By Bruce Pollock
Although primarily considered a composer, Frank Zappa's lyrics reflect his unique approach to rock 'n' roll almost as well as his music does. Combining a Theater of the Absurd sensibility, sharp-edged satiric humor, and a hair-trigger threshold of outrage, his odes to teenage life, set in a fifties backbeat, are classics of the snide put-down.
Always in the vanguard of modern music, Zappa was the first (and is still perhaps the only) musician to bring a classical orientation to the form, producing pieces which certainly might be thought of as symphonic rhythm and blues.
With his group, The Mothers of Invention, in the summer of 1967 (the infamous Summer of Love), Frank Zappa brought a wicked and spontaneous theatricality to the rock stage at the Garrick Theatre, long before anyone else was doing it.
Since then Zappa has extended his vision further into the realms of classical music, rock, jazz, and R&B. He has also become involved with films (200 Motels).
Known for his hostility to reporters, Zappa was nonetheless quite cordial in our meeting at the Golden Gate Motel in Brooklyn, overlooking scenic Sheepshead Bay.
I didn't start listening to music until I was about fifteen years old because my parents weren't too fond of it, and we didn't have a radio or a record player or anything. I think the first music that I heard that I liked was Arab music and I don't know where I ever ran into it, but I heard it someplace and that got me off right away. Then I heard a song called 'I' by the Velvets on the Red Robin label and 'Gee' and 'Sh-boom,' 'Riot In Cell Block Number Nine,' and 'Annie Had A Baby.' By accident I heard those things and they knocked me out.
"I didn't start writing songs per se until I was about twenty years old, twenty-one maybe, because all my compositions prior to that time had been orchestral or chamber music. I think the basic idea of being a composer is if you're going to be true to yourself and write what you like, you write what you like without worrying whether it's going to be academically suitable or whether it's going to make any mark in history or not. My basic drive for writing anything down is I want to hear it.
"The very first tunes that I wrote were fifties Doo-wop. 'Memories Of El Monte' and stuff like that. It's always been my contention that the music that was happening during the fifties has been one of the finest things that ever happened to American music and I loved it. I could sit down and write a hundred more of the nineteen-fifties-type songs right now and enjoy every minute of it. I think my writing is as influenced, however, by country blues as it is by nineteen-fifties stuff. I've always been fond of Muddy Waters, Lightning Slim, Howling Wolf, and those guys.
"At the time I was living in a part of town called Echo Park [Los Angeles] which was a Mexican, Japanese, Filipino, Black neighborhood and I lived in a little two-room place, grubby little place on the side of a hill, 1819 Bellevue Avenue. In that house I wrote 'Brain Police,' 'Oh No, I Don't Believe It,' 'Hungry Freaks,' 'Bowtie Daddy,' and five or six others. A lot of the songs off the first album [Freak Out] had already been written for two or three years before the album came out. And a lot of songs wouldn't come out until the third or fourth album.
"About fifty percent of the songs were concerned with the events of 1965. Los Angeles, at that time, in the kiddie community that I was hanging out in, they were all getting into acid very heavily and you had people seeing God in colors and flaking out all over the place. You had plenty of that and meanwhile there was all that racial tension building up in Watts.
"I was up to San Francisco once or twice, but I wasn't interested or influenced by the scene there. Basically I thought what was happening in San Francisco in that early stage was ... well, I'll tell you what I saw when I went there. Whereas in L.A. you had people freaking out; that is, making their own clothes, dressing however they wanted to dress, wearing their hair out; that is, being as weird as they wanted to be in public and everybody going in separate directions – I got to San Francisco and found everybody dressed up in 1890s garb, all pretty specific codified dress. It was like an extension of high school, where one type of shoe is the 'in' shoe, belt-in-the-back peggers, or something like that. It was in the same sort of vein, but it was the costume of the 1890s. It was cute, but it wasn't as evolved as what was going on in L.A. In San Francisco they had a 'more rustic than thou' approach."
From there Zappa and The Mothers moved on to New York in the summer of 1967.
