Frank's Wild Years

From "Louie The Turkey" To The London Symphony

Interview by Steve Lyons and Batya Friedman

Option, March/April 1987


As rock 'n' roll lurches toward middle age, it's possible to glance back and spot its most notable overachievers. A few practitioners are of interest for their enduring longevity (Chuck Berry, the Stones); others are hold in awe for their legacy (Jimi, Elvis, Beatles); still more for legendary performances (the Dead, the Boss). And then there's Frank.

Frank Zappa is entirely something else. At a time when rock music had barely enough self-consciousness to aspire beyond 4/4 time and simple rhythm 'n' blues progressions, the Mothers of Invention were dishing out free jazz and irksome improv, tape effects and treatments, sound collage and social satire, the compositional iconoclasm of Stravinsky and Varèse, and all the while winning audiences under the guise of being a "rock" band – funny hair, amplifiers and all.

With the Mothers and in his ongoing career as an artist working under his own name, Frank Zappa is the most well-documented and prolific of all rock composers. With a solid four dozen albums to his credit (including orchestral recordings of his compositions and several multi-disc sets) and lots more to come, Zappa sets an almost unmatchable standard of productivity. Granted, not all of his more recent work is up to snuff; he is prone to overly juvenile humor and tricky arrangements that are more indulgent than innovative. But Zappa is perhaps more wide-ranging than ever in his music, easily moving from slightly silly rock to neo-classical works to instrumental albums showcasing his distinctive guitar style to the recent Jazz From Hell, an LP of pieces entirely performed on the Synclavier.

Forthcoming as of this writing are more discs including a second volume of Zappa compositions performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, a live album called The Helsinki Tapes, a ten-record set You Can't Do That On Stage, plus boxed reissues of his early albums (which should also include unreleased material), and more CDs (Rykodisc has already issued some long sought material such as Zappa's Lumpy Gravy and the Mothers' We're Only In It For the Money).

While the barrage of recordings as outlined above might seem to defy any sort of "normal" marketing sense, it suits Zappa's personal requirements. Having been in conflict with his original record company (MGM, Verve), Zappa set up Bizarre Records in 1968 in order to release the affectionately greasy rock parody of Ruben and the Jets. The label also put out a number of Mothers records and had the freedom to issue such marginal artists as Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer. Later came his own Discreet Records, which offered much of his mid-'70s work beginning with Overnite Sensation. The short-lived Zappa Records followed, and since 1981 Zappa has released all of his work through Barking Pumpkin Records. In all of that time (except for some disputed Warner / Discreet titles in the late '70s), Zappa has steadfastly maintained total control over his output, from packaging to the music to his frantic release schedule.

Herewith, Zappa discusses some of the high (and low) points of more than two decades of work.    -ed.

The Old Days

You have said that there's nothing about the '60s that you miss. But during the run at the Garrick Theater in New York in '67 there seemed to be an excitement and spontaneity in your concerts that would be hard to capture now. Do you miss the "anything might happen" adventure of those concerts?

That was not so much a series of concerts as a long-running engagement in the theater, which means you do things different than you would do in a concert situation. It was also being performed for an audience that differs greatly from any other audience anywhere else on the planet. The New York audience is special, it's a different bunch of people there. And also, at the time that we showed up, we were so out of phase with everything that was happening in that city. It was great just to be totally abstruse. You could do anything. And because they were New Yorkers, they would at least consider it. You couldn't do that in Hollywood. You couldn't do it in Paris. You couldn't do it in London.

You had a fairly regular audience there too.

There were some kids, by the time the show closed, they were crying. I would talk with them outside the thing. A couple of guys were there 40 times; they had the ticket stubs to prove it. They just loved it so much. I saw one of them in the audience when we were working in the Palladium in 1980 or '81. He was in the front row. His name is Mark Trotiner. He was all grown up.

Was he waving?

No, he wasn't waving. I recognized him.

And I said, "It's you!" Mark used to come to the Garrick Theater concerts with a friend of his. We called them "Loeb and Leopold." Their idea of a good time was one guy would get up and run screaming down the aisle and run to the stage screaming like he was insane and would come up on the stage and I would give him the microphone, and he would take it and he would scream at the top of his lungs into our horrible little PA system and fall in a heap on the floor, and then I would spit Coca-Cola all over his body. That's what he wanted me to do! We did it several times.

