By Thomas Glynn
Two Mynah birds were supposed to get married onstage, but they never showed up, and in their place was a rubber chicken on a wire, a traffic light that leaned to one side, a bust of some obscure 19th Century Pederast, an electric Moose, a Maraschino Cherry and Lance Loud.
It was Halloween in New York at the Felt Forum , and Dr. Dreamland had spread his obligatory fog over the audience for this concert. Everybody (and anybody) was there.
There was Arny the Arab, dressed in his mother's Percale sheets and sporting a Roxy (or elsewhere) turban. There was Otto the organic hogshit farmer, dressed to kill in a pair of matching long johns over which he wore a stunning one piece ensemble of army boxer shorts with red suspenders and a pair of Army combat boots. Fearless Fred, the doorman of a thousand and one nights was sporting his 1832 Turkish washroom attendant's outercoat (complete with epaulets and the Croix de Guerre, given for bravery above and beyond the call of bathroom duty). John the Zombie put in a special appearance. He was wheeled in, his casket crowbarred open, and special slits were cut in the venerable gentleman's bandages so he could partake of the evening's festivities with his one good, albeit slightly moldy, eye and ear. Platform Frieda made an absolutely smashing entrance, dutifully enscribed by Women's Wear Daily, in her 69-inch heels. Later she made a slight, if somewhat cautious bow from the stage. Osgood the Ox, towing a wooden barge filled with what this intrepid reporter guessed was ten tons of guano mulch, was shown to his customary seat at front stage right, chewing his cud. Ten drunken revelers from Fordham, the rhythm section of the Lawrence Welk orchestra, the United States Supreme Court, Ehrlichman & Haldeman, and the Maharishi Jawaka were all let in and made a beeline for the front row of seats. Needless to say, a melee ensued, and after the aisles were cleared and the dope was relit, a semblance of order, or what passed for order, was restored.
At this point the musicians began wandering onstage, lost in some Steppenwolfian trance, mumbling about misplaced dental floss. Green smoke issued forth from one of the amplifiers, and a roadie quickly fanned it into flames. The audience, sporting enough denim to cover every Conestoga wagon to appear on the Oregon trail, burst into applause.
At this point, Frank Zappa walked onstage.
And a huge crescendo obligatto filled the Felt.
And the music began.
I fell into a trance, dreaming of the interview I would have several weeks later with Frank Zappa.
We are sitting in a Howard Johnson's. Frank has just come back from his 67th viewing of The Sound of Music. "I just love that snatch, what's her name? And the music is keen."He orders a cheeseburger and a piece of blueberry pie. "Don't you love all that grease and fat?" And "Why the hell they put blueberries in a blueberry pie for? The creamy, gooey filling is the best part." After a chocolate ice cream soda (heavy on the Reddi-Whip and an extra helping of Maraschino Cherries) we begin the interview. Pencil in hand, I am here to record Frank's opinion on a variety of subjects, both useful and extraneous, and to shed some light, perhaps only a few watts, perhaps only a candle, on the cozy, family, Gemutlichkeit music that has won the famed baton wielder accolades from coast to coast, and incidentally, also won for him (the third year in a row) the André Kostelanetz Platinum Egg Award.
"Frank," I said, waking him up, "I understand you've just been signed to an exclusive lifetime contract by Muzak."
"Frank," I said, warming to the subject and hoping to establish the kind of rapport that is so valuable for this type of in-depth interview.
"Frank," I said, "what are your three all-time favorite things?"
"Sunsets, cocker spaniels, and aromatic pipe tobacco." Scribbling furiously, I popped a biggie.
"Frank, what's wrong with the Youth of America?"
"Not enough popsicle sticks."
At this point someone steps on my toes. Another fight has broken out in the Forum and it isn't even Friday night. The aisles are clogged, and a beefy Captain Meatheart, one of New York's finest, clears the offending bodies.
The music begins again, or having never stopped, continues, and I fall back into my trance.
We are ushered, quietly, into Frank's hotel room. A hushed, contrapuntal tone filles the air. Frank sits on the steam radiator, wrapped in a three-hundred-year-old ceremonial Wazoo robe, his face smeared with sheep dip. "He's been like that for three days and three nights," his manager says. "He always goes into a trance just before he records."
