Frank And Moon Zappa Go AM
By Michael Goldberg
Only In It For The Money?
The first time I heard Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl” on the radio, I turned up the volume, pulled my car off the road, and sat there slightly shocked. I was turned to KFRC, a very powerful, very popular Top 40 station in the San Francisco Bay Area, a station that generally plays hits like “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and “Keep The Fire Burning.”
Yet here was this weird song being beamed out to a healthy chunk of Northern California radio listeners. Here was this spaced out Valley Girl (actually Frank’s daughter Moon) delivering these raps: “Anyway, he goes are you into S and M? I go oh RIGHT ... Could you like just picture me in like a LEATHER TEDDY. Yeah right, HURT ME, HURT ME ... I’m sure! NO WAY! He was like freaking me out ... He called me a BEASTIE ... That’s cuz like he was totally BLITZED. He goes like BAG YOUR FACE! I’m sure!” And she was punctuating the raps with expressions like GAG ME WITH A SPOON and GRODY TO THE MAX and BARF ME OUT. Here was this heavy metal dirge of a music track with this cynical, taunting chorus of “Valley Girl, okay, fine, fer sure, fer sure, she’s a Valley Girl and there is no cure.” It was enough to distract me right into the oncoming traffic; I knew I’d better sit this one out on the side of the road.
As I was listening, it hit me; Frank Zappa had finally penetrated AM radio. He had a real hit. The man who was once told by Clive Davis that he had “no commercial potential,” the man who has mocked so much of what is either truly dumb or truly evil about America for the past decade and a half was making a major subversive inroad. After all, what could be more insidiously perfect than a Frank Zappa record, which makes fun of the attitudes of a good percentage of the people who listen to commercial rock ’n’ roll radio, being played on commercial rock ‘n’ roll radio, sandwiched between pap by Journey and REO and Paul Davis. This was like, AWESOME. Totally! I mean, like, uh, GAG ME WITH A SPOON. Fer sure, fer sure.
Obviously, it was time to look up Frank and find out how this Top 40 penetration was affecting him. Like, uh, was the mastermind behind “Valley Girl” surprised at the record’s success?
“Isn’t everyone?” says Frank Zappa one recent afternoon, as he sits in the semi-darkness of the comfortable recording studio (modern art on the walls; expensive couches scattered about) that occupies most of a floor of his large home in the Hollywood hills. “I mean who would have guessed it? Who would have thought in their wildest dreams that a record like that would drive people crazy?” Zappa shakes his head.
As usual, Frank Zappa looks somewhat strange, eccentric even. He has that trademark miniscule goatee pasted to his chin and, of course, the moustache. But the curly dark brown hair, that thick weird hair that used to hang all over the place and make him look so HUNGRY FREAKS DADDY, is gone. What remains has been slicked back into a sort of 50s style. Clotheswise, Zappa wears a black and white striped dress shirt and an almost luminous burgundy tie with faint blue pinstripes. A pair of black cotton pants taper to meet white canvas shoes. In fact, Zappa looks just like the kind of guy who would call an album Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch.
Radio’s acceptance of his record has not mellowed Frank at all. He’s still the ornery cynical, brutally honest character who bluntly condemns the stupidity of most Americans. “Radio broadcasting in the United States has gotten to the point where it’s formulated to death. It’s frozen,” he says. He lights the first of several cigarettes that he will smoke during our interview, and asks his 12-year-old guitar playing son Dweezil to get him a cup of coffee. “And the process by which a record gets on the radio is quite complicated and very political. And it’s not really based on the content of the song or whether the tune’s any good or whether the beat’s any good. We’re in an era where we deal with factors other than what the music actually is. And radio deals only with product. They could care less whether the song is a good song or what. It’s only product.”
So how does Frank explain the fact that he’s now got a record on the radio?
“The things on my other albums had a little more social commentary that maybe the people who own radio stations didn’t want to get on the air. (Frank may be referring to songs like “Heavenly Bank Account,” which condemns TV evangelists and their followers; “Trouble Every Day,” an indictment of the American government; “Jewish Princess,” which detailed the stereotypical J.P.; “Catholic Girls,” which did the same for girls of the Catholic persuasion; “I Don’t Want To Get Drafted,” etc.) And something like ‘Valley Girl’ is innocuous enough that they’ll play it. They figure everyone will just have a little laugh and that’s it. No real information is conveyed. There is definitely an anti-information syndrome as far as radio is concerned. No real content is ever allowed on the airwaves anyplace.”
