The Grand Wazoo Speaks
By Ed Baker
Dean and I drove into Grand Valley Friday morning, still not quite believing that we were going to see Frank Zappa. I mean I knew it all right, but it wasn't quite real yet. After first going to the wrong Holiday Inn, we finally got the right place and sat waiting for the "press conference" to begin. There were a bunch of people with tape recorders and cameras and one guy with video equipment. He was asked not to use it and he put it away. Mr. Big Shot from Grand Valley College came around to make sure that everyone was on the list. Everybody wasn't, but since there were only about 14 people there instead of the 10 on the list, nobody was made to leave. Most of the people were either running tape machines or taking pictures. Basically there were four of us asking questions, although Dean asked 2 or 3, the TV reporter who asked the first questions asked one more, and one other guy asked one or two. I didn't get all the names and so they haven't been identified in the interview. Almost everyone asked several good questions and one dumb one. For that reason they'll probably be both disappointed and happy that their names aren't listed here. I would like to thank Michelle Fonda for providing me with a copy of a tape of the interview.
Finally in walked Frank Zappa himself. He was smaller than I had expected, his features less intense than they have looked in most of the pictures I've seen. His hair was uncombed from a night of sleep, and his eyes were very clear and gave him a more youthful look than I'd expected. He was smiling. After a bit of musical chairs for the benefit of the machines present, the interview began.
Q. You once stated that today's teenagers would not know good music if it bit them on their derriere. Do you still feel that that's the case?
FZ. That statement was made in 1968. And in certain parts of the country it still holds true.
Q. In certain parts of the country then it's also changing. What do you think is bringing on that change?
FZ. Probably a change in the broadcasting trends in the areas where the change took place, because as long as the kids get a chance to hear a wider variety of things then they can make more decisions about what they like and what they don't like.
Q. How do you explain the fact that there are so many white musicians today, and back in 1968 for that matter, who have attempted to sound black; not only in the music but in the lyrics as well?
FZ. Well, you guys said it. Black is beautiful. Guess a lot of those white guys believed it and went along with it.
Q. Does that mean that you don't have your own roots from which to grow?
FZ. I'd say that the roots of white culture in the United States might exist, but they're probably not as interesting as the roots of black culture in the US, especially to those people in the music business.
Q. Do you regard that attempt at black music as an attempted rip-off as some blacks do?
FZ. Some blacks may regard it that way but I don't look at it that way.
Q. Why not?
FZ. Because I think that in the process of making music there is so little that is actually generated fresh from this twentieth century point of view, you know from right this moment, that so much of what everybody uses in music is borrowed or developed from trials and errors of past generations of all different cultures. (Here Zappa is made honorary manager of Ogre's All-Stars.)
Q. I'd like to ask you if you could talk a little about the conflict there is between art being a commodity in capitalist culture right now as opposed to being a true art form and how you deal with it.
FZ. Music as a commodity. I don't know how to approach that for you. What do you want to know?
Q. As far as making your music. How much do you take into consideration the marketability of it and how much do you take into consideration artistic values. Or do you feel there's necessarily a difference?
FZ. Of course there's a difference. I think mainly what I do is put together something for my own amusement and if there are people who happen to like the same things that I like then they'll enjoy what I do – if they don't, they won't. There's no accounting for taste.
Q. What is taste?
FZ. That's a good question.
Q. Where'd you run into Jack Bruce? How did you decide to record with him?
FZ. I met Jack in 1967 when we were working at the Garrick Theater in New York. And I've seen him on and off since that time and when that track was recorded I was traveling around with a ten-piece group of which Jim Gordon was drummer.
Q. You're talking about APOSTROPHE?
FZ. Yes. Well, Jim Gordon was a friend of his and when we were in NY we went to see the concert of Bruce, West and Laing at Radio City Music Hall and so after the concert we went over to his hotel and talked for a while and he had the day off and we had the day off, so we decided to go into the studio and jam.
Q. Some people accuse you of looking upon your involvement in music as more of a joke than being seriously involved. Is there any truth to that?
Q. Do you like the sound of your own voice?
FZ. It depends on what it's doing .
Q. You've been using it a lot lately in the albums. I was wondering, when you listen to those albums, how do you feel about it?
FZ. It depends. It was really hard for me to start singing (I don't know whether you wanna call it singing) but to start croaking on those records 'cause I've had a big complex about that for a long time. But, I figure that a lot of those things, a lot of the texts on those songs don't sound right unless I'm singing them. If I make somebody else sing it – even if he has a better voice than me, it sounds stupid with those words because they don't know what I mean.
Q. How much do other people in your band or organization contribute to the music and to the production of it?
FZ. In terms of what?
Q. Well, I know you write the lyrics and things like that. But are they allowed the freedom to contribute what they think should be...
FZ. They can make suggestions any time.
