Frank Zappa: Too Weird Even for Los Angeles?
By Michael Goldberg
It was in the fall of 1966 that a peculiar record arrived at the neighborhood record store. It wasn't much of a seller at first and you could tell right away that it was a weird one. It said "Freak Out!" in large purple letters on the front cover. And in slightly smaller turquoise type it said "The Mothers of Invention."
On the back cover was an excerpt from a letter purportedly written by a "Suzy Creamcheese of Salt Lake City" which said in part, "These Mothers is crazy... One guy wears beads and they all smell bad... None of the kids at my school like these Mothers..."
The strange crew pictured looked like a gang of grease monkeys plucked from a cut-rate "body and fender" shop. On the inside cover was a photo of a man, printed so dark that all one could make out was his immense nose. "Frank Zappa is the leader and musical director of the Mothers of Invention," explained the caption. "His performances in person with the group are rare. His personality is so repellant that it's best he stay away... "
There were also a number of quotes concerning the band. One said, "No commercial potential," and was credited to "A Very Important Man At Columbia Records."
"I thought it was very pretentious of Clive Davis (former president of Columbia Records; now president of Arista Records) to make that statement," says Frank Zappa, 14 years later, as he sat in his spacious Laurel Canyon home above Hollywood. Zappa has good reason to feel that way. Now when he releases an album, it usually sells close to a million copies around the world. And last year, his anti-disco single, "Dancin' Fool," broke the national top 20. These days, Frank Zappa is a very commercial property.
He has achieved a level of success that is quite amazing, considering the strange brew he whips together for each of his albums. Zappa has made some of the most off-beat rock ever committed to vinyl.
A student of avant-garde classical music and fifties rock and roll, his concept albums ("Freak Out!" was the first concept rock album, preceding the Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" by a full year) weave fragments of humorous, but telling, conversations, live recordings, jazz, avant-garde classical elements, fifties doo-wop and rock and roll into an aural montage that seems one part William Burroughs, one part Edgar Varèse, one pan Jimi Hendrix, one pan Lenny Bruce and at least six parts pure Frank Zappa.
As a lyricist, Zappa is an admitted cynic whose dry irony and often off-color humor has been directed at everyone from g cocaine-snorting rock stars and their ever-eager groupies to the U.S. government, various presidents, hippies, science fiction films, middle America, vegetables, pumpkins, sex and what Zappa coined "plastic people." He recently raised controversy with an impolite tune, "Jewish Princess," that incensed the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith who called it "vulgar," and the follow-up, "Catholic Girls." Zappa is about to release a timely anti-draft single, "I Don't Want to Get Drafted." "It's a song that people would enjoy hearing while driving in their cars," said Zappa. "It definitely says something that's on the minds of young people."
Zappa's eclectic music has significantly influenced rock music. Groups as popular as Steely Dan and as obscure as San Francisco's Residents owe a debt to Frank Zappa's musical genius.
"Non-typical," says Zappa, in the dead-pan monotone with which he speaks throughout our two-and-one-half-hour interview. "It's always been my desire to do things that are nontypical because there are millions of groups doing things that are typical. So why glut the market? We offer an alternative to typical behavior, typical compositions and typical performances."
He pauses for a few moments. "I'm a composer," he said when asked what he does. In fact, Zappa has written numerous symphonic compositions and has collaborated with Zubin Meta on several occasions. He is also one of Rock's most technically sophisticated guitarists, a biting satirist, songwriter, film director, dynamic showman, lead vocalist, record producer and pop music pioneer. And before he plunged into rock and roll in the early sixties, Zappa earned his living as a graphic artist at a greeting card company. "That wasn't very satisfying," he recalls. "It was a very conservative company."
Zappa was sitting on a velvet couch. His wiry black hair was cut short, but he still sported the black droopy moustache and small square of a goatee that has been his trademark since the mid-sixties. Wearing a black silk shirt, collar up, he looked slightly sinister in the darkened room.
It's an image that brings back memories of Zappa through the years. There was the infamous poster of him sitting on a toilet seat with his pants pulled down that seemed to be tacked up in every underground head shop in this country during the late sixties. There were the outrageous theatrics involving a baby doll and a large salami that occurred onstage at the Garrick Theater in New York when Zappa and his band first performed live. There have been stories of record company censorship. There have been the odd projects Zappa has been party to. One album he produced featured several groupies who called themselves "The GTO's," while another was the recording debut of a certified crazy man, Wild Man Fisher.
All in all, Zappa has cultivated the persona of weirdo, or "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," as he put it on his debut album. But, as one discovers after conversing at length with Zappa, it is merely a persona. Asked about the jarring visual images that have been prominently featured on all Zappa's albums (his most recent, "Joe's Garage Acts II and III," features a close-up photo of Zappa's face covered with grease), he explains quite logically, "It's a matter of making the covers appealing to people who might enjoy the records. I probably could sell more copies by putting a semi-nude maiden on the front. And then the average person who usually likes music that is contained in an album with that kind of cover might become distraught when he put mine on the turntable. At least I'm straightforward in giving people some indication. If you think the cover is non-typical, wait until you hear what's on the record. That's truth in advertising."
Frank Vincent Zappa is 39 years old. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he spent most of his youth growing up in Southern California. Today, he is the father of four (Moon Unit, Ahmet Rodan, Dweezil and Diva) and has been married to the same woman, Gail, for 12 years. He says of his kids, "Moon is on the student council. She's very popular. Quite the average teenage girl. Likes disco and has a lot of friends. Dweezil is on the baseball team and football team each year. Has a lot of friends." And in answer to a by-now tiresome question, "Nobody makes fun of their name.. The strange, often twisted fantasies that inhabit the aural (and pictorial) world that Zappa has been depicting on 29 albums (eight of which are two record sets) are his art, not his lifestyle. Publicly anti-drugs, Frank Zappa is an obsessive workaholic who is constantly creating in his basement recording studio, when he isn't on tour or involved in a film. Zappa has directed two feature films, the cult classic "200 Motels," and the recently completed "Baby Snakes."
"Music is my religion," he says. "It's the only religion that delivers the goods. I think music delivers in a very real and profound way that lectures by guys in silk suits who require donations of 10% to 20% of your income don't deliver. Music is good for you. It's good for the human organism."
Though a segment of the rock press has always acclaimed Zappa's daringly experimental music, he has fallen from favor in recent years. Rolling Stone has been particularly cruel in writing off some of Zappa's efforts. "My function in rock and roll over the last 15 years has turned out to be the object that is held up as the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that is good and holy in rock and roll," says Zappa. "Pm a convenient kind of personality to use for that function.
"Look, see that picture over there?" He points to a poster from his new film, "Baby Snakes," that features his unforgettable mug. "Look at that guy. Don't you think that would be a good kind of guy, with a face like that, to use for the purpose of comparing all the good things in rock and roll to? There it is. I look like the guy who ought to have that job. So it's a matter of typecasting."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net