Artist, Businessman, Politician
By Harold De Muir
East Coast Rocker, March 30, 1988
In the past three years, Frank Zappa – already into his third decade as musician, composer and all-around crusader against blandness – has emerged as a vocal and visible presence in America’s electronic news-media. Ever since his televised congressional testimony rebutting the PMRC’s porn-rock hysteria, Zappa has remained a nagging (and articulate) thorn in the side of the well-heeled forces, of repression and regression.
Meanwhile, Zappa (who began writing chamber music at age 14, and performed a “bicycle concerto” on Steve Allen’s tv show and scored low-budget movies during the early ’60s) continues to write and record prolifically, maintaining overlapping careers as both a rock artist and a “serious” composer. In addition to his albums of musically intricate, lyrically cynical rock-fusion songs (under his own name and leading the Mothers of Invention), the Zappa catalogue includes orchestral works and avant-garde jazz-classical pieces, as well as three discs of electric guitar solos and one album of compositions written on Zappa’s recent keyboard of choice, the Synclavier.
Additionally, Zappa has invested considerable effort in remastering much of his vinyl output for release on Compact Disc. The all-CD Rykodisc label has thus far issued 16 Zappa titles, including such early Mothers efforts as Freak Out!, We’re Only In it For The Money and Lumpy Gravy, as well as more recent works. Rykodisc is also planning to release You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, a series of 12 CDs’ worth of previously unavailable live material probably not nearly excessive as it sounds, considering the devotion level of much of Zappa’s audience.
In addition to his roles as artist and public advocate, Zappa has proven to be an uncommonly creative capitalist, allowing him to maintain control of his own business and artistic affairs with a minimum of outside interference. His parent company, Intercontinental Absurdities, encompasses the Barking Pumpkin label, which releases new Zappa material through Capitol; Barfko-Swill a merchandising arm which also keeps interested parties up-to-date with free information packets covering the latest activities of the PMRC and the like; and the recently-formed Honker Home Video, which has released several of Zappa’s old and recent film projects, including the legendary, long-unfinished Uncle Meat.
Zappa’s current tour, his first in nearly four years, finds the artist leading an 11-piece band that includes such longtime cohorts as guitarist Ike Willis, keyboardist Bobby Martin, bassist Scott Thunes and drummer Chad Wackerman, as well a five man horn section. In addition to urging his young fans to exercise their right to vote (he’s had voter-registration booths installed in the lobby of each venue), Zappa is voicing his distaste with the national status quo with jibes at the Reagan administration (“Republican Retrospective Medley”) and Michael Jackson (“Why Don’t You Like Me”). The set also includes renditions of “I am The Walrus,” “Stairway to Heaven” and Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto.
Harold De Muir: The tour has been doing extremely well, with most of the shows selling out with virtually no advertising. To what would you attribute this?
Frank Zappa: I think that people are ready for what I’m doing, and I think that people are tired of groups that go onstage and don’t deliver a musical experience. There's a desire in the marketplace to see real musicians doing amazing stuff, but there’s very few musicians who are doing that now.
Americans love music, but they’re not getting music when the go to concerts and see groups that are basically hairdo bands. Everybody’s a model now. and if you’re a model, people may go to see you, but that doesn't mean that you will play music when they get there. That’s the problem.
A lot of your current audience wasn’t even born when you started making records...
There’s a bunch of kids who have bought tickets for, like, 19 shows. They see us every day and they’re rabid about it – we let them into the soundchecks. Let me give you an extreme example. There was a 16-year-old kid who came to the show in Washington, D.C. He started listening to us when he was 12, and he tried to see us live when we did our tour in ’84 but he couldn’t do it. His parents told him that if I ever toured again, he could go to as many of the shows as he wanted – they were under the impression that I was never gonna tour again. So here we come in ’88, he’s 16 years old now, he’s a drummer, he knows all the songs, and he sits in the audience beating on his leg, playing the same fills that Chad’s playing.
The thing that surprises me most about this is the way that the press looks at this as something that’s not supposed to happen, that people below the age of 100 are not supposed to like what I do. They’re always shocked to find out that there are kids in the audience who are crazy about it.
There had been some reports about a concert being canceled as a result of PMRC pressure.
That was at a university in Virginia. What happened was, there’s a three-man board that decides what acts can play at the college. One member of the board overruled the other two members, saying that Virginia is where the PMRC lives, and isn’t he an enemy of the PMRC? They decided that they couldn’t let me come in, and so we decided to do the concert for that area in a town about 50 miles away.
It’s a mere curiosity rather than an earth shattering event. My attitude is, fuck ’em, it's no big deal. It doesn't surprise me; there’s a lot of wimpy weasels working in colleges, and I’m sure that that man qualifies in that category. What the fuck does he think is gonna happen if we play there? Is Tipper Gore gonna call and bend his ear ?
