My epitaph: anything, anytime, any place, for no reason at all

By ?

Humo, December 1993

Zappa's definition of popjournalists was: "People who can't write interviewing people who can't talk in order to provide articles for people who can't read." And, when asked what he would do if one day he were to become old and uninspired, he simply answered: "I'll become a journalist." The Last Questions!

HUMO: Are your records still being censored in America? Us Europeans hear some rumours about the Moral Majority from time to time, but don't take them seriously.

Zappa: Well you should. The Moral Majority is a bunch of corrupted politicians, mediaeval crusaders, slick businessmen and hypocritical priests. No problem so far. Only: the Moral Majority is neither moral, nor a majority. They are a small yet influential group of bookburners that is trying to rule out any form of alternative, anarchistic or progressive youthculture under the flag of Pure Values. But these fanatics make a lot of noise, you know. It's the old principle of "a squeaky wheel gets the grease; if you just shout hard enough for enough time, you get a lot of attention. If what these prophets of censorship are saying is true, namely that listening to some popmusic can lead to inappropriate behaviour, or even suicide, then everyone that at one time listened to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, is a potential killer... because those were the favourite groups of mass murderer Charles Manson.

What type of song is most abundantly around? Lovesongs. So if songs really did have any effect, we'd all love eachother. The creepy thing about these fanatics is that they get a lot of financial support from very conservative businessmen. Because of the American system of commercial television, it's very easy for them to gain access to TV-shows, and to deny others this access. A televangelist like Jim Baker - a man who was preaching against immorality in society, to get caught with a hooker consequently - can just step up to a television company and say: "I want to rent one hour of TV-time a day". For 25.000 dollars per hour this TV-company is quite interested. The contract is signed. But then Baker says: "This, this and this program of yours has people/popartists/writers in it that I don't like. You either stop giving these people a forum, or I withdraw my investment." The TV-company doesn't take any chances, and hey! Another person has been rendered speechless.

And if Baker's pressure isn't big enough, he drags in the advertising-investors: the head of a multinational that advertises washing powder usually is a right-wing conservative, so this guy will threaten to pull back his advertising budget. That usually is sufficient in making TV-companies change their mind. It is no coincidence that a senile puppet on a string like Ronald Reagan was able to become president with the aid of these religious maniacs. Jimmy Swaggart got caught with a hooker as well. And Oral Roberts claimed he had seen a 3.00 meter big Jesus that commanded him to raise five million dollars within a year, or America would cease to exist... That's the sort of clowns Reagan was involved with. You can find my opinion on these personal friends of God briefly in "Jesus thinks you're a jerk", which I have dedicated with my utmost regards to the televangelists.

Furthermore I had sort of hoped that other artists such as Prince would join me in my criticism on the PMRC. But no, apparently even he was afraid that his music would no longer get any airplay. When he's one of the very artists whose lyrics and image are being attacked the most! On the other hand there's also the power of money: if marketing studies point out that "Cop Killer" is going to make a lot of money, "Cop Killer" will be released. It's that simple.

Anyway, my music has been censored ever since the early days. I remember I had to accept an award in Holland in 1970. During the award ceremony I heard "We're only in it for the money" being played in the background. It appeared as though the needle on the record was jumping. Only later it became clear what had really happened: when mastering the album, a censor had had the task of making a scratch with a razorknife on every piece of music that had "intolerable usage of language"! Know what else is amusing? When the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union, I got regular messages from East-German and Russian fans who said that: when you listened to my music, you phone was tapped and you were being tailed. So then, if my music has such a bad influence in the communist countries, then why isn't being hailed by the capitalist government in the Land Of The Free? Or maybe there isn't all that much difference between both of these authoritarian regimes?

