By Susin Shapiro
A writer friend of mine is fond of saying: "If you fear something enough don't run scared, confront it directly." The idea being that no single thing is as terrifying as the fear itself, but you can't ever know that without doing some sampling. Armed with this tenuous consolation, I went to a recent Frank Zappa concert at the Felt Forum in New York. My memories of Zappa consisted of a few rococo fragments that had enlarged as time went by, like a pet nightmare. I had long ago lost touch with his point blank sense of humor, the indolent frescoes that permeated his atmosphere, his blend of classicism and absurdity. Dog Breath Variations and Burnt Weenie Sandwiches were not exactly integral elements of my press party repertoire. All I could conjure was this tall, barmy-eyed maniac who tore the limbs off dolls and engineered a lot of madly gyrating noise in assault upon my sweet pink ears.
Zappa has been one of culturama's perpetually generating talents; the inventor of the concept record, the first to use videotape in a film about rock and roll, the creator of such gluey epithets as "Suzy Creamcheese," and a business avatar who managed to maintain his artistic integrity when all the other rock folks were selling out.
Older and wiser than his current black counterpart, George Clinton, he bombards the Dresden of our collective imaginations, turning rigid and insensible societal rules into sawdust and chuckle. Zappa never allowed any distance between himself, his music, the audience and his environment; no safe shelter zone where we once nursed wounded illusions of what rock aura was really all about. While other groups were waxing serious about bubblegum. Zappa was gleefully foraging through piles of music history and technique in loving contempt of his contemporaries. In the pyramid of perspicacity, Zappa was as close to the apex as one could get, and still be understood.
"Frank Zappa's genius has yet to be recognized, much less appreciated," say Eddie, sophomore at Penn State who owns and has memorized every word of Zappa's 14 LPs. "I used to think he was this weird guy but after I listened a few times, I started to see the order in his chaos. Yeah, his smartness is scary." Eddie is pleased with Zoot Allures, Zappa's latest release; he finds it more accessible and less of an acquired taste than previous Zappa outings.
Though Zappa can waddle through a lyrical kindergarten when the mood strikes, his sophistication as a producer-performer is unequalled. Zoot lodges its more progressive music in a sandbox, then elevates the grittier images into crisp fusion instrumentals; sensual, effulgent. Any rock star who can cop licks and compositional techniques from Edgar Varèse is most likely onto something that most artists don't have the thumbs to grasp. Zappa's grip on the eclectic grab bag of musical influences is so refined and so secure that he can let go the most outrageous mockery and parody without degenerating his art into sham.
Zappa Details His Vision Of Music
This is what Life Magazine had to say about Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, circa '68: "Conglomerates of humor, satire, chance, non-fiction and the grotesque, punctuated with snorts, oinks and bongs, sprinkled with bits of Motown, Sacco & Vanzetti, R&B, Rosemary de Camp, and Stravinsky."
This is what Frank Zappa had to say in the same issue of Life about rock, in a brilliant piece called "The Oracle Has It All:"
"In the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra album Lumpy Gravy there is a section on side two where several unidentified characters discuss the origins of the universe. One of the characters explains the concept of the Big Note: everything in the universe is composed basically of vibrations – light is a vibration, sound is a vibration – and all these vibrations just might be harmonics of some incomprehensible fundamental cosmic tone.
"How important is sound? Which is more important: the timbre (color-texture) of a sound, the succession of intervals which make up the melody, the harmonic support (chords) which tell your ear 'what the melody means,' the volume at which the sound is heard, the volume at which the sound is produced, the distance from the source to the ear, the density of sound, the number of sounds per second or fraction thereof ... and so on? Which of these would be the most important element in an audio experience which gave you a pleasurable sensation? An erotic sensation? Look at kids in school, tapping their feet, beating with their fingers. People try, unconsciously, to be in tune with their environment. In a variety of ways, even the most unconcerned people make attempts to 'tune up' with their God."
Face it, nothing to be frightened of. The man's command of technique, logic, concern and expression is pretty unassailable. Zappa, the onstage misogynist and truth pimp, the techno-magical genius, the maestro of verse and perverse, turns out to be a pussy cat. And nothing that fearful in person; a soft-spoken calm and collected (or is it cool) gentleman. Those eyes that you never see through the long snarls of black hair are green, soft and openly vulnerable. Zappa proves to be a delightful storyteller (most of the tape has me doubling over in laughter) and gets impatient only when questioned about his tendency to put women into mother/whore categories. Here's a random sampling, squeezed in before Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night came over to talk with Zappa about appearing on the NBC show:
What is your religious background?
FZ: You mean, in the olden days, or what do I do for a living? In the olden days I was raised as Catholic.
