Zapping With Zappa
By Martin Kasindorf
There is a method in their madness – in their obscene gestures and erotic shenanigans with dolls, in their seemingly random wanderings about the stage and in the mumbles, grunts, oinks and electronic twitters that course through their rock songs. This new race of hairy men, the nine Mothers of Invention, are not musical primitives stumbling through a Stone Age happening. They are missionaries with a message, first-line musicians using their gifts to reshape the minds of America's teen-agers. "It's electronic social work," explains hawk-nosed, spectral Frank Zappa, the 27-year-old who has made the Mothers the most radical and entertaining rock group in the United States.
This month, when the Mothers returned to Los Angeles, their musical birthplace, to celebrate what Zappa called "the beginning of our fourth unsuccessful year in the United States music business," 7,000 young followers packed Shrine Exposition Hall, a staggering figure since the Mothers' radical vision and raw language have cut them off from virtually all but underground radio exposure, the lifeline without which most groups sink. But four madcap albums and public exercises in studied mayhem have kept the Mothers afloat, so much so that Zappa has just been voted Pop Musician of the Year in Jazz and Pop magazine's annual poll.
The LP's deliver the gospel according to Zappa, a lyricist-composer who is, perhaps, second only to the Beatles' John Lennon as the leading creative talent in pop music. Zappa's pixilated preachments conceal beneath the surface a frontal assault on every aspect of conformity and deadness – from the imitation hippie and automatic hippie hater, to the plastic Mom and Dad who founder in face cream and liquor while discouraging their kids from thinking or wanting anything better.
Mosaic: A Mothers concert is a revival meeting in which Zappa, as conductor and stage director, socks his credo to 'em. Here style becomes content – a mosaic of Brechtian musical comments, oinks and monologues on carburetors by versatile Jim (Motor Head) Sherwood, who plays alto sax, drums and tambourine; extended cantatas like "King Kong" which has run up to 70 minutes; and infusions of electronic zaps and gurgles over a dozen amplifiers.
Even the hair styles and dress are part of the message, ranging from Sherwood's neatly combed shoulder-length hair and the beardless, spotless appearance of sax man Ian Underwood to the Ben-Gurion coiffure of organist Don Preston and wild-man presence of bearded Jim Black. "I don't tell the group what to wear," Zappa explained to Newsweek's Martin Kasindorf last week. "Our unorthodox appearance represents the free choice of everyone in the group. I don't want to control their private lives."
Gastric: But, as casual as it all appears, a Mothers concert is as tightly run and tactical as a revivalist tent show, all aimed at grabbing the audience. "If I notice interest waning," says Zappa, "I might give a finger signal and everybody sings the highest note he can for a split second. This refocuses attention for the next solo. Or I bring up Motor Head to talk about his car as we play and have his voice joined by the bass player talking about hamburger buns, whatever it takes to produce a certain amount of gastric activity in the audience." The show, as Zappa sees it, is one extended composition made like a piece of junk sculpture out of "bits of the environment, the sound of your transistor radio burped back at you, a panorama of American life."
Zappa hopes to counteract what he sees as the rise of herd instinct and mass passivity. His counterinsurgency to date has created the term "freak out" and wedded a Lenny Brucian language to a sophisticated musical style that echoes composers such as Stravinsky and Varèse. From his headquarters in a huge log cabin built outside Los Angeles by Tom Mix, who buried his trusty horse Tony under it, Zappa lives with his young wife, Gail, infant daughter called Moon Unit, and a hippie "governess," Miss Christine. Here, he plots his spiritual revolution. "Half of America is under 25, yet there is no real youth representation in government," he says. "It's not my job to organize them. The best I can do is ask a few questions. If we reach a million, maybe 500 will become active and get out and influence the opinions of others. But those 500 could be dynamite. I'd be happy to have that."
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