Democracy's Pitchman

By Joe Morgenstern

Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 30, 1988


Frank Zappa Urging Young People to Vote? Has One of Rock’s Most Iconoclastic Icons Gone Straight?

WHEN YOU buy a cassette of “Video From Hell,” a recent product of Frank Zappa’s imagination, funny bone and bile, a gift comes with it; a pair of cardboard “No-D” glasses that you assemble by pushing little tabs through little slots. The instructions for this, and for attaching an ample cardboard nose modeled on Zappa’s own, are set forth in elaborate, deadpan detail. One note at the bottom of the instruction sheet, though, has nothing to do with No-D and everything to do with Zappa’s latest overmastering obsession:

“Register to vote and read the Constitution before it’s void where prohibited by law.”

Register to vote? Read the Constitution? What bourgeois fate has befallen the father of the Mothers of Invention, the longhaired rocker who lashed out so wildly and hilariously at the American middle class in “Freak Out!”, his first album in 1966, and who gave us the ineffably raunchy “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”? The Zappa of old would have told us to use his No-D glasses, which are opaque, for watching the current No-D election campaign.

But tuning people out of the political process is not what the resident muse and CEO of Barfko-Swill merchandising, Barking Pumpkin Records and Honker Home Video is up to these days. On the contrary, Zappa has been working tirelessly at turning the citizenry out to vote. His voter-registration spots, along with those featuring Stevie Wonder, John Cougar Mellencamp and others, were shown frequently on MTV. During a hugely popular, 27-city concert tour called “Broadway the Hard Way” earlier this year, Zappa took time during the first part of every show to urge his fans to register at their first opportunity. “If you don’t register,” he warned them, “you can’t vote, and if you don’t vote, democracy doesn’t work.” He also made sure their first opportunity came a few minutes later, at intermission, by setting up voter-registration desks in the theater lobbies.

This campaign, organized by Zappa with the help of local members of the League of Women Voters and other citizen action groups, resulted in about 11,000 sign-ups, most of them first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 25. It also produced a resurgence of interest in Zappa himself, one of pop culture’s most intriguing – and enduring – icons. “60 Minutes” followed him on tour, then sent Morley Safer to do the obligatory sit-down interview. Life magazine treated his political activities with respect, although it also fell back on the familiar zaniness of his family life in a piece called “The Zappa Zoo.” (He and his wife, Gail, have four children: Moon Unit, 21; Dweezil, 19; Ahmet, 14, and Diva, 9.)

Behind much of this new attention was sheer bafflement, or the bemused assumption that another ’60s rebel had gone straight, like the turncoat yippie Jerry Rubin. For those who've followed the twists and turns of Zappa’s career, however, his latest exertions on behalf of voter registration and the Constitution come as no great surprise.

Zappa has always been a freedom freak, with or without long hair and the trademark “stinger” sprouted neatly be low his bottom lip. (The hair is shorter now, the stinger survives intact.) His style has always combined straight lines, technical elegance and funky facades: a sort of Sam Rodia of rock. He is the man who put on his best suit and testified eloquently before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1985 against a scheme advanced ardently by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.’s wife, Tipper, to impose ratings on rock lyrics, and who has made a point of abstaining from alcohol and drugs (although he smokes like an RTD bus). There has long been reason to suspect, then, that the private Zappa is an extremely solid citizen. To check this suspicion out, I drove to the Hollywood Hills one recent night, paid a visit to his large house (the exterior style is Tudor by way of Bavaria) and listened while he talked until dawn.

 

ZAPPA LIVES mostly by night when he isn’t on the road. All his business ventures are run out of his house, which he’s lived in since 1968, and night is the only time things are quiet enough for him to compose music – serious music, or at any rate music that’s qualitatively different from the loose-limbed, joyous rock he plays on stage. Starting our conversation at 10 p.m. is a courtesy to him but also a convenience for me since there’s no clutter on either of our scopes: no famous kids with funny names, no secretaries typing, no phones ringing, no techies editing tape or fixing equipment, nothing and no one but Frank Zappa, the phantom of his own baroque opera.

