Hail And Farewell

By Ben Watson

The Wire, February, 1994

Last October Frank Zappa summoned Ben Watson to Hollywood to read sections of his forthcoming Zappa book to the man himself. This was one of the last encounters the rock legend had with the press he loved to hate – Watson describes a visit both moving and intriguing. Pictures by Derek Ridgers.


The Frank Zappa family mansion is in a desirable residential spot, the craggy terrain creating twists and turns in the roads, a welcome break from the endless grid of the rest of LA. It’s also high up, affording a view of San Fernando Valley and catching a breeze that is denied those who swelter below. Negotiating the curves of Laurel Canyon Boulevard in a car is like driving in Greece; the road is in a similar state of disrepair. There’s only the endless traffic and polluted air to remind you that you are not in the Mediterranean.

Fire destroyed the original log cabin the Zappas moved into in l968, and what replaced it has gradually been extended and modified into an extraordinary warren of rooms, studios and underground storage chambers (even now, the work hasn’t finished). When I visited, the household was a hive of activity. Despite Zappa’s illness, life was going on as usual; building work, endless phone calls, decisions about business details, news about Dweezil Zappa’s recordings and Ahmet Zappa’s burgeoning film career. The house is littered with books and records by writers and artists who have been inspired by Frank and wish to show their gratitude.

I’d flown to LA to negotiate clearance for quoting song-lyrics in my book Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play. Zappa has never suffered fools gladly, and those of the rock press least of all. Luckily, a sample of the book (those pages comparing his album Apostrophe (’) to King Lear, along with an exposition of the place of the poodle in Western culture, from Jacobean revenge tragedy via Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Frank O’Hara), had convinced him and his wife Gail that I was, at the very least, no regular rock hack. Gail gave me a call, asking how much of this stuff I’d written, where was it published, why it had taken so long to get in contact? I was touched by the relaxed and graceful way she spoke. Truth to tell, it had never occurred to me that Frank could approve of my style; his book Them Or Us (of computer printouts, towards a playscript, from 1984) was specifically “not for intellectuals or other dead people” and his bad experiences of London (the broken leg, the Albert Hall court case) made him notoriously anti-English. Here was I applying the music-critical theories of Theodor Adorno and Susan McClary to his art; surely the recipe for one of his withering put-downs!

After gazing into the eye of the security camera, I rang the bell. I was let into the house by Mark Holdom, who takes care of Zappa Records business, walked past a sticker from the SST label (“Corporate rock sucks!”) to the “listening room”. The music of Edgard Varèse – in a startlingly impactful version which I was to learn was played by the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Frank – was playing from six wall-mounted speakers, sounding deliriously beautiful. Framed on the back wall I spotted the famous letter from the old composer to the 15-year-old Frank. Edgard Varèse died in 1965; Frank’s first record appeared in 1966 with the Varèse quote Zappa made famous: “The present day composer refuses to die!”

Here Gail met me, then led me up to the kitchen/living room where Frank was sitting. He had stopped shaving, his famous moustache lost in a pepper-and-salt beard that made him look like an Old Testament prophet. His handshake was soft, and his voice frail and hoarse. He told me that he and Gail had so enjoyed my writing “because I can’t stand the bard ...”, to which Gail made a noise of disagreement (I was to learn that they thrived on having divergent views on practically everything).

I was introduced to Faithe Raphael from Rhino Records and Spence Chrislu, Zappa’s recording engineer. Frank said he would like to make the book a “spoken word” project, and had Spence time me reading out the first three pages, which clocked in at six minutes – at this rate we were talking about a 16-hour release! “In your 10 day schedule that’s not inconceivable,” said Frank, with the kind of deadpan confidence with which he must have presented countless projects to record labels throughout his career. “You see, I believe in marketing.” His eye twinkled at this temptation for a Frankfurt School marxist and militant anti-consumerist like me. He said the spoken word release should tie in with a college lecture tour.

Zappa insisted that we hear the first disc of his newly finished double CD Civilisation Phase III, and also check out the “Al Malkin tapes” – which meant a trip downstairs. Phase III is a work for the Synclavier computer that uses just about every sound Zappa has ever employed in a dense-packed continuum. The music is unrelentingly abstract, probably the most ambitious he has undertaken so far.

