Where Is Frank Zappa? Part I
This is the first in a series of articles dealing with Frank Zappa—head mother of the Mothers of Invention. The series, generally, will present some of Zappa’s thoughts about various subjects, including kids, politics, music and today’s society. In so doing, the reader may get some insight as to where Frank Zappa is at—if that is at all possible.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have been described as ugly, repulsive, gross, sarcastic, satirical, iconoclastic, and nasty. They have also been called brilliant, super-talented, inspired, and real. It’s a matter of opinion. Among knowledgeable people, however, Frank Zappa is held to be probably the country’s most cognizant contemporary musician.
Born in Baltimore, the 27-year-old Zappa has a background that reads like the theatre of the absurd. At 13, living in California, he heard rock for the first time in his life. At 14, he listened to a symphony for the first time. In Sacramento, at 15, he began playing drums in a rock band. The family moved to a small country town when he was 16, and he hated it.
At 18, he went to Los Angeles, got a job selling records, and was asked to score a motion picture; but production was halted. Zappa went to work for a greeting card company and got married (age 19). A year later, at 20, he tied with André Previn as being the youngest person ever to score a film. The Mothers began to take shape when he was 22—and his marriage began to fall apart.
The Mothers’ music encompasses a broad spectrum of electrified sound, expanding and contracting, booming and whispering, peepin’ & hidin’. There is no general or over riding tendency that can be easily latched onto. And what is latched onto is not always easily digested—sometimes you throw up. But sometimes you swallow and you grow.
What Zappa and the Mothers say, both musically and verbally, is often belligerent and rebellious, but usually stimulating. They put down The Establishment, parents, high school and prehistoric traditions of morality. They put down the bad guys.
Us: Do you think there is a difference between the generations?
Frank: They say that today’s generation is no different than any other generation. I can’t think of any similarity between the social structure today and what’s gone down in the past, especially with that thing where the parents are trying to imitate their children. It’s really funny. You’ve got this very strange reversal going on, and people are just beginning to admit that it’s there, and sort of laughingly discuss the possibility that mommy wants to look like her daughter. I don’t know whether or not it’s gotten to the point where daddy wants to look like his son, because there aren’t too many fathers with long hair.
Us: What do you think of today’s adult male, particularly fathers?
Frank: I think the father has been so emasculated in American society that he doesn’t have the nerve to do anything about the things that annoy him. He’s either playing it safe because of his job, or he’s just allowed his wife or his girlfriend to take over his life for him. They keep track of his money; they keep track of his clothes; they make decisions for him that he should be making himself. They pretty much run his life. America has a chance of turning into a depressing matriarchal society. Of course that tendency always seemed to be there.
Us: But there are men who realize something’s wrong, and want to set it straight.
Frank: But there are so many women who are so greedy about that potential power they have, that even if they had the chance to set things straight, they wouldn’t do it. They’d think about how they are emancipated women, or this, or that . . . but they are still women.
They’re supposed to do what they’re told, like clean the house. If they want to have some sort of intellectual life, that’s groovy. But if they are married, they have those other duties that they have to take care of. That’s part of the rules. They ought to accept what they have to do. Unfortunately, a lot of men are supposed to be good fathers, good leaders, good this and good that, although they might make better baby sitters.
Us: Sometimes the roles are reversed.
Frank: Well, if your wife has a good brain and a good job, and all you can do is get a job in a gas station, I’d send her out to work, too. But I’d make sure she knew who was boss when she got home. I was supported for two years by my first wife. It was an uncomfortable sort of feeling knowing that somebody else was bringing in the money, but I didn’t have much choice. With the kind of line of work I was in, I just couldn’t get any work. We needed some way to exist. So she was a secretary and brought home the bacon. Meanwhile, I was a lonely composer who couldn’t get anything recorded or sold. I kept on writing.
Us: Didn’t you do a score for a film?
Frank: Two of them. I didn’t get any money for the first one.
Us: That’s too bad.
