Frank Zappa – The Head Mother
By Stuart J. Scott
"I went to college to get laid. So, I got laid, dropped out of school, shacked up for a year, got married, stayed married for 5 years, got a divorce, got a recording studio, got busted, left the recording studio, put the Mothers together, moved to L.A., got auditioned for MGM Records, the guy gave us $2500 and a recording date, and that's what happened." The autobiography of Frank V. Zappa.
In spite of the fact that middle class America would scorn his past and his present, Zappa has all the makings of emerging as a voice of the future. He says he's an appliance a dishwasher he's here to make things happen.
His Greenwich Village basement apartment was cluttered with things and people and posters on the walls. We talked across a littered draftsman's table. The Sony recorder I brought was one of many in the apartment along with other sound equipment. Sound is one of Frank's primary concerns in producing an album. He does all the master tapes himself and then, "I give them to MGM to screw up."
"Not only do they chop things out of the masters, but they change the equalization to obscure whatever words are left."
Scott: What do they chop?
Zappa: They edit out some of the most unbelievably inane lines. In "We're Only In It For the Money," they took out a link between two choruses which completely altered the bridge. The line was, "And I still remember Mamma with her apron and her pad feeding all the boys at Ed's Cafe." They also chopped out, "I won't do publicity balling for you anymore," "Flower Power sucks" and a few other things. But, they're all back in.
Scott: Aren't there some legal problems if they leave some of those things in, especially the four letter words?
Zappa: No, the album itself is defensible as a work of art and as far as I'm concerned the entire package should be too including the words printed on the cover.
Scott: Have you had a problem with the covers?
Zappa: More than anything. In "Absolutely Free" I wanted all the words printed which caused a seven month delay because they wanted to censor them. Sure, I've had to change some things around a little bit, but at least I've done it all with my own hands and have retained control over the group's image and packaging.
Scott: Don't you feel compromised by this?
Zappa: I'm happier writing music even if I have to put words on it than I would be if I had to work in a gas station and write my radiant magnificence that never gets heard.
Scott: What do you mean, "even though I've had to put words on the music?"
Zappa: I don't care about the words. But, in order to get some things accomplished you have to conform to a certain extent. The words are a compromise I write music. The tunes and chord changes are really interesting and there's a lot happening in there. But because the vocal performances are so crappy and because they mix the sound to get the words up, you can't hear the tunes. So, we do it on a buffoon–protest–Spike Jones–a go-go level. A lot of people respond to the product and dig it that way "Ah, they're really saying something." I'm not going to ram the music down their throats though. If they're going to laugh at those songs, it's good. It's just entertainment, you know.
Scott: You mean the words don't mean much?
Zappa: I'm not saying I don't believe in those words, but it hurts my feelings to have to write them. If I am going to HAVE to write some words, at least they'll be the truth, instead of some sentimental junk. But, the truth is really in the music. It's unfortunate that most of the American people need some kind of verbal content.
Scott: Is that why it took so long to have your first album released?
Zappa: The Mothers were put together about three years ago and it took about a year before anyone ever heard us on a record thing. First we had to create a market for something which never existed. Secondly, we had to convince a stodgy industry that they could make money by turning out something they thought they could never get rich on.
Scott: Well, even now you could not say that you are fully accepted. Especially when it comes to getting airplay on the radio.
Zappa: We can afford to wait because we started out being grossly unpopular, so we can just keep doing whatever we want to do. I guess I'm pleasantly surprised when we get airplay, but I'm not astonished. Things are changing and I think we're here to motivate change. We want to get the facts out into the open and eventually, it just happens.
Scott: Is being ugly part of it?
Zappa: That's packaging. Most of the sales in the beginning can be attributed to point of purchase or impulse buying. It was planned that way so that an unknown, unwanted, unfamiliar thing leaps on the scene with a bargain deal that looked different from the rest of the albums that year. So, we dumped a few hundred thousand of them.
Scott: Are you saying that you really are only in it for the money?
Zappa: No, we're in it to get something done.
Zappa: Well, first of all, we're going to get a man named Tom Wilson* elected to the presidency in 1972. Then, after that we'll see what else happens.
Scott: What will that accomplish?
Zappa: First, it'll be fun doing it and I don't have anything better to do. And, second, he's capable and I think we can use a Negro in the White House and that's a challenge.
Scott: Is he capable first or a Negro first?
Zappa: Well, you have to consider the packaging. A capable man of any color has a more difficult job getting something done, especially if people suspect he really is capable. You see, American politics are a popularity contest. Since school you learn to distrust and dislike the people in class who are smarter unless they have PR appeal. If a smarty doesn't care much about being popular you'll hate his guts he's one of those Does His Homework types.