Still bleary-eyed from sleep, or lack of it, he greets me in a faded pink T-shirt, baggy gray Bermudas and Reeboks. “The one bad part about staying up alone at night is I’m not a cook,” he says. “If I get hungry, it’s peanut-butter time.”

We chat for a while in the grungy lounge of his lavishly equipped studio, surrounded by racks of audio and video-tape: a life in oxides. It’s suffocatingly hot. It’s also dim, verging on dark. He prefers it this way, he says; daylight reminds him of criminals. I say I usually associate crime with the dark. “That’s because you think of criminals as little individuals doing harm to other individuals. I think of criminals on a grander scale, like government and corporate managers. You'd be hard pressed to find an individual mass murderer who could do as much damage as one good corporation.”

Eventually we decamp to the control room, where an air conditioner keeps us and the equipment cool. Although the light is brighter here, the only intimation of the outside world is a home-security-system monitor, with its black-and-white still life of a dark driveway and one parked car: 11 o’clock and all’s well.

The control room is also the throne room of Zappa’s Synclavier, a wondrous instrument that unites synthesizer and computer in digital wedlock and costs as much, Zappa says, as six Lamborghinis – “not that I like Lamborghinis, but it’s a point of reference for L.A. readers.”

The Synclavier enables its grateful owner to take seemingly familiar sounds – you’d swear genuine human beings were playing conventional instruments – and build them into compositions that are too complex or demanding for mere mortals to perform. Zappa‘s building blocks are called sound files, which can consist of a single note or a group of notes, of music or sound effects, of a wood block, a tuba or a gargle. Every day, a computer assistant trims these files, which are actually tally encoded samples, so the computer knows when they should start and stop. Then, when Zappa sits down to compose, he combines the files into patches, or ever more complex tapestries of sound, and weaves his new patches into passages of music.

None of this will be easily grasped by the lay reader, since the lay writer hasn't grasped it all that firmly himself. In an earlier time in the United States, when Zappa was a kid – he’s 47 now – the word sampler meant a Whitman’s Sampler, a beige-and-blue box of chocolate bonbons. Now his samples are electronic, and as he sits next to the sweetest bonbon of them all, his Synclavier, he talks eagerly about new software updates, an antidote for aliasing noise, the nature of the attack envelope and how the instrument gives him four partials on every patch; all this while geometric patterns float and change on the huge computer screen behind him, like a satellite sail in a solar wind.

Suffice it to say that the sounds Zappa plays for me are mysterious, stirring, sometimes enthralling, occasionally magisterial; that his control room, with its hundreds of musical works-in-progress filed on floppy disks, is where he would live if he could be a full-time hermit, and that music is what we’ll come back to, just as he always does, after sampling other tributaries of the data stream that flows from his head.

 

THE MAN DOTES on data. Like many brilliant autodidacts – he’s self-taught in music and everything else, having never finished formal studies beyond high school in Lancaster, Calif, class of ’58 – Zappa can’t get enough of the factual stuff: data about American elections (“Of all the industrialized nations on the face of the earth, we have the lowest voter participation, 50%”); data about tax exemptions for political preachers (“I think Pat Robertson has clearly violated Section 5013C”); data about sound waves (“There is a frequency, I believe it’s 10 cycles, of a certain amplitude that will stop your heart”); even data about dwarfs (“I saw on CNN that the world’s smallest man isn't Portuguese any more; he’s Algerian. He’s a 22-incher. He looks so cute, like a Keebler elf”). On the desk next to the Synclavier keyboard lies a paperback compilation of facts called “l00% American.” Zappa hands it to me. “That’s a great book you ought to know about” I open it at random and discover that 45% of American teen-age girls play backgammon.

 

A COMBINATION or anger and dogged faith seems to fuel him. Like hydrogen and oxygen in a booster rocket, they mix, explode and hurl him into high dudgeon. Although he doesn’t make an issue of the faith, he claims that he’s angry all the time. “I mean, there’s so much - - - - that I really can’t stand, and I’m not shy about telling anybody what it is that I hate.”

