Zappa As Reporter, Historian And Cynic
By Michael Goldberg and Leslie Robinson
When Frank Zappa was a kid he wanted to be a chemist. Although he couldn’t afford a chemistry set, he said with a gleam in his eye, “I could always get the materials I needed.” One wonders if Frank Zappa may have, in a sense, realized his childhood dream. Not only does he manage to produce lyrical bombs by mixing diverse elements from unlikely sources, but he also reaches beyond the sterile white laboratory of a technician to the purple velvet underworld of an alchemical magician, where black primal matter is turned into pure gold. Along with Captain Beefheart, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention will be playing the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Friday, December 26th and Winterland the following night.
The Barb interviewed Frank Zappa at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco last week. Zappa thoroughly dislikes interviews but submits to them, he says, because he has to remind people he “is still around.” He was defensive, sardonic, and at times condescending. He smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee throughout the interview. After parleying back and forth for over an hour, we confronted Zappa with our impression of him as an extraordinarily uptight person. Whereupon he replied, “Hasn’t anyone ever told you the truth?”
Barb: Ten years ago your debut album could be defined as freaky by most standards. It seems that the times have caught up to you.
Zappa: What do you mean “freaky?” Define your terms.
B: Well, the lyrical content of Freak Out which came out in 1966 was outrageous. No other musicians had presented those themes in a rock and roll context. Now other artists like the Tubes and Alice Cooper are imitating you and it seems like you may no longer be at the forefront of the outrageous.
Z: I don’t see what’s so outrageous about a plastic dick in “Mondo Bondage” or choreographed dancers. (pause) Have any of my songs offended you?
B: Well yes, several years ago “Dinah Moe Humm” was offensive to me.
Z: You know “Dinah Moe Humm” is our most requested song.
B: I thought it was anti-feminist...
Z: But it isn’t.
B: . . . but I re-read the lyrics this morning and realized it wasn’t.
Z: And you just figured it out this morning. It took you three years to understand what that song meant. How do you expect to understand my show next week, if it took you till today to understand something I wrote three years ago. How can you say the times have caught up to me.
B: Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa write songs to listen to rather than to dance to. What would you say is the major difference between the two of you?
Z: He doesn’t have a sense of humor. I do not choose to write songs that leave people feeling morbid, where you have an audience contemplating the sensitivity of the great inner hurt of the artist. When a songwriter does that it’s just a classic example of neurotic behavior.
B: Your lyrical attitudes are very cynical. Do you like people?
Z: Yeah, I am cynical! People always ask me that. They don’t understand that cynicism is a positive value. It’s the only rational value. People should strive for cynicism. In fact it’s dangerous not to. The U.S. would be much better off with a wave of cynicism instead of Transcendental Meditation.
B: Back to my original question, do you like people?
Z: If I have to choose, do I like people or do I dislike people, I say I love ’em. I love ’em enough to tell ’em the truth about stuff they don’t want to hear.
B: Have you ever written a serious song?
Z: They’re all serious.
B: Wait a minute. Comedy plays the preeminent role in your work. Have you written a song without satirical lyrics?
B: Which one?
Z: All the instrumentals.
B: Alright. Have you ever written a serious song with lyrics that aren’t satirical?
Z: You mean without funny lines?
B: Will you ever write a serious song without funny lines?
Z: Look, I can do anything I want. I do not choose to write serious songs withqut funny lines. If I didn’t write funny lines I’d be finished.
B: What gives your life meaning?
Z: Music gives my life meaning. Music and fucking, in that order.
B: What do you want most?
Z: A larger audience.
B: Do you think the audience you have understands you?
Z: Who I am – no. What I’m trying to do – no. The lyrics – yes. The music – maybe.
(So what is Zappa doing? “How long have you got?” he asks. Not that long. In essence, Zappa sees his work developing into one Hieronymous Bosch type of painting. “One album is equivalent to a corner of a large picture, to the overall work.” Zappa is truly ambitious. “I tend to resemble Encyclopaedia Britannica in cartoon form. In terms of the various subjects covered, it’s an historical work, but coming from more angles than the traditional historian who merely reinforces the socio-economic theories of the day. My work also fills in all the blanks in the entire body of pop music in this century.”)
B: What do you think of San Francisco?
Z: I’d rather not discuss San Francisco.
B: Does performing live still give you the rush it initially did?
Z: It gives me more of a rush now because I don’t have to argue with the audience. The basic understanding is there. They already know what they’re getting into. I can get down to business and play. The audiences come and listen.
