A Conversation with Rock's Skewed Social Observer
By Jim Macnie
New Paper, March 16-23, 1988
Forty-five records in 22 years – Frank Zappa, rock 'n' roll's most skewed social observer, has amassed quite a canon. He has summarized the early part of that work by declaring that "it's all one album"; if so, the highs and lows throughout his career indicate it's a very spotty one. Zappa's inconsistency has proven as dependable as his output has prolific. But don't tell that to his minions: a more defensive and devout legion cannot be found. You're liable to get a bag of burning poop on your doorstep. This crew knows comedy, and they happen to think Frank's the hottest shit in rock.
Arguably, he once was. All the Mothers of Invention/ Zappa records from Freak Out through Weasels Ripped My Flesh were not only conceptually groundbreaking and instrumentally gripping, but on-target with their point-blank criticism in the political, social, religious and sexual arenas. More often than not, they also provided a damn good larf. Zappa's function as a critical artist was to expose our rather muddy underbelly (yeah, we are what we is), something that was never too hard to do, but always hard to do well. As a means to that end, he manipulated sarcasm like a master.
And the barbs weren't only aimed for the easy-target establishment goons; just as often he went for the jugular of his counter-culture contemporaries. Zappa was lampooning hippies long before the Sex Pistols began to spit at them. For awhile, we all felt guilty in our suburban psychedelic dungeons (my town had a drop-in center called the Antediluvian Calaboose), but then Frank started to demonstrate that he wasn't infallible either. It was a hard reality.
Throughout the '70s his sharp witticisms dissipated into doo-doo and dildo jokes. Zappa's targets got broader: he dished disco, took swipes at a spectrum of misfits and minorities. His recording concept got simplified: it reverted to track-after-track rather than the skillfully aligned, full blown info barrages he previously packaged. The punch lines to his comedy were painfully obvious and embarrassingly adolescent. His music began to take on a stiff seriousness that he had initially deftly sidestepped. Their integration was stilted. Yet his contempt for his topics remained, all of which only made his work sound like that of an overreaching malcontent. During this time his audience grew by, say, leaps and bounds. Gary Lewis said it best: Everybody loves a clown (no matter how "progressive" the time signatures).
In the last few years, Zappa has been most visible as an articulate cog in the opposition to the Parents Music Resource Center, a private organization headed by Tipper Gore (wife of prez wanna-be Albert), which strives to get a ratings system for rock LPs. Taking samples of the testimony at the PMRC hearings in Washington (from both gross and naive factions) and mixing it in his own Synclavier melange, he's come up with his best composition in ages, "Porn Wars." Last summer's Jazz From Hell (Barking Pumpkin/Rykodisc) was neither jazzy nor hellish, but in fact a brisk afternoon of taut noodling with the Synclavier that compares with and updates such instrumental milestones as Hot Rats (newly and wisely remixed on the Rykodisc wafer) and Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar (Rykodisc too). Seems you can still rely on Frank to blow you out of the water instrumentally.
Which may indicate that the large, horn-laden ensemble which Zappa is fronting on his current tour can do the job. His live shows are usually part-theatre, part-rock spectacle, and often they get bogged down a bit by the chief's antics. But just as often they're salvaged by his guitaristics. A pre-concert sheet of current tunes indicates he's going to wipe the floor with Republicans, TV evangelists (whose currency of choice is "jeezo-bucks") and you if you don't register to vote.
Between the Rykodisc reissue campaign, the PMRC, the Synclavier and some questions about the Mothers, there were plenty of topics I wanted to cover in last week's phone interview. But holding true to his all-business persona, Frank started the Sunday afternoon conversation by saying, "You've got seven minutes."
The New Paper: Could the original Mothers carry out the music the way you wanted?
Frank Zappa: No. It was frustrating.
Have you tried to pick players who could since then?
Let's look at what's really going on here. I've been doing this for 23 years, and in the beginning, people who had genuine musical technique – you know, skilled readers and such – didn't work in the field of rock 'n' roll. And it's only in the last 10 or 15 years that conservatory trained guys would consider playing in a rock 'n' roll band. Like now you've got guys graduating from Berklee and Julliard who'll do a rock gig, and before that was the farthest thing from their mind.
But back then your name had a bit of clout. Wouldn't adventurous players gravitate toward you?
Well, in those days rock 'n' roll wasn't considered adventurous music. And we started off in a small town in California, so the labor pool of players wasn't that terrific.
How's the band now?
The best band that anybody's ever had. These guys are unbelievable; they all improvise, they play great, unbelievable.
Are you still giving the players tight direction?
Depends on the song. For example, the first priority is that you are doing a show and someone did pay money to see a show. The show must have structure and must move along. And although random elements that are inserted into the show can be entertaining, if it's 100 percent random I think people are going to go, "No, that ain't for me." If a guy is playing on too long, I have to blow the whistle and move it on to the next event. We have a five-piece horn section, but basically the guys are real good about not playing reams and reams of solo stuff; they pass it around pretty good.
It often seems that ways for that not to happen are written into your music.
Sometimes. Or they can be conducted. If I end their solo before they think it should end, it's nothing personal, it's just that there are constraints there. For example, you can't go over a certain duration onstage, or you wind up with stagehand union problems where the promoter gets charged thousands of dollars.
You've got that in the back of your mind onstage?
I've got it in the front of my mind. Because ultimately I'm going to be charged for it. We run into problems if the audience is late coming into the hall and sitting down. In order to give them the full-duration show, I'm pushed up against the other end.