Government, for one thing, especially as it has been practiced in the Reagan years (he himself is a registered Democrat and a strong Dukakis supporter), and the religious right for another.

Zappa likes to think of himself as a traditional conservative, his professional lunacies on stage notwithstanding. “I want a smaller government. I want lower taxes.” He was asked by one delegate of the Libertarian Party to run for President. But he declined because he found that party’s platform to be largely unworkable. He and his wife, Gail, who guides the family business, have played the stock market, though not since last year's crash. (The crash forced them to take a second look at the risks of Wall Street versus the risks of their own enterprises, which historically have yielded larger returns.)

He says he’s anti-union and takes pride in his success as an entrepreneur. It’s easy to see why, even if his corporate style is a parody version of the American way. In a field dominated by media giants, Zappa’s home-grown ventures not only survive but flourish. Although neither husband nor wife will discuss overall grosses or profits, the Wall Street Journal reported that Barfko-Swill, their mail-order business, sold about $1 million worth of records, posters and T-shirts in 1986 alone.

He insists that he could identify with Republican doctrine “if you were to subtract from the Republican Party the evil influence of the religious right.” But the Christian fundamentalists have driven him wild ever since the 1985 campaign to impose ratings on rock lyrics – “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk,” one song from the recent concert tour that will be a new Zappa album, denounces TV preachers stashing “Jeezobucks” in the bank – and he sees their influence undermining American democracy.

“What has happened to the presidency as an institution in the United States is a disaster. It’s not a matter of conservative versus liberal; it’s a matter of fascist versus freedom. Because what you've seen for the last eight years is bunting-encrusted fascism waving a flag in one hand and a cross in the other.”

It should be noted that Zappa is non-partisan when it comes to insulting individuals with his sometimes trenchant, sometimes puerile lyrics; his new album also includes a song about Jesse Jackson called “Rhymin’ Man,” which accuses Jackson of rhyming fast and loose with the truth. But modern government as a whole provokes his greatest scorn. Government, Zappa says, has turned into “the entertainment branch of business,” a show that’s seen to best advantage on C-SPAN. “C-SPAN is wonderful, some of the best television that has ever been presented to the American public. If you like it raw, there it is; that's the real sushi bar of American politics.” If the show in Washington is all that hollow, though, why work so hard getting young people to register and vote? That’s where the faith comes in, and where the seemingly bottomless cynicism bottoms out.

“When you vote, you get to decide about things other than Frick and Frack. See, one of the reasons why a person participates in a democracy is that you don't just get to choose between the two shmoos that have managed to get through our Byzantine nomination process. You have things like your no-fault auto insurance or Proposition 13: Remember that one? You have various bond issues. You have the right to participate in the way in which the government spends your money. If you limit your role to just choosing between two imaginary personalities that you’ve been seeing on television, you’re missing the point of voting.”

 

ALL HELL breaks loose on the home-security front. A horn bleats from a loudspeaker. Flashing lights create an eerie halo on the black-and-white monitor. Zappa glances at it coolly, then tums away. “The cat must have climbed on Dweezil’s car and set off the alarm.” After three or four minutes the halo subsides, and the car stops crying for help.

 

AS A DEVOUT worshiper at the temple of his own body, Zappa doesn’t drink hard liquor or do dope. He hasn’t even driven a car for 20 years, and driving can be deadly too. (When his license expired in 1967, he refused to go back and stand in line at the DMV). So how come he rejects the wisdom of the surgeon general and smokes Winstons like there’s no tomorrow?

