A Mind For The Body Politic
By Julius Robertson
Cash Box, November, 1988
With a big ol’ lie/And a flag and a pie/And a mom and a bible/Most folks are just liab
To buy any line/Any place, any time...
By Frank Zappa, copyright 1988, Munchkin Music/ASCAp,
from the song "When The Lie’s So Big" on Broadway The Hardway.
There’s a common belief that young revolutionaries grow up to be old conservatives. Frank Zappa has become a little of both. He is a multitalented artist whose free-thinking ways and political activism are as controversial today as when he made his first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out over 20 years ago. But America has returned to a ’50’s-style conservatism with Ronald Reagan, and now George Bush, and Zappa has also changed with the times. Without a doubt, Frank Zappa has matured. Gone are the days of posing nude on toilet seats or protesting in the streets. (Not that he wouldn’t try these things again if necessary) He’s a solid family man who registers voters at his concerts and appears before the U.S. Congress to fight rock lyric ratