Zappa Interview

By Argus

Ann Arbor Argus, June 19, 1969


ARGUS: I wonder if there’s any chance of radicalizing certain cops just by osmosis?

Zappa: I tell you there’s a better chance if you infiltrate them.

ARGUS: Well, how we going to do it – by kicking out the jams, or what?

Zappa: Instead of kicking out the jams, start joining the ROTC and become officers in the army, join the police force and become officers in that, and get in there and do it, man. Yeah, but what happens if you don’t change the military, you can’t just turn the projects off. That’s all got to be straightened out and somebody has to do it.

ARGUS: What are our chances of creating a better Richard Nixon?

Zappa: I don’t know. I was thinking at one time of advising him: of becoming some sort of counsel, but I don’t think that I could even talk to him. I have talked to Establishment types about what’s happening. It didn’t, really change them that much, but when we were done, they at least had a greater comprehension of what some of the things were that they didn‘t understand, that were worrying them. If you don’t understand something you react to it out of fear and try to make trouble for the people responsible for it. I try to straighten them out. The better those old farts understand what’s going on, the easier its going to be to co-exist with them, unless you intend to wipe them all out and I don’t think you can just wipe them all out. I don’t think this is then state for it, what with the CIA school and everything. I went to CIA University, but they were inactive.

ARGUS: How do you know?

Zappa: Well. . . .

ARGUS: Was that Michigan State?

Zappa: That was Michigan State.

ARGUS: Yes, it is kind of strange there. Is there any structure to your concerts or is it just. . .?

Zappa: It is all rigidly under control at all times.

ARGUS: Can I ask you about the book on the groupies: What’s the latest thing on that? Is it still in the progress? Is it really to help finance Uncle Meat? What’s the admission thing to Uncle Meat? Can you really like pay for as long as you want to see it. . .

Zappa: That thing that was in Rolling Stone is completely inaccurate.

ARGUS: Was it a big hype?

Zappa: It had nothing to do with the album and even less to do with Uncle Meat.

ARGUS: Well, did you just make it up or something?

Zappa: Rolling Stone is not all that accurate. It’s a highly imaginative paper.

ARGUS: It’s kind of interesting to read the East Village Other and Rolling Stone and you get kind of a different view from both papers.

Zappa: It’s interesting, too, to read the East Village Other and the Los Angeles Times, or maybe even the Detroit Free Press. To give you an idea of what the Los Angeles Times is into: the front page story of the issue that I read on the plane was “Jimmy Roosevelt is Stabbed” and then there’s a little thing at the bottom of the page that says that the Russians have landed on Venus. Meanwhile, the big headlines were that Jimmy Roosevelt was stabbed.

ARGUS: How about the Plaster Casters? Can you tell. . .

Zappa: Cynthia is in Los Angeles now. She casted a guy from Jim Kweskin Jug Band Music.

ARGUS: You mean there’s only one now?

Zappa: Oh, yeah. The other one quit to become a speed freak.

ARGUS: I thought she joined the GTO’s or something.

Zappa: No, she didn’t.

ARGUS: What are the GTO’s doing now?

Zappa: What are they doing?

ARGUS: Are they recording or just. . .?

Zappa: Well, they’re going to be recording again when I get back.

ARGUS: How about Wildman Fisher? Can you tell us something about him?

Zappa: He still lives in Los Angeles, he’s still begging on the streets.

ARGUS: They’ll give you a dime if you sing a song or something?

Zappa: We were trying to arrange to get him on some television shows, but no-one would take him on.

ARGUS: No commercial potential, huh?

Zappa: Let’s start a “Wildman Fisher Relief Fund.”

ARGUS: He hasn’t made any money, has he?

Zappa: No, and I doubt if he will, he doesn’t seem to be too successful.

ARGUS: Just one question: During the concert, a lot of your remarks were like directed toward social issues, like Nixon, the police, they were fairly controversial. How do you justify these comments when you’re a part of the multi-million dollar rock ‘n’ roll industry and so augmenting the economy that you’re criticizing at the same time?

