Frank Zappa on Rock of the 60s and the '90s ...

By Ron Chepesiuk

Music Monitor, September 1990

Some" Frank" Observations on the State of the Art; An Ron Chepesiuk, Rock HiII, S.C.

At 48, Frank Zappa, one of the '60s' most colorful personalities, is thriving. His discography now includes 50 albums. It defies easy labeling, with styles ranging from classical to jazz to, of course, rock and roll. He's written over 300 often satirical compositions on subjects like lumpy gravy, televangelism, Madonna's popularity and dental floss. And the creative juices still flow. Zappa continues to experiment, recently all but abandoning guitar to take up the New Age musical instrument called the synclavier. His guitar work, nevertheless, earned him a 1988 Grammy nomination for his instrumental album Jazz From Hell.

The rock legend has been outspoken on a number of issues – the environment, voter apathy, censorship, for example – and is considered one of music's most witty, articulate spokesmen. In 1988 the Libertarian Party asked Frank Zappa to run on its ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate, but he declined. I recently interviewed Frank Zappa at his Swiss Chalet-like borne in the Hollywood Hills:

People think of Frank Zappa as the gadfly of the establishment, but many don't know that you were actively involved in the 1988 elections, registering young people to vote. How did' that come about?

I was on a four-month tour. while the primaries were going on, so I thought it would be natural to get involved with voter registration. The United States is the least registered industrial country on Earth. Something like a mere 15 percent of the eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast ballots in the 1984 elections. It's pathetic! I don't believe an American has a right to complain about the system if he can vote and doesn't. For an American to say, "I don't understand politics, or I don't have the time," is no excuse.

How many people did you register?

I managed to register about 11,000. I said: Look! There's more to voting than putting an 'X' for your choice for president. In California, there were plenty of things – all these insurance initiatives and gun control issues. If you don't vote, you can't express your opinion on issues that affect you.

Looking back 20 years, do you get nostalgic for the '60s?

There are things I don't miss. I think we were incredibly naive in our belief that we could change America. On the other hand, there are things I do miss. It was an exciting time. I was young, starting out, on the cutting edge of my career.

Many people think the music back then was better. Do you?

Well, some of it was. But the reason for making music now is different. Today, the music is being made by bands who are into elaborate stage sets, outlandish hairdos and formula music. I guess if that is what the market wants, that is what it will get. Back in the '60s a lot of the songs were about something. They made a statement. I don't think you have that today.

If you were starting out today as a musician, could you compose and play essentially the same type of music and still be successful?

No, no way! It would be almost impossible.

What does it take to get a recording contract today?

You have to be stupid. The recording company figures that if the group hits big, they are going to try to find out what the company did for them. Where's the money? But fortunately for the record company, the groups today are stamped out of a machine. For every group you see on MTV, another one is waiting down the hall to take its place. Back in the '60s, when a recording company signed a group to a contract, it believed it had a stake in the group's development. They took their time and brought the group along slowly. You don't have that today. One thing that's happening is that there is an increase in home recording equipment. Kids are buying the equipment, taking it home, and recording their music. They are realizing that a lot of those groups they see on MTV – making the big money, enjoying the fame, winning the awards – are musically less competent than they are.

Is rock a cultural wasteland now – are there any good groups?

I'm sure there are, but I haven't heard any.

Would you say that any of today's rock musicians teach you anything about music?

No, what's there to learn? I've been around for 20 years.

Is it possible to reach stardom in rock music without looking good on a video?

I'd say it's possible, but highly improbable.

Have you put out a video?

Yeah, but it didn't do so well.

You 're a pioneer in digital music and have put out many of your albums on CD. Are compact discs that much better than LPs?

Sure. I don't know of anybody who likes to hear music on records with all kinds of scratches on them. There's no comparison in the quality of the sound. It' s just another piece of audio equipment. The compact disc will only be as good as the music that is put on it.

Where do you get your musical ideas?

By being alive, from reading a lot – newspapers, all kinds of books, TV, talking to people.

Do you ever worry that one day you might experience writer's block and run out of ideas?

I never thought it could happen to me. But one day it did. I just woke up one morning and said to myself, "What am I going to do now?" [laughs] But, sure enough, the next day I had an idea. The experience scared the hell out of me. I hope it doesn't happen again.

Do you feel that you have to be constantly working to be creative?

No, but I love to work. Before you came, I was upstairs working. After I'm through with you, I will go back up there. I hate holidays! [laughs] In fact, I make sure I work extra hard on holidays.

You're a family man. You don't hate Christmas do you?

[Laughs] I feel Christmas is something that should be experienced by others.

Do you see yourself playing rock and roll when you're 60?

No. I hope there is such a thing as rock and roll when I'm 60. If the recording industry doesn't take a long hard look at itself, I won't have to worry about playing rock and roll. When I'm 60, I might be saying: How'd they do that? What did they call it –  rock and roll? [laughs] There are other forms of the music besides rock and roll. I could try something else.

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

Being able to earn a living this long playing music. And to do it without radio time. I guess I've been lucky.

Note. Another edited version of this interview appeared earlier in Gallery magazine, June 1989.