Zappa and the Mothers: Ugly Can Be Beautiful
By Sally Kempton
It is 1 a. m. on a Friday night and the Mothers of Invention are recording part of the soundtrack for their forthcoming movie. Ian is playing the harpsichord and Bunk is playing the flute. They huddle together in a cluster of microphones, Bunk leaning over Ian's shoulder to read the music propped up on the harpsichord stand. Bunk wears a goatee and a matching moustache, and his long thick hair is gray ( in the studio light it looks like a powdered wig). Resembling a figure in an old etching, he bends closer to Ian, his flute poised, and Ian straightens his back and places his fingers on the harpsicord keys. Poised like musicians at a nineteenth-century musicale, they wait for a signal to begin. One feels they are waiting to play a Mozart sonata.
Inside the control booth Frank Zappa, wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend "Herzl Camp, Garner, Wisconsin," is fiddling with knobs on the control board. "You're going to have to do the parody notes more staccato, Ian," he says through the intercom.
"You want a little bebop vibrato on that too?" calls Ian.
"Yeah, a little bebop a go go," says Frank. Dick Kunc, the engineer, flips the "record" switch.
"OK, for fame and stardom," says Frank. "You ready?"
Ian and Bunk begin to play a series of dissonant, rhythmic, oddly beautiful chords. The people in the control booth listen intently.
"This is going to be a nice soundtrack," someone says.
Frank Zappa is bent over a music sheet, writing out the next piece. "Yeah," he says. "This is one the folks can enjoy listening to at home."
Frank Zappa is an ironist. He is also a serious composer, a social satirist, a promoter, a recording genius, but his most striking characteristic is his irony. Irony permeates his music, which is riddled with parodies of Charles Ives and Guy Lombardo, of Bartók and the Penguins and Bo Diddley and Ravel and Archie Shepp and Stravinsky and a whole army of obscure fifties rhythm and blues singers. It permeates his lyrics, which are filled with outlandish sexual metaphors and evocations of the culture of the American high school and the American hippie.
Irony is the basis of his public image. In pursuit of absurdity he has had himself photographed sitting naked on the toilet. His latest album is titled "We're Only in It for the Money". And he has appeared on television speaking in well-rounded periods about music and society and The Scene, all the while emanating a kind of inspired freakishness. Zappa's is the sort or irony which arises from an immense self-consciousness, a distrust of one's own seriousness. It is the most modernist of defense mechanisms, and Zappa is an almost prototypically modernist figure; there are moments when he seems to be living out a parody of the contemporary sensibility.
And now he and his group are teenage idols, or anti-idols, and Zappa's irony, which, because it is so often expressed through contemporary clichés, is the most accessible part of his musical idiom, turns on audiences and makes the Mothers, in addition to everything else, a splendid comedy act. Until recently Zappa's voice, the paradigm California voice, could be heard on the radio doing "greasy teen-age commercials" for Hagstrom Guitars. During the Mothers' live appearances he sits on a stool, his expression deadpan above his bandillero moustache, and occasionally he will lean over and spit on the floor under the bandstand, saying to the audience: "Pigs!"
"Actually, we don't turn on audiences," he said the other day. "Not in the sense that other groups do, anyway. I think of that sort of thing as the strobes going and everybody dancing and love-rock-at-the-Fillmore bullshit – if anybody felt like that about us it'd be for the wrong reasons. Last week we were playing in Philadelphia and we got seven requests, so we played them all at once. It was fantastic. Sherwood was playing the sax part to one song: the whole thing, even the rests. It was really great. But nobody knew what we were playing. They couldn't even tell the songs apart. Half the time, when we're really doing something, the audience doesn't know what it is. Sometimes the guys in the band don't know."
But the Mothers' first album sold a quarter of a million copies and the second has done almost as well. And when they played a long stretch at the Garrick last summer they were beset by loyal groupies. Perhaps the groupies sensed the presence of a governing intelligence, perhaps they simply dug perversity. In any case, the Mothers have an audience.
Frank Zappa is twenty-seven years old. He was born in Baltimore and began playing drums in a rock-and-roll band in Sacramento when he was fifteen.
"It's almost impossible to convey what the r and b scene was like in Sacramento," he says. "There were gangs there, and every gang was loyal to a particular band. They weren't called groups, they were called bands. They were mostly Negro and Mexican, and they tried to get the baddest sound they could. It was very important not to sound like jazz. And there was a real oral tradition of music. Everybody played the same songs, with the same arrangements, and they tried to play as close as possible to the original record. But the thing was that half the time the guys in the band had never heard the record – somebody's older brother would own the record, and the kid would memorize it and teach it to everybody else. At one point all the bands in Sacramento were playing the same arrangement of 'Okey Dokey Stomp' by Clarence Gatemouth Brown. The amazing thing was that it sounded almost note for note like the record."
