A Litte Visit With Frank Zappa

By Steve Simels

Stereo Review, April, 1979

PARANOIA can be a lot of fun, especially if it turns out to be justified (or as A. J. Weberman, the guy who used to poke around in Bob Dylan's garbage, observed, "Just because you don't think they're out to get you doesn't mean they're not"). That, it seems to me, is why the children of the Sixties, who responded to their parents' paranoia (There's a Commie Under Every Bed) by growing one of their own (There's a C.I.A. Agent in Every Woodpile), have become so blasé about the sensational revelations of the Seventies – from Watergate to Chile to the Bullet from the Grassy Knoll – that they shrug off each fresh outrage with a bored yawn and a dip in a hot tub. After all, what could possibly, at this point, surprise a generation that has endured persecutions worthy of Jean Valjean in an attempt to make the world safe for cannabis sativa, only to discover that red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy was not only a morphine addict (!) but got the stuff personally from Harry J. Anslinger (!!), the Federal Narcotics Bureau chief responsible for the whole "Assassin of Youth" PR campaign? I may have a limited imagination, but I can't see how even the most lurid hallucinatory vision could top that one for paranoid surrealism. 

Not only is paranoia fun, but in its lesser manifestations it's also an eminently useful commodity, producing some great comedy of both the intentional and unintentional varieties. Jackie Mason, for example, once remarked that he didn't like to go to football games because when the players huddled he was positive they were talking about him; Woody Allen has practically based his entire career on the idea that the Universe is rigged; and New Yorkers in particular have gotten mucho yucks out of a variety of paranoid graffiti artists, from the anonymous wacko who spray-paints warnings about leprosy in Times Square to the great William H. Depperman, the ex-Yippie who plasters the subways with hand-lettered posters linking the Rockefellers and Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw as prime movers behind both the Kennedy assassinations and the death of kung-fu star Bruce Lee. 

In other words, not only is paranoia my generation's own brand of slapstick, it's our birthright. We're paranoid, by God, and proud of it. But what has any of this got to do with Frank Zappa, whom I interviewed (for want of a better word) recently? Quite a bit, probably; the politics of paranoia go a long way, I think, toward explaining both his work over the last fifteen years and the special relationship he has with his extraordinarily loyal audience. Zappa is both a child of the times, obsessed with technology and with the elimination of the distinctions between pop and serious culture, and a fascinating throwback to the nineteenth-century stereotype of the eccentric genius. In fact, if there is anyone, upon sober reflection, he reminds me of, it's not his beloved Edgard Varèse, or even a charming weirdo like Erik Satie, but rather the ever unpopular Max Reger, who was brilliant, iron-willed, and convinced that he was beset from all sides by enemies and fools. Like Reger, Zappa is capable of being pointedly amusing and abrasive (his favorite word for other people's work is "swill"), but he seems constitutionally incapable of re- , directing the mockery back toward himself; he gets off lots of good lines, to be sure, but never at the expense of Frank Zappa. 

The following excerpts from our conversation, alternately witty, scathing, scatological, and thoughtful, should give you an idea of what I mean. I should add, by the way, that although we did not get along particularly well – at one point he called me a pinhead and I'm sure he meant it – I still respect the man as much as I respect anyone in pop music. After all, he plays a mean guitar.  

On just having hosted Saturday Night Live:

"It's a very difficult thing to do; they never make it easy on anyone who hosts the show. All the direction and attention goes to the sketches. They're not called skits – they become incensed if you call them skits – and it's all designed to accommodate the people who are regulars on the show, so anybody who goes on there to host is at a severe disadvantage. Because they never tell you what camera is on, and you're not supposed to memorize your script because they're rewriting right up to air time. And so you're looking at the cue cards, and unless you're used to acting live on TV, you haven't got a prayer, you'll be looking at the wrong camera. It was really hard. 

"And the other thing that happened was – and I didn't find out about it until the day after the show – that the first day I went there for the meetings with them they didn't like me and wanted to get rid of me. But no one said anything to my face while I was working on the thing. So they had written dialogue for me to say that I wouldn't normally say; they wouldn't let me write any of my own stuff.   "I think I'd be a fantastic television personality. I think I'd be a real good interviewer if I had a talk show, or a variety show. I'd be really good at it. But just to get up there and be the dumbbell in A Night on Freak Mountain . . . . I mean, sure, I'll do that for a laugh, but I'm not gonna build a life on it."   

On starting his own label, distributed by Phonogram:

"There's a certain amount of advantage to it because then I don't have to take any responsibility by identification for the other normal stuff they release. If they do something that's in bad taste in my eyes, then I don't have to be identified with it. 

"One of the reasons for going with Phonogram is that they have a huge catalog of contemporary music and it needs to be repackaged. I've already had discussions with them; if they'll let me take all that stuff and release it on my label, I think I could help make the stuff sell. 

"Last year, when I first had the discussion with the president of the company, he thought it would probably be a good idea, but after making so much money on 'Saturday Night Fever' it sort of slipped his mind. When I brought it up again after the deal was actually signed, he said, 'Did I say that? Well, if I said it we should probably do it.' There's really not much interest there. 

"It's from all their European branches, and old Mercury stuff; there's some Penderecki, some Roger Sessions, all that kind of stuff. And I think that the audience that buys my records would probably give it a whirl. Whether they'd like it or not is another question, but they'd give it a try if it was brought to their attention in the proper way. What I was gonna suggest was packaging the stuff in covers that look a little more intriguing to that particular market. Maybe racking the stuff in a special section of the store, so that maybe twelve selections that were gonna be released all at once in repackaged covers could be identified in one part of the store, and tie that in with ads that show all twelve items. And spend some money to advertise it as contemporary music. Because they never do."  