The fact of the matter is that the rhetoric of the PMRC is the rhetoric of the fundamentalist right. They can deny it until they’re blue in the face, but all this stuff about the devil and backwards masking and all of the rest of this hocus-pocus is right out of Jimmy Swaggart. The PMRC is like Jimmy Swaggart, the PMRC is like Jim and Tammy Bakker, and we’ve seen what those people have turned out to be. So it’s ludicrous that a person working in a college would want to keep his students from hearing the antidote to that.
You’ve been very vocal in your opposition to Pat Robertson’s presidential candidacy. It's kind of surreal that he’s got so much public support.
It’s not really supported by a numerically large number of people, but that’s the wonder of spending millions of dollars on advertising. I think that Pat Robertson’s support has been grossly exaggerated, not only by him but by paid media. And the media that isn’t on his payroll is reluctant to play hardball with him because they’re afraid that they’re going to appear anti-Christian. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Pat Robertson that’s anti-Christian.
Here’s a guy that’s got Armageddon on his mind all the time, and if he ever got into the White House his elbow might just slip and hit the red button, and he’d think he was doing everybody a favor by getting Jesus to come back
If you lie about something long enough, people will believe you. We have a song called “When the Lie’s So Big,” about that whole syndrome in the Reagan administration. And the press helps to perpetuate that stuff by not asking the tough questions.
You seem pretty comfortable with your recent role as an outspoken media figure.
Well, I’ve acquired the knack, at least since 1985, of condensing my ideas down to bite-size morsels that work on television. The only problem is that some of the more aromatic of those tidbits have been omitted from the broadcasts, just because people are still afraid to put some of the things that I say on the air.
But this may be changing, because there’s more substantial media interest now, in terms of the hard-news coverage. 60 Minutes is covering the tour and the voter-registration thing, they’re shooting in Chicago, and ABC was in Detroit the other night covering the thing. So some of the things I’ve got to say may get out. I think I did a real good number on the CBS Nightwatch news a few weeks ago. I talked about Robertson and all of this stuff, and my assistant, who goes to these interviews with me, told me he was standing in the hall with all these CBS employees who were going, ‘I can’t believe they’re letting him say that on television.’ They didn’t cut it, but of course, it ran at 1:34 in the morning.
It's not that hard, and I think the reason why I’ve succeeded in doing it is that there’s substance in what I’m saying. I do my homework, and I follow-up on things, and if I say something it’s been researched. I don’t have any axe to grind, I’m not doing this to generate any attention for myself, its purely a matter of public interest. I think of it as sort of a hobby, and I’m good at it, and I think anybody who wants to try it should just jump right in there and do it.
Talking in front of Congress is not like going to heaven and talking to God. These people are your employees, they owe you good government, and you have the right to demand that they do their job. They’ve asked for it, they begged you to vote for them, and now they’re supposed to perform. And so as long as you’re not afraid of them and you keep your proper perspective, anybody could go in there and make a speech.
So they're just a bunch of bozos like everybody else?
Yeah. Let’s be kind, I would say that there are a handful out of the entire Congress that I respect, who have active intellects and have the public interest at heart. But the rest of them are so busy running for re-election from the minute they get in there, and they’re so plastic, that it really makes a mockery out of what democracy is supposed to be.
Do you see your political activities as being of a piece with your musical work, or is it something completely different? Is making a good speech as fulfilling as, say, playing a good concert?
Let’s put it this way, there’s certain things that you can do with music that you can’t do just by talking, and vice versa. Some ideas are so complex that adding musical notes to them dilutes the idea. And other ideas are simple, basic concepts that can be enhanced by adding music.
I try to strike a balance between the amount of words you can sing in a given bar and have it make sense versus the complexity of the idea. And a lot of things are much easier to do just talking to a guy like you and having it go into print. However, Americans don’t read that much, so that’s a tradeoff too. That’s why it’s good to do tv on this stuff.
I’d heard that you’d been talking to some people about doing a tv talk show.
Yeah, I negotiated with Fox and with Showtime. Fox wanted to do a show on Saturdays, to compete with Saturday Night Live. But Saturday Night Live has a weekly budget of a million dollars, and Fox was offering $150,000 per show, so I laughed and left. The conversation with Showtime was similarly unproductive – they wanted to do a show on Fridays, 11 to midnight, but there wasn’t enough money to do it properly. The show that I had in mind involved music and talking and comedy, but it wasn’t like Saturday Night Live. I think it would be an entertaining show, and I would still be open to doing it, but I’m not gonna do it half-assed.
How have your younger fans reacted to the political stuff? Teenagers tend to be fairly reactionary nowadays.
Yeah, well, it’s the Beastie Boys mentality – they're gonna fight for their right to party, and that’s all. And one of these days, they’re gonna wake up and find out that there isn’t any party.
Do you think you’ve had an affect on their attitudes?
We’re sure registering a lot of voters – we’re averaging 10 per cent of the audience a night. On the first night Feb. 2 in Albany, we registered 325 on the premises and 50 who took the cards home, and the girl from the League of Women Voters said that that was the most that had ever been done in a city that has generally high voter registration. And a few weeks later we did 480 in one night in Hartford and 400 in one night in Boston.
You’ve put considerable effort into remastering your old albums for Compact Disc. Do you feel big custodial responsibility to maintain the catalogue?
