Madman Or Genius
By Headley Gritter
Frank Zappa has been the enigmatic paradox of rock 'n roll ever since he first zapped onto the scene many moons ago – a man of contradictions if ever there was one. On the one hand he is totally outrageous and irreverent – showing respect for nothing institutionalized. But musically, he is as precise and regimented as he is prolific. He condemns all forms of drug-induced unreality, yet the ardor of his fans sometimes has a direct correlation with their own illicit consumption. And that also means that he dubbed his offspring Ahmet Rodan, Dweezil and Moon Unit' in the throes of sobriety. His musical personifications are agrarious to the extreme, but the man himself rarely ventures out of his basement studio. I went in expecting to meet a madman, and found myself speaking with a genius.
Constantly generating outrage, his offering Sheik Yer Bouti managed to get him into a confrontation with the Anti Defamation League. Now he's released "Joe's Garage" – a three part operatic work, and the track Catholic Girls should achieve the same results with the corresponding papal authorities. Put litigation has been a fact of life for Mr. Z. His recent exit from Warner Brothers was also accompanied by an exchange of suits.
In short, Frank Zappa may be one of the few remaining "characters" in today's pre fabricated musical world.
MP: Mr. Frank Zappa, in the past you've thrilled, disgusted, enlightened, and now your visitors are in for a shock: why did you get your hair cut? Does it mean a change in your personality?
Frank Zappa: I was born with short hair, so what's the difference? The only thing that makes me feel different about a haircut is that you never know how it's going to turn out, when they chop it off. It was pretty much spontaneous. First of all, at that time, I thought I was not going to tour this year. So I didn't have to dress up like Frank Zappa. So I cut my hair.
MP: Is there a difference between Frank Zappa the person and Frank Zappa the entertainer?
Zappa: Absolutely. You are now talking to Frank Zappa the entertainer. You will never talk to Frank Zappa the person.
MP: How many people do get to talk to Frank Zappa the person?
Zappa: Just my wife and kids.
MP: It seems that part of everything you do is derived from a desire to freak people out, to be controversial, to shock.
Zappa: That's not true. That's not the real reason why things are done. In terms of the American public, I've said before, if they could be shocked, we'd be in a lot better shape; because if they could be shocked, then they could be outraged, and if they were outraged, then they might be able to do something about the way their country is, and the way other things are around the world. I think it's almost impossible to shock an American.
You can make them twitch, you know. You can give them a little cattle prodder, like in biology class when they hook the electricity up to the dead frog leg, you can get a reaction like that, but they can't really get shocked and incensed, because they always presume that the government will send them a check later. The whole welfare state mentality.
MP: What about when you're setting up other artists? Like in the last album, you had Frampton/Dylan/K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Are you commenting on their music, or your perception of their music?
Zappa: In the case of Frampton, I thought that the very idea of such a clean-cut kind of person making a song called "I'm in you", and the sentiment hidden in that title, I thought, now this guy has really got quite an imagination. And since the song "I'm in you" and the album didn't really turn out to be quite as well known as it should have been, I thought that maybe we could direct people's attention toward it, so they don't forget that such things have occurred in the music business.
As for Dylan, I've never met him, I've never talked to him. Some of his earlier records I've enjoyed, but I don't really know his recent material.
MP: Do you have many friends in the music business?
Zappa: I don't think of things like friends, and in the music business nobody really has friends, the same way as in any other business. It's just the nature of business, you know, it's not a friendly kind of activity. It's very ruthless and it's very coldhearted, and it has nothing to do with friendship. There's nothing more disgusting than people pretending to be friends while they are in business. It's against the laws of nature, because you know it's not sincere, so why should you have to put up with the added insult of this insincerity on top of the horribleness of the business?
It takes a while before you find out how bad business actually is. And this, is usually in proportion to the amount of money that you earn. The more you earn, the more they are stealing from you.
MP: Are you getting weary of all the lawsuits, papers and courts?
Zappa: No, as a matter of fact I'm looking forward to going to court with Warner Brothers and with my former manager and his brother the attorney.