Q. When you write your music do you write it in spurts, or do you take long sessions at it, or just as it comes to mind?
FZ. It 's like seasonal employment. Because when you're touring you have a schedule that's probably arranged a year in advance and you go out for 7 months out of the year. And before each tour you have a rehearsal period. So that occupies you for another few months. And in between – well I'm working on a film right now – and then I section off a little period of time where I write enough stuff for a year.
Q. So how long ago was the stuff that's on APOSTROPHE written? Was that written a year ago?
FZ. More than a year ago.
FZ. Oh I do that all the time in albums. (laughter).
Q. Is that supposed to be a special interest of yours?
FZ. Poodles? No.
Q. You don't have a poodle fetish?
Q. What about zircon-encrusted tweezers?
FZ. No, I don't have a tweezer fetish either. It's the idea that you take an idea and you make that idea go as far as that idea will go across a whole span of albums, and it adds continuity to the whole work. You can follow something progressing.
Q. You like your work to be linear then? Progress?
FZ. Oh it progresses and it is – it's expansion in this direction (unclaps his hands slowly) not straight down the line. It's like the poodle starts off at this point here and he doesn't move along a straight line over to here. He goes baaloooop!
Q What do you expect from your musicians? I know you've gone through quite a few. How much improvising do you allow?
FZ. It depends on the book we're playing at the time. For instance, on this particular tour we've just spent 2 weeks rehearsing, for nostalgic purposes, a collection of songs from the FREAK OUT album. And there's not much jamming in that. I mean you have to learn the arrangements. We have one long, continuous slab of relentless FREAK OUT music. It's funny, you know. If we play that – we haven't unleashed it yet on an audience, this'll be our first concert on the tour and it's our newest piece of old stuff. And we've never done that before. You know we've never gone out and played vast quantities of stuff from albums. Usually our show consists of things that are unreleased, or a small sample of request songs. But now we have like a half an hour or 45-minute continuous piece of familiar material. And I'm anxious to see what's gonna happen if we play it for an audience, because we're always getting requests for things we never bothered to learn.
Q. Who's with you on the tour this time?
FZ. It's a 10-piece group. We have 2 drummers – Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson. We have 3 brothers: Bruce Fowler on trombone, Tom Fowler on bass, and Walt Fowler on trumpet. Don Preston is back in the band again on Minimoog. Jeff Simmons is back again on rhythm guitar and George Duke is on keyboards. And Napoleon Murphy Brock is lead vocalist and tenor sax player.
Q. What's Ian Underwood up to right now, do you have any idea?
FZ. He's just hanging out in LA.
Q. How about Jean-Luc Ponty?
FZ. He's been working with McLaughlin.
Q. What caused Ian and Jean-Luc to not work for you any more?
FZ. OK. In the case of Jean it was very simple. He tried a maneuver which I thought was in extreme bad taste. He tries to stick me up for a large amount of money. It was one of those things that if you don't pay me this gross amount of money I'm going to leave and I said goodbye. And then he found out that he was unemployed... I don't take very kindly to that kind of stuff 'cause I treat my musicians fairly and when they try and do things like that to me I get pissed off. In the case of Ian, at the time we were gonna do this one tour, he couldn't make the tour because he has a daughter by a former marriage and he had to stay home and take care of her 'cause the mother was doing something and blah blah and so he was stuck.
Q How are your kids doing?
Q. Are they in school yet?
FZ. Oh yeah.
Q. What are you putting them in, in a public school?
Q. How does Dweezil feel about being called Dweezil?
FZ. He loves it.
Q. How come you never got to meet Edgar Varèse?
FZ. Well, see at the time when I was coming up, when I was a pup, kids did not have as much mobility or income as they do now, and I couldn't afford to go back there and see him while he was still alive and at the time I was available he wasn't. It just never worked out.
FZ. It's not my book.
Q. Care to talk about any politics at all?
FZ. Like what?
Q. I have a group of friends who are very dedicated socialists, and they are certain that your views coincide pretty much with theirs.
FZ. I don't subscribe to any one political philosophy. I think that there are good things to be gained from all different kinds of approaches to the problems of people in general. I'm not a socialist. I'm not locked into any one of those categories. I don't believe that any system that exists today has got all the answers for everybody.
Q. What kind of mayonnaise do you like on your pizza?
FZ. I used to like peanut butter on my pizzas, as a matter of fact.
FZ. No, I don't like crunchy.
Q. Whatever happened to Suzy Creamcheeze?
FZ. Which one? There are hundreds, thousands of them.
FZ. Zarubica. She's had a series of head injuries. She's been in a number of automobile accidents for some reason. She's in England now and she keeps getting in car wrecks and hurting her head.