B: Why has there been such a turnover in the personnel of the Mothers?
Z: The main reason is because they leave. There are no contracts. People just come and go as they please. George Duke left several months ago to work with Billy Cobham. If I fire them it’s because they’re not doing their job right. Recently I fired three people who had been rehearsing material for a month because they couldn’t retain information; they wouldn’t have survived the tour. Ray Collins holds the record for quitting and rejoining the Mothers. He’s left five times. Roy Estrada left three times.
B: What brought you and Beefheart back together?
Z: Beefheart called me up last year and apologized.
B: Is Beefheart in your band right now?
Z: No. He’ll be opening the Paramount and Winterland shows with his own band.
B: We’ve heard that you don’t allow the musicians in your band much of a chance to improvise.
Z: What do you mean “allow”? Are you going to allow the violinist to play what they want for an orchestra performance of Stravinsky? I compose songs. The song goes like this. It’s not open for interpretation.
B: How is a song successful?
Z: A song is alive in my head. I translate it onto the two dimensional surface of a piece of paper. Then I have to get it from the paper into the hands and minds of the people who will perform it. I am successful when the performance is close to the way I heard the song in my head. Different people give it new life. When it comes closest to my imagination, its successful but it’s never 100 percent.
B: What songs do you feel are 99 percent successful in realizing on record or in concert what you heard in your head?
Z: “Zombie Woof,” “Montana,” “Muffin Man,” “Andy,” “Later That Night” and “Fountain of Love.”
B: Do you think there’s a different mood in the Seventies then there was in the Sixties?
Z: Yes. All the older brothers and sisters of the Sixties got into acid and Timothy Leary which was CIA and government sponsored. Their younger brothers and sisters of the Seventies viewed them and rejected the older brothers’ and sisters’ values. They have ended up somewhere between their parents’ values and the values of their older brothers and sisters, which is all right. We have seen a reaction of the Sixties against the Fifties and the Seventies against the Sixties. The Fifties were a very conservative time. The teenagers of the Sixties compensated for what was missed in the Fifties. You know, teenage history started in the Fifties. There is no record of teenagers in the Forties or before. It used to be you were a child and then an adult. Nothing in between. The concept of teenage exists today only because someone found you could sell them things. They found that a teenage market exists.
B: What significant changes have you gone through in the last ten years?
Z: I lead a different life. I have to accommodate more people who want to impinge on my life style. I mean how do you rationalize someone coming up to you on the street and asking for an autograph and if you don’t have paper they want you to bite their pencil. I lead a different life because I have a wife and three children.
B: Are your children in school?
B: How does that fit in with your drop out of school and educate yourself philosophy as articulated on Freak Out?
Z: Every school needs a good student. And I’m proud to say my kids don’t take shit from nobody. And I didn’t even have to teach them that. Those schools will benefit from Dweezil and Moon Unit.
B: You don’t think the schools will corrupt them? (Zappa smirks and shakes his head.)
B: What pisses you off the most?
Z: Incompetence – I can’t stand it. Injustice. Outright malice and stupidity. Stupidity is different than the other two. I can almost tolerate it.
B: Do you consider yourself a moralist?
Z: What do you mean moralist? When I talk about incompetence I mean someone who says they can do something and then either they can’t or they’re incompetent. There’s no morality involved.
B: You’ve written songs against social institutions, riots, etc., aren’t you trying to change the world?
Z: No, I’m a reporter. If people hear my songs and try to do something because of them, that’s okay. I see things and I write songs about them.
B: Don’t you feel you miss things?
Z: Oh sure, I miss 99 percent of things but that’s better than most people who miss 100 percent.
B: Do you read?
Z: I read news magazines, Scientific American occasionally, technical books on music, and an occasional science fiction novel. Other than that I hate all printed material. I hate incompetent writers. Few people have learned to write anything and extract the bad part of themselves to give truth to the matter at hand. It’s that extra piece of shit in the work that spoils the work. The guy wants someone to like him, to listen to him, pay attention or whatever. He should keep his crap out of it. Objectivity, that’s what it is. I don’t want to know about the author’s deep emotional hurt or selfa-nalysis. I don’t like fiction except some science fiction. I like monster movies, childish entertainment. When I turn on the TV I keep changing the channel ’till I see a giant spider or something. The challenge of fiction is the invention.
B: What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 50?
Z: What month?
B: December 21, when you turn 50.
Z: I’ll be finishing a fall tour.
B: What will your performance at the Paramount and Winterland be like?
Z: Wonderful, and if the acoustics are good, exquisite.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net