I Dreamed I Interviewed Frank Zappa In My Maidenform Bra
By David Reitman
Ever since I inadvertently became a rock and roll journalist, it has been my ambition to do the interview with Frank Zappa. Most interviews with Zappa failed, largely because the interviewers didn't know enough to ask him some really challenging questions or because they kissed his ass. I was going to avoid the latter, even though Zappa is one of my idols. I would plan the questions with great care, do the interview in privacy with good recording equipment. Ha. Anne Marie Micklo our managing editor looked at me one morning and said, "We've got an interview with Zappa, but we have to go right now." No time to go to my radio station (WKCR-FM) and get a Tandberg and an Electro Voice 663. No, we grab a crummy Panasonic cassette machine (mistake no. 1), I grab the three record reviews I have done of Zappa's music – Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Jean Luc-Ponty's King Kong (mistake no. 2) and head for Zappa's hotel in the rain.
When we arrive, there seems to be a great ambiguity as to when the interview will start and I annoy Zappa by setting up the microphone in front of him while he is eating (mistake no. 3). To break the ice, I give him my three reviews. He looks at them and says, "so you're the one who said that," referring to my review of Weasels Ripped My Flesh where I criticized one piece, "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask," by saying we had heard Motorhead snork before and besides, Penderecki, Ligeti or Kenneth Gaburo could do it better (use of chorus). Zappa was pissed and he asked me to prove it. That did it, my ego was crushed. There was my idol and he was fucking yelling at me, yelling AT ME! I couldn't answer, I couldn't even speak. Zappa compared the snorks of Motorhead to the music of Jimmy Reed, a rather dubious comparison – Reed has worked longer and harder at his craft than Motorhead. Then he said the composers I mentioned would envy what he could do with a live chorus. In some cases perhaps, but in this particular case, never.
I felt as if someone had pulled the plug on my adrenalin, and from there on I was an emotional cripple. I reacted to Zappa's hostility in a predictable way, by knucklin under to him – all right, so I kissed his ass. His hostility continued as he kept walking away from the interview to answer the phone, talk, etc. Maybe I was paranoid. But he certainly didn't seem to enjoy himself. Left with no defense I tried a cheap trick. I tried to impress him with my knowledge of music. After a while he seemed not to hate me so much and the latter part of the interview was interesting. He showed me some of his scores and even invited Anne Marie and I to a rehearsal at the Fillmore. Unfortunately, the crummy Panasonic wasn't working right, so most of that part of the interview was lost so all that is left is the hostile part.
So I guess this interview is another of a long line of failures, not a total failure; but it just doesn't get at the essence of the man. Also present in our cast of characters besides FZ, DR (me) and AMM (Anne Marie) were two other Mothers, Mark Volman (MV) and Aynsley Dunbar (AD). Have fun. I didn't.
DR: What's happening with "200 Motels" and other extended orchestral projects?
FZ: You see this box here (points to large trunk in center of room). Well, there's a reason why that box is sitting here in this room, because I'm finishing the screenplay for "200 Motels"; we're going to shoot it in England; it's going to be a United Artists' feature length movie and we're supposed to have a press conference ... to announce our deal.
DR: Who's making the film?
DR: Can you tell us what's going to happen in the film?
FZ: Yeah. We have the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and we are in the process of negotiating with Gunther Schuller to conduct it. He wants to do it. It's just a matter of figuring out whether we can afford him. There's a 40 voice choir, 12 dancers, Mothers of Invention, new and old.
DR: Are you bringing them all back together for this movie?
FZ: No, just a few of the members are going to be over there, I have both old film and live appearances. Don Preston is going to be the monster; Motorhead's going to be one of the dancers; Jimmy Carl Black's going to play Lonesome Cowboy Bird(?) and-who else are we negotiating with? Theodore Bikel to be the narrator. And half an hour of the film is animated.
DR: Who's doing the animation?
FZ: Murakami-Wolf, it's a company in Los Angeles. It's all being designed by Cal Schenkel.
DR: Have you heard other works using orchestra or choir such as "Atom Heart Mother" (Pink Floyd) and Quatermass (Peter Robinson)?
FZ: No, I haven't heard any of those.
MV: I've heard both. They're both rather depressing attempts ...
FZ: The manner in which the orchestra, and chorus and the other people being combined for this presentation is not, like, "Here it is, kids, the missing link between rock and roll and classical music." It's a little bit different concept.