Zappa was lying in bed, eating breakfast and playing with his three-month-old baby. He lives with his wife, Gail, and the baby, in a long basement apartment in the West Village. The apartment has a garden and its walls are papered with posters and music sheets and clippings from magazines; there is a full-length poster of Frank in the hall and a rocking chair in the living room with a crocheted cover that says "Why, what pigs?"
Frank was in bed because he had been up all night before, recording. "The reason I can stand New York is because I spend all my time here or at the studio," he said.
"Mostly at the studio," said his wife, smiling.
"Let's see, my life," he said. "Well, when I was sixteen my father moved us to a little town out in the country. That was terrible, I hated it. I was used to Sacramento, you see. I was the strangest thing that ever hit that high school. They were so anxious to get rid of me they even gave me a couple of awards when I graduated. After that my father wanted me to go to college. I said no, I was interested in music, I didn't want to go to college. So I hung out at home for a while, but there was nobody to talk to, everybody else being at college, so I finally decided I should go too. That was very ugly. I stayed for a year. In the meantime I had shacked up with this girl and married her. We stayed married for five years during which time I held a number of jobs" (he listed the jobs). "Then in 1963 we were living in Cucamonga and there was a recording studio there which I bought for $1000, also assuming the former owner's debts. He had hundreds of tapes, among them such big hits as" (he named three or four obscure songs) "and I took the tapes and the equipment and began fooling around. About that time I got divorced and moved into the studio. I spent all my time experimenting; a lot of stuff the Mothers do was worked out there."
A year later the studio was torn down to make room for a widened road, but by that time he had gotten the Mothers together. "We were playing at local beer joints for like six dollars a night. I finally decided this would not do, so I began calling up all the clubs in the area. This was in 1965, and to get work you had to sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. You also had to have long hair and due to an unfortunate circumstance all my hair had been cut off. I used to tell club managers that we sounded exactly like the Rolling Stones. Anyway we finally got a booking in a club in Pomona, and were something of a hit. It was more because of our act than because of our music. People used to go away and tell their friends that here was this group that insulted the audience.
"Then MGM sent someone around to sign us to a contract. Their guy came into the club during a set of 'Brain Police' and he said, 'Aha, a protest rhythm and blues group,' so they paid us accordingly. The fee we got for signing was incredibly small, particularly considering the number of guys in the group."
Nowadays, of course, Zappa runs something of an empire. He has an advertising agency ("mostly to push our own products, at least so far"), and a movie coming out which someone else shot but for which they are going to do the soundtrack. The movie is a surrealistic documentary called "Uncle Meat"; it is shot in a style Zappa refers to as "hand-held Pennebaker bullshit," and it will be edited to fit the music.
"Then we're going to do a monster movie in Japan – Japan is where they do the best monster work. And we're starting our own record company. We'll record our own stuff and also some obscure new groups."
It was time for him to go to the studio. The Mothers have rented Apostolic Studios on Tenth Street for the entire month of January – "One hundred and eighty hours – not as much time as the Beatles use, of course, we can't afford that" – and that is where Zappa spends most of his time. He puts on a brown leather greatcoat, pulls a red knitted cap over his ears, and sets out, talking about his music as he walks.
"Stockhausen isn't really an influence," he says. "That is, I have some of his records but I don't play them much. Cage is a big influence. We've done a thing with voices, with talking, that is very like one of his pieces, except that of course in our piece the guys are talking about working in an airplane factory, or their cars.
"It was very tough getting the group together in the beginning. A lot of guys didn't want to submit to our packaging. They didn't like making themselves ugly, but they especially didn't like playing ugly. It's hard getting a musician to play ugly, it contradicts all his training. It's hard to make them understand that all that ugliness taken together can come out sounding quite beautiful."
The studio, when he arrived, was nearly deserted, except for Mother Don Preston, who sat at the organ wearing earphones and playing a piece audible only to himself. "Can you run a playback on the violins?" he asked when Frank came in.
"Sure," said Frank. "We recorded this thing last night. I found some violins in a closet and I gave them to three of the guys. None of them had ever played a violin before. They were making all these weird sounds on them, and then in the middle I got them to add some farts. It's a concerto for farts and violins."
But instead of playing back the violin thing, Dick put on a tape of "Lumpy Gravy," one of the Mothers' new records, an instrumental piece, framed at the beginning and end with cocktail music, and interspersed with quiet, hollow, surreal voices talking behind a continuous hum of resonating piano strings. The music has overtones of Bartók and Ives, but by some stylistic alchemy it ends by sounding like nothing but Zappa. It is an impressive record. Three or four people had drifted into the control room while it was playing, and after it was over someone said, "I love that piece."
"Yeah, but will the kids go for it," said Frank.
"It's good to have it out," said Don, "so people will know what you can do."
"No, no," Frank said. "It's good to have it out so I can take it home and listen to it."
Other copies of this article you can find at:
- The Age Of Rock, edited by Jonathan Eisen
- blogs.villagevoice.com – unfortunately one part is missing because of the torn page
- zappa.com, articles & interviews – copied from St. Alphonzo with typos.
- Kill Ugly Radio – this is the best.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net