Zappa: Well, it depends on how you want to change the economy; whether you want to . . . well, first of all, I see nothing wrong with earning a living, especially for doing something that you like. And second of all, I don’t work for someone else’s company, I have my own company.

ARGUS: You have something else besides Bizarre, don’t you?

Zappa: Yeah, it’s called Straight Records.

ARGUS: Do you have some kind of an industrial thing, too?

Zappa: Yeah, Nifty Talking Bijou [Nifty, Tough & Bitchen]. They do album covers and ads.

ARGUS: Have we heard any of their commercials or. . .?

Zappa: I don’t know if any of their radio spots are aired here.

ARGUS: Didn’t you cut an ad for radio?

Zappa: Yeah.

ARGUS: Is that available?

Zappa: It probably is. I did that a long time ago. That was last year.

ARGUS: How about the TV things you do? I saw you on Steve Allen, I think, and they had you recite the lyrics to Hungry Freaks. How do you find working on TV?

Zappa: It’s a lot different in Europe than it is here. Like, for instance, in American television they take the attitude that ’Boy, oh boy, are you ever lucky to get on television here’ and they have this thing called a check swap where they’ll pay you union scale to go on their show. But they know you need the exposure, so you have to agree to give the check back to them after the show. So you don’t get paid anything, as a matter of fact you have to pay union fees. So it costs you money to go on television, but of course you get seen by 30,000,000 people and they think they’re really helping you out. But then they have sound mixers on those shows who really haven’t the faintest idea what an electric band is, let alone, you know, a regular band, to get a good balance, so they always make you sound shitty and they give you two minutes to play, and they treat you like you’re some sort of creature from the zoo, but still there are all these people and its better that they should see you as a creature from the zoo than not ever hear of you at all.

When we do television in Europe, its completely different. We did a show in Germany and the guy says: “Use the studio, play as long as you want.” And I said, “You‘re kidding. I’ve got about an hour and fifteen minutes.” And he says “Ok, good.” I said, “Give us anything we want, you know, to do the show?” He says “Yeah.” I said, “I want some smoke bombs.” And he says, “Okay.” And he brings us the smoke bombs and we ask for some food and he brings us trays of food, all kinds of beer. “Hang a rope from the ceiling.” And he hangs a rope from the ceiling and we swing on it. It’s insane. It’s the biggest. . .it’s like American Bandstand and we played for an hour and fifteen minutes.

We go in Paris, our records are not very well known in France, this is the first time we’ve ever done a show there. To start with they paid us more than they have ever paid a rock n roll group for French television – which amounts to peanuts compared to the United States, but. . . And we played for fifteen minutes.

And then we did a show in London, where we played for forty-five minutes and they also said, “Well, do anything you want, any type of a thing you want.” So I said, “Bring me a bed,” so they brought us a bed. That afternoon Don had gone to the trick store and bought some phony blood capsules. You know where you put on a fist fight and bite the capsule and blood comes out of your mouth. So he got some of those, so we played a little bit and I brought the music down and I announced to the TV audience that we were going to demonstrate a little thing that we had learned while we were travelling in Germany which we called the Buster Crabbe Hold. It’s a bizarre sexual position that the boys worked out with the German groupies, you know. And everybody in the control booth is going, “What?!?” So Bun puts his horn down and grabs Don by the throat from behind the piano, throws him on the bed and starts fucking him. They roll around and they fall off the bed and then Don bites a capsule and blood starts pouring out of his mouth. This is a color show, by the way. And I said, “Okay, that’s couple number l.”

Couple number 2 was Mac and Motorhead, who did it, you know, where you take your belt off and hang it over one arm and you make a loop and one person’s leg goes through here and you fuck dancing and standing up at the same time, and they blocked out for awhile with musical accompaniment. You know this was forty-five minutes of this show on television.