Q. What was the story about you getting thrown off the stage in England? I've heard several different rumors about that.
FZ. We had played a concert on December 10 at the Rainbow Theater in London. We had finished the concert and played an encore and I was on my way off the stage. Half the band was already off the stage and the security people were off to the side getting loaded. And some geek ran out of the audience and knocked me off the stage, fifteen feet down into a concrete floored orchestra pit.
Q. Did he yell anything at you or...
FZ. Nothin', I don't even know what he looked like, I never saw him. I woke up in the orchestra pit, my arm was broken, my rib was broken, I had a hole in the back of my head. My head was twisted all the way over onto the side of my shoulder. And my face was banged up, and I went "Uunngh!" Spent a month in the hospital there and about nine months in a wheelchair.
Q. What, aside from interviews, is the worst thing you have to contend with when you go on tour?
FZ. Interviews aren't bad. This is actually reasonably intelligent. The thing that I don't like about touring around, and I think it's gonna be different on this tour, because we leased a plane on this tour...
Q. Is that the spaceship? (Excentrifugal fortz)
FZ. No. We have a four-engine propeller plane that's been customized somewhat. It's not real luxurious or anything, but it's comfortable. And what it's gonna enable us to do is travel when we wanna travel instead of having to get up at five o'clock in the morning after playing until 2 or 3, so that you can accommodate a commercial airline schedule. It's especially hard traveling in the Great Lakes states because the flight schedules to get from one college town to another are ridiculous. You can spend six hours a day traveling and waiting in airports to go 200 miles. Just because you've got to transfer in to Detroit or Chicago or something like that. Wait there and get one of those wood duck flights out to new of those places. So now we can get up at a reasonable hour in the morning, fly for an hour or two, and take care of business. But that's the hardest part for me is the – that 6-hour travel because we do a 2-hour sound check when we get to each town.
Q. Is the movie you said you were working on the science fiction movie you mentioned in the Down Beat interview?
FZ. I didn't say science fiction, I said there was monster in it.
Q. Well, the DB interview said you said sci fi.
FZ. If you knew the guy who interviewed me for DB you'd know why.
Q. But is it the same project?
Q. When's the next album due out, do you have any idea?
FZ. Yes, probably be in September.
Q. Is it gonna be live?
FZ. Yeah, it's gonna be a live album. There'll be some studio things on it – or studio things done to the live tapes. But mostly live.
Q. Are you recording this tour now?
FZ. Yeah, we record all the tours.
Q. What kind of, or how much equipment have you got for that? What have you got anyway?
FZ. We record it on a [Scully] 4-track.
Q. You get everything on that?
FZ. Yeah have uh ...
Q. Was that what you used for the Fillmore album?
FZ. No, that was done 10-track. But you know the Pauley Pavillion album – JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM LA? That was recorded on the same machine.
Q. That came out excellent. You hardly, you couldn't even tell it was live.
FZ. Well, it's liver than you'd wanna believe. I'll tell you what's on the tape. One track is the PA system, and then two channels are mikes on stage with the instruments and one channel was audience. That's what JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM LA was mixed from.
Q. What sort of feeling do you get when you release an album? Do you feel satisfied with it usually?
FZ. Usually I can't even stand to listen to it anymore, because in the process of putting it together you hear it so many times while you're mixing it. Because you keep listening to the same song and putting it together and by the time it finally comes out it's like "Boy am I glad I'm finally done with that."
Q. But you're satisfied with the music that goes onto it.
FZ. Yeah, or I wouldn't put it out. I take the approach that most of the albums that are put out are accurate representations of what the group is capable of doing at the time the album came out.
Q. Do you intend to do anything more with Beefheart?
Q. What do you think of his latest album, the one on Mercury? Have you heard it?
Q. I spoke to Captain Beefheart, well I didn't speak to him but I was in the room and overheard him talking to some other people two nights ago. Someone asked him about the mythical rift between you two. And he made some comment that you should have paid him money for lyrics he wrote that he never got credit for. Would you like to comment on that?
FZ. I don't know what he's talking about. What lyrics?
Q. He didn't mention anything in particular.
FZ. He's written no words that I've used. Not only that, he's a very peculiar personality. I wouldn't say that he's too stable. He called the house about three weeks ago while I was working in San Francisco – no, I was in Portland. And I happened to call home and talk to my wife and she said, "Beefheart just called the other day." I said yeah what did he want? And she says, "He called you up to thank you for doing the TROUT MASK REPLICA album because he thinks it's his best album." I haven't talked to him in four years. So he called the house to leave that message. And I said great. I just don't want to have anything to do with him, because he's too erratic.
Q. Who's number one on your hit parade?
FZ. For what?
FZ. I don't....
Q. Anybody on your top ten. Do you listen to Buck Owens or what when you get home?
FZ. I like Steely Dan.
Q. How about Harry Partch?
FZ. I have some of his music.
Q. I seem to have heard some things reminiscent of Eric Dolphy in the weird horn harmonies and strange twisting melodies...
