Frank Zappa: America's Weirdest Rock Star Comes Clean
By John Swenson
Frank Zappa is probably the most misunderstood man in the history of popular music. A brilliant composer, arranger, satirist and critic, Zappa is nevertheless better known as an eccentric crank who writes funny songs. his battles with critics and record companies are legendary, but are seen by some as a sour-grapes reaction on his part instead of a sincere attempt to be accurate and efficient in the pursuit of his musical goals. Over the past two decades, Zappa's string of bands has included some of the finest musicians of the time and continually offered the most creative approach to rock instrumentation.
Three years before the Moody Blues' much heralded combination of a conventional rock lineup with the London Symphony Orchestra, Zappa and his charter group, the Mothers of Invention, released Freak Out!, a much more challenging synthesis of classical, avant-garde, jazz and view of pop that encompassed every element from rhythm-and-blues vocal groups to '60s rock. Zappa's use of elaborate horn arrangements on that record inspired later, more commercial efforts by Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Freak Out! and the albums that followed, Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For The Money – sociopolitical observations on late '60s California lifestyles – amused many listeners but created plenty of resentment among the targets of Zappa's scorn. Zappa became so identified with the satiric material that the ambitious music that followed was all to frequently regarded as just another joke. But Lumpy Gravy, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh proved that Zappa had few musical peers and earned him the respect of even the most skeptical critics. Jazz listeners, trained to listen before jumping to conclusions, lauded Zappa as the most interesting rock composer and arranger.
Zappa went on to make the classic underground film 200 Motels and a series of albums with Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the two vocalists who had been the core of the Turtles. He toured with that group during the early '70s before forming a band that included keyboardist George Duke and produced such classics as Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (') and One Size Fits All. Despite such musical triumphs, Zappa continued to run afoul of his record company and finally left Warner Brothers in a flurry of litigation. After planning to release a four-record set to be called "Läther" on Phonogram records three years ago, his legal entanglements resulted in that project's disassembly. Instead Zappa came up with Sheik Yerbouti, a record that pushed his notoriety beyond its previous bounds. "Dancing Fool," a hilarious poke at the swinging singles scene, became a disco hit, and "Jewish Princess," another in the long line of satiric cameos dating back to "Suzy Creamcheese," outraged everyone from Dinah Shore to the Anti-Defamation League.
Zappa's latest project, Joe's Garage, is his most ambitious work in years, a three-record, six-sided concept album about a world in which music is outlawed. And a new film, Baby Snakes, about people who "do stuff that is not normal" promises to be much more commercially viable than 200 Motels.
Zappa talked at great length in the basement-turned-recording-studio of his Los Angeles home. His compulsive work habits keep him occupied there most of the time he's home. For someone with as wild a reputation as Zappa, he is a very straightforward and sober personality.
High Times: Do you actually police your bands for drug use?
Zappa: Yeah. Absolutely.
High Times: Because you thought that would interfere with their ability to play?
Zappa: It interferes on several levels. First of all, if guys are totally ripped they can't play. They just can't do it, you know. If you rehearse a band for two months to go an the road, they have to learn a show like clockwork so they can perform it under any circumstances. If something goes wrong onstage, they keep playing. It's like commando-warfare training. You go through the rehearsals and by the time you come out of it. You know that show backward and forward. That's the idea. That's what they're being paid to do, so that when you go in front of an audience that demands to be entertained, you can deliver and give it your best shot. Now if you go out there wrecked out of your mind, you're not going to be able to remember your sequence of events. You're going to make instrumental mistakes that are going to throw off the balance of everything else. The whole thing falls down like a stack of dominoes.
The other problem is that when you're doing a tour in Europe – and we spend half the touring season in Europe – every day you're in a different country. Every day a new set of laws, every day new customs regulations and things that you don't know about. You're just going along for the ride there. As one of the guys in the band, and if you've got drugs on you, you don't know what can happen to you. They can take you away and lock you up and away you go and that's good-bye. Meanwhile, the rest of the band has to work even harder to fill up the hole that you left when you got taken away.
High Times: That never happened, did it?
