Bad Taste Is Timeless:
Cruising Down Memory Lane With Frank Zappa
By David Fricke
"What is all this shit in the newspaper if we got such a big name? We're starving, man. This fucking band is starving and we've been starving for three years. I realize it takes a long time, but does it take another five, 10 years from now? ... If we'd all been living in California, it would have been different."
"If we had all been living in California, we wouldn't be working at all."
From a dialogue between a disgruntled Jimmy Carl Black and the voice of reason, Frank Zappa, on the state of finances in the Mothers of Invention, as recorded on Uncle Meat.
Frank Zappa has always had problems with musicians. As the present-day composer who refuses not only to die but to give any quarter whatsoever, the 38-year-old Zappa is constantly suffering criticisms and complaints from the people he employs, many of whom openly describe him as an authoritarian monster, dictator, asshole, and all of the other derogatory things one might call a guy who wants something done his way, right, and right now. And Zappa – who's gone through more Mothers, ex-Mothers, Zappaites, and sessioners than Kim Simmonds can count – insists it's not just the young punks he employs now. The elderly Mothers are just as liable. Take the band that recorded Ruben and the Jets, the greasy '50s celebration of so-called "cretin simplicity."
"It was fuckin' murder to make that record," relates Zappa with a coldness suggesting he's still a bit pissed off. "There's only two songs on that record that were easy to do – 'No, No, No' and 'Cheap Thrills.' I wrote them, recorded all the instruments, and vocals, and mixed both of those songs on a Sunday afternoon. It took about seven hours and I did both songs from top to bottom.
"But everything else on there was just murder. For one thing, the guys in the band didn't want to do it because they thought it was square. Ray Collins and Roy Estrada knew about that kind of music and Jimmy Carl Black, too. But it was not up Ian Underwood's alley or Art Tripp's or Bunk Gardner's. They thought it was moron music. 'Hey, I can play jazz. What do I need this shit for?' "
Zappa is really rolling now: "And you can't argue with these people. All you can do is say 'I'll play it myself' and a lot of times that's what I end up doing. When a guy has a certain amount of musical skill, he can't always see that the thing that matters is the song. That's the net result, the completed thing the audience wants to hear. They're not so impressed that you can play your instrument fast or loud."
It has never been easy for Frank Zappa to be Frank Zappa, whether he's leading a band ("It's more like being a referee among a bunch of playground psychotics"), fending off and/or instigating the lawsuits he seems to have going all the time, or defending his music/fans/reputation against the typewritten barbs of critics who say he just ain't got it no more. The fact is he's still got it and in abundance. At Zappa's Halloween shows in New York last year, the audience (SRO for every night) was nothing short of fanatical, exhibiting a rabid enthusiasm rarely seen at your average "rock" concert, much less one four hours long (Halloween proper). When the costumed crowd wasn't parading around the hall scaling new heights in outrage, they shamelessly begged Zappa for autographs in mid-song and mouthed the words to latter-day epics like "Dinah Moe Humm" (from Over-nite Sensation) – the same song a Rolling Stone reviewer dismissed as "insistent, almost depressingly professional backing accompanies recitation of doggerel-porn." Even if the kids – for the average age was indeed 17 – could understand that, they wouldn't care. Nor does Zappa.
"There are plenty of other groups to entertain people who need reinforcements of their lifestyle. They're all out there, freeze-dried and shit, who wear space masks and cat whiskers, groups who play like a typewriter hooked up to a pentatonic scale generator. There's plenty of those, plenty of everything for everybody. I just do mine for me and people who happen to like it."
As early as Freak Out, Zappa knew who those people were. Based on the mail requests for the "Freak Map" advertised on the album and assorted scribblings sent to the Mothers' United Mutations PO Box, he surmised that the Mothers of Invention audience was 90% male, between the ages of 16 and 20, and of Jewish suburban middleclass birth – the very same social strata which attended the New York Halloween shows.
"We were obviously saying something those kids wanted to hear."
If the Mothers of Invention had been around in 1956 when Francis and Rosemary Zappa moved from Baltimore to Lancaster, California, they would probably have been just as attractive to Francis Vincent Zappa Jr., a young impressionable kid happily indulging polar opposite interests in sleazy R&B and avant-garde composition. Zappa has never made a secret of his contempt for California and the comfortable middle-class hypocrisy it fosters. "If it sucks," he says affectionately, "it's in Los Angeles." But it was probably the threat of suffocating on the poisoned psychological candy handed down by mums and dads throughout the state which forced him to develop even further his innate wit and musical interests as a high school student and junior college grad. Gigging with the Blackouts (copy band rock'n'roll) and Joe Perrino and the Mellotones (copy band lounge'n'roll) didn't fatten his bank account, but always the cultural absorber, Zappa certainly took note of what went on around him. His music is full of cross-references from that period, including out-and-out parodies like "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder" (doo-wop melodrama) and "America Drinks and Goes Home" (lounge lizards on the loose).