Well, I can’t really say I enjoy listening to all those old records, because they bring back such bad memories of what I had to go through to make them. But I know that there are people who like the stuff, and if they’re gonna be available then I want them available in the best possible condition for the people who want to hear them. If it was possible to have somebody else take care of them, I would, but I have to do it myself.
Isn’t it a pretty radical move to record new instrumental parts for the CD versions of the old records?
I only did that on two of them. On We're Only In It for the Money, I didn’t have any choice, because the original two-track master was so badly stored that the oxide had fallen off the backing, so you could see right through the tape. On Ruben and the Jets I decided to do it because that album, for its day and age, was pretty well produced – it was recorded on a prototype 12-track machine, which was state-of-the art at that time and of all the older albums it had the cleanest sound. And because it was coming out on CD, I wanted to add new bass and drums to it, to give it CD dynamic range. Those are the only two that have had new parts added, and everything else is derived from the original tapes.
Over the years you’ve managed to carve yourself a career niche outside of the standard music industry channels. Could anybody do that?
I think they could. I think it might be more difficult for them to do it than it was for me just because I started doing it a long time ago, when it was easier.
You showed a lot of foresight, holding onto your copyrights and things like that.
Well. I was fortunate enough to have some good advice early on, and I’m thankful for that. The way my business is structured, I’m working for myself. Other artists are signed to a label, and they have to rely on the employees of the label to do things. That’s always a crapshoot, because record companies, like other American businesses, have fallen way behind in terms of quality workmanship. If you’re an artist signed to a record company, you have to rely on the company to do ads that you like and album covers that you like, and you might get really frustrated in dealing with that. Whereas I do it all myself, so I know I’ll like it.
As far as the business goes, I stay pretty much to myself I have nothing to do with the bigshots at record companies, and I have nothing to do with other artists. I work basically alone in my studio with just an engineer and an assistant, And when I’m touring, that’s when I’ll have the most contact with the outside world, meeting a lot of fans and talking to a lot of press people. But when that’s all over, I’m just Joe Private Citizen again, sitting in my house. I usually work late at night, because that’s when the phone isn’t ringing.
Creative people generally have little or no aptitude for business affairs.
That’s true. But I’m no kid – I'm 47 years old, and I’ve learned a few things over the years. Also, I am of Italian descent, and Italians seem to learn early on that if they don’t know how to do something, the smartest thing is to hire somebody else who can do it. So I hire people. You’d have to be insane to think that you could excel at doing business and doing music and doing whatever else you’re gonna do. But if you have a sense about hiring people, you can get good business managers and lawyers and accountants and stuff like that. You have to take some risks and you have to put this part of your business in the hands of Mr. So-and-So, and know that if he fucks up you’ll get another guy to sue him. You have to subcontract it, because the business of entertainment is so complicated that you’d really have to have a bunch of degrees in order to he competent in all of those areas.
What kind of boss are you?
Probably the best anybody could get. It’s a very simple arrangement between me and an employee. I pay money for an employee to do a job, and as long as the employee does that job, I’m happy to pay that money. I don’t want to rule their life or do anything else to them, it’s a straightforward business deal
I'd imagine that making music, giving speeches on political issues and running a multimedia business operation must require some very different sorts of thought processes.
You’re so right, and it does take rime to adjust. When I’m done talking to you, I’ve gotta go shave and do my soundcheck, and so it’ll take a little while for me to start thinking like a musician instead of a guy doing PR. And after the soundcheck, I may get a call from the management office in Los Angeles about some record-business stuff, so I’ll have to adapt to deal with that.
Do you find the music industry to be more intrinsically corrupt than it was, say, 20 years ago?
It’s bigger and it’s more plastic. I think the corruption’s always been there, but the style of the corruption has changed and the reason for the corruption has changed. I think that proportionately, the quantity of the corruption has increased a little bit. But the size of the industry has increased a lot, so there’s a lot more room for those things to happen. But it’s not just the record business – it’s in Broadway and television and the movie business. And I think there are some real grim aspects to combining crime and entertainment.
Crime and Entertainment – what a great title for a rock opera. You seem to have an advantage over many of your contemporaries, in that your act has never involved any sort of youth trip, so you don’t have to pretend to be 21 now.
Right; I wasn’t even pretending to be 21 when I was 21. Since I wasn’t born cute, I don’t have the curse of having to try to live up to that, and I don’t have to look forward to a life of facelifts. I can be ugly and still be in the business. That’s a blessing.
You’ve made a pretty diverse assortment of records. Do your fans seem willing to stick with you from project to project?
I have some basic customers who’ve been with me for a long time. They have certain things that they prefer – some of the most loyal fans are still waiting for another version of the Fillmore East album, with ‘Mudshark’-type stuff on it, which I don’t think they’re gonna be seeing at any time soon. But I think they’re willing to take a chance and open their ears up to different things. And even though some people might like ‘Dynamo Hum’ better than Jazz from Hell they still have a continuing interest in the overall catalogue, and that’s why I’m still in business.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net