The Blunt Way

By Michael Davis

Creem, July 1988

"Michael, what's up?"

It's Frank Zappa. At last. By trying to have this interview coincide with some of his upcoming releases, I've almost missed connecting with Zappa. He's gearing up for his first tour in over three years, rehearsing his band eight hours a day, all the while trying to tie up loose ends in a number of areas. One of our foremost musicaholics has been as busy as ever: Frank and the band are scheduled to be in Europe as you read this, and "there has been some talk about doing 10 weeks in late summer, outdoor festival type things," west of the Mississippi – his dates earlier this year were confined to the Midwest and Northeast.

It's always invigorating to talk to Frank. The guy is real bright and real direct, to put it mildly.

"I've never been mysterious,'' he asserts. "I'm pretty overt, as a matter of fact. I've always been blunt and I hope to be blunt for the rest of my life. The most valuable commodity in American life today is unbridled bluntness."

 Zappa's penchant for speaking his mind has led him into a role as a champion of free speech in the political arena; what he calls "this PMRC bullshit" may have taken some of his time, but it's also kept him in the public eye. Since Frank's ''Valley Girl" hit featured his daughter, Moon, and his son Dweezil is becoming known as a guitarist/personality in his own right, Zappa's public image has become that of a successful-if-eccentric family man instead of the bohemian freak image he cultivated with the early Mothers Of Invention. Thus, his ideas about freedom are not so easily tossed aside by reactionary types as they once were.

 But Frank's been overt on a musical level as well. On the inside cover of Freak Out, the Mothers' debut, was a list of well over a hundred people who "have contributed materially in many ways to make our music what it is." If you investigate these people – who range from Lenny Bruce to Muddy Waters, Edgar Varèse to Charles Mingus – you'll not only find out some of the sources of Zappa's music, you'll get turned on to some outrageous artists in the process. Then, once you know that Frank applies a "mix 'em and match 'em" aesthetic to composition, combining musical genres in any way he feels appropriate, most of his stuff doesn't even sound that 4 weird anymore. But a lot of it still sounds good.

Lately, he's been busy composing on the Synclavier and rereleasing his catalog – the stuff he won back from record companies in court – in various configurations. He now has three Old Masters LP boxes, covering the material from 1966-76, available by mail order only. Some of these titles are sold in stores on Rykodisc CDs and some of these are also supposed to come out on cassette shortly.

So how, in a time when lotsa counterculture heroes (snicker) of the '60s are seeing their songs abused by the brainwash boys, has Frank Zappa retained control of almost everything he's released? True, it's unlikely that Nike would try to use, say, "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" for an ad or that Ma Bell would tackle "You Didn't Try To Call Me," but it's nice to know that someone thinks his/her music is important enough to keep out of the hands of the greed grunts.

"There are two masters I don't own," Frank says. "One is 200 Motels (MCA); the other is The Perfect Stranger (Angel)."

Almost nobody else has control like that over what they've done.

"Yeah, but most of those people never I asked. You have your choice at the time you make your deal. You can go in there and, usually at the urging of your manager, you'll try and get the biggest advance that you can get, which you'll spend on clothes, cars and drugs. You know what happens after that. Or you could say, don't give me such a big advance; give me my masters. You have the right to sell my masters through your record company for five years. At the end of that time, ownership of those masters reverts to mel. Thanks a lot; good-bye."

You're saying that if a band doesn't ask for a massive advance upfront that they can get that?

"Well, I think that all things are negotiable. You can probably get a combination of both; it depends on who the act is and how much leverage they have. I think a lot of acts don't want to be in the record business. Once you own your own masters, in order to profit from them, you have to work them. You have to re-advertise them, re-deploy them, have some sort of concept about how you will get income from owning these masters. Some people would lose money if they owned their own masters; they would be better off taking the advance from the record company. It's only if you know you're going to stay in the record business for a long time, build up a catalog and have that catalog worth something, that keeping the masters makes any sense. Most of the groups today aren't in it for the long haul anyway. They wanna be a star this week; they're only popular as long as their hairdo remains in fashion. Once that hair doesn't look good anymore ... "

They're last week's news.

"That's right. Just let your mind drift back through the haircut bands of the last three years who hit MTV and hit the charts. What the f--- ever happened to Flock Of Seagulls?"

Hopefully, not a whole lot.

"That's the way it goes today. The record companies don't do anything to build an artist for the long haul. After one album, they go, well, he's dead but here comes another guy with another haircut. Here comes Sigue Sigue Sputnik; wheel 'em in. Usually, the record company has an advantage in terms of bamboozling the first-time artists – which they don't have with someone who's been through the process of making one or two albums. They're a lot smarter. So the record company likes it when a group comes in, makes one hit record and then vanishes, because it gives 'em a chance to piddle around with the accounting. That group that has vanished is not gonna sue that record company ..."