A 1962 soundtrack to a movie entitled The World's Greatest Sinner and a Steve Allen TV appearance hyping "cyclophony" – playing music on a bicycle – were only two early manifestations of Zappa's early compositional interests in Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and their 20th century crew. When in 1964 Zappa bought an old dilapidated recording studio in Cucamonga, California for $1,000 (renaming it Studio Z), Zappa's plan for world musical conquest began in earnest. Unfortunately, the record companies of the day didn't share his enthusiasm.
A 1974 Zappa press kit littered with informative and amusing clippings includes some of the rejection letters the composer received for his songwriting and production efforts. Dot Records politely said no thanks to a tape of "Any Way the Wind Blows," an instrumental version of "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," and a master take of Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) singing Little Richard's "Slippin' And Slidin'." The last item, according to Zappa, was rejected by the Dot A&R man because "the guitar was distorted." Other submissions that came bouncing back included a script for a television rock opera called I Was a Teenage Malt Shop. And to this day, Zappa refuses to admit that this stuff was too advanced for the psyches of the day.
"I don't care whether the record companies were ready for it," a theme he sounds whenever given the chance. "I knew there were people out there who would love it if they heard it. That's why I did it. Just because there's some bimbo at the record company who doesn't understand it is no reason not to try and push it through. Why should a guy in a middle management position be the ultimate arbiter of taste for the American public? What does he know? What does he care?"
In Frank Zappa's case, the answer is no and no again. But apparently the San Bernardino County Vice Squad cared because they busted Zappa at Studio Z in 1964 on a trumped-up porno charge involving a minor (19 years old) and for manufacturing pornographic materials for a used-car salesman who turned out to be fuzz-in-disguise. He eventually did 10 days in the slammer, bailing out the 19-year-old with royalties on a song ("Memories of El Monte") he wrote with a singer named Ray Collins and recorded by the Penguins.
Collins was a member of a group called the Soul Giants. With Zappa as a new recruit, Collins, bass guitarist Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black became the Mothers and Zappa's creative vehicle for the next five years. (The Soul Giants' sax player, suspecting Zappa's motives, got out fast. Guitarist Elliot Ingber later filled the space.) Some of the original four-piece band's early tapes recently surfaced on a bootleg of material apparently slated to appear on Zappa's unreleased 10-record Mothers anthology. The studio jams ("Rock Around the Clock" and "Sandwich Song") are only of historical note, although there are some classic moments – the band trying to remember the words to "Rock Around the Clock" and singer Collins soulfully warbling that "Once I had some cheese." The live stuff ("Whiskey Around the Sun" and "Mondo Hollywood") features Zappa on guitar. soloing his moustache off, before degenerating into a raw blues and finally segueing into a rousing party-powered jam. Good 1964 bar band shit.
That's actually the kind of stuff MGM staff producer Torn Wilson heard when he caught the Mothers playing one of their residencies at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles later in '64. Reportedly taken by Zappa's Watts riot song, "Trouble Every Day," Wilson investigated further, liked demos of "Any Way the Wind Blows" and "Who Are the Brain Police," and got Verve Records (MGM subsidiary) to put the Mothers of Invention (MGM made them add "of Invention") under what Zappa calls "contractual bondage." Only recently has Zappa been able to extract himself from that bondage and the lawsuits that followed. But, with all due respect to Zappa and his lawyers, the 1965 release of Freak Out – a satirical collage of barroom rock, musique concrete, and pointed social commentary – was worth the bother.
"After Freak Out was released," he explains, "it sold terribly. In the first year, it didn't do shit. It cost so much money – $20,000 – an unheard-of amount of money for that day and age. An album in those days cost $8,000 and this was a double album!" Naturally, MGM went after Wilson, who Zappa admits really did produce Freak Out and "pretty much was producer on Absolutely Free. So when it came time to record Absolutely Free in 1966, MGM got tight with bucks, giving Wilson and the Mothers $11,000 and, according to Zappa, "one day with 15 minutes per tune to do all the vocals on that album. That's right. It's called 'sing or get off the pot.'"