DR: I always thought those things failed because they had a rock and roll band, and wrote for strings in the style of Schumann or Brahms.
FZ: That's true. And at the same time, you can't have serious music and just write out some funky guitar-bass ostinato lines and have the string section do it. Is that what Quatermass is (to Mark)?
MV: Yes (That's not exactly what Quatermass is, but I didn't want to get into another fight, so I kept my mouth shut. Peter Robinson does occasionally write for strings like Xenakis or Penderecki – "Laughin' Tackle," for instance). You're talking about what they do, man. They sit around and think of a way they can impress the public. The only thing for orchestra I like was the Moody Blues when they did that thing with the London Philharmonic (I detest the Moody Blues, but I bit my lip, and said nothing). You know which album I mean?
MV: The first one they did before they started getting successful ...
(By this time Zappa was off talking on the phone)
AMM: What happened to "Uncle Meat"?
FZ: We had money to finish that picture, and all of a sudden, the people who gave us the money took the money back. I couldn't do anything more with it. I had 40 minutes of it cut at the time the money ran out ...
(AMM asks FZ about a particular weekend at the Fillmore, where this girl sang, but she was so off mike, it was lost)
FZ: That was a great night. In fact, the two nights we played there, all four shows had stuff in it that looked so outrageous. And I came up with maybe two albums out of those two nights. Just crazy. I wonder where that chick is? ... One night we improvised an opera ...
(At this point AMM and FZ discuss the girl who sang. Also at this point the Panasonic cassette machine decided to fuck up in earnest. Not only was AMM inaudible, but FZ became progressively more garbled)
FZ: Her name was Shirley Ann. She used to sing in Sweden. I don't know whether she made records ...
(FZ talks to AD who says that Shirley Ann is a very common name in Sweden)
FZ: Yeah? I'd like to find about 6 more like Shirley Ann. She was standing backstage talking with Jimmy Carl Black who tried to get in her pants one time when we were in Sweden and she wasn't going for it, you know, so he was hustling her and when he wasn't meeting with too much success back there he decided he would finally introduce her to the rest of the members of the group. So he said, "This is Shirley Ann, and she sings." So I said, "Sing." So she sang a couple of bars and I said, "Would you go on stage with us?" We had to really con her into coming out there. She said, "What'll I sing?" I said, "Whatever you want." So she started off singing, "I am made of fire and air, come and touch me ... "
AMM: "My father was the wind ... "
FZ: She was making up this weird stuff. So Lowell (George) started singing duets, with her, Motorhead was snorking ...
DR: What are some of the problems for writing for violin unamplified and Fender bass, and making it sound decent? (What we call a puny move to re-direct the interview.)
FZ: The problems occur when you try and make it happen as an acoustical performance. You have to balance the volumes out, because if it's basically a recording project, we can control it – turn a knob and they're at equal volume.
DR: You don't have a problem writing in your style for either one?
(FZ walks away and people are talking because AD is leaving. At this point I am getting desperate. I decide I must convince FZ of my musical literacy)
DR: I'd like to talk now about something that's hinted at on the Freak Out jacket. You listed a whole bunch of names of contemporary composers, avant-garde jazz musicians, old R&B people ...
FZ: And other people ...
DR: ... and other people, whom we may or may not know (at this point I was upset by the photographer who, trying to get a good angle, stepped on me and then the microphone). Well, what composers ...
FZ: The only people I would add to it would be Penderecki and – that would be about it. I'd add Honegger too.
DR: Why Honegger?
FZ: I like his music, I like the way it sounds. I got about three albums by him, last year. I listened to them over and over again for about 4 months.
DR: What particular works?
FZ: The Liturgical Symphony, uh, Symphony for Strings and Two Trumpets, the Pastorale d'Ete, the Chant of Joy. I like that stuff.
DR: What about Penderecki?
FZ: I like his instrumental music more than his choral music. The Violin Capriccioso I thought was a good piece.
DR: What's that violinist's name ...
(FZ and DR in unison) Paul Zukofsky.
DR: The Threnody (for 52 String Instruments for the Victims of Hiroshima), have you heard that?
FZ: Yeah, I have two different versions of that.
DR: Yeah, the Victrola and the Phillips
FZ: I like the Victrola one better.
FZ: The sound is better.
DR: What about the composers on the Freak Out album. Could you say why you like them or what elements of their music have come into yours?