Aah... censorship is always wrong. And to think you can fight sexual and other violence by forbidding popmusic is as stupid as preventing dandruff by means of decapitation. In any case, don't ever forget: censorship is a beginning. First hardrock is being put in shackles. Then ordinary rock. Then literature. Then follow the black lists, and enforced Bible-study at school... and before you know it, the earth is flat again, "witches" are being burned again, and we have a new Hitler among us. After all these years, my main parental advice is still: keep your kids as far away as you can from church.

HUMO: Speaking of kids: why did you give yours such weird names? Dweezil, Ahmet, Diva, Moon Unit...?

Zappa: They are original names. Period. And besides: if their names have caused them any trouble, it will have been their last name. That's what causes trouble sometimes.

HUMO: Why?

Zappa: Because of my reputation, what else. In the eyes of clean citizens, I am still a bizarre freak undermining authority. And they are right! At least: I try to be that in my art. But in reality I'm a lot more to the point and normal than most people think. I've never been one of those whacked out hippies. In 1967, "We're only in it for the money" was the only record that dared make critical comments with regards to the hippiewave and the flower power. We - my band The Mothers Of Invention - weren't hippies, but freaks. The difference was that, just like squares (the American term for conformist citizens), hippies actually wore some kind of uniform, had a uniform use of language and a flock mentality. Whereas freaks were more individualistic. Nevertheless the bourgeois deemed us bizarre enough to treat us as outlaws. This got to the point where, during recordings at MGM for our first record, we were excluded from the MGM cafeteria because of our long hair. And we were shadowed for a while by FBI- or CIA-agents that filmed us secretly and searched my house.

I can remember being criticized over having said at a concert in London, that students had better concentrated upon their studies instead of wasting their time with protest marches and strikes. Because as soon as you become a lawyer or a doctor or a politician, you have a lot more pulling power to change the world than you would have being a longhaired student. Twenty years later I still think in an unconventional way, but otherwise I work a whole lot more efficiently than a lot of these businessmen in their designer suits: I don't take drugs, I get up early, I am a workaholic, I lead my own company... It is a false assumption to think you have to lead a crazy life in order to have original ideas, and it's also a false assumption that leading a normal life means conforming to the majority. For instance, I am a family man. I love my family. My family is the cornerstone of my society. I'm said to be a weirdo, a freak, but none of my kids takes drugs, or has been arrested by the police, or have committed suicide, or ran away from home... How many of these conservative parents can say that of their kids?

HUMO: You've also stood up against the interference of politics in the media and vice versa, an interference which, according to you, has a direct effect on pop music. Is the condition of the American media really that bad?

Zappa: It's very simple. You can hear music on the radio and see it on television. And somebody always owns the TV-station. For instance General Electric owns NBC. General Electric is also a producer of weapons. Do you think NBC will ever be criticized for dealing in weapons? Or that you'll ever hear songs on their radiostations containing lyrics that have any negative statement to that issue? Forget it. Take CNN, the newsstation owned by right-wing tycoon Ted Turner, who makes Hitler look like a left-wing hippie. Or Capitol Cities, which owns ABC, but also The Word, a publishing house of intolerant, cult-like religious lecture. Or CBS, which is controlled by Lawrence Tish, who procured pro-Reagan preachers like Pat Robertson with full talkshows in mid election time, to praise Reagan. For these guys, youthculture, and certainly that blasphemous popmusic, is the work of the devil. And now that communism is no longer a real enemy or boogieman, they aim their energy at other pseudo-dangers that are meant to divert the public's attention from the real social-economical problems.

HUMO: In 1988, there was talk of you running for president a while. Why didn't this happen?

Zappa: I fell ill. So i had other things on my mind. Pity though, because thousands of volunteers had offered to help out. But it was more of a statement than it was a real plan. The American Libertarian Party had asked me to be on their list earlier, but I refused because they are pro free bearing of arms, which is madness. The right to bear arms is the nail in America's coffin. In the States each year 30.000 people are killed by other civilians with bullets. In England, which doesn't support the right to bear arms, it's a mere 20. But if you suggest that there might be a connection between 30.000 dead and the right to bear arms on the one hand, and 20 dead and NO right to bear arms on the other hand, then, according to some, you're a filthy communist crackpot (laughs). It's absurd.

