Zappa presents 'zircon-incrusted' concert season

By Jim Healey

The Des Moines Register, September 24, 1977

In an industry – indeed, a society – that equates acceptance with survival, Frank Zappa delightfully does against the grain.

Zappa is – and to hear him tell it, always will be – a revolutionary.

He chooses music that doesn't appeal to many, wears clothes that are certainly not fashionable, and doesn't want the government, the police or anybody else telling him how things ought to be.

He was excited to discover while in Des Moines Tuesday that one of the radio stations he visited to do guest disc jockey spots [1] is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That station, KBLE, transmits only to households hooked into the local cable television network and does not send airborne signals.

Zappa stopped short of using the common English vulgarity for sexual intercourse but did play some of the less polite cuts from his albums as part of his KBLE show.

No Commercial Success

The 36-year-old guitarist, songwriter and composer has been a musician two-thirds of his life and has yet to achieve commercial success. Still, he makes only token gestures in the direction of the popular goal of achieving air play.

And for a musician who could use every spare fan, he goes to no lengths to patronize or embrace the culture of his audiences.

In interviews before and after his show in Des Moines, for example, he inveighed against drugs: "I don't have time for that ----. In fact, I hate the smell of marijuana and hash.

"What's high, stumbling around walking into furniture? I can get like that staying up too late. I've got no use for it."

Instead, he uses his time to hone his craft and to make sure there are no sluggards surrounding him.

Musical Influences

Zappa is known for permitting many musical influences to affect his compositions, and he pays close attention to how the songs are arranged – which instrument plays what when – so the result is a tightly orchestrated sound.

That may seem contrary to Zappa's reputation as a certified zany, an artist who appears constantly under the influence of irrepressibility. But the contrary musician would have it no other way.

He is, above all, a professional.

Zappa spent time before his show here chewing out a sound man and railing over the incompetence of promoters and record companies.

The sound man was accosted because Zappa wanted all stage instruments tuned to exactly the same pitch. Zappa suspected the pair of tuners used by his crew did not precisely match.

Zappa told the crewman, "Get it tuned exactly on. It's got to be right. I've been hearing different A's up and down the stage. If that happens I'm going to start pinching people."

They decided to tune the piano using one of the tuners, then tune other instruments to the piano.

Warm-up Act

As the warm-up act roared into its first number, Zappa said that he dislikes warm-up acts. He said this group – Point Blank – was only on the bill at the insistence of the promoter. He said it was the first time on the current 100-show tour he had been forced to play behind another band, and he clearly was distressed.

"We don't need that; we've got plenty of show. We're the warmup band," he said.

Later, an aide popped into the dressing room and announced that Zappa's band could not get into a hall to set up equipment the following day at the desired time. Zappa stood up, fixed a cold stare and demanded: "Did you tell that guy he might have to pay us for not showing up? I mean, did you come down on him hard? I look like a schmuck when I go on with a short sound check. Who is this guy, anyway?"


Zappa was assured the matter was being handled as forcefully as possible. That seemed to settle things.

Force is no stranger to the Los Angeles, Calif., musician. He has been, and currently is, in court with record companies over who owns what and who owes whom. Generally, he has initiated the suits.

At the moment, he is suing Warner Brothers because, he said, they did not pay him for four albums worth of tapes he said he delivered to them.

"Our agreement said I owed them four units; I gave them four units. It says in the contract that 'on delivery of master tapes' (the studio recordings from which record albums are made) they would pay me a sum of money.

"They freaked out. Nobody ever gave them four at once. Usually they have to drag bands into the studio. Their attorney said they'd have to listen to them all first to make sure 'it isn't just Frank and a guitar or something.' They listened and said it was all good stuff, but they never paid me."

That suit seeks more than $5 million.

Other Suits

Zappa also is suing former partner Herb Cohen, who he said owns half of everything. Cohen, as a partner in Zappa's Bizarre Productions, owns half of the rights to a number of master tapes that Zappa wrestled away from his former label, MGM.

A suit against MGM took two years to resolve. Zappa said he "just signed the final papers a couple of months ago."

What he objected to – vehemently – was MGM's repackaging several times of his first three LPs – "Freak Out!," "Absolutely Free," and "We're Only in It for The Money," – to release what appeared to be 11 different, new albums.

Those who bought the old music, thinking it was the latest by Zappa or the Mothers of Invention, his former band, were cheated, he said.

Though intimate with details of the suits, Zappa claimed no knowledge of other business matters – his pay for the Des Moines show, for example. In fact, he said, he has no idea what he will make for any of the 50 concerts in U.S. cities or 50 others in foreign countries.

Concert Season

Zappa prefers the term "concert season" rather than "tour" to describe the current stint on the road. A press kit he authored to promote the shows announces "a genuine, whole-wheat, zircon-encrusted CONCERT SEASON, featuring ... THE BEST musical ensemble I have ever had the pleasure of unleashing on that jaded, disgusting world of POP MUSIC..."

Zappa insists he doesn't try to keep everything under his control.

"There are some things I don't want to do. I don't want to be a bookkeeper. I don't want to talk on the telephone. I don't want to take care of all those ancillary matters. That's what I have a manager for."

Zappa does know that he typically gets 85 per cent of the net gate receipts, but he was unwilling to guess whether that was his pay in Des Moines or Iowa City, where he plays tonight.[2]

Writes Scores

When freed from the dues of daily road shows, Zappa likes to write music. All kinds of music. He said he writes entire scores that include parts for every instrument.

"I write the whole score. In ink," he said.

It was the only time he grinned.

"If you can write music, and if you like to write different kinds, why should you just write one kind? I'm as at home writing for strings and horns as I am writing for guitars," Zappa said.

To prove it, he picked up a notebook and pen, drew lines across a page using a Junior Mints candy box as a straight edge, and composed a piece sitting in the dressing room. It was filled with flats and sharps and included a time signature and an instruction for setting a metronome correctly to tick off beats at the proper frequency.

He called it "A Very Hard Piece for Violin."

He also called what he had done – transcribing the musical notes – calligraphy, and said he learned it in his younger days sitting in the library.

Actually, calligraphy has nothing to do with music. It refers to penmanship as an art.

Zappa no doubt had in mind the Encyclopedia Britannica entry that describes calligraphy as "a sure knowledge of the correct forms ... with such ordering of the various parts and harmony of proportions that the cultivated, knowing eye will recognize the composition as a work of art."

A work of art, indeed. Score one for Zappa, the mischief-maker.

Zappa said he has been through dozens of bands since be kicked off his musical career at age 12 and that he can't begin to recall their names.

Zappa said he started as a drummer, then switched to guitar when he was 18. He owns 20 guitars but played only two in Des Moines.

Latest Album

Des Moines 1977His newest album, "Läther," (pronounced leather) is two separate albums. Zappa explained: "The box (a four album set that will sell for between $20 and $30) has everything: jazz, march music, stories, rock. The single disc version of 'Läther' is sides two and four of the box. It's only the rock 'n' roll, for people who can't afford the box."

The album's name is a joke, patterned after what Zappa said is common bastardized pronunciation of Germanic syllables by the Swiss.

"Actually, what it is," Zappa said, "is a Swiss joke for Americans who don't understand Swiss jokes."


1. Tuesday, September 20th, 1977 is the correct date. Frank plays some of his favorites including side two & four from an acetate of his upcoming unreleased box set "Leather"!1977 09 20 KBLE Des Moines IA 74.19 FM (bootray-flambay).

2. Des Moines, September 20th, Iowa City, September 24th. Frank Zappa Gig List: 1977

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