When Confronting Frank Zappa There Is No Middle Ground
By Gene Kalbacher
Zappa either you hate him or you love him. And, like cats, dogs, cauliflower and little children, either you hate the music of Frank Zappa or you love it.
A man of many moods, a movie-maker and, depending on who you talk to, either a masterful manipulator of media or a manifestation of mania incarnate, Zappa is most of all a musician.
Born in Baltimore and reared amid the mythos of the West Coast, Zappa is both a self-taught musician and a self-made millionaire. Now 37, Zappa has written hundreds of songs and several film scores (most notably 200 Motels) , recorded nearly two dozen albums (many with the Mothers Of Invention), and had his music performed by both the London Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
He has led his own bands, managed his own record label, and, most of all, maintained his image as anti-rock-star from the naysaying '60s through the narcissistic '70s. He has survived a near fatal onstage altercation with an overzealous fan, and fueled his own freakiness with odd pop-art posters and his even more outrageous, outspoken observations.
The music of Frank Zappa zigzags across the boundaries of contemporary music like a Geiger counter run amok over the mother lode. I can best describe it as a happy bastard hybrid of rock and roll, jazz and classical music. Zappa's multi-media approach introduces legitimate theater to rock, the avant-garde to the popular, the ridiculous to the sublime. His guitar playing is nothing short of superb.
Though he has had but one real hit, "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" in 1974, his satiric brand has infused much of his music. Who else but Zappa could – or would? – write a song about dental floss farming in "Montana"? In addition to his Philharmonic credentials, Zappa's Mothers have featured, at one time or another, pianist George Duke; drummer Aynsley Dunbar (Journey), virtuoso violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (better known as Flo and Eddie).
Though his disdain for the rock press is well documented (see sidebar), Zappa recently fielded questions – everything from left field to right field with a stop in the bleachers – at a recent press conference – type gathering at the St. Regis Hotel following his successful four-night stint at the Palladium before and after Halloween.
The conversation centered on Zappa's current litigation with Warner Bros. Records, with whom the long-haired goateed musician has terminated a recording tenure spanning a decade.
Zappa's answers, to my surprise – owing to his reputation as a bizarre, coiled-spring character – were painfully honest, direct and ... polite. He dismissed what he considered foolish questions more with aplomb than with indignation, fixing his attention, by turns, on each of the more than a dozen assembled reporters.
Zappa recently signed exclusive three- or four-year artist and production contracts with Phonogram/Mercury Records. Under the terms of the agreement, Zappa will record his own records and produce other artists on his own Zappa Records. Phonogram/Mercury will distribute Zappa's own records in the U.S. and Canada and handle world-wide distribution tor the artists he produces. (To date, Zappa has produced lps for the likes of Captain Beefheart and Grand Funk.) His first release for the new label, due in January, will be a two-record set titled Martian Love Secrets.
His most recent lp is Studio Tan (Warner Bros.), one of four completed records he delivered to Warners in March of 1976. Of the four, Warners has issued Zappa In New York and Studio Tan; awaiting release are Hot Rats 3 and Zappa Orchestral Favorites.
Zappa is also awaiting judgment on his $20 million damage suit against Warners. The suit, according to his publicist, alleges Warners' poor marketing of his records and contends the musician was not paid for his last four records. Besides the damages "to his career and to his business," Zappa alleges that Warners has released unlicensed material on Studio Tan.
A spokesman for Warner Bros. in New York weighed his words carefully and made this amicable statement: "Warner Bros. has great respect for him as an artist. We have no comment on the legal or other hassles."
At the conclusion of his press conference, Zappa said this of the difference between the new music he has recorded for Phonogram/Mercury and the music on Studio Tan: "It's completely different – different band, different style, different recording studio, different techniques. I mean, there's no comparison between "Greggery Peccary" (on Studio Tan) and a song like "I'm So Cute."
Zappa was asked by this interviewer, "If you were to become czar of the music industry, what rules or changes would you impose?" His answer, a paraphrased condensation: I'd just ask the record companies to live up to the terms they agree to with their artists. And I'd like artists to know what they're getting themselves into. Beware of artist relations' guys who, with great magnanimity, take you and your band out to dinner at an expensive restaurant – and charge the bill against your royalties.
Beware of "free goods," in which retailers who buy 100 albums by a particular artist receive six free as an added bonus. Does the artist deserve royalties on the free goods? Yes. Will he or she get them? Invariably, no, says Zappa. Beware of the hidden snares of cross-collateralization. If you're a recording artist with a recording contract and you don't know what cross-collateralization is ... well, you'll find out, Zappa seems to say. Beware of the trappings and trap doors of stardom.
