Big Bad Frank Rails Against the World

By Blair Jackson

BAM, 6 May 1983

My love/hate relationship with Frank Zappa’s music goes back more than fifteen years and seems to break down about this way: Love His Music – 20 percent of the time; Think His Music Is At Least Engaging – 20 percents; Can’t Fathom It, Much as I Try – 15 percent; Think What He Is Doing is Puerile, Pretentious and Useless – 15 percent. Now, if that seems tilted a bit towards the negative, remember that Zappa puts out more music than virtually any other living composer. So on terms of sheer Number of Pieces Enjoyed (NPE, as we all it in the trade), Zappa’s doing pretty well. I probably even like more Zappa songs than Brue Springsteen songs, but then Brue only puts out one record every three years or so (compared to Zappa’s one every three months, it sometimes seems) and Bruce’s PPE (Percentage of Pieces Enjoyed) runs a very high 85-90 percent. Prolific is too much an adjective for Zappa, “prodigious” is probably more accurate. And that’s fine – some of modern Western culture’s best known figures have been fully as prodigious as Zappa. Just look at the output of folks like L. Ron Hubbard (before he supposedly died of course), LeRoy Neiman, Rod McKuen, Peter Max and Barbara Cartland. Yes, the true Giants can really churn it out. Of course, when you go for quantity, your quality is going to slip just a tad from time to time, but such is the curse of being Creative!

In case you’re wondering, it’s okay for me to put down Zappa’s music in print because he doesn’t are what I (or anyone else) think. In fact, he probably both expects and secretly enjoys being trashed in print. After all, he obviously goes to such great lengths to offend us and piss us off, we should at least accord him the courtesy of being pissed off and offended. And since he is contemptuous of virtually everything on the planet except himself, don’t we OWE IT TO FRANK to also be contemptuous and self-absorbed? Of course we do, which is why his introduction is rattling on non sensically, almost like a song on Zappa’s new album, Man From Utopia.

There are ten songs on Zappa’s latest, and it falls almost exactly in line with the percentages I outlined in the first paragraph. There are two numbers I love: the album-opening “Cocaine Decisions,” which deftly lampoons the Drug of the Chic; and the nimble, multi-rhythmic instrumental “Tink Walk Amok”. In the great Instrumentals versus Vocals debate, I have always leaned heavily towards Zappa’s instrumental work. My favorite Zappa records are Hot Rats, Sleep Dirt and the epic Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series, all of which are eighter largely or entirely instrumental. So it’s not surprising that the three “non-verbal’ tracks on Man From Utopia are among my favorites, even if “Moggio” sounds like FZ’s 53rd rewrite of “Peaches En Regalia” off Hot Rats. The way I look at it, better he plagiarize “Peaches” time and again than “Billy the Mountain” or “Greggery Peccary.”

Also outstanding musically is “The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou,” which fuses what is essentially a blues approach with some finely played contemporary funk. The lyrics aren’t nearly as interesting as the title. I’d quote a line or two, but there’s this very imposing little box at the corner of the lyric sheet that reads: “WARNING: All rights reserved, including publication of lyric extracts for reviewing purposes. No portion of the music or lyrics herein may be altered or subject to quotation in any medium whatsoever without consent from the copyright owner.” This box intrigues me because it is generally accepted that reviewers and authors of articles are allowed to print lyric extracts because it constitutes legitimate commentary on a record or book or whatever. In short, don’t fuck with Frank. I know for a fat he is not a cocaine user, but his threat of legal action at the close of his “WARNING” truly smacks of coke paranoia. Let’s really tempt fate, however. What follows are 20 words contained in the lyrics of songs on Man From Utopia: ugliness, scratchy, Aapulo, G-force, brassiere, meat, motherfucker, underpants, morsel, eclair, blobulent, Kalamazoo, nooky, corrugated, pooched, clipboard, chicken, kitty, popcorn, and climatic. Connect ‘em, swap ‘em, make your own Frank Zappa songs.

And judging by the three songs on Man From Utopia that fall into my Puerile and Useless category, writing a Zappa song isn’t as hard as it used to be. “The Dangerous Kitchen,” “The Radio Is Broken” and, worst of all, “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” all sound like Frank is making up the words as he goes along, singing, speaking them in a boring monotone above baking that is scarcely musical at all. Why anyone would listen to any of these ramblings more than once escapes me. But based on the volume of mail we get every time we print anything negative about Zappa, I will no doubt be enlightened by some soul with a higher BTI (Bullshit Tolerance Level) than I possess. “I dunno, Doc’” I told to my very expensive therapist recently, “I’m not that amused by songs about kitchen utensils, John Agar and sniffing women’s underpants.” “Well, m’boy,” my shrink said, “That's why you're in therapy and Frank Zappa is a rich man.”

