A Look At The Salt Lake Favorite
By Steve Chapman
December 7, at the Terrace
In 1965 Frank Zappa was the leader of an obscure LA rhythm and blues band known primarily for insulting audiences in Pomona. Since then little has changed. Sure, Frank is less obscure now, but even by today's standards, considering the antics of his musical progeny the latter-day LA punks, who regularly spit on their fans, he could still be considered insulting. How else would you describe someone who composes concertos for violins and farts, or who collects and hangs on stage enough women's underwear during his live performances to make said stage look like a Brooklyn tenement on a humid washday? If not insulting, at least mildly offensive. Well, okay, how about slightly irreverent?
To be fair, although the same could hardly be said for many punk bands, insulting people is merely one aspect of what Frank Zappa and his music are all about. He has been called worse things than offensive. And better. In fact, in the fifteen years since the release of the first Mother's of Invention album, "Freak Out", virtually no adjective has been left unturned by writers and critics attempting to discover and come to terms with Zappa's role in contemporary culture. He has been called everything from anarchist to art rocker, from guru to genius, from idol and ironist to just plain ugly and weird.
Zappa's music, like himself, is not easily described. A reporter from Time magazine some years ago, after attending a concert by the Mothers, once compared one of Zappa's songs to a "noise like a zoo burning down." Zappa, a self-taught composer, has cited Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse as his idols, but influences in his music can also probably be traced to people like Lenny Bruce and Spike Jones as well as the doowop groups and avant garde jazz improvisationists of the fifties. On well over twenty-five record albums Zappa has parodied virtually every known style of music from classical to country. He is considered by many to be a genius in the recording studio. His records are often aural collages that rely on electronic gimmicks and tape constructions for their eclectic texture.
Although he didn't begin writing rock songs until his twenties, Zappa played in several bands in high school as a drummer before switching to guitar. He was kicked out of his first band because, as he says, "I couldn't keep a good beat and because I played the cymbals too much."
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, by the latter half of the sixties Zappa was somewhat of a fixture on the LA underground music scene and president of the first rock conglomerate. Bizarre Inc. was an umbrella organization which oversaw, in addition to two record labels, a management firm, a PR and advertising agency, a film production company, a music publishing company and a book division. Like his music, some of Zappa's business dealings were anything but standard. He once signed to one of his record labels a man named Wild Man Fisher, an ex-mental patient who made his living blithely shrieking distraught original compositions at passers-by on the sidewalks of Sunset Blvd. for a nickel a song.
Today Zappa is as busy as ever, touring and making records. In the last two years he has released a three act rock opera, three albums of guitar solos available by mail order only, and most recently a new double record studio album entitled "You Are What You Is" which, according to a recent press release "sets new standards of excellence in recording, mixing and mastering from a musician already noted for the high quality of his product"
Actually, to the untrained ear of this writer there seems scant if any appreciable difference between what Zappa is doing on his new album and one he released ten years ago called "Fillmore East June 1971" The music is still manic, the lyrics funny and ribald. And Zappa is still poking fun at many of the same things; teenagers, dopers, the army, rock and roll, and orally fixated young women.
Some things never change.
An Interview with Frank Zappa
The Event: I think for many people in this country Utah has a kind of laughable image as the last bastion of conservatism and repressiveness, yet I know the last time you played here you sold out two shows. Given the iconoclastic nature of your music and performances does that kind of support in a place like Utah surprise you and do you share that perception of Utah yourself?
Zappa: No I don't share that perception of Utah because I've been places that are more conservative than Utah. There's nothing wrong with conservatism if that's what you want. But as far as the response of the audiences in Utah, I'd like to say that last year that show we did there was probably one of the best shows on the tour.
The Event: Are you speaking of the early show, the late show, or both of them?
Zappa: Both of them. The whole evening was real hot, except for that jerk in front with the bottle. I enjoy playing in Utah. We've been there many times. And I don't think there's any reason why the audience in that particular area ought to be self-conscious about itself or feet that it's in competition with any other place in the world for my affection, because they've al ready got it.
The Event: I know you've worked with several symphonies in the past. Have you ever thought about or wanted to work with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
Zappa: I would have no objections with working with them. I'm sure I could write something for them that would be quite memorable. But I'm not sure they would want to work with me. Actually the Utah Symphony is a pretty good orchestra too. I have a recording of Maurice Abravanel conducting that symphony on a piece by Varèse, that I though was a really good performance.
The Event: Speaking of Edgar Varèse, I know that you consider him to be one of your idols and I'm wondering considering the fact that you've been in the music business now for over twenty years, how closely do you now identify with composers like Varèse who we're basically misunderstood under appreciated during their lifetimes?