During this time, Zappa's reputation as a wily gamester, the rock'n'roll Rasputin, increased thousandfold. He described "freaking out" to a New York Times reporter in 1966 as "a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricted standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole." But he knew damn well that when America orders a last round and goes home, such sociological doubletalk gets left at the bar along with the salted peanuts. America – in all its jaded glory – only understands shock treatment. So it was that the Mothers of Invention, their ratty hair, outlandish third-rate hippie dress, and stage shenanigans became the visual manifestation of Zappa's attempts to reach an audience with his music, much of it defiantly serious. It was pop electrolysis of the highest voltage.
The Mothers' extended New York stay at the Garrick Theatre in 1967 was one such jolt. Like a drop kick in the crotch, the band hit New York with two shows a night, six nights a week for six months with Zappa's freewheeling soundtrack for the Great American Abomination. Zappa explains that the Mothers first went to New York because they were literally kicked out of Los Angeles. This was the time of the Sunset Strip riots, when property owners along the Strip attributed falling real estate values to bands of freaks cruising up and down Sunset Boulevard and got City Hall to do something about it.
"The net result was illegal police roundups, with no warrants, of people on the street. They'd show up with a bus and just herd 20 or 30 people in a bus, arrest them, take them downtown, and let 'em go. It was pure harassment."
Subsequently, Sunset Strip clubs stopped booking the bands which attracted the crowds, the scene dried up faster than a prune in the sun, and the Mothers tried New York as an alternative. After a pair of gigs at the old Balloon Farm off St. Mark's Place, the band happened on the 300-seat Garrick Theatre, moving in for a two-week Easter vacation gig in '67. The Garrick shows – originally titled "Pigs and Repugnant," later changed to "Absolutely Free" – did turn away business for those first two weeks. Flushed with success, Zappa decided to stick around, snaring a lease at the Garrick through Labor Day in the hope that the rest of New York was dying to witness the Mothers mixmaster their own unique combination of metaphorical stage violence, Top 40 avant-garde sounds, and underground rock oratorios.
"Of course, after Easter vacation, the crowds dwindled to zilch. Some nights there were three, maybe five people in there and we'd still play. But we would do it just for them. In fact, there was one night when there were just a few people in the audience. Now the Garrick Theatre was located right above the Cafe Au-Go-Go and there was a connecting passageway down to the Au-Go-Go. So all the guys in the band went downstairs and got some hot cider and coffee and stuff, put little napkins over their arms, and each guy in the band went up, sat down next to each person and served them a drink, talking with them for an hour-and-a-half. That was the entire show."
Zappa's shows still retain that spark of dynamic dementia. Last Halloween, for instance, Zappa invited a member of the audience onto the stage. The guy turned out to be a Garrick Theatre regular who, if memory serves correctly, was fond of jumping up on stage, only to lay down in front of Zappa who, in turn, would pour soda over him in a weird baptismal rite. The Mothers, naturally, would play on. "Yeah," says Frank of the possibility that the Garrick spirit is alive and well at least in New York. "But at the Garrick, it was small enough that you didn't have to exaggerate your movements because of the size of the place. You could actually behave in a normal manner – be normally weird."
During the band's New York residency, the Mothers recorded their Sergeant Pepper parody We're Only In It For the Money and Zappa polished off his orchestral opus Lumpy Gravy. Both works were held up for release because of lawsuits – the former because of a discussion between Zappa and Beatle reps on his satirical piracy of the Pepper cover design. Lumpy Gravy – an extraordinary unfinished ballet that forced pundits to reassess Zappa's compositional abilities – was another corporate thorn in Zappa's side.
"Originally what happened was that right after the completion of Absolutely Free in '66, the basic tracks were cut for Lumpy Gravy in Los Angeles. This guy Nick Venet – a producer at Capitol – heard I could write orchestra music and asked me if I'd like to do an orchestra album for Capitol because my MGM contract didn't preclude me from conducting. I wasn't signed as a conductor and since I wasn't performing on the album, there didn't seem to be any problem. He gave me a budget for a 40-piece orchestra, x-number of studio hours, and said go do it. And I did." As MGM's legal department would have it, a problem did arise. When Zappa brought the orchestral tapes to New York for mixing, MGM complained about it – after Capitol had spent over $30,000 on the album. Capitol was even ready to release it.
"In fact, if you're looking for rare collectors' items, there are 8-track tapes with the Capitol label of Lumpy Gravy that have a different Lumpy Gravy than the album. Those have only the orchestral music and they do exist." Eventually MGM gave Capitol their 30 grand back for the master LG tapes, and Zappa added "all that talking and stuff" later. But the litigation cost Zappa and his album 13 months before it could be released.
