Zapping Back At Big Brother & Other Mothers
By Roy Trakin
From his days as the maverick composer of Freak Out!, perhaps the first example of avant-rock theatre, and leader of the Mothers of Invention, that motley crew of transvestite musos who created the ultimate pop parody, We're Only In It for the Money, Frank Zappa has been squarely on the side of freedom of artistic expression. On his succession of custom labels – Bizarre, Straight, Discreet, Zappa, and Barking Pumpkin – he's recorded such uncategorizable eccentrics as Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer, and the GTO's. He's as at home musically with Flo & Eddie as he is with Jean-Luc Ponty or Edgar Varèse. I'll never forget the time I saw Zappa at the Fillmore East back in 1971, putting a sack over Yoko Ono while he and John Lennon jammed on the refrain, "Scumbag!," the ex-Beatle apparently unaware of the American colloquialism's exact meaning. Now 45 years old and a father, Frank Zappa is still obsessed with the tyranny of language, as illustrated by his well-documented involvement in the PMRC/RIAA record ratings controversy. He has tirelessly spoken out from the start against the "Washington Wives," appearing on a myriad of talk and entertainment shows with his new close-cropped, sober image, deftly turning the opposition's arguments against them. His political experience has led to a new mission – to urge teenagers and young people to register to vote. Currently without a working band, Zappa is concentrating on creating music on his new computers, the latest example being "Porn Wars," his musique concrete pastiche which features the voices of Senators Danforth, Hollings, Gore, Tribel, and Exon, along with the Reverend Jeff Ling and Tipper Gore, too, in endless tape loops, testifying their swath for rock. He's gone from Lumpy Gravy to Valley Girls to the U.S. Senate. Along with Bob Geldof Frank Zappa's contributions to preserving our freedoms and rights this past year can be measured in music alone . . .
MC: Are you tired of talking about the lyrics controversy?
Zappa: I was tired the first day. The fact of the matter is the amount of accurate information that manages to squeak through the media is very small. And if I didn't do these interviews, people wouldn't know what's going on. The newspapers don't cover it right, and neither does TV.
MC: Hasn't the issue been blown out of all proportion by the media?
Zappa: TV picked up on the story because they could illustrate it with rock videos. It had everything: sex, violence, devil worship. If it weren't for the availability of music videos, I doubt the issue would have gotten the kind of coverage it did. But remember: The original complaint was about words, not images. When the PMRC took over the debate from the PTA, it was broadened to include the visual. And reference to live concerts. To understand the truth, go back to the first PMRC press release. One of the main things that they were concerned about was that these songs "cause rebellion." That was a little item which was dropped from their rhetoric during the ensuing months.
MC: The idiosyncrasies involved in the meaning of words have been a recurrent theme throughout your musical career.
Zappa: Take the word "dick," for example. Depending on how you say it, whether you raise your eyebrows or not, could mean different things to different people. That's one of the great things about the American language. It's a fascinating piece of machinery. Its amazing people spend so much time, energy, and money trying to suppress seven of the most useful tools in our vocabulary.
MC: Has the compromise reached by the PMRC and RIAA achieved anything?
Zappa: The only reason the PMRC has been so effective is that the record industry had a blank tape bill pending before Congress.
MC: Isn't it a trade association's job to look after member companies' legislative interests? Aren't tradeoffs and compromises what democracy is all about?
Zappa: I don't fault the RIAA. But it's their job to represent record companies, not artists, songwriters, or retailers. What did the RIAA agree to in its compromise, anyway? It agreed to put a warning label on the back of the album which says, "Explicit lyrics – Parental Advisory." Which is mitigated by any number of loopholes. It's unenforceable, a face-saving piece of PR all the way around. The AP says the PMRC expects to stay in business for at least a year "to monitor compliance with the agreement." And that letter-writing campaigns and "pressure" would be put on those artists who did not comply. The New York Times announced an aide in Senator Hollings' office admitted the Senator was still seeking legislation on the issue "if the record companies don't do what they're supposed to do." It's good cop, bad cop. You'll notice that Senator Gore's name is now on Mathias' Home Taping Bill. It wasn't as of the first Senate hearing on rock lyrics.
MC: What do you object to in the home taping bills?
