By Elliot Cahn
November 1970 – Sha Na Na was billed second to the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East for two nights. Knowing Zappa’s affinity for old rock ‘n’ roll, one of my guys went up to him and said, "Where’s your gold lame suit, Frank?" Frank just smiled and pointed to his forehead.
There are few around who will argue that Frank Zappa is a brilliant musician and a brilliant man. He has, however, acquired over the years a reputation for being the enfant terrible of the rock world – cynical, rude and condescending to all. My journalist friends gave me opinions ranging from "impossible" to "a great interview." All seemed at least slightly in awe of the man.
Our interview was supposed to take place at Frank’s home, but he was in the middle of some last-minute, frantic editing of a Mothers of Invention TV special; consequently, I met him down at Trans America Video on Vine Street. It was about 9 p.m. and he was up against the wall – six more hours of editing to do and an 8 o’clock flight to catch the next morning for the start of a five-week tour.
I was surprised that he didn’t cancel the interview under those circumstances – not at all the act of a man who holds his audience in contempt. On the contrary, I found him cooperative and eager to dispell his ogreish image, which he claimed had originated with the inscriptions on the inside of the Freak Out album, and were meant as a joke, and which was fostered by people’s inability to understand his deadpan humor, especially when directed at them.
"I presumed that if anybody really met me – you see I’m really basically a very nice person – they would see where the humor was in that, but no." Frank also blamed several bad raps early on from a bunch of straight-life newspaper guys for starting a trend of knocking Zappa that seemed to have acquired a life of its own.
"You know what happens when people start saving clippings and they go into files. It all gets stored and developed upon. Legends spring up from that, and it definitely helped to make me famous, or infamous. But that doesn’t mean that it`s got anything to do with reality."
Frank is noticeably bitter about the treatment he’s received from the press: "If anybody from the press comes up to me with a shitload of preconceived notions, and expects me to be rude, I’ll live up to his worst expectations. I’ll treat people the way they treat me. If you go around being nice to everybody, you’re a fucking fool! Some people hate you before you even get near ‘em, so why should you kiss their butt? I don’t care what kind of typewriters they’ve got."
One writer who came under heavy fire from Zappa is David [Walley], whose biography of Frank is still a sore spot. "I think it’s a piece of shit. I get upset about any kind of journalist who takes the liberty with somebody else’s reputation in order to create a name for himself from something that is not quality workmanship. If you’re gonna write, you should be qualified to write. That means you should have a code of ethics about the quality of your work, and you should say, ‘Am I doing a good job, or am I just schlocking it?’ I think he just schlocked it, and I don‘t like to be the victim of a schlock job. It was a quickie, paperback, sensational book. He sent me the galley proofs at a point when they had already printed 10,000 copies, and there were gross inaccuracies in it that could never be corrected. If you’re going to do a biography, I think the standard of excellence should be something like the work of William Manchester. There’s a guy who’ll research his work. [Walley], on the other hand, went around and interviewed a lot of people, never cross-referenced anything, never examined anything that anyone would say about anybody else, and just slung together a bunch of quotes. It was jive."
Zappa is a very proud man, one who demands a tremendously high level of proficiency from himself and from everyone he deals with. He has no time for mediocrity; he makes that quite clear, and perhaps that’s the reason so many people are intimidated by him. His priorities seem set: his work is of paramount importance, and anything that takes him away from it had better be damn good. He’s proud of his mind, and gave the immediate impression of being highly, intellectually competitive. I made the mistake of using two stupid expressions, and got them both politely shoved down my throat. You’re always on your toes talking to someone like that. Keeps you sharp.
Frank seemed to be pretty pleased with the way his work is going these days. He spoke of his present band with great affection and admiration for its musicianship, choreography, and general level of insanity. I let on that I hadn’t seen the band in a while, and he said, "Oh, you’d shit! It’s just ridiculous?"
He was also really excited about the TV special, enough so that he’s paid for the production of the show himself. He spoke of a possible air date the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Though the show hadn’t yet been sold, interest was apparently high, and he couldn’t have been more confident in the show’s quality.
"I don’t want to be presumptuous," he confided, "but I’m gonna say this: If and when this show ever goes on, there’ll be very many people who try to make shows that look like that, and I don‘t think anybody’s gonna be able to do it. It’s out there. I mean I’ve shown it to people cold and didn’t tell them anything about it, and they were terrified by what they saw. It jumped off the screen and got ‘em!"
Basically, the show is a live performance taped at KCET a few months ago, with some raps and animation on the side. It’s mainly music. What makes it special is, first of all, the care and skill that Zappa has put into the editing and sound reproduction and, secondly, some visual effects that sound like nothing seen before on TV, which has massacred virtually every rock group to appear on it, through a combination of lack of understanding for the music, and extremely slovenly workmanship.
Rock groups are generally treated like cattle in the TV studios – herded in and out, not given the time to set up properly or to accustom themselves to a strange setup and unfamiliar sound levels and, more often than not, having the takes to be used selected by directors who don’t know shit about rock ‘n’ roll, and couldn’t care less about anything but whether the cameramen got their assigned shots right.
Any band that survives that ordeal in good shape can ordinarily count on having their sound butchered by incredibly shoddy, sound-duplication procedures. It’s about time that a musician could come in and take control of the creative process of assembling a TV program about his group. That way there’s sure to be camera coverage of what’s really going on musically, instead of having shots of the drummer during a guitar solo, as is all too often the case.
Judging from Zappa’s proficiency in audio and visual techniques, this should be the best rock ‘n’ roll TV show to date. As for the visual effects, Frank gave me this piece of advice: "Just you make sure you don’t get loaded before you watch it. You’ll go to the hospital. I’m tellin ya. It’s dangerous"
1. The interview is by Elliot Cahn, leader of Sha Na Na, who met Zappa when both bands played at the Fillmore East, November 13-14, 1970.
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