Warning! The Real Zappa
So many stories begin in the same way, and "It all started with rock 'n ' roll " has become today's cliché. But Frank Zappa breaks the pattern – for him, rock 'n' roll was the by-product of his ongoing relationship with serious music. Debuting on drums at the age of twelve, Zappa began writing chamber music when he turned fourteen, invading the local library armed only with a piece of music paper, a C-5 Speedball pen, a bottle of India ink, and his own consuming intellectual and creative curiosity. Prior to that time, his ambitions had gravitated toward visual art forms – drawing, painting, and graphics – so he approached music from an artist's perspective. "Although I'd heard records," he reminisced, ensconced in the soft sanctuary of a pillow chair, "I started off writing music without having the faintest idea of how it worked. Since I was in art and I could manipulate all these art utensils, I figured, 'Well, why don't I draw some music and then I'll find a musician and have him play it and see what it sounds like?' And that's the way the early stuff was." Thus, Zappa became his own teacher. He presents the case for libraries as learning centers firmly and succinctly, a factor which must have been decisive in his selection as guest speaker at a California librarians' conclave five years ago. "I'm in favor of libraries because they make information available to people at a low – if not free – price. If you go to a music school, what do they tell you? 'Go to the library.' Do you need to pay tuition to a music school for someone to tell you to go to the library? That's stupid. When I spoke at that librarians' convention in San Francisco, the topic under discussion was whether they were actually going to increase the number of records they purchase for the libraries and diminish the number of books, because it seemed that the larger a library's record collection, the more people were drawn to visit the library. I think they said their expenditures were about 30% for records, and it was going up, which is great, if it brings people in. But I'm afraid that libraries are going to be an endangered species due to Proposition 13."
Since he exchanged art for music, his credo has been "Music first." Rock 'n' roll first entered the picture when he switched to guitar at eighteen, subsequently writing his first song at twenty-one. However, his predisposition toward orchestral music has continued, unabated, to this day, cropping up in his rock albums (Absolutely Free, the second Mothers of Invention album was liberally seasoned with Stravinsky quotes, placed in delightfully incongruous places), reflected in his leisure listening habits (the works of such modern classicists as Varèse, Stravinsky, Webern, and Ravel) and in a growing series of self-penned orchestral works. In addition to his copious rock 'n' roll output, he recently completed a group of ambitious orchestral works that were scheduled for a world premiere in Vienna until the project's primary financial backer, the Austrian television network, pulled out at the last minute. Five years in the making, the works were composed for a 120-piece orchestra, necessitating the employment of five copyists, two of whom had been involved in the process for five years, with a total copying investment of fifty thousand dollars. Another fifty thousand dollars was expended on telephone calls from the U.S. to Austria. Bound in black morocco, one piece, "Mo And Herb's Vacation," which Zappa described as "a dramatic, dissonant piece," comprises 83 pages of music. He clarified the copyist's role in the propagation of a piece of music. "What a copyist does is the same thing a secretary does. A secretary types things up neatly. Everything that's on these pages was absolutely specified; nobody else supplied any information that went in there. The copyist makes what they call "parts" from the score. If there's 120 instruments, there's 120 parts. That means he's gotta take every line on here and continue it on every successive page; that takes a lot of time to do and costs a lot of money. This guy writes neat, and his job was to make it look neat, so that a conductor who has never seen the thing before can look at it, decipher what's going on, and wave a stick and make it all come out of all the instruments in the orchestra."
One of Zappa's top priorities is seeing his orchestral works performed properly. "The music is done and the parts are copied, so if an orchestra anywhere wanted to give a performance of it, and they would guarantee the right amount of rehearsal time and pay the fees that are involved in performing the music, it could happen again. But," he asserted, "I have no intention of just sitting and spending thousands of dollars to produce reams of wallpaper. I want to hear the music performed right. I don't want to have to go to the concert and sit there and be embarrassed by 120 people playing it wrong. No matter what the audience thought about it – even if they loved the fuck out of it – if the orchestra played it wrong, I'd be very upset."