Frank: Well, listen, if you’re a composer, and you like to write music, and you also like to hear the music you write, and you’re living in America where nobody likes composers, where they like any kind of artist other than composers, and they like composers only if he can write a good jingle for Pepsi Cola . . . I would have paid to hear my music. In fact I did pay once to hear my music played a long time ago. I scraped up about $300 to put on a concert at Mt. St. Mary’s College. It was a student group. I had to pay those damn kids to rehearse the music. They hated my stuff. But I didn’t do any of that with the prospect of making money.
Us: What was the deal with the movie score?
Frank: In motion picture language, it’s called a “deferment.” You defer payment until the sale of the picture, and you agree on a price for the score. The price was dirt cheap. It was a $2,500 score; which is really peanuts for a film score when you think of these guys getting anywhere from $15,000 up. I figured the $2,500 would be good. If I made it, I made it. If I didn’t, I would still get to hear my music. But in that particular instance, I didn’t get a tape of the music. I’m still trying to get a tape of the score from that film. It’s called The World’s Greatest Sinner. I scored a second film, a western. I only got a certain amount of money for that. I didn’t get the full amount, but it all worked out very well. I was supposed to get $3,000 or $4,000 for it, and I maybe got $1,500. But I got the tapes. Because the guy owed me the rest of the money, and because at the time The Mothers were being formed, I needed a place to rehearse. He had a big studio, a very deluxe studio, which he let us rehearse in for six weeks before we recorded “Freak Out.” It was so ironic because we were all starving to death. We didn’t have any money, and there was no way to eat. Most of the guys were driving 30 or 40 miles from a town outside of Hollywood. They would come into this place, and we were scraping nickles and dimes together.
Us: We’ve heard that there was a group that needed another guitar player and they went to you, and you said sure, but you’d be their leader.
Frank: That’s true. You see, the studio we were talking about was the second studio. The first studio was a studio that I owned with the money that I got. This is how it works. The cowboy movie was written by my ex-high school English teacher. He’s a really amazing guy. He stopped teaching school. He was just a few hours away from his Ph. D., and decided that he wasn’t going to get his Ph. D.; that he was going to write films. He took a part time job as a mailman, and did his writing in his spare time. He wrote this script, and got some guys to produce it. He recommended me to score it, so they took me on to score it. They tried twice to shoot the film. The first time they tried, the leading lady had a miscarriage the third day of shooting, and the guy lost $30,000. Two years later, he paid all of his debt back, and started again on the film. He got Mercedes McCambridge to play the lead in it. It was her first job after she tried to commit suicide, and she was still a little on the alcoholic binge. So he started, and he got me again to do the music. With the $1,000 I earned to do the film, I bought the studio, in a little town called Cucamonga, from another guy. I took it all over. All the tape, all the equipment. I moved in there and just never came home. Shortly thereafter, I got a proper divorce from my wife. We just couldn’t make it any more, and I moved into the studio. There was no bathtub, no shower. I had no food, no money, but I had a whole studio. I’d sit in there, and I’d make multiple recordings. I could plug the guitar directly into the board. I had a set of drums, a piano, electric bass: I could play all the instruments myself, and I recorded things . . . for 11 hours straight, just to do it. It would seem like nothing. There was no light in the studio, no daylight coming in. I didn’t know what day it was, what time it was. I was just going out of my mind with all this equipment, which was really pretty basic stuff. At that time, Ray, who is the lead singer of the group, (I had known him for about four years), was working with a group at a local bar. I needed some money, and he had just had an argument with the guitarist in the group. So he called me up and asked me if I would come down and substitute. I liked the group very much. I thought this was our chance. The guys are groovy enough, and if we can stick together long enough, we can do something. Because, you see, the problem with it is not necessarily to find good players, but to find people who like each other enough that they could stand to be with each other enough to rehearse the amount of time it takes to make a record, or make any money, or to do anything. In most groups there’s such stupid animosity between the members, with all these dumb ego things happening. Even though our group relationship hasn’t been perfect all the way through, I’d say we’re doing a hell of a lot better than most of them. Everybody in the band has quit two to five times, and most of them have come back. Ray and Don have both left the group for a period of time, and then rejoined. We just lost a guy a few weeks ago, but we find replacements as fast as we lose them. Sometimes we find replacements for the people who quit, and then the other people come back, and I say: “Oh, what the heck. I’ll just take you back and increase the size of the band.” So now we have nine people. It started out as four.
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