Frank: Fearless and still fighting
By Alex Kershaw
The Guardian Weekend, May 15, 1993
At 53, Frank Zappa is still an outlaw battling with the ornery guys who run the rock business, organised religion and 'the system'. Now, though, he is in the middle of a personal life-and-death fight. He has cancer. ALEX KERSHAW visited the father of The Mothers in his Laurel Canyon home, where he had just finished mixing his latest album
HIS APPEARANCE was the first thing that left me confused. In fact speechless. That morning, faintest hint of breeze had blown holes in the hot Los Angeles smog. But Frank Zappa wore a coat draped round him as he sat alone in his sound-proof recording studio. In a green checked shirt, with a standing ashtray at his shoulder, he looked so frail and thin, his trademark "imperial" moustache buried beneath a grey beard. All his life, Frank Zappa has battled against cant, hypocrisy, censorship, record company executives and social injustice. While much of his music may remain on the fringe, his voice has had an influence, despite its radical non-conformism, on several generations. But now, at 52, the man who put the sneer into rock is losing his last and toughest battle. Frank Zappa is dying of cancer.
The Zappa home in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills is a mock-Tudor maze of sunlit rooms, its garden a blaze of early summer flora. Frank Zappa's wife and manager, Gail, ushered me into his state-of-the-art recording studio. A poster of Ronald Reagan as Adolf Hitler covered a door. The Synclavier – the computer on which Zappa has composed his forthcoming album, The Yellow Shark – dominated the room.
I'd come to Los Angeles, not to write an obituary, but to celebrate a legend. I'd been told Zappa is the most exotic figure in modern music, a guitar guru whose music isn't half as interesting as the man himself.
Hadn't he once eaten his own faeces on stage? Didn't he trip through the Sixties and early Seventies on acid? What kind of man lay behind such classics as Freak Out, Sheik Yerbouti, Hot Rats and Jazz From Hell? Just how weird is Frank Zappa, anyway?
At first, as he dragged on a Marlboro, we talked about The Yellow Shark and an album of ballet music he's currently mixing. His prostate cancer may have spread to his bones, but Frank Zappa's passion for his music appeared undimmed His sense of urgency was, however, unmistakable. Over a second cigarette, we moved on to the Rodney King civil rights trial ("They got off lucky"); television's numbing of the American mind ("You're a college graduate if you've got an attention span of fifteen seconds"); and America's talent for throwing up religious cult groups. All the time, I was searching for clues to the real Zappa.
ON PAPER, Francis Vincent Zappa Jr II has a uniquely eccentric CV. Although his song, I Come From Nowhere, suggests a rootless ancestry, Zappa was, in fact, born in Baltimore in 1940 to second generation Sicilian Greeks. In the Seventies, fans assumed his song, Mr Green Genes from the album Hot Rats, was about his father, a character on a TV show called Captain Kangaroo. Actually, he's the son of a meteorologist who researched poison gases for the US military.
Zappa's was a peripatetic, Catholic, small-town childhood in which the roots of his future absurdity are, however, perhaps visible today. Indeed, the Eisenhower boom years were fertile ground for absurdists like Zappa who burst through the top-soil in the Sixties.
In the mid-Fifties, the Zappa family finally settled in Lancaster, a stifling, picket-fenced desert community near Edwards Airforce Base in California. Gas masks hung on a wall of the Zappa home in case of an accident with the chemical weapons his father studied.
At high-school, Zappa bashed drums in a marching band. But while his buddies jived to Elvis, he listened to "dissonant" composers such as Edgard Varese and Anton Webern. He also befriended Don Van Vliet, later reincarnated as the legendary Captain Beefheart.
Match-box psychologists have cited Zappa's Catholic upbringing as key to his character. "I'm a devout pagan," smiles Zappa when I ask if he's still an atheist. "I detest religion for what it has done for the human species ... The difference between religions and cults is determined by how much real estate is owned ... Look, how many people died as a result of the Bible compared to the Kama Sutra? There's no competition."
Zappa had already formed his first band, The Black-Outs, so named after band-members passed out on peppermint schnapps, when he dropped out of high school. He then married a local girl, worked for Nile Running Greeting Cards for a few months, filed for divorce and moved into a recording studio, Studio Z, in nearby Cucamonga. So began a "life of obsessive overdubbage, twelve hours a day".