But enough irreverence. It you’re looking for mean-spirited barbs, listen to virtually any Zappa record, or hey – while you’re here, why not stick around to read what FZ has to say about hippies, people who ripped off “Valley Girls,” and audiences who enjoy classical music. If that last topic appears out of place, let me explain. This interview, conducted by Regan McMahon and me, was based around a specific event originally, namely Zappa's appearance as guest conductor for a one-time-only salute to modern music pioneers Webern and Varese on the occasion of each composer’s 100th anniversary. Zappa, ever faithful disciple of Varese, agreed to conduct two pieces played by San Francisco's Contemporary Music Players, for whom the concert was a high- priced benefit. And Frank was a picture of decorum at the staid SF War Memorial Opera House that evening, wearing a tuxedo even, and leading the musicians with more dignity that I thought possible. You see, even though Frank Zappa thinks you're stupid, he really does love music and wants you to appreciate the Good Stuff – like Varese (and Zappa, he would probably add).

Break out the violins now everybody because, as Alex said in Clockwork Orange, here comes the real weepy part. I fully expected to like Zappa upon interviewing him and the fact is I did. He is, to no one’s surprise, extremely bright, funny and articulate. If he occasionally lapses into Frank’s Theories by rote almost, that’s understandable – if I talked to jerks like me all day I'd try to come up with zippy, quotable one-liners that I could use again and again, too. Dressed in a hideously mismatched sweat suit that would make Mr. Blackwell run for cover, Zappa patiently fielded questions on a wide variety of topics. He was alternately charming and condescending, obliging and rude – in short, everything you’d anticipate Zappa would be like. He seemed most excited when discussing the innumerable projects, he has on the burner right now: an album of orchestral music and a revolutionary stage show that would use his music, among them. Naturally, though, this being the scandalous and sensationalistic rock press and all, we left in mostly stuff about “Valley Girls” and tossed the serious junk. Or some of it, anyway. And so, through the miracle of modern technology, you can sit back and enjoy this fractured conversation with rock's reigning genius-pervert-guitar hero-stinker-and possessor of the last great “soul patch,” Frank Zappa – my best friend.


You’ve been committing your band in concert for some time, but conducting an orchestra on pieces you didn’t write – like the Varese works – must be quite different. How do you see the conductor’s role in that sort of formal setting?

The conductor is supposed to provide a visual representation of what the beats are so you can synchronize the musical activities of all the players in an ensemble. In other words, the musician has a piece of music in front of him which is essentially his instructions of what’s supposed to happen within a given time frame in the piece. In rock and roll, you have bass and drums setting up the meter for the whole band usually and everyone thrashes away behind them. In an orchestra you have a guy waving a stick around that makes patterns in the air that tells you where the “one” is, the “two” is, where the ”seventeen" is. It’s those patterns you draw in the air combined with the control you have with your left hand over dynamics that determine how well you conduct.

A lot of conductors working today are out there for the glamor and are out there to give their choreography their best shot because they know the audience that comes to hear the music can’t tell the difference. I don't think you’re conducting for the audience. It's for the musicians. The easier you can make their jobs, the better the music is going to be – it's that simple.

How do you feel about the decorum that surrounds “classical” music?

I think it’s one of the things that keeps a lot of people away from it. The audience it needs to attract has been driven away by the pompous putrescence of it all. That world is so weird. I'm not really a denizen of that world, but what I’ve seen is that people are really out of touch with reality. The way it is now in the classical world is that people don’t go to hear the music as much as they go to be seen by other people. I’m talking about LA now, because that’s what I know. Go to the Music Center and you see doctors, lawyers, maybe a few “music lovers” – you can tell them because they're wearing the berets. [Laughs] Most of these people wouldn’t know the difference between a good performance and a bad one. A lot of them are schmucks, and they go to see conductors doing a schmucky job in front of orchestras who are doing a schmucky job. Then, as soon as intermission comes, they run out to the bar to discuss stocks and bonds, and then afterwards it’s out to dinner and some other entertainment event, all with the same kind of people. If that’s what they like, there should be plenty of it for them. They should be able to see plenty of grandiose conductors, weeping, tearing their hair out, bleeding with the music, arms rising into the air during every crescendo. They should have that to the maxi and then they’ll really think they saw a great performance. [Laughs]

You recorded an album with the London Symphony recently. Do you find the orchestral format limiting at all?