... because they don't have any management or whoever looking after their interests ...

" ... and also, they don't have enough money to pay a lawyer. So there it is," Frank concludes.

Leaving the record industry and looking at video for a moment, there's also action at Honker Home Video. Baby Snakes, the film featuring the Belew-Bozzio-O'Hearn-Wolf-Mars-Mann band, has been rentable for several months now, but the big news is that the Uncle Meat film, which has been sitting around unfinished for 20 years, will see the light of day "as soon as Cal Schenkel sends me the art for the video jacket," Frank says. "You see, sometimes it takes me awhile, but I do get shit done."

And a lot of it is coming out in 1988.

"The thing that I finished last week was the new Guitar album, which is 80 minutes on vinyl and cassette, but the CD has 13 extra cuts. It's all live; there's no overdubs. It's me doing all the solos and it was recorded in the U.S. and Europe, spanning the years 1979 through 1984. For people who are interested in what I play, it shows the difference between what happens when I play with Vinnie Colaiuta versus what happens when I play with Chad (Wackerman) or other rhythm sections. It's a real good variety of stuff. It's different than the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar album in that there's no talking or anything to interrupt the solos, just one after another. We've been getting a lot of requests on the Barking Pumpkin hotline (818-PUMPKIN) for another guitar album, so here it is."

But even this project is dwarfed by Zappa's You Can't Do That On Stage extravaganza, a series of six double CDs scheduled to start being released later this spring. This is an in-concert retrospective of sorts, but it's unlike any other live rock release.

"I was just trying to finish off the editing on the sampler for You Can't Do That On Stage," begins Mr. Z. "I've got a little problem on that project; it's so enormous, I don't see how I can put it on vinyl. Like Volume I on a CD is two hours and a half; you'd be carrying a small peach crate of records home just from Volume I. We're talking six double CDs for the whole set. It's over 13 hours of material, so I don't know how I can put it out in vinyl and have anybody be able to afford it, let alone carry it. You have the same problem with cassettes, so what I've done is put together a sampler album – a double LP, 80 minutes of music, same for the cassette, which gives you bits and pieces from all the CDs that are coming out. As a matter of fact, the cassette and the album will be ready before the first CD. That means that anybody who gets the cassette or the album will be getting a preview of parts of the CDs that won't even be released until later in the year.

"They're not chronological," Frank continues. "That's the good thing about the set. It allows me the ability to take recordings of all the different bands and intercut them with each other. It would be like going to an impossible concert with every band that I ever had onstage all at the same time, waiting to give it their best shot, non-stop, no brakes. It's an amazing thing to listen to. None of the performances have ever been released before and maybe 20 to 25 percent are titles that have never been released either."

When you were putting this thing together, you couldn't have gone back and listened to every performance. As the music was going down, did you note which nights were the hottest ones in case you'd go back and do something like this?

"Matter of fact, I did. And then what had to happen is that all this stuff had to be remixed and equalized so they sort of matched each other."

That must have been a nightmare.

''Well, it took years just to compile the mixes and then there was the editing and assembly job. I have been editing and assembling the mixes on this thing for two years, at a conservative estimate. The ways some of these things are hooked together is-really surprising. Remember, the earliest recording is October 25, 1968; that is a performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London, recorded on a four-track, which was state of the art at the time. Some of the other stuff on there was recorded on a two-track portable for the 1969 Mothers Of Invention tapes, and you'd be surprised at how good they sound. All the different ages of modern recording techniques, except for mono, are presented on this album, all the way up to 24-track digital masters mixed down to digital. The whole thing has been digitally homogenized."

So it has more or less a similar sound all the way through but you still can hear the differences in all the bands?

"Yeah, you'll hear the differences in the bands. You'll also hear the differences in the sizes of the rooms that we're working in. There's a great record that was done in a bar in the Bronx called the Factory in 1969; it's like me talking to the audience and we're playing 'Plastic People.' I have another routine we used to do there called 'Tiny Sick Tears.' Then there are things from the Roxy shows we did that never went into the Roxy album."

I was at one of those shows and, as I recall, there was some hot stuff happening.

"Remember 'Dickie's Such An Asshole?' "Frank chuckles. "It's in the collection; that's never been released. In fact, we're playing that song on this tour. We have a Republican medley which takes us from Richard Nixon up to Pat Robertson."

Maybe you should work up "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted" in case someone wants to draft you for President, I venture, somewhat facetiously.