Zappa: Let's just say that there were a couple of wise guys that made some mistakes in Europe. They didn't get locked up, but there were some people who did some stupid things over there, so I'm very adamant about it. I don't give a fuck whether they want to come home. Once they're in their own house or off the front line of what's going on, they may still be collecting salaries but, if they're not doing a live show and they're not recording, what they do with their own bodies is their own business. But once they're On the tour or in rehearsal or in recording, they have to be on top of it. Otherwise ... Do you know how many people send me letters and resumes wanting to be in the band? I've got a file of people waiting for their jobs. The format of the band has been "If you don't like the job and you don't want to do it, bye," because there are plenty of other people who want to do it.
High Times: Does the ban include alcohol?
Zappa: Not really, because there have been only one or two heavy whiskey drinkers – but not to the point where they would be a country-western embarrassment to anybody. If they want to have a beer or drink wine – most of them don't have a taste for whiskey – that's okay because that's legal. If you're traveling around with a band that says in their lyrics some of the things that I say, it would be best if you didn't give a government agency the opportunity to take you away for potential infringement of some peculiar regulation.
High Times: Have you ever been harassed by local authorities? Have the police ever tried to bust you?
Zappa: Well, there was one case where they did that in South Carolina. But here in Los Angeles, no. I mean, my phone's tapped periodically, I can tell that but other than that I don't have cops hovering around my house or anything like that.
High Times: When you were busted on the pornography rap before you started the Mothers, that certainly was harassment.
Zappa: I would say so, yeah. Actually, what it amounted to was illegal entrapment.
High Times: Why did they come after you?
Zappa: I lived in Cucamonga and I had a building that was painted turquoise blue and avocado green and a sign that said "Record Your Band – $13.50 an Hour." Cucamonga existed at the intersection of Archibald Avenue and Route 66. Studio Z didn't fit the small-town mentality. The guy who busted me was a detective named Willis and when I finally went to a lawyer about this thing he said, "How could you let yourself get busted by this guy? Everybody knows Willis. He spends his days in public toilets waiting to arrest queers." This is San Bernardino County vice activity circa 1962.
High Times: Have you ever thought of trying for a government grant to record some of your orchestral work?
Zappa: People ask me that all the time. How would you like to owe the government for something like this? I wouldn't. I'd rather leave it in the closet than get a government grant. That's like committee art – having a bunch of people in a government office someplace certify you as artistically viable.
High Times: Think you'll ever play in the Soviet Union?
Zappa: We've had chances to do some dates there but I didn't want to go.
High Times: They asked you?
Zappa: At one point we were asked to spend six weeks in the Soviet Union in exchange for a children's theater group. I like potatoes but a person can eat only so many potatoes, and I respect cockroaches, because they've been around longer than people and I think they must know something that keeps them on top, but I don't want to spend six weeks surrounded by potatoes and cockroaches.
High Times: Doing "Who Are the Brain Police?"
Zappa: Yes. We also had a request to go to South Africa and play at an outdoor festival. I said that if they would make it a mixed event with blacks and whites together, I'd consider it, but they wouldn't do it so we didn't go. We even had an offer to play for the pope.
High Times: The pope?
Zappa: You don't believe me. Pope Paul VI. This is an offer that came into our office. The pope wanted to attract the youth of the world to a speech he wanted to make, and they were going to get all these rock groups to play. Popestock.
High Times: He wouldn't have asked if he'd heard "Catholic Girls."
Zappa: Well, not necessarily. You heard about his sex manual, didn't you? There was a news item that said that this particular pope, 20 years ago, wrote a sex-education manual. Somebody found out about it and, through some cardinals in New York. They made a deal and got the rights to the manuscript. They took it to a publisher and figured, "Now we're going to clean up, A sex manual by the pope-what a big seller!" There was only one problem. It was biologically inaccurate. Now I don't think I'm going to offend a pope who writes biologically inaccurate sex manuals with a song like "Catholic Girls."
High Times: It does require a little sophistication.
Zappa: Besides that, I think the guy's got a sense of humor. I could be wrong. I thought a lot of people had a sense of humor before. I used to think that Jewish people had a sense of humor before I got that letter from the ADL [Anti-Defamation League].