"There wasn't too much going on in the Village that interested me. The people who came to see us at the Garrick mostly had short hair; they came from middle-class white Jewish environments, mostly suburban. They came to see our show because we were something weird that was on that street and we were a sort of specialized recreational facility.
"The reason they were shocked in those days was that they hadn't seen or heard anything that came close to what we were doing. Now, after so many groups imitating various aspects of what we did, they've seen it from other sources. Take, for instance, Alice Cooper. Basically what they're doing is a cosmeticized version of the same thing we were doing in 1967. He's taken the obvious showmanship aspects without doing the difficult musical things. By simplifying the music to the point where you don't have to worry about it too much, and doing it with a lot of lights and a lot of props, you can put together a show that can have wider appeal."
Eventually our discussion shifted to his feelings about lyric writing.
"I think that by the time I put a lyric down on a piece of paper and go through all the drudgery of setting it to a musical format and rehearsing it and so forth ... that they're all reasonably successful in saying what they were intended to say. There's plenty more that could be said, but there are mechanical obstacles in the way of getting that out to an audience. I think there are lots of things that I'd love to be able to express to people in lyrics, but being sort of a rational person I sit down and figure out, do those people really want to know, and is it worth the trouble to write it out, rehearse it, perform it night after night, record it just to express my point of view on a subject when it's none of my business to inform somebody else about it in the first place.
"Basically what people want to hear in a song is I love you, you love me; I'm o.k. you're o.k.; the leaves turn brown, they fell off the trees; the wind was blowing, it got cold, it rained, it stopped raining; you went away, my heart broke, you came back and my heart was okay. I think basically that is deep down what everybody wants to hear – it's been proven by numbers.
"So you start to think about the performer's role as an entertainer, and that the audience is paying money to come there and see you do something that will basically gratify them. And I have a conflict where I believe that people are entitled to get off as much as they can, and I think entertainers ought to do just that; however, I don't merely want to go out there and bullshit my way through a show. I want some substance too, so I have to mix it up a little bit and do some of the things that people wish to have done before their very eyes on stage, and at the same time keep myself from going crazy by writing down some of the things I want to hear.
"Usually after I finish writing a song, that's it. It doesn't belong to me anymore. When I'm working on a song it takes weeks and weeks to finish and the orchestra stuff takes even longer than that. It's like working on a construction of an airplane. One week you're a riveter, or you're putting the wiring in, or something like that. It's just a job you do and then you go onto the next step, which is learning how to perform it or teaching it to somebody else. I feel that all the material I've written, as far as my own appreciation of it, goes through a cycle where, especially if it's something I'm going to record, where you work on it so much that by the time you finish it you can't stand it anymore. You know, you just get saturated with it. When you get to hear it played right for the first couple of times, that's the get-off. After that I don't like it again until it's a few years old and it's been recorded and I'll pick up the record and I'll say: 'That's hip.'
" 'Brain Police,' was a phenomena because I was just sitting in the kitchen at the Bellevue Avenue house and I was working on 'Oh No, I Don't Believe It,' which didn't have lyrics at the time ... and I heard, it was just like there was somebody standing over my shoulder telling me those lyrics and it was really weird. I looked around ... I mean, it wasn't like 'hey Frank, listen to this ...' but it was there. So I just wrote it down and figured the proper setting for it."
I remarked that Zappa seemed to be drifting away from the kind of social protest that characterized his early albums.
"I haven't become less conscious, it's just that I don't feel a driving need to write songs that are so obvious to everybody. We have one in the show now that's obvious to everybody, with some Richard Nixon jive in it. But I'd rather write 'Penguin In Bondage.' My experiences have changed, they're getting less specific in certain ways, more specific in others.