Zappa: The money doesn't go to the artists. Look at the way it's written. The collected hinds go to the copyright holder. And who holds those copyrights? The record companies. I believe the fees they're asking are exorbitant. By the time the Copyright Registrar and the Treasury Department tack on their operating costs, the tax isn't going to be just a cent per minute on blank tape. Take a look at what happens in labor disputes. The costs get passed along to the public.
MC: Do you believe home taping hurts the industry as much as it says?
Zappa: Why would a person want to spend an hour of his own time to make a tape? Because pre-recorded audio tapes fall apart after 15 plays. Because prerecorded tapes are made by high-speed duplication, which means you can make better-sounding copies at home. People usually use the same blank tape over and over. Taping is done for convenience sake, not instead of buying a record. A Congressman I spoke to about the bill told me a lobbyist tried to sell him on it by explaining the record industry needed the money "so they could afford to record unknown, unusual, or non-commercial artists." And he thought that was a real nice idea. When I told him what the bill really said, he went, "Whoa!" It's quite possible even those legislators who have their names on the bill have never read it. There's no formula for dividing up the monies. The last three pages explain what to do when the law suits hit. It's a case of survival of the fittest and the fittest in this case will probably be CBS and Warner Bros. On paper, the Home Taping Bill appears to be a private tax levied by the government on behalf of an industry for the benefit of the select few.
MC: You're getting almost as obsessive as Lenny Bruce in detailing this.
Zappa: When people come up and ask me technical questions, I try to give them accurate answers. I've had a lawyer working with me this whole time, and that's an out-of-pocket expense. I'm not interested in adding any more bullshit to the discussion than is already there. I want to go for the real facts. I'm a songwriter, a music publisher, a performer, and own my own record label. Everything that's happened over the past six months in this area directly impinges upon my livelihood. Let alone the First Amendment. The fallout goes beyond the record business. The PMRC used pending legislation as a wedge to make the record companies bend over and that's just not right.
MC: What are the motivations of the PMRC? Are they well-meaning parents or ambitious politicians?
Zappa: Let me quote my father, even if it's not original. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I won't question the character of the people involved with the PMRC because I have no way of knowing what their real motivations are. But the general aroma is political. Tipper Gore has maintained their movement is not fundamentalist nor born again. However, Mrs. Baker is born again. And they have a man by the name of Reverend Jeff Ling, who claims to be non-denominational. Plus, they share office spare with Adolph Coors. I don't know if any of his money is going through their operation, but they are at the same office suite. When I first met Tipper Gore at the Senate hearings, she was all excited about receiving 10,000 letters. Did she know that 30 million people bought the last Michael Jackson album? How can these ladies stay in business? Somebody is paying the bills. And it's not Mike Love's $5,000, either.
MC: At the New Music Seminar, you were criticized for telling people not to organize.
Zappa: The problem with organization is that Americans are pretty lazy. Once they join something, they think that's enough. It has to be up to the individual. It has to be fought at the local level. Because these maniacs who want to censor everything live everywhere. And there are local ordinances, like the one in San Antonio, which might just slip through while you're sitting there thinking you've joined something so the work is done.
MC: Hasn't the establishment always tried to suppress rock & roll? Why is it different this time?
Zappa: Let's look at history. The early complaints about rock and rhythm & blues were all racial. It's more dangerous today because of the fundamentalist right: the amount of money they have, the Supreme Court tradition, the administration in power now, the centralization of the media. There are fewer independent voices now. It's all conglomerates. Rupert Murdoch becomes an American citizen and buys a film studio. Ted Turner takes over MGM. Everybody on the right is investing very heavily in the machinery of bringing information to the public. And one of the few places where you could voice dissent has always been rock & roll. It's not about whether you're singing about tits 'n' ass; it's whether you're singing about something that a guy in Washington, D.C., is gonna be afraid of. Which will threaten his power. Believe me, I've got nothing against anyone who's a born-again Christian, but I do believe in the separation of Church and State. And when some guy in a pulpit starts writing foreign policy advocating World War III because of a biblical prophecy, I object. Reagan was elected by a majority of what amounted to 15 percent of the eligible electorate. That's a mandate? It's analogous to the PMRC situation. A lot of noise, but not too many numbers. Look at what they're really afraid of. The 26th Amendment gives 18-year-olds the right to vote. The last thing in the world those guys in D.C. wanna see is a mass registration of teenage voters.