In 1965, Zappa formed the Mothers, later renamed the Mothers of Invention. "We were all ugly guys with weird clothes and long hair: just what the entertainment world needed," he has said. "Fuck all those beautiful groups." As the frontman of the wackiest experimental group to surface in the Sixties, Zappa incited furor in middle America: priests denounced him from their pulpits and radio stations banned his music. Today, little has changed. Virtually ignored at home, Frank Zappa remains the seminal cult figure outside the US.
That cult status rests on Zappa's gift for lampooning America and its favourite images as much as his musical ingenuity. Indeed, few have understood or dissected America's psyche as well as Frank Zappa. His die-hard fans still cherish the poster he once distributed of himself, reclining naked on the toilet, called "Phi Zappa Krappa".
As early as 1967, Zappa was brazenly smashing icons, daring to send up the Beatles and Rolling Stones on the album, We're Only In It For The Money, an attack on the entire hippie ethos which even featured a spoof Sergeant Pepper sleeve. Since then, few have escaped his acerbic wit. "I'm pretty funny in my native language," he says.
While less than 10 per cent of Zappa's 1,200 songs could be called salacious, his scatological rants have earnt him the most notoriety. Feminists were incensed over his ditty, Titties and Beer; parents mortified by such lyrics as "Watch out where the huskies go/ and don't you eat that yellow snow." Zappa even managed to offend the gay rights movement with He's So Gay. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League demanded an apology for Jewish Princess – "With overworked gums, she squeaks when she comes". Zappa refused. His "insensitivity", he once said, has been "evenly spread around".
"I try not to be correct," says Zappa when I ask what he thinks of political correctness. "It's just another manifestation of cowardice – when you're afraid to say what's on your mind. It's not even the language of niceness. Some of it's pretty obscure."
Freakish the Mothers may have been, but to discerning critics Zappa's outpourings had genuine rhyme and reason. The recording of the Mothers' first album, Freak Out, for $21,000 in 1965, remains a defining moment in rock history. Simultaneously introducing the concept-album and first double rock-n-roll LP, Freak-Out even inspired the Beatles' thematically unified Sergeant Pepper.
Some may have praised the Mothers. They were, however, more often than not written off as belonging to some lumpen "psychedelic movement". Counter culture figurehead Zappa may have been, but he certainly never saw himself as the mouthpiece of psychedelia, nor as a hippie. Despite regarding cigarettes as food, he has always railed against drugs.
"My metabolism," Zappa has said, "is pepper, cigarettes and coffee ... I've only smoked 10 joints in my life and they gave me a sore throat." The myth persists, however, that he spent the Sixties in an acid haze.
Another fallacy, whose source he ascribes to "governmental disinformation", concerns a "gross-out" competition he allegedly had with Alice Cooper on stage. Legend has it Cooper stomped on live baby chicks and Zappa responded by wolfing down a plate of faeces with a plastic spoon.
"For the records, folks: I never took a shit on stage," Zappa has written. "The closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973."
His tolerance for groupies and "glandular" activities were, by contrast, far from mythical. He may have declined the services of Cynthia Plaster-Caster, a groupie who collected trophies of rock-stars' penises, but Zappa is still applauded for defending groupies as "a persecuted minority." In 1974, Zappa even planned to publish selected diaries under the working title, The Groupie Papers. His autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, features a rib-splitting discussion with groupie Laurel Fishman about the assorted objects she used as dildo substitutes.
Groupies were not just disposable sex aids. "To me, groupies are girls you meet on the road," Zappa has said. "Some are nice, some are nasty, some have a sense of humour, some have none, some are smart and some are dumb. They're just people."
Zappa even married one: Adelaide Gail Sloatman, "a fascinating little vixen". Ostensibly a secretary at the Whisky A-Go- Go club in Los Angeles, when Sloatman met her future husband, he had "every social disease I think that's possible." Or so she told Victoria Balfour, author of Rock Wives. "He was infested and so was his hair. He hadn't taken a bath for months."
The couple were wed in New York's City Hall in 1967, a few days before Zappa left on his first European tour. Asked to produce a wedding ring, Frank pinned a ball-point pen to nine-month-pregnant Gail's maternity dress.
