By John Lannan
Frank Zappa is probably less of a disappointment to his parents and the grammar school teacher somewhere, whose favorite he once was, than he is to the love generation which enthusiastically consumes his music.
Frank writes and arranges most of the music played by his group, the Mothers of Invention. It is the loud, seemingly unstructured kind of rock that is the principal art form of the psychedelic subculture. To the unattuned ear it is weird, grating and distasteful. But then Zappa does not write for the general public, nor do the Mothers play for it.
The Mothers of Invention are everything a rock group should be. They scream and gyrate and spew four-letter words. Their songs abound with sexual reference, they wear tight pants and beads and have long hair. They look like they smell bad. Even the most enlightened parent must secretly cringe.
But Frank Zappa is not everything a rock musician should be, particularly one who is known for packing more shock value than most. Zappa is a letdown for the public which wants to be appalled by the freak whose mind has been rendered useless by several thousand LSD trips.
You expect Zappa to be way gut, to mumble meaningless things about 'peace and "love," to say "wow" and address his listeners as "baby." Rock musicians are as predictable as John Wayne dialogue: they're always stoned. Everyone knows that.
So, when Zappa appears, as he did here last week at the Festival of the Arts, you feel a little cheated because he does not have glassy eyes and does not advocate overthrowing the government.
When he is not performing it is difficult to identify the man with his music. He is literate, witty, intelligent, rational and, surprise of surprises, moderate. As a matter of fact, the listener who has never seen him might doubt that he is the genuine article, save for his "colorful" language.
The crowd which heard Zappa outside the Student Activities Center was just a little to the left, at least in appearance, of the everyday student mix. And, regardless of life style, they weren't ready for a speaker to ask them what they wanted to talk about.
Predictably, the audience's initial reaction was to clamor for plaster caster and Laurel Canyon G.T.O.'s stories, and the other prurient goodies for which Zappa and the Mothers have become best known. Just as they would have come to hear Pablo Picasso talk about modern painting, the crowd had come to hear Zappa be obscene.
Zappa, who has a warm spot in his heart for obscenity, and will probably be well-remembered for his efforts in its behalf, reacted just as predictably. Such words were probably never spoken before in the presence of seventh generation sorority legacies, and probably never will be again. Which is not to say that they didn't enjoy it thoroughly.
Prurient interests satisfied, Zappa did get around to heavier matters. One student asked his opinion of the new left-anarchist-alienated youth-whatever revolution we hear so much of. Apparently not out to enhance his record sales in the revolutionary segment of the market, Zappa classified the current revolt as the "beginner's carnival type of revolution."
He found it rather corny to "stand in the street with your sign on your stick, you make yourself a target to be hit by some cop, who, well, suffers from certain sexual frustrations. Such a revolution is "unimaginative." Fallen jaws in the crowd: evidently revolutionaries are sensitive to comment on the quality of their revolutions.
Zappa did allow that it was possible to win the thing, however. Sighs of relief from the left; sneers and muttering about long hair, etc., on the right.
"But," he continued, with almost Aristotelian logic, "suppose you do win, what are you gonna do? Take over the government, right?!" Cheers from the lefties.
"So you take over the government; what the hell are you going to do with it?" Perplexed silence from the lefties; the righties reassess their position on long hair.
"Do you want to sit around in Washington, smoke cigars and drink bourbon and branch water with the old farts? Do you want to make laws?" The Mothers of Invention are under serious consideration for several fall rush functions on the right. The left sees an opening.
Zappa, however, has anticipated the old "we don't need laws – let everyone do his own thing" trick: "Everyone agrees that we need a well-ordered society that functions smoothly, but what is it and how do you get it?"
Answering his own question (an old gimmick of Plato's): "Some of you say that all we need is love. But I say you also need someone to pick up your garbage and you need someone to make sure that when you flush your toilet it goes through a pipe to the sewage plant, instead of lurking outside your house." An amazingly practical, to say nothing of unesthetic, consideration for a rock musician.
Zappa then noted that the revolutionaries weren't using their resources properly. A quote from Keynes seemed imminent, but he chose to align himself with Buckminster Fuller to substantiate his contention. A wise choice, as there is nothing more impressive, more obviously authoritative than being able to quote someone with a multisyllabic first name.
"I go along with Fuller's theories on waste matter – and I think the first waste that we should put to use is the American politician."
Then: "We need practical idealists, who aren't afraid of one of their peer group saying 'you're selling out.'" I wondered what Everett Dirksen sounded like when he was 28.
A question about the "dope situation" brought a regression to the lighter weight issues.
"Dope is a form of entertainment which some people consider superior to television. And, until TV comes up with something better it will have to resign itself to second place in the hearts of the youth of America."
As for the role of the university in our society, Zappa felt that people can, and should, learn something in spite of it.
The musician fielded all the questions, most of which were of the vague "What about this or that?" sort, with the wit and perception of a street model William F. Buckley (allowing for cultural disparity and divergence of opinion on certain issues).
The most startling feature of the session was not that Zappa could do so much with such insignificant and irrelevant questions as were asked, but his treatment of relatively serious topics in four-letter vernacular. His usage didn't seem out of the place and, in fact, his colorful terms seemed like the best possible choice of words in most cases.
Zappa's fluid delivery gave the effect that such language was normal. It was evident that no inner conflict was taking place over whether any word was in good taste or not, or whether his listeners would be offended.
It could be that Frank Zappa is announcing the advent of a new age of the English language – the age of parlor obscenity, it might be called. Certainly the role of the innovator would be a familiar one for him.
Rock critics consider Zappa's music, as performed by himself and the Mothers, to be the most original sound in the field. He has borrowed style and technique from everyone in every field of music to develop what has been termed "musical anarchy."
Zappa has a completely different concept of the function of music from the writers who have produced the body of rock music that exists today, so his music starts in a different place and ends in a different place. A radically different starting point and a radically different objective can only be connected by a radically different bridge.
When asked by a reporter what he thought of his albums in retrospect, Zappa said, "It's all one album." He explained that the material in all his albums was "organically related," each individual piece a part of a greater whole.
His vast technical knowledge of music and recording, his profound understanding of the impact of music, and the perspective which enables him to relate a single note to an entire composition have gained Zappa a reputation as the most articulate and authoritative spokesman of rock music.
The job will probably remain his as long as rock music is around, and Zappa suspects that that will be a long time. Now that it has been around this long, what reason is there for it to fade out?
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net