MP: What happened with Warner Brothers?
Zappa: I got very pissed off at them when I delivered four albums to them and they didn't pay me. Four completed albums, on tape, ready to master. I have a contract that says, when I give them the tape, they give me a check. I gave them the tapes, they didn't give me any money. I had paid out of my pocket to make the four albums and I was waiting to be reimbursed by them in order to pay off the expenditure that I had put into the thing. They didn't give me the money, they didn't have publishing licenses for the material, and they proceeded to, against my wishes, and in breach of the contract, release all four albums, without paying for them.
MP: Some people say you just rushed the last few albums off to get out of the quota of albums you had to do for them.
Zappa: Absolutely not. There's a lot of stuff in there that probably had more production values than a lot of the ones that came before it. There's at least one real masterpiece that was delivered in that batch and that's Gregory Peccary, a totally complex orchestral thing with narration.
MP: How about your latest album, Joe's Garage?
Zappa: Well, it's a pretty complicated story, it's based on the idea that sometime in the future the government decides that in order to make things work more smoothly, they're going to have to have "enforceable sameness". Now obviously, if everybody's the same, as the ADL would like to have it be, if everybody's the same, then there are going to be fewer problems in the world. Now, this is going to be difficult to legislate, because people aren't the same, they're all different, see, so some wise guy comes up with the idea of total criminalization. If you commit a crime, then you're a crook. But then again so's the President, and so is the head of this religion over here and so's this guy over there, and so we're all crooks, we're all the same, and everything is simple. So, he comes up with this idea of total criminalization. But there are some people who don't want to be crooks, and they have to be tricked into it. So, that's where the government comes up with this idea that the easiest thing to do is to get a whole new bunch of crooks, to make music illegal. If you like music, then you get to be a crook, and everyone's the same.
So, the story of Joe's Garage is being told by this guy who's the central scrutinizer, who has this kind of robotlike voice which you hear talking about music, and how it can corrupt you. It's like reverse psychology; you tell them that this is dangerous, and a few people are going to do it and, bingo, crooks. So. the way the album is structured, the scrutinizer introduces himself, announces that he is now going to deliver this story, and explains what can happen to you if you choose a career in music. And the story features a guy named Joe, who starts off in a garage, he has a garage band, he wants to play the guitar, and before you know it, he plays a couple of notes on the guitar and the neighbor complains because it's too loud, and bingo, he's in trouble with the law already. He's starting his downward slide, from the very first time that he hits a note, you know that the trouble is beginning. And the whole structure of the album traces this series of events that happen to Joe, until he finally sees the light, and takes a day job, at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, and now he's a happy guy. In between he has a lot of stuff happen to him.
MP: That sounds interesting. How do you get ideas like that, do they just flash to you one night, or is it something you see in the movies
Zappa: No, an idea like that takes about three days. You get an overall picture. You start seeing relationships between different units inside the big structure, you develop, and then you screw down the bolts that hold the structure together.
MP: It seems that one of your problems is that you're too prolific for the people's consumption. You've apparently got hours and hours of music that's recordable, but you can't put it all out at the same time.
Zappa: Well, the surprising thing is, I would say that probably not more than 2% of what I have on tape has ever been released. There's that much weeding to come out. But in the last year we have two discs in Shake Your Booty, we have, what was it, Sleep Dirt, that Warner Brothers released, the Orchestral Favorites album, and now there's going to be three more discs; that's eight discs in one year. There's not too many people that have that kind of output, and good stuff, too.
MP: You mean there aren't that many people who can absorb that much music in that short a time.
Zappa: Yeah, but that's not the reason I do it . . . I do it because I like to make music, you know, if they don't buy it, they'll go buy something else, and if they don't buy it this year, maybe they'll discover it next year, and it will still be available on the rack and they'll go back to it, and it's there for their amusement.
MP: Is that sort of, to put that music on record as being there for posterity? Do you have any image of posterity?
Zappa: No, it's not a matter of posterity, the only reason I do it is because I like to hear it. If it's on tape or it's on a disc, them I can hear it myself. I get some laughs out of it.