FZ. I have one LP and another that was stolen, but I only have one left.
Q. You mentioned that you had some bad interviews in the past. What don't you like about some interviews? What offends you?
FZ. It's not a question of being offended, it's like this. You spend your time and you answer to the best of your ability. I'm not giving anybody a hard time and I'm answering whatever you ask me. That's what I do every time I do an interview. And then on occasion I've had the great misfortune to read the results in print. And I see that either the material has been grossly misunderstood by the people who are asking the questions or somebody who is editor of the publication changes it all around to suit the idea of who or what I am. And so I wind up getting channeled into some directions that I'm not interested in being in. So that's why it's a drag.
Q. What do you expect from your audiences? I saw you once at Masonic, last time you were in Detroit, the first time you did Masonic.
FZ. That was when one of the guys from the other band smashed our amplifiers for the PA system?
Q. What band was that?
FZ. Yeah, it was very mysterious. While we were on stage at the same time 2 amps on this side of the PA system and one on the other side went PHHHHHTT just like that. It was too weird.
Q. You didn't seem very happy with the audience then. You didn't do a long encore or anything. And next time you were at Masonic you played for hours. And you did the same thing in Boston – my friend saw you in Boston and you played for a really long time.
FZ. It depends on the conditions under which you're working. When you go out there and everything you brought to do the show is working perfectly and all you have to do is play what you know – then it's easy and you can carry on. But if something breaks down or if there's something obviously wrong somewhere, like one guy in the band is sick or there's some animosity in the audience then it's just unpleasant to be on stage for a long period of time. I would be a robot if I went out there and played every show exactly the same for exactly the same length of time with the same songs in it. I just don't feel that way.
Q. Last time you were in town you played at the Fountain Street Church.
FZ. Yes, I remember that job very well – I still have a tape of it.
Q. Was that the only time you ever played at a church?
Q. We sat around for weeks before that trying to figure out what kind of an act you were going to play in a church.
FZ. Yeah, well what we're doing now is completely different, but I remember that gig.
Q. Do your musicians have to sight read?
FZ. It helps.
Q. A lot of section work, particularly in this last stuff.
FZ. Well, let's see – ten percent of that was written down on the last two albums. All the rest I say blah blah blah blah (plays imaginary guitar and points to imaginary musician), you play that, blah blah you play that. And then the trick is just remembering all your parts.
Q. Do you enjoy playing for a college audience more than something like Cobo?
FZ. Each one is a different challenge. The biggest problem working in colleges is the conditions under which you have to work. Because usually schools do not have it together. They have a lot of trouble delivering what the contract says on time. You know you say a certain amount of electricity this close to the stage and little things like that and a guy at the school goes, "Oh wow! Yeah – yeah, well man wow!" I remember when we played at Kent State we got there to set up and the guy says, "Oh yeah. I'm sorry, man, you've got to wait. The karate class is practicing in the gym." We've got a whole truckload of equipment out there going, "How are we gonna set this up?" Then there's all these guys out there in white suits goin' Ungh! We stood around about an hour and a half and watched these people. If you work in a regular commercial hall, usually the only problems you have are with the union guys. Old farts who don't want to give you any help setting your stuff up 'cause they resent rock'n'roll in general. It's a curious paradox. In most of the large halls in the US, like the Spectrum in Philadelphia and big places like that –10 or 15 thousand seat halls, that better than fifty percent of their income per year for hall rentals is derived from rock music in the halls. And still they treat it as if it was an intrusion. But if it wasn't there those places will fold because there are not enough sports events, and the sports events don't draw as well as the rock things for most of those places. So they're heavily dependent on rock for the income of those halls and still they treat you like shit when you go there.
Q. Do you think rock music is drifting?
FZ. Drifting? From what?
Q. From where it is coming from.
FZ. If you're talking about sounding different from Chuck Berry I'd say yeah we're in trouble. A lot of people think that rock'n'roll has to sound exactly one way in order for you to give it the purest label of rock'n'roll. And I think that labeling like that is a convenience for critics and has nothing to do with what the music is all about.
Q. You don't think it should have a direction?
FZ. I think it should go wherever the people who are making it want it to go. And that's a by-product of their experiences. It's dishonest if a person who is making the music doesn't include in what he is making some element of his own feelings or his own environment and stuff like that. And the environment today is vastly different than the environment which created the earliest examples of rock'n'roll music.
Q. What is your interpretation of the environment today?
FZ. Well, that's a pretty grossly general question. Let's just say that it's very different from the era that produced Elvis Presley and it's different from the era that produced the Beatles and it's different from the era that produced most of the big names of pop music that everybody recognizes. I mean the Dylan today going out and doing a tour doesn't mean the same thing as Dylan doing a tour when he was first touring. It just doesn't join up with the environment some way. You know, the media environment. I'm not just talking about polluted air and so forth. I'm talking about the cultural aura that's happening today.
