Mechanic of 'Joe's Garage' father of 'Baby Snakes' – Zappa Lives!
By David Fricke
A lump of colored clay in the form of a misshapen human face is rapidly transformed into an angry clay cheeseburger that turns to the clay face next to it and quickly devours it like some mad Marquis de McDonald's. Not long after that, a very human Roy Estrada – an ex-Mother of Invention – gives an inflatable life-size rubber doll a grotesquely hilarious bath by stuffing the doll's head facedown in a sink and, with a look of hedonistic glee, turns on the water full blast.
This, apparently, is what Frank Zappa means when he advertises his latest film Baby Snakes as "a movie about people who do stuff that is not normal." What animator Bruce Bickford does with those lumps of clay is worlds away from Disney and what Estrada does with that doll is not exactly standard dating etiquette. But according to Zappa, the film's producer, director, scriptwriter (what script there is), composer, star, and sole financier, there's a lot more to it.
A full-color stereophonic extravaganza of Ben Hur-like length, Baby Snakes "is a statement on what people missed in the '70s," he proclaims, his long angular face breaking into a wide grin topped off by a haircut that looks a little like an inverted pyramid. "You know the history of rock & roll, how in the '50s everybody was cool and in the '60s everybody was crazy and in the '70s everybody was dull? This movie proves that not everybody was dull. There were people who actually did things in the '70s. They were actually alive, but nobody found out about it and they probably won't until sometime in the '80s."
Francis Vincent Zappa, Jr. – at home, a family man with a wife Gail (his second) of 11 years, four children, and a house in infamous Laurel Canyon with a 24-track basement studio – is one of those people who actually did things among the dullards. Most critics assume that Zappa's ingeniously eccentric muse, the one that gave the world Freak Out and We're Only In It For The Money, has been on holiday since he broke up the original Mothers in 1969.
But it was 1971 when Zappa released his first feature film 200 Motels. ("Baby Snakes is as different from 200 Motels as 200 Motels is from Shane," he says). Two years later he got his first-ever gold record for Apostrophe and five years after that he again hit Top 30 with Sheik Yerbouti and its hit single "Dancin' Fool."
Even now his three-act operetta Joe's Garage (Zappa) is inching its way up the charts in open defiance of its subject matter, which is the government control and/or banning of music. Not only does the album feature some of his best guitar work to date, but Joe's Garage also represents Zappa's most coherent and effective attack on religion, government, the rock biz, and society in general since We're Only in it For The Money.
But to accomplish all this, Zappa has had to steer his own creative course, oblivious to critics, in defiance of record execs whom he is not afraid to sue to get his just due, and sometimes at the loss of musicians and peers who swear by his genius, but call him an incurable workaholic and a dictatorial employer. Grace Slick once called Zappa "the most intelligent asshole I've ever met," but it is Zappa's unflinching belief in himself, outrageous sense of humor (as in "things that are not normal"), and his unquestionable ability to get the job done that has enabled him to complete against all odds projects like Baby Snakes.
"It could have been done sooner," he says of the film, two years in the making, and a tailor-made entertainment for Zappa fans full of concert footage, backstage mugging, and Bickford's otherworldly animation. "But since I had to finance it myself, I had to keep touring, sing 'Dinah-Moe Humm' a few thousand times, and stick the money in the bank."
Zappa and manager Bennett Glotzer did make the investors' rounds, but the results merely confirmed Zappa's already low opinion of the entertainment business. He tells of one executive in the European film division of his American record company who was glad to put up the necessary $500,000 if Zappa could strike a deal for European distribution of his records. But the exec in charge of record distribution "offered us an amount for the European rights of the albums that was so small it was ridiculous. And he wouldn't budge. So I said there was no way I was going to mortgage my entire recording career in order to get half a million dollars to finish the movie."
So Zappa did it all, even the final color toning, himself, except for Bickford's animation, and even that was done under his direction.
Zappa explains that there was one eight-month period when he gave Bickford, on Zappa's payroll since the early '70s, a storyboard to complete while he was on tour. When Zappa returned, he found Bickford hadn't done any of the assignment, but instead spent the time making little clay scientists with lab smocks and slide rules as well as little girls in period costumes. "He hadn't done any of the job, hut he'd accumulated all these boxes of people and people parts."
"Sure, Frank's a real dictator," says Bickford, admitting Frank was somewhat tee-ed off that the storyboard wasn't done. "But sometimes with me, he gets something much better than what he asks for," as in the cheeseburger sequence. "So sometimes it's to his advantage to ease off and get something else.
Ex–Zappa drummer Aynsley Dunbar echoes that sentiment, repeating that while he was in the band '70 through '72, "he was a dictator. But Zappa got off on our playing. If he felt the band was changing into something good, he'd let it go. But that didn't stop him from calling the shots."
Call them he has in the 20 years since the Maryland–born composer and Edgard Varèse freak scored the soundtrack for The World's Greatest Sinner. Possibly rock's best-selling Renaissance man, Zappa has lived most of his life in the studio or on the road, leading over a dozen groups of Mothers and recording over 25 albums. In addition to his movie work, he's dabbled in theatre, foisted Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fisher on an unsuspecting world and recorded reams of orchestral music. But amid all this he maintains direct contact with his fans – with a median age of 17 or 18 compared to Frank's 39 – who see Zappa not as a star but as a friend who understands the same absurdities of life.
"Kids know what I do for a living and I know what they do for a living and we sit around the table and talk dirty together."
And it's for those kids he made Baby Snakes. One critic for the New York Daily News called the film "interminable," but Zappa couldn't care less. "It's the kind of movie," he smiles, "where if you get up to take a leak or get some popcorn, it's going to be going on when you get back. But I don't think you'll get up for the popcorn."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net