FRANK ZAPPA vs. The Tooth Fairy
Or, They're Only In It For The Pizza
By Ed Naha
The living room could be anyone's. A cheerful, grey-haired grandmother tries to coax her tiny grandson into a state of slumber. An older blonde boy sprawls on the couch and watches a re-run of Hee-Haw. Upstairs, a little girl patters about unseen. It's Los Angeles' answer to suburban Long Island. I sit in the corner, loading my tape recorder, awaiting the subject of this interview. Ozzie Nelson? Glen Campbell? Gerry Ford?
Nope. Frank Zappa.
As I slide the tape cartridge into the sputtering Sony, I try to envision Zappa's entrance. This has to be some sort of set up. Being a fan of Frank's for ten years, I just KNOW he'll do something bizarre. Maybe he'll throw up on the carpet. Or carry in a large stuffed giraffe with a likeness of Jimmy Carl Black strapped on its back. Or burn a carrot on a cross.
"Frank's on his way here now," Grandma Zappa smiles sweetly while trying to burp her tiny ward. "His photo session ran a little longer than scheduled."
Dweezle Zappa, the tyke in front of the TV, leaps to his feet at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.
"They're home," he announces matter-of-factly.
I hold my breath as Zappa appears in the doorway. What ingenious device will he come up with to hold me spellbound? Wearing a pair of coveralls and accompanied by his wife Gail and a friend, Jenny, he strides across the room, shifts a flat white box from one arm to another and shakes my hand. "Sorry we're late. How are ya? Want a piece of pizza?"
While I am still pondering the latent symbolism behind Frank Zappa carting a take-out pizza under his arm, Gail is exploring new and uncharted regions of conversation.
"Frank, walk your mother out to her car. You know she doesn't like to drive home alone in the dark."
"Sure. OK. Come on mom."
Pizzas? Mom? Hee-Haw? I always thought Zappa was weird but not THIS weird!!!
A few post-pizza moments later, Frank is seated comfortably downstairs, conducting a straight question and answer interview. "I answer questions," he grimaces when asked for an opinion. "I'm not a prophet or an oracle."
A temporarily sullen atmosphere (probably caused by too many anchovies) fades quickly as Zappa recalls with glee the night's photo session. A girl had lost control of herself in the eros area and went bonkers over Frank and co. in a big way. "It was the kind of photo session that people make up for movies," he chuckles. "And we were there. WE WERE IT! The best line tonight was when the photographer pointed to me and said: 'Oh my God. He's like a black Jesus!' I'm sitting there going 'gnog, gnog.' I mean, what can you say when you're called a black Jesus?"
Zappa relaxes and begins to talk about the Mothers of Invention. It has been ten years since the original group was formed and after a decade of break-ups, reformations, name-calling, bad press and nightmarish rumors, Zappa and his crew are finally on the top of the rock pile with a rash of SRO concerts and a top ten album. Yet even with his current popularity, Zappa must contend with a host of die-hard fans and critics who accuse him of selling out – of letting the original concept of the Mothers fall into the abyss of commercialization.
He dismisses his critics curtly. "My first reason for having the Mothers was just to have my music played. Having anyone else take an interest was just icing on the cake. When we first started I really felt that it was incredibly funny, sort of a good joke. You know, me getting to put this on record and being able to hear it again and again."
And as for selling out? "I've said my social protest and it still stands. I've made my weird noises, so there's no sense in doing it again. I've done THIS and I've done THAT and now I'm going to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it. Even if it's turning my amplifier waaay up, hitting some blues notes and spewing all over a hockey rink."
That doesn't sound like the Frank Zappa that thousands of Motherminded music devotees have come to know and, uh, tolerate. Zappa grins sardonically when he thinks of the preconceived notions both advocates and detractors have of him. "Take anything that anyone thinks about me... it's wrong," he says with obvious glee. "Most people have this mental image of me that hovers between the picture of the guy who sat on the toilet seat poster and the guy who supposedly shat on stage. Above and beyond that, nobody knows anything about me.
"I'm a very private person. You came here to interview Frank Zappa and you're talking to him now. Frank Zappa is the guy who makes those albums. But there's another Frank Zappa, who is also crazy but you 'don't really know about. Information on his identity will contribute towards no useful function in contemporary society. What I'm trying to say is this: nobody really wants to know the other guy. They never did and never will. I know what I'm saying is a blanket statement and very presumptuous but that's what kind of fellow the OTHER Frank Zappa is. You can just chump him off, 'cause the public is never going to know him.
"I don't mind getting tagged a Freak by most people because if anyone ever DESERVED that label, it's ME. The problem is that the things that are really freaky about me no one knows. The things that most people think are weird about me don't even exist. I really don't want people to know what's REALLY freaky. Let them just think, 'That's the guy who sat on the toilet seat.' "
In the mood for myth breaking, Zappa zeroes in on the legendary history of the Mothers and explains it away epic by epic. "I wasn't happy with the first Mothers as a group of musicians," he shrugs. "But they were the only people I could get. I didn't think of them so much as musicians than as people. It was their idiosyncrasies that made the group, not their musicianship. I've very seldom been happy with any of the bands.
