Frank Zappa: Blazing New Trails
By Dick Kleiner
HOLLYWOOD – (NEA) – At 34, Frank Zappa may be the elder statesman of rock.
And, as befits an elder statesman, he is blazing new trails for his kind of music. I met up with him backstage at Royce Hall, UCLA's theater, where he was about to lead a 37-piece orchestra in a combination classic-rock concert.
Zappa's done this sort of thing before and loves it. In fact, his goal is to do it more often, only on a grander scale.
"I want," he said, "to take a 120-piece orchestra and a 30-voice choir and a ballet company and a great lighting system and a very good P.A. system in quadraphonic on the road.
"That's what I'd like to do. But you can't do it unless you're a billionaire or you're foolish – and I'm neither of those things."
He's probably closer to being a billionaire than a fool. He has his own record company – DiscReet – and his own publishing firms. And his group, The Mother's of Invention, or, as it usually is called, The Mothers, is a big draw at concerts all over the word.
With his long, stringy black hair, luxuriant mustache and half-dollar size goatee, Zappa looks like a typical 1975 rock star. But close your eyes and listen to his soft voice, and he sounds like a philospher, not a musician.
He'll talk about anything.
Meditation? "I don't believe in it. I go like that (he thumbs his nose) to all that stuff."
Religion? "I think the concept of God is valid. But it depresses me to think of the things, counter-productive to the course of civilization, that have been done in religion's name. Look at the Middle East – a person's belief in God means kill somebody else. That's wrong."
Politics? "As a theory, it could work, if it weren't for the people who do it. Half of them do it because it's a job, because of the money that's in it for them. There's just not much statsmanship in politics."
The state of the nation? "After 200 years, the U.S. is probably emotionally stable enough to hear accurate news about whats going on. They should remove all this censorship and this slanting of the news and tell us all the facts.
"Everybody who is in the driver's seat of the various media is looking out for his friends or working for some special interest."
The state of rock today? "My only concern is my own thing. Music changes all the time, but I don't worry about other people. I've been playing for 19 years. Music has changed and it continues to change. With me, it changes based on who's in the band at the time. I write for their idiosyncracies. As my personnel changes, my style of music changes."
Frank Zappa comes from Baltimore, and his is an international background. He's part-Arab, part-Italian, part-Greek and part-French. He says the first music he ever heard was Arabic music.
There was no record player in the house until he got one when he was 15. That was the year he became a musician. Before that, he was excited about science.
"I was first interested in chemistry," he says. "I learned how to make gunpowder when I was six."
His father was in the science area. Zappa says he did "many science-oriented jobs." During most of Zappa's childhood, his father worked at Edgewater Arsenal, near Baltimore. He remembers that everybody in their home – it was a flimsily-produced house near the arsenal – had to have gas masks and be able to use them, because the arsenal manufactured mustard gas.
Naturally, the family was pleased at their son's interest in chemistry. That was a solid, respectable goal in life. But when music reared its ugly head, the atmosphere changed.
"My father wasn't too thrilled about me going into music," Zappa says. "And, when I first grew my hair long, he refused to let me near the house. He was very concerned about what the neighbors would say."
He lived to see his son make a success out of his long-haired career, however. But Zappa is still not sure whether he can yet be considered successful. "No," he says, "I don't think I'm a success yet. Success comes when you do things you want to do – and you do them right."
He says that he still has problems getting the sound he wants in concert appearances. Lately, he says, there have been mechanical developments with concert P.A. systems which are making it possible to bring recording studio sound into concert halls. When that is perfected, he'll be happier.
The stage at Royce Hall was cluttered with the latest sound equipment. It's expensive. Zappa says the income from a recent pop hit, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," underwrote the UCLA concert and the expensive sound equipment.
Zappa, because of his position as philosopher-musician, is also in demand to write. He was given an advance by a publisher to do a book, but was so busy he eventually returned the money. A piece he did for Life Magazine about rock has been reprinted in four college textbooks.
He's written an as yet unproduced Broadway musical "Hunchentoot." He's written two screenplays and one, "200 Motels," was filmed.
"But I'd rather write music," he says. "I'd rather draw those little dots on sheets of blank music paper than sit at a typewriter."
With all this, he still has time to be a family man. He has three children. One, a girl named Moon, is, he says, "an unbelievable dancer."
"When she was two," he says "I'd play 'Firebird' and she'd improvise a ballet. One day, we took her to see 'Swan Lake' and she stood up, said 'Yuch' and walked out."
This syndicated article was published in many newspapers in November 1975 under different titles.
Dick Kleiner, who interviewed Zappa, had later in the 80s a questions and answers column (sort of "Ask Dick Kleiner") which was also reprinted in many newspapers. One funny excerpt from the year 1987:
Dear Dick: I am sick and tired of being laughed at when I tell my friends that Frank Zappa, one of my all-time crazy men from the 1960s, is the son of the sweet, mild-mannered, courteous man who played Mr. Green Jeans, Capt. Kangaroo's sidekick for many years. Should my friends be laughing at me, or isn't it a fact that this is true? – K.S.T., Kalamazoo, Mich.
Dear K.S.T.: Ho ho, that's rich! I don't mean to laugh but – ha ha – you are wrong. Frank Zappa's father, Francis Vincent Zappa, Sr., was a barber in Baltimore. Junior Zappa once told me he earned his first money by helping his father lather faces. The late Hugh Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans, had one son, Tom, who isn't Frank Zappa.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net