The Secret Life Of Zappa
By Eve Brandstein
The '60 were filled with opportunists who were more, than happy to take advantage of the suckers and the emotionally oriented . . . it there's one thing I thought ridiculous it was anybody who wore a headband on weekends carrying a flower in one hand and a joint in the other."
Frank Zappa took chances with his musical taste a long time before he even played music with the Mother's of Invention and had his first hit album Freak Out. He wrote music for a film when he was 21, played with bands (that didn't achieve notoriety), had a recording studio. After the concept of the Mothers of Invention he continued his search to stretch out and play with other fine musicians and create in other forms. He has played with some of the finest jazz musicians, worked with Zubin Mehta (the newly appointed musical director for the New York Philharmonic and then conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony), played with full orchestra, pieces that he composed, made a movie (200 Motels), produced an album (the recent Grand Funk record), and no one can guess what is next. Although an irreverent and surreal artist he also understood the business of music. How else could he have survived this last decade?
Most artists go through changes that affect their music and perhaps make them stick with what was safe, but the experimentation that Frank Zappa brought to rock music never stopped. He has a right to be proud. And he is. He has pride that is not a simple notion of vanity, but a much more hubris pride. It is the pride that man encounters when he believes he is right in his way and does not betray those beliefs – ever.
I found out about Frank Zappa's pride and self awareness at a recent interview at his manager's office. While waiting to meet him I prepared myself not to blush, thinking of all the things that might embarrass me . In the quiet inner office I was greeted by Frank Zappa, who is a tall, thin well groomed, soft spoken man. At first he wasn't very attentive to my presence as he studied the pictures in an art book. His manager asked if I would mind waiting for awhile before starting the interview so that he and Frank could go off to the bank. I was left with the new album that will be released this Fall. Frank picked up his attaché case and left for the bank as I sat in a perfect spot listening to his music, full blast. While he was gone I was thoroughly involved with his latest conquest. Just as the fourth side of the album was completed he returned looking no worse from his business trip.
I asked him how he felt about the '60s counterculture moving more and more into the mainstream. I pointed out that some examples of this move could be seen in the actions of a Bob Dylan doing a TV show, a Tom Hayden running for political office and a Frank Zappa producing Grand Funk Railroad. My premise was rejected immediately as misunderstanding the three events as being of the same nature.
"Disconnect the idea that I am producing Grand Funk from the premise and I'd be glad to answer your question," he stated academically. I agreed and he told me.
"Producing Grand Funk has nothing connected with moving into the mainstream. I heard their music and I liked them and I thought it would be fun to do. I hadn't paid any attention to them before. What I had heard about the group I'd read in newspapers and they're all full of shit. So there you are."
It was a strong, matter of a fact reaction. I tried to defend myself a bit by pointing out that Grand Funk had a reputation. He cut me off quick and clean.
"Well I've been given a reputation for being a certain kind of a person. Reputations are all manufactured by people in your end of the business who have little or no contact with facts."
As a challenge I didn't take the remark personally. After a pause he continued.
"It's been my experience with the press. I've been in this business for 11 years, done 100 interviews a year. That's talking to a lot of people. Out of those Interviews there's been maybe three good ones that came near what the conversation was. It never seems to come out right once it reaches print. I know for a fact that people who have reviewed Grand Funk albums sometimes don't listen to the albums. I know of one guy who did a review for Rolling Stone, where he took the cover of the All The Girls in The World Beware and set it up in front of the typewriter and wrote a review of the album but never played it. With that kind of shit going down and since I've had my fun and games with the press of the world, I was leery believing anything I heard about them. I went out there and listened to the to their material. They gave me some albums to take home to listen to and I thought about it. I went back to see how the material developed after they had rehearsed for two months. They were ready to record. I just took the stuff first hand and met the guys. I was surprised because everything I ever heard indicated that they were sub-morons and unmusical," he stated with the first laugh of the afternoon. Getting a little more friendly and warm he continued.
"Shit, they play, they sing and they're great – nice guys. They had it together the first time I went to listen basic tracks right there at their studio. It was very much of a technical thing. I went and listened to how the band sounded and discussed with them what kind of a concept they had for the album. The one thing they wanted to stress more than anything else was to try and make the record sound like what the band sounds like. An unadorned effect. Most of the tracks were just the way they played them. They went for a feel on all of the tunes rather than produce everything into the ground. They did 11 tracks in four days and did all the vocals in a week."