ACCORDING to Rolling Stone, "Zappa's erasure of the lines between high and pop art, premiered with his first band, the Mothers of Invention, remains one of the emancipatory gestures of the Sixties." As an icon of the Sixties, how does he now look back on the drop-out decade?
"I had a few laughs," sighs Zappa. "But I don't know why you describe me as an icon of the Sixties. I wasn't really in phase with the Sixties. What people did in the Sixties was take a bunch of drugs and go around sticking flowers on everything. I didn't do that – I made fun of it. What I saw during the Sixties was rather pitiful. It was the whole idea: turn on, tune in, drop out ... Pooooh.
"The sad thing about the Sixties was the weak-mindedness of the so-called radicals and the way that they managed to get co-opted. I think one of the things that helped that happen was LSD. It's the only chemical known to mankind that will convert a hippie into a yuppie."
I HAD NOT expected Zappa to slam the Sixties so mercilessly. I'd wanted him to rhapsodise about a decade when, my parents insist, idealism did forge progress, did change the world. At least, way back then, the air was heady with marijuana and optimism?
"The only way you're going to engender optimism today is through irrational means," says Zappa. "A rational person is not going to be optimistic right now ... If you can saturate the Guardian with the right pheromone combination, all your readers could be mutated into wonderful people overnight ... You could say you came here and I gave you a vial of the stuff to mix with pulp. Because I'm so weird, I have stuff like that sitting around the house."
He seems as cynical as ever. "Do you see any reason for hope in America, for progress?"
"No. I don't know whether at this stage of human development we can afford anything called hope. There is too much to come to terms with on a daily basis."
"Can't we at least put faith in humanism – what you've been pretty good at all these years?"
"You can wish for humanism but that doesn't make it happen," says Zappa. "You can sit down and write a prescription for a utopia but then what the hell? What? You can't legislate humanism. You can't make people be nice to each other. You can't even hardly trick them into it. They'll do it voluntarily if you take the pressure off them but that costs money. And who's got the money? People who don't give a damn. How can you hope? You're naive if you hope."
APART from first introducing humour into rock, Zappa pioneered the concept that it could be as structurally and harmonically profound as classical music. And it was in the classical direction – towards "exploring the world of very complicated overdubs and composition" – that he headed when he disbanded the Mothers in 1969.
That exploration has since placed Zappa alongside the avant-garde in jazz and classical music. Lionised in "serious" circles, even mentioned in the same breath as Philip Glass, Zappa is currently re-releasing his life work, some 60 albums, on CD. Indeed, over 30 years, he has amassed what the Guinness Encyclopaedia of Popular Music describes as "a towering body of work that is probably rock music's equivalent of the legacy of Duke Ellington.
"High praise indeed. But Zappa's legacy, particularly his more recent compositions, has seldom been heard in the US. That in itself is not surprising: Zappa agrees that "no one cares about composers in America". But even some highbrow critics in Europe, while praising his inventiveness, have said "so what? It's far too dissonant."
I tuned in to The Yellow Shark over several balmy days in Los Angeles. Eventually, there were moments when its dense orchestration did inspire, when, amid baffling complexity, real sense emerged. His music may disdain melody but it challenges. Frank Zappa has always, after all, been an experimental artist. Who else has successfully made the transition from Radio One to Three?
Some say Zappa has always been a beat ahead of his peers. Since the mid-Seventies, in fact, the guitar genius behind Why Does It Hurt When I Pee and My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama has worked with several of the world's leading orchestras. In 1987, he won a Grammy for Jazz From Hell on which all but one composition was scored on a computer. He has not toured since the Zappa band broke up acrimoniously in 1988.
The Eighties also saw Zappa leave his mark on the political stage. But not as a radical whose worldview was set in stone in the Sixties. He describes himself instead as a "practical conservative". Indeed, at root, while Zappa's views are an exhilarating damnation of Republicanism, they are also an espousal of libertarianism, a creed hijacked by the right in America in the Eighties.
"I have a very low tolerance for hypocrisy," says Zappa. "Hypocrisy is the not the special province of any one party or movement. It seems to be rampant everywhere. The Republicans represent pure unbridled evil and the Democrats wish they were Republicans. Up until this election, they hadn't proved they had the mechanical skills to execute the kind of trickery that make the Republicans what they are."