FZ: The only composers I like consistently, I like about 90% of what they write, are Varèse, Stravinsky and Webern. Just about everything they write, I enjoy. With lesser degrees of enjoyment for Schoenberg, Berg.
DR: What do you like by Schoenberg?
FZ: There's this Septet for Baritone voice, mandolin, guitar, clarinet, cello, violin. I like the Orchestra Pieces, the ones with "Summer Morning by a Lake"
DR: Oh yeah, Opus 16. 5 Pieces for Orchestra.
FZ: I like most of Bartok too.
DR: I thought so. How about some of the electronic composers you mentioned, like Kagel, Stockhausen?
FZ: I'm not so impressed by Kagel's electronic music as I was by this lecture he gave at a college in California, where he played a tape of a piece called Anagrama. Have you ever heard it?
FZ: I don't think it's released. I got the score to it. It's fantastic. It's for chorus and percussion, there's a harp in there and a few other things. I'm surprised they never put that out. But the orchestration was unbelievable. For instance, in the percussion section there are two giant rolls of paper that these guys have to rip up on cue. And it's really notated out exactly. They have sheets of tin foil that they play and it really sounds good. And the chorus is singing phonetic texts – it's probably the basis of "It Can't Happen Here," and things like that.
DR: I think you quote most from Varèse and Stravinsky.
FZ: You do, can you prove it?
DR: Can I prove it? Well I caught a few quotes from the Rite of Spring and the Firebird (Stravinsky).
FZ: Uh huh, that's pretty obvious.
DR: And I saw you once on stage do part of Integrale (Varèse). Did you ever do that?
FZ: Yeah, we did that with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But we also used to play the opening oboe line from Octandre. We used to play that all the time.
DR: Did Ian play that on the oboe?
FZ: Nope, we played a screaming fuzz-tone thing (sings it for me). Big crashes and gongs and shit. We used to throw that in the middle of regular rock and roll type stuff. We'd play something that sounds like a 1950's saxophone instrumental and then end it with Octandre.
DR: Absolutely Free is probably the first example of sprechstimme in rock ...
FZ: That's incorrect. The first example of sprechstimme in rock can be attributed to early blues singers. John Lee Hooker was doing it a long time ago. All the Delta performers half-talked and half-sung their words.
DR: Did that come from anywhere, that particular section, it sounded like Schoenberg or Webern, where you were the reciter – was that you?
FZ: "She tickled his fancy, all night long."
DR: I'm not sure about this, but I think I heard a little bit of Satie. Could that be possible?
FZ: There's no overt quotes from Satie in any of the music. Not like taking the Lullabye from the Firebird and playing simultaneously against another background from the Rite of Spring. Like we did in the "Duke of Prunes."
DR: How have you approached the quote? Have you tried to be as gross as possible sometimes?
FZ: Sure. As an example, to give you an idea of the intellectual capabilities of the people who review this music, I've been accused of quotes from "Boris Godunov" – a fantastic array of composers that I've never even listened to, let alone would rip off any of their music, and stick it in there. But just by playing part of a Stravinsky number in one of those songs and during an interview saying to a guy, "Yeah, there's a Stravinsky thing in there," then the word Stravinsky appears in an article someplace. And the kids who've never even heard of Stravinsky might say, "Wow. I wonder what the rest of his stuff sounds like?" The same with Varèse. So in a way I've accomplished a certain broadening of musical horizons for a small number of people.
DR: Aren't you also accustoming people to the music by playing it on stage?
FZ: Hardly. Not by the way we do it. They wouldn't even recognize it in most cases if they heard the original.
DR: Well, after hearing the same riff over and over they might say, "Hey ... "
FZ: You really think they have that kind of retention?
DR: If they hear Absolutely Free a number of times and they hear "Survivor from Warsaw" (Schoenberg) they might say, "Hey that sounds like Frank Zappa."
FZ: (Laughs) Yeah, well I doubt that many of the kids who listen to Absolutely Free are going to listen to "Survivor from Warsaw ... "
DR: OK, how about some of the jazz people you mentioned; I think you mentioned Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman ...
FZ: I heard their records in high school ... (Talks to somebody else) ... I like Eric Dolphy, too.
DR: What particularly did you like by Dolphy?
FZ: An album called Blues and the Abstract Truth.
DR: Oliver Nelson ... (FZ has gotten up to answer the phone) After he comes back he starts talking to MV about the Fillmore)
DR: We were discussing Eric Dolphy ...
FZ: You heard the album, Iron Man?