At the time of the interview only the single had been released and the word was that the record was quite good. Perhaps taking chances with old reputations is what making music should be about.
As we went on we talked about the changes in the rock scene. Zappa felt that the only real changes were in the areas of technology.
"I think the hardware is great and helps to make sounds that were impossible ten years ago. I think the best groups are the ones making use of musical ideas that are outside the normal simple progression. There's lots of things you could do musically the trick is how do you get it out to an audience, which is generally the biggest stumbling block to a musical career and always has been."
I pointed out how well I felt he had made it work for his music.
"Best as I could. Sometime, somewhere down the line you got to decide if you're going to put it on record. If no one plays it, no one will ever hear it and if no one ever hears it then no one will ever know that it happened. That's an old philosophical chain of events you gotta figure out before you put an album together."
The mood in the room became more comfortable and Zappa even started making eye contact more regularly. I asked him about how his music had progressed.
"There are certain things I always like to hear and as long as I've got to sing the stuff (and since I've got such a limited voice) it has to happen around a certain range. Some things will always remain the same. The most anyone can expect from an artist in order for that artist to be esthetically true is for the artist to give the audience some semblance of himself. Whatever you hear on those records is an extension of me. It's old fashioned or avant garde or whatever it's just the way I am."
I asked him about his experience playing with orchestras and writing music that incorporated classical stylings.
"I just did another album – Six Things," he replied and jumped up to put on his new orchestral work with enthusiasm. He told me from the other side of the room. "I don't do this kind of music to be part of that scene. Basically the setting disgusts me."
As he placed the record on the phonograph we discussed classical musicians he admires. Some of the composers who he finds exciting are: Ligeti, Penderecki, Messiaen, all extraordinary contemporary musical expressionists. I told him about a New York based group called Tashi, who work in the classical medium. They have tried to break the formal barrier by playing new music and dressing more casually. Most recently they had a concert of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at the Bottom Line and created an atmosphere that had people reacting as if they were at a jazz concert. Frank was very interested and then placed the needle on the acetate. I was impressed by the collage of opening sounds and the different qualities. A mixture of serious and fun. I was moved to ask him if he considered himself a genius. "Yeah," he answered with a grin. He told me that he hoped the orchestral album would be released soon and would be enjoyed by his regular audience. I asked him about the new album scheduled to be released in September. He told me that he wondered if the album might not be too long as a double album and would be released as a single one. Most of the cuts on Zoot Allures were done with just Zappa and Terry Bozzio. Terry Bozzio, Patrick O'Hearn and Eddie Jobson (former member of Roxy Music) are in his new touring band. He was delighted about the new band and showed me a picture. The picture was startling. The three other players were young, blond and very cute and in the center of those angels stood Frank Zappa looking diabolically shrewd.
The road has been mythologized by Zappa in his 200 Motels. I wondered if it was still the same for him these days.
"No, not with this band. 200 Motels is about the way things were. It was appropriate of that group at that time. Now I think it's more interesting. I have my fun! From a travel stand point it's more together, more comfortable to deal with and the audiences are bigger.
I realized that I wanted to ask him some questions that were not related to music. I wanted to know if there was a private Frank Zappa.
"The minute the lights go on I'm a different person. When I go to the bank I'm another person too." I asked him which were his favorite movies. "The Killer Shrews, The Beast of Haunted Cave, Mesa of Lost Women and The Brainiac," he sputtered out. I had never heard of them and was confused by their obscurity.
"You don't see them very often anymore. In fact the only way to see Mesa of Lost Women is by renting it for about $14 from Budget Films."
I asked him if he read and he shook his head, then replied, "The last thing I read was The Secret Life of Plants." The book made me think that either he was either into gardening or found the idea of ESP intriguing. I asked him if he thought he had psychic abilities. He replied in a low keyed voice, "No comment." I wanted to pursue it, but I felt that this was perhaps the secret life of Frank Zappa. I went on to find out if he thought of himself as philosophical.