A convert to "small government and low taxes", Zappa has put his money where his mouth is. At great expense, he has campaigned noisily against censorship and for voter registration and abortion rights. And, despite his last tour (timed to coincide with the 1988 election) losing him $400,000, only illness prevented him from running for President in 1991.
Zappa's allergy to censorship may date to his convict days. While at Studio Z in Cucamonga, he was asked to make a special tape recording" for a stag night. He and a girlfriend faked a sex tape, edited out the giggling, and were then busted when their customer turned out to be a plain clothes detective from the local vice squad. Convicted of conspiracy to commit pornography, Zappa spent 10 days behind bars.
In October 1985, Zappa made a now oft cited statement before a Senate Commerce Committee called to consider the proposal of the Parents' Music Resource Center, that records should be rated according to content. Eloquent as ever, Zappa famously dismissed PMRC's founders, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, the wife of James Baker, as "bored Washington housewives." The quip was not forgotten.
Since laying down his first tracks for MGM, Zappa has also fought for artistic autonomy. (His song, Brown Shoes Don't Make It, is a searing, vinyl attack on the suits who "screwed" him.) By 1984, he had fought two giants, CBS and Warner. His current label, Zappa Records, a joint venture with the London-based company Music For Nations, is the first he has not sued.
Much as he despises yuppies, Zappa knows how to collect greenbacks and can produce business plans with the best of them. An unrepentant capitalist, he has hosted a talk show for the Financial News Network and in 1989, he founded Why Not?, an international "licensing, consulting and social engineering company". One of its first clients was the Czechoslovak government.
Having once cited Zappa as the greatest influence on his life, Vaclav Havel was so taken with Zappa on their first meeting in 1990 that he made him ambassador on trade, culture and tourism. It was a popular appointment in Prague: throughout the Seventies, Zappa had topped the samizdat charts in the Eastern Bloc; his song, Plastic People, is still viewed as Charter 77's anthem. "Havel's first words were smoke too'," recalls Zappa. "He's a guy who walks it like he talks it – one of the real guys.
ZAPPA'S plans to help Czechoslovakia attract hard currency were, however, scuppered by James Baker when, still smarting from Zappa's attacks on his "bored housewife", he instructed Havel that he could either do business with Zappa or the US.
There have been other, bitter disappointments. "The Velvet Revolution struck fear into the right wing around the world," says Zappa. "They knew that if the artists were allowed to get away with it, they would all be in deep shit. But the artists turned out to be what artists generally turn out to be: incapable of governing themselves.
"The saddest thing for me," adds Zappa, "was when I saw Havel make a state visit to Moscow. He had blow-dried hair and a little rouge on ... Neatly combed hair is not becoming on him. I liked it when he came out of his Oval office with his hair messed up, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and wearing a sweater and jeans."
The taming of Vaclav Havel still has the power to move Frank Zappa. Rock and roll does not. "Oh I'll flip through MTV once in a while and smell it," says Zappa flippantly. "But everything seems to be recycled. I've lived long enough to see them recycle the Sixties, the Seventies. In 20 minutes, they'll be recycling the Nineties ... To get that good piece of music through the industrial pipeline there's a whole world of pay-offs and blow-jobs and drug-deals which has nothing to do with music." Frank Zappa blinks briefly in pain. For a few seconds, we sit in silence. He'd like to eat some pasta soon. I light another cigarette and, clumsily, suggest that, far from being weird, he is unnervingly sane.
"There are a lot of people who would like people to believe that I am weird because what I do say does make sense," says Zappa. "People have said 'Don't listen to him because he's crazy' and I guess for 30 years it has worked because you're still thinking I'm weird. Look, I'm eccentric, there's no question about that – I'll admit it. But then again so are most people who live on your island."
Frank Zappa's experiences on the island he once called a Third World country have been less than endearing. There was the incident at London's Rainbow theatre in 1971, in which Zappa was attacked on stage and knocked into the orchestra pit. So bad were his injuries – the fall broke several bones and crushed his larynx – he spent a month in Harley Street Clinic under a 24-hour-guard.