"Would you like anything while you're waiting?" he continues.
"We've got LSD, STP, ACTH, Peyote, Mescalin, Kaopectate, grass, downers, uppers, rights, lefts, Coke, Pepsi, hash, sish, Daquiris or Camels."
I wander over to Frank's clothes closet, hoping to find the key to this enigmatic, mustached warrior. Opening the doors I find: A half dozen natural shoulder suits in Discrete shades of grey (Brooks), two dozen white button down Oxford shirts (Chipps), the same number of ties, blues and maroons with regularly patterned symbols of ducks, tennis rackets, and exclusive men's clubs (]. Press). Added to this sartorial outrage several pairs of dull-colored socks, three pairs of cordovans, a poplin raincoat, single breasted with neutral gray plastic buttons, one tweed overcoat (a muted houndstooth) with a small fur collar (Fox, Frank's favorite) and a camel's hair coat, double breasted and belted.
"Quite the dresser," I say.
"Shhhh," his manager says. "He's coming out of the trance now."
The sweat on Frank's forehead climbs gallantly over the sheep dip. A slight froth fills the corners of his mouth. He moves his lips. He speaks.
"Rooster's tongue ..."
"Quick, get it down," his manager yells.
A roadie grabs a pencil and paper.
"Not that, you fool, the silver ink. Frank wants it written in silver and then ...
"Yes, Frank, go on, we're waiting.'
"We're only in it for the money."
The concert is over.
I struggle out of my seat and walk out of the Felt Forum, elated, exasperated, puzzled, frustrated, assaulted, numbed, amused, and unable to remember a single line, note or lyric (except for one, Don't drink the yellow snow ...). I can hardly wait to get in my car and turn on WRVR and catch some Miles or Coltrane.
Several weeks later I am standing on the corner of 46th and Broadway talking to his press agent, a beautiful blonde from North Dakota or Iowa or one of those cardboard shaped states. We are waiting for the limousine to take us (myself, a photographer, a writer from U.P.I. and the press agent lady) to Philadelphia for a real interview; the genuine, 100% non-dreamed thing. No more make believe, this is the it. Woooeee!!! 
We all pile into the limo and hit the Jersey Turnpike, well fortified with Almaden. The sky looks like a well-rained-on piece of sheet music. We drink and talk. I think of other things I'd like to be doing now, like taking the limo, sticking it in low and flooring the mother through some corn field.
The Holiday Inn where Frank is staying is full of college delegates to some convention. They seem to spend their time getting on and off elevators, usually at the wrong floor, smiling and spit shining their delegate badges.
We get off at the eleventh floor. I can tell it's the eleventh floor because each room has a three-foot-high eleven painted on the door. We meet Frank's road manager, a warm, straightforward person. There is something about him I like. He phones Frank's room, and we go next door for the interview.
Frank meets us at the door. He is tall, pleasant, reserved. Sheet music is scattered on the dresser. Frank sprawls across the bed. We sit in chairs, pencils, questions, poised. The photographer sets up his lights. It's going to be one of those "you-ask-me, I'll-tell-you" interviews. I keep waiting for the craziness, the zaniness, the boffo lampshade on head, chandelier swinging madness, the obscene, surrealistic entrance of another Frank, a stage Frank. But he refuses to play that Frank, and lies there concerned, relaxed, full of the silly knowledge about interviews and the game that is to be played and the amount of information to be passed back and forth and duly written down and printed and then read in some magazine, hopefully causing somebody, manybodies, to go out and buy records and so afford you the income to write and play the kind of music you want to play.
It was in the raucous, tit-filled atmosphere of Go-Go clubs that Zappa began to piece together certain musical idioms. He got a job with the Soul Giants, persuaded them to throw out all their Wilson Pickett and James Brown sets and play Zappa. For this they got fired, again and again. Club owners seemed to delight in firing him, customers in being insulted by him, musicians in being entranced by him. One night, at a famous Hollywood Go-Go place, big Duke walked in, toupee firmly in place. Frank, spotting his chance to win over the celluloid wrangler, grabbed the microphone and introduced him: "Folks, tonight we were going to have with us one of history's most famous personages, George Lincoln Rockwell, acting head of the American Nazi Party. However, he couldn't make it. So, I would like to present instead, John Wayne."
