Frank and his law suit – he wears it well

By Mike Flood Page

Sounds, April 26, 1975

Our man in and out of court Mike Flood Page

There are three or four great interviews in rock and roll. Lennon obviously, Pete Townshend certainly, one or two others. Zappa is one. A master of outrage from the moment 'Freak Out' had mothers (the other kind) locking up their daughters, and record companies wondering if there might not be a fast buck in all that nonsense somewhere.

If you thought the Stones or the Pretty Things gave long hair a bad name, then the Mothers were gonna convince you. Why even their pictures smelt bad.

Last week Frank Zappa was in London, to appear as witness in a case for damages he is bringing against the Royal Albert Hall, to afford a preview of his new album 'One Size Fits All', and to talk to the press. Who could resist it?

But first, before we get to the bit about how Captain Beefheart has teamed up with Zappa again, or the weird and wonderful story of the Groupie Papers, or any of that, let's go to court:

This would be bloody funny if the implications weren't so tragic. By a door in a gloomy stone corridor in a cavernous mock-gothic cathedral of a place on the Strand, a notice baldly announces: Queen's Bench Division. Court 7. Before Mr Justice Mocatta. At half past 10. Non Jury list. 74/NJ/911 Bizarre Productions Inc. v. Corporation of the Hall of Arts & Sciences and ors pt Ind.

 Opposite the notice sits what the legal circles call the plaintiff: Francis Vincent Zappa, For once in his life he is wearing a suit, of a pronounced brown check. He has a pale long-collar American shirt and is uneasily trying to loosen the tie at his neck. Beside him his manager Herb Cohen, also besuited, eyes us with envy and wants to know why everyone doesn't have to suffer a tie. Frank concurs: “Everyone's neck should hurt.”

It is the third day of the case. In the blue corner and coming on strong with a case for damages for his cancelled gig at the Albert Hall on February 8, 1971 designed to showcase '200 Motels'; smiling Frank Zappa! In the red corner with some deft manouevres of defence: Mr R. Albert Hall! We are waiting for the day's tedium to begin.

Many times in the past ten years or so, I have had the dubious pleasure of witnessing the infinitely slow spirit of British Justice work its way through a case. Every time I have been struck most forcibly by the seemingly unbridgeable gap between those whose home is the court and its surreal Alice-In-Wonderland rituals, and those real people who, for want of a better word, we shall call its victims. No matter that on this rare occasion Frank Zappa was bringing the case against some other party, instead of being the victim.

Once the rarified and musty atmosphere of the legal profession got stuck in it was hard to tell. Frank first took the witness stand on Tuesday, the scene could not have afforded a more outrageous contrast: Francis Vincent, famed for his satirical and iconoclastic career was patient, composed, polite and restrained, he gave his evidence lucidly, succinctly, and always stuck to the point.

The defence counsel began with cool standard questions and then began to probe Frank's lyrics for '200 Motels' which had arrived at the Royal Albert Hall in the form of excerpts from the film shooting script. Day one of the cross-examination by the defence ended with a discussion of the word 'groupie'. That set the tone for what was to follow on Wednesday.

Tuesday night Warner Brothers threw a small reception at Rags, a Mayfair Club, to let the press meet Frank and get a sneak preview of his new album 'One Size Fits All', and a solo project he is working on.

Frank buried himself in conversation with the new London Warners managing director, Derek Taylor, and tried not to look too pained as the assembled hacks got stumbling drunk, wolfed down some nifty buffet grub, talked loud and fast to each other and generally ignored his latest platter.

Asked why he put up with it, he turned to your scribe and enquired patiently: “Do I have any choice? If you had the choice between being a public person and getting your music played, or staying at home and not hearing it, what would you do?” There is no answer to that. Then unable to restrain himself he called for hush in the locality to cop a listen to a really strong passage of the kind that should send most heavy metal bands back to the drawing board.

Why had he never taken those decibel and riff merchants on on their own ground? Well he had once tried, he had a gig lined up where the Mothers would appear anonymously behind Silverhead's old singer Michael Des Barres, but Michael was so full of himself that he went and blew the story to the press, and the gig was blown out.

Would Frank like to give us an exclusive, unbiased personal review of 'One Size'? He'd be delighted: “Excellent!” That's all? “That's all”. On the case itself he could not speak, it's all subjudice, but on everything else he was easily approachable. Over the years I guess I'd built up a vision of Zappa as a real shrewd, hard character – brilliant but sarcastic, and though you'd probably always get an interesting interview out of him, you might undergo heavy psychic traumas to get it.