Also in 1971, Zappa devised a film, 200 Motels – his Heaven's Gate – which was to be extended as a stage show at the Royal Albert Hall with Ringo Starr and the Who's Keith Moon joining him on stage. The Royal Albert Hall cancelled the concert at the last minute on the grounds of obscenity. When the resulting action brought by Zappa for breach of contract came to court, the hilarious proceedings included Zappa being asked to explain "groupies" to an Old Bailey judge.
Zappa still regards Britain as a Third World country: "As long as you adhere to the idea that the monarchy is a necessity and everything is going to spring from some sort of regal perspective, you get to be subjects instead of citizens. Until you change yourself from subjects to citizens you are going to be eating shit, aren't you? Get back to your pagan roots. The Celts were fantastic. Bring them back! Now there you have a cult group."
HER FAMILY, Gail Zappa told me, have lived in Laurel Canyon since 1968. With Dogus, a 12-year-old black labrador lounging at her feet, she talked about meeting the Krays in the Sixties, about how green England was, how beautiful the gardens still are. They got rid of the pine that used to cover that wall over there, she sighed, years ago. "Frank's very conservative," she said wistfully. "He grew up in the Fifties. He loved all and his children as his work that Frank Zappa draws his last strength. His sons and daughters now spend as much time as possible in Laurel Canyon. Moon Unit, 25, who was the voice of the spoilt Valley Girl in Zappa's 1982 hit song, lives a short drive away. Dweezil, 23, an accomplished musician in his own right; Ahmet, 18, also carrying on the Zappa musical tradition; and Diva, 13, all still live at home. It was Dweezil and Moon who announced their father's prostate cancer in November 1991.
THEIR names may suggest otherwise, but the Zappa offspring are remarkably well-balanced and remain unscathed, unlike many of their Hollywood peers, by psychotherapy, plastic surgery and cocaine. They don't even smoke. Indeed, Mr and Mrs Dan Quayle should visit the Zappa home. Its rambling, white-washed rooms radiate warmth, intimacy and – dare I say it – sanity.
"We did it our way," Zappa says when I ask about his children. "I recommend it … Dweezil, who has this reputation of being a ladies' man, a playboy and all this stuff, is absolutely not. He spends most of his time at home in the kitchen and watches cooking shows on television. We discuss them. He's a master Italian chef, a workaholic. I've had to tell him to slack off a little bit because I see him coming in some times and he looks really beat."
Is there any point, I wonder, in trying to sum up Frank Zappa? Does the label "iconoclast" suit him? "The CIA do summaries," says Zappa. "But the iconoclast label fits a little bit because an iconoclast is a person who goes around smashing religious images. If I only were, then I'd be happy."
Finally, I ask obliquely about his cancer by reading out something he once said: "Instead of being overwhelmed by a negative event, dodge to the side like those T'ai Chi guys and let it whizz by your pants. Maybe it makes a little breeze – big deal." Has this philosophy helped? "Sometimes," says Zappa. "But sometimes it's pretty hard to step aside." "Have you thought of stopping work?" "What would I do? Play golf?"
UPSTAIRS, in a chaotic kitchen, Dweezil Zappa is cooking up vegetarian pasta. Down in the basement, the real Frank Zappa finally stands up, simply a man racked with pain, awash with drugs, and slowly climbs up stone steps leading to the kitchen, his fingers gripping the brick wall as if he were clinging to life itself. The Mothers, politics, the Sixties, the myths – none seems to matter now.
While Zappa eats with his family, I sit in a basement office staring at a life in music, at rows of master-tapes stacked neatly on walls. After half an hour or so, Dweezil joins me. At 13, he released his first track, My Mother Is A Space Cadet. Now the Zappa inheritance looks to weigh heavy. "With my kind of heritage, I have no option but not to compromise," he says as we discuss his and Ahmet's latest album, Shampoo Horn. Later, back in the kitchen, as Dweezil accompanied a medley of Seventies rock classics on air guitar, I struggled to smile. It was not just his father's pain that left me numb. I'd known Frank Zappa for just a short while and, already, I felt robbed. Somehow, I'd not even managed to say "goodbye". His answers to the big questions had smacked only of truth. If only his peers had been so "weird". Perhaps then we could all afford that luxury called hope.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net