Well, you can't quite get the rhythmic accuracy of a rock and roll band. You can beg for it and you still won't get it. The London Symphony is 107 guys and that’s hard to coordinate when what they’re being called on to play is fairly complicated and you don’t have as much rehearsal time as you’d like. The stuff we just did is about 90 percent what I wanted. The worst of it is about 75 percent, and that’s about as good as you can hope for with a group that large.

But this is music written for an orchestra. It's not rock and roll – no fuzz tone here, folks. It has nothing to do with that world. It’s not the missing link between “Louie Louie” and Beethoven's Fifth. It’s complex music for a large group. I’d be a happy guy if all I was interested in hearing was tiny music. It’s a lot cheaper to record, but I like the big string sound and the London Symphony has that.

I assume that your reputation as a serious musician precedes you when you work with the London Symphony or the Chamber Players, but is your credibility hurt at all when you have a huge, trendy novelly hit like “Valley Girls”?

I’d be willing to say that if it hadn't been for “Valley Girls,” they probably wouldn’t have called me up to do this [the Varese tribute] because they know that since “Valley Girls” I can sell more tickets for the fundraiser because now I'm “hot.” [Laughs]

So you’re being used.

Yeah, but I'm happy to be used for this purpose. It’s worthwhile.

Maybe someone will do a tribute to your music in 50 years.

Don’t hold your breath.

What do you think you will be remembered for?

I probably won't be remembered, but my daughter [Moon] will be for “Valley Girls” because she’s contributed a viable thing to American culture: she’s made it possible for other people to make merchandise and derive profit from it, which is the only way to judge excellence in America.

This has been a sore point with you – I know you have several pending lawsuits against people who have cashed in on the craze. Why should you have control over “Valley Girls” merchandising?

Because the whole merchandising schmeaze was generated by the song. The song is a copyrighted object.

But didn't Valley lingo pre-date the song? If someone had made a record of hippie lingo in the ‘60s, should they have owned the rights to “groovy” or ”bitchin’" or whatever?

That’s not the point. If the lyrics are copyrighted and if some of those lyrics were extracted from real things Valley people said, and others there were made up at that recording session and done in that tone of voice, and then the song itself was constructed from nowhere, and then the whole thing is subverted by other people for merchandising use, the people who made the original art are entitled to remuneration.

Where do you draw the line. though? Is “grody to the max” a creation or an interpretation of something that already exists?

I’m sure you could sit down with Moon and go through all the words in that song and she’d tell you who said what, and what she actually made up at the session. In fact, I think l was the one who came up with “bag your toenails.”

That was inspired.

[Mock humbly] These things … they just come out of me! [Laughs]

Do you think the merchandising that's been done is in worse taste than the original song? There's a certain level of satirical bad taste Americana in the song.

I can't really answer that because I don't think the thrust of the song is “bad taste Americana.” The song was ’written as a piece of documentary reportage: these people here talk like this, act like this. This is a song about them. It’s reporting with a beat.

That's questionable.

What's questionable about it?

Well, it’s still an extreme interpretation with satirical overtones. Go out to the Galleria and talk to people and maybe that’s “documentary reportage,” but you said yourself a lot of what Moon said was created in the studio.

Then we have nothing further to discuss on the subject because I'm telling you what my intent was when I put the song together. Again, my intent was to make a statement about these people, who are there, who do this. That is taking real facts from a real place and putting it into a song. I do that in a lot of songs. If you think that is “an extreme interpretation” you’re way off on a tangent somewhere. It’s just a comment. It's like if I do a song like “Jewish Princess” – here they are, they look like this, they do this. Documentary. Same thing with “The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit.” It’s reporting. There’s the one on the Fillmore East album about a girl getting hosed by a mud shark; you think it's preposterous but it’s real. It's a kind of folk music – a small contribution to American life. I take it seriously and try to be as accurate as I can.

You’ve said that your occasional successes allow you to work on projects that are perhaps less commercial but more important to you. What will the success at “Valley Girls” do for you?

To be quite honest, “Valley Girls” hasn't generated that much money. It’s generated a helluva lot of press, but the album [Ship Arriving Too Late to Save Dreaming Witch, definitely 1982’s best album title] didn’t do spectacularly. We sold 260,000 units in the U.S. and maybe another 100,000 outside this country. Sheik Yerbouti sold a lot more.

