By Mick Wall
MICK WALL gets uncomfortably numb in the company of the terminally cynical FRANK ZAPPA.
AT SCHOOL I was never quite the same as other normal kids. At least, not after The Accident.
It happened one stormy night when I stayed over at a friend's house. It was pissing with rain and I'd missed the last bus and, anyway, my friend, through the infinite kindness of his stinking rich parents, was the proud possessor of a brand new Hitachi stereo with all the multicoloured trimmings.
Now he was weird my friend; for instance, he was the first kid in class to have an Afghan Duvet and a colour television, but his older brother was even weirder. It was the older brother who owned all the records in the house. At the time I was going through my Alice Cooper period and so I figured I had the boundaries of rock and roll pretty well figured out. I mean, Alice was the wildest back in those days, you can hang your skeleton on that one boy.
I was 16 and I was trés k.o.o.l.
So when Big Bro' suggested kicking off the night's entertainment with something I'd never heard of before called Frank Zappa, snickering right into my face, I felt like I was ready for anything. Like, impress me ...
That was when The Accident occured.
It turned out that the music I was listening to was at least five years old at that time, but to my innocent soul it sounded light years ahead. It reached out of the Hitachi and seized me by the hair. My mind began to travel very fast and I could feel my bowels turning to water. It was an easy intelligent groove with lots of busy drums to stab home the misty mood-swings. It was called 'Peaches En Regalia', and the album was 'Hot Rats'.
Slight pause and then came 'Willie The Pimp', all fiendishly funky guitars stomping across your back and a grisly lead vocal digging its dirty nails into the frontal lobe ...
"What is this s**t?" the youngster I was asked incredulously. I still don't know all the smart answers to that one, and I don't expect I ever shall. It's that kind of music, y'see; it doesn't go away when you tell it because, God forgive it, the wicked stench of truth pervades all of Frank Zappa's work.
The Reality Clause is the primary equation in the complex Zappa scheme of things. It's got a funk of its own, fused by direct identification with rock, Be-Bop, a cappella, jazz, blues, name it ... and it's human enough to accommodate the Theatre Of The Absurd, ruthless enough to twist the knife in good where it hurts. That's what makes it so interesting, so special, which is precisely why Frank Zappa holds such a unique, untenable position in rock and roll ...
So back to The Accident. The plain truth was that I couldn't take it, I couldn't go all the way that first time, and I felt a bit jolted, a tad soiled by the experience. And I solemnly vowed to put the ghastly matter right out of my tiny walrus mind forever and ever.
IT'S WEEKS before I got my next taste of Zappa and by then I'm going half-crazy because I can't get little bits of his extraordinary music out of my head.
Keeping it brief, what followed was a period of years where I took my Frank Zappa wherever I might find it. Apart from scoring my own copies of 'Hot Rats' and 'Joe's Garage' (a masterpiece), I relied on tapes of his music friends would run off for me, I read bits and pieces here and there about him, I saw his film '200 Motels' – probably the ultimate, uh, on-the-road rock movie (haw! haw! haw!) ever made – and I never so much pursued his vast career as let his music come to me, wheresoever I lay.
To date, Frank Zappa has to his name 39 albums including a variety of doubles and triple-boxed sets, not to mention the recent seven-disc set of Mothers Of Invention early LPs; 32 compositions for orchestral and choral groups; four ballets; two feature films and two video specials.
In the distant past he has worked with Captain Beefheart and Wild Man Fischer, he even produced and played guitar on a Grand Funk Railroad album, 'Good Singin', Good Playin''. Just over a year ago he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of one of his ballet pieces, and for the last three years he has disengaged himself completely from the rock world, devoting time and money to his more 'classical' musical pursuits, hovering on the fringes of the 'serious' music world like some predatory rhino grinding a magnificent horn up against the goal-posts of paradise.
In 1971 a fracas at his concert at the London Rainbow resulted in Zappa receiving a broken leg at the hands of some, uh, overzealous 'fan overtures'.
When he returned to London a year later at Crystal Palace he walked on stage with his new personal assistant John Smothers who closely resembled Mr T's godfather. Big, black, and completely bald, Smothers was introduced to the crowd by Zappa as the man hired to kill anybody from the audience who wanted to try a re-run of the Rainbow incident. 10 years on, Smothers remains by Zappa's side, wherever he walks, sleeps or eats.
Zappa is always an imposing figure on stage, his much-vaunted 'contempt' for sections of his public the source of many a True Story ...