I'm still doing my best to wake up young people. In America there is no obligation to vote, and the only reason an idiot like Reagan got to power is because most of the young people didn't go out to vote. So during the "Broadway the hard way"-tour, I put up voting booths in every concert hall, where young people could go to register to vote. Of course, it's still hard to motivate them to vote if they only have a choice between two nitwits. The choice in the American twoparty-system is between Tweedledee and Tweedledum; between earwax and toecheeze: you don't want either one to be running the country. And as for my political aspirations: I don't figure myself joining a political party. I still second Groucho Marx who said: "I don't want to be part of a club that would have someone like me for a member."

HUMO: You were once a financial correspondent in the Soviet Union for the American TV-station FNN (Financial News Network). Zappa as financial advisor??

Zappa: For them it was good to have a well known, controversial figure as an anchor man, and I finally got a forum and a bit of power. Not that I'm such a power hungry person but it's rare for someone like me to get a free tribune, because that's what "Frank Zappa's Wild Wild East" was. The Eastern countries fascinated me very much but then, after the fall of Gorbachev, chaos set in, and it became impossible to do anything sensible. Everything overthere evolved so quickly. I had a meeting with one Michael Kocab, a pianist who played in a rockgroup, but also composed classical music. He wanted to perform a number of my compositions in Prague, and asked if I could send him some sheet-music. Which I did. By the time they got to Prague, it appeared that Kocab had suddenly been chosen as a member of parliament! A little later I met Vaclav Havel himself; be bombarded me to his official one man cultural business delegation with America. But that was also sabotaged: Havel got under pressure from the Bush administration who said quite bluntly: You either distantiate yourself from that guy Zappa, or we boycott Chechoslovakia...

HUMO: Do you think the music-industry has improved over the last twenty years?

Zappa: No. Most of the radio-stations, particularly the American ones, are very reactionary, you hardly ever hear anything besides the latest hits and evergreens that once were hits. O, and also: new hits that are cover-versions of old hits. But everything else beyond or in-between that, doesn't get any airplay. Everything has gotten too big, and this kind of magnitude is always bad. The record-stores have become supermarkets, where you can only find more of the same. Record-stores with a vision and some variety in what they offer, have become rare. These days it's almost never possible to listen to the records before you buy them, they're packed in a sealed plastic package.

Music itself hasn't improved much either. When I started there were no rules: we did what sounded right; what worked, worked. Now there's a huge amount of rules and at the same time, so much is lost. For one thing I deplore the fact that the concept of improvisation in popmusic, even during live concerts, has almost completely disappeared. "Live" has become a relative notion by the way: during some concerts half of what you hear is on tape, or is being lead through a sequencer, or bluntly playbacked. Popconcerts nowadays have become totally risk-free, and that's why they are totally opposite to the sort of concerts I have always given. Improvisation was vital for my shows, and if something unexpected happened, I simply integrated it into the show. One of the "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore"-CD's has a version of "St-Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" and "Don't eat the yellow snow". There was a drunk that kept shouting; we had him recite a completely ludicrous poem on stage, which he made up on the spot. But it fitted perfectly into the song, and the result was fabulous.

I hardly ever listen to any rock anymore. I listen to Bulgarian, Indian and Arab folk music; classical music from the renaissance, early rhythm 'n blues; modern composers from the beginning of the 20th century: Bartok, Strawinski... Maybe that's why my rockmusic sounds so original. If you only listen to other rock as a rock musician, it must in the end start to sound sterile and incestuous? This tagging mentality is so limiting. In America, radiostations always want to know if I'm playing pop, rock, jazz, avant-garde music or whatever. I make Zappa-music, that touches all of these areas, and also classical, big band, as on The Grand Wazoo. Another one of those things: everything that deviates from the norm, almost certainly doesn't stand a chance. I am convinced that someone like me couldn't get a record deal if I made my debut today. Record companies are lead by mental pygmees that still offer contracts to the new Milli Vanillli's, because they immediately bring in money, and by the time the scandal breaks out that Milli Vanilli can't sing, there's new Milli Vanilli's waiting around the corner.

