Totally Frank

By Barry Alfonso

Songwriter, June, 1980


Zappa – even the name sounds a little wild, doesn't it? The face it conjures up seems exotic as well: a pair of intense, piercing eyes, a mouth hidden by a thick black moustache, a head topped by a formidable, unkempt mane. After a 14-year recording career as an avant garde rock artist, much about Frank Zappa has taken on larger-than-life, almost symbolic proportions. He has come to stand for (depending upon your particular tastes) musical daring, total irreverence, utter vulgarity. Hard to believe, this Frank Zappa being is a real person, though not exactly the near-mythic Freak Out King some have made him out to be. Even his appearance no longer fits the stereotyped long-haired image he had in the '60s – now conservatively groomed to match his thoroughly professional attitude towards the music world, the shaggy, unsavory ex-leader of the Mothers of Invention band has become a straight-laced composer and record company executive. Or has he? Don't let surface looks fool you – Zappa is still very much the subversive thumbing his long nose at everything safe and conventional.

Never mind that he now heads his own Zappa Records (distributed by Phonogram), releases albums that sell respectably and even scored a Top 40 single last year with his swipe at disco, Dancin' Fool. As he approaches 40, he is no staid elder statesman of rock. A few minutes conversation with the man – or a listen to his recent "Joe's Garage" LPs – would convince you that Zappa stands for the outrageous as much as ever. It would be logical, in fact, to point to Zappa as the inspiration for such recent musical troublemakers as the Sex Pistols and other shock – the squares punk rockers. Yet for all of his anti-establish – with the four-chord primitivism that characterizes much of the New Wave rock sound. He's a student of such modern classical composers as Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse; it's in keeping, then, that the 30-some albums he's released since 1966 are richly textured, complexly arranged musical collages, mixing sophisticated tone scales with progressive jazz and R&B elements. Even critics who have trouble appreciating Zappa's scabrous sense of humor treat his compositions and guitar-playing abilities with respect.

Few rock artists could have collaborated with conductor Zubin Mehta for a performance of his works by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as Zappa did in 1970. Zappa insists that both his explorations into avant garde composition and his gross-out rock and roll numbers (with titles like What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?, Penguin In Bondage, Illinois Enema Bandit and worse) are of a piece, conceptually and musically related. Certainly he has utilized some of the finest talents in rock and jazz to give even his looniest pop excursions instrumental luster. As both members of the now-defunct Mothers of Invention and as studio sidemen, keyboardist George Duke, violinist Jean Luc Ponty, drummer John Guerin and guitarist Lowell George are some of the name players Zappa's worked with on tour or in the studio. It isn't his lack of musical skills, then, that makes Zappa so hard to take for many. Rather, it's his penchant for merciless satire of whatever he finds absurd, which happens to be plenty. While the expected targets of social institutions and middle class banalities have been frequently speared in Zappa's songs, he's spoofed the supposedly hip scene as well, even releasing an elaborate Beatles parody ("We're Only In It For The Money") in 1968. Certain religious groups have become the latest to take offense at the unique Zappa brand of ridicule, most particularly the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Their condemnation of Jewish Girls from Zappa's "Sheik Yerbouti" album was shrugged off by its writer as one more controversy in a career chock full of controversies.

No matter what storm of indignation is howling at him, Frank Zappa keeps to his rigorous routine, putting in 14-hour days at the studio when he's working on an LP, carefully auditioning musicians for his next concert tour, squeezing in time to pen a rock song or instrumental work. When photographer Rose Ware and I visited him at his Hollywood Hills residence in February, he was currently editing his new film, "Baby Snakes," and supervising the completion of an impressive studio complex in his basement. Lounging in his living room, filled with children's toys, old lamps, roaming cats and a talkative caged cockatoo, Zappa proved a thoughtful, drily humorous sort of musical revolutionary. Remember, he's no punk, just an average father of four who works hard, pays his bills and records the most symphonically brilliant dirty jokes in the world.

Songwriter: Your earliest compositions were orchestral and chamber music. What made you start writing rock and roll?