"That's more than science fiction,' Frank retorts. "Besides, today's audience don't know what drafting means. They really don't have any idea what it means for somebody to say because you're a certain age, we can make you go die for nothing. They don't know that. And they don't understand that in 1971, when 18-year-olds got the right to vote and could literally vote the draft away, that was a major change in U.S. policy. A lot of people opposed it. But teenagers' memories of recent history are not all that terrific."

Interestingly enough, it turns out that teen voter apathy is one of the main reasons Zappa has hit the road this year. It all began with an innocent enough query about why he's touring now when, a year ago, he seemed so comfy in the UMRK with his Synclavier.

"Well, I'm bringing the Synclavier with me," he begins. "Besides that, it's an election year and one of the things we're doing on this tour is trying to get kids to register to vote. I'll be doing that at all the concerts.

"Something oughta be done. It was so hard to get the 18-year-old vote in the first place and most 18-year-olds don't even use it. It's about time they started thinking about their futures; I don't see any of the people running for office right now thinking about their futures. If you don't register, you can't vote and if you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain."

At one time I understand that one of the minor parties talked to you about running for office.

"Yeah, I was approached by the Libertarians to be their presidential candidate. I looked over their platform. It's a pretty doctrinaire group; if you're going to run on their behalf, you've gotta spew their party line. Some of it was good and some of it I didn't think was very practical. There's no way I could stand up there and adhere to their platform with a straight face because when you stick that close to what's on the paper, it eliminates the ability to be creative, it eliminates the ability to seek new solutions to problems. In order to even go to their convention and get the nomination, I had to convince these people that I was gonna be the guy to spew their platform. So I didn't even go. They wound up choosing a former John Birch Society guy, a former Republican congressman from Texas who was defeated in a recent election and decided to become a Libertarian. It doesn't make sense."

Doesn't sound like your crowd.

"No, not my kinda guys," he agrees, "but there are certain things about Libertarian theory that I think a lot of people could go along with. The basic idea is 'Government, get out of my face, and p.s.: I own my own body.' I think most people could go for that, but by the time you read the fine print, you see that some of the views that they hold, if enacted, would set the country back a few years. So I just decided to go by myself and do whatever I can to get people interested in politics. The best place to start is to get 'em registered to vote and we have a half-hour intermission in the middle of the show where they have the opportunity to go out in the lobby and do it."

The tour itself goes by the name of "Broadway The Hard Way" and it's being digitally recorded for an album of the same name which is scheduled to be released by the end of the year. Zappa has six new songs he describes as "pretty funny," but he's especially enthusiastic about his current band. Granted, he's talking before they all get out on the road, not after, but I've never heard so much praise for musicians come out of Frank's mouth before.

"The band is Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Thunes on bass, Bobby Martin, keyboards and vocals, Ike Willis on guitar and vocals, Ed Mann, percussion, and the new stunt guitarist, Mike Kennealey. Then we have a five-piece horn section: Walt Fowler on trumpet, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Paul Carman on alto and baritone sax, Albert Wing on tenor sax and Kurt McGettrick on bass sax. What the horns are doing doesn't resemble anything else you've heard horns do in rock 'n' roll."

At one point, you said you weren't interested in the guitar, that the callouses were gone, etcetera. Obviously, that's changed again.

"That's all true, because at the point where we did our last concert, which was December 23rd, 1984, I went from the stage to the video editing room and spent about a year in there. The rest of the time was spent typing on the Synclavier keyboard. So that was '85.

"The other thing I did was get involved in all this PMRC bullshit and that kept me running around all over the place. Over the last three years, I must have piddled around on it maybe two times for 15 minutes each, so I didn't have any callouses at all. When I put this band together, I had to virtually relearn how to play the guitar."

Are you finding new things on the guitar now that you've picked it up again?

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far. I would say that my basic skills are back; I expect they will improve as the tour goes on. I'm certainly not a disaster area – I can still play a good solo – but there are people who practice five and 10 hours a day and take it real serious. I'm not one of 'em."

Zappa is impressed by his new guitar player; I remain a tad skeptical of the guy stepping into shoes worn by the likes of Steve Vai and Adrian Belew.

"He does the noises and flash while you're out front?" I ask.

"Well, no, it's not flash, but he plays all the fast scales. He also plays keyboards and sometimes when I give him a solo, he plays the guitar and the keyboards at the same time."

Whoa. What; one hand on each?


That oughta look pretty good.


So I fall for it. When are your L.A. dates?

Frank pauses just a bit, then monotones. "We don't have any L.A. dates booked."

I crack up, laughing at my own frustration, as well as Zappa's comedic timing while he gives me the logistical reasons why Southern California residents won't get a chance to see this band unless a late summer date comes through. Sometimes, the guy's attempts at musical humor leave me cold, but Frank Zappa is indeed a very funny fellow to talk to.