; then there’s this girl who’s shaped like a huge tomato, who introduces herself as the good fairy from Never-Never Land; then, last but not least, there’s this girl from California with the classic dumb-blonde look. Classic. Couldn’t dance. Nice tits. Shapely body. Everybody thought: OK, here’s the one. Meanwhile, the M.C. is making all the dumbest comments in the world. He’s trying to emcee the show and come on to these chicks simultaneously. It was right on the level of va-va-vooomm!! Really stupid. They tried to drag it out as long as they could. First they do it with the “dry look.” Then a break, then they’re gonna do it with the “wet look.” I didn’t even stay for the “wet look” part, because the first part was so boring. I heard later that the dumb girl won and the big girl got booed off because she wouldn’t flash her tits – she got very upset and wouldn’t come out of her dressing room and tried to get out by a secret exit... It was real pathetic. I’m glad I went there or else I wouldn’t have had a chance to see the phenomenon in the flesh.
OUI: Are you going to compose anything around the event?
ZAPPA: Yeah, but I don’t want to get specific about the names. What I want to capture is the essence of the event. Somebody’s going to win, somebody’s going to lose, the M.C. is going to be a schmuck and the audience is the real star of the show. What are their motives? What do they think they’re gonna get out of this? It’s total desperation. I think I comprehend that event pretty good. [Zappa leads me to the door, in what seems like a genuine gesture of cordiality – none of which he’s shown during the entire interview.]
ZAPPA: You ought to go swimming. Enjoy yourself.
OUI: I will; how about you?
ZAPPA: I don’t swim, and the only time I enjoy myself is when I’m working. Just remember, the wallpaper goes on forever...
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net