The Zappas On Video Games
By Merle H. Reagle
JoyStik, January, 1983
"YOU KNOW ME, I'M INTO THE CLEAN STUFF, LIKE PAC-MAN AND LIKE, I DON'T KNOW...."
– from "Valley Girl," 1982 Munchkin Music
He's 41. She's 14. Their ages may be opposite, but the name's the same: Zappa. Father Frank, rock's resident iconoclast, and daughter Moon, ValSpeak authority, are both sharp as phono needles when it comes to observing the human condition. This past summer their hit, "Valley Girl," made household words out of – and this is absolutely the last time you'll hear them here – "grody to the max," "gag me with a spoon," and "like, totally" (not to mention "omiGOD, I'm sherr"). Dubbed a novelty song, but actually a typical Zappa effort, the tune made Frank's "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch" album a top seller. And if you don't know what ValSpeak is, you're a foreign spy. A bad foreign spy.
The Zappa home in the Hollywood Hills, where this interview took place, is like any other home-sweet-home 24-track-recording studio-practice-hall. A TV film crew had Dad temporarily occupied, so first stop was Moon's room. The doorway was round. Moon had a rockabilly haircut.
MOON: I'm trying to break the Val mold
JOYSTIK: Oo, gross! Does this mean you're giving up video games, too?
MOON: No, I still like them. I was addicted to Pac-Man. I was pretty bad, though. I never looked at the score. I would just clear boards. I like Pac-Man Deluxe  because it's more challenging. I can't do games like Tempest. I'm too uncoordinated. I like Donkey Kong. I like the one where the birds fly over and poo-poo on you.
JOYSTIK: Crazy Climber.
MOON: Yeah. I like the cute games with cute little things happening to silly little people.
JOYSTIK: Have you analyzed ValSpeak? What causes it, for example?
MOON: I think there are different reasons for it. It's a form of rebellion against not being able to talk to your parents. Therefore they have to really not be able to talk to their parents. It could be just peer pressure. Or maybe some kind of mouth disease.
JOYSTIK: Did you ever really talk it?
MOON: No, I speak English. My parents speak English and I think they did a good job of teaching me English.
JOYSTIK: Why are teenagers so often the targets of your dad's songs?
MOON: It's harder to break attitudes when you're older. Kids are more apt to change than adults, and they're better able to handle change. It's like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: he couldn't trust an adult.
JOYSTIK: Who would you say his audience is?
MOON: Well, his goal is not to make gold records. He wants his albums to just be available, to provide an alternative to the humdrum stuff. His songs are funny, but they also talk about truth and reality. People don't want to hear about that. That's why his songs aren't played on the radio, and that's why a lot of people don't know about him. "Valley Girl" has given everybody a chance to take a closer look at his stuff.
JOYSTIK: Do you go to public school?
MOON: Yes, and I have very pleasant feelings about school. For "Show and Tell," other kids would bring in rocks, or a pet. I brought in my father. In first grade, I brought in my mother and we made T-shirts.
JOYSTIK: Do you get picked on?
MOON: No! But I've always had a little trouble talking with kids my age. I seem to relate better to adults, including teachers.
JOYSTIK: Are there going to be more dad-and daughter recordings?
MOON: Well, my first interest is acting. Besides starting all these incredible trends – beach towels, lunch boxes, movies – "Valley Girl" has given me the opportunity to see more scripts. I just got a script in which they want me to play a Val, and while I'm trying to break that image, I don't want someone else to play it, either! The script is about video games, by the way. There are lines in it like: "Daddy, I'm 15 years old! I can play video games if I want to, like, you know?"
(Moon's Mom invites us into the other room where Dad is showing the TV crew a 10-minute clip from "Baby Snakes." This two-hour-plus Zappa movie features lots of music by Frank and lots of eye-popping metamorphic clay animation by Bruce Bickford. After that, we're led into the studio control booth to hear three cuts from an upcoming album. One song is called "You Look Like A Dork."  Finally, everyone leaves except Frank and Moon, and although Frank will end up doing most of the talking, Moon curls up with him, listening graciously and displaying immense patience, mainly toward the interviewer. The master tape of "Chunga's Revenge" sits on a table between us.)