Oh, does that account for your constant preoccupation with taboo words?
FZ: No, that doesn't follow at all. If I were a psychology professor, I'd flunk you with a Z. I think the words I use onstage are designed for directness of communication rather than as a protest against my Catholic upbringing. If you're gonna talk to somebody, it might as well be in a language they understand.
It is true that you use lyrical simplicity. How do you balance that with the enormous complexity of the music? The people who understand the graphic images may not comprehend the complexity of the music.
FZ: So what? With or without the graphic images it'll escape them. If they hear music, they'll hear it; if they can't, they won't.
But the explicit images are an easy way of pulling people into the music.
FZ: (Disk jockey voice, patronizing) We have a little something for everyone. You should have seen the audience Sunday night; they were nuts. It was a great show, the audience was a riot. (laughs)
How long did you rehearse the current band?
FZ: The rhythm section started rehearsing in June, and Bianca and Ray were added a few weeks before the tour began.
Where did you find them?
FZ: Everybody auditioned.
Whatever happened to your group, the GTO's?
FZ: Well, let's take 'em by the numbers: Miss Christine committed suicide in Boston. Miss Sandra married somebody and moved to Venice. Miss Cinderella married John Cale and then got divorced, today was her court appearance as a matter of fact. Sparky is now working at Benihana's of Tokyo in the San Fernando Valley. Miss Pamela had a short term on a TV soap opera and now is apparently the girl friend of Michael Des Barres who was the lead singer of Silverhead, now the lead singer of Detective. Miss Lucy has been mainly employed as a masseuse.
It sounds like they're a bunch of losers.
FZ: Oh, no, they're just highly individualistic, especially Miss Christine.
She's the suicide? That's quite a unique act to follow. You can't make too much money after the first performance.
FZ: No, and there's not too many people who'll cover you either.
What were you doing on the Steve Allen show about a hundred years ago?
FZ: Playing a bicycle. It was not a hundred years ago, it was 1962. You blow through the handlebars and you can strum the spokes like a harp and you can also bow the spokes and play bass fiddle, there. Meanwhile, I had someone recite poetry. I said 'John, just go ahead and say your favorite poem,' which was Mary Had a Little Lamb ... obviously. I got Steve Allen to blow it while I worked the spokes, meanwhile I had tinker toy music going in the background, it was quite an extravaganza.
Were you ever invited back?
FZ: Oh no. The problem was with the lyrics. HA! Mary HAD a little lamb; the continuity department came down. John hasn't worked much since that time.
Are you ever going to work with orchestras again?
FZ: Thing about orchestras is, I like the way they sound but the experience of working with them is invariably depressing. Orchestra musicians are concerned with one thing – their pension. They don't give a fuck about music. I don't think belonging to a union necessarily makes you a bad person but there is an attitude of pseudo-professionalism that pervades a lot of the entertainment unions. People on the technical fringe of show business get into the syndrome where they won't command the respect of the other people they work with unless they seem totally disinterested in the product they're working on. If you show any interest in the show and you're a crew member well, what are you? A sissy? You gotta go back there and drink coffee with the guys, fuck the show. We're gettin' paid this huge fee, so they sit there and wait and hope you go one minute over the deadline hour so they can pick up some overtime. The rest of the time they could care less. That's the way it is in most of the union halls. With orchestras it's OK, we'll take our time gettin' back from the lunch and dinner breaks in between the sessions, but if you got two more bars of music to record and the contractor's watch goes to zero THAT'S IT. I've got tapes of the contractor standing up and saying, "THAT'S IT!" with two bars to go in the session. And if you play those two bars it'll cost you $5,000. Enough to spoil a recording. Meanwhile if you say, 'be back here as soon as the break is over,' they all grumble and when they do sit down, they screw up on purpose while playing their parts.
Are you looking for AM hits?
FZ: Of course. The single, "Find Her Finer" is destined for the AM airwaves. It was selected by the geeks at Warners who actually have to go out and sell it, so if they think they can sell "Find Her Finer" better than "Wonderful Wino" or "Wind Up Working In A Gas Station" (Zappa's ode to higher education) then so be it.
Any stories about the other cuts on Zoot?
FZ: Ms Pinky is a song about a "lonely person" device. I saw an ad for it in this Finnish pornographic magazine, and when the band got to Amsterdam, I sent Smothers (Zappa's large bald bodyguard) out to see if he could find one. Sure enough, for $69.95 he came back with Ms. Pinky. It was even worse than I had expected. Not only is it a head, it's the size of a child's head. The throat is sponge rubber and it has a vibrator in it with a battery pack and a two-speed motor. Sticking out of the neck is a little nozzle with a squeeze bulb that makes the throat contract. "Black Napkins" is a song I've had for a year or more but it was finally named last Thanksgiving when we were having this horrible Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Sliced turkey roll with the fucking preservatives just gleaming off of it, and this beat-up cranberry material. The final stroke to this ridiculous dinner was the black napkins sitting next to the dish.