There's the one about the time he was performing in America, when the band hit the stage and the first number of the set turned out to be a long 15 minutes-plus jazz improvisational piece with more time-changes in it than the Tardis on a good night. At the climax of the piece some lunkhead at the back of the auditorium started hooting and whistling for some rooocckkk an' rooolll. "You liked that one, did you motherf**kers? Well, we'll do it again for ya..." was Zappa's response, and they did the whole damn thing again.
One time in Italy, it is said, the local promoter had promised Zappa his money in cash and up-front of the actual gig. When the moolah failed to arrive as promised Frank and the boys went out on stage and charged into the grandest, most vulgar and verbose intro they could manage – white noise melting into slow death – and ended it with low bows followed by the uniform raising of long index fingers up the nose of the crowd. "F**k you!" said Frank, and walked off.
Oh God, there's hundreds, some funnier, some not. When word got out that the kid had an interview arranged with the man, the looks of anguish and the words of condolence he received from all sides, plus the strange words of warning foisted upon him by previous scarred and beaten Zappa interviewers, was enough to make his balls ache.
"He is a very, very bright person and he doesn't tolerate arseholes, so just don't try to f**k around with him. HE'LL EAT YOU!"
AND LO! It came to pass that in the rainy streets of Brussels, Belgium, where he was rehearsing for the start of his first European tour in many a bygone year, I plucked up my courage and whiled away a half hour or so with Mr Frank Zappa.
There's a new rock album released this month called 'Them Or Us', available on Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin Records (through EMI), his first for three years.
A double (of course), 'Them Or Us' harks back to the 'Joe's Garage' era, which means we're in for a joy-ride through Be-Bop [doo-wop] ('The Closer You Are'), fused with the more instrumentally eloquent chaos of tracks like 'Sinister Footwear' and 'Truck Driver Romance'. The humour is as convoluted and hysterical as ever, and the scenarios are all pulled from the same generous black cloak of fiction worn by 'Catholic Girls' or, going right back, 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It'.
The other thing to mention here is Zappa's guitar. He's a stunning guitar player and a meticulous technician and has to be heard to be believed and understood.
Anyway, the reviews can come later. For now, let's have a word or three with the wise. Let's talk to Frank ...
It's widely reported that you hate coming to Europe and England, but you're here now. Do you still dislike the Continent?
"Of course, and for a very good reason. When people think of the Continent they think of little cathedrals and quaintness and everything being nice, nice, nice. But I've been over here often enough to recognise that there's more hatred on the Continent than in any other place I've ever had to work. There's ethnic hatred that goes back thousands of years, and it permeates everything. And when you're forced to tour around, when every day is a different country, then every day you find a different prejudice, a different hatred. It's lurking everywhere.
"Belgium is in a preposterous state, the people there can't even agree on what language they're gonna speak. Everything's written in at least two different languages, if not three, sometimes four on the signs. It's as ignorant as the situation in French Canada.
"In the United States you have a land mass much bigger than the size of the Continent and, sure, we have our regional differences, but nothing like the ethnic hatred I've experienced in Europe. And when people are filled with that much hatred it's difficult for them to laugh at anything, and basically what I do is very humour orientated. It's music, but the most important ingredient is humour."
Do all those thoughts and feelings come out when you perform in Europe?
"They don't come out immediately, but it comes out of the audience. They're responding to what you're doing in a certain way. And the other thing that alters the response of the people over here is barometric pressure! The weather over here is so much more detestable than it is in the United States. Over here everybody is suffering from the low pressure syndrome, you know? So you've got the language barrier, which means no-one knows what you're singing about (even if they've seen the words on a record sleeve they still don't know what the songs mean); you've got the inherent ethnic hatred; and you've got the low barometer. So five weeks in Europe is not as much fun as five weeks in the United States."
OVER HOW long a period was the new album 'Them Or Us' recorded?
"Over the last two years. Same time as I was doing all that symphony stuff, I kept working in the studio on 'Them Or Us', 'Thing Fish', and the 'Francesco' album."
How do you keep all that going on at one time in your head? Going from chamber music, to conducting, to some of the wilder rock stuff'?
"It's no problem. You just have to schedule it right, that's all."
Did you ever have any classical training?
"No. Just the library and practical experience. That way I've learnt to conduct and construct ... it's not as much fun as playing lead guitar though!"
You play a different show every night, right?
"Every single night it's a different show. Right now the band (Ike Willis, guitar and vocals; Ray White, guitar and vocals; Bobby Martin, keyboards, sax and vocals; Alan Zavod, keyboards and exotic dancing; Scott Thunes, bass; Chad Wackerman, drums) have a repertoire of 66 different numbers. When a couple of the guys have been with me a little longer they'll know more.