Scott: What about Wilson? Does he have PR appeal?
Zappa: Yes, a lot. He has a degree in economics and military science from Harvard and physical stamina way beyond the average. I watched him work for 4 or 5 days and told him that he would make a great president and that I think we're going to do something about it. It's taken two years since the "Freak-out" Album to convince him that he ought to give it a try. I think he's going to do it I think we've got him talked into it.
Scott: How are you going to start?
Zappa: Well, here's my plan: We have an outfit called United Mutations which is basically a pen pal club.** We have about 5,000 letters so far. By 1972 these kids who are 17 and 18 now are going to be ready to vote. Some of the kids are amazing, they are so perceptive and so into their own special local social scene.
Scott: How do you find them?
Zappa: I don't find them, they just write to us. Of course, it helps when we run an ad in "Marvel Comics." Got a letter from a guy in Viet Nam who said, "I'm a gunner and I feel nothing when I kill. Can you use me?"
Scott: What do you do with the letters once you get them?
Zappa: We try to screen the ones that look like they're strong personalities and put them in touch with other people in other parts of the country. They communicate with one another to come up with workable solutions to some of the problems that exist in their towns.
Scott: What are some of the problems?
Zappa: Getting along with parents, the police, local government and lack of interest in youth problems.
Scott: What causes most of the problems?
Zappa: Parents, school and church.
Scott: Can we take them one at a time?
Zappa: The parents are co screwed up themselves because of the way they were raised. They're unfortunate victims of their regimented environments which has put them in a state to pass on that plague to their children.
Scott: Do you think young people today are less fortunate because of it?
Zappa: No, the kids today are much luckier they're very fortunate because they have a chance to break the chain. Just by numerical statistics soon they'll be a majority. It's the same as the Negroes in the South being in the majority but being in the minority in terms of representation. There is really no youth representation in government. The bulk of the people running everything can't possibly relate to youth. They don't even know what the word means, especially since the overall complexion of the youth scene seems to change every four or five years.
Scott: Why do you think they can't relate to youth?
Zappa: Most of them are basically so shallow. They never had a chance to build any real values. There's no ethics, no morals, there's no nothing to the bulk of American Mommy and Daddyhood.
Scott: Was there ever?
Zappa: There must have been something there in the beginning. I don't know where it all went but it's gone except in the hearts of a few young people who just don't know any better. It hasn't been bred out of them yet. They haven't worked at someone's factory long enough.
Scott: Do you think we're at some sort of destiny kind of time?
Zappa: Yes, it's about time for something to happen.
Scott: As nonchalant as that?
Zappa: Sure, it's a social revolution. I don't like to think of destiny as: TA-TA-Da, DESTINY! It's going to happen and if you are involved in it you can carry out your role. I just have a feeling I'm supposed to do certain things, they feel natural to me, so I do them. Like electing a Negro president.
Scott: So, today youth has a choice where before there wasn't?
Zappa: Yes, I think if a person has the guts to say that nobody can stop him from what he wants to do, he can do it. I think a lot of parents are just pawns. I wouldn't be the way my father was. He had a fairly decent mind, but he was not in a position to break the chain because he had a family to support. He was an immigrant and there's sort of an immigrant mentality that says they have to make it in the new country.
Scott: How did they get that way?
Zappa: People allow themselves to be victimized. Most people are "other directed." They are born followers and that's all they want to do. It's comfortable. They want to be a part of whatever everyone else is following "just let me be in there."
Scott: What about the guy who gets stuck with a gun in Viet Nam?
Zappa: He is a prime example of the pawn. The draft and that whole military end of government is not just the defense of the country anymore. It's a little more important now than it ought to be in view of how the constitution was originally set up. It looks like it's pushing too much weight around. Formulating our moral policies, which I don't agree with.
Scott: What would you have our moral policy be?
Zappa: I don't think there should be one set policy until 100% of the population is well educated, clean and comfortable. There can be no such thing as a workable anarchy which would be very spiffy.
Scott: What do you mean by "workable anarchy"?
Zappa: A condition wherein there is no government, but things still run because people have a sense of responsibility. In other words, to breed individual leadership into everyone in the country so they would not have to worry about some smiling idiot who used to be on Death Valley Days running the country for them.
Scott: Is that the goal?
Zappa: It would be a nice goal. There may be a bunch of other solutions. I'm not a political theorist, I'm just a musician. I don't like to keep rapping on subjects that are not my main field. I'm just an appliance. I just help make things happen I'm a dishwasher.
Scott: How old are you?
Scott: I thought you were older.
Zappa: No, I'm just skinnier.
Scott: You seem to be hung-up on San Francisco. It's mentioned several times in the songs on "Money."