Q. Do you think Dylan is slipping?
FZ. Slipping? It's not a question of slipping. I just think that when his earliest stuff came out, what it said, juxtaposed against what was going on, meant one thing. And to say the same things, juxtaposed against what's being said today, it changes the meaning of the material.
Q. Do you think there's a general lack of creativity right now? In the music field?
FZ. A general lack?
Q. Well, as compared to like the end of the sixties, even during the sixties.
FZ. No, I wouldn't say so because before I'd answer that I'd rather have you qualify what you think creative is.
Q. Well there seems to be, just more...
Q. ... gimmick rock
Q. Yeah, gimmick rock, well not even that...
FZ. Do you think that the early part of the sixties you would have recognized gimmicks as well as you recognize them today?
FZ. I think that the amount of gimmickry has been continuous throughout American musical history – the history of recorded music. And when people today ask me questions like that, I wonder about their particular taste in music and what they must have been listening to when they started off and whether or not they were good listeners, whether they could discern. Like who was your earliest favorite, the Beatles or something like that? Could you listen to a Beatle record and tell where they were jiving you?
Q. No, but what I meant...
FZ. Not when you had their poster on the wall and you were lookin' at their haircut you couldn't.
Q. Well, it just seems that there's a lot more rehashing of stuff that's already been done. Singing the old songs one more time instead of maybe going on and doing things beyond.
FZ. Well, certainly in the case of what we're doing right now it's rehashing and singing of the old songs, but it's only for one segment of the program. The rest of what we're doing hasn't even been released yet.
Q. What do you think of the glitter rock trip right now? I mean you go all over the country, you know, around here it's not ahem, cough cough, it's not really ahem, cough cough. You know groups like Kiss and David Bowie. I liked David back in 1968, then he got on this thing where he wanted to put on a good show or something, I don't... What's the mood on glitter rock around where you go? What do you think about it?
FZ. Well, it's not my idea of a good time. I think lipstick in small quantities is OK in certain girls, I'm not too big on it for boys.
Q. Frank, is this the first news conference you've ever done?
FZ. NO. (general laughter) Certainly not.
Q. Do you like playing the guitar?
FZ. Yeah I do. The first news conference I ever went to was in Hamburg, Germany at the press club which is at the top of a skyscraper overlooking the ...
Q. Was that the clipping that was on the back of MOTHERMANIA?
FZ. No, that's from Berlin. Oh god, that was ridiculous.
Q. Why? What was so bad about it?
FZ. It's not that it was bad, it was just humorous. It was the first time we'd ever been to Germany. They had movie cameras all over the place and people who didn't speak English too good, and guys in the band who didn't speak German at all. And these people had no idea....
Here ends side one of the cassette. As we return Frank Zappa is saying....
And I remember that because Don Preston had a little tiny deck of Tarot cards in his pocket. And we were all sitting around answering obtuse questions from these guys. And he zipped off to the side with one chick and he was telling her fortune with these tarot cards on the side. That's one way to get into a German journalist's pants, with Tarot cards. Remember that if you ever go over there.
Q. Speaking of Tarot cards and all, on APOSTROPHE you make some remarks about religious fakirs and all....
Q. The guru syndrome, yeah. I wonder how far your distaste for that extends – to the real commercial shysters or are you pretty anti-religious as a whole?
FZ. I'm not in favor of organized religion for people who wish to progress. I think that organized religion is a comforting aid much like television for people who want to insulate themselves. And I think that it's a tragic waste that a lot of people in your age group would take to following a guru or anything in that category in order to give them some sort of spiritual stability to help counteract the unpleasant things that they see going on. Because it's really not the answer, I think all that stuff is just baloney!
Q. Cosmic Debris.
FZ. It is.
Q. Do you like experimenting with new devices? Do you look for new electronic devices?
FZ. Yep. All the time.
Q. Are there any new ones lately that you really think are interesting?
FZ. Well, let's see. I think the [Mu-Tron] is a good box. And I just bought a Morley rotating sound pedal. Have you seen that? It's pretty interesting. It's like a... You've seen the Morley wah-wah pedal? It's not battery-operated, you plug it into the wall. It's chrome, it's about this long, about that wide. It's got a real big pedal on it. Well, the rotating sound box is about that long and it's got this box sitting on top of it. It's got a motor and some other weird stuff on it and it's got a few adjustments. It can either sound like a Leslie or it can do a thing that's roughly equivalent to a Cooper time cube. Know what that is? It's a device they use in a studio for making things sound like they're doubled. You know, a real short echo. A Cooper time cube is nothing more elaborate than sixteen feet of garden hose with a transducer on one end that produces a sound and another on the other end which hears, and what you get is a 16 millisecond delay. Anyway, what this box does is in one position, if you pull it back, if you hit one note on the string you'll hear the original note you hit and then a very slight delay of it. It just thickens the tone. It's pretty interesting.