On the English music press and rock criticism generally:

"If I were to be a bigoted individual, I would probably select the English as the target of my bigotry. The English press happen to be the most loathsome group of people I've ever had to deal with in show business. It's not just trendiness; they're so fucking twofaced and snotty. The concept behind what they write, the motivations for writing, and the whole attitude they have toward the people they write about – I really could live without it. They make me sick. 

"People who write about me don't know anything about me. And to make matters worse, they don't know anything about writing either; people should be licensed to operate a typewriter. And so the image of me that goes out is all through the eyes of these nerds who have only one thing in mind: how to make themselves look good. 

"They could [sic] care less for the people who make the music, or do the actual work of touring. And there's always this attempt to make it look like, ` Oh well, this is all shit really, and since I'm dealing with a really pure art form, then fuck all these guys who play rock and roll. Like, I'm an intellectual, and of course you're an intellectual too; you read. You're not just sitting in a hockey rink listening to rock-and-roll, you're a reading person. So we'll just communicate with each other and bypass all this musical swill that's going on because the printed word is Where It's At.'

"This kind of subliminal attitude that permeates all of rock journalism is one of the things that makes me sick. Because these guys aren't even competent to do it; the people that write that stuff aren't competent to pull that gag off. When was the last time you read anything in any of those [rock] publications that dealt with the music? It's all peripheral. 

"I am a multidimensional person. I have a great respect and admiration for r-&-b, and dumbbell music, and electronic music, and symphonic music, and all that stuff. It appeals to me. I like to function in all those media. I feel comfortable in each and every one of them, and I'm just going to go ahead and write the music to suit me, and it is what it is. If it's Louie Louie one day, and something else the next, what's the difference? It's there for me to enjoy it, and after I enjoy it, if there's anybody else that happens to like it, that's a bonus."   

On charges of thinly veiled condescension toward his public, especially in his early albums:

 "Nothing that I've ever done is planned to be misinterpreted. And I always know before I do anything, including this interview, that it's subject to misinterpretation, erroneous transcription, and editorial tweezage. The final ultimate blow is when the guy reads it and doesn't know what the fuck I'm talking about. 

"Now let's take it point by point. `Freak Out' [his 1966 debut effort with the Mothers of Invention] was never an instruction manual for anyone to go out and behave in a weird way. If you take all the lyrics on the album and see what they say, as opposed to what the liner notes say, then you find that you don't have anything to talk about. Because what you're referring to as the contents of the album is really a reference to a definition of the term 'Freak Out' as included on the jacket cover. 

"Now in terms of the third album [' We're Only in It for the Money,' with the infamous 'Sgt. Pepper' cover parody] biting the hand that feeds, and 'oh! the ingratitude' – here's the way it goes. Anybody who turns into a hippie instead of a freak is not doing anything suggested by the 'Freak Out' album. By 1967 the hippie movement had been so mediated and tweezed that ... I mean, Flower Power was a sham, it was a merchandising thing by then, with poster shops and bimbos walking around with acid-glazed eyes and fistfuls of any kind of green object with a flower on the end of it they could get hold of waving it at a policeman, and they thought they were the Brave New World. Now I thought that was stupid, and I would be the first person to tell them it was stupid, and when I did that, I lost a large segment of the audience we had accumulated from the first two albums. 

"If you stop and think about it, putting out an album like that would be a very courageous thing in the middle of hippie hysteria. I did two things that were definitely a no-no then. One, making fun of the Beatles, and you couldn't do that; and two, I made fun of hippies, and you couldn't do that either. All the other satirical comments in the first two albums had been directed toward their parents, and none of those kids wanted to hear anything about themselves. Looking at it now, maybe it was an easy target. But you try it in 1967."

On orchestral writing:

"I started writing orchestra music before I started collecting r-&-b, when I was fourteen. I've still got all that stuff. But the problem with writing orchestra music is the people that play it. There's never enough money to have proper rehearsals, so that a new piece can get as good a performance as an old piece the orchestra already knows. I mean, there's plenty of good versions of Beethoven's Fifth, because the fuckers have been playing it for hundreds of years. But there aren't that many good performances of new pieces because usually the rhythmic difficulties exceed what was required by the older repertoire, and if there's one thing that musicians are always bad at, it's rhythm. I swear to God, they can't count. If you can find an orchestra that plays together, it's a miracle. 

"I still like to hear orchestra music, and I still write it; in fact, I have two copyists on yearly salary who are copying my stuff, and I go around delivering scores to orchestras. I'm available.   "But let me give an idea of what that entails. They attempted to commission me in L.A. one time like this: 'If you will buy two concert grand pianos and donate them to UCLA, then we will commission you to write some music for these instruments, and we will condescend to play it.' Real crass, when you stop and think how much two concert grands cost, and how they figure `Well, we'll give it two rehearsals and get this shit out of the way, and get the pianos and run with it.' That pisses me right off.

"And always, if I present a score to somebody, they always want to know if there's a possibility that the group is available to make an appearance at the concert, y'know, just to put a little extra grease on it and sell a few more tickets. And then, still, all they talk about is two or three rehearsals. Like when we did 200 Motels with the L.A. Philharmonic, 14,000 people came to that concert, which was the largest audience they had that year. They were all very impressed. Well, I had to pay the copying bills. Which were ten thousand dollars. Why should I have to pay for it? I really write good.

"I'm in a peculiar position because a composer who wasn't working in the world of rock-and-roll who might not have access to the kinds of facilities that I do would never be approached by these business people. Like I doubt that they'd go up to Elliott Carter and say 'If you will buy . . . .' They don't do that."

On his future:

"Generally, I will continue to operate in the areas that I operate in, except that some of them may become more important. I can't see myself in a garret; I can see myself in a basement. "I'm elder, that's for sure, but I'm not much of a statesman. I just do my work."    

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