Mother Superior

Frank Zappa, the man they love to hate, interviewed by Penny Valentine

Disc And Music Echo, 7 June 1969

MEETING Frank Zappa is like colliding with the Colossus of Rhodes. You aren't quite sure what it is – never having met anything like it before – and yet you can't ignore it.

This man is a giant force, strong, fearless and a series of total contradictions.

He is free with his speech, and on stage he and the Mothers of Invention do anything they want to do. This leads to playing free-form music often verging on classic, leaping about shouting, dressing up, falling out of bed and often burping into the mike.

And yet it upsets him when accusations of "obscenity" are hurled at the group.

He is patient beyond the call of duty – and yet intolerant with people because they don't really understand music.

He finds himself today in the awkwad position of being held up as a kind of Messiah by the young. They read into his lyrics all kinds of things that don't exist, he says. They don't actually LISTEN to what the group are doing, and think he is going to spearhead The Revolution – against the conformity set up by parents and government.

* * *

He is fearfully intelligent, thin, likes talking and is okay when he smiles. Frank Zappa – who is 28 – doesn't quite look as though he's been put together properly and yet inside his head his brain is constantly ticking away and you wonder if he ever sleeps at all.

He chain smokes all day, drinks tea and likes sweet biscuits.

Zappa's actual message is simple. To beat the "system" which advocates one car, one TV set, washing machine, "don't enjoy sex", do what the government says, fight in Vietnam if you're told to, don't encourage change. The system IS America and world wide – and to beat it you must infiltrate.

You don't, he says, go about starting riots, bashing policeman and gererally being aggressive. And you certainly don't expect things to happen tomorrow. It angered him this week in London to meet students who thought of it all as a case of "We'll make a lot of noise and everyone will give up."

Zappa is infiltrating very nicely. And because of this he gives the impression of a man who will wait to achieve what he wants to.

Being a shrewd man from middle-class, Sicilian parents (who have one car, one TV set), reared in the confines of a product-minded advertising firm, Zappa knows how to win. Which is why he's a winner.

You feel that whatever he does he will eventually succeed and it is probably this fact that makes people sit in awe of him.

"I own two suits," he says somewhat surprisingly for a man whose long hair is tied behind with ribbon and whose usual clothes are a sweet shirt and jeans.

"I put them on when I go into my office and work on business deals. There's no sense in robbing myself in people's faces, they'd never deal with me. So i prove I can play their game too."

He has a straight business partner who helps control Zappa's interests in both the group, music and record production. He has 15 people working in his office, and goes there twice a week.

 The rest of the time is split up – four days a week rehearsing with the Mothers for five hours a day, and the rest of the time spent editing his tapes.

He writes 90 per cent of all the Mothers material and has been able to actually write music – in sheet form, no mean achievement – since he was 14. Even now his room is littered with pieces of unfinished work.

He has non-conformist attitude to work, naturally. Sometimes he'll put people inside a piano for days at a time, recording what they say.

"One of the group's greatest failings," he says, "is that nobody really is interested in our music. They read all kinds of things into the lyrics – making them more important than they really are. They think they're poetry – and draw a blank. Or prophecy – which is a hideous thought. Or pure entertainment – which is wrong again."

He doesn't explain what they actually mean.

But he does say that the music is a kind of parent substitute for the Mothers admirers. "They're mostly boys between 14 and 25," he says with the knowledge of a man who has just conducted a sweeping survey on the thing. "All unhappy, from middle class homes, and not on the same wavelength as their parents."

Apart from music, which is his greatest concern (the Mothers may split up soon because their music is getting so complicated nobody understands it so the group will stop being a commercial proposition. "And after all a lot of the group have families and responsibility, they can't afford it"), his interests are politics and the young.

"There was a time when I wanted to go into politics. But the more people I meet the less I think I could cope."

His ideal state, he says, would be a world full of tolerant people who would live their lives the way they wanted and leave everyone else to do the same. If someone wanted to be a garbage collector good luck to them because they'd keep the economy going.

He sees THIS state of affairs coming about in around 10,000 years time.

"Meanwhile everyone's got to learn to be tolerant. You know some kids are less tolerant than the very people they're baulking against. They scare me, if they get their power they won't know how the hell to use it.

My own father is 60 and I always thought he was the most inflexible person I'd ever met. We've hardly had any communication in the past three years, but he's become more tolerant.

"Older people resent change because they think it means they've got to live a different life and they don't want to. Kids have got to assure them that they don't want to actually take anything away from them – their cars, TV sets or anything.

* * *

"Who wants a TV set the way things are now anyway? Older people's just like to identify with the people on the screen. They put out some – show about a family and your mother sits there thinking 'Am I like that mother – am I a good mother?'. They love it. Then the companies realised that the Negroes in the ghettos were getting TV sets so they sprinkled around a few Negro actors to keep everyone happy – "Oh yes we'll have a Negro spy, or a Negro housewife," they say.

"The main thing is it'll all be okay when parents don't fear youth. So all this sabre rattling has got to stop.

"You can't win if you rush up to people yelling "You can't mess with us – we're the youth of the world"!