Pandemonium, insults, everything followed. The Mothers were gaining notoriety and an audience, even at the risk of alienating that audience. Perhaps it was this that fascinated everyone. Here was somebody playing rock music who was putting down certain aspects of the rock music syndrome, including the audience that went with it. It was like watching someone sawing out a limb from underneath himself. But in Zappa's case, the limb never fell, and Zappa stayed up there smiling the smile of an enigmatic musical Cheshire Cat. Because under the guise of being frivolous, wacky, spontaneous, irreverent, satirical, outrageous, sacreligious, funny, and self-fulfilling, Zappa displayed a curious, almost embarrassing ethic for a rock musician: the protestant work ethic. Imagine John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie spending their adult life playing contemporary music. You can damn well bet they wouldn't spend half their time juiced out of their skulls or so doped up they could hardly hold a guitar. If they were playing rock, they'd L.A.M.F. all the way. So Frank's stage pose (wacky, casual, lackadaisical) is the product of an incredible amount of talent, dedication and hard work, three virtues anathema to his audience. If they only knew how serious he was, he'd be out of a job. If they thought for a minute that he didn't come out on the stage doped-up, juiced-up, up-upped or down-upped, but in fact came out deadly machine gun serious, wholly intent on giving his audience the slam-bammest concoction of rock-satire-surrealistic commentary he could, with thousands of hours of studio time and experimentation and hours in motel rooms writing music (when he should be out getting laid or gassed or zonked), then he'd blow his act.
First off, it doesn't make good press. The line goes: live fast, die young and have a good press release. So go Hendrix, Joplin, and in the land of the giants, Parker and Coltrane. But what do you do for an encore?
Second no-no. You can't be serious having fun. It's part of the same fiction that says dedication and long hours go towards producing classical music, whereas rock and jazz are tossed off at a moment's notice.
At this point I am interrupted in my reveries by the perennial knock on the door, and in walks Room Service, just like in the movies.
"Here's ya cheese sandwich, blueberry pie and coke."
Frank signs the bill and stares at the pie. He picks up the fork, and very gingerly begins poking around for blueberries. "Three," he says, "in the whole damn piece of pie they give you three lousy blueberries. Can you believe that?"
The skeleton of the pie and the corpse of the sandwich lie on the bed and stare at us through the rest of the interview. "The audience," Frank says, "doesn't understand ten per cent of what I really do."
True, though I would put the figure at closer to five percent. I am reminded of some of the goons in the audience at the Felt Forum concert. Apart from the fist fights and the ticket and seat ripoffs, I sat in front of one Neanderthal who kept shouting at the top of his lungs: "Hey Frank, fuck 'em Frank, fuckin Frank, fuck Frank, fuck that shit Frank," and so on. He was one of the more subtle members of the audience, and kept it up until I gently asked him to shut the fuck up.
At what point does a performer take responsibility for the kind of audience he attracts? During his British tour, some demented individual knocked him off the stage and into an orchestra pit, breaking his legs, ribs, chin, putting a hole in his head and twisting his neck. He was a year convalescing, during which time he got a 20-piece group together and produced 4 albums (think of the "stars" who can barely get it together to produce one album a year). Perhaps Zappa's audience is so wild because its members are pissed off that they don't understand what he's trying to do.
"Everything we play sounds like it was all written out beforehand. But it's not. There is a tremendous amount of ESP between band members. We all get off on each other, and it shows in the way that we play and mesh together. As a result, each one of the shows is different, so I tape them and listen to them afterwards, learning. What I hear amazes me."
My feeling is that Zappa has a love-hate thing going with his audience. For all their ignorance they do inspire him, perhaps in a way he might not realize. Even if you do clap at the wrong times, miss the little musical riffs and caricatures to another era, let the double entendres float right by you, are unaware of the sociological, scatalogical and biological meanings inherent in the lyrics (which you can't hear anyway and maybe it doesn't make any difference if you can't hear them because you're hearing them on a different level), aren't up on the cultural and political criticisms intended, at least you're a warm body who means well (or could mean well under the right circumstances), and that counts for something.