"The main thing to remember about the first batch of Mothers is a) they didn't want to do it, b) they didn't know what they were doing when they were doing it and c) if they knew what they were doing, they wouldn't have done it in the first place. Most of those people were extremely straight. Jimmy Carl Black used to hide his hair down his collar when he walked through an airport so no one would know that he had long hair. I'm telling you, people had such fantasies about what that band was like but they were really deep down conservatives. They just had these little idiosyncrasies which I tried to amplify into a large, idiosyncratic unit which I presented to the public. They're all nice guys. The freakishness that most people attributed to the group was all highly exaggerated. It came across onstage because I made it come across onstage.
"We were really the first band ever to perform rock theater. Which was a lot different than today's rock theater. Most shows today are inferior to what we did then because they're so plasticized and predictable. What we did was courageous in that we never knew what was going to happen. We knew that everyone in the band was capable of doing one theatrical event, or concept. Each show was FOR each audience. We changed to fit the mood of the crowd. Most of the rock theatrics today aren't spontaneous. Very staged. Fancy props..."
Zappa trails off and begins to talk of the band's early achievements: Freak Out ("the first rock concept LP EVER"), We're Only In It For the Money ("Held up for eleven months because the Beatles' lawyers didn't like the Sgt. Pepper cover") and Lumpy Gravy ("My favorite album. It has the most secret information on it. That was delayed thirteen months while two record companies argued over who owned it").
Zappa then turns to the event that traumatized thousands of Mothermaniacs ... THE BIG BREAKUP of '68-69. "I was frustrated. When you play your music before an audience interested in only one thing, the ultimate pumping of the rhythm section, it can piss you off. It also pissed me off that the band could never drive the way I wanted it to. It sounds rather irrational, but I was constantly torn between two ideals. I didn't like the idea of firing people from the group. At this point, there was only one person I had fired from the first Mothers and that was because he was too stoned to play. No matter what the other guys did, and they abused the shit out of me, I wouldn't fire them. I kept on bringing in new people to make the musical end of things more proficient.
"But the band was always down on me because I was their employer. If I'm the guy who's paying the bills, how can I be a human being? I've had the problem with all of the bands. It's strange. Finally it got to the point where I just said 'Fuck it.' I like to play blues. I like to get out there and boogie. But I like to do other stuff, too. I want musicians who can do both, have the same range of interest as I have. Those guys didn't want to do ANYTHING.
"By the time our last tour ended I was $10,000 in debt. But the band got paid their salaries whether they played or not. I had to pay the expense of shipping the equipment and guaranteeing them $250 a week even if we didn't work. I couldn't do it. When I told them that I couldn't do it they hated me because suddenly they were unemployed. How can you deal with people like that?"
Zappa sits back in the sofa and gives vent to the true extent of his unhappiness musically. "It was painful at times," he concedes. "There was always such a vast difference between what would happen in the studio and what would happen on stage. Most of the people could not play live on the same level as the album. Ian Underwood, for instance, was a very academic musician who could play everything you could give him. He wasn't funky, though, and wasn't into the blues at all. Art Tripp was the same way... a good percussionist who could play his butt off but couldn't do a shuffle. Bunk Gardner was somewhere in between. He was a jazz musician who could play a variety of woodwind instruments but had limitations in other areas. Don Preston could really improvise in all kinds of weird situations but could not read music. He had a mental block about that. Seeing all those little notes on paper frightened him to death. All the rest of the band, myself included, was musically illiterate.
"The bulk of the band had so much trouble learning their parts that on We're Only In It For the Money, for example, I did most of it myself. I'm 80 percent of the voices and all the instruments except bass, drums and keyboards. I had to put it together myself. And even though all the members of the band are pictured on the cover, it was really a one man show. It was embarrassing. I couldn't let anyone know. It would have been a chump thing to talk about. Uncle Meat was even worse because once the basic rhythm tracks were put down, the bulk of the work was done by Bunk who played all the horn parts via multiple overdubs. The Mothers HAD to break-up."
After breaking up the band, history has it, Zappa got together with the L.A. Philharmonic for a premier performance of 200 Motels. A band called The Mothers of Invention had to be reformed to insure ticket sales for the event and soon a new hatch of MOI's were touring (including Flo and Eddie). This hapless bunch of happies stayed together until an irate Londoner threw a flying tackle at FZ at the Rainbow Theater which almost put an end to Zappa's career – and his life.
Zappa broods slightly as he remembers the time spent in traction and the name-calling antics of some of the ex-Mothers. Zappa was branded as everything from a megalomaniac to a musical tyrant and he soon found himself in a very unfavorable spotlight.