Can you gauge in advance which of your projects will be financially successful.

No. Never have been able to.

“Dancin’ Fool,” for instance, was a timely song.

It was, and Sheik Yerbouti was one of the best-selling albums I’ve ever made but it wasn’t because of “Dancin’ Fool.” It was because of ”Bobby Brown Goes Down,” which was a hit all over Europe. That album sold almost a million units, most of them outside the U.S.

Is the language barrier a problem?

Sure it’s a problem. That’s one reason we use lyric sheets. But even then, they'll come across strange words, like “plook” or “cheerleader.” What does a person in Spain think of a word like “cheerleader”? That's one reason most songwriters stick to boy-girl situations. It makes it much easier to understand because it's so simple.

Who do you receive input from about your music? You don't respect critics and you don't use a producer. How do you judge the success of a project?

I’m the only person who can judge it because I know what the facts are – where it came from, what it took to do it, how close it got to realization at the time I was recording it, what the pressing quality was, and the problems with reproducing the music on a home system. The rest is purely subjective. Only the person who puts a piece together is in any position to judge success or failure.

What do you miss from the '60s?

The Garrick Theatre in Greenwich Village. We used to play there six nights a week, two shows a night. It was great.

You hear some performers lament that there was more involvement at shows in the late '60s.

Oh really? You mean like when people used to go to Grateful Dead concerts and lie all over the floor with a blue cloud over their faces? Whatever entertains you!

Why do you disdain that?

Have you ever tried to leave a place where people are lying all over the floor in a blue cloud or passed out? It's dangerous.

But a lot of those shows, even your own, had more spontaneity –

What’s spontaneous about being so fucking stoned you can't move? Come on! The ’60s were a bunch of people who were wasted out of their fucking minds – under the control of the government without really knowing it, especially in the Bay Area [see BAM, January 1978 for a more exhaustive look at Frank’s theory that the government secretly distributed drugs in the community]. It was all nice and groovy if you liked to be toasted. l thought the '60s were a rotten time.

Are you aware that a lot of people go to your shows “toasted”? l distinctly recall seeing a nice, gray-blue haze over the crowd at the last one of your shores I attended.

Haze is a pervasive thing in American society. It doesn’t just happen at concerts, either, but in lawyers’ offices and government offices as well. The Hazing of America is a byproduct of the ’60s. Everyone discovered how groovy you could be if you were chemically altered. Drugs help defeat the logic mechanism. You can’t approach the world logically because you’re so voluptuized by what’s happening.

How logical do you want to be when you listen to rock and roll?

I like to be logical all the time, period. Of course I have no friends, either. [Laughs] I like to know what I’m seeing. That doesn’t mean I have to be analytical every second, but if I’m looking at this jar of mustard [indeed, there was a jar of line mustard on the table in front of him; he was not hallucinating] I don’t want to think, “God, this is a beautiful girl!” It’s a jar of mustard! The ’60s made it fashionable to be wasted. The ’60s also made it okay to be a beggar.

Do you have a sense of how many fans from the Mothers of Invention days have stuck with you?

Not really. We get a lot of younger kids at the shows. I think most of the fans who were at the Garrick Theatre now own their dads' businesses. There were two guys we used to call Loeb and Leopold [after the brainy, but psychotic killers] who were regulars at the Garrick, and when I played at the Palladium [also in N.Y.C.] in ’81, I looked out in the front row and recognized one of these two. Well, now he’s a record distributor in Queens. He’s totally straight, but I recognized him anyway. So i brought him up onstage for old time’s sake. What this guy used to do at the Garrick was run down the aisle in the middle of the show, jump onstage, grab the microphone, scream into it at the top of his lungs, fall on the floor and then he wanted me to spit Coca-Cola all over his body. I'd do it, too. [Laughs] The audience would actually wait for it – “Here he comes! Now Frank’s gonna spit Coca-Cola on him!” That night at the Palladium I asked him if he wanted me to give him a Pepsi treatment and he said he wasn't dressed for it.

Most of the other people who used to come see me probably aren't even pop consumers anymore because let’s face it – you get to a certain age and you don't want to go to a hockey rink to see a concert and you don’t want to get poked on by a 15-year-old. That's not entertainment to them, so they stay home and listen to music on really expensive hi-fis.

To Frank Zappa records of course.

Just the smart ones! [Laughs]