I care about music, not about middle-age
By Lee Michael Katz
Frank Zappa, 44, the premier underground rock musician of the '60s, continues to confound critics with his records, film scores, and symphonic experiments. His Mothers of Invention began it all in 1966 with the album, Freak Out. More recent hits: Dancing Fool and Valley Girl. He was interviewed for USA TODAY by freelance journalist Lee Michael Katz.
USA TODAY: People say you're a musical genius, yet the Mothers of Invention was very much an underground group. How come you've never cracked the commercial mainstream?
ZAPPA: Well now, look, if a person is a musical genius, that doesn't mean that genius has to be manifested by enormous sales. I don't think there are too many things in the enormous unit-sale bracket that constitute genius. Whether I'm a genius or not, is irrelevant. I'm a person with a small record company who has a very solid audience of a few people who really like it. I do it for them and myself.
USA TODAY: You're known for your intellectual or scatological lyrics, whichever you prefer.
ZAPPA: There is a difference. First of all, there's nothing wrong with scatology. That's something that existed in literature for a long time. If you talk about something that refers to body functions –
USA TODAY: You do that a lot.
ZAPPA: Well, there is a reason for doing it, because the English language is a great piece of machinery. You can say thing very directly. If you talk about a turd, you can use that as a metaphor for a lot of stuff. And that is a comprehensible metaphor for a person who is marginally literate, and that is the audience that you're talking to. You're not going to address them in the language of Euripides.
USA TODAY: What's it like being middle-aged and a rock musician?
ZAPPA: I don't care about being middle-aged. I don't care about being ugly. I don't 'care about getting bald in the back of my head. I don't care about having problems with my body. I don't care about that stuff. I care about music. If I were a rock musician on the same level that people normally think of rock musicians – you know, a guy with leather clothes and then something on the wrist with the spikes coming out and all that weird stuff – it would be a little incongruous. But I'm not.
USA TODAY: So, what are you?
ZAPPA: I happen to be a composer who sells products in a rock 'n' roll medium. I started off writing orchestra music and chamber music. I didn't write a rock 'n' roll song until I was 20 years old. And I started when I was 14.
USA TODAY: Do you think Prince or Madonna have particularly interesting lyrics?
ZAPPA: I'm not a consumer of that kind of music. I know the lyrics I write are important to the people who consume what I do. But I don't think that that's the same audience for Prince and Madonna. Their music is designed to be danced to, or you pose to it while you're wearing special clothes, or it's wallpapered to your lifestyle. But it is not something to get philosophical about. You're lucky if it rhymes.
USA TODAY: What kind of point were you trying to make when you did the song Valley Girl – that fairly scathing approach to the girls in California? Is that the way your daughter Moon Unit was?
ZAPPA: Oh no. She's not like that at all. I wrote that song because that's what was happening in the valley at that time. You're the ﬁrst person who ever thought it was scathing. Everybody else thought it was, "Oh, how cute. Well I'll act like that." So that will give you a rough idea of the intellectual comprehension of the average audience person. I mean, it is scathing. It is saying these people are airheads. These are their values. That's how they talk. It's a piece of journalism.
USA TODAY: What was it like having your daughter go to school with people like the valley girls?
ZAPPA: Well, where was she supposed to go to school? On Venus? I want all of my kids to ﬁnd out what the real world is about. They have been to private and public schools – both. And now the two oldest ones are out of school. Moon took the California high school equivalency test at 15, got her diploma and got out. Dweezil is doing the same thing.
USA TODAY: What's Moon doing?
ZAPPA: She has just taken a position as a consultant on a television series. She gets a weekly salary, a parking place on the lot, and goes in there and tells the guys who are writing the series what is cool.
USA TODAY: So you've got pretty hip kids.
ZAPPA: I would say so, yes. Dweezil plays guitar like you can't believe and was at one time a really superb baseball player, but kind of outgrew that.
USA TODAY: Do members of the Zappa household sit down for meals like every other –
ZAPPA: Naturally not. Food at our house is deﬁnitely a matter of personal choice. Very seldom does dinner get cooked, or lunch, or breakfast. You go in and you cook it yourself. Gail is a working mother. She's got four kids to take care of. She also runs the mail-order business.
