Frank Zappa Unveils Secrets Of The Universe
By Bob Mahon
Since 1965, when the Mothers of Invention released the seminal Freak Out album, Frank Zappa has always been known for one outstanding trait: complete and utter outrageousness. But, underneath all the smutty songs, obscene lyrics, satirical statements, and outstanding musicianship, there lurks a sharpness of vision about American life that has always gone for the jugular. Frank never does anything half way, in life or in music. In his case, the two are considerably intertwined.
Right now he is enjoying his best success to date last year’s Sheik Yerbouti, with the disco parody “Dancin’ Fool,” rocketed to the top 20 on the charts; an almost absurd situation for a man who was proud to claim the label “no commercial potential” bestowed upon him by a record exec in the 1960’s.
Joe’s Garage, his most recent disc on Mercury Records, is part of an operatic trilogy that Frank wrote one weekend. He had gone into the studio with only two songs, but ended up with three records of material. The other parts will be released later as a two record set.
At its bare bones, the opera traces the travails of a young musician and his girlfriend (Joe and Mary) as they travel along the path of life, with a 1984-ish computer (The Central Scrutinizer) serving as narrator. Joe and Mary have encounters with “Catholic Girls,” road crews, Wet T-Shirt Night, VD, and the Church of Appliantology. Suffice to say the lyrics cannot be aired over the radio without editing.
Whether you agree with Mr. Zappa’s opinion on life and society is immaterial. As usual, he is outspoken in his comments calling the shots as he sees them. The results are revealing. We hope you enjoy them.
Bob Mahon: Initially I would like to talk to you about some of the opinions you express on your new album regarding society’s attitude toward music. How realistic do you think the idea is that because of the “unwanted behavior” which music brings about, the government or whatever institutions are in control would try to stop music from being made?
Frank Zappa: It’s not out of the question, I don’t think, because you see it’s already happening in Iran, and it’s totally controlled in the Soviet Communist countries. You know what kind of music they get to hear over there. So when you consider the bad management our country is famous for during the last few years, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine somebody could get in and go and do the same thing here.
Do you think, though, that there’s anything valid to such a governmental opinion? I’m a musician myself, but as well as playing music I have a sort of philosophical interest in it as an art form. Though there are not many studies done on the subject, I’ve tried to investigate the effects of music on people ...
I’ve never heard it described as such.
Well, there is a field, called psycho-acoustics, and that’s what they do – they watch what sounds can do.
That seems a rather scientific approach, which admittedly is rather foreign to me. My own investigations of it have been on a more intuitive or perhaps metaphysical level. In any case, there are come school of thought – mostly Oriental – who feel that the music of a society is reflective of the times, and the music in turn goes on to create another environment itself. When there is a lot of discontent in people and governments are weak, often a loud kind of music will result, a music in which there’s a lot of complaining and behavior gets rather perverse. It all becomes, according to them, a vicious cycle in which the times propagate a certain type of music, and then the music in turn make things worse.
I don’t think that that’s right because I think the times now are pretty rough and in the music that’s going on there’s no complaining at all.
Well, what about new wave?
OK, so you have a new wave. Alright. But the bulk of what gets played on the radio and what people buy is not the complainers. The overwhelming majority wishes to stick their head in the sand and go to discos.
What are your own feelings on the effects of music? From the perspective that we were talking, many observers seem to feel that music is a tremendous spiritual – though not necessarily religious – medium.
Music will, in fact, raise your spirit and have a really good, positive effect on people. And I think that’s as close to heaven as you’re going to get. No matter how many nickels you put in the poor box, or whatever, no matter how many candles you light, no matter how many of those faith-healing pinheads you go to, you ain’t going to get to heaven by doing that.
So then music is some kind of transcendent experience. But is it something that alters people permanently or is it just for the duration of the piece?
I think the effects are permanent – and cumulative if you hear a thing once, you’ll be modified permanently by that one hearing ... if it moves, you. You have to qualify that by saying you have to hear it. You don’t just let it go by your head. You’ve got to really hear it, and to hear it, it has to be something that’s your kind of stuff, that grooves you. And it changes you. Even if it changes you one atom – your changed. It gotcha. And next time, gets you, well you’re and if you get hooked and you’ll keep listening and, boy, you’ll just be changed all over the place.
I mean, try this simple test (like they say on TV). You know other musicians, right? Can you tell the difference between musicians and regular people?
You mean if I were just to meet them on the street?
No, no. If you were to talk to them and you know them.
Well, see what I mean?
But then again, I think that’s an understanding or a “simpatico” that you’d naturally feel. Yet I also write, and for example I might go to a certain club and sit in the press section and the press are people that I don’t necessarily feel too much with or for; in fact, they rather turn me off. So isn’t it true that they’re a different breed also.
Well, I’m not talking about breeding.
OK. Wrong choice of words.
