Frank Zappa: he observes our extremes, absurdities

By Geoffrey Cannon

The Guardian, Manchester, UK, August ?? 1970 [1]

Frank Zappa is the leader of the Mothers of Invention, notorious in America and celebrated in Europe as the quintessence of grotesque rock music. Zappa was the first musician to make a double album with a continuous theme (before the Beatles and Dylan) in "Freak Out," recorded in 1965. His new work, "200 Motels," was rehearsed recently in Los Angeles with Zubin Mehta.

I talked with Zappa on several occasions in the past two years. It is clear to me that he is a precise observer of the extreme and absurd experiences to be had in America.

"What's the most absurd thing that ever happened to me? Oh, definitely when I was busted, for 'conspiracy to commit pornography and lewd and lascivious conduct.' You never heard that story?" And, with an eye gleaming at the memory, he tells it. He's story, as he tells it, it is also an account of the music he has with the Mothers of Invention in the past five years.

Someone once said that the best analysis of civilization is in its dustbins. An archaeologist, probably, since that's where archaeologists work. So does Frank Zappa. But he doesn't need to go round to America's back yard to find the bins. They're stacked up everywhere. And, in 1963, 22 years old in Cucamonga, Calif., Zappa was, in effect, sitting in a dustbin.

Cucamonga consisted of a garage, a hardware store, a liquor store, a bank, a cafe, a grade school, a holy roller church, and Paul Buff's recording studio at 8040 Archibald Avenue. Paul had built a five-track tape deck, revolutionary in those days, and had gone broke. Frank had $1,500 from a film, and bought Paul out.

He also had bought some film sets from F. K. Rockette Studios on Sunset Boulevard, which had become bankrupt: $5,000 worth for $50. They were 12 feet high, so big that everyone thought they could not be moved.

Frank dragged them to Cucamonga. "To the people who lived in that town it must have been like a Martian had arrived," says Frank. Sardonic chuckle. Work began on the only film that could be made, logistically, using the crazy sets: "Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People." (Take my word for the logic: the complete explanation takes 30 minutes to tell.) So Frank Zappa became the movie king of Cucamonga.

He had unlimited recording time, with his own studio, but no money. For nine months he ate a diet of peanut butter, instant mashed potato, coffee and honey. "I was definitely in a chemically altered state," says Frank. The potatoes and coffee were stolen from a blood bank van which was passing through. (Blood bank van? "Yeah," says Frank.)

Desperate for money, Frank formed a trio: guitar, bass and drums, ("Y'know, like the Cream," says Frank). They played blues, mostly, and got a regular date at a club in a nearby town. This was grape-picking country. "Picture the scene," says Frank. "We were playin' 'In the midnight hour' to an audience of Mexican laborers, entertained by four go-go dancers in black net stockings," and watched by a policeman, on Saturdays – two policemen, watching for Mexican trouble.

One day, a policeman in duty at the club made a sincere request. Would Frank be interested in making training films for the San Bernardino Vice Squad? As it happened, Frank and 80 hours of tape recordings of assorted friends, freaks, tradesmen, local officials and girl friends, and he reckoned that these tapes with filmed actors could really show the police trainees the people they would deal with as people. He played him some tapes.

Another man turned up at Archibald Avenue. He said he wanted some "hot tapes" for a party of used car salesmen. Could Zappa help for $100? Sure, said Frank, why not? So he went into the studio with a girl friend and they grunted and groaned into a microphone and then Zappa edited out the laughs.

The man turned up again, had Frank got the tape? Yes, said Zappa. And photographers and policemen crowded into the studio: "Hands up against the wall," etc. One policeman broadcast the proceedings through a wrist radio to a van outside like Dick Tracy. Frank was led out, handcuffed. Awaiting trial in jail, Frank was visited by a bail bond man, who told him that he could spend up to 20 years in a mental institution. "That made me feel pretty sad," says Frank.

It turned out that the bond man had got the penal code number of the charge wrong: "Lewd and lascivious conduct" is one decimal point away from "rape of a child under 14." This emerged later. Eventually, Frank was given three years' probation, on the condition being that he could not be with an unmarried girl under 21 except in the presence of a "competent adult." And that is how Frank Zappa, as a convicted felon, missed the draft.

Seven years pass, and the scene changes to the Hilton, Rome. Frank is reading "The Confessions of Aleister Crowley." I open the book at page 223. Crowley writes: "California got on my nerves. Life in all its forms grew rank and gross... For some time I had been contemplating a lyric poem in which everything in the world should be celebrated in detail." That's pretty close to Zappa's intention with his new work, "200 Motels."

He went over it, playing his red Gibson electric guitar. It's a documentary on the life of the rock 'n' roll star traveling from concert to concert and country to country, encapsulated like a tape cassette to be plugged into the recorder of the auditorium. The life is a speeded-up version of that of a traveling businessman: car, event, car, hotel, room-service, car, plane.

     "It's just another
          Sealed tuna sandwich
     In the rack
          On your way
     To gate 46 E."

The town is a tuna sandwich. The goal is a room with wall-mounted television.

"200 Motels" includes, in its full setting, a chorus of 48 and an orchestra; a narrator, a soprano soloist, 11 dancers, four mimes; and a dwarf ( or "an extremely convincing doll").

Its music will amplify the theme of each song, rather than contrast with it. For example, "What the Road Ladies Do to You" is played as a slow blues shuffle. "It's got to sound like John Mayall," says Frank, breaking up in laughter as he sings:

     "Don't et ever get sad when you
          Go on a 30 day tour
     Get nothin' but promoters and
          Groupies to love you
     And a pile of laundry by the
          Hotel door"

Aren't promoters concerned about some of the songs wich are rather – uh – strong? "No," says Frank. As long as they're enclosed in "art," there can't be any problems. Anyway, there's a 48-piece chorus and orchestra playing. "Of course it's artistic, whaddya mean?" and Frank gives a very large grin.

1. The article by Geoffrey Cannon was published in some local US newspapers in August 1970 under different titles. This OCR here is from Charleston Gazette, August 15.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)