High Times: But that doesn't represent all Jewish people.
Zappa: They like to make you think it does. Now isn't that disgusting – the idea of any ethnic group supporting an agency that has as its purpose the dispensation of homogenized image information about the ethnic group. I happen to know that the ADL gets on the case of Jews that don't come up to the expectation of this image that they're putting out. Let's face it, there's all different kinds of Jews, there's all different kinds of Italians, there's all different kinds of everything. And it's a good thing that there are. Otherwise it's like those potatoes. The concept itself is doomed to failure. You're never going to convince everybody that your particular ethnic group is exactly conforming to all these stereotypes that you want to advertise. Let's face it, there were Mexicans at one time who did wear sombreros and sleep against the cactus – as much as those organizations would like you to believe that such a stereotype could never exist. I personally know people of the Negro persuasion who eat watermelons and pork chops. As we all know, there are Jewish people who jerk off and there are Jewish people who grow their nails out weird and have their zits blasted off. These are facts. Let's face the facts. This is the real world.
High Times: Do you calculate the effect of songs like "Jewish Princess" and "Catholic Girls" on your audience? Do you look for a certain negative reaction?
Zappa: Like at the time I write a song like "Jewish Princess," do I presume that the ADL's going to come screaming after me?
High Times: Maybe not necessarily, but to some extent? You know it's going to really fry some sensibilities.
Zappa: Wall, the way I look at it, the right kind of a person singing "Ave Maria" could fry people's sensibilities. If Johnny Rotten were to record "Ave Maria," which is a fairly innocuous number, some people would get upset just because of the juxtaposition of the artist and the song. In the case of the public image that I have, there's a good chance that somebody's going to be offended by anything that I do. So what's the difference?
High Times: Okay, that's the negative aspect. Now take it from the other end. Kids get a real kick out of hearing some of these funny songs. Maybe that's why they don't listen to the music – because the words are so overwhelming.
Zappa: But the point is that as long as there's an attitude that you can't have good music with funny words, people presume that if something's funny then the music has to be inconsequential.
High Times: Were you raised Catholic?
High Times: At what point did you decide that it was a lot of baloney?
Zappa: When I was about 18.
High Times: Are you concerned with the way your mother might react to some of your material?
Zappa: I know how she reacts. She sticks her fingers in her ears. But I'm not doing what I'm doing in order to gain parental approval.
High Times: Did you ever think that you had committed a mortal sin?
Zappa: I don't remember what the classification of a mortal sin was.
High Times: You could remember if you thought you had done it.
Zappa: Mortal sins. The black dot. They don't come off your soul. Yeah, well.
High Times: Remember the Baltimore catechism?
Zappa: The Baltimore catechism is one of the most absurd things in my recollection. It's so vivid. That little blue and white cover and the stuff that was in there. I used to have to go to catechism class and the nuns would show you charts of hell. They would flip the page back and show you the fire and monsters and shit in there that can happen to you if you do all this stuff. I'm going, "Hey, this is something. This is really exciting." But you know, I've seen worse monsters in some of the audiences we've played for, and they were probably suffering more than the ones in that fake fire on the poster.
High Times: I take it that you don't buy the observation that the use of certain words, like fuck, is self-defeating.
Zappa: It's a matter of conscience with me. I refuse to believe in the superstitions about these words that infect the media.
High Times: But what if it hurts your cause?
Zappa: The fact of the matter is that if I put out an album that didn't have one single fuck on it, it could still be subject to the same neglect as something that was censored. I remember going to a radio station in San Francisco. I was doing the interview there and they wanted to play some of my records, but they didn't have very many of them there. I said. "You don't have very many of my records," and he said, "Oh yeah. We've got most of them. Most of them are here." They had this box of things that said Don't Play. One of the things they had in the box was the Grand Wazoo album, which is mainly instrumental. So what are you gonna do? People at the stations see a record with my name on it and automatically stick it in that box.
Look, there's nothing fun or cute about me and the whole broadcasting syndrome is based on things that are fun arid cute. I may say some things that'll make ya laugh but they ain't much fun, are they? And there's nothing cute about it. I mean fun in the AM sense of the word. "Hi, guys and gals" type of fun. "Everything's okay, we'll just cruise on through life here."