A few days after the press conference, I received a call from Zappa's publicist asking if I'd like to do a supplemental phone interview with Frank. "Frank was concerned that a few writers didn't have enough time to talk with him." Frank Zappa was concerned that this rock writer hadn't had enough time? Frank Zappa-the off-the-wall crazy man, whose wild, wanton, unbridled dislike of rock writers knows no bounds?
I said sure.
Only after the press conference did I learn about Zappa's new movie project, tentatively titled Baby Snakes, a work print of which the guitarist recently previewed in Manhattan without fanfare.
The following interview with Zappa shows him to be, in my estimation, perhaps the sanest-of-the-sane music biz biggies. Talking to Zappa was like talking to Marshall McLuhan without the dogma. So decide for yourself: Would you want a man like this living in your neighborhood?
What do they have you doing? Couldn't you just conclude your stint at the Palladium?
I'm going to be in town until Friday. I was forced to stay because of the screening. My publicist told me that there were some people (writers) who didn't get enough time to talk to me and some who didn't get in (to the press conference) at all.
I must confess and apologize that I went into the press conference a bit on my guard, having read so much about the flakiness of Frank Zappa. Yet your openness was quite a revelation to me.
Well, it just goes to show you what kind of shit people write in the newspapers. If all you ever know about me is what you read in the papers, then obviously you think I'm a schmuck.
I was amazed. I was talking about cross collateralization – with Frank Zappa!
Well, let me ask you a simple question. Of all the people you know in the business you're in, how many of them do you respect?
... Well, there are many impostors.
There are a hell of a lot of schmucks. So, I give everybody a fair shake. I treat them the way they treat me. If they treat me like a wiseass, I give it right back to 'em. And the ones who are really obnoxious I throw out, because I don't like to have anybody waste my time. But if I'm sitting around with people, and they ask intelligent questions and it's worthwhile, I talk with 'em. It's just that a lot of people I end up talking with are really assholes. A lot of these guys think they're swell. And so, if I tell them the truth, they get upset, and they figure the only way they can revenge themselves on me is to write that I'm an asshole, they're not an asshole. "It's Zappa that's an asshole."
I didn't know anything about this movie. Did that come up in conversation at the press conference?
No, not really.
It's not that you're blowing your own horn – calling a press conference to hype your movie or your concerts. You limited your answers to the scope of the questions, and that's it.
Well, let me give you the background on that. You know how the business operates, you're in the business. The whole thing thrives on hype. That's people who hire other people to send out pieces of paper that say, "This is it. This is the big one." And then you spend the rest of your life trying to live up to the hype that came out.
Well, I don't like that. I'm not interested in living my life that way. I do what I do and if anybody likes it, fine; if you don't like it, there's always those other groups. There's millions of 'em, go help yourself.
How did your freaky image come out of all of this?
Well, what happens is this: Suppose someone told you there was somebody left in the United States who didn't use drugs, who was actually rational, who didn't like having his time wasted, who didn't make any bones about calling somebody an asshole if they were an asshole, and just went about his business in the usual way. You'd think he was weird. Because everybody else just does it a different way.
That's one of the reasons my off-the-wall image has occurred. Some things that seem perfectly normal to me are very weird to other people. And I don't bother to qualify them; I don't apologize for what I do. I'm not begging for any assistance. I don't want anybody to kiss my ass, and I'm not gonna kiss anybody else's ass. I don't think any human being looks good with brown lipstick on.
Since you didn't plug your movie at the press conference, why don't you fill me in on it.
It was filmed at the Palladium. I've spent $400,000 of my own money on it. I need another half million dollars to finish it. We've been showing it all around the world, trying to make a deal to get the thing done. So far, nobody's interested in it.
But what I'm doing tomorrow is having a screening of the work print. It's got all the splices and everything in it; it's just a roughly mixed track. But a lot of the kids from the Palladium who are in the movie are coming to the screening. They'll see themselves, get a few laughs out of it. Maybe that's as far as the movie will ever go; maybe no one else will ever see it. But I don't see any reason why I shouldn't show it to them.
What does the movie involve?
It's basically a concert film.
Interviews and so forth?
No, no. It doesn't dwell on that. There's one reel that has some shots of kids in the audience, and backstage scenes. Most of it is the concert straight though, with views of the people onstage that, it you were in the audience, you'd never see. Because our concerts are different than your average group's concerts, the movie is different from the average concert movie.
And most of them are alike.
Yes, and most of them are really bad. And that's the problem I've been having in getting the thing financed, because it you go to a normal film distributor and say you have a concert movie, they all just want to run away. That's because none of the other concert movies have made any money. The only concert movie that made a profit was Woodstock. Everything that has come after it has been shit and has sold badly. So nobody wants to invest, even though half a million dollars isn't a lot of money to stick in a movie. They don't even want to spend that because they figure, where's the percentage in it?
Is the Frank Zappa freaky image a mitigating factor?
No, most of them don't know me from a hole in the ground. Movie people don't know anything about records.
When was the film shot?
It was shot last Halloween at the Palladium.
I believe you have a different band now.
Four of the guys are the same as last year. But that doesn't make any difference.
Is the film a good document of Frank Zappa live?
It's not meant to be a documentary of Frank Zappa live. Decide when you see the movie. It's very entertaining in that the songs are entertaining, the stuff that the audience is doing – there's a lot of audience participation in it – is pretty off-the-wall. The performance is good. And it really has a nice feeling to it, especially if you know the Palladium syndrome, what the atmosphere is down there. It really captures the Palladium perfectly.
Speaking of media, let me ask you this. The music over the past decade may have contributed somewhat to some positive social change, maybe even stretched things to a new morality – if there is such a thing – but as a business, the music industry still perpetuates the status quo. The have/have not dichotomy seems even more prevalent in the business today, and conglomerates are grouping together for mixed-media events. An hour-long TV special hypes a new movie for which the paperback book has just hit the supermarkets. Do you find that scary, being yourself a media-oriented person?
... Let's say you're a normal citizen and you have some spare time. And you want to relax because you hate your job. You have two or three kinds of things that you might like to do that are pleasurable leisure-time activities. When one company starts controlling all the aspects of the available leisure-time activities, that company is exerting a lot of influence psychologically on a lot of citizens at a point when they are very vulnerable. When these large companies wield that much power, it's only fair that politicians should cooperate with them, which breeds more power.
It's especially dangerous at a time when leisure time is increasing.
People think that, "Hey, we're gonna get a four-day work week and then we'll have all this time to spend." You don't know what that leisure time is going to cost you in terms of personal liberties.
And there are so many products jammed down our throats that we must have in order to be hip.
Right, look at jogging. It's one thing to run, but it's something else to run when you have to wear a certain kind of clothing ...
Adidas sneakers –
... A certain kind of shoe, and drink ... a certain kind of water? You can't jog without ingesting gallons of Perrier water? What kind of a schmuck are you? You don't want to be a normal jogger; you have to be a first-class jogger. You've gotta get the suit with the stripe, the right shoes, and drink the Perrier water. It's the same way if you're playing tennis. You don't just go out there and hit the ball; you've gotta dress up, you've gotta drink the Perrier water.
It looks good for Perrier water.
I don't know how that got started. But you watch those joggers and tennis players – it's the liquid they run on. It must be a virility syndrome, or the elixir of youth syndrome.
And you can't even watch a crummy football game without having pangs of guilt if you can't tape it on a Betamax and replay it next week on a life-size screen. Let's chastise conspicuous consumption.
You see, every time you add one of these knick-knacks to the basic enjoyment process, it just means extra dollars in the hands of companies which are not really individual companies. It you start examining how they're constructed and how they're interconnected, it turns out to be one big company. One day we're gonna wake up and find out that it's like Soylent Green.
There's so much hype, there's so much hoopla. Just this very afternoon, eight photographers waited outside the St. Regis for over two hours to get one measly shot of Jaclyn Smith getting out of her limo. People are seemingly content to be denied admission to Studio 54. So many record buyers are buffeted with gold this, platinum that. The dichotomy between winners and losers in the music biz is greater than ever.
Well, I think I'm a winner and I don't have any platinum albums. I'm not a loser by my own standards. I'm perfectly happy to do what I'm doing and do it my own way. Besides that, those same schmucks that were outside the St. Regis to take pictures of Jackie Smith – they took pictures of me, too.
Very little of the music one hears today is very different. It's usually business as usual.
That's what's funny every time they release a new group. They may have a bunch of other groups that've sold lots of stuff, and they still need to continue that as a mainstay of their business, but they're forced to make these elaborate claims on behalf of every new group that comes out. It's reaching the point where I don't think a person of normal intelligence reading these claims or hearing the commercials on the radio believes anything anymore. They've gotten to the point of credibility saturation on these claims. I don't know how long they can keep doing that.
Very few of the things they're advertising can come anywhere close to living up to the advertising claims that are made for them. It's just pure shit.
Frank Zappa has drawn his inspiration from, vented his hostilities against, and dedicated the song "Packard Goose" to the rock press establishment.
Following are excerpts from the song:
"... AII them rock and roll writers/
Is the worst kind of sleaze/
Selling punk like some new/
Is that the wave of the future?/
Aw, spare me please/
... Fuck all them writers/
With the pen in their hand/
I will be more specific/
So they might understand/
... If you're in the audience/
And like what we do/
We want you to know/
That we like you all, too/
But as for the sucker/
That will write the review/
If his mind is prehensile/
He'll put down his pencil/
And have himself a squat/
On the cosmic utensil/
"Packard Goose" by Frank Zappa © 1978
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net