Q. Will you be using one tonight?
Q. In your concert tonight are you gonna include the stuff that you haven't done before?
FZ. The FREAK OUT thing? Yep. Definitely. I can hardly wait to find out what's gonna happen. It starts off with "It Can't Happen Here" and then goes into "Monster Magnet" and then "Hungry Freaks" and "Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" and then "How Could I Be Such a Fool?" "No Heart," "I'm Not Satisfied," "Wowie Zowie," "Let's Make the Water Turn Black," "Harry You're a Beast," "Orange Country Lumber Truck," "Oh 'No," "Watts Riot Song," and "Mother People," and that is all continuous straight through.
Q. You must really have to work hard to get as tight as you are.
FZ. It's agonizing. It's hard, it's hard. But, you know, that's the idea of what we're trying to do. I wanna make sure that once we start playing – nothing is gonna stop us. We try to organize large blocks of material and once everybody's got it committed to memory, then we do funny things with it on stage. Now I'm a little bit concerned about how much they will remember of this FREAK OUT thing because we only had 2 weeks to learn it. We did 6 days a week, 5 hours a day. So that's 60 hours to memorize a 40-minute chunk of complicated stuff.
Q. Who sings falsetto?
Q. I was wondering about the beginning to "Eat that Question." Is that wholly improvised?
FZ. That's completely improvised.
Q. That's really nice.
FZ. That's all George's improvisation.
Q. Did George Duke write the lyrics to "Uncle Remus."?
FZ. No, I did.
Q. You did? Because I thought it was from the point of view of a black person.
FZ. Well, it sort of is. It's not exactly from the point of view of a black person. I don't think that a black person would actually write that song. It's not exactly... ...there are subtle differences in point of view in there. I think that it's something that should have been said. If you've ever seen these little jockeys on the lawn. They've had it coming for a long time.
Q. Is there any chance you're gonna do another album like the Wazoo, with a lot of orchestra...
FZ. With a big band? Yeah.
Q. Do you have any impressions of the press or the media like radio, TV, newspapers? I always thought it was odd that magazines like Rolling Stone or Creem or perhaps things we're writing for – it always seemed strange that someone would pay money to hear me say that you're good or you're bad or to hear my impressions. It seems like the media is more of a bloodsucker thing off the music.
FZ. I think that to a great extent the media victimizes those who consume it. But then again I guess that's the price you pay for an exchange of a certain amount of information.
Q. So much of the information the general public gets is from something like Rolling Stone ...
FZ. Well, I have nothing but bad things to say about Rolling Stone, I think it's the pits. They certainly haven't done me any favors. And I think if what they've done to my reputation and the way in which they treat the work that I do is consistent throughout the magazine for the way that they write about other people, then I don't think anybody is getting a fair shake from them. It's an extremely biased publication. And the one thing that sticks out to me when I read it is it's got this very parochial, extremely San Francisco, Marin County, Bay Area consciousness where anything that does not originate from that area is substandard. And I think that's fake.
Q. It seems a magazine like Rolling Stone and I've noticed Crawdaddy to an extent, have almost taken such an intellectual approach to the music or the whole concept of music that when, for example, if I read an article about you or if I read a review of an album I can read it through twice and still not know what the guy is saying.
FZ. Well, it's because most of the people who are writing for those things are not writing about the music. What they are is writing to impress other writers. That's how they get their status within their peer group. They're certainly not doing you any favor as a reader and very few of them have a sense of humor. And I'm sure the editors of those publications don't have a sense of humor, otherwise they wouldn't be doing what they're doing. 'Cause, it's just so pompously elite. It's like on the one hand saying, "Yeah, good ole rock'n'roll, and let's boogie," and all this stuff, and coupling that with a bunch of pseudo-political ramblings and grumblings, all very predictable. And it's just slop, and the average age range of the person who's got to believe that stuff when they see it in print has to be somewhere around 12 years old. Because anybody older than that, if they had any education or if they had any sense would just go "Man, who are these people kidding?"
Q. To whom do you attribute your sense of humor? Anybody in particular? Somebody that makes you laugh a lot?
FZ. Somebody that makes me laugh a lot? Well, there have been a number of people who have made me laugh a lot, but that isn't where my sense of humor comes from.
Q. OK, then, where does it come from?
FZ. I have no idea. I don't know. Probably I just got up too early one day and started laughing at everything.
Q. Who was Erroneous?
FZ. His real name is Alex Dmochowski, and he was not a US citizen, and he was in the country past the stay of his visa and he didn't belong to the musicians' union and so I wouldn't put his real name on the album. But he used to be the bass player with Aynsley Dunbar's Retaliation.
