Zapparap on the Zappaplan
By Craig McGregor
Frank Zappa has this plan, see. He’s had it since he was 18. (“You know, some people like to climb mountains? Well, I made up this plan that is so absurd, man”) and he is about a third of the way along and the way he’s going he’ll probably make it (“Oh yeah, it’s gonna be Art”) but the thing is, he ain’t telling anybody what The Plan is. Oh no. Christ, that would spoil everythang. Besides, says Zappa, Greek-Arab-Sicilian eyes glinting beneath theatrical black overhangs, he’s gonna make a movie about it. “Man, it’s so absurd that it wouldn’t do you any good if I told you about it. I’m gonna do it, that’s all.” And shuts up.
Frank Zappa is the leader of a rock group called The Mothers of Invention. Well, that’s a fraction of what he is. He is also the sardonic guy on that Phi Zappa Crappa toilet poster, which Frank is kinda sour about because “that picture's all around the world, it is probably one of the best selling posters in history, for which I have received absolutely no money – if anybody says Frank Zappa it’s the guy that sits on the toilet, they don’t even know what I do. I mean everything is filtered through that goddamn toilet!”
He is also a film maker and has 17 hours of uncut footage in the can for his “Uncle Meat” movie, a weird surrealistic epic about the Mothers and Mothermania – “I cut about 40 minutes of it, but the first time I showed any of the financiers the footage they backed out of the deal completely.” He is a record producer and editor (he has his own label Bizarre), philosopher, Zen devotee, guitarist, author, put-down virtuoso and cult hero of the electric underground....
And he is a composer. He’s been writing music ever since he was 13 years old and lists Varèse, Stravinsky, Webern and “electric rhythm and blues between 1953 and 1958” as his main influences. He has scored the music for two films – “I was interested in being a film composer, but it’s hard to break into the big time when you aren’t living in Hollywood.” He’s written most of the material for the Mothers, and earlier this year French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty recorded an entire album of Zappa compositions, ranging from Mothers’ favorites such as “King Kong” (the title track) and “Idiot Bastard Son” to a full orchestral work called “Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra.” Then in May this year Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the premiere performance of Zappa’s most ambitious work so far, an “opera for television” called “200 Motels.”
“A lot ot people said it sounded like movie music,” says Zappa. “Well, in a way it is – for a movie they haven’t even seen yet, the movie that I was living while I was out there on the road touring with the Mothers. I’d go back there to the motel after a job and write whatever I was thinking about: it was more like a musical diary, a two-year orchestral diary. Then the idea occurred to me using this orchestra music with some songs about life on the road, and then staging some action around it, and ending up with a sort of grandiose “opera for television.” Mehta conducted three of the four movements at the May concert, but because of cost, the chorus, dancers and most of the stage action had to be omitted. In fact, the whole thing won’t really come together until Dec. 27, when Zappa and the Mothers fly to Amsterdam to videotape the entire opera for Dutch television. Then all he has to do is raise half a million dollars to turn it into a movie....
When Zappa calls the opera grandiose, he means it. The cast: “One seven-piece electric band called the Mothers of Invention; one official buffoon called Motorhead; one electronic music composer who turns into a monster named Don Preston; one Jewish film editor from New York named Phyllis Altenhaus, who’s the victim of the monster; 12 ballet dancers, 4 mimes, one dwarf, one narrator, one soprano soloist, one 40-voice choir, one 91-piece orchestra, 3 grand pianos, and that’s it – that’s what we have to work with.”
Hell, he’s even worked out a way to include those 40 minutes of ‘Uncle Meat.’ “It seems like it’s impossible, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not; I work ‘Uncle Meat’ in at the start and we end up with this one enormous outrageous thing! The greatest fun I can have is finding the most dissimilar elements and hooking them together so it will work. Anything that seems completely impossible. I mean, my whole life is devoted to doing things like that: taking the most absurd concepts and turning them into a reality. You know, because once it’s happened, it’s real. The idea of being able to shape reality is pretty neat.”
Zappa gets up and walks across the studio which takes up the entire ground floor of his house in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood hills. It’s like a huge pop environment, littered with electric guitars, a car hood, a puce-colored organ, vibes, junk assemblages, posters, tape reels, editing gear, color charts, files, telephones, a set of drums, speakers, an immense painting of a cobalt blue automobile enveloped in flames, cans of film, an amplifier and a white-and-green sign proclaiming Zappa’s Grubby Chamber. This is where he works all night writing music, editing tapes and movie clips, endlessly working and reworking the same material until he has created precisely the audiovisual effects he wants.
Zappa may, in fact, turn out to be our first authentic master of mixed media. Not only is he the first full-blown composer to emerge from the seething pop underground since Gershwin, he is also a McLuhan-age media freak who has mastered the techniques of making music, movies, lightshows, opera and drama (his concerts with the Mothers have always been as much theatrical as musical events, with the group members acting out Zappa’s zany surrealist concoctions on the stage while they played) and can manipulate them at will: in “200 Motels” he will be doing everything from leading the Mothers on stage to cueing the video director as to what the audience sees. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely ever to be seen on American TV.
