A frank talk with Zappa on being a 'rebel chief'!
By Caroline Boucher
AFTER A recent concert in Texas, Frank Zappa was accosted by a very smart elderly man, and three society women. “We want you to know we’ve got THAT poster of you on our bathroom wall,” they said, and then proceeded to invite Zappa home to a cocktail party so that he could take up the same pose for a COLOUR picture in their very own bath room.
The poster, now three years old, is notorious in that it pictures Francis Vincent Zappa sitting on the loo. It was, ironically, taken in a top London hotel during the Mothers’ first visit here. The reaction of the Texans is nothing new. Regardless of where Zappa goes someone is bound to coyly bring up the age-old subject. It seems to be part and parcel of the image that Frank Zappa’s been lumbered with a tyrannical, don’t care, cynical, revolutionary leader.
“You can only derive a certain amount of pleasure out of an image,” says Zappa. “It’s not exactly my prime enjoyment in life. The very concept of a revolutionary leader is corny, it’s so embarrassing to think that someone describes you in these terms.”
He still fumes at the memory of the London School of Economics last year when he was besieged by a volley of “what do we do towards the big revolution, man?” type questions. But although he has strongly and repeatedly aired his views in the subject, Zappa is still regarded by many as the prophet of the age.
He listens to all the various theories and rumours about himself with detached cynicism.
“I have an extreme reputation of being a tyrant rock and roll band leader who whips the musicians to play the music I want, which isn’t strictly true,” he says wearily.
He is now 29, successful, wary and sometimes weary. This is why.
He was born in Lancaster, California a small town where anyone in the slightest bit non-conformist stood out like a sore thumb. So he and his lifelong friend, Captain Beefheart, were very noticeable from an early age. Predictably, Zappa loathed school, still does, and refuses to send his children to one. By 15 he was playing in his own rhythm and blues group, and it was then that he had his first taste of the American legal system. He wanted to stage a dance with the band, so he hired the Lancaster Women’s Club for a Saturday. There was a certain amount of dissention about it, and on the night before the dance Zappa was arrested for “vagrancy” when he was walking home alone, and put into jail.
Zappa decided Lancaster was too restricting and moved nearer Los Angeles. “I’d just graduated from high school and my father wanted me to go to college, which I didn’t want to do because I might have turned out like him.”
He went up to another junior college in Ontario, met up with a girl, and eventually married – the marriage lasted five years.
“By this time I was wearing a white tuxedo suit and black leather patent shoes and playing tunes like ‘Anniversary Waltz’ every Saturday night. I always wanted to be a composer because I’d been writing since I was 14, and I continued to write while I was in these clubs. Finally I had the opportunity to do the music for a film.”
After that he got the offer of another film which gave him enough money to get an electric guitar and a studio in a little town called Cucamonga.
“Then my marriage started falling apart. I hardly saw my old lady, so I said what’s the deal? Let’s get a divorce. And I moved out of the house into the recording studios where I became a recluse for about nine months.
“I lived on peanut butter, instant mashed potato, honey and coffee. There was a sink and a toilet there, that’s all, and my hair was growing out so my parents wouldn’t let me anywhere near the house to use their sanitary facilities. I was pretty bestial.”
His appearance, coupled by the fact he was once again in a small community environment and stood out – especially as he was sharing the studio with a girl and Motorhead Sherman (to become one of the Mothers) – led to Zappa’s next meeting with the law. This time it was a calculated bust by the local Vice Squad, who sent a cop around, disguised as a used car salesman wanting a ‘hot tape’ made for a party. Near starvation point, Zappa accepted, and made the tape.
“I was broke and I don’t believe in pornography anyway, so it made no difference to me to make the tape – which came out not much different from side four of the ‘Monster Magnet’ album. But next day they came in with the flash bulbs and handcuffs and it turned out that the guy had a wrist radio and had transmitted everything back.”
The result was that Zappa was arrested on various charges ranging from conspiracy to commit pornography, lewd and lascivious behavior to indecent exposure.
“I ended up putting my father in hoc for about one thousand dollars to get this one lawyer in town who would handle the case. It was all so horrible, just based on the fact that I looked weird and lived in a small town.”
The outcome was that Zappa pleaded no contestant. and the case never reached the court. At the pre-trial the judge wanted to drop the whole matter, but the District Attorney in true Perry Mason style (‘crew cut and bow tie’) insisted Zappa was punished, and he was put in the county jail for ten days, then released on probation for the next three years – which if he broke meant jail for the rest of the six months’ sentence.
“It took me at least two years to learn to drive without looking over my shoulder the whole time after that. I was convinced I was under constant surveillance. The sort of harassment I’d had in Lancaster you could almost understand, but not something as calculated as that – it was bound to change your attitude a little.”
Zappa left his studio and went to live with Motorhead and his mother. While he was there he went into a bar and met a local group called the Soul Giants – Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, Davey Coronado and a couple of other guys. Shortly after he’d seen them, Zappa had a call saying the group had had a punch up and the guitarist had left, so he joined.
“So I said ‘let’s stop playing other people’s crappy kind of music and play our own,’ and everyone approved except for Davey Coronado. He knew if you played original music in a bar in California you’d be out of a job and he was right. He knew everybody liked to hear the Stones, Ray Charles and ‘High Heeled Sneakers’.”