"I couldn't believe a lot of it," he exclaims. "Flo and Eddie killed me in print. When I was in the hospital I helped them get a band together. They had to tour to eat. Suddenly they're with Warners and I'm reading about how cruel I am. If you have a non-group or a group that's just starting, the easiest way to get your name in the paper is to say something bad about me. A lot of groups have done it. Geronimo Black's initial promotion consisted of sending out a 45 rpm record featuring Jimmy Carl Black talking about how he was abused in the band. He doesn't want to tell you that when he was hungry... when he was out of the band for years... I paid for his music lessons. I BOUGHT HIM MUSIC LESSONS! I bought food for him. I used to have to support his household; him and his five kids. The same thing for Lowell George who said shitty stuff when he was getting Little Feat started. I helped him find musicians. I get sick of hearing all this stuff.
"Flo and Eddie are as jive as they can be. I mean, MUSICIANS like George Duke can mumble something about the band being too crazy and leave but then he comes back. You have to think about why this MUSICIAN came back. About how many times people have left only to come back. If I'm so HORRIBLE, why do they come back. They never come out and say 'I'm a chump' or 'I can't fit in with this group.' That doesn't look good in print. They can't be honest so they blame me. It's ridiculous."
Zappa begins to examine, rather tersely, a number of sensitive topics that most Zappaphiles would normally avoid in his presence:
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: "I've known him since high school. I produced an album exactly to his specifications even though I thought it was wrong. There's another example of someone who thought it would be useful to say that I had ruined his career. I don't see him anymore."
DRUGS: "I don't have any use for drugs myself. I've only smoked a few times and it made me tired and gave me a sore throat. I never could understand why people liked to do that. I've never taken LSD and as far as drinking is concerned, I like wine, but I'm not going to go out of my way to be drunk all the time. I'm having a good time just like this."
POLITICS: "I always thought that if you were going to have a political party it should at least be interested in other things but making itself rich."
ZAPPA FANS: "The average 1968 fan was a boy, 18 years old. He had acne. He was Jewish, came from Long Island or its equivalent, was extremely lonely. He was alienated from his parents. He was worried about his glands, the war, being drafted, you-name-it. Insecure. He needed a friendly big brother image to emulate. Today, our fans are a combination of that guy grown older and his younger brother who thinks his older brother is a putz. We also get his kid sister. We actually have screaming teenage girls in the audience now. Amazing."
BOB DYLAN AND THE BAND: "Just like Sky Saxon and the Seeds but Sky dances better."
Zappa begins to get into the flow of the acidulous conversation. There is a tiny knock on the door and he stops in mid-sentence. His pajama-clad daughter Moon trots in.
"Daddy, I lost a tooth."
Papa Zappa bursts into a grandiose smile. "Another one?? Put that under your pillow and you'll make a fortune when the tooth fairy comes."
After a small discussion on how much to hit the tooth fairy for, Moon is off to bed. "I love you daddy."
Zappa grins. "I love you too."
He returns to the interview but appears a bit flustered about being caught in such a, ahem, NORMAL situation. "Look," he explains as calmly as possible, "I try to bring up my kids with all the usual kid fantasies."
He stammers, then suddenly beams. "Like the Easter Bunny. We have a friend who actually believes he IS the Easter Bunny. He gets dressed up and comes over every year. Hides eggs. The works."
He motions to where Moon was standing. "And you don't really think that OUR tooth fairy is any ORDINARY tooth fairy, do you?"
I shut off the tape recorder and smile. Of course this tooth fairy had to be extraordinary. This IS Frank Zappa I'm talking to, isn't it? And everyone knows how NUTTY he is... I mean, sitting on that toilet seat poster and all
Be FRANK With us!
HERE WE GO AGAIN!!! Yes, it's time for another of those CREEM contests, this one to commemorate Frank Zappa's 10th Anniversary in this here music biz. Far be it from us to suggest that any of you readers out there could fill Frank's shoes, but we are offering you the opportunity to do same with his pants. That's right, the winner of this contest will receive a pair of Frank's very own toreador pants, donated by Mr. Zappa himself. (Thanks, Frank.) And there's prizes for the runners-up, too. Simply set pen (or pencil) to paper, and answer the questions below. Send them to CREEM Zappa Contest, P.O. Box P-1064, Birmingham, Mich., 48012, before December 31, 1974, and then sit back and wait. We'll do the rest. Now, go to it!
1) What two heavy blues-rock guitarists appeared briefly with the Mothers in the very early days?
2) Who was the first Mother ever to be booted from the group?
3) What famous singer-songwriter once used the Mothers as his backup band because he liked their material and wanted to help them get more exposure?
4) What two record companies fought it out for the rights to Lumpy Gravy?
5) What line of equipment did Zappa and crew first endorse in order to avail themselves of some good freebie equipment?
6) What record company president saddled the Mothers with the "no commercial potential" label they have milked so gleefully ever since?
7) What president from what record company induced what Mother to leave Zappa and join what prefab supergroup that bombed miserably?
8) Name five of the nine original acts – besides FZ and his Hot Rats album – to appear on Zappa's Bizarre and Straight labels?
ESSAY QUESTION (Of course there's an essay question, there's always an essay question in one of these contests): Explain in three words (or more, or less) just what it is that you find so appealing about Frank Zappa.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net