What about the song where the 14 year old boy can't grow a chin and wants to die?
FZ: I just think that's a song a lot of guys in that age bracket will identify with. Male syndrome, you know? "It popped out once and my Dad pushed it in/why did he hurt me/he's my next of kin."
I was very insulted with your song about titty-squeezing time
FZ: Think about this for a minute. That particular song was born to be a classic because it has everything in it that America loves, and that's beer and tits.
I don't like either of those things and I am 51% of the population.
FZ: Well, personally, I don't like beer. You should see the response to that song in Texas. It's stunning. Tits are amusing.
Yeah, but don't you have qualms about singing that song?
FZ: Look if you're gonna grow those things and go out and buy brassieres to make 'em stick out even more you deserve what you get!
Wait a minute, I didn't grow them...
FZ: Well, if you don't like 'em you can have 'em chopped off. There are some cases where people bind 'em down. If you wanna de-emphasize yourself, go right ahead. But if you got 'em, you gotta appreciate that all those other people who got different plumbing view those appurtenances in a way other than you view 'em.
Ugh, that's so 50s.
FZ: You think the 50s are dead? I think they never went away. Especially as far as tits go. Tits have been there ever since tits. And a guy is gonna sit and look at 'em unless they are really boring tits.
(A conversation then ensues about what makes breasts really boring which I won't bother repeating because it's too embarrassing).
Did you know that Leonard Bernstein was a big fan of yours and every time you played the Fillmore East he came with an entourage to see you perform?
FZ: No. I only met him once when he came to see Chicago, who was our opening act. I was invited next door to Ratner's and I met him there, with the guys from Chicago. He didn't say two words to me; all he did was sit there and deliver a 15 minute monologue on the origins of whitefish. All I know about him is that he's a sturgeon expert. Oh these rumors anyway, like the one about the baby chickens.
FZ: People have accused me of stepping on heads of baby chickens onstage. I'm sure they have me confused me with Alice Cooper or somebody like him. And all those wild dope fiend rumors that spread around...
You don't do dope, do you?
FZ: No. I've smoked ten marijuana cigarettes in my life. They made me sleepy, gave me a sore throat and a headache. I can't understand why anybody would wanna use the stuff. It seems to be an impractical pastime since you can get sent to jail for it.
Have you ever considered going into politics?
FZ: Sure, but I'm not ready yet. I'd be a perfect President. I'd not only win but I'd be good at the job. One of these days I am going to run for President, but not until I think it would be fun.
Are you a megalomaniac?
FZ: No. I'm a person with a very strong conscience who knows he can do certain things very well, and has no reason to pretend he can't, and will actually do as much good as he can while he's got the chance to do it. Strictly business.
You were putting down Warner Bros. at the concert. If you feel they're not behind you, how are you going to sell Zoot Allures?
FZ: My first plan is, during every concert I'm going to hype the album just like I was doing a television commercial. I figure I shouldn't be shy about that, it really is a good album. I don't think the audience minds knowing that it's out. And if Warners doesn't arrange for me to go to radio stations, I'll go myself.
How many more years are you under contract to Warners?
FZ: That's arguable. I would love to be rid of them right now. They say I owe them four more albums. I'm trying to decide whether I'll hand them all four when I get home from this tour, cause I got 'em, And they know that. They're sitting in California waiting to come out. If Warners keeps fucking around like this they're gonna get a little present when I get home. One of the tapes is an orchestra album.
I am giving Warners a fair chance this time, I'm saying: 'perform on this record.' This is my first release for Warners, not DiscReet; it's not a subsidiary, it's not a little independent company, it's 'hey, here I am on your mainline label, now what are ya gonna do about it?' So far they've done diddly-shit. '
What else lies in the future?
FZ: I'm going to write several books on music method, that'll be my first venture into the book publishing field. I've been getting a lot of requests for written music. In L.A., a lot of studio musicians come over to ask for parts, they've heard them on the records. Not only for guitar, I think the best selling one will probably be the book on percussion. There's not that much good percussion literature and they are oriented to that kind of thing.
Is there anything interviewers don't ask you that you'd like to talk about?
FZ: They ask me that all the time. I'm not geared toward expounding. Why should I not answer questions but make them up as well? That's working too hard.
1. October 30 and 31, 1976.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net