By Bob Reitman
Following is an interview between Frank Zappa and Bob Reitman. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention appeared at The Scene on August 9th and 10th.
Bob Reitman: We just picked Frank up at one of the Milwaukee hotels and here we are.
Frank Zappa: Hello. It's wonderful to be out of one of the Milwaukee hotels.
BR: How do you like being in Milwaukee?
FZ: It's a treat after being in New York for a week.
BR: We were talking on the way over that we are both about the same age and sort of a grew up with the same sounds. When you were about 14, what kind of sounds were you digging back home?
FZ: I didn't start hearing R&B until I was about 14 or 15, I can't place the actual date, but prior to that time my parents wouldn't allow me to have a record player; I listened to only soap operas on the radio, and when I finally got a TV, the only thing I watched was wrestling and roller derby. Ah ... and Milton Berle. Yeah ... so I had a very enriching childhood.
BR: It sounds like the childhood a lot of us had that are about 25 or 26 now. Did that soap opera effect you at all ... did it come out at all in the Lumpy Gravy album?
FZ: I love soap operas. They're probably one of the crappiest things America's produced.
BR: It's gotten into your music a little bit, hasn't it?
FZ: Oh, certainly. It just sticks out all over the place.
BR: It has to, I guess. Listen, we were talking about the attitudes of the kids in the 50's, the kind of cars they were driving everybody knows, you know.
FZ: No, they don't.
BR: All right, tell then. Describe a typical kid of the 50's.
FZ: Well, the typical kid in the 50's in the area which I lived, and you have to remember that from area to area across the country customs were different.
BR: What area were you in?
FZ: We were living in Southern California. I lived in San Diego for a while and then in a small town in the desert called Lancaster. In San Diego most of the kids who were into everything were either Negro or Mexican. The white kids were socially retarded. Just absolutely in bad shape. All these Mexican kids had these really fine cars – '39 Chevy's mostly, and I forget what year, but Mercury's they were driving. Also some Fords, but there were 3 acceptable types of cars you could drive – and you had to have that kind of car or else you were losing points. The Chevys were usually painted with grey primer or "Ice Box White." The Fords generally had to be painted Tomato Soup Red, and the Mercurys ... well ... you could get away with Parakeet Green metal flake on your Merc., sometimes Tomato Soup Red on the Mercury. Generally the car was lowered all the way around to facilitate the procedure known as cruising. In cruising the driver of the car is the captain of the cruising ship and is instructed to sit as low in the seat as possible, preferably with only the top of his "jelly roll gum drop" hairdo sticking up over the window ledge, so that nobody, especially a policeman, could tell who was driving the car, or if anybody was driving the car. It was 85 extra points if they couldn't see you at all driving your car. A few of the more ingenious kids would take the front seat out and replace it with a tomato box, and they'd sit right on the floor of the car.
[In radio interview recording follows long Ernie Ponzi story, about one guy and his cars, missing in Kaleidocope article. In the next Bob Reitman interview in 1973 this Ernie Ponzi subject was discussed again.]
BR: What kind of music did you listen to?
FZ: We listened to R&B. One of the favorite singers was Johnny Guitar Watson, and one of his favorite songs was "There's Been Some Lonely, Lonely Nights." And also we used to listen to Clarence Gatemouth Brown playing such great favorites as "Okie Dokie Stomp," and he also had a song called "Midnight Hour," which is not the same one that most of the teenagers bop to these days. We also liked things of an "Earth Angel" nature [– those group vocal songs].
BR: Yeah! Okay, the music since then has changed a lot, Frank, and you're involved in it. Why has it changed?
FZ: Well, remember that white people in those days were really socially retarded and I got to notice that the people who belonged to the so-called minority groups were having more fun than we had. When it finally became feasible for the white people to enjoy some of the same sorts of music that the minority groups were enjoying ... and they got the idea that they too could have their own cars, they didn't go in much for those '39 Chevys, they went to get newer shinier cars. They just started trying to compete with other people, and do it in their own way. And so they managed to put together forms of music that tended to express the life style that they wanted to identify with, such as surf music, hot rod music, and folk-rock.
BR: Do you think that's where it's at now, is there another change now, because the way you put that I interpret that you mean that it wasn't real honest, all honest as what was going on before.