Recently Zappa completed a musical play for the Broadway stage. Called "Hunchentoot," it involves an evil space girl, a giant spider, a religious con man, and a narrator. Renowned author William Burroughs (The Naked Lunch) expressed interest in playing the narrator of the show should it reach Broadway, and Taj Mahal read for the giant spider. However, Zappa has no one in mind for the role of the evil space girl. "I've looked and looked and looked," he complained with a touch of mischievous irony, "And it's such a difficult part to sing – besides which it's a comedy role – that it's hard to find somebody with a voice that can actually do the notes and still do the comedy stuff too. Actually, the only person who could probably do it with ease would be Barbra Streisand, but she's busy and she's having her hair done and so forth."
As if he weren't already busy enough, Zappa has been wrapping up the production, mixing, and mastering of violinist L. Shankar's debut album on Zappa Records, Zappa's new Phonogram-distributed label. Sheik Yerbouti – his own inaugural release under the affiliation – was a canny catalog of parodies on modern mores and folkways that mocks many of today 's prime targets with genuine relish. It is followed by the just released first installment of Joe's Garage, a three-record rock opera. Far more than a footnote in his career, Joe's Garage is ranked by Zappa with Lumpy Gravy as the two most engrossing projects he has embarked on thus far. "A history of the future," Joe's Garage is a space age parable that concerns the outlawing of music by the government. Analogous in spirit with such works as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, it is nonetheless a true Zappa original, complete with an electronic moralizer/voyeur known as the Central Scrutinizer, who speaks in a computerized whisper that often suggests an obscene caller. The Scrutinizer narrates the sad tale of Joe, the leader of a garage band, through his struggles with the local constabulary and his romantic tangles with Mary, a nubile lass who learns adeptness at oral "love" in the basement of the local Catholic church and runs away with the road crew of Toad-O, a top rock band. Hurt and disillusioned, Joe "falls in with a fast crowd," contracts "an unpronounceable disease" from Louise, a counter girl at a Jack-In-The-Box, and takes his troubles to L. Ron Hoover, chief guru at the First Church of Appliantology, a cult for individuals with "latent appliance fetishes." That ends Record One, and I won't give away the advice Hoover gives Joe, except to tell you that it's simply hilarious and will probably never by played over your local radio station. That goes for the majority of the songs on Joe's Garage, which is emblazoned with a sticker that proclaims: "WARNING: Another ZAPPA Album! Please Audition Before Airplay!" The attack leveled by the Anti Defamation League on "Jewish Princess" will most likely pale in comparison to the Legion Of Decency 's reaction to "Catholic Girls." Still, it's an indication that Zappa is nonsectarian in the realm of scatology. Beyond the words, the messages, and the morals, Joe's Garage is a comprehensive catalog of rock styles that is not only historical in scope, but illustrates the influence of Zappa's whole recorded repertoire on progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion. If you don't believe me, just score Joe's Garage and some of his previous twenty-plus LPs and find out for yourself. On Joe's Garage, Zappa tackles the roles of the Central Scrutinizer, Father Riley ( who, upon being defrocked, metamorphoses into Buddy Jones, the jive-ass, glad-handing M.C. of a Miami wet T-shirt contest), and Larry (a former member of Joe's band transformed into a wrench-wielding roadie with naughty plans for Mary). Ike Willis portrays Joe and Mary is played by Dale Bozzio.
Discussing the foundations of Joe's Garage, Zappa stated, "It's very difficult to shock Americans, no matter how gruesome the event is that is reported on the news. They just shrug, reassure themselves 'It can't happen here,' and fob it off. So it can't do any harm to just remind people that having their liberties taken away or having things that make life beautiful held back from them by the government is something that they should always be careful to avoid.
"I'll tell you how it could happen here in America: You can get any law passed, no matter how perverted it is, as long as you tell people that it's gonna lower their taxes. If you told them making music illegal would lower taxes, people would vote for it. If you told 'em that making carrots illegal would do it, they'd vote for that, too. I don't think 13 is really going to solve the tax situation. The dollars involved in terms of tax savings aren't that great. I saw a thing on TV the other night about what was happening in Levittown with their School Board, and the actual cost to keep the schools operating properly was about five dollars a month, but the people wouldn't go for it. They're spending twenty bucks a month for cable TV, but they can't spare five bucks for their children."
Erudite, well-spoken and highly opinionated in both conversational dialog and music, Zappa presents his opinions in such a pungent and humorous fashion that they entertain his listeners rather than bombard them with bombast, self-righteousness, or didacticism. If he were so inclined, he'd make one helluva fine topical comedian or talk show host. I found him to be quite cooperative during our interview – never patronizing and always willing to explain a process or further elucidate an attitude. Despite his estimated fifteen hundred interviews, I considered his temporal generosity and his spontaneous candor a most refreshing surprise. Since he first came into prominence during the "hippie" era, Frank Zappa has been plagued by pre-conceived, off-the-wall notions foisted upon him by the public. Rather than the stoned "acid head" for which he was originally mistaken, Zappa is a hard-working, balanced, yet decidedly idiosyncratic individual who utterly disdains the use of drugs. "When you use drugs," he explained, "It gives you the excuse to say, 'Well, fuck, I didn't really mean it – I was stoned.' So if you are chemically altered, that gives you a traditional excuse for being a total asshole. There are certain excuses that are more certifiably acceptable to the better peer groups that people aspire to be in. If you want to be 'cool', you have to have certain things that indicate to the world at large that you are 'cool' – you have to have habits in common with other 'cool' people; your aesthetics should be the same as theirs. All of your values tend to become homogenized and – once that happens – you're 'cool ' just like they are."
He doesn't think that societal stereotypes, fads, and preoccupations have changed very much since the '60s. "It's merely a cosmetic change. They may have changed clothes, but the underlying factors are still the same; otherwise, they wouldn't sell so much razor blade jewelry. A phony is a phony, whether he's got a coke spoon around his neck and he's wearing a leisure suit or whether he's wearing a hippie headband with three marijuana cigarettes dangling from his mouth."
To his mind, one's level of intelligence is also related to conformity. "I have a mind like a computer; you can train yourself to sort things that way. There're lots of of different ways to think, but most Americans are so ashamed that they're able to think that they hide their abilities, because they've been trained throughout high school to believe that people with intellectual capabilities are 'no fun.' And nobody wants to be a 'no fun' person, so people try to make themselves fit in. The easiest way to do this is to make your vocabulary as slovenly as possible and pretend you don't know, which does two things. First, it gets you off the hook from having to do anything, which gives you more ti me to be 'cool.' Second, if you don't know, you're on an equal footing with the next person who's pretending that he or she doesn't know, which makes you buddies. Some people have successfully made themselves stupid, when – in fact – they were born with plenty of intellectual capability, but – if you were smart and you couldn't get laid and you acted dumb and you got a lot of action – then, obviously, being dumb is where it's at. Add a couple of quarts of beer and you've got the American way of life."
Zappa also indicts novel-reading as one cause of emotional confusion. "The people who read – especially in the U.S. – have such bad reading comprehension that I can see instances where the process of reading could cause trouble. It has caused trouble down through history. Two good examples of trouble-causing books are the Bible and the Koran. The net result to humanity itself is religious teachings that cause wars and bloodshed."
Not surprisingly, religion is one of Zappa's favorite sitting ducks. A former "Catholic Boy" himself, he "tried very hard to believe what they were telling me was correct, and most of it lingered until I was about eighteen. Then, I sat down and said to myself, 'Now wait a minute – I'm a rational person in spite of the fact that I'm a Catholic,' and I started evaluating everything I'd heard in catechism classes and in church, and I came to the conclusion that this was make believe, and there were other forms of make believe that were more fun."