Videoclips! Another one of those disasters: videoclips and the power of MTV... terrible! The budget of a videoclip these days is often bigger than the recording budget of the album! And MTV has a monopoly-position in which it can make or break careers. I've only made one videoclip, for "You Are What You Is". It was hardly ever shown anywhere... Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Reagan appeared in it... on the electric chair (laughs). Another thing that startles me in popprograms on TV, is that in many countries they are being presented by old men, or by rented models that know jack shit of music. It's a mystery to me that young people accept this. My son Dweezil presented a popprogram for a while, but at least he's really young, and knows the groups he's presenting personally, and is a good musician himself that can jam along if necessary; he knows what he's talking about. And when he's tells an anecdote, it's a real anecdote, not one written by someone else.

HUMO: Why, for years, have your albums only been available through postal services?

Zappa: Because for years I have been conned by my manager and by Warner Brother Records. I filed a lawsuit against them in 1983, and since then I've been the owner of my own songs - which is more than Paul McCartney can say - and I've started up Barkin Pumpkin Records, my own record company, and Munchkin Music, my own music house. It took a while before I found a reliable distributor. It was also a way to control the bootlegs to some extent. In the first twenty years of my career I've made fourty records, but at the same time there was something like five hundred Zappa-bootlegs on the market!

Let me tell you something about managers. In 1969 we were the support act for a major jazzconcert with Duke Ellington as headliner, by then a living legend. Well, I've witnessed Ellington asking his manager for an advance of 10 dollars, so he could buy cigarettes. I swear! And that son of a bitch wouldn't give it to him! That was my first experience with managers. You can't trust anybody, folks. I hope young musicians remember that well.

HUMO: What do you think of sampling?

Zappa: Sampling in my view is equal to stealing... It's recycling. Just like rap. Jesus, rap is nothing new. On "Freak Out!" (1966) there was already a rapsong: "Return of the son of monster magnet". Aah, this recycling of old trends... Many people think that a sixties freak like me praises the present recycling of the sixties, but that is very much not the case: I find it to be proof of anemia. Sponsors: another recent pernicious trend! I've never let my music be abused to sell coke or beer or cigarettes. But nowadays popgroups have absolutely no problem with this kind of opportunism to the expense of their fans. There's only a few, among which Bob Dylan, that refuse sponsoring out of principle.

HUMO: You refer sarcastically to "Debbie" somewhere. Who is she?

Zappa: Debbie my fictious characterization of the prototype of your average listener. Popmusic these days is made for Debbie. Debbie's 14 years old. Her parents are patriots, and Debbie has been raised with all the values that come with that. Debbie's not very bright. She dreams of kissing an All American Boy. She loves songs with lyrics about sweet boys and girls that dance or go to the beach. These songs have to be sung by hip, flashy boys that look like Mister Ken. That's how Debbie thinks, and it's to her tastes that the hitpareds are being fine-tuned.

HUMO: If Debbie is Debbie, then who are you?

Zappa: I'm the ugly kid from the neighbours that wants to look under her dress, reads books late at night and makes music himself in his garage. I'm also the little kid in the parable of "The Emperors New Cloths" who is the only one to see through the emperor and shout that the Emperor is actually naked.

HUMO: Humour in popmusic is hard to find these days.