FZ: That's the other one I like.
DR: Well how about blues and r&b of the 50's. You must have liked Excello records. I noticed you mentioned Lightin' Slim and Slim Harpo.
FZ: Sure. They were hard to get too.
DR: Where are you from by the way?
FZ: I was born in Baltimore and raised in California, in the desert, in a town called Lancaster.
DR: How big was it?
FZ: About a hundred thousand population but it was spread out over maybe 200 square miles.
DR: Did you live on a farm?
FZ: No, I lived on a track of little stucco houses. Okies with cars dying in their yards. You know how you always have to pull up a Chevrolet and let it croak on your lawn ...
DR: Did you go to high school there?
DR: Did you find out about R&B in high school?
FZ: I found out about R&B in junior high school.
DR: Where did you find it?
FZ: One day I was listening to the radio and I heard this record come on, it was "Gee..."
DR: The Crows.
FZ: Yeah, and then "I" by the Velvets, and I said "That's it."
DR: Was there music in your house that you heard?
FZ: We didn't even have a record player.
DR: What was the first music you ever heard?
FZ: Oh, I had heard background music to soap operas. That was it though. Swing bands on the radio.
DR: When did you first hear jazz and contemporary music?
FZ: The thing that led me to Varèse's music was an article in Look Magazine saying how great Sam Goody's record store was. Sam Goody sells records so well that he can even sell a record called Ionizations – they even called the album wrong – it was The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse, Volume I. And they were telling how ugly this record sounded. It was just drums and sirens and nobody would want to own this record and Sam Goody was actually selling it.
DR: Was this the one on Columbia.
FZ: The first album was recorded in 1950. He didn't get anything out on Columbia for another 10 years. This album was EMS – which stands for Elaine Music Stores –number 401. It had a gray cover. They had two different covers out on it. One was gray with a big portrait, one was black and white ... The whole thing was conducted by Waldman ...
DR: Frederic Waldman ...
FZ: Yeah, Frederic Waldman, under the supervision of the composer. And the album notes were by Finkelstein ... That was the first album I owned, period, but it was the first record of any kind of music other than rhythm and blues that I was interested in. It took me almost a year to find that record after I saw that article and I found it in a store and the guy wanted 6 dollars for it and I said "6 dollars for a record!" He said, "How much money you got." So I gave him 2 bucks and went away. I had, this little record player this big, with these little wrought iron legs which made it stand off the table like that and a speaker on the bottom that blew into the table. You put a quarter on the tone arm and that's what I used to play that album on over and over again. My parents forbade me to play it in their presence because the sirens made my mother neurotic while she was ironing ...
MV: Our first records run so close together. Yours was Varèse and mine was Jan and Arnie ...
(At this point, the tape becomes totally inaudible for the next ten minutes. When we join our heroes again, FZ is talking about his early experiences with recording studios ... )
FZ: ... then we went down to see Dootsie Williams' place – Dootone Records – we actually stepped into the room where "Earth Angel" was recorded and it was like going to heaven. There was a piano that appeared to have shriveled from over-use, a little stumpy piano, the cheapest they could get, the only thing that would fit into that room, and there was enough room to have that piano, maybe five guys standing up around a microphone, maybe an upright bass, maybe one guy hitting a snare drum in the corner, that was about it. I'm sure most of their group vocal masters were done in that little room ... In the 50's a lot of the things were to disc but the way they did this recording was, they had a master disc and they'd do four or five cuts on the master disc. They'd have like 6 versions of the same song on a big disc. They chose the one they liked and then played that onto another disc which became the single master. It was really crude ...
After this interlude of audibility, FZ, DR, MV and AMM fade into oblivion, and nothing, not even equalization could save them. It was, alas, the best part of the interview, where Zappa talked about being a high school hood with Don Van Vliet; early recording sessions and groups with Ray Collins, meeting Johnny Otis, what he thinks about being misinterpreted as advocating drugs, his guitar playing, guitars, electronic gadgets. Too bad. But fate was cruel to me that day. I hope I get a chance to talk to Frank again someday under better circumstances. I'd like to talk about his high school days (and before) at great length, for it seems to be the key to much of his imagery, lyrical and musical. I hope I won't be as paralyzed by fear, so that I can tell Frank why I didn't like "Prelude to the Afternoon of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask," because I still don't like that piece. After all, nobody's perfect, not even one of the geniuses of contemporary music.
Source: Steve Roncaioli
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net