His response is rococo, to say the least. In the past, Zappa has courageously and incisively attacked the would-be raters of rock records for their lack of science: No one has ever proved a causal connection between vile lyrics and undesirable behavior. Now, after declaring his passionate love of tobacco, “one of the greatest things that was ever invented,” he attacks the anti-smoking forces by:

(a) Expressing his suspicion of “what we call medical science in the U.S.A., because I don’t have that much confidence in the AMA”;

(b) Celebrating differences in individual body chemistry. “Certain people can metabolize certain kinds of things. Certain people can even thrive on white bread, and do. They become Marines. I’ve always liked tobacco. That’s my body chemistry”;

(c) Insisting. that his willingness to accept, even embrace, the randomness of life reduces his personal conflict and that this lack of conflict makes him so healthy that he could smoke 18 cartons a day if he wanted to. “If my personality was all bunched up and oh, I’m worried about this and I’m worried about that, then probably everything I’d do would tend to pull me down”; and

(d) Asking how you can trust a surgeon general who was appointed by President Reagan, and who wears epaulets like an admiral, then reciting the only marginally printable verse from “Promiscuous,” his recent song about C. Everett Koop: “C-SPAN showed him, all dressed up/In his phony Doctor God get-up/ He looked in the camera and fixed his specs/’N gave a little lecture/ ’Bout anal sex’.”

 

ZAPPA’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY will be published by Simon & Schuster next May. He’s calling it “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” because most of what’s been written about him over the past two decades strikes him as unreal. “The whole process of consumer journalism in the United States is something that I would describe as a shady business, and that's being kind. When the end result of this shady business is collated and repackaged by an even shadier business, which is the exploitation paperback business, you can imagine the result. Free speech being what it is, OK, you stick it out, but the only possible antidote is to put out something that says. ‘If you ever wondered what I thought about stuff, here it is.’ ”

Some people write books about themselves when they feel a need to figure out who they really are and where they came from. Self-scrutiny of that sort doesn’t seem to be Zappa’s motive, though. He looks on the book as more of a business decision that will earn him increased privacy.

“Things work better if I don't have to spend a lot of time answering the same questions I’ve been answering for 25 years. One example is the rumor that I had a gross-out contest with someone on stage.” As the story goes, Zappa, who has long delighted in speaking the unspeakable, once ate the uneatable in public view. But he denies it categorically. “I mean, this is the most preposterous thing. So I made it the first thing in the book. I said the closest I ever got to eating like that was at a motel buffet in North Carolina. It's that kind of book. It's got things in there that are actually real. I mean they’re facts.”

 

IF SOMEONE else wanted to figure out who Zappa really is and where he came from, other facts might be worth noting.

One of his first toys was a gas mask. Every member of his family kept one at home when he was a little boy in Maryland, where his father did poison-gas research for the government as a meteorologist “He was figuring out when they shoot it off and if the wind is blowing this way what will we do?” This is not to say that poison gas turned him immediately into a little rebel. Far from it. At the age of 5, during World War II, he offered his father, and by extension the United States and its allies, an original design of a warhead he now claims was the first MIRV. (The offer was turned down.) “I wanted to help, and always have. I happen to think if you have to have defense you want your - - - - to work. I'm no peacenik.” But it does suggest strangeness in his life from an early age.

As a youngster, Zappa was fascinated by chemistry. His father couldn’t afford to buy fancy scientific toys, such as the A. C. Gilbert chemistry sets of the period; it was all he could do to keep the family housed, clothed and fed. But he brought home little chemical bottles and some compounds to put in them. “I certainly mixed a few potions in my time and got to be quite an expert on making explosives. It was one of my main interests in life, partly because I like fireworks.”

Zappa spent the crucial years of his adolescence in Lancaster, on the high desert. More strangeness of a particular prickliness, plus physical and cultural isolation. Was that bad? No, probably good for inventing one’s culture, but still strange, plenty strange. “In a way I hated it while I was there, and in other ways I thought it was a really great place to be. It’s not a glamorous desert, like Arizona. It’s just desert, but that’s nice. It’s kind of ascetic, which is not something you would imagine a 15 or 16 year-old kid would be interested in.”

By this time his father was doing data-reduction work at Edwards Air Force Base. Lancaster was a boom town in the mid-to-late 1950s, thanks to the emerging aerospace industry, but the city was still run by alfalfa and grain merchants. “Anyone who came there to work on defense was an outcast. We felt like squatters.”