Not so, he's certainly smart, but he's not smart ass. He sat through the reception taking asinine questions in his stride, dealing politely and patiently with fools, and generally acting like a real handsome human being.

Next day in court, he continued in the same low-key vein. It got so Frank was the most normal thing around, what with the bewigged and begowned legal types, and the setting: a dull chapel-like room with a high ceiling, green velvet drapes, old Victorian wooden benches, and stained glass windows. Lewis Carroll would have loved it.

The defence went through the '200 Motels' lyric line by line at times, ferreting out the most blatant sexual implications while Frank tried to suggest that in almost every case you had to see the sections in the light of the overall context so that 'Lonesome Cowboy Burt' for instance is depicted as getting off on the idea of having a waitress sit on his face, because that is the kind of character Zappa set out to portray and the lines in question came from some graffiti he had seen on the wall of just the sort of bar you'd expect Cowboy Burt to hang out in.

Frank indicated where he had used irony and humour so you'd get an exchange between him and defence counsel that would go something like: “Mr Zappa, you have a song here called 'Would You Go The Whole Way'. That means: would you have sexual intercourse, does it not?” And Frank would point out that it was an archaic 1950s usage designed to generate laughter.

At one point the defence cousel admonished Frank in a schoolmasterish way: “Mr Zappa, you wrote it. What did you mean? I think you understand very well what I mean.” And a few moments later confessed to the Judge: “M'Lord, once one starts reading this sort of script,” waving a sheaf of lyrics, “one starts making errors”. he further suggested once: “Mr Zappa! Let us come into the real world for a moment!” The irony could hardly have been greater.

Slowly the court had elucidated the meaning of 'groupie', 'to score', 'hot action', 'to ball', and other exotic terms, with the aid of a Webster's slang dictionary. But by the time the defence got around to suggesting an intelligent adult would see hidden salacious meanings in the word 'newt', Zappa was moved to reply: “Only if that person had such a limited reading comprehension as to be pathetic.”

Frank summed up his attitude to the proceedings when he protested to one persistent line of enquiry: “Your attempt is to direct the meaning of all my lyrics towards sexual intercourse, which I don't think is fair or accurate.”

To an outsider the court presented a spectacle of two worlds separated by a sheet of glass so thick, that though they could maybe wave to each other, the finer points were getting misunderstood along the way.

Bizarre productions indeed! If it weren't the case that Frank stands to send good money after bad if he loses, I'd almost believe he and Herb Cohen had set it up between them. But no, this is for real. But even for laughs, my interest was wearing thin after half a day of slow torture, so I left Frank to it, and met him that evening to talk.

Frank that evening in his Dorchester suite (check that out for incongruity) was holding court, in his street threads, pink slacks and a ribbed sweater. Anyone who had come to interview him had stayed to listen to him talk, and to chip in. He takes people that way, he is not only one of the most prolific and varied composers in pop (sixteen albums of outrage satire and good music so far, three due in the next twelve months, and a nine album set in the works) but also talks a blue streak, ideas spilling out in a never-ending stream.

I caught the end of a discussion of the Mothers latest group of fans: real screaming pubescent females. Frank gets teen appeal in his tenth year of business! Even more surprising since a study he conducted in '69 showed his audience to be mainly seventeen year old white male middle class Jewish kids – with short hair! “I'm lucky to have anybody listening to me!” Quoth the prince of outrage rock and roll.

Next up was Lenny Bruce, a long standing influence on the Mothers who once played second billing to Zappa & Co. on one of his attempts to fight back after yet another bout of law-suits. As he got into a discussion of the enigmatic Captain Beefheart, I switched on the National Panasonic: This obviously wasn't going to be a straight interview, more like rolling with the flow. Three months back Beefheart, or Don Van Vliet to his intimates, an old school chum of Frank's who had been bad-mouthing Zappa for the past six years, had holed up in a trailer with his mother in his home-town of Lancaster, California, and rung Frank up to apologise. From there he went on to ask help in getting out of his current management and record contracts and shown interest in joining the new Mothers.