ARGUS: Do you find that the people over there are like more receptive and just sit and watch, instead of screaming out things, or is that. . . 

Zappa: There are always people who like to scream out things.

ARGUS: How did you get across the language thing? Were you speaking like to them in English?

Zappa: A lot of people speak English over there, in Germany, Spain, especially Holland. They understand everything you say. Do you guys know about Orange County? You know where Orange County is? Okay, they know about it too over there. They ain’t that stupid. If they can hear what you’re saying most of the time they laugh in the right places. But the main difference is that they listen to the music and they listen to it like it was music, not some sort of music entertainment. They listen to it like it was classical music, which is nice.

ARGUS: What happened to Sandy Herberts [Hurvitz]?

Zappa: Sandy Herberts was signed by Warner Brothers and I guess they’re going to release an album by her.

ARGUS: Why are you getting into the GTO’s so much?

Zappa: Why am I getting into the GTO’s? That’s a very personal question. I don’t spend much time working with the GTO’s at all. I finished their album and my partner in the record company heard it for the first time the night before last and he just shit his pants. He said we can’t put that out. He says there’s no distributor in the world who would ever take that record.

ARGUS: Are they good musicians?

Zappa: Of-course not. But they write interesting material and they have something to say. They’re about as good as any other girlie type rock ’n’ roll, and they’re generally weird.

ARGUS: Do you think anything will happen with them?

Zappa: I don’t know. But I’m willing to find out. Willing to invest the money to find out. They can’t be any worse than Wildman Fisher, anyway.

ARGUS: Is all this stuff on the front of the album, like about his mother being committed with a knife up against her throat. . .

Zappa: That’s not his mother. We staged that. That’s a cardboard cut-out of the grandmother of the photographer who took the cover picture. Can you tell its a cardboard cut-out?

ARGUS: No.

Zappa: We originally wanted blood, but we thought it would be a little bit too gory. I’d like to get a tape of his mother when she called the office. Man, she is weird.

ARGUS: Was she telling him to come home or something?

Zappa: No, not at all. She’s afraid of him. He’s tried to kill her three times. He does things like he sneaks into the house and he hides in the closet and sits for hours until she opens the closet, then he jumps out to scare her and then he runs away. He’s real zany.

ARGUS: A bit bizarre.

Zappa: Yeah. This guy smells so bad. He comes into the office, you know, and you can smell him and tell he’s coming, honest to God. He goes over to Warner Brothers and asks for copies of his album and if they give them to him, he goes out into the street and sells them. They’re always saying, "Please keep your artist away.”

ARGUS: Who’s your favorite contemporary composer?

Zappa: Edgar Berrett [Edgard Varèse].

ARGUS: How much is Charles Ives worth?

Zappa: Not a lot.

ARGUS: Not a lot?

Zappa: No, I haven’t heard that much of his music. But I’m really familiar with Berrett’s music.

ARGUS: But your stuff reminds me an awful lot of him. Can you make like a comment on the Bill Graham hassle?

Zappa: What Bill Graham hassle?

ARGUS: With the people. . .uh. . .

Zappa: The East Village thing or what? I like Bill Graham. I respect him because he’s an honest businessman.

ARGUS: Yeah, it seems like you said before when it was just a rat-infested place, you know, and now that they’ve cleaned it up they want it once a week for free.

Zappa: If those guys in East Village really want to impress everybody about asserting themselves and doing a takeover why don’t they go up and take over Lincoln Center. Like Graham has really been through a lot of bad stuff himself. He was born in Germany during the war and he’s not really a very likeable personality. He’s not your sweet personage, but he never done anything bad to us, and I’ve seen him at his worst.

ARGUS: Yeah, they tried to take away his place on the West Coast too.

Zappa: Who did?

ARGUS: Something like Howard Johnsons had purchased the land to build a building.

Zappa: Oh that. Well, he’s building a new place nearer to Los Angeles which will be called the Fillmore South. I offered to buy the rights to his life story. I would really like to do a book about him.