High Times: Mindless fun.
Zappa: The stuff that I do has a very low mindless-fun quotient, which is important to all forms of mass entertainment. Unless you can do the dishes to it, unless you can talk over it, then it's drawing too much of your attention. For the broadest base of American pop-music consumption, the mindless-fun quotient is very important. You buy a record because it reinforces your lifestyle. Not necessarily to listen to it, but just to have it with you, just to be in the atmosphere of your life so you can groove along with your peer group with this thing supporting your aesthetic. You're upwardly mobile, you're a groovy guy, kinda modern, so you have fusion music. You're a laid-back, romantic person, you have the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. These are artifacts that support your lifestyle. Now what kind of a person buys one of my records? Obviously people who don't necessarily conform to the standard configuration. But they need to be entertained just as much as the other people. Everybody is entitled to listen to the kind of music or see the kind of film or whatever entertainment that makes them feel good. That's what entertainment is for – to make you feel good. And theoretically, there must be people out there who use the records that I make to reinforce their lifestyles or whatever image they have of themselves or whatever image they have of the way they live. The easiest way to figure it is that there are lyrics on the record that say things you agree with. People who listen to my records are cynical. Nobody wants the feeling that they're totally alone.
I think when Joe's Garage comes out there are gonna be a lot of people listening to the music for the first time. More people have heard my name or have seen my face or have seen me sitting on a toilet than have ever heard the music or have any idea what I do. I've come into popular folklore as an example of something negative and have been constantly used as that. Most people haven't even heard my music. They've just known about my name. And I think that this album may change that. They'll hear the music and they'll go back and check out some of the other things.
High Times: Isn't that because the gross-out potential of the lyrics in your songs is so strong that it overwhelms people's perceptions?
Zappa: Well, let's be serious about this. What do you make of a society that is so primitive that it clings to the belief that certain words in its language are so powerful that they could corrupt you the moment you hear them? That's what it's down to with people worrying about magic words that conjure up incredible visions of smut and depravity as soon as they're uttered up into the air.
High Times: They like them though.
Zappa: Oh yeah, but is this civilized? I think all words are useful in order to get ideas across, but the way certain segments of the population feel about the legendary four-letter words – which we're so fortunate to have in our language, 'cause they're so expeditious – the way people fear these words and the length that they go to in order to keep these words out of broadcasts is preposterous. It's really stupid.
When I went on "Saturday Night Live," we were doing a song called "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing." There was a line in the song that says, "It's your ass that's on the line." They told me that if I didn't change that one word, they would bleep it out in California. And they were serious. When you have a lieutenant governor (Mike Curb) that used to be the president of MGM records ...
High Times: He's the guy that supposedly cut everybody on the label for obscenity and promoting drug use, after the same groups had all sued MGM for theft.
Zappa: It was just a joke.
High Times: How the hell did he ...
Zappa: How do any of these assholes get in there? Take a look at this – every time Brown goes out of town, Mike Curb steps in. When the governor goes away, the lieutenant governor is supposed to take charge. Brown steps across the state line for two seconds, Mike Curb appoints somebody. Brown comes back, they argue about it. It's preposterous.
High Times: What you're saying makes the premise of Joe's Garage very plausible – that the state could ban music or at least whatever music it wanted to ban. Curb, who you've worked with, is a lot more scary than Ayatollah Khomeini, who banned Western music from Iran, which is removed enough from our everyday fife.
Zappa: Oh, is it?
High Times: Does the nostalgia of Joe's Garage mean that you have some feeling of loss for the original days of the Mothers?
Zappa: Not at all. Because quite contrary to popular belief, they were waiting to pick up the paychecks just like everybody else. That's a popular fantasy that the original Mothers was this dedicated band of crazed buffoons who would just travel around doing all these insane things. It wasn't that way at all. They had noooooo desire to do those things and usually had to be flogged into it.