“So I auditioned him – twice! The first time he flunked; and the second time he was worth a try.” Commented FZ drily. Why didn't Frank want to continue singing? “My voice is not really a singer voice. I can hold a tune under duress. With Beefheart in the band there's a guy who's really into words and what they can do. I respect his literary ability, especially as in some instances I wonder if he's literate at all.” It emerges that Beefheart's early lyrics had to be written down by someone else. “He still desperately clutches onto the paper with the lyrics on it; he's got a bag full of harmonicas and this bundle of lyrics.

“The way he relates to language is unique. With somebody else in the band who's into it at that level, he gives me the chance to do things I haven't been able to do before. The way in which he takes my text and brings it across to an audience is something to behold. He can really make the words come to life. One of the new songs is called 'Poofta's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead' – it's a C & W number that deals with the merchandising of the up-coming American Bicentenery in 1976.”

And that kind of thing is what he and the Capn. both get off on, they share a view of language where: “A single word can have a life of it's own that's a whole universe. Like 'Pudsey'. When I saw that on the side of a truck I went: Pudsey! How could anybody do that? If Vliet could have seen that he would have just beat his leg until it decomposed, from here (gesture) to here.” Zappa admits he can “talk like a sonofabitch” but when it comes to putting it across in song, no-one can cap the Capn. “For all his psychological and technical limitations he's really an artist. He's got this great mind that functions in a realm for which there is little use in this society. What do you do with a guy who has these advanced concepts and wants to sing them in a voice like the Howlin' Wolf?”

Apart from the fact that as schoolkids they used to cruise the burger joints together and sing along to the radio, a mutual affliction with Howlin Wolf mania has meant a constant affinity between Zappa and Beefheart, Frank considers Wolf: “The ultimate vocal experience.”

For those who are counting, this is the tenth incarnation of the Mothers and includes Terry Bozzio on drums – “he's a monster”, old faces Bruce Fowler, George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock, with Tom Fowler on bass and another old school mate Denny Walley on slide guitar.

They have 'One Size' coming out soon, and plan to record the present group live at Texas' Armadillo HQ in Austen in late May, a place Frank describes as: “more like the early days in San Francisco than anything else. It has the same vibe as the Fillmore West in 1967.” We then talked of outrage, how the rest of the rock world had slowly caught up with Zappa's innovations, so that artists (businessmen?) like Alice Cooper (a former Zappa protegè) were using theatre, and shock tactics, in a way Zappa had done years ago. “What does constitute outrage today? Most of what has been perpetrated as outrage has been pure jive.

“From the time when the Jefferson Airplane went protest, it was just so fake.” That, he suggested, had been a management decision to cash in, not as in the Mothers case, a group commitment expressed onstage, from the days when the Mothers all caught longhair, to today. “I think that what I'm doing today has quite a bit of outrage in it, if you look at it for what it's really doing.” On the projected nine album set, (Warners are busy trying to figure out a way to sell ten thousand, which would be enough to make it worth while). Frank offers a resume of his career. There is stuff from before the Mothers, live stuff and stuff left off albums through lack of space. Since he tapes all his concerts there's plenty to choose from. It even includes what he believes is the first use of a fuzz-bass, taped back in 1963. Over time his concerns have changed:

“I've been writing music for a very long time, and I've said most of the stock protest things. Our first three albums had a lot of protest in them, and I believe that stuff still stands. So why should I keep saying the same thing over and over again? There are other things that interest me.

“I'm a different person to what I was ten, eleven years ago when I started in rock and roll. Anybody that doesn't change in that period of time has to be frozen. And as my interests change, I'm trying to be honest in what I do. The work that I do reflects the changes in my personality so audiences who are very enthusiastic about repeating glimpses or experiences of what I was doing eight, ten years ago are apt to be disappointed because I'm just not feeling the same things.

“I'm married, I have three kids, three law suits.”

And one of those begins in August when he will haul his previous record company, MGM, into the dock on a variety of counts. One reason was the series of attempts at censorship, the delays in album releases, oh and other things, says our Frank. The censorship issue is important here because when you are into outrage, there is a danger that you will become just a rather bizarre commodity to be packaged in a different way, but packaged and sold in a freakier version of what the Mothers have always satirised, the Madison advertising game.

For Zappa whose medium is record primarily, this entails keeping a close watch on the business end of things: “Otherwise the machinery that transmits it to the listener is gonna chop it up and do bad things to it.” To stay outrageous, to keep an edge on your satire and to outlive many of your targets, be they plastic hippies or cheesy TV, to do that for over ten years takes some doing. “Well there was a good reason for that… I was right!”