ARGUS: What about the Bonzo Dog? They seem to be a lot like you.

Zappa: You know everyone has to find someone to equate the Mothers to and it always tums out to be something I don’t know anything about. The only record I heard by them I didn’t like. And I don’t think the Mothers have any relationship to it at all.

ARGUS: What percentage of your time do you spend on concerts, what percentage in the studio, and so on?

Zappa: Oh, I don’t know, as much time as necessary in the studio.

ARGUS: As far as concerts go, do you like this kind of place better than a ballroom.

Zappa: Yes, quite a lot. I like to play when the lights are on and everyone can see what you’re doing. When we play at places where they have light shows its generally so dark that people have trouble seeing what’s going on.

ARGUS: Have you played outside much?

Zappa: No, I don’t like it. Your hands get sticky and you play bad and its like really. . .

ARGUS: How about the thing with the Detroit police that you started out at the beginning? How bad did they threaten you?

Zappa: Oh, we’re just sort of biased and they’re afraid.

ARGUS: Is this par for the course or is it. . .

Zappa: No, the only place it has happened is San Diego.

ARGUS: So its kind of indicative of the town then?

Zappa: Yep.

ARGUS: Did you put that one cover on to mock the Beatles?

Zappa: Well, I didn’t think their cover made it. Ours is superior artistically.

ARGUS: You didn’t have any marijuana plants on your cover, though.

Zappa: No, but they didn’t have any watermelons on theirs, so we beat them out with symbolism.

ARGUS: Why did you change over from Verve to Reprise?

Zappa: Its because MGM [Verve] doesn’t pay as well as Reprise. How’s that for a reason?

ARGUS: Which album has sold best?

Zappa: Freak Out.

ARGUS: Was that Motorhead telling the story about burning up the cars?

Zappa: Yeah.

ARGUS: What kind of speech was that you gave to the record companies?

Zappa: You mean at the convention? [1]

ARGUS: Yeah.

Zappa: Well, they asked me to speak on “Appreciating the Underground Arts” which I thought was absurd. But they flew me down to the Bahamas and paid my hotel bill which was $64.00 a day and that’s a ridiculous price even for a hotel with a gambling casino and I was there for a couple of days before I actually talked and when I did, there was no room left in the hall. Some people waited outside to see what would happen. Some people sat through it twice. It was like a panel discussion. There was me, the head of MCA, the President of Tetragrammaton and the. . .it was moderated by Hal Bennett who’s the President of Liberty Records.

They were all talking about subjects having to do with the relationship of youth to popular music. All most of the record companies were interested in was music, they didn’t give a damn about who made it. And I pointed out the fact that most of them treated the people who recorded for them like they were a bunch of creeps.

So after I’d spoken one guy gets up in the audience and says “We in the record industry thing that you long-haired guys are a bunch of creeps.” And I said “Well, we think you’re a bunch of old farts.” So he cracked up and so did everybody else man.

Directly after that another guy gets up to say something and he starts out like this: “My name is Stanley Orticoff [Gortikov], an old fart at Capitol Records.” So from then on at the convention, old fart was the big thing.  “How you doing, old fart?” Really it was magnificent.

I had a chance to meet a lot of record distributors; they’re a comic lot. I talked with the guy who owns Korvette’s. He said, “Well, we have a little problem getting your records on the rack. Really hard with the Uncle Meat album. But well, we like to put them out there, and I liked your speech a lot. Sure would like to sell your records in your store, but it ain’t worth fuck in there.”

“Well, how would you like it if we were to put a sticker on the album that said ‘This album is rated X’ like they do with films, you know.” And he said, “Well, that would probably get us off the hook.”