MP: Some of your earlier stuff dealt with the subject of groupies. Do you think that the role of the groupie has dwindled in importance in the American music scene?
Zappa: Absolutely not, as a matter of fact we have a groupie character in Joe's Garage, Mary, who winds up being a crew slut, and sucks off the entire road crew, goes with this groups, she goes on the bus with them and does their laundry and they fuck her senseless and dump her in Miami, and she has to enter a wet T-shirt contest in order to get home.
MP: Are there fewer groupies today than there have been in the past?
Zappa: It's not as glamorous or fashionable a profession as it used to be in the sixties. In the early days of the sexual revolution in the
MP: So you say that it isn't that the groupies have disappeared. it's just that everybody's become one.
Zappa: Well, that's not exactly true either, because a groupie is a specialized type of activity. It's a person that goes after a person in a group, or a person who straps on the crew, and is normally called by the crew a "crew slut". So there's different qualifications; there's girls who follow baseball players and football players, and they all have names, you know. One that people like to think of is "the groupie", as though that were this . major subculture of millions of girls running around with their tongues hanging out. And you have girls with tongues hanging out for every profession. Doctors down to garbage truck drivers, there's always somebody that wants to fuck them. And lucky for them.
MP: What's the most obscene thing you've ever seen done to a groupie?
Zappa: As an obscene thing? I don't think in terms of obscenity.
MP: That would shock most people?
Zappa: I don't know what would shock most people, because, let me make this very clear, a lot of people pretend to be shocked by things that they actually go home and do in their spare time; I don't trust people, because what they say and what they ,do and who they are, those things never quite seem to mesh together, you know.
MP: Like the song, "The Mud Shark"?
Zappa: The "Mud Shark" business, you know, the idea of using a dead fish to provide erotic gratification for a girl who desires dead fish erotic gratification is not obscene, it's an act of mercy. If the girl likes to have a shark stuffed up her, and the guy is providing this service, he's a cool guy.
MP: One can wonder what other acts of mercy have gone down that haven't gotten recorded.
Zappa: I'm sure that there have been cases of rampant insertionism of any number of inanimate objects into the reproductive orifice of the willing female accomplices in any of these rock'n'roll extravaganzas, you know. The human mind is very creative, and if you happen to have a lamp or something sitting around your hotel room, that looks like it might be good for a few laughs, and a girl has a craving for this lamp, well then, by golly, she's going to be sitting on it in a matter of moments. But that's a matter of discretion.
MP: Is there a definition for obscene? Is there anything that you would say, well, this is obscene; anything within these parameters is obscene?
Zappa: I think that the matter of obscenity is a legal determination, and it's very vaguely determined by the legal profession.
I'll give you an example that's been told to me, and I haven't been there to test this out first hand, that one of the most disgusting things that you can do in certain societies is show somebody the bottom of your feet. I think in
MP: So it's any society's current thinking at a particular time. Now on to the question of drugs; you've always been an advocate of non-drugs, yet your following is composed of many people who do indulge in drugs. It seems that the more into Frank Zappa music a person is, the higher their drug intake.
Zappa: I think this is a very unfair statement. Drug use in the
If you could read my mail, and I don't think that it comes from dope fiends, you would see that we have a very respectable percentage of people who are not chemically altered, and who are actually intelligent. Not just flakes who bomb it on each other.
MP: Were you once into drugs during the sixties?
Zappa: No, I was never really that interested in it; first of all, at the time when it became totally fashionable, all you had to do was walk down the street and see how people were, and why anybody would want to be that way is amazing, you know; you don't like to carry these people home, you don't like to see them driving on the street, where they can do damage with a large piece of equipment.
MP: You're talking about a lot of drugs; what about just getting stoned on some grass?
Zappa: I'm talking about anything that alters your perception to the point where you think you're something other than what you really are, and you start behaving accordingly. And, in
MP: That's LSD, that's still not grass; the worst thing to do is to put all drugs in the same category.