Do you think you'll ever go back to the pastiche-type process that you used on We're Only In It For the Money and Lumpy Gravy?
Actually I have the sequel to Lumpy Gravy sitting at home right now. All the spoken parts were recorded back then and the new musical interludes in between. It's called Phase III.
Do you listen to much contemporary music?
No, I stopped because I don't have any recreational listening time.
Work, work, work?
Well, basically, yes. Because I'm the boss and I've got a lot of responsibilities to take care of. This is Sunday, what am I doing? Telephone interviews.
I wondered if you heard much of your influence in what's out there today.
It may be out there, but I haven't heard it.
It seemed like the PMRC was the perfect absurdist arena for your observation. What did you learn from your participation in the hearings?
I learned that people in government are much smaller in real life than they are on television, and on television they're already pretty teeny.
Easy to tackle?
Sure they are. Clue number one should be this: they work for you; they live and die by your vote; they spend your tax money; that's what they eat from. They are yours, buddy, you're not theirs. They have duty to perform on behalf of you, the citizen. And citizens should always remember that and people in government should remember it too. This is not like the royal family here, these are former used car salesmen with fancy suits on that are sitting in Washington, D.C. So what's there to be afraid of? I have the right as private citizen to speak my piece and look out for my own business interests. Just like every other person in the United States does.
Have they made their own statement?
Of course. And their clout has been felt; but it was really the clout of their husbands by proxy.
I read where a journalist called the PMRC lately looking for an interview and the person answered the phone with "Gore for president."
That's right. I said it in 1985: the whole thing looked like the groundwork for Gore's presidential run, and I was right. But the fact that they'd actually answer the phone at the PMRC like that makes me wonder whether or not any of the money the PMRC collected got put into his campaign. Which would be a really cheesy way to run for president. It's bad enough having your photograph taken playing basketball with UCLA. Did you see that one?
It seems insidious that someone would use a First Amendment brouhaha to grab headlines for a campaign down the line.
How else are you going to get the guy's name in the papers? Take a look at his legislative record. He introduced a bill to declare October 25 a National Mule Appreciation Day. That's real, I've got the bill in my briefcase.
Social commentary has always been the essence of your work.
Well, there's a lot of material in America, just turn on the TV and you've got it. There's so much stupid stuff going on, that you can't even keep track of it. The Jimmy Swaggart stuff is hilarious. We had an old song from '71 called "What's a Girl Like You Doing In a Place Like This?" Now I've changed the words: "What's a Girl Like You Doing In a Church Like This?" It's got all the appropriate lyrics for Swaggart.
Sarcasm has been a writing tool for you. Is that how you are day to day?
Most of the stuff I do day to day is really quite mundane. If you have me pictured as a guy who goes around being snotty to people 24 hours a day, that's not the way it is.
Will there come a time when you'll do a love song, or a from-the-heart song?
Well, my sarcasm is straight from the heart; it's heartfelt sarcasm. Not veneer sarcasm, the hardcore stuff. Love songs are not my forte; I've written a few of them, but basically the way I feel about it is that love songs contribute to bad mental health in America. By creating expectations that can never be met by mortals.
I saw you on a talk show discussing the Synclavier. Has it changed your writing process?
It makes you learn to think another way. The first thing is anything you can think of, it can play it. Whereas in the past you'd have to bear in mind the limitations of human beings. Now you throw that out the window. It's like somebody gives you carte blanche to execute any idea, and that's a big challenge: "So what the fuck do you really want to do there?" After you come up with your completely absurd idea of what you want, you type it in and make it happen.
Does the band have a hard time approximating that?
The things I write on it are generally not given to guys in the band; the things that the guys play are designed to be played by human beings, but really excellent human beings.
Do you draw a line between your pop-oriented writing and your tougher classical pieces?
Sure, you have to draw a line. But on the other hand there's no reason why the things should be mutually exclusive; one enhances the other. Just like the old question, "How do you know where the art ends and the real world begins?" The clue is the frame. So something terrifically mongoloid on either side of something terrifically complicated makes for good contrast.
I think the switch between more serious sounds and out-and-out silly sounds was great on Lumpy Gravy. It was the right ratio.
Oh, we do that still today, onstage. Like last night we premiered a couple songs that really had the audience's brains twirling around. Right in the middle of the show, for no reason at all, we played a perfect version of "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," and just when they thought it was safe to go back in the water, here comes "Norwegian Wood." We rehearse two hours every day, and we just got it together. Today we're going to be working on "Paperback Writer" and "Sunshine of Your Love" (smug laughter).
Are there songs you're overtly proud of? I heard you were doing "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue."
One of faves is "The Idiot Bastard Son."
Oh, I love that song too. It's real hard to sing, though, because the range is so wide. That's a beautiful song.
What pieces do you like?
I like "Oh No (I Don't Believe It)" and that part of "Lumpy Gravy" (sings the instrumental break).
How do you decide what gets resurrected?
Well, the resurrection process is determined by what instrumentation is in the band. Since we have the horns, we've been able to haul pieces out from The Grand Wazoo period, like "Big Swifty." The other thing we've been doing is "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson.
One of my favorites ever.
We play that real nice. There's a big band arrangement of "Black Napkins," too.
Is there time for jazz listening at home?
Nah. If I had time to listen to anything, it would be Bulgarian folk music. There's a CD of it out now (he's talking about Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares on Nonesuch; don't overlook its companion, Bulkana, on Hannibal), and we play it while people are being seated for the show.
Frank Zappa appears at the Providence Civic Center tonight (Wed., 16) at 8 p.m.
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