Q. Speaking of Aynsley – do you miss him at all – his drumming abilities? 'Cause I do.
FZ. Well, wait 'til you hear Chester Thompson. No, Aynsley, I don't know what happened to him. When he started working for David Bowie and Bowie paid him not to work....
FZ. That's right. He was getting $250 a week not to work when Bowie didn't want to tour. And so Aynsley would just cruise around LA in a Cadillac he was renting. And he just went pop-star-a gogo. And he said, "Well, David's paying me triple scale for recording," and ugh, I don't know. And then he wasn't working for him anymore and I don't know what he's doing now.
Q. Are you composing any large orchestral works like 200 Motels?
FZ. No. I have an itch to get back to doing that, but the stuff that I'm doing right now is so time consuming that it's hard to get started on a piece like that. Because that's about the most time consuming thing that you can do, it just drags on and on. George, however is writing an opera. He's gonna get his master's degree, I think, from some college in San Francisco, or his doctorate or something. He's gotta turn in a two act opera. He's been writing it on the road.
Q. Do you think you'll perform any of it?
FZ. No, it's not for our instrumentation.
Q. Before you go could I get a picture of you holding that shirt?
Frank Zappa's road manager informs us that Frank has to go eat.
After the interview I asked Zappa whether I could listen to the band rehearse. He told me it would be no problem and that they would be at the fieldhouse in about 60 to 90 minutes. Dean and I discussed the interview on the way to the fieldhouse. The thing that struck us the most was his friendliness. He was as cordial as could be. He answered all the questions we asked and treated us all respectfully. Even when we asked dumb questions. I mean: "When a person gets to be/Such a hero folks,/And marvelous beyond compute/You can never really tell/About a guy like that/Whether he's really a nice person/Or if he just smiles a lot."
I suppose you really can't judge a person very accurately from 45 minutes, but if that's all you have to go on, then you judge from that. Frank Zappa seemed like an honest, good-natured person.
We parked the car in the parking lot of the fieldhouse. Inside it was just like any other gym. Bleachers, basketball backboards raised up high. Work was being done on a platform for the stage, both by students and Zappa's road crew. The stage was being placed about 5 feet above the floor. Since we were early, we decided to take a walk.
Grand Valley College was in the middle of its "Celebration 74." It would have been hard to tell but for a luminous green sign on the union building announcing it. While wandering over to get something to drink I was struck by the beauty of the campus. The buildings are set far apart with lots of green grass. In addition, there was lots of clear blue sky that day – something rare in Michigan so far this spring(?). And what the hell is this? A helicopter flying around and around only a few hundred feet above us. While puzzling over that and watching to see where it was landing, we spied a large clear bubbly building. Where are we now? Didn't it take time to figure out more as I was dying for something to drink. We finally reached the right building (which was designed a little oddly itself), and as we entered we heard the sound of live music being played. We went in and found a quintet playing some cooking jazz to a lobby full of people. Although I asked 5 or 6 people who they were nobody seemed to know. They didn't know who the band was either. They were very good though. A few steps farther and another surprise. A metal sphere about eight feet in diameter, with a pointed stem about six feet long, hanging suspended by two ropes from the ceiling which was about 40 or 50 feet high. The tip of this was tracing patterns in a giant sandbox. Never did figure that one out either.
Back at the fieldhouse Zappa and Mothers have arrived and are busy preparing for the concert and it looks like it's gonna be loud. The light crew and roadies are working their asses off getting ready. I was amazed at how conscientious everyone was. It reinforced the impression I got at the interview that Zappa really cared about the quality of the music he presents. Somebody wandered up and asked to know whether I knew anything about Zappa. I told him who was in the band and asked whether he was going to the concert. "No," I was told. "I used to go to concerts, but the long lines and having to sit for 4 hours on an uncomfortable seat got to be too much." Later these words would come back to me. Meanwhile Zappa had been amazing me by playing incredible speed of light runs in the course of testing the sound of his guitar-amp-wah-wah-speaker system. I've been to concerts where nobody played anything even approaching what he was playing and he was only warming up. And over there Don Preston is putting his Minimoog together or something. He was wearing a blue denim jacket. There are stones which look like jewels on the back of the jacket in the shape of an isosceles triangle inscribed in a circle. I'm sure there must be some heavy, mystical meaning to that. I walked around the stage to get a better look, as Preston jumped down to the floor. He went over, plugged in a gadget, and it promptly blew up. I shook my head sympathetically. "Yep, it works." "Whaa?" It was supposed to do that?" Later I wandered over to where he was standing and asked him how it felt to be a Mother again. "Uungh," he said. Well what have you been doing since the JCOA  thing? "Oh, writing, doing some acting, and..." something else I didn't catch. Silence. Don Preston walked away. I don't think he felt like talking.