Louie the Turkey was regular. He's that guy on Lumpy Gravy with a cackling laugh. I'd hear him laughing in the back of the room. I'd say, "He's here, Louie the Turkey, he's here." His real name was Louis Cuneo. "Bring him down." And he would come onto the stage and I'd put him on a stool and hand him a microphone. And we'd just do nothing, and he would laugh... he would just sit there and laugh. And the entire audience would break up! After five minutes, give him a big round of applause. He'd go back. "Thanks a lot Louie. And now..."

But anyway, this "Loeb and Leopold" thing, I saw this guy sitting in the audience. I said, "It's you! Would you care to come onto the stage?"

And have Coca-Cola spit on you!

He declined because he had gotten beyond that stage and now he was a record distributor in Queens. But as far as missing that kind of spontaneity, that wasn't so much a product of what the '60s were as it was a product of what New York was at that time. We came from California and everybody in California was all dressed up. There were freaks. In San Francisco they were all dressed up as Gay '90s and cowboys and everything was in clothing-style fantasy land. We went to New York; they weren't. They hardly had any long hair back there. The people who came to the show were mostly Jewish middle class boys with short hair from the suburbs. That was the bulk of our audience at that time. The weirdest it got was maybe on the weekend they'd wear a headband. These were guys who would grow up to take over their fathers' garment businesses. And they liked it, I don't know why, but they really did!

Was there a difference in the acceptance of your art here and in Europe?

We have a large audience over there simply because we've been there a large number of times. But also because of this strange quirk. In Germany, for example, when Absolutely Free was released (1967), people somehow got the idea that I was an anti-American artist. Because I would say things that were critical of American society, they would say, "Das ist gut!" That was during the days of the SDS. So I wind up having to explain to these guys that I'm an All-American Boy. I may say things about the United States that you might agree with, but you're agreeing for the wrong reasons. I think America's the greatest place that ever could be. It's not that fabulous right now. It's got some emotional and psychological problems. But I wouldn't live anyplace else. So it's difficult to spend years explaining that over and over again to somebody who says they like you, but they're liking you for twisted reasons. And it varies from country to country why they like you.

For example, the biggest selling single we ever had, anywhere in the world, was in Scandinavia. It was the largest selling single in CBS's history there. You know what it was? "Bobby Brown." It was a disco hit. Think of it. [The song concerns the exploits of a sado-masochistic record promo man, sort of.] Picture a disco in Norway with people dancing to "Bobby Brown." College students got cassettes of it and hooked up speakers to their cars and drove through town blaring this song. It was unreal. And then it went from Scandinavia, a year later, to be a hit in Germany. Not quite with the same rabidity. And you could never even play the record on the air in the United States.

I did an interview in Germany at the time of the release of Sheik Yerbouti with a woman named Petra Schnitt who is one of the top reporters for Stern or Der Spiegel... can't remember which. She came to our show in Hamburg. She liked the show. She'd heard the album. And she came backstage to do an interview after the show. She said, [in quiet German accent] "I see that you have a song on your album about Jones and crushing him." I almost fell on the floor. No. This song is not about Jim Jones and crushing him. This is a song about a girl that has incredibly strong vaginal muscles. And she went, "Oh, that's very different."

Does it bother you that you're misunderstood?

Who's understood? Are you understood? What do you expect out of life?!?

Speaking of Germany, how did the title of the song "Holiday In Berlin" originate?

"Holiday in Berlin" refers to a riot we had at the Sport Palast in Berlin in 1968.

A riot caused by your concert?

No, it was caused by the SDS. What happened was during the sound check in the afternoon a bunch of student rebels came and said they wanted to talk to me. I listened to them, and they said, [in fraudulent German accent] "You know there will be 8000 people here tonight and they have never demonstrated before, and we want you to tell them to come with us." I said, "Really, where are you going?" And they said, [in mysterious voice] "It's a cold night." And I said, "Oh, you're going to make it warm eh?" Like, "We are going to start a fire." I said, "Well, where?" "Around the corner," was the answer. You know what was around the corner? NATO Command Headquarters! They wanted me to tell the audience to go with them to start a fire. So I told the guy, "You have bad mental health." And he didn't like it.

