Frank Zappa versus the Incredible Hulk
By Mitch Howard
Is Frank Zappa really Lord Robbins, chairman of LSE's governors, in disguise ? Probably no, but a lot of LSE students behaved as if they thought he was when he came to talk with them at lunchtime on the Tuesday after Whitsun.
Petty squabbles and sluggish, conventionalized thinking have unfortunately always tended to be one of the trademarks of the political Left in Britain (meanwhile Lord Robbins smirks as Britain drinks and goes home). Zappa's visit to the supposed home of free thought and free action showed once and for all that if the militants alone run the New Order, Britain's heads had better head for the hills at high speed.
Zappa didn't speak in terms of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese patriots against the jackbooted Achilles heel of imperialism. He didn't tell them to take to the streets or fuck their mothers. He showed eighteen minutes of his unfinished film 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich', sat down on a stool on the stage and quietly asked 'Any questions?' Result: total British silence. To start the ball rolling, Frank explained a little about the film exerpt which featured short shots of the Mothers on stage and in recording studio, Motorhead having a fit on stage some eight years ago, and a Keystone-Cops sort of sequence of the group running round the Vienna woods, as the film ran sometimes fast, sometimes backwards. Zappa explained that the film was cut to fit the music, which was from the 'Uncle Meat' album, and that it was part of twenty hours of film he has laying in his basement. The whole thing gave an impression of confusion through use of colour techniques, short shots, and the absence of a plot.
This prompted the first real question of the meeting, when Zappa was asked (inevitably I'm afraid) what the message of the film was. 'It is absurd ', he replied. A lot of the audience obviously considered it decadent rubbish and couldn't grasp the concept of an absurd film that has been shown on educational television in the States. Right from this point there was a gap between Frank and a section of his audience. The gap should have narrowed as the questions and answers progressed, but it widened instead.
Those who'd expect a set speech Revealing All about the Brain Police and culminating with a dramatic entry of the chrome-plated megaphone of destiny itself, began to get impatient as Frank threw the onus of what happened in the theatre on them. 'You came here to speak, so speak,' yelled a burly voice from the back. 'I am speaking', replied Zappa. 'I'd rather talk with you than at you'. But he was given little opportunity to do that, faced as he was with a vociferous section of the students yelling against him on their home territory.
It quickly became clear that Zappa's ideas for changing society and those of the militants were two different things. 'Society is trying to do away with dreamers,' he said. 'They want to straighten them out. A dreamer is dangerous if he has an angry dream up his sleeve because it becomes contagious. I am in favour of being comfortable, everyone wants to be comfortable, but everyone has a different idea of what that is. I work towards it in my way and other people do in their ways. There are a lot of Americans who like teenage fairs and Lawrence Welk, now why be a dirty guy and stop them?'
This tolerant, totally undogmatic approach did not appeal to the militants present. To them, in the LSE situation of street demonstrations, expulsions and barricades, he was 'yet another bourgeois liberal camouflaging his innate reactionary tendencies'. That was an absurd situation which no doubt appealed to Zappa (who sees absurdity as the key to Frank).
'What happened at Berkeley?' he was asked. 'What do you want? The hot poop inside story?' , he replied. 'Do you expect me to have inside information about Berkeley because I live in America? I couldn't tell you what happened because I wasn't there. Demonstrations aren't comfortable and they don't prove anything.'
'You once said that someone has to do something before America shits on the whole world,' someone rejoindered. 'What are you doing about it?' 'I'm not sitting there with my finger up the arsehole,' replied Zappa.
After the laughter had subsided he was accused of being apathetic, to which he replied, 'The best way to achieve lasting results is to infiltrate where you can. People should go into communications and the military and change them from the inside. I'm afraid that everyone will have a revolution and make a mess of it. They will wave their banners on the streets and brandish sticks and go home and brag about their bruises. 'There I was – the Teenage Rebel.'
The basic idea of changing society slowly but deliberately because the most important thing is to change people's minds not to substitute one set of rulers for another was rejected out of hand by the militants who mistook Zappa's view for a right-wing attack of the sort they are used to rebutting. Once in gear their rebutting machine lumbered on, too inflexible to deal with Zappa. 'There is no right wing or left wing ... there is only up wing and down wing.' So says Bob Dylan, and this is what Zappa was saying in his way: 'You are not going to solve all the problems in 15 minutes or ten years,' said Frank. 'You think if 'we win everything will be great' but who tells you when you're there? The only way to make changes that will last is to do it slowly.
'People arc thrilled with the idea of revolution in the streets, it's this year's flower power. Wait for 18 months and there will be another fad. I disagree with your tactics. You won't do it wandering around the streets, you have to use the media. The media is the key and you have to use it.'
The day after the meeting, in the more relaxing atmosphere of his hotel room of Piccadilly, Frank explained that he did not completely rule out street demonstrations (although he appeared to write them off when he was at LSE). 'It's the kids who a year ago were wandering around with beads and all that gear who are now yelling 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers,' he said. 'They are at the mercy of the establishment when they behave like that. They look at these kids and see they're not going to do anything, but if a guy comes into the office and works hard at his choice to change it they are going to be hard pressed to stop it'
'I think demonstrations are valuable as a smokescreen while the real work goes on quietly. Some demonstrations are better than a smokescreen – when you get 10,000 people of ALL AGES – not just the kids – marching on the Pentagon then that really does something.'
But in the meeting the day before, things were seen in black and white. 'Suppose I try and infiltrate,' asked a voice in the balcony, 'what is there to prevent me from being corrupted from the situation I'm working in?' 'There is nothing to stop you from being corrupted^ replied Frank. 'Maybe you aren't the type to infiltrace.'
It's difficult to sit in front of a group of people who don't like you, don't listen and don't understand what you say to them,' said Frank the next day. 'LSE is supposed to be a famous college but I didn't get the impression of anything intellectual going on. They seem to be impressed with a lot of dogma. They were making categorical judgements against people not in their peer group. If you don't agree with what someone is saying you should listen to him and try and learn something, or else you're on the way to becoming a fascist. Yes, it is a kind of underground fascism.'
Whatever your views on revolution in the streets and working for change over a long period of time, one thing clearly came across from the LSE confrontation – and it did develop into a confrontation. The Left (as represented at that meeting anyway) is inflexible and unimaginative, both traditional politicians' ailments and certainly not revolutionary virtues.
One thing got forgotten in the heat of argument – Frank Zappa is not a politician. He said, 'I am a composer. I just happen to care enough about politics to talk to people about it.' Since Zappa is a composer his contribution to society is going to be mainly musical and that the militants could not sec. Frank works through his music and if he stopped working in this medium and in films that would be one person less working a way to change things.
The thought of a narrow-minded Left controlling the artistic life of this country is frightening in the barren image of revolution it throws up. Would such a revolution really be so revolutionary or have we seen it happen before? 'A dreamer is dangerous if he has an angry dream up his sleeve, because it becomes contagious.'
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net