“You have to remember that there’s no censorship problem on Dutch television: there isn’t any kind of nudity, any kind of language you can’t use,” says Zappa. “So long as you’ve got a symphony orchestra in the back of it, it’s Art. Get the picture? Okay. Now, the first movement in ‘200 Motels’ is the real world, in quotes, which shows the environment the rock and roll creep functions in. Like one of the songs is ‘This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich,’ and after the song there’s a ‘Sealed Tuna Sandwich’ ballet. We’re in this town, see, and it’s really dull, and there’s nothing to do but go to the local redneck bar and grill and we meet this guy named Lonesome Cowboy Bert who’s operating this enormous surrealistic pinball-game type machine which has a rifle on it, and cardboard cutouts of replica Communists, long-haired creeps and faggots, Supreme Court judges and so on are wheeling by, and he’s blowing their heads off with this rifle and lip-synching this song, called ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bert,’ which is supposedly coming over a jukebox. At the end of this confrontation we feel obliged to remind him in a cheerful sort of way that his problem is between his legs, and we sing a song called ‘Penis Dimension.’ The whole first movement is made up of those kind of scenes.
“Then the second movement is the girls on the road, you know, the groupies you run into. Now I have a tape of most of the movement already sequenced out, but what goes in between is a fantasy that’s going on in my mind while I’m on the road. The third movement is called ‘The Red Throbber’; it views the groupie phenomena from another angle, through the eyes of a Custom Inspector. Who has a girlfriend called Sharleena. Who is a groupie. And then the Grand Finale comes when the Mothers are sitting in an airplane on the way back from Europe, and we are about to go through customs with this inspector who has fallen in love with his dog, it’s a cardboard dog and we can hear it snarling, and on the plane, man, we have just learnt that this chick....”
The rest of the opera isn’t really the sort of thing Spiro Agnew would approve, but that doesn’t worry Zappa. “I like it. I think it’s really entertaining, It’s the kind of TV show I always wanted to watch. It’s dealing with something people can understand. The cardboard dog may be a little peripheral, but most of the stuff is right down there, you know, in the real world where you can get into it.”
The real world, for Zappa, began 28 years ago in Baltimore with a father who came to America from Sicily, bringing Greek and Arab blood with him, and a mother who was part-French, part-Italian. His father worked in an East Coast chemical warfare factory, and Frank used to run around the backyard with a gas mask on. He was very sickly, developed asthma, and so the family moved first to Florida and then to California. “I didn’t have any friends so I developed an affinity to creeps, and I’ve surrounded myself with them ever since. I was, you know, an urchin,” he says. “I was a scurvy bum, type. Raised a Catholic, dumped it. Set fire to the high school in San Diego. Got turned on to Zen by my English teacher. Formed a group called The Blackouts – it wasn’t popular with the school because it had blacks and Mexicans in it. After I left school I bought a recording studio, but that ended when I was framed on a pornography charge. So I put together a band called the Mothers, and we started playing jobs In L.A....” He has been marred twice and has a three-year-old daughter, Moon, and a year-old son, Dweezil, by his second wife, Gail.
He still spends as much time as he can here; his fertile imagination seems to thrive on the freaky West Coast atmosphere. Zappa brings a grotesque, absurdist (and very funny) sense of humor to nearly everything he does, exploiting his own erotic-bizarre obsession with the outer reaches of human behaviour. He’s been called a neo-Dadaist, but he is really closer to Alfred Jarry and the College of Pataphysicians: there is a direct line from Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” to French absurdist theatre of the fifties to such Zappa’s absurdities as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” and “Lumpy Gravy” and “Chunga’s Revenge.”
This last is the title of the Mother’s new album, which deals with a triangular love affair between a boy, a girl and an industrial vacuum cleaner. “I think it’s really tragic when people get serious about stuff,” he says. “It’s such an absurdity to take anything really serious, you know, as a human being, as one little wart in the universe, to take anything seriously – what makes anybody think they have the right? That's very presumptuous. I make an honest attempt not to take anything seriously; I worked that attitude out about the time I was 18. I mean, what does it all mean when you get right down to it, what’s the story here? Being alive is so weird.”
On the coffee table sits a copy of “Bizarre,” the celebrated compilation of grotesquerie, perversion, deformity, freaks and AC/DC erotica by Australian satirist Barry Humphries: it gives off a fine stench of fin de siècle putrefaction. “I’m concerned about dreaming, about realizing bigger and more grotesque fantasies,” Zappa is saying. “I like to share these things with people. I can’t help it if a lot of people don’t get into, you know, vacuum cleaners and things like that. Any person or any nation that is without some sort of dream is – why, it’s just bereft. I mean, what have you got to look forward to if you don’t have some dreams or fantasies? What interests me is just about everything that nobody else cares about. I want just the outside stuff, the leftovers, sort of garbage collector type of thing. I’ve always been like that.” He grins. “My dreams are only limited by the size of my bank account.”
Are all his projects part of The Plan? Zappa grins. “There are alternative routes, opportunities present themselves...” And The Plan itself? Zappa refuses the bait, zips off at a tangent – or is it? “In the music business you don’t say I want to do this, because they say thank you very much, I’ll call you later. You have to sneak in there and scrape up the money somehow and then do it. Rock music, the Mother´s albums. This is my way of sneaking in..."
So the great Zappaplan remains a Mysterious Secret. Tune in again next year, folks. But knowing Zappa, and that he’s a third of the way through it, and that he’s filmed and recorded and taped and collected and re-arranged (like a life-electric) almost everything that’s happened to him so far, I wonder if the final creation mightn’t be some fantastical exercise in cinema vérité, Zappa´s Life, Dreams and Death as a multimedia Work of Art? He could do it. He even could change the truth of it from instant to instant. I mean, the idea of being able to shape reality is pretty neat.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net