Still, Zappa hints that there may be more to “Valley Girl” than meets most ears. “Well you have to understand that I’m not too thrilled about the Valley as an aesthetic concept. You know. I mean the San Fernando Valley, to me, represents a number of very evil things. I probably shouldn’t be saying that because a lot of people think this is a nice, cute, harmless song. But I don’t like the Valley. I shouldn’t say anything more than that.”
“No, I’m not gonna. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun. It’s better that they should just think it’s a nice little song.”
* * *
Moon Unit Zappa, age 14, is one person who seems to think that “Valley Girl” is a nice, cute harmless song. Upstairs from Frank’s studio, past his secretary’s office, past the kitchen where a housekeeper is cleaning up, in a bright, airy room (which contains a large birdcage occupied by what appears to be a crippled, shrunken vulture), Moon sits sipping from a glass of water. She is talking about the people she knows who are offended by “Valley Girl,” and she is speaking on a down-to-earth, slightly put out voice, the kind of voice you expect a teenage girl to use on a mother so out of it she doesn’t comprehend why her daughter must have that mini-skirt she saw this morning or she’ll just die ...
“People that are offended by the song are people that have their nose out of joint about something because the song is by no means offensive,” says Moon. “It isn’t. It’s funny. It’s comedy. I see a little of myself in that song. I do paint my toenails. I don’t go to a salon to get a leg wax or anything like that, but I can imagine what it’s like. I’m not going to get offended because someone knows that I do that. So I think that when people take offense at things, they should really know the whole story, because anybody who knows the whole story behind that song could not possibly be offended by it. There’s nothing offensive about it.”
The whole story?
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s just a song. Bar mitzvahs is where it started. I would go to bar mitzvahs and come back speaking Valley lingo that everyone at the bar mitzvah was speaking and the song came out of that. Before I was doing it, Laraine Newman was doing it. And no one was getting offended by that. I guess maybe she didn’t strike something that offended them. Bikini waxes, Pac-Man, sado-masochism, whatever.”
Though Moon says she isn’t interested in a singing career (she wants to be an actress and may be in a Hawaiian Punch commercial soon), she is following up her hit record. Moon sings on “My Mother Is A Space Cadet” and “Crunchy Water,” the debut single by Dweezil, a band composed of her 12-year-old brother and a few of his friends. A preview of the tracks suggest that “My Mother Is A Space Cadet” with its B-52’s land on the Heavy Metal Planet genre confusion, may, like “Valley Girl,” be just what radio needs. “I think it’s going to be a hit,” says Moon sincerely.
Moon is a pretty girl with auburn hair cut in a semi-shag style. Her large brown eyes match her dad’s. Today, she is wearing a lavender mini-skirt and a sleeveless lavender and purple striped T-shirt. Only 14, but very intelligent, occasionally sarcastic, articulate, composed. She is certainly her father’s daughter.
“It changed her life, of course,” says her dad, of the effect the success of “Valley Girl” has had on Moon. “When it started getting really popular was right toward the end of the school year, and she was trying to do all her finals, study for all that stuff, plus do all of these television shows and it was really hard for her.”
Moon says she got a D minus in geometry. Such is the price that this budding star has paid for her first blast of fame. And there are other problems. Moon Zappa, who used to be called “my little Valley girl” by her dad, is now a celebrity. “The hardest thing about this is guys, basically. Guys tend to stay away from me. And the guys who don’t stay away from me who get my phone number don’t call. I don’t know what it is. I think I frighten some people. When I was little, I was a bully. But now I think I just scare them away. They walk on the other side of the street, that kind of thing. At school it was hard for me. Everybody wanted to get to know me and learn more about me. But during the summer they stay on the other side of the street.
“There are times when I just don’t want to talk to anybody. You’re in the public eye and you get recognized. Recognition doesn’t bother me. It’s not something I live for. I don’t want to be recognized. But I feel I know what it’s like to be a handicapped person now. You know, when you go by someone in a wheelchair you kind of stay away. Well not everyone does, I don’t ... But I know what it’s like because people walk around me and stare. It’s really bizarre. I hate being stared at. I always stare back because it bothers me so much. I’m able to say, look, I can stare too. I’m a human being.”