Zappa: Sure. Macho-behavior and humour can't be mixed. And hits are holy, so satire is also taboo. I can recall how my parodies of Bob Dylan, Peter Frampton and the Beatles were seen as blasphemious. I love Dylan and the Beatles, but you have to be able to laugh at everything. Frampton's "I'm in you" we made that into "I have been in you". The lyrics to "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" I turned into "picture yourself on a whore in New Orleans...", and so forth. The Beatles themselves could laugh at that, but their fans couldn't. Some musical pieces, such as the "Bolero" have become such pompous clichés, that I like to pierce through them with an unusual cover version. I've given a similar treatment to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven", another one of those clichés.

HUMO: You're also a master guitarplayer, and the only guitarist to have issued a triple album of nothing but guitar solo's on "Shut Up 'n Play yer guitar".

Zappa: I've stopped playing the guitar a couple of years ago. I concentrate more on the Synclavier now. I think most guitarists play the way they talk, and since I have a rather whimsical baritone voice, I've an urge more than others, to use the lower strings of my guitar during solo's. I'm not much of a screamer that hangs around the high notes for too long. Other than that, as for my guitar solo's, I can only say that I always invented them on the spot. I think I have a talent for melodious improvisations. These days the 'big' guitarists play solo's that have been rehearsed note for note, and are being duplicated neatly during concerts. If it sounds like the studio version, everybody's happy. I think that's very boring. But as long as the playing is very fast, everybody thinks it's fine. That I also find very boring.

HUMO: From where this obsession with the Synclavier? Where's the fun in making records all by yourself, the only feedback being a machine?

Zappa:The fun of that is: efficiency. Finally I am no longer dependent of the inconstancy, the technical limitations and the monstrous ego's of other pop musicians. For years I've worked with musicians that first applied to join the band because they thought the music was challenging, then started to complain as it turned out I set high standards, and then bragged about having played with the Mothers after being fired. That's why I made "Francesco Zappa", "Mothers Of Prevention" and "Jazz From Hell" on the synclavier, which i very much liked, so...

A second reason is that in the latest years, I've primarily been involved with non-popmusic, and the synclavier is ideal for making filmsoundtracks, balletscores and choral, classical works. I've also slowly come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter much what musicians are playing my music. I prove this on "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore" by the way: some live versions on those albums are seamless mixes of various gigs of different tours with different lineups. Still, you wouldn't say that from listening to it. I've also grown a bit tired with rock 'n roll. I mean: after twenty five years I know I can make a tune that you can hum along with, and lyrics that are funny. I don't want to repeat myself. It became time for something else.

HUMO: You've released over 60 records. Which five must the 'layman' obtain in order to get an idea of who Frank Zappa really is?

Zappa: "Freak Out!" because it was the first record, and because it differed drastically from any other record at the time. "Joe's Garage" because of the songs and the fact that I predicted the censorship-wave 10 years before the facts. "Thingfish", because of the songs. "Broadway the hard way" because it's a very political record, without this having a negative drawback upon the music, and because I think this record procures a reasonably accurate image of the eighties. And a couple of live albums: "Roxy & Elsewhere" and "Zappa In New York", as documents in time, and as a lasting memory of what my groups where capable of in those days.

HUMO: Are there any projects that you would've liked to conclude, but couldn't?

Zappa: Yes, thousand and one things. Classical pieces, rock opera's, a multimedia tour, a project with three-dimensional television, my own TV-station, loads of own records, projects with Dweezil and Ahmet, a jubilee show at the occasion of my fiftieth birthday: "Zappa's Universe"...

I would also like to produce Bob Dylan. A couple of years ago he suddenly stood on my doorstep. I hadn't seen a picture of him in years, so I wasn't sure if this shabby vagabond I was looking at on the video monitor, was really Dylan. So I sent my sound technician - who's more in tune with pop music than me - to the door to see if it was Dylan. It was him. He played a couple of songs for me on the piano, and I gave him some suggestions, but it never grew into anything more. Pity, because Bob is one of the few people I would call a kindred soul.

HUMO: Do you have a motto?

Zappa: My motto and epitaph is: "Anything, anytime, any place, for no reason at all".