"It used to be that I would write specific things about obvious social phenomena that a large number of people could identify with because they had seen it in action. But that's less specific in terms of my own personal experience. You know, I could observe something happen that may or may not have happened to me personally, and I could still write about it. These days such weird things have happened to me as a person that I'd rather put some of those down and do it that way. That's why I have songs like 'Penguin In Bondage' and '
"Montana," which is, in part, about a man who dreams of raising dental floss on a ranch in Montana, started out this way: "I got up one day, looked at a box of dental floss and said, hmmmm. I assumed that nobody had done the same thing and I felt it was my duty as an observer of floss to express my relationship to the package. So I went downstairs and I sat at the typewriter and I wrote a song about it. I've never been Montana, but I understand there's only 450,000 people in the whole state. It has a lot of things going for it, plenty of space for the production of dental floss ... and the idea of traveling along the empty wasteland with a very short horse and a very large tweezer, grabbing the dental floss sprout as it pooches up from the bush ... grabbing it with your tweezers and towing it all the way back to the bunkhouse ... would be something good to imagine."
I asked how extensively he revised.
"Sometimes I show the lyrics to my wife, or after a while I'll get her to read them to me so I can see what the sounds are like, because part of the texts are put together phonetically as well as what the information is supposed to be. I change lyrics all the time. A lot of them get changed by accident. Somebody will read them wrong and it'll sound so funny I'll leave it wrong.
"I've always hated poetry quite a bit. I really hate it. The whole idea of it just makes me gag. And usually people who produce it – I don't like to make sociological generalizations, but that's not something I readily identify with ... the suffering and the pumping on the chest with the closed fist, bowing of the head ... leaves falling off the trees, the wind coming up and all that shit. I hate it.
"I don't like books. I very seldom read. My wife and I have a joke because she likes to read. I say there's two things wrong with the world today, one of them is the writers and the other is the readers. The main thing wrong with writers is that they're dealing with something that is almost obsolete, but they don't know it yet – which is language. Language as a by-product of the technological growth of civilization has ... well, think of what's happened to the English language as a result of advertising sloganism. The meanings of words have been corrupted to the point where, from a semanticists point of view, how can you convey an accurate piece of information with this language?
"I'm not saying writers should be replaced. I feel sorry for them. They have a problem similar to people who write music. It's just as hard to write an accurate musical concept down on a piece of paper because of the new techniques on all instruments.
"The other problem is that I'm not much of a singer and most of the vocal stuff we put out I've had to give to other people to sing if I wanted to get a listenable performance out of it ... consequently, if they don't say the things with the right inflections, it changes the meaning.
"There's just bunches of problems in getting the true meaning across. The only guy who's really got it made is a painter. All he's got to worry about is whether his colors are going to fade or whether his canvas is properly stretched because there's no middle man. He does it and that's it. He doesn't have to send it through a bunch of other processors.
"I think, ideally, the way it should be is you could use words for amusement purposes only, because the spoken word, the sound of words ... strikes me as funny, because of the differences in people's noise-producing mechanisms. But as far as the information communicated in the words, it would be better if people could communicate telepathically.
"Actually, that's all a bunch of crap. Who needs to worry about all that technical stuff? I'm telling you, folks, I just don't read very much. I don't like books too much. I don't like poetry at all. And that's it."
Picking up an earlier thread, I asked Zappa if he didn't think it was the artist's responsibility to educate those who know less than he does. He didn't.
"It's hard for people to imagine that somebody else knows something they don't know. And suppose you actually do know something that somebody else doesn't know and you want to tell them about it, well, you've got a problem, because, first of all, they don't want to know; and if it's you saying: 'If you knew this you might be better off,' then you have to sit there and say to yourself, do I really want to tell them that, will it make them feel better, will it do them any good if they know? "I realistically look at it this way. It doesn't work. I think that it's quite possible that what I have to say is useful only to very few people and I should not bust my ass to make it available to a large number of people, because, first of all, they can't use it; second of all, they probably don't need it; and third of all, I know they don't want it. So kiss it off and boogie!"
Why then, I continued, would an artist keep making records?
"I think in contemporary America most artists try to make records so that they can eat."
Finally, I started clutching at straws. Didn't you ever have something you said get through to someone else in a positive way, I asked.
And how did you feel?
"All I knew was that I was tired."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net