Zappa: Well I still like the music. He may be dead, but the records live on
The Event: But do you consider yourself still, at this stage in your career; misunderstood or underappreciated by the public at large. I know you have a low regard for the collective intelligence of the average American.
Zappa: No I don't have a low regard for their collective intelligence. What I've said oftentimes, and been misquoted is that there's no way that Americans can actually be as stupid as they pretend to be. It's against the law of averages, that that many people could be that dumb all at the same time. The reason for it is they pretend to be dumb, so they can have friends. And their friends are all doing the same thing and so everybody pretends to be a good ol' dumb guy and a nice ol' dumb girl. And the reason they do it is because there's a myth, that's been perpetuated in the United States, that smart people don't get laid. Everybody wants to have some kind of gratification so what do they do they all pretend to be dumb and they figure the dumber they are the more friends they're going to have. That's what I'm against. Without active intelligence, progress is not going to be possible.
The Event: Many people in Salt Lake City might be interested to know that in the past you have worked with musicians from Utah, namely the Fowler Bros., Bruce and Tom. Could you talk a little about how they first came to your attention and what it was like working with them?
Zappa: I never got a chance to play with all of them. The most I ever had in a band was three, but that's a pretty good average. That's definitely a unique family. The father is very interesting also. In fact at one time he invited my whole band up to the small jazz school there in Utah where he teaches, the name of which I can't think of right now, and he had us spend the day and everybody lectured on his particular instrument or skill. But the brothers are great, they're amazing musicians. I think they have their own band now.
The Event: I came across an article printed ten years ago in Seventeen Magazine in which you were quoted as saying that you had stopped listening to rock music the minute they started putting strings on Ray Charles and Fats Domino records...
Zappa: That was rhythm and blues not rock and roll. That's a true quote though.
The Event: Well let me ask you, do you still find contemporary rock or rhythm and blues unappealing?
Zappa: Well what I was saying in that earlier article was that certain things that appreciated in early rhythm and blues, which was the straight ahead animal naturalness of it, was being produced to death. I never felt that Fats Domino needed a string section and neither did Ray Charles. When it started happening the next thing you knew a lot of other artists started getting that shiny, sleazy, twinkly background and it wasn't necessary. It took a lot of the balls out of the music.
The Event: You didn't feel that it was true to the real spirit of the music itself.
Zappa: I didn't think that it was aesthetically correct. It just wasn't my taste. But I already had a large collection of rhythm and blues records from '55 to '58 and still listen to them. In fact, I was listening to some yesterday. I have some cassettes with me I hear on the road.
The Event: How about contemporary rock and roll?
Zappa: It's in sad shape, because basically all it is is product.
The Event: So you feel that way even about the so called new wave, post-punk avant garde.
Zappa: Yeah, I mean that's the essential product and the more they protest and say that what they're doing is different the more it sounds like 1960's chord progressions with a synthesizer playing it instead of a twelve string guitar.
The Event: As a musician, aside from individual creative freedom, what else do you hold sacred?
Zappa: Well sacred sounds like something connected with religious beliefs and I never discuss my religion.
The Event: Perhaps I can rephrase the question. It seems there's hardly anything that you are afraid of taking shots at.
Zappa: I'm not scared of anybody but you have to remember that another cornerstone of my philosophy is that Science believes that hydrogen is one of the building blocks of the universe. I disagree. I say that the most plentiful substance in the universe is stupidity. There's more stupidity per square foot in this universe than anything else. People can go on talking about hydrogen as much as they want to, but stupidity is where it's at. And to ignore it would be shameful. Because if there's so much...
The Event: Whose fault do you think that is?
Zappa: To ignore it, or to have stupidity?
The Event: That there is more stupidity than anything else.
Zappa: Well stupidity kind of ... it multiplies very quickly.
The Event: Do you think perhaps the media is responsible for propagating a lot of that?
Zappa: The media is responsible for maintaining ignorant standards and aesthetic stultification. But real stupidity is kind of homespun.
The Event: In another taped interview of yours which I listened to you mentioned a new movie you have made called "Baby Snakes" and a possible June release. Is that June '82?
Zappa: Well, we were trying to put the thing into release and we couldn't do it because major distributors wouldn't touch it. So if Donny and Marie can help me out...
The Event: So there's not a good chance that we'll be seeing that film in Utah in the near future?
Zappa: No, but one day.
The Event: Satire and parody are essential elements in your music and performances and I was just wondering how would you parody somebody like Frank Zappa if you had to? Or do you think it's possible?
Zappa: With space all things are possible. I could probably do it but see, in order for a parody to be effective the audience has to know enough about the original in order to appreciate the permutations. And that's the most difficult thing about doing a parody of Frank Zappa, nobody knows anything about me at all.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net