He really has quite a reasonable point of view. First of all he says ‘fuck’ and everyone who works in the store says ‘fuck’ but a record is like a public work of art, A book, one person at a time reads a book, its a private experience. You play a phonograph record in a house and it says ‘fuck’ and ten people in the house hear it and somebody’s going to complain about it, you know, and he says they have a lot of problems with the people in New Jersey. There’s a lot of church groups and they’re about that. Well, the last thing in the world I want to do is offend someone from a New Jersey church group. So I’m thinking of putting a sticker on that says “This album contains commonly used words of everyday English. If this offends you, then be advised that this album is not for you. But they sort of sneak onto the racks and keep on selling in spite of the church groups.

ARGUS: Have you ever been asked to perform at a Decency rally?

Zappa: I rather doubt we will be.

ARGUS: Would you like to?

Zappa: I’d love to, but it won’t happen. Besides no-one really goes to decency rallies, except maybe a tree.

ARGUS: Maybe we can arrange or your next Detroit appearance to be a Decency rally.

Zappa: Sure.

ARGUS: We could get Orville Hubbard in, Jackie Gleason. . .

Zappa: Oh, yes, I want him to sing with us. Maybe even dance with us.

ARGUS: Just think what you could do with his golf clubs.

Zappa: Did you see that thing in Esquire this month? What to take with you to Havana. That’s really great. They have this. . .it shows you what to put in your attaché case in case hour plane gets high jacked to Cuba. The next few pages are phrases translated from English to Spanish that you can say when you get off the plane, everything from “All Americans love Fidel’s speeches,” to “Keep your hands off me, you filthy spik, I’m an American citizen.” Then it has phone numbers to call in Havana. It has pictures of the head waiter of a bar in Havana and it has little notices about what’s going on and it has a little map like a Havana airport. It’s really a far-out thing.

ARGUS: Are the translations faithful? Is it the Spanish really?

Zappa: It appears to be, yeah. It looks very authentic. And then the other article they have in there is a thing about the Nixon style. “Understanding the Nixon style.”

ARGUS: Oh, they have the whole thing on the front. With the cabinet and all.

Zappa: Yeah. But the Nixon thing is funny.

ARGUS: What are some of the translations into German that you have on the Mother Mania?

Zappa: I don’t know the direct translation of that. But I can tell you roughly what it says. It’s a minute by minute account of a riot that occurred in Berlin.

ARGUS: A riot you caused?

Zappa: No, that some students caused. Because of our appearance.

ARGUS: Who wrote it?

Zappa: Who wrote the riot? It was in the newspaper the next morning.

ARGUS: Are you on tour now?

Zappa: We’re going to play Toronto and then we play Appleton, Wisconsin, of all places. You know the Appleton Decency Convention. Then we go from there to England. We go to London for four days. Then we play the outskirts of London for five days, and then we play Albert Hall.

ARGUS: Have you ever gotten to Asia?

Zappa: No, not yet. We may go to Japan this August.

ARGUS: They love American acts in Japan.

Zappa: I think they’ll really like us.

ARGUS: Maybe they’ll create a Japanese Mothers Of Invention. That’s how they honor artists that they like, they duplicate them.

Zappa: I hope so. I’ll tell you there’s a lot of Mothers of Invention floating around Germany. We played a festival there and we heard three or four different groups sounded like the last side of “Freak Out.” It’s really weird. But I love that. No one can imitate our stuff here. So you take what you can get. If its Germany, its Germany.

ARGUS: Do you have any other investments or things that are coming up like Wildman Fisher and things like that?

Zappa: You mean weird artists? Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band I think will tickle your fantasy.

ARGUS: They’ve been playing for quite a while, haven’t they?

Zappa: Yes, they have.

ARGUS: They’re going to be on the Bizarre label?

Zappa: No, they’re going to be on Straight. Prior to this they were produced by people who wanted to make sure that they were. . .

ARGUS: The Frisco sound.

Zappa: Yeah, well sort of commercial. But they’re turning out a really interesting record.

ARGUS: Do you consider weirdness weird or not?

Zappa: I don’t think you and I are talking about the same weirdness.

ARGUS: When you sign a group, do you look for weirdness?