"Another thing that amazes me. There's not one music hall, auditorium, concert hall, or what have you, that's built to hear rock and roll. And yet most of them would have folded long ago if it weren't for rock concerts. A good P.A. system is vital to hearing a rock concert. This means you've got to reproduce your l and h frequencies without echo, you've got to minimize reverberation and keep frequency response as flat as possible. Concert halls are built on the opposite principle."
L and H frequencies?
What's all this talk about l and h frequencies?
Where's that zany, irrepressible Frank Zappa we all know and love so well? Where's the man who hugged Arlene Francis on TV causing her to look as if she had just developed a case of instant hemorrhoids? Where's the man whose press kit shows him sitting on the crapper ordering some peach melba? Where's Frank Zappa, star of stage, screen and Archie Comics, purveyor of adulterated filth, outrager of suburban columnists, swan-diver off British concert hall stages, burner of casinos, Stravinsky to the Fifties, movie mogul, pornographic film maker, teen age idol, Frog Hollow Day Camp t-shirt wearer, DiscReet recorder, winner of Downbeat's Pop Musician of the Year, friend and confidant of Zubin Mehta, world traveler and all-around weenie burner?
Frank Zappa, you asparagus!
I challenge you to a carrot duel, right now, the winner to digest on the spot two hundred pounds of fried Brussel Sprouts.
Where is Suzy Creamcheese? Where is Captain Beefheart?
I expected to see them in the bathroom, performing some anatomically impossible act.
Where is Uncle Billy and the Secret Studfarm Dingus? Where indeed?
Where is Tom Mix's horse, and why does Frank wear dirty gym shoes onstage?
These, and thousands of other questions gnaw at my gut, burning a hole in the carpet, and the man who sits before me is masquerading as Frank Zappa, done up in wax face. In reality it is Leonard Bernstein talking about tonality in a way that astounds, perplexes, confuddles the ordinary mind.
"I like the work of Edgar Varèse. I liked him ever since I was fifteen. All my friends thought I was nuts. I was the only one who liked him."
I wanted to ask him about the famous Sears Poncho.
"I like the Rites of Spring, Bartok, Lightnin' Slim, Willie Mae Thornton, Chick Corea."
And, I might have added, William Burroughs, Genet, Ionesco, Thomas Pynchon, Pinter, and Gunter Grass.
"Zappa? Sure, that's my real name. My father taught gambling. I'm part Greek, Italian, Arab, French."
And what if his name were Zimmermann? And his father taught dental hygiene and he was part Irish, Russian, Finnish and Serbo-Croatian, and would it make any real difference?
"If money were no object? I'd have one hundred people in the band. I'd have tons of equipment, dozens of consoles, walls of consoles."
The ideal being to give everyone in the audience an instrument, plug him or her into the console, and wail like a mother. "You see, when we first came out we were called the Mothers. But MGM refused to release a group called the Mothers. Thought we'd be stepping on someone's toes. I suggested Motherfuckers, but they thumbs downed that one, so we ended up with the Mothers of Invention. Of course everybody shortened it to The Mothers, so in the end it really didn't make any difference. "
But what now Frank?
It was a question I didn't ask, but wanted to.
Where do you go from here? Where does the man who is probably the most serious, complex, and perhaps respected Rock musician around do for an encore? Is there any danger that Frank Zappa will become a parody of Frank Zappa? When all the musical jokes and fifties parodies and satirical asides run thin, when the insane jokes and comedy routines look pale, what then?
As we shook hands, and departed, I couldn't help but marvel at the man. Torn by no doubts, wracked by no personal demons (he lacks the self-destruct button other musicians sometimes have), Zappa is the ideal creative energy. His capacity for work is prodigious, his talent enormous, his ability to get performed what he wants unparalleled (what other rock musician can match him in output?). And yet where is the doubt, the angst, the suffering, the cataclysmic wrench that we are told attends many artists and forces them to change directions in the middle of their careers?
Then again, like Frank might say, maybe all that kind of talk is just bullshit.
2. This interview happened probably about November 17, 1974, when Zappa had a concert in Philadelphia.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net