We hung around a while. The horn playing Fowlers walked around a while horn playing. Sitting nearby us was a black gentleman, about six-foot three, 200 pounds, powerfully built, with a shaven head. I think he was Zappa's bodyguard, although that may not be his official occupational title. Some kids were climbing onto the stage over to the left where Don Preston was. Suddenly he was there. He jerked his arm swiftly as if to say, "Down and away from there and I mean it!" They got down.
We hung around a while longer. George Duke and Ralph Humphrey came in and went over to talk to the bodyguard, who tried to sell Duke one of the 10 or 12 bracelets he had on his arm.
When the sound check was almost finished Mr. Big Shot told us to leave. I told him that Zappa had told me I could listen to the rehearsal, but he didn't want to be nice about it. I think he really got off on bossing people around. Maybe he'll be president someday. Anyway, I didn't feel like causing a big scene by running over and yelling, "Hey Frank! You told me I could stay and now this asshole says I gotta go. What's the deal here?" And so we left.
So what to do on a Friday afternoon in Grand Valley, Michigan? Go to a bar. Beer, food, pool, talk, it's time to go back. Into a line for an hour. Everybody is drinking beer. A little side show on the roof. Somebody's trying to find Carl – "Anybody here named Carl? – Let us in!" – "Blah blah blah!" – "Blah blah!" This guy was a real clown. And he wanted a beer. Waiting in line was getting to be a real drag. It seemed so asinine. To pay five dollars to go hear 10 guys from LA play rock'n'roll in a gym.
Earlier Zappa realized how much work was involved in getting ready. "All to play a little rock'n'roll," he said. It's beginning to seem a little perverse the importance people place on "stars." Why do we need them so much? Could it be to make up for the lack of any meaning in our own lives? But on the other hand I was probably a little extra brought down because I had seemed a little important earlier, being right there while all this was being prepared.
Once inside, the scheduled 8:00 starting time drew closer and closer and then got further and further away. Finally someone came out and announced Dion?!? What? Oh well. Dion, as he let us all know, had a lot of trouble with the sound: he couldn't hear himself on the monitor. Dion plays and sings fairly well and his set was enjoyable considering the foul-ups and the fact that I wanted to be hearing Zappa instead. He left and we waited some more.
Finally the Mothers of Invention. First some new tunes, in which everyone was introduced and played a short solo. Then, I believe, "Cosmic Debris." Actually, none of the new songs really sounded special. The band was pretty tight and only made a few mistakes that I noticed, although the overall sound was awful. Bruce Fowler played an inaudible trombone solo, but looked as though he was playing his ass off. The drummers, bass player, keyboards and moog, when not soloing, sounded like one big mumbled roar. George Duke's playing, when it could be heard, was consistently fresh and was one of the high points of the show.
After a while Zappa announced his FREAK OUT medley, (which actually included songs from WE'RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY and WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH, as well). He asked how many people were 19, 18, 17, 16, 21, 22 and 110. He then informed the audience that this stuff was written in 1965. The point was made. Then began the onslaught. The piece was executed very well all in all. "It Can't Happen Here" played in Gerald Ford country in 1974. I was wondering what the reaction would be. However, since I couldn't understand the words to any of the new songs, I doubt that anyone not already familiar with the music could tell what was being said most of the time either. Napoleon Murphy Brock is a very capable entertainer, but he really didn't seem like a Mother. He's very slick and dances in a Las Vegas nightclub act. I doubt that he'll be with Zappa very long. After FREAK OUT a few more numbers. A friend pointed out that one of them, called "A Little More Cheapness Please," had the same form and melody as a song sung by Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers. ("If you think this place is messed up now, – just wait 'til I get through with it!").
Usually the high points to any Mothers concert are the phenomenal high-powered, screaming, beautifully logical yet spontaneous and exciting guitar solos which Zappa builds out of sonic vibrations and time. There were none of these that night. On several songs he had begun his solos 2 or 3 times before finishing. He just couldn't seem to get going. Once while trying to get started he sent a message to George Duke with his guitar. Duke played as Zappa had demonstrated to him but he still couldn't build from there. One of the most important things in any band's music is the interplay between the drummer and the soloist. This may be somewhat lost with two drummers. Anyway I still miss Aynsley Dunbar.
Several things more came to my mind after this concert. I'd noticed before that the standing ovation used to mean that the performance was exceptional and was thought of as very high praise. Now it only seems to mean, "Get your ass back out here and perform or else we'll burn this place down with these lighted matches." I wonder whether performers still feel that they're being praised by the ovation, or feel as though they're being forced to work overtime.
And I'm afraid the hassles of long lines, uncomfortable seats, bad acoustics, and often demeaning security people for 6 or 7 dollars have finally taken their toll. I don't think I'll go to many concerts anymore.
1. C.Ulrich: "This apparently stands for Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. Carla Bley and Michael Mantler were involved."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net