Zappa: Well, if you want to be clinical about it, you can take each of the drugs, you can analyze what they do to your body, and you can analyze what they've done to the different parts of society that have used them, and depending on what your values are and how much you appreciate the performance of a person in the society who is not drug-altered, you'll be doing these things in different ways. In other words, I think LSD was bad because it confused a lot of people and probably caused brain damage. I mean there are people that I knew then that I see now who used a lot of LSD who are just wasted; they can hardly tie their own shoes, you know, they're gone.
MP: There I agree with you .. .
Zappa: Then, you have people who've smoked an awful lot of marijuana because it was really groovy, and it was just for relaxing. And their memories are fucked. They can't remember things; one musician I know lost his sense of rhythm, you know, and they lose equilibrium. But they're very groovy, and they're very laid back and mellow and having a wonderful time, but something was taken out of them, you know, that should have been there in order to make them function better in the society. And the same thing with downers, you know, people just want to take a few downers so that they can feel good; well, they've taken a few downers; they've fallen down and injured themselves and done a bunch of other stupid things. And then there are people who just plain died from it.
MP: What about alcohol?
Zappa: Same thing. Look, I stay home. Unless I'm on the road I stay home. I'm not much for being gregarious, I don't like chit-chat, I don't like social intercourse. I don't like to be put in a position where I have to deal with other people's emotional freight, and these problems are boiled to the surface of their personality by chemical preparations. When a person takes drugs or uses alcohol, they think they're giving themselves a license to be an asshole. Because they can always say: "Whoops, I'm sorry, I was so stoned I didn't know what I was doing", and suddenly that makes everything okay.
MP: Do the people around you, especially musicians, have to be non-drug users too?
Zappa: You can't legislate on that. All I require is that if somebody is on my payroll, that they don't use drugs and don't have any drugs in their possession at the time they are performing a service for me. What they do in their spare time with their private life is their business; but once they're on the road, they're representing me, and I'm footing the bill for their total lifestyle. I'm providing their hotel, their food and their transportation; I' m paying their salary and doing all these things and, in exchange, they're supposed to make themselves available, and competent to play concerts for the audience that comes to these places expecting a show. Now, if they get ripped and they can't play, they're letting the audience down, and they're doing it in such a way that the blame goes on me.
MP: Is that very important, how people see you, both now and in the future?
Zappa: The only thing that matters is whether or not you can get the job done. For me, there's only one motivation, and that's doing art. The only thing that is important about being famous is in the industry community, if I have to go and seek financing for a project. If nobody ever heard my name, I have no chance of getting financing. Fame is meaningless. If you listen to what I do and you already agree with what I'm saying, you'll say, "Yeah, that's right." And if what I'm saying is either incomprehensible to you or irrelevant to your lifestyle, you'll say I' m worthless and bullshit. And it's the same way that you will respond to every other stimulation that comes into your life. If you try to go out and change people's minds, you're banging your head against the wall, because you can't really change their minds. The only person that's going to agree with you is somebody who already agrees with you. If somebody tries to change your mind, you resist it. And ultimately that breeds. hatred, and it slows civilization down more.
MP: Is this why you seem to shy away in your music from anything political?
Zappa: I don't think my music ever was political. It's sociological. it never was political. I think the only thing politicians have an interest in is their own well-being, and feathering their own nest, and the acquisition of more power for their own personal gratification, or they're caught in a situation where they have to work on behalf of a corporation someplace.
I'll tell you what the real problem is: Democracy doesn't work. It doesn't fucking work. You think you're in control of your existence? You think your vote matters? You think that these promises are ever going to occur? Face the facts. The fucking oil companies have got you by the balls. And if it ain't them, it's the guy that makes soybeans, or it's the plastics guy. It's the guy that's in steel, or the one that runs the water department, or even the electricity or the gas to your house.
MP: Is there a solution to this?
Zappa: There probably is. But I'm a musician, and I'm not going to be a prophet.
Full version of this interview is published in Headley Gritter's book Rock 'N' Roll Asylum.
Another edit of this article was published in RAM as "The Sanest Man In The World Today?"
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net