Zappa: I started off writing chamber music when I was 14, and I didn't write a rock and roll song until I was 21 or 22. I'd always liked it, but I just never felt that I could do it. I was more of an audience-member for that kind of music up until that time. First of all, if you wrote a song like that, the problem was to get someone to sing your song, and at that time I didn't sing hardly at all. So about the time I was 21 or 22, I met Ray Collins (original member of the Mothers of Invention) and he could sing real good, so I started writing.

Songwriter: It shows in your songs that you were a fan of R&B and '50s do-wop music. You must've listened a lot to that.

Zappa: Yes, extensively. I used to give lectures on it in school and try to convince the rest of the kids that country and jazz music Was really bad for you and what they should do is listen to rhythm and blues, because it was a far superior form of music. At that time at my high school, the lines were clearly drawn between the jazz consumers and the rhythm and blues consumers, and they actually used to beat each other up after school.

Songwriter: You seem to have a real love for rhythm and blues. . . .

Zappa: You have to understand that in the days when that music was the popular art form, it contained a sense of humor that is totally lacking in pop music today. If you listen to rhythm and blues records from the mid-'50s, you'll see that a lot of them were almost self-parodying, and some of them had story-lines which were very humorous. There was kind of a whimsical, lighthearted characteristic to some of the writing that's gone from pop music today. I've got a huge collection of stuff – I could play you examples of records that are really funny. They're not comedy records, they're still rhythm and blues records, but the people who are singing them sound like they're alive.

Songwriter: What were your earliest rock songs? I know you wrote a tune called Memories Of El Monte. . . .

Zappa: That was recorded by the Penguins. I wrote that about '63. The songs I wrote then were R&B do-wop.

Songwriter: Did you ever desire at any point to be a commercial songwriter, to write hits for the radio?

Zappa: Well, when I started off, I presumed that what I was doing was musical and it was fun to listen to, and therefore it should've been a hit. It never occurred to me that what I was doing wasn't satisfactory for general consumption. Thais something that's been inflicted upon me by others.

Songwriter: When the Mothers were forming in Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, it seems as if there was a tremendously creative atmosphere in Hollywood, a lot of interaction between the arts. Did you see it that way?

Zappa: There was something happening in Los Angeles at that time, but it's totally dead now. It was destroyed by the real estate interests, the city council and the police department. There were a bunch of people who used to hang out on Sunset Boulevard who dressed weird, and the real estate owners in the area decided that it was lowering their property values, and they complained to the city council, who then had the police department operate these little roundups. They'd show up on Friday and Saturday nights with a couple of buses and they'd just beat people up, take them downtown and release them. They just harassed the kids off Sunset Strip. Eventually, pressure was brought to bear on the guys who owned the clubs to stop hiring long-haired musicians. As a result of that, most of the people who had anything to say moved out of Hollywood, and the scene dried up about '67. There was no place to work.

Songwriter: That long ago?

Zappa: Yeah. I think the golden age of what was happening in Hollywood was probably '65 and '66. Then the record industry started to grow, and groups that would play in Los Angeles arrived here specifically to get a record contract, and that was it. In the earlier days, I think people put groups together because they wanted to say something. There's not that attitude anymore – now it's all a desperate attempt, where you figure you have so much money, which will buy you so much time in a rehearsal hall, and in this time you've got to get your group together. People invest a certain amount of money to get their group together and then wait for Clive Davis to tap them and say, "you're next."

Songwriter: Was there more of a market for satire in the 1960s than there is now?

Zappa: People weren't even interested in it then. I think that the sense of humor in popular music sort of died when they started putting violins on Fats Domino and Ray Charles records. Well – I'd stretch it to the early '60s. They had these things called novelty records, Teenie Weenie Bikini, Ahab The Arab, Please Mr. Custer and all that stuff. But after that trend, there was nothing that resembled humor contained in popular music. Everybody took themselves dead seriously.

Songwriter: Well, you managed to keep your sense of humor as a recording artist. How did you manage to buck the trend?

Zappa: My sense of humor is probably some form of genetic deformity. I can't help it.

Songwriter: Have you ever had a serious censorship problem?