FZ: I think that in the very beginning most R&B I was hearing in school was extremely honest music, the attitudes that were expressed by the people who were singing [the songs] and playing the backgrounds for the songs were very straightforward, you know they liked what they were doing and that was all they know – the blues was in them and it had to come out and so they were doing all that authentic funky stuff; and in order to compete, or identify or whatever those unfortunate white people were trying to do, in order to just get in there with some of that action they had to corrupt it because they didn't know what it was all about.
BR: What about groups that are coming around the band right now that are excellent as far as musicians go and they're white, like the Beatles did of course, [and Cream and people like that]. This is definitely a change from what you and I were listening to in the 50's.
FZ: Some of it is a change, except for the fact that most of the white blues bands today are playing very inferior versions of the songs by Muddy Waters, [Howlin'] Wolf and John Lee Hooker and those people I was listening to in high school. I laughed when I heard the Rolling Stones sing "I'm a King Bee" because I had this Slim Harpo version of it when I was in school; same way when I hear Paul Butterfield playing Muddy Waters songs. I think "that don't sound like the right way to play it."
BR: So you're still looking for the first white blues group?
FZ: I'm looking for a white blues group that's going to express a type of blues that does not have to rely on an imitation of Negro music that has already happened.
BR: Has anyone come close to this at all?
FZ: I don't pay much attention to white blues ...
BR: What do you pay attention to?
FZ: I listen to contemporary music mostly when I'm home.
[In radio follows part of interview on favorite contemporary composers.]
BR: So then how do the Mothers fit into all this?
FZ: I don't know.
BR: What are you trying to do with them?
FZ: One of the things the Mothers do that nobody else is attempting right now is to form an ensemble that is capable of a type of group improvisation that has been attempted before on a serious music level but never quite brought off with any conviction.
BR: Last night when we watched you down at the Scene it appeared to me that a lot of it was improvisation to a point. When you get on stage and do a number, is it the same every time?
FZ: No, there's no way to tell what's going to happen.
BR: And is this the way your records are made, too?
FZ: No, the records are a completely different medium, they're put together very carefully, very scientifically, and it takes a long time.
BR: But when you do a concert like you did in Milwaukee?
FZ: A concert you just go up there and blow your brains out and see what happens.
BR: How about the audience? Does the audience make any difference?
FZ: It makes probably anywhere between 5 to 20% difference; 5% if they're really dead and 20% if they're really grooving with you, or however you want to describe it.
BR: How about the Milwaukee audience?
FZ: I think the Milwaukee audience did as well as could be expected.
BR: For a Milwaukee audience or for any audience?
FZ: For a Milwaukee audience, because I realize that they haven't been expected to much contemporary music here.
BR: You have a new album coming out, what's the name of it?
FZ: Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.
BR: Yeah – out of sight!
FZ: A lot of people are going to be very upset with this album, because there's nothing weird about it all. It's all 1950 style group vocal R&B.
BR: Yeah, beautiful. When we get it we'll give it a play and see if we can freak out the whole town.
FZ: I don't think so because the stuff is so safe, so simple, so dumb, so nothingness that it's just liable to get on a couple of radio stations around the country. You never can tell.
BR: You never can. Why did you do it?
FZ: We happen to like that kind of music and all the guys sit around when we're not doing our usual weirdness, we'll harmonize on these old songs. Why shouldn't we?
FZ: We liked it.
BR: Okay, beautiful. Do you have any exciting news to tell us or anything you're discovered, a new sandwich that you've eaten lately?
FZ: I'll tell you, don't eat the food at the Ramada Inn.
1. This article is a transcription of Bob Reitman interview aired in Milwaukee radio station WLOS. The radio interview is taped and you can get it here – 1968 xx xx WZMF Menominee Falls WI 13.14 FM 1ST (Bigdavej-Drew51) . Of course there are differences between radio and printed interviews. We followed here the printed interview and only some minor radio interview based corrections and additions are made. They are in square brackets.
Later in 1973 Frank Zappa and Bob Reitman meet again, in Milwaukee station WZMF, and this interview is taped too – 1973 05 10 WZMF Menomonee Falls WI 30.40 FM 1st (Bigdavej-Drew51).
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net