JOYSTIK: Why did you consent to this interview?
FRANK: Because I don't have anything against video games and I do have something against people who keep kids from playing them.
JOYSTIK: Do you ever play them?
FRANK: No, but I love to listen to them. I like rooms full of that sound. It's a very interesting environment. When I was coming back from my European tour I had a layover in New York. I went into the video-game room at the airport and walked around with a tape recorder, recording the whole room going at once. Then I listened to it on earphones on the plane home. It was great. But I'm not interested in "plooking" buttons and blowing things up.
JOYSTIK: Do you think it fritters away quarters that could be better spent elsewhere?
FRANK: No, it's entertainment, and you have to pay for it. You just have to decide if the quarter you spend on a video game is worth the amount of fun you get out of it.
JOYSTIK: How about its effect on poorer families?
FRANK: If you had to choose between spending the afternoon in an unpleasant house with a bunch of other kids, where the family argues all the time, and the air conditioning doesn't work, even if you're poor you're gonna find the quarters to go play video games. If you don't have the quarters, you're gonna go hang out there so you can mooch a game from somebody or at least talk to someone, which will make you feel better.
That's the other thing about a video-game parlor: it's a gathering place, which lends a sociology to it that transcends what the games are. And if you're good at video games, it's okay to be smart. An arcade is one place where it's okay to show some intelligence.
JOYSTIK: In what way?
FRANK: Most people in America do everything they can to disguise the fact that they're intelligent. There's no other race of people on earth that wants to pretend so hard that they're stupid. That's because in high school you learn that if you're smart, you're not gonna get laid. The girls pretend just as hard as the guys. "Nobody wants to pooch a smartie." So you pretend to be dumb. Pretty soon, you're really dumb.
JOYSTIK: Could this be a cause of Val?
FRANK: No, Val is one manifestation of that sort of self-inflicted dumbness. Americans want to be these things: cute, rich, right, dumb forever, liked by everyone, good at sports, regular guys, and good drivers. Being fat and lazy is what America is all about.
JOYSTIK: You'd think we'd have been invaded by now.
FRANK: Nobody has to. There ain't gonna be no war. Americans are so stupid that they'll let an Arab come in and buy the whole country and they won't even know what happened. We'll be owned by some other government. Drop a bomb and wreck all the real estate? Forget it! The missiles may fly over, but they're not gonna blow us up. They're gonna squirt us with gas.
JOYSTIK: What do you think Philip Habib's been doing in the Mideast?
FRANK: Using up a lot of jet gas. We pay the gas bills, the phone bills, the limo bills, the hotel bills, the security bills .... And when the time comes to really shoot the missiles, they're gonna be too scared to do it. Nobody knows where those missiles are gonna go. How can you test all those installations? Each one costs what, 20 million dollars? You don't know what'll happen. It could blow up underground. It could go up and come right back down.
JOYSTIK: Sounds like a good idea for a video game.
FRANK: I'll tell you the only problem with video games – the mentality of the people who are scared of them. Parents who won't let their kids play them. That's the crux of the biscuit.
MOON: There's now a law here that says you can't skip school to play video games. During the school year there's this one place that won't let anyone under 18 play them. I don't know anybody who would skip school to play a game of Pac-Man. It's so useless to even worry about it! I mean, get serri-oss!
(Moon excuses herself. She's going to her first Van Halen concert.)
FRANK: Listen. I don't like puzzles. I don't do games, don't do sports, don't do chess or checkers, don't do pingpong. I don't jog. But I think everybody should do that stuff if they want to. Same with video games. Any kind of electronic device that a kid can become friends with is good.
1. Bootleg version. (JoyStik)
2. Album "The Man From Utopia". Song "Luigi & The Wise Guys"
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net