Zappa: You betcha. First, I'll give you an early example. There's a song on "We're Only In It For The Money" called Let's Make The Water Turn Black. There was a line in it that says, "I still remember Mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys in Ed's Cafe." It was about four bars before you go to the bridge. Somebody at MGM decided that it was obscene and took it upon themselves to clip it out of the tape before the album was released without my knowledge or consent. It was definitely to the detriment of the song, because the chord doesn't resolve itself into the bridge and it sounds weird. About three years later, I found out that the guy at MGM had presumed that what the line meant was that this woman was walking around this restaurant feeding her sanitary napkins to the customers – you know, "her pad." Get the picture? That's the kind of stupidity you get up against with some of these record companies. The most recent example of stupidity occurred two days ago, when I sent this single, I Don't Want To Get Drafted, to Phonogram, which distributes my records. A guy over there received it and he didn't want to put it out, because he used to be in the Army. That one guy decided he didn't want to go on it. A number of violent arguments ensued between by manager and him, and between my manager and the president of the company. Finally, the president of the company heard the record and called back and said he thought it was great and would go on it. We'll see what happens.

Songwriter: A lot of your songs deal with grotesque, bizarre subject matter. Does America seem like a grotesque place to you?

Zappa: First of all, let's get one thing straight: I'm an all-American boy, I wouldn't live anyplace else, I happen to think this is the land–– of opportunity, but, yes, it is quite grotesque. But, so is life in other parts of the world. If I was in Germany, I would write some very grotesque things about the way of life there.

Songwriter: I wasn't casting any aspersions on your patriotism. . . .

Zappa: No, no, it's just that some people get the wrong idea. Like when my albums were first released in Germany, they were instantaneously successful because people thought that the things I was writing in the songs were anti-American. They were somewhat anti-American at the time, and they said, "Ah-hah, our hero. We'll like him because he hates America." But that's not the way it goes.

Songwriter: Do you try to shock people?

Zappa: There's no way you can shock them. that Jewish princesses don't exist, and I'll be on their side. I have a perfect right as an artist and as a citizen of the United States under the Constitution to say whatever I want, and in this case it happens to be totally true. So they should just get out of my face. Besides that, the song isn't derogatory – it says that I want one. Some people might like "Rumanian thighs."

Songwriter: How do you think your songwriting has changed over the years, if at all?

Zappa: My songwriting hasn't changed very much, the only thing that's changed is the type of orchestration or rhythmic things I'm able to get away with. The quality of the musicians I'm working with now is definitely superior to the ones I had access to then. It's it out on stage as soon as it's written. Then I perfect it later.

Songwriter: What are your sources of ideas for songs?

Zappa: A certain percentage of the songs are written about guys in the band and things that happened to them. If you write a song based on another person's personal experience and then give that person the job singing his life to the audience, you get a type of performance that is not available in any other way. A song like that would be Punky's Whips, which was written about (drummer) Terry Bozzio and things that happen to him. A lot of the material is custom-made for the members of the group. It's put together in the same way that a person writes a folk song With his current touring band . . . and The Unknown Drummer (third from left). They are (l to r) Tommy Mars, Ike Willis, UD, FZ, Ray White and Arthur Barrow. How can you shock people who are so totally numb that they just put up with everything? That's my perception of the American way of life. Americans are so accustomed to seeing the worst atrocities on television that none of it is real to them anymore. They can sit and watch the most heinous acts being perpetrated all over the world, and when that little film clip is over it's not really part of their life anymore, except as cocktail conversation. You can't shock these people, and why should you? They seem blissfully happy. So why bother them?

Songwriter: But some people do get offended, like the Anti-Defamation League over Jewish Princess.

Zappa: These people are juiceless. It's a PR organization – they send out press releases to newspapers. It's a pressure group, a lobby group that tries to create a totally homogenized image of Jewry, so that everybody will believe this fantastic lie that all Jews are the same. Jews are all different, and so are other people. All the ADL has to prove to me is hard for me to write blindfolded as to who the eventual performer of the material will be. I like to write for the specific performer involved. You have to know what the capabilities of the players are, since most of them learn by rote anyway.