Even now, Frank Zappa's legal problems are not over. When asked if those first three Mothers albums on Verve are still in print, he replies with what seems like a sigh of relief that "as a result of the settlement of the lawsuit with MGM, they no longer have the right to repress those records. Those masters have reverted back to us." Which means we can see Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We're Only In It For the Money on local record racks – where they belong – before long? "Yes, as soon as the lawsuit between me and Herb Cohen [former manager] and Warner Brothers [former label] and all that stuff is settled." Translated, that means don't hold your breath. Here's something that might take it away, tho'. Apparently Apostrophe is not Zappa's biggest selling LP, despite the fact that the single "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" chased the album into the Top Ten, a first for the formerly uncommercial Frank.
"The album sold very fast and the speed with which an item sells determines its position on the charts. It's not the numbers. Apostrophe is not the biggest selling album we've ever had. Just the fastest. "Probably the best-selling album was (get this) Freak Out. But there's no way to prove it because of the way the financial records were kept at MGM, which was shoddy to say the least. It wasn't criminal, but hey, they weren't gonna do us any favors."
Any conversation of some length with Frank Zappa will touch on a variety of subjects, if only out of deference to Zappa's flagrantly diverse interests. Some of those subjects don't necessarily follow in chronological or topical order, so what follows are some of the bits and pieces not covered in the preceding narrative.
In your 10-plus years as a bandleader and performer, is there any one concert or show you consider to be the ultimate Zappa show?
"There were a lot of them that were pretty funny. But you have to consider them in context. What might be the ultimate show one year might be a bomb the next. The differentness of the show is the product of the contrast between it and the surroundings – the incongruity of doing a certain thing in a certain place at a certain time. During a year's touring season there may be quite a few incongruous events. And, well, they're getting harder and harder to pull off because of the attitudes of the musicians. Most of them don't have the historic sense of why it is aesthetically good to perform something incongruous. They're worried about other things on their minds, these young guys."
Would you say the age difference between you and the younger players contributes to that?
"Oh, definitely. It's sometimes difficult for me to talk to some of the guys in the band because there's whole eras of musical experience they don't know anything about. They might have heard rumors about what rhythm and blues was in the '50s. All they know about it from personal experience is hearing Sha Na Na records. "Besides that, most of the guys in the band don't bother to listen to our records. They don't like them."
As leader of the band, how do you differentiate, say, between material appropriate for Zappa the bandleader or Zappa the solo artist?
"Those distinctions are no longer applicable because it's not the same thing anymore. When there was the Mothers, I distinguished those things – if the group that was making the record was the same group that was touring, then it was a Mothers of Invention album. And if it was basically a studio situation where I used a variety of players, then it was solo album."
How about the difference between producing your band and producing somebody else? Grand Funk, for example?
"In Grand Funk's case, what they were looking for was somebody to help them get a sound on record that what was what they actually sounded like at the time – not a cheap imitation, but something that revealed they could actually play their instruments. So that's what I went for."
What about somebody like Wild Man Fischer?
"He needed some structuring, someone with an appreciation of what his craft was, to sit through the problems of making the album and then have the patience to put it together in the continuity the listener could pay attention to. That was a completely different story."
But when you decided to record Wild Man Fischer, did you really think he had something people could relate to?
"Yeah, I thought so. Don't you think so? "Listen, the people who bought the Saturday Night Fever album probably won't like An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. But that album was made for the people who like that kind of stuff and all the rest of the albums I make are for people who like that kind of stuff. If they like it, fine. If they don't, there's other stuff."
You have this penchant for coming up with some perfectly bizarre song and album titles (e.g. "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny," "Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead," Weasels Ripped My Flesh).
"It helps people remember your records. Actually, if I called an album Frank Zappa Sings For Lovers Only, that would be absurd enough to be remembered."
Well, remember this. Frank Zappa's latest album is called Martian Love Secrets, it's on his new Zappa label, it's real good, and it's only phase one of a renovated master plan for world pop domination. Also keep your eyes peeled for a feature film of the 1977 Halloween shows in New York. The present day Zappa indeed refuses to expire.
One more question. In the liner notes to Ruben and the Jets, you refer to yourself and the Mothers as "just a bunch of old men with rock'n'roll clothes on ... mumbling about the good old days. Ten years from now, you'll be sitting around with your friends someplace doing the same thing, if there's anything left to sit on." Now it's over 10 years. Are you surprised that there's anything left to sit on?
"No. Just remember liner notes are for amusement purposes and not intended to tell the future or create inner turmoil. The liner notes on Ruben and the Jets were also talking about Ruben's three dogs, Benny, Baby, and Marthy. I'm surprised you didn't ask me about them, too."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net