Zappa: The reason it pops up so often is that the album was recorded last summer and designed to be released immediately. It was supposed to hit the market as a parody of Flower Power and San Francisco.
LIVERPOOL OF THE WEST COAST
Scott: What about San Francisco?
Zappa: I was around when they were just beginning to manufacture that whole scene. In fact, when the Mothers were first starting out they invited us to move to San Francisco and get in on all the "Hot Action." The Family Dog had a scene going with some local lawyers and businessmen and they were going to make it the Liverpool of the West Coast. Granted, they had a lot of the raw materials but it did take some human engineering and a little convincing for some of the monied forces to make it come off as a scene. Places like the Avalon and the Fillmore just don't happen without some kind of money. So, it wasn't just a bunch of hairy folk who got together and "we're just going to live here and do our thing."
Scott: How did Berkeley figure into it?
Zappa: I didn't see that much inter-relating between the Hashbury hippy types and the Berkeley types. Berkeley was on a more intellectual level. The hippy scene appeared to be sort of chemical-glandular oriented. I'm referring to altered consciousness a go-go in all of its beaded manifestations.
Scott: Does the psychedelic scene fit anywhere.
Zappa: I think it was a necessary smoke screen.
Scott: For what:
Zappa: For what's really happening.
Scott: What is really happening?
Zappa: I'll tell you when it happens.
Zappa: I talk to a lot of kids at concerts and they ask if I'm a hippy and I tell them, "No, I'm a businessman." We don't have a big hippy audience. We get short haired kids who have a reasonable amount of social consciousness. I get a chance to talk to them and they ask for advice: "Should I quit school or go on?" I always tell them you should infiltrate. Hurry up and take over your father's job and do it right. It's fortunate that something like Psychedelia and Haight-Ashbury and all the rest of that goes on because it takes the focus off of the possibility that somebody who looks clean, straight, wholesome, right-wing and harmless is going to come in there and just do it while they're not looking. It's a much more frightening concept thinking it's some hairy creep that's going to take over your job. It's not going to be that way, it's going to be some guy who is straight.
Scott: Who's frightened?
Zappa: Right-wing elements who tend to show up most in positions of power. They become worried about things, you know, threatening appearances. It's like they need something to worry about. It's a paranoia oriented society. We've got to have some kind of fear and that's it for this year. It's almost passé to be afraid of the bomb.
Scott: Do you get a chance to talk to many college students?
Zappa: We've played a few colleges and usually after the show we're invited to a frat party and, we watch them drink. They appear to be well on their way to going down the tubes and succumbing to the same sort of social pressures that helped make their mothers and fathers nowhere. They are still wearing Madras pants mentally. THE MENTAL MADRAS ! ! !
Scott: Is the drinking part of it significant.
Zappa: Well, from what I see, there is enough of it happening to devote a proportionate amount of our lyric content to the problem of drinking parents in relation to their children. It's much harder to communicate with Mom and Dad when they're drunk it's bad enough when they're sober, but if they're wasted, it's bestial.
THE BIG NOTE
Scott: In all of the social change going on, does God fit in anywhere?
Zappa: Sure, well, he runs it, doesn't he?
Scott: Does He run your life?
Zappa: Yes, absolutely. But, His packaging might be a little bizarre for you to understand. My God is different from your God.
Scott: Who is your God?
Zappa: I haven't named Him. I don't think it's necessary. A lot of people have to rely on images: "There He is with the long white beard, white hair, and flowing white robe GOD!" I don't see it that way. It's closely related to music. I don't perceive God on an emotional level.
Scott: How then? On a more structured level?
Zappa: Order comes into it. Like on the next album, "Lumpy Gravy," there is some dialogue integrated into the music where two characters are discussing The Big Note. That's the closest that I can come to describing to you what I think of God. He's like a Big Note. Everything, it would appear, is constructed from vibrations. Light is a vibration, sound is a vibration and it's quite possible that, when you break them down, the atoms themselves are nothing more than vibrations of this Big Note. And, in dealing with vibrations, one might be able to become closer in tune to some sort of Universal Force if you want to get down to that corny, cheesy level. But, that's the way I see it.
Scott: Does this allow for any latitude?
Zappa: Sure, you've got a choice all the time. If you're perceptive you can see many choices that will get you from point A to point B and you can even figure out what will happen with each of the choices. But, I always keep my eye on point B where it's really supposed to happen. And right now point B for me is the 1972 election.
Scott: You seem fated for it somehow.
Zappa: Well, look, fate big deal! When your dishwasher wears out you buy a new one. end
* Tom Wilson is the executive producer at MGM/Verve for the Mothers.
** If you're interested, write: United Mutations, Box 103 Prince St. Station, New York, New York 10022. Include your age and answers to the following questions: Yes or No? How? and When?
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net