Songwriter: To pick a recent example, how did you compose the songs for the "Joe's Garage" albums?

Zappa: Well, the song Joe's Garage started off with a basic riff I cooked up at a concert sound check. Almost three weeks later in a dressing room, I figured out another part of the song. And then on a day off, I worked out the first couple of verses. With Catholic Girls, I just had a riff and then a half-hour later I wrote the words while waiting to go on to do a show.

Songwriter: Is that a typical example?

Zappa: No, I write rock songs all different ways. If it's a song like that, a song me and the guys in the band are having some laughs with, I'll cook it up on the spot. If the song's simple enough, we'll just go ahead and try about John Henry and his hammer or whatever. If someone in the band does something funny, you want to commemorate it.

Songwriter: Are there any dos or don'ts you keep in mind when songwriting?

Zappa: It depends upon the type of song you're writing – there are ballads, fast songs, different styles. I would say that the primary don't is that if you have a song with a lot of chord changes and musical activity, try to keep the words to a minimum. Otherwise, they cancel each other out. The whole experience gets to be too dense and a lot of people don't appreciate it. Songs that have many verses usually work the best with simpler backgrounds, so that the words come to the forefront.

If you want the words to be obvious, one thing that has to happen is that the rhythm of the sung words has to resemble as closely as possible the rhythm of the actual word when it's spoken, so that the accents fall in the right place and the words don't change their meaning because of a misplaced acmor [accent?]. People usually exclude the two – if a song has anything humorous in it, it can have the most beautiful melody in the world, but nobody will hear it because it is a funny song. People are just brainwashed to the idea that if there's anything in a song that will make you laugh or make you smile even, then it's a novelty – isn't that pathetic?

Songwriter: Were the songs of yours that've gotten extensive airplay, Dancin' Fool and Don't Eat The Yellow Snow, recorded with the expectation that they'd be hits?

Zappa: Well, I always felt that there was nothing wrong with Dancin' Fool, except that it was purposely hard to dance to. It was designed to be a parody of those people who have no natural rhythm and go to those places with chains all over their body. So when the thing got on the radio, I was delighted but I didn't think for a minute that it would be a Number 1 record, because the arrangement was too complicated and it didn't have a 4/4 beat. But it was definitely suitable for amusement purposes.

With Don't Eat The Yellow Snow, I was in Europe on a tour and I got a telegram saying I had a hit single. I hadn't even released it as a single. What had happened was that a disc jockey in Pittsburgh on a station that had a format that included playing novelty songs from the early '60s had listened to the "Apostrophe" album and said, "My God, this is a modern-day novelty song." He cut the 10- minute song down to three minutes and was playing it on his show, along with Teenie Weenie Bikini and all that stuff. So it became a hit right away, and it spread to other stations. They eventually did release a single of it, which didn't sell many units, but the album went gold. That's pretty much my history with the radio.

Songwriter: How did you react to being nominated for two Grammys for 1979?

Zappa: I thought it was obscene. First of all, I was nominated for "Best Male Rock Vocal Performance" – things must have been tough. Come on. I refuse to participate in this fantasy at all. It's total bullshit. The other was for "Best Rock Instrumental Performance," which is for Rat Tomago, a guitar solo included on the "Sheik Yerbouti" album. That's a nice guitar solo, but as the best instrumental song of 1979? Come on. I've done better instrumentals on other albums that were released in 1979. I'm offended; if they had to nominate something, why not Watermelon in Easter Hay? That's a nice record.

Songwriter: What have you had released that you're especially proud of?

Zappa: I don't have any particular favorites among songs. But my favorite albums are "Lumpy Gravy" and the "Joe's Garage" albums. I have a certain fondness for them.

Songwriter: You once said that "Americans hate music, but they love entertainment." How do you deal with that as an artist?

Zappa: I just do what I do for the people who already like it. If I pick up a few new friends along the way, then that's fine. But my obligation is to people who like what I do, not to critics or any pressure group. I do what I do first of all for my own amusement, because I enjoy it, and second of all for the audience.

Songwriter: Do you feel you have an obligation to make social comments at times, like with your new draft song? Or is it all just entertainment?