USA TODAY: So this is not an Ozzie and Harriet family?
ZAPPA: No, but there's no reason why it should be because I'm not convinced that that's the right way to raise a child.
USA TODAY: Do people shy away from your family because you have a pretty evil-type reputation?
ZAPPA: Well, if I have an evil reputation, it's because people in the media would like to have me be that way because it suits their purpose. In fact, I'm probably more conservative than a lot of the parents that are out here. I don't use any drug. My wife doesn't use any drugs. I'm more concerned about my kids going to somebody else's house than they might be about sending their kids to my house..
USA TODAY: Why did you give your children such strange names – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva Thin Muffin?
ZAPPA: No, Thin Muffin – she wanted that. She made those up. I called her Diva.
USA TODAY: The other names?
ZAPPA: No matter what you give them as a ﬁrst name, it's the last name that gets them into trouble. The other thing is, what's in a name anyway? I know these children are going to grow up to be special. and individual. I don't think a name that is special and individual is a liability.
USA TODAY: You don't wish, in retrospect, that you named Moon Unit Jennifer or something like that?
ZAPPA: No. At one point she wanted to change her name to Beauty Heart and Ahmet at one time wanted to change his name to Rick. That lasted about three weeks.
USA TODAY: When you testiﬁed before Congress recently, you opposed the move to label records so parents would know what their kids were listening to. Don't you want to know what Dweezil and Moon listen to?
ZAPPA: If a parent has done his job in giving the child proper sexual information, the child is going to know that when Judas Priest sings about sadomasochism, that's an aberration, and it's not going to have any effect. People who want to set up a committee to take the job of sexual education away from their own households are crazy. The government can't even take care of the budget. How are they going to take care of your children?
USA TODAY: Do you think that your fans are more intellectual than most?
ZAPPA: Our demographics do not show that. If you ever went to one of our concerts in New York and looked at the kids in the audience, I don't think you would get the impression for a microsecond that you're talking about an intellectual, introspective bunch of people.
USA TODAY: What's left to achieve? Are you a rebel without a cause?
ZAPPA: Hardly, because my cause is music. I'm interested in ﬁnding out what can be done with different types of musical forms of expression – without any interference. It's very difﬁcult to do in the United States because, unless you can sell it to somebody, you can't keep doing it.
USA TODAY: You had a video that never went on the air.
ZAPPA: It went on the air in a few places. There are two reasons why it didn't get shown: One, it had the word "nigger" in it, and, two, we got a Ronald Reagan look-alike and gave him the electric chair.
USA TODAY: The radicals of the '60s are now in the mainstream. Jerry Rubin is running little salons on the Upper East Side; Tom Hayden is a California legislator; Sam Brown is a real estate developer. Does it bother you that your generation has been reduced to a caricature? Do the 1960s matter?
ZAPPA: I thought the l960s were oversold during the l960s. Nostalgia for the l960s is pitiful because all the peace marches and all that stuff – we're not talking moral commitment here. We're talking about a social event. That's where you went to get laid during the l960s. You might wind up plooking some girl wearing a smelly blanket who hadn't washed for a couple of weeks, but that's what was going on out there.
USA TODAY: Do you see any similarity between Woodstock and the Live Aid, Farm Aid, and USA For Africa concerts?
ZAPPA: No, absolutely not. The only thing they have in common is money.
USA TODAY: A lot of people know you best from the famous toilet poster –
ZAPPA: There is nothing obscene about the picture. There are no exciting body parts showing. And it's a stupid picture – a guy with long hair sitting on the toilet with his pants down.
USA TODAY: Do you regret having done it?
USA TODAY: Would you do it again?
ZAPPA: No. The thing that bothers me is that that poster is probably one of the best-selling posters of all time. If somebody wants a picture of me sitting on the toilet, I'd love to get paid for it. Want to hear a good poster story?
USA TODAY: OK.
ZAPPA: When I played in San Antonio for the ﬁrst time, I was brought there by these people who decided to get into the promotion business – he was a plumber. And he brought his wife and their friends – and he got me backstage and all they could think about was, they wanted me to come to their house after the show and sit on their toilet so that they could take a color picture of me on their toilet in their house. I refused.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net