"It's better that way, it keeps us from getting bored. Right after the soundcheck every night I write out the set list. Sometimes I write out five different lists before I get it right, then the final list gets circulated to all the people that need to know and 15 minutes before we go onstage I get the band into a huddle and I tell them how the different songs connect to each other. We have a non-stop, seamless two hour show ..."
You have a reputation for being wildly unpredictable on stage. You're not afraid to give an audience verbal abuse ...
"Hey, if somebody gives me s**t I'm not gonna stand there and bend over; I'm not a jukebox, I'm not a robot, you know, I'm a human being and I'm not up there to do anything but entertain. If you want entertainment I've got it for you, if you wanna be an asshole, believe me, I've got ways of dealing with assholes!"
With your vast backlog of work and diverse artistic talents, have you ever thought about going into the Theatre?
"I've tried, I wrote a Broadway musical, but I couldn't raise enough money to do it. They needed five million dollars and I could only raise $400,000, so I gave up on it. It's coming out as a three-record box set in September though, so you'll be able to hear it at least, even if you won't get to see it. It's a musical based on the concept that somebody invented AIDS on purpose ...
Going back a few years to the time you produced Grand Funk, would you ever be enticed into producing another Top 40 band now?
"Doesn't interest me in the slightest. I produced Grand Funk because I liked the guys, I did it as kind of a favour. I mean, I'd never heard any of their albums before, but they played me some songs and they were nice so I did it. No big deal, but I wouldn't wanna do that now. Besides, being the producer is a thankless task ... if the record sells millions it's your fault it didn't sell more, and if it bombs out it's your fault for that, too. Somebody's career goes down the toilet and it's your fault."
Do you still enjoy performing live?
"Yeah, I do. Especially with these guys. They're all great musicians, but they are also FUN FUN FUN guys too. I've played with some great musicians but you wouldn't wanna do three month tours with them, boy, they'd put you to F**KING SLEEP! I won't mention any names or pee on anybody's sexuality, but there was this one band I had and the hottest thing they could think to do after a gig was little quiz games. On the f**king tour bus, in the hotel, it wasn't like, hey, let's go get some girls, it was what f* *g score is it?"
Yeah, rock and roll, eh Frank?
"Forget it! I can't relate to people like that, it doesn't make any sense..."
Am I right in supposing that your rock albums and shows finance the other projects you like to get into?
Given the situation where all your projects were financially autonomous, would you gradually fade from the rock field altogether?
"No, I wouldn't stop the rock and roll. You have to remember that if I conduct a symphony orchestra it's the same people that come to see it. I don't have two different audiences. It's all my music. It's just so happens that the audience that listens to what I do has a wider range of musical tastes, that's all."
In the recent press pictures your record company has been sending out, you are pictured holding one hand high at the camera. There is an oven-glove on that hand. Is this your own personal Michael Jackson backlash?
"Well, it's not just to do with him, but Prince, all of 'em. I call it the Numb Hand Syndrome. All these fabricated Eighties stars giving the Numb Hand they got from jerking off too much to an audience of Numb Hands so's everybody can get a Numb Hand together when listening to this garbage."
You're not a big fan of modern music, then?
"Of course not. None of it's real any more. The record companies are so corrupt, the A&R executives are so frightened of losing their jobs they're not gonna risk their careers on anything new or dangerous. And as a consequence, there are several fine musicians who can't turn a buck without dressing up in the right Superman suit and singing the same old s**t.
"Honestly, you should see these poor bastards when they walk into the record company looking for a deal. They waddle in backwards, their head scraping the floor, their two hands holding the cheeks of their asses open, yelling: 'Oh stick it to me please, do anything, but can I have a contract please ...'
"I'm telling you, there is no hope for the world."
WOULD FRANK Zappa ever consider writing an autobiography?
"I wouldn't know where to start, and besides, the amount of lawsuits and suicide attempts and death threats that would undoubtedly result from the publication of my autobiography I can really do without right now."
One last thing. I hear your son Dweezil is a big fan of Kerrang!.
(Zappa has four kids: Moon Unit aged 16, Dweezil aged 14, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan aged 10 and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen aged 4).
"Yeah, he gets a subscription to every issue."
He likes his rock and roll then, does he?
"He likes Heavy Metal. Randy Rhoads is his big hero. He plays a pretty mean lead guitar also."
Has he stolen any licks from the old man yet?
"No. He loves Randy, though."
1. Charles Ulrich: "As far as I know, FZ never performed at Crystal Palace. Perhaps the author is thinking of FZ's 1972 performance at the Oval Cricket Ground, though I'm not sure Smothers was working for him then."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net