As a subject for satirical commentary, however, "I find that religion is just wonderful – it provides me with endless hours of amusement. The Catholic Church is an immense real estate organization, and to keep up the payments on the things that they own, they've gotta make people stick the money in the box. All religions are in the real estate business. Where are you gonna play Bingo if you don't have a building? Who wants to play in a tent? You've gotta have a tabernacle for it. It's fascinating the way religion has intermarried with pseudo-science and mysticism. It's a real boom industry now. Ten, fifteen years ago, you had status if you went to a shrink, but now, who needs to go to a shrink? You might even be a 'sick' person. But it's really 'cool' to go to a guru or some other kind of spiritual adviser. That's certification that you're a bona fide member of the community, with the same problems as everyone else – healable by the same approaches that everybody else subscribes to – so you get to conform even more. And the guys that run these operations love the fuck out of it, 'cause it's a lot of bucks, However, I believe that people are entitled to the privilege of making up their own minds, and they ought to take advantage of that privilege while it stills exists. "
Far from relying on confessional poetry or wholesale emotional stimulation to sell albums, Zappa half-facetiously confessed to me that "Frank Zappa does not appear on any of his albums. In fact, the text of my songs generally has little or nothing to do with my own personal feelings. I put opinions in there, but I don't think that saddling the listener with the emotional freight of the person who's writing the music is really fair. If I make a record, I'm not selling people my problems, but providing them with a vehicle by which they might gain another type of enjoyment. A person picks up my albums in order to have a good time. Lushness and moodiness in music is fine, but personal hurt and turgid flux is not. The whole concept of love and the way it's merchandised in this country is so simplistic and ugly and cheap and wrong ... And it's done to death. It's bad for mental health, too, because people who are growing up learn all about love from the love songs that they hear on records. People who sing about their broken hearts are pathetic; they should fix their fuckin' broken hearts and then make some music that's more fun."
Rebutting his "hippie" image, Zappa said whimsically, "Incredible as it may seem, people have also mistaken me for being Jewish. Other people have mistaken me for being a turnip. It doesn't really make much difference to me how people see me. The only thing that might be detrimental is if 'fans' of mine had any idea of what kind of person I am at home, they'd think I was too boring."
A modern day alchemist, Zappa is happiest when manipulating technological variables in his basement laboratory or utilizing the electronic resources available in a variety of local studios. "I'm perfectly content with multi-track recording. I love that over-dub, because there's so many things that you can do that are impossible in the world of real ti me, like being able to multiply instruments. I think of music as weights and measures, like when you're cooking things – a pint of this, a tweeze of that, stir it, bake it. It's like chemistry – audio chemistry.
"The most rewarding thing about my career is just the fact that I have a career, because I worked for years just to get to the point where I could work. The studio equipment I use isn't a bunch of toys – they're the tools that I use to do my job – and every time I get a newer and better piece of equipment, that allows me to make a more interesting audio event occur. And, of course, the least rewarding thing that I do in my career is signing the paychecks for the people that work for me, because – no matter how you treat people – when you get into a position where you have to employ other people, it's impossible for them to relate to you as a human being anymore; you're the Boss . . . 'that shmuck.' "
Zappa points to fifteen years on the road as his most prominent personal sacrifice. "Some people love to travel; I don't. I cancelled my tour this year; that's why my wife cut my hair. I would've been out for six months, but I have plenty of things to do besides travel around. My wife just had a baby girl so what kind of rational person gets on a plane and goes riff on a tour in the middle of all that? Besides, my kids love having me at home. When I told them I wasn't going on the road this Fall, they were so happy, because their birthdays all fall around that time and I'm never here to celebrate with them."
Right now, Zappa is intent on getting his orchestra music performed and making a film from Joe's Garage. In assessing his career, he concluded, "I could be a big time businessman. I could sell a lot of insurance if I wanted to ... But who needs that shit? If you can earn a living and support yourself by doing something that you believe in, that you love to do, and that you're good at, then ," that's a challenge well met."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net