* * *
Moon hadn’t even been born when her dad put together one of the strangest rock ’n’ roll groups of all time, the Mothers of Invention. The year was 1966 when the first Mother’s album, a two record masterpiece titled Freak Out!, appeared in the local record store. On the back cover was an excerpt from a letter, purportedly written by a “Suzy Creamcheese of Salt Lake City,” which in a sense, stated the relationship of Frank Zappa to the rest of America. The excerpt read: “These Mothers is crazy ... One guy wears beads and they all smell bad ... None of the kids at my school like these Mothers ...”
Over the 16 years that have passed since Zappa first began making records, “weird” has been the word that, it would seem, best describes a guy who once started two record labels at the same time and called one Bizarre and the other Straight, a guy responsible for the incredible creative output (more than 30 LPs, many of them two record sets; two films; zillions of live performances, etc) that includes social satire, hard rock, art rock, classical compositions, jazz, shocking graphics, sexually
explicit lyrics, etc. , etc.
Yet Frank is taken aback when I use the word “weird” to describe his image and creative output. “No, no, no. Let’s be realistic and look logically at this,” he says in a cool controlled, deep voice. “What sort of person is impressed because a record label is called Bizarre? Does that automatically throw you into a frenzy? If you’re a real person, it shouldn’t. And if you see a bunch of guys wearing dresses on an album cover (the cover to We’re Only In it For The Money, the Mothers’ third album) that is a parody of not only the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper cover, but a combination of that and the Rolling Stones cover where they were all dressed in drag, that shouldn’t amaze anyone. That’s not weird.
“I’ll tell you what I think is weird. I think the Moral Majority is weird. I think television religious fanaticism and send me your money is weird. I think the people who send the money are weird. I think the people who broadcast the shows are sick. And I think the people who do the shows are the worst. That’s what I think is weird. Other people wouldn’t. They think, ‘Oh, it’s nice. It’s Jesus. It’s nice.’ It’s not; it’s weird. What I do is real. I write songs about people who really exist and do things that maybe you haven’t heard of before, but they’re real things. And these people deserve to have songs written about them just because they have the audacity to perform these acts and should be commemorated in story and song. Just the same as folk music. Just like John Henry and the steam hammer, I’ll write the song about the mud shark. This is folklore. It needs to be perpetuated. I’m doing a nice job for people. And I’m not doing sick things like the religious maniacs on television.”
I suggest to Frank that maybe “different” is a more appropriate word to describe him. “That’s acceptable. I don’t buy weird. I think weird is wrong. It is different. I think that anobody who tells you the truth today is different. Anybody who told you the truth yesterday was different. And anybody who tells you the truth tomorrow is going to be different too. Because if there’s one thing that’s in short supply in this country, it’s somebody telling you the truth.”
Has Frank Zappa paid a price for telling the truth?
“Well maybe yes and maybe no,” he says. “I don’t have any choice. Because I found out a long time ago, this is what I’m built to do, this is my job. One day you wake up and say ‘Yup, I’m a plumber, I always knew it.’ So I woke up and said, ‘Alright, this is my job so I’m going to do it as good as I can.’ In a way you pay the price because maybe you don’t make as much money or sell as many records or have as many people coming to your concerts as somebody who does something else. But on the other hand, maybe you go to sleep at night and like yourself. And maybe you get up in the morning and when you go to shave, you still like yourself.
“There was never a choice,” he continues. “I mean, I’ve always done the same kind of stuff. I’ve always written songs about what appealed to me or what disgusted me. I’m always done things from my own point of view and I’ve always been willing to take the rap for what I did – good, bad or indifferent. There it is. It’s my work. I’m not going to blame it on anybody else and that’s that. It wasn’t a matter of making a conscious decision to act that way, but after my career started, there were times when people would say to me: If you do this and do that, then you can be this over here. And I did make a conscious decision not to be that over there, if you know what I mean. I mean there’s even a quote on the first album from that disc jockey in Los Angeles. The disc jockey‘s name was Lord Tim and he said to us, this was when we first got together, he said: ‘I’d like to take you boys and mold you. I think I can make you as big as the Turtles.’ That’s a real quote from this guy. Wow! The Turtles had hit records on the radio, you know. How would you like to be molded by Lord Tim, to be as big as the Turtles? Think it over. Those are the kinds of conscious decisions that you get to make when you go into show business.”
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net