Zappa: I look for creativity. Beefheart’s real. People ask me whether the Uncle Meat album is real. Americans are so used to being shit on that they can’t believe anything. THAT’S why its so easy for them to believe other rock ‘n’ roll bands. To believe that they’re real. And then think that we’re imaginary. That’s absurd. We just do what we want to do, and everyone says oh that’s weird. And then the Vanilla Fudge comes out and people say that’s real! That’s got soul! I think the Vanilla Fudge is spectacular.

In fact, when I did that convention in the Bahamas, Master [2], who used to be the President of MGM Records and is now the publisher of Billboard magazine, asked me if I would be the creative director at a festival of contemporary music, this coming October. And I’m going to put this monstrosity together. So what I’m going to do is hold it in Toronto. Get the Toronto Symphony and all these serious composers from Europe and then invite rock groups from around the world to lecture to the serious composers of the industry who never really understood the stuff that they were selling and also have these group explain what it is they do.

I was going to invite the Vanilla Fudge to discuss their choreography, and discuss the evolution of their music, because I want to hear it. I want to have Jim Morrison tell me about his poetry and I want to have Jimi Hendrix talk about how to play the guitar with your teeth, and the proper technique with the lighter fluid when you set it on fire. I’ll see if the Beatles want to come in and talk about meditation or whatever they’re into. And then the groups have to listen to the works of these contemporary composers performed by the orchestra. Most rock musicians have never even been to an orchestra concert. They don’t know what an orchestra is. They’d be surprised if they ever found out. And Master is all for this. He’s already gone up and talked to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

ARGUS: Speaking of Symphony Orchestras, what do you think of the Moody Blues? Do you like them?

Zappa: No, I never listen to them.

ARGUS: What kind of records do you listen to at home? Do you have a collection of Goldie Oldies?

Zappa: Yes, I have about 7500 45’s. They’re the same records I had when I was in high school.

ARGUS: How long did it take to do Ruben and the Jets?

Zappa: Ruben and the Jets was made simultaneously with Uncle Meat. It took from October to February.

ARGUS: What do you think will happen to the United States in the next twenty years?

Zappa: I think that the fate of the United States in the next twenty years is in the hands of the kids. Well, it all depends on whether you want to talk about revolution. You also can’t expect to do it over night, you know. I think its just a question of tidying up this place. Don’t call it revolution if you just want to straighten things up. Some minds can be changed; it all depends on what the next crop of lawyers, policemen and soldiers and all the rest of the shit think.

ARGUS: That could take thirty years. But like the next crop is waiting in line for the old farts to die so they can take over their jobs.

Zappa: It’s a lot easier than that. First of all the old farts know who they have to appeal to. They believe in money. That’s their god. They know that the market that they have to reach is the kids. They see where a young person is doing the kind of a job that they have been doing and the young kid might be able to do a better job. So they let him do it. Some of those minds can even be changed to be oriented to something a little more important than gaining success.

ARGUS: I don’t see any of that happening though.

Zappa: You don’t? Well, it is in the record industry.

ARGUS: But this is not a microcosm of our society.

Zappa: Well, it has to start some place. It’s important in the area of communication. It’s almost taken the place of books for some people. You remember the pen is mightier than the sword, well, then, where is the record?

ARGUS: How about the tube?

Zappa: Well, the tube is an unfortunate situation. The estab1ishment won’t let go of that very easily, but it can be done. That’s the most insidious thing that’s ever been perpetrated on civilization.

ARGUS: You have an interesting experience on a show with Johnny Otis from the USA Band.

Zappa: Yeah, they censored out a word. They don’t do that in Europe, by the way?

ARGUS: Why is everybody afraid of you?

Zappa: Maybe I’m weird.


1. First International Music Industry Conference, held in April 20-23, 1969, Paradise Isle Hotel, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas.
See also

2. C. Ulrich: "Master = Mort L. Nasatir (Mort L. Nasatir dies)"