Zappa: No, I think the lyrics in my draft song hit it right on the head. recite them: "I don't want to get drafted/I don't want to go/I don't want to get drafted/I don't want to go/Roller skates and discos/Is a lot of fun/I'm too young and stupid/To operate a gun." Then it goes, "My sister don't want to get drafted/ She don't want to go/My sister don't want to get drafted/She don't want to go/Wars are really ugly/They're dirty and they're cold/I don't want nobody/To shoot her in the foxhole." That's all there is to it. If there's gonna be a war and it's a big one, it'll be a pushbutton one. Marching around in the dirt is stupid.

Songwriter: Many people have been saying that rock music is experiencing a resurgence right now. Are you listening to what's going on and do you like what you're hearing?

Zappa: When I go to New York, I spend most of my time in a place called the Mudd Club (a New Wave rock showcase) and hear what's current there. Outside of the time I'm on the road traveling or going to discos to do research, I don't listen to the radio or anything else. Most of what I hear at the Mudd Club is probably not indicative of what's heard anywhere else in the United States. I think the scene there is really great. It's really musically healthy and I enjoy it.

Songwriter: What about the records you've heard?

Zappa: I like Typical Girls by the Slits, stuff by the Buzzcocks, one or two songs by the Police. I think one of the best records of last year was Lucky Number by Lene Lovich. It's a good song, it has a fantastic arrangement and her singing is great.

Songwriter: Do you feel any kinship with New Wave rock?

Zappa: Not as it exists in Los Angeles. It's totally fake here. But when I go to a place like Max's Kansas City in New York and see a group like Annie and the Asexuals, I can really enjoy it. I don't know if that band will ever get a record contract and I don't think they care. I watched them for an hour, painful as it was – their show was real personal and disorganized. This girl was wearing winter underwear with a black leather coat on top of that, and she had a paper bag with a bottle of vodka in it, and she was backed up by five guys who had just bought their instruments, apparently. She was screaming about thorazine and being in a mental hospital and it was real! You don't get that commitment to just spewing your guts out among L.A. groups.

Songwriter: Without getting into the details of all the legal hassles you've been through, what advice would you have for songwriters and musicians in dealing with record companies and management people?

Zappa: The first thing you do is you get yourself your own publishing company, which costs virtually nothing. Go to a lawyer, tell him you want to file a DBA ("Doing Business As"), pick a name for your publishing company and go into business as your own publisher. Don't give your publishing away, because if you make a record and it doesn't sell, you can still make money on the publishing. It's really an insurance policy, because artist's royalties on a record don't get paid until the album has recouped what it cost to make it, minus your advances. Publishing and writing royalties are paid on the first album sold in pennies, not percent. So it's possible that a record that sells 100,000 copies will never give you any artist's royalties, because it cost more than 100,000 copies to make, but you can still get 100,000 copies worth of publishing royalties, which is something like 32¢ an album.

Sometimes managers can make suggestions that make economic sense, but don't make artistic sense. Managers with the best intentions in the world can talk to you about modifying your material to build in a certain direction, and you should always think first before you take the guy's advice and do it. You might end up with something commercially satisfactory, but hate yourself for what you've written.

It just depends on what your goals are. Most people just write to make money. If you want to earn a living from writing songs, what you do is you become a hack. You listen to everybody else's record, you take a little piece of whatever sold last season, put your name on it and you put it out. If you get it out fast enough, then the same radio station program director who picked up on the last record will pick up on yours because it sounds the same.

Songwriter: Is setting up your own small label and releasing records a way of beating the system?

Zappa: To be heard, it's a feasible outlet. To earn a living, it's not feasible. In order to get general distribution, you have to go through somebody else's distribution chain. If a major won't pick up your small label, then you have to deal with individual distributors in each town, and you know what they do? They don't pay you. If you want money, you have to sue each and every one of them, in each town according to the laws of each state. Who wants to do that? I've already been through that one with Straight Records (Zappa's first independent label).

Songwriter: Granted that it's more difficult to break into the business now, what kept you going before you had a contract?

Zappa: I was too mean to quit

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net