Spence Chrislu’s first job for Frank was to provide a “bible” (a catalogue of digital transcriptions of 25 cassettes) for the Al Malkin tapes, homerecordings made by someone whose only claim to fame is that he went to school with Warren Cucurullo, the guitarist on 1979’s Joe’s Garage. Listening to Malkin’s sexual braggadocio was too much for Faithe, who drifted back upstairs saying she thought she preferred Wild Man Fischer (another figure with no obvious “talent” recorded by Zappa in 1969). Spence himself treated the material like a technician examining a disgusting centipede at the end of sterilized tweezers. Malkin’s exploits – the desperate attempts of someone “with a recording contract from Frank Zappa” to hustle women back to his smelly pad – are alternately hilarious and upsetting. Zappa’s emphasis on social behaviour without redeeming features has always been fascinating. I appreciated Faithe’s disinterest, but found myself laughing despite my qualms. When a law student on the streets of New York critiques the legal disclaimer Malkin wants her to sign, allowing her voice to appear on the record, it immediately raises the issues of copyright and privacy and decorum – bad games with tape-recorders – that Zappa has always experimented with. Malkin’s joyful discovery of pus on Warren’s dick is so hysterically delivered it is practically music: one of the dishevelled moments that Zappa loves to dwell on.

It seemed like Frank was not only demonstrating the heights and depths of his art: he was also creating a bizarre social situation. What would Faithe think of me sitting still for such stuff? Does the Zappologist put up with anything? Worse, what kind of status did this give my own book? Was I simply another Al Malkin? Back upstairs, we discussed what my book was trying to do. “It’s all entertainment,” said Frank. I said I was maybe just translating his work into a different vocabulary. “And that’s valid too,” he rejoined.

On Friday nights everyone in the house employees and family – collects together and drinks margheritas (a drink which is like a snowball with a shot of tequila), a tradition started by engineer Dave Dondorf after a particularly crisis-ridden day in the studio. Frank’s friends started appearing: cartoonist Matt Groening, who created, draws and scripts The Simpsons, and Bobby Plotnik, an old friend of Frank’s who runs record shops in LA and New York. I was asked to do a reading, and delivered an in-depth analysis of the cover of Uncle Meat. When I finished my text – on reification, Nazism and teeth – Frank reached over and shook me by the hand. Everyone clapped. Not even my dream encounters with Frank had gone so well.

Frank and Gail then wanted me to read the Apostrophe (’) / King Lear section, which I did. Groening called it “demented scholarship”. I followed it with the conflation of Plato’s Phaedo and Fido the poodle-dog (a protagnist in Apostrophe (’)). While Frank’s feet were being rubbed with tiger balm to alleviate the pain caused by his prostate cancer, I discoursed about the last days of Socrates and the mortality of the soul (when Socrates drank the hemlock as ordered by the court, he first felt his feet go cold, then the coldness rose to his heart). Bobby went to the record player and put on some doo-wop records, including “Can I Come Over Tonight” by The Velours. The quintuplets of the bass singer allow the falsetto to turn high weaslings into virtuosic curlicues. Ears full of the abstractions of “N-Lite” from Civilisation Phase III had no problem at all in hearing Edgard Varèse in this R&B: the kind of insights you would expect sitting in Frank Zappa’s kitchen.

The conversation moved on to the fact that Frank did not read philosophy, and therefore could not have consciously parodied The Phaedo. Frank remained enigmatically silent. I countered that artists deal intuitively with words and concepts, and do not consciously plot each and every resonance of the symbols and themes they play with. Frank nodded. Certainly the Fido/Phaedo pun in Apostrophe (’) – hinted at eight years later (but never actually made) by Jacques Derrida, in The Post Card From Socrates To Freud And Beyond (1980) – is a striking example of what Gail calls Frank’s “prescience”: “There are many many many examples of things that Frank has said that have happened,” she told me. “Some of them really very inside, just silly references. A perfect example of that is just the title Chunga’s Revenge – if you look in the artwork, there’s the vacuum cleaner dancing around in the studio, a gypsy dancer ... and we didn’t know this, but in Spain there’s a very very famous dancer called La Chunga who does the flamenco dances with the castanets and everything. That’s a bizarre example, not of prescience perhaps, but certainly of being in tune with something on a cosmic level – more of that cosmic debris.”

Gail’s reference to “cosmic debris” is a reference to Frank’s famous song “Cosmik Debris” which denounced fraudulent gurus on Apostrophe (’). There is always a danger that excitement with bizarre coincidence can become mystical. The materialist explanation, as put forward by the surrealists (and used in my book), derives from the idea that form is sedimented content: meditation on the concept of faith (central term for Christianity via the material form of the Latin for “I believe”: fido) pans out to consideration of the domestication of our animal nature (Fido, Faithe Raphael) and to the repression inherent in seeking pie in the sky (The Phaedo). History has packed Plato into the very name of the dog.

In a break during readings, I told Zappa how people find the mixture of signals in his music – cerebral abstractions one minute, shocking moments of human dishevelment the next – highly confusing. His reply was unapologetic; “Why? That’s the universe – it’s the way the universe is.”