Davey left the group, and as Zappa was still owed money for the film music he’d done, he arrived at a compromise with the film man to use his office studio for their rehearsals. So the early Mothers of Invention were in the amazing position of rehearsing in the most luxurious and smart place in town but with nothing to eat. So they hawked Coke bottles, bought a couple of tapes and made their first album.
By then they were doing the first rock concerts in Los Angeles, but as the scene was non-existent and getting worse, the Mothers were forced to move to New York. They worked there from Thanksgiving 1966 to Labour Day in 1967, concentrating mainly on staging incredible events at the Garrick Theatre. In September 1967 they made their first tour of Europe where Zappa contracted gastro-enteritis in Rome and for the rest of the tour literally had to be propped up on stage, shivering in an overcoat.
After their return to the States and a tour of the East coast, Zappa managed to complain sufficiently to get their headquarters shifted from New York back to California, and the Mothers grew better and better up until their sad demise last year caused mainly by lack of response and funds.
Looking back on the break up obviously makes Zappa feel rather sad. Some members, he says – for instance Bunk Gardner – are very bitter about it.
“The worst thing about having a band like that is the responsibility falls on you. You have to remember, all the time, that the main concern of a rock-n-roll band is how much money it earns. It’s a perfectly valid stance to take, because these men were earning very little, and some of them had families – Jimmy Carl Black had five kids.
“So when I’d announce we had a tour coming up, a few people in a burst of enthusiasm might go out and spend the money in advance. Then the promoter rings up and says the tour’s off, and someone has to meet that bill, either me or Herbie (Cohen, their manager, and Zappa’s partner in business ventures). Everybody in the band hated me or Herbie in turn.
“When I disbanded the group it was as if I’d taken their income away. There was a lot of mumbling and grumbling. Nobody paused to consider that I might have been running the band purely on a musical basis. But I would say during the five years that group was together it was a very good relationship – we put up with a lot of hardship and misunderstanding.”
Now, with the new Mothers of Invention, Frank wants to keep to a more flexible format of musicians – people in the present line-up all have other commitments so aren’t totally leaning on Zappa. He’s also very excited about a British musician who may be joining them soon.
“With a flexible format I’ll have the right personnel for whatever work I’m doing. I think it’s good to have a change of personnel – it keeps them fresh and enthusiastic.”
At the moment he’s mainly preoccupied with his “200 Motels,” an orchestral piece incorporating a chorus, some of the Mothers, and actors. The whole thing, which lasts for about two hours, took Zappa three years to complete and the theme is how touring can send you mad. So far it has only been performed once, in a basket ball arena at the University of California in Los Angeles, but it is to be specially performed on Dutch television in December. Zappa thinks that TV will be a good media for it, and is altering it here and there to fit.
Apart from that, Zappa is still working on the “Uncle Meat” film, which needs 150.000 dollars before he can complete it; rehearsing and playing with the new Mothers; coping with all the artists on his two labels, Straight and Bizarre; and writing new material all the time. He says he’s only happy when he’s got this many things going on at once, although he is trying to cut down his involvement with the people on his two record labels.
“All the things I’ve done for other artists in the past, seem to have turned into a disaster in some way or another. If you produce somebody’s album, they automatically expect you’re putting them on the road to stardom, and if their album doesn’t sell 15 million copies it’s your fault. I try and stay in the background as much as possible, thereby creating a situation where it’s their responsibility.
“All I do is sit in the booth. But the thing that depresses me is the amount of time I have to put into an album for someone else. Beefheart’s last album took two months, Wild Man Fischer’s took three months, and during that time I’m literally working for someone else, which is not the reason I got into the business. I do not enjoy that position. I’ll only put myself in that position if I respect someone’s work, and it really hurts my feelings if they turn round and have bad feelings afterwards.’
Zappa hasn’t exactly received an enormous show of gratitude from some of his artists. He is currently Captain Beefheart’s public enemy number one, although they’ve been friends for nearly 14 years. The fact that Beefheart is almost impossible to record because he won’t wear earphones and stands with his back to the booth apparently doesn’t seem to enter Beefheart’s head – he just doesn’t approve of his latest album. Likewise Wild Man Fischer, who Zappa rates as another difficult character to work with.
In the future Zappa wants to concentrate more on films and video. He wants to set up a base here – buy a house in the country near London with some land and round it – so he can work with British musicians and do more work in Europe where his band is very popular. He also has all sorts of pipe dreams, like the idea of a TV series “where I would have power to hire anyone I liked to put together in a group. Anyone from different sorts of music, and I’d put them together, rehearse them for a week and tape it at the end of that time.”
Throughout all these things he’s coping with at once, Zappa also finds time for his wife Gail, and their two children, Moon Unit and Dweezil. He and Gail were married the day before the Mothers left for their first European tour in 1967. The kids are superb – Zappa is immensely proud of them, and refuses to talk down to them but treats them as ordinary adults with great results. Dweezil already, says Zappa, is showing signs of becoming a fine mechanic. He dismantled the bidet within hours of arriving in their London hotel recently; and Moon Unit has a penchant for drawing a replica of her father’s moustache and beard on everything she can. But that’s just another side of the life of this extraordinary man.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net