In the case of Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black, they knew unless their hair grew out they couldn't work in Hollywood, right? But they lived in Orange County. Orange County is a place that's down there, where there are a lot of people just like Mike Curb. They take it real serious and it's very right-wing weird down there, very weird. So while they're growing their hair out and dressing peculiarly so they can have a job in Hollywood, they would still have to drive back down to Orange County to their tract homes. They would have to tuck their hair inside their collar and pull it up so that nobody saw them driving down the street. They weren't just flagrant weirdos.
I still had the responsibility of paying the paychecks, but there was less income coming in for me to disperse. When the original Mothers broke up, I had stopped paying myself a weekly salary. At that point, the band owed me about $10,000. I just couldn't do it anymore and they all hated me because I broke the band up, you know. Like I was supposed to extract money from thin air and keep everybody going. To me that's an extension of the American welfare-state kind of idea. Once you get employed by somebody, you presume that if anything happens to terminate that employment, the employer has shirked his responsibility to keep your lifestyle going.
High Times: Did you feel that you guys were going to become as big as, say, the Rolling Stones?
Zappa: I didn't think we'd be as big as the Rolling Stones because I knew too much about what the market was. The market was for people who were cute. Always has been and always will be. There is nothing cute about us. But there was a market for people who bought monster magazines and things like that, and I assumed that people who went for ugly would go for us. We had a potential constituency – people who liked ugly things. This is not as large a market as people who liked cute things.
High Times: Do you find that the people that you work with appreciate the attention to detail and sense of doing something out of the ordinary?
Zappa: I think that most of them care only for their paycheck, and that is the way it has always been and that's the way it'll always be.
High Times: Then why do they choose to work with you?
Zappa: Well, there's a good reason why people will come to work for me. When they stop working for me, they have instantaneous recognition of working in a band that has a reputation for being one of the most difficult, which gives them a certain amount of professional esteem. Plus, any time they want to say something bad about me, they have a friendly ear from any journalist who thinks it's a good story. They always say that I'm an asshole. I don't give a fuck. The basic point is that I'm an employer. I'm the guy who has to sign paychecks for these people. When was the last time you heard of any human being who liked his boss? I'm the boss. You can't like the boss. This is wrong, it's against human nature. Not only do I have to sign their paychecks, I have to make sure that I have earned enough money to make those checks not bounce. That's the thing that they don't realize. Whatever they're being paid they have to figure out that. I pay my guys on a yearly guarantee whether they're working or not. No contracts. It's a handshake deal. If I say you're hired, from the day that I hire you, you get paid every week, whether you're working or not, for a whole year, even if I fire you before the year is up. If I say I'm going to pay you for a year, you've got it. There have been times when I went without food or any of the materials that I need to work with so I could make good on those checks. I don't fuck around, and they don't appreciate that.
I would say that a musician who goes to work for me gets quite a good deal. First of all, it's the best education that you can get. It's like on-the-job training for doing things that you would never learn or be asked to do in any other kind of a band. I think that most of the people who have been in the band for a while – even if they totally hated what they were doing while they were in it – did learn something. So when you see things in print about what it's like to work for Zappa, you have to wonder whether or not the person who's making the comments has any idea what it's like to employ a band.
There was a time in the late '60s when to sign me to a record company in order to build its image was like saying, "Yes, we have everything from this over here to Zappa. He, he, ha-from all the good stuff way over there to this shit over here." I'm pretty sure that's one of the reasons I got signed.
High Times: It's funny, because you seem to cooperate. You tour a lot and release albums all the time.
Zappa: I do even better than that I plan advertising campaigns. I personally supervise the artwork. I take care of all the actual production stuff on a record up to the point it's delivered to them. I go through the mastering process, everything, I do the work. The guy that signs me to a contract, all he has to do is just send me the check and the work is done and it just arrives in the mail. Because I like to do the work. I like to take as much responsibility for the project as possible, because I know that the record companies don't care as much about the music as I do. There's no way for anybody to know how much time I spend writing or recording, or how much product is completed or what type of product it is or anything. They have no idea what kind of work I do, and the only impressions that remain in their mind were things that they read in the '60s. So in their imaginations, perhaps, I'm a person who's frozen into the tail end of the Vietnam War or something. What sort of a person would imagine that I would be harder to work with than somebody who has just gotten his first punk band together?