If anything else was needed to dot the i of Zappa’s isolation, it was his taste in music. While other kids were going crazy over Elvis, he was lapping up Igor – Stravinsky – plus rhythm and blues, plus the astringent avant-garde compositions of Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern. These were all his own discoveries, since there was no music in his austere home. “We didn’t even have a record player until I was 14 or 15.” As for Elvis, “I thought, ‘Who is this white guy trying to make all this fake black music here?’ I was one of the few people at that time who knew that ‘Hound Dog’ was originally recorded by Willie Mae Thornton on the Peacock label”

 

ALTHOUGH HIS politics seem to be generating more public attention these days, music is Zappa’s abiding reality. That’s hardly surprising for a musician, but the reality for him is more than an abstract turn of phrase; it’s a physical presence. He likes to call himself an air sculptor. “What music is, literally, is a recipe for sculpted air,” he said in “Once a Catholic,” a book of interviews with prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics about the influence of the church on their lives. Zappa is resoundingly ex, but he recalled, with his own kind of reverence, a childhood moment from his grandmother’s funeral:

“The choir was singing, and I could see from the way that the candle flames were wavering that they were responding to the sound waves coming from the choir. That was when I realized that sound, music, had a physical presence and that it could move the air around.”

He has moved mountains of air around in his time, so much that he can hardly keep track of what he’s done. His serious music has never been critically acclaimed, and his rock has never turned platinum or even gold, but he has been blessed with a fiercely loyal core audience that considers him a genius and buys every record he makes. At the moment, Zappa is struggling to edit “Broadway the Hard Way,” the album from his recent tour, and his first release of new music since “Jazz From Hell” in early 1987. The tour was a free-form circus, with artistic roots in the wacky music of the 1940s bandleader Spike Jones. (“He’s the only person I ever wrote a fan letter to.”) It was also a technical tour de force, preserved in about 1,970 takes of 120 titles.

“Out of that, somebody has to decide which parts of which song are the best version available from any given city, remember it, tell the engineer to mix this city to match that city and then glue it together to make the album. You don’t farm that out to anyone else, so that’s what I've been doing here.”

The so-muchness of it all doesn’t stop there. On any given night in this huge cottage of Zappa’s industry, he may help one engineer start a series of mixes in one room, move to another room to hear what a second engineer mixed, then go upstairs to his computer cubicle to work on advertising copy or liner notes.

Whenever possible, though, he beats a solitary retreat to his Synclavier, where he can sculpt air to his heart’s content. What he does there doesn’t look like any sculpting I’ve ever seen. Instead of whacking away at a hunk of marble with a hammer and chisel, he types numerical values on a keyboard. But the computer knows what he means.

“Listen to this,” he says, flipping a switch. Suddenly the room is filled with thick columns of solemn sound. The music grows louder, deeper, richer, stranger. It isn’t beautiful, in any conventional sense – not a catchy tune you’d want to whistle but it’s startlingly new, and the newness is what excites him. “Machines like this have made it possible for me to hear things I never dreamed I would hear in terms of air molecules in life. You can imagine them, but to be able to hear them, and hear them played accurately, is something I never thought I would live to see. Yet here it is; you can do it any day of the week.”

I understand almost nothing when Zappa offers a theoretical example of what his music machine can do: “Seventeen beats in the space of four beats played by one instrument,” he says, “and at the same time 23 beats played by another instrument.” I understand only dimly after he explains, with great patience, how the Synclavier can handle arbitrary subdivisions of time and rhythm that human beings would have a hard, or impossible, time playing.

What’s abundantly clear, though, is how he exults in the heady freedom that his instrument confers; how he delights in pursuing all these new rhythms, melodies, textures and chords, these hitherto unheard combinations of air, ear and mind. “And if it turns out that something isn’t too interesting,” he says, part like a serious composer and part like a kid with the chemistry set he never had, “you just try something else. Tuplets, for instance: I’ve done things like 88 tuplets: 88 notes in the space of three quarter notes as a regular feature, played versus 35 notes. Thirty-five over 88!”

But what, I ask cautiously, does a passage like that do to you? How dots it sound?

“What does it do? It makes me want to dance!”

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