MC: Dee Snider said he thought you hurt the cause by being so sarcastic and condescending on the stand.
Zappa: I didn't go there to make friends. Why should I go in there kissing hands? Fuck those people. I give them as much respect as they give the music industry. Those fuckers don't know their ass from a hole in the ground. Dee is welcome to his opinion. I think he did a terrific job. He was the only one to testify who was actually attacked by these women. Even though the lyrics I write really are explicit, they were never mentioned at any point during the hearings. I could have referred them to "Bobby Brown Goes Down," "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes," or the "Briefcase Boogie" section of Thingfish. But they wouldn't let me recite any of my lyrics at the Senate.
MC: the examples they used were so obscure, like that Mentors' song about the anal vapors. It made me want to rush out and get a copy; it was hilarious.
Zappa: The sickening thing about the whole show was, they were supposed to be giving these examples of things that would shock you, but instead, people would laugh. And every time laughter would break out, Senator Danforth would slam the gavel and say, "We're not going to have any demonstrations." The biggest laugh and applause came after Senator Paula Hawkins showed the Twisted Sister video. Then she held up a Def Leppard album cover with a burning building on the front and insisted it would turn you into an arsonist. The intellectual level of their argument was right down there with the lichens and the amoeba. They've been telling everybody for months now that rock causes suicide, murder, teenage pregnancy, everything except psoriasis. There's no proof, but the media plays along anyway. They use it to sell deodorant.
MC: What happens now?
Zappa: The PMRC has already announced the next step. They're going after videos.
MC: For someone who's been quite reticent about talking to the press, especially the music press, you've done an awful lot of interviews over the past six months.
Zappa: When you do an interview with a rock & roll magazine, usually you're talking to a guy who has no interest in who you are or what you do and a strong interest in seeing his own by-line in print. The basic thrust is, he's there to stab you in the back. Who wants to experience that over and over again? Twenty of those in one day will make you commit suicide. If rock causes suicide, that's how it does it. Most of the press I've been talking to are hard-news journalists, so it hasn't been that bad. At least you're talking to someone who's professional about it. The worst is when network news comes to my house, videotapes for an hour, and runs ten seconds of the conversation. Newspapers are probably better by a factor of 50 percent than the network news.
MC: It's ironic that someone who's often been critical of rock & roll rushes to its defense.
Zappa: Just because I don't consume it, doesn't mean anybody else shouldn't have the right to. I'm an advocate of common sense. I'm not going out and buying a W.A.S.P. album, but I wouldn't keep someone else from owning one if that's their idea of a good time.
MC: You're not sorry you got involved in the controversy in the first place?
Zappa: The average guitar player doesn't get the chance to go and see the government at work. I did. And it opened my eyes. I took my two oldest children with me. And they couldn't believe what they saw. As a matter of fact, Moon turned eighteen a few days after and the first thing she did was go out and register to vote. They got to see first hand the difference between what these people say in real life and what the media puts out.
MC: Isn't a democratic country like ours, where we can debate the issues in public, still preferable to, say, the Soviet Union?
Zappa: Of course. I'm a patriotic, all-American boy. I would just like to have an America that worked a little better and worked a little bit more fairly for all the different kinds of people that live in it. If you look at countries like Iran or Bulgaria, where they have that kind of censorship – they still have suicides, they still have teenage pregnancies. They might not have the album with the buzzsaw blade on the cover, but they've got the same social problems. If you want an example of a country where the government is run by religion, look at Iran. It may not be your favorite religion, but that's a religious government, and they are convinced, just as many fundamentalists here are convinced, that their God is the only one. And, if you do it by the Book, you'll go to heaven.
MC: Will this experience influence the music you make in the future?
Zappa: I basically work with computers now. The new album, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, will give you an idea of some of the types of sounds I'm capable of creating with my new equipment. I certainly don't expect to make a career out of doing Congress tapes. I've sent copies of "Porn Wars" to everyone who appears on it and the only comment I got back was, "No comment."
MC: You don't really compete in the world of pop music, do you?
Zappa: I've never been interested in it. I leave that to the people who live that life. People who believe that having a hit record is the greatest thing on the planet. And will do anything to get it. I'm more interested in hearing stuff I've never heard before.
MC: And preserving our right to hear it, too.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net