See, there are differences, there are professional differences. But I think musicians, people who are into music, are different.
Do you think that they’re more sensitive?
It’s not a question of “more” and it’s not a question of “better” It’s not one of those type jobs. It’s just “different.” And maybe they know something that the other people don’t know – which is that music is wonderful. That doesn’t necessarily make them better, but it gives them access to some information that the other people aren’t dealing. with. Maybe the other people just ain’t playing with a full deck.
Look at it the other way. You know some people that hate music, don’t you. Have you ever seen people who hate music?
People who go into government.
Think about it. That’s where they go.
Well, I don’t know. I’ve had some experience with people in government but most of them tend to treat music like anything else in life that’s enjoyable – it’s very peripheral.
It’s wallpaper to their lifestyles.
Right. Exactly. But the kids that are going out to the Jethro TuIl concerts, they may be twelve years old; there’s a commitment there, but I wonder sometimes how much of that is just wallpaper to their lives – like drugs and girls and cars and this or that.
Well, in most instances in the United States everything is wallpaper to their lifestyles. There’s very little in the way of commitment on any level in the US.
Do you think there’s anything they are committed to? Money perhaps?
No. I don’t think they’re as committed to money as they think they are. The evidence for that is if they really wanted money they’d really find ways to go out and get it. Instead they wait to collect their welfare checks, and maybe think about little swindles they can do. Let’s face it. It’s a nation of chiselers. The whole concept of doing an honest day’s work for the dollar you get went out the window a thousand years ago. You can’t get anything done with any class or any style or any quality. You’re forced to eat food that doesn’t taste good, made from inferior ingredients, for which you are overcharged; to live in dwellings that are badly maintained and cheaply constructed by people who don’t care, and live in a cultural environment that uses as its criteria of excellence – ”the largest number of units sold is the best thing for you.”
Now with all that going for you, it’s preposterous to well, you know, I don’t want to say any more about that. It’s just, to me, it gets so disgusting sometimes, I get mad about it.
Do you find music enables you to vent extent or another that anger, to channel that energy?
No? Well then how do you do it?
Oh, I don’t know. It just dissipates itself somehow. Like a radiator. It’s not that I go home and write hysterical music or anything.
You use he analogy of a radiator, but isn’t the concentration that you apply to the work that you’re doing ...
Well you have to approach every piece of work that you deal with, with the concept in advance that it’s going to fail. It will fail at its basic purpose because it’s being consumed by people who are from that world. You can never deliver what you intend to people who are trained to consume food that doesn’t taste like anything, to wait for their welfare checks, who are living that life, who support that horrible life. Do you know what I mean?
Yes. Do you and your family make efforts to bypass this all somehow – to eat food that is nourishing, to live in sensible surroundings?
As a matter of fact, no. It’s impossible. We live in Los Angeles, remember. Look at it this way. Right now, if you want to get a piece of meat that tastes good, you have to pay incredible prices for it. And even then the place where you got it from is not at reliable source for such commodities. Even vegetables, anything you want that’s really good. We had a big scandal out here not too long ago. The biggest chain of health food stores got shut down by the Health Department because they had rat shit all over the place. You can’t just go to your local health food store and pay an arm and a leg for stuff that they claim is thoroughly organic. Basically what they’re doing is a scam. They’re selling you fruits and vegetables with bruises and rot all over them, and claiming that it’s okay because they don’t use any insecticide. They’re laughing up their sleeves.
Do you think that the concept is right, even though it isn’t being carried out – that people á hundred years or so ago ate more intelligently than we do?
I don’t know whether they ate more intelligently. See look. My whole idea is that eating is more than just giving something to your body to keep you going until the next time when you have to eat. I really like good food that’s prepared well and tastes good – not that it’s organically grown. I’m not a health food fanatic; I don’t go for that shit. I like good cooking, and that’s one thing that doesn’t exist. A smart cook can take average ingredients and make them delicious. A smart cook can take excellent ingredients and make something incredible. They put in the time and have the skill to prepare things that taste good.
And that applies to music. And that applies to architecture And it applies to building cars or repairing refrigerators. Everything. It’s the desire to excel and the desire to do something that really means something. That’s what’s got to happen. It’s all been replaced by the desire to swindle your way through life because of the examples that have been set by the incredibly wealthy.
Are you optimistic at all on the direction things will take in the future?
Well, I don’t think that in general things will get better. But the key surviving all this is to realize how shitty things actually are and find your own personal solution to make your personal situation easier.
I find myself accepting this mass media consumerism somehow I feel that it can be either man’s salvation or his undoing depending on how it’s used. Apparently it’s not being used very effectively today.
I think that anything can have a positive effect if it’s used to generate a positive effect. That’s not what media is used for. It’s used to generate profit, which has a positive effect for the pocket of another person who is incredibly wealthy.
