What I Am, See, Is I'm an Appliance – an Ugly Reminder

By Jon Carroll

Datebook, June, 1968

"The- present day composer refuses to die!"
– Edgar Varèse, 1921, quoted by Frank Zappa


WHO IS Frank Zappa" Here is what Fran Zappa has said about himself: "I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, Dec. 21 1940, and grew up in California. I am a self-taught musician, composer, blah blah blah. When I was 11 years old I was 5 ft. 7 with hairy legs, pimples and a mustache ... for some strange reason they never let me be captain of the softball team.

"Got married when I was 20 ... a lovely girl almost ruined her life, filed for divorce, moved into my recording studio, joined forces with Ray, Jim and Roy schemed and plotted for a year, working in beer joints, blah, blah, starved a lot, played a lot of freaky music and stayed vastly unpopular (though notorious)."

That was written two and a half years ago. Ray and Jim and Roy were the original Mothers of Invention. Jim (Black) and Roy (Estrada) are still Mothers. Frank Zappa is the father of the Mothers. The Mothers of Invention, as everybody knows, are a rock group who do a lot of musical parodies and make obscene gestures on stage (Newsweek said that) and are Ugly and Weird in a non-approved way.

That is, they are not cutesy, gentle non-conformists like the Beatles or sexy, insouciant non-conformists like the Rolling Stones, but truck-driver-mechanic-fry-cook kind of ugly and angry contemptuous-dirty kind of weird. Society ladies do not love them. They are not invited to parties.

* * *

Frank Zappa is a composer. He composes everything from rhythm and blues parodies ("Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder") to what he described (on the album) as "a curiously inconsistent piece which started out as a ballet but probably didn't make it" called Lumpy Gravy.

Frank Zappa is also a lyricist. Some representative song titles give the flavor of his work: "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny," "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music," "Who Are the Brain Police?", Flower Punk," "Help, I'm a Rock," "Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet," "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," "The Duke of Prunes," "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin."

Frank Zappa is also a social philosopher. He dislikes hippies ("I'm really just a phony but forgive me 'cause I'm stoned," says a hippie in a Zappa song called "Go to San Francisco") and· cops, values perspective ("Who cares if hair is long or short or sprayed or partly grayed; we know that hair ain't where it's at") and trusts primal impulses: "What's the ugliest part of your body? ... Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it's your mind."

Zappa once told a crowd of tourists and Hollywood swingers at the Whisky A-Go-Go: "If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they'll murder you in your sleep."

Frank Zappa is also a guitarist, a potential paranoid, the last honest man, a moving target, a quality of light, the hope of America, and scary.

Especially scary in the empty vastness of the Fillmore Auditorium by day, when your footsteps rebound off of every wall and the sun pushes through the tiny windows along one wall.

He is courteous but he does not smile and, with his long face with the little beard that doesn't even reach the end of his chin, he looks like the John Birch Society's idea of Satan. The scariness is largely illusion, however: He is a serious and private person, but also straightforward, competent and thoughtful.

What don't you like about hippies? he is asked: "Well, it's a transitional phase. It's just like surfing or the twist. You get a large number of emotionally unstable people together, and this is what happens. Have you noticed that the phases are getting shorter? Transcendental meditation set the all-time record for brevity."

What about drugs, specifically marijuana?

"Smoking marijuana is no worse – and no better-than drinking beer. I don't like to be around people who smoke marijuana because all they talk about is how high they were last night and how high they are now. I find their company very boring. But the idea that it should be illegal – that's stupid. And, if it's functional, if it keeps somebody from cracking up, then good. It's good for them."

* * *

Since you dislike the way America is going, why don't you walk picket lines or sign petitions or get busted or blow up bridges or something?

"I'm essentially Machiavellian. The question is: Is it functional? Does it get anything done? None of that stuff gets anything done."

How about blowing up bridges? "No. Bloody revolution is not functional. It's not fun, it's not profitable, it's not successful. What we need instead is infiltration.

"Look at it this way. All kinds of stuff has been funneled down our throats by media and government and the church and the educational system. Now we have to turn it all back around and do it to them. It's like a tube – we have to pump it all back up the tube.

"See, when I was a kid back in Lancaster (Calif.) I didn't buy all that stuff that they were shoving down me. It might have been enough that somebody else didn't buy that stuff either. I would have enjoyed knowing somebody else felt that way. It might have moved me to action. It's like: 'Who wants beer?'' 'I want beer.' See?"

Is that why you encourage people to write you (at "United Mutations" in care of a New York post office box) in the liner notes to your albums?

"Yeah, right. All kinds of people write. I got a letter from a gunner in South Vietnam. He said: 'I can now kill and not feel anything. Can you use me?''

What about the criticism that you're too negative, that you propose no substitutes for what you tear down?

"Yeah, I hear that. Now, I just point out flaws in other people's logic, but I never – I never – tell other people what to do. And, look, there are other people more conversant, better e quipped than I am to give answers to specific questions. It's like, I did mine, now you do yours.

"I'm just telling people that they shouldn't believe what the Federal government and the educational system of Hayward, California – if they have an educational system in Hayward, California – are telling them 'Let's be happy and well adjusted.' They've got to stop believing television.

"But the hippies aren't going to do that. They like television. They get stoned and watch it. They think it's trippy. But there are leaders out there – leaders of the pack – and they can be influenced by public opinion. "I believe things can change. Not in 15 minutes, but something can be done. The hippies are the real pessimists. Man, I like a well ordered society. I like to have my garbage collected. I want to know that when I flush my toilet, it goes someplace. I believe that we can have a well-ordered society without all the spoon-fed stuff we have now. Maybe I'm a softie.

"What I am, see, is I'm an appliance. I'm an ugly reminder. I'm going to do whatever I have to do to get the changes in society. What I do with music and records – I think that's the best way to do it. Also I enjoy it. But if you can find a better way for me, I'll do it that way."

What Francis Vincent Zappa understands is that we are all mutations, mutated into consuming, believing machines by various principalities and darkness. Zappa hopes that all the mutations will get together and turn on their creators. He hopes that, like the present-day composer, they will refuse to die.

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