High Times: One thing that could be said to be noncooperation on your part is that your stuff isn't always programmable on AOR [album-oriented radio] stations.
Zappa: Yeah, but neither is most new wave. They were handing out immense contracts to the grubbiest little new-wave bands, knowing full well that these bands are not going to get any AOR play, for the same reason that I got signed to Warner Brothers in the '60s-prestige. Every major record company had to have some new-wave acts. So out come the bucks and here comes the new-wave. After they get them on there, then maybe the company producers would get together with these acts and try to convince them to make singles. It all got molded and shaped into these neat little packages that took all the edges off their music. The record company was happy because finally they've got something they could send to a radio station. Don't get me wrong, I happen to like a lot of the new-wave things-much more than the stuff that came under the classification of punk, which sounded in many instances unmusical. But some of the new-wave bands are doing stuff that's interesting.
High Times: What have you heard that impresses you?
Zappa: Well. there's nothing that I like 100 percent. I heard a few songs by the Stranglers that I liked and I saw the B-52's playing in New York several times and I really liked them.
High Times: The new-wave bands are the recent bar bands that have come along. That's why they're being signed. They're the new talent.
Zappa: I don't think you can really call them bar bands. In New York they might be bar bands, but that's not generally accepted all across America. A bar band is still a bar band. They play the hits or they don't play in the bar.
High Times: Yeah, but that's been taken over by discos now. Clubs where bands used to play Chicago songs or whatever now have prerecorded disco music. It's groovy and it costs less.
Zappa: It doesn't smell. It doesn't need a dressing room. It doesn't get arrested. It doesn't show up late for work. It doesn't need to buy band uniforms.
High Times: I've often seen it written that you chose rock 'n' roll just because it was something that was in the public eye.
Zappa: No, that's not true. I mean I've always liked rhythm-and-blues music and I'm a big collector of it. There's lots of things in the public eye that I don't wish to be a part of. I write music and I think the taste of the people who consume music in the United States has been in some ways grossly underrated. I think that the American listening public could probably respond positively to more different types of music than they have been exposed to by radio. That doesn't mean they'll all evoke the same uniform pleasurable response.
In other words, a person who is biologically prone to disco music may like country-western music, but probably not as much. Still, there would be some appreciation of it if he had heard it. The same goes for things that are a little bit more avant, you know. If you heard it, you could come to a conclusion about it and decide whether or not you like it. But if you never hear it, how are you gonna know? The American people receive a very narrow spectrum of musical information via radio, so they don't always get a chance to hear things that are different from the mainstream of AOR music.
High Times: What kind of person is biologically disposed to disco?
Zappa: I think that there are people who are biologically disposed to disco in the same way that there are people who are biologically disposed to bluegrass. I'm biologically disposed to Bulgarian folk music. It cracks me up every time I hear it. I love it, but I'm not a Bulgarian. There's no reason to assume that in my youth I would have responded that way to that kind of music, 'cause I didn't hear it until a few years ago. I heard it and liked it right away. It's the same kind of response that I got the first time I heard "Ionisation" by Edgard Varèse. I just automatically liked it.
High Times: Have you ever thought of doing solo performances?
Zappa: Just walk onstage with a guitar? I can't sing and play at the same time. In fact, I can't sing and I have a lot of trouble playing, so that's kind of out of the question.
High Times: What do you mean, you have a lot of trouble playing?
Zappa: What I like to do best on the guitar is something that requires an accompaniment. I can't sit down and play chords and lines at the same time on a guitar – like a classical guitarist – and make something musically coherent out of it. I do either one or the other. I don't do 'em at the same time. And I don't have the coordination to strum chords and sing lyrics on top of it. I just can't do it. I've got a vocal range of just about an octave. So actually, I'm pretty limited in that framework. If I were going to go out and tour, or do anything by myself, the only thing I could do is lecture. I have had offers to do that.
High Times: Have you always been so soft-spoken?
High Times: It's not something I would have expected. When you look at the words that you say on paper you just don't imagine them coming from ...
Zappa: Somebody who talks softly?
High Times: Yeah.
Zappa: I don't need to talk loud. If you listen, the words do the work. You don't have to have them yelled in your face.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net