Zappa used sexual reference not as a way of sugaring the pill of a commodity (eg Living Colour caging a woman on the cover of their last album), but as a means of sabotage. According to him, normal, radio-friendly pop music is “designed to confirm someones lifestyle, enhance a direction towards the future.” He believed his own music didn’t work like that. Given the fact that it plunders every genre for its effects, it is hard to see what kind of lifestyle it could enhance. Nor was his interest in composition casual. He saw himself as a serious innovator, dedicated to producing the latest in musical art-abstractions. It wasn’t just infatuation with the image of inscribing black dots on manuscript paper, nor a yen to be included in the list of “great” composers (“It’s not important to worry about posterity,” he said. “People who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan and Bush”); nor was it derived from daydreams about a world of classical perfection in the past. For Zappa, composition was a practical matter.

“There wouldn’t even be a score, if what was being requested of the musicians wasn‘t too complicated for me to hum it to ‘em. In the most instances, I find I get the best results if they’re playing stuff they’ve memorised. The point where the piece goes into muscle memory, you can then conduct it, do things with it that are impossible when they’re reading. The final artistic result is not a score – it’s the master tape.”

Not a score: the master tape. Given that Zappa’s music has a pronounced populist – not to say vulgar – streak, why is it not better known? Whatever the complexities he indulges, there is always a ferocious glossiness to the sound that speaks pure Hollywood. He was as commercial as sin: why did he not clean up? One reason is that Zappa committed the crime of not only speaking out against drugs (a common ruse), but not using them. According to Zappa, Warner Brothers A&R personnel of the 70s would arrive backstage with suitcases full of drugs, as if cocaine were the automatic passport to the hip. Zappa has always derided drugs and drug culture (apart from the special case of William Burroughs, whom he venerates, joking about giving him a call and offering him his morphine-derived painkillers), preferring cigarettes and black coffee to substances that “make you dozy and trip over the furniture”.

Zappa hated the idea of freedom as a solitary mental trip (his song “Tiny Lites”’ is like a compressed version of Philip K Dick’s satire The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch).

“The part in the song that turns out to be weird to rock’n’roll critics is the part that’s important, and the other stuff is just something to set you up for the little twist. Without the setup, the twist doesn’t work, and oftentimes the compositions are designed to lead you right down the primrose path until you hit the brick wall.”

Limits were always important to Zappa. At a time when every arts brochure and record ad talks about “breaking boundaries”, Zappa’s view – from someone whose eclecticism is unparalleled – is inspirationally bullshit-free. In Zappa’s guitar playing the fiercest electronic storms are ineluctably infused with an extraordinary melancholy; a lament at the separations and claustrophobia of modern society. It is like Iggy Pop answering his own song “Brick By Brick” (about building up a domestic haven against the tough world outside) with the lines “What have we made? A giant jail, a bunch of walls, that’s all we’ve made ...

It is this unblinking view of the world, resistant to liberal blandishments and pious hopes, that makes Zappa’s legacy endure. Other – perhaps more immediately comforting – sounds seem destined to turn out as trivial and dated as the pop songs of the 40s. Frank Zappa is an enduring puzzle: maybe the place he doesn’t fit indicates something about the shape of the whole.

One way of looking at Zappa’s work is as a prolonged meditation on freedom. In 1968, We’re Only In It For The Money mocked the hippies by suggesting that they read Franz Kafka’s shocking tale “In The Penal Colony”, and meditate on the concentration camps (originally used for interning Japanese Americans during World War II) that were being prepared by the Californian authorities for civil rights and anti-war activists. The decline of the American left and the eventual victory of Reaganism a decade later made such measures unnecessary, but Zappa’s political vision – especially with the current growth of the far right in Europe – is still capable of chilling the blood:

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way, and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theatre.”

Frank Zappa: a modern composer who looked hard at social facts. A rare phenomenon.

Frank Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer on Saturday 4 December after four years of lighting it and was buried at a private family funeral the next day. Throughout our conversations and my readings it was clear he was in extreme pain, but he was determined to hear as much of my book as he could. Full of trepidation at facing a biographers ultimate critic, I was astonished to find that he only wished to correct factual errors. Some people have suggested that his interest in the book stemmed from a desire for respectable critical recognition, but that hardly accords with his insistence that I listen to Al Malkin’s obscenities. What I suspect is that Zappa relished the preposterousness of my enterprise: when I remarked that it was going to be strange lecturing a college audience on the meaning of “the wife of the TV evangelist is about to give the bellboy an enema”, he replied “But it’ll sound so grand with your English accent and all they won’t even notice ...”

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