"Yeah. A person who might or might not have a sense of what the word philosophy means is philosophical. Philosophy is not just a course that you take in school. If you have a philosophical outlook on something you might be a person who likes to gather information and make evaluations of your own personal universe. I try to keep track of what's going on as it relates to me. It all builds up to an aesthetic and ethical system of what ever your personal morals are going to be.
I wondered how such a bright man could have once described himself as a creep.
"Well I thought of myself as a creep because people always saw me as a creep. I don't think that many people would want me in their homes. A lot of people would want me for perverse reasons. I went to Texas one time playing a concert and the promoter of the concert and his friends and their wives wanted me to come to their house, not because they wanted to sit around and talk, but because they wanted to take a color photo of me sitting on their toilet. Then they could have a poster made up, a one of a kind poster for their house! Now my description of myself would depend on who I am describing myself to. To you, I'd just say a genius," he ended with a warm grin.
I was very careful asking the next question, not wanting to disturb the relaxed mood of the conversation, but I wanted to know if Zappa liked women. So many of his lyrics have been described as being Henry Millerish, and chauvinistic. "I love women! I think that ladies are a little bit stupid. And little girls have a chance of growing into being ladies or women. I've been approached by Women's Liberation types and criticized about my lyrics and all I tell them is get fucked. One, if they don't like what I write all they have to do is prove it's not true. Two, why pick on me because there's plenty of other people who write things that are much worse than what I'm saying in terms of male chauvinist opinion. If I write a lyric that happens to have a female character in it it's from the situation in my song and I draw from the real world. It's like reporting. I'm not planning to set up archetypes or generalizations. That's my stock answer and it's true. You know what's funny about Women's Lib? Women don't need to be liberated. I think ladies do. There should be Ladies Liberation. I think the women should get together and liberate the ladies. Take the white gloves off them and straighten them out. Men are in trouble and nobody ever talked to me about the way the men are portrayed in my songs cause I got some real dumb bells in my songs. In fact they've got more than their equal time.
I wasn't convinced by his answer to the question, but there was no way in the world I would want to debate Frank Zappa about this or perhaps any subject. He is fast, clever and thoroughly convinced. Before I ended our conversation I was still curious about the question of the late '60s cultural experience. The experience that I encountered while sitting on an East Village floor ten years ago. I wanted to know if he felt it was a special time and what happened to the Ideals.
"The late '60s was what it was. I wouldn't describe it as particularly wild. Some of the actions taken were different, but what was going on wasn't very different. Look at it realistically. We've got this country and it has it's good points and it has it's bad points. It's got people who will recognize good points and bad points in a clear and rational way. Then you've got people who are operating on strictly an emotional level and then you have suckers and opportunists. The '60s were filled with opportunists who were more than happy to take advantage of the suckers and the emotionally oriented. So they herd them in a direction of pretense and there was all your hippies and crap. I think you can see with a little bit of perspective that was a bunch of crap. That doesn't change the basic problems that exist. There's lots of things wrong with this country but the modus operandi has always been questioned. I thought I was making a rational assessment of what was going on. I never adopted any flower power or any of that stuff and spoke out against it. We were not exactly what you call your popular hippie band, because if there's one thing I always thought was ridiculous was anybody who sticks a fucking headband on the weekends and goes out to the park with a flower in his hand, waving it at a policeman while he's got a joint in the other. He's not proving anything except how stupid he is. He followed somebody's lead into acting like that and all it really got him was a quick trip to jail or a bump on the head or laid by someone else who was equally stupid as himself at the Love-In. Let's hope that they got laid rather than jailed. I pointed that out on the album, We're Only In It For The Money. That pissed a lot of people off. It was right then and it's right now. I think kids today are not interested in ideas. I think the media has made them sufficiently aware on a person to person basis of the extent to which corruption can reach the highest levels of office in the U.S.A. I think that's merely just the beginning of what's really there, in terms of corruption. I think the escape motivation has always been very strong in all groups of young people in the U.S. or anywhere else too, but more so today."
I finally asked him if he was understood by the media?
"Media is all a logical extension of government, as controlled by government. All you need to know is that's the way it is. If you believe and understand – what's to be afraid of? You know it's fucked. The media understands me fine. They understand me as well as I understand them. I'm just ,a person living his life doing what he does and they do what they do, except – I'm a good guy and they're the bad guys."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net