Many people predict doom to one extent or another. Ecologists, for example, might say that you can only tamper with nature so much before nature turns around and sets things back into balance. I can see that as a possibility. Were something like that to happen, do you think it would change enough people’s minds to see where unchecked consumerism leads?
You have to remember one thing. The incredibly wealthy live forever. They reproduce very carefully and they perpetuate themselves in ways that regular people know nothing about. You can have disaster. You can have pestilence and atom bombs and the works, and you know what? When it’s all over, there will be incredibly wealthy people who got it all and who keep it all. So you can’t wait for nature to turn around and wreak havoc. It ain’t gonna happen cause the only people to bite the bag are the ones who are not incredibly wealthy. It doesn’t even count if you’re rich. You have to be incredibly wealthy.
So we should have a very strange human race –
Well, that’s a value judgment. I don’t think it’s too strange. I think it’s pretty boring. It would probably be more fun if it were stranger. There’s not much strangeness going on.
Yes, I suppose you’re right.
When was the last time you saw something that was really strange?
Well, I live in New York, so ...
(Laughter) Well, seeee. (More laughter)
I’ll tell you the strangest thing I’ve seen recently: New York in the grips of pope-fever.
I don’t think that’s strange. I think that’s typical of New York. New York is an enthusiastic town. Give them something to go apeshit over, and they’ll do it.
Even something so contrary to ...
Contrary to the lifestyle of New Yorkers? They’re not cheering for the religion. They’re cheering for the pageantry, for the splendor of an incredibly wealthy person coming to their town. The ultimate real-estate agent. Think about it. He’s there. He’s the big landlord. New York is owned by the Catholic Church. The land that they live on, the slums of Harlem, are all owned by the Catholic Church.
I know on your new album there’s a song about Catholic girls. How would you respond to the criticism of being anti-Catholic?
First of all, I would remind them that I was born a Catholic. I know Catholicism from the ground up. I’ve read the Baltimore Catechism; I heard the lectures; I ate the cookie. I’ve been there. And it doesn’t work. It’s fake.
I think basically the tenets of the Church are contrary to modern civilization. When they get out there and say, “Birth control pills – No,“ and the rest of the things that have been recent pronouncements, it’s just that the Church, in terms of its doctrines, is such an anachronism. It’s a millstone around the neck of progress.
I think that it’s tied up with what you’re saying about the future disasters for the world, because if you don’t have birth control ... see, it’s not just the incredibly wealthy who multiply at a frightening rate, it’s those other people who have absolutely nothing. They multiply even faster, and they eat; they also breathe; they also go ca-ca, and they keep having babies. They’re filling up large numbers of slots in that area that everyone keeps calling the Third World. When they get big enough to find out that they don’t have anything, then they get pissed off and they have revolutions. And that, of course, is a fantastic opportunity for the incredibly wealthy to sell them firearms and explosives to keep it all going. That’s what’s always gone on. The world runs on soybeans and gunpowder.
So religion for you is what?
Music is my religion. Like I said, it’s the only one that delivers the goods.
There are some people who call into question your moral values. Specifically, I’m thinking of Robert Christgau of the Village Voice who, in a recent “Consumer Guide“ review of Sheik Yerbouti labeled you as anally fixated and somehow morally vacant.
Look – just because a guy writes for a paper, does that make him smart? Let me tell you about guys like that: they’re gnats, they’re xxxxing gnats. They ought to be licensed to, touch a typewriter.
Still, there’s the tendency of people reading these things and believing them. At the very least, a thought is planted.
So what am I supposed to do? Go around and tell everyone how moral I am because Robert Christgau thinks I’m immoral? The guy’s a xxxxing pinhead, let’s face it.
I’m not about to deliver the standards by which I live my life for public consumption. The problem is that people read that type of thing, want to follow it, and then you’ve got some kind of cult going and I’m not interested in that.
I think that the real answer to personal problems is personal solutions and these are only arrived at after personal endeavor. if you think that you’re having a miserable time with your life, if you want to fix it up, don’t wait for some jerk in Washington to do it by sending you a welfare check or creating a new agency to take care of your particular pressure group. It’s not going to happen. If you want to feel better – do it yourself. If you think things are shitty, the first step to improving them is to realize that they’re shitty and then to improve your own situation to the point where you can tolerate it ... the rest of the world. At that point, the rest of the world will appear to be less shitty.
As far as changing the world – you ain’t going to do it. You can only make it more tolerable for yourself.
Just remember, that in speaking out I’m only speaking for myself. If you happen to agree with me, it’s only because you’ve already agreed with that. That’s what you have to remember about all things in the communications media. If Robert Christgau writes that I’m not a moral person, there are many persons who will say, “Right on, Robert,“ because that’s the way they feel about it. There’s nothing you can do to change their minds. They’re sick people. Okay?
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net