So that night they came back, 200 of them, and they had jars of paint, cherry bombs, banners, they made a mess out of the fucking show. And there were 20 to 30 German policemen who refused to even show themselves during this thing, and we had to play for two hours: two one-hour segments with an intermission. So during the show these guys were doing their best to make a mess out of things. So we take our intermission, we go backstage, and they figure they've run us off. They went onto the stage. They had wire cutters, they cut the wires to a bunch of the equipment. It was really pretty obnoxious, so we surprised them. We came back and played the second half of the show. They were so stunned that they shut up. Our roadies glued things back together and we kept playing. Toward the end of the show they figured this is their last chance to get the audience to go with them, so the student leader leaps onto the stage and grabs the microphone and starts babbling away in German. So in order to keep him from doing what he was going to do, I gave Don Preston instructions to put our electronic organ through a fuzz tone and put both arms on the keyboard. You know what that sounds like – that's an ugly fucking sound.

And meanwhile our road crew, such as it was, was carrying instruments off of the stage one at a time. I made my guitar feed back, and it's just me and Preston making ugly noises and this guy going like that [pantomimes screaming]. And at the end we both unplugged our stuff and walked off and just left him there babbling. That was "Holiday in Berlin."

On Composing

As you compose, are you primarily guided by how you want the music to affect a listener's spiritual, emotional, intellectual or physical state, or by the musical structure – melody, harmony and rhythm?

None of the above. It's more like, how did it turn out. Does it work? And if it works you don't even have to know why it works. It either works or it doesn't work. It's like drawing a picture. Maybe there are too many fingers on one hand, and a foot is too short over there. Or you could apply it to a recipe; maybe you've got too much salt over here. Or you could apply it to the design of a building. Did you forget to put in a toilet, or are there enough windows on the second floor?

Those are examples of pragmatic considerations as opposed to aesthetic considerations.

I don't know how to explain it. I just do it. It's not based on any academic regulations. If you take a blank piece of paper and a pencil and just start sketching on there, it doesn't necessarily have to be a house and a tree and a cow. It could be just some kind of a scribble, but sometimes those scribbles work and they are the right thing for that blank piece of space, and you can enjoy them. Or you can say, "That's not a house, that's not a cow, that's not a tree, and so I don't like it; it's just a scribble." It depends on what your viewpoint is.

Is your view truly as subjective as you are painting it to be? So, if I look at an image and it appeals to me, then all I can say is that it works for me and I can't say any more about it.

What else do you have the right to say? If you go beyond that, you become a critic. Who needs those fuckers.

What do you mean when you speak of the emotional content of music? For example, you applaud Guitar Slim and Johnny Guitar Watson for the raw emotional energy of their music. Yet you seem to have little tolerance for emotional love songs.

It's quite a challenge to reach somebody emotionally without using words that have literal connections. To perform expressively on an instrument, I have respect for that. To get to the level of performance where you are no longer thinking about operating a piece of machinery and can just project something emotional through the machinery, that is worthy of respect. Writing a song about why somebody left you, that's stupid. The performers and composers don't necessarily believe in what they're saying or what they're doing, but they know that if you write a song about love, it's got a 3000 percent better chance of going on the radio than if you write a song about celery. It's a buy and sell. And so the value system builds up from that.

What I think of as the emotional content of music is probably a lot different than what you think of. Since I write music, I know what the techniques are. If I wanted to write something that would make you weep, I could do it. There's stuff that you stick in there. There's ways to do it. It's a cheap shot.

Would you say it's sentimental?

It's not just sentimental. There are certain harmonic climates that you can build. There are certain notes of a scale that you can play within a harmonic climate to "wreak pathos," and it's very predictable. The average guy doesn't know how predictable or easy it is to do that stuff, if you just look at it scientifically, you can do it.

For example, you've got the key; it's A minor, right? And you're going to play a lot of Bs in the key of A minor and that's going to give you that little twinge. Well, that music played on an accordion is not the same as the exact same notes and the same melody and the same rhythm played on six bagpipes. It's a different story. So the timbre is involved, too. And the amplitude is involved. If that A minor chord is very quiet and the Bs are just smoothly put in there, that's one attitude. If it's being played by a high school marching band and it's being jammed in your face, it's sad alright, but it's not that kind of sad!

In different cultures there are also different norms for how certain sound combinations are perceived. That's why if you listen to Chinese classical music, everything sounds like it's being played on a kazoo and it's thin and weird, but to a Chinese person it's lush. I don't know why a person would think that the tone quality of Chinese classical music was really a warming sensation. The Chinese are different, though. They've got 7000 years behind them. Maybe after 7000 years we're going to think that stuff sounds pretty good, too.

So we all have some sort of education as to how we are to interpret a certain sound. We could call this the subjective response, which varies culture to culture.

That's right.

And there is also an objective response, a universal response to music, which is a result of how sound acts physiologically upon the human body.

Yes, the physiological aspect of it does exist. There are certain frequencies that affect your body and make you do things. There's a frequency that will stop your heart, at the proper amplitude. The French experimented with this. When you get into the audible range – not subsonics – those frequencies too are conveying information that transcends the musical information. They're being perceived physiologically by parts of the body in ways other than just what your ear is telling you about music.

The way sound works and the things that it can do to you is fascinating. I've done research into this, and have come up with some things I've used in my work. If you know those things exist, it would actually take a conscious effort to keep them out of your mind while you're writing music. In the same way if you learned a language, it would take a lot of effort to forget all the spelling and all the grammar; it's just part of what's in there.

The Present

What projects are you currently working on and what are your future plans?

I'm working on new compositions for the Synclavier spending most of my time editing right now. [The music has since been released on Jazz From Hell.]

Have you considered doing any concerts with your Synclavier?

I had my agent make some inquiries to see if there was any interest. Most of the people were afraid of it. They're afraid that they won't be able to sell any tickets. In order to play the Synclavier all you have to do is push the "start" button and the Synclavier plays itself. The question is, "Will somebody buy a ticket to hear that?" And the answer is probably "No!"

Any plans for more of your own rock 'n' roll?

I'm so involved with the Synclavier and what it can do and being able to hear compositions played exactly that I'm not even interested in writing any other kind of music. I don't get a charge out of even thinking about it. I'm really interested in music and I always have been. Now that I'm in the stage where l can have the seemingly most impossible things performed exactly right, that's worth devoting some time to.

You have a very prolific output. Do you have any special methodologies for getting things done?

Just keep working, a little sleep, a lot of work. That's probably one of the best-kept secrets in America. I think there are a lot of people afraid to work that way because they are afraid somebody will say they are workaholics. It's not as bad as having somebody call you a communist, but if you are in a jogging suit nobody wants to have that label attached to them.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment and your greatest failure?

I would say that my entire life has been one massive failure. Because I don't have the tools or wherewithal to accomplish what I want to accomplish. If you have an idea and you want that idea to be done a certain way and you can't do it, what do you have? You have failure. I live with failure every day because I can't do the things that I really want to do. I can do some other stuff. I can do whatever my budget will allow me to do. Unfortunately, I have these ideas that are just too fucking expensive. In realistic terms, you're looking at a genuine daily failure syndrome.

I have no fantasies about what the odds are that I'll be able to do what I want to do. It's not going to happen. Once you realize what your limitations are and realize that it's not necessary that you be some kind of "achiever," and you realize that even if you "achieve" something it doesn't make a fucking bit of difference anyway, then you can be "okay." I enjoy sitting down here [in the studio] all by myself typing on the Synclavier. I can do 12 hours and love it. And I know that ultimately it doesn't mean a fucking thing that I did it. It's useless. That's okay; it makes me feel good.


For more information about Frank Zappa and his activities (or to find out how to receive his anti-censorship Z-Pac) write to Box 5265, N. Hollywood, CA 91616 or call 818-PUMPKIN.


This interview is published in various forms in
- The Progressive
(November 1986),
- Option Magazine (Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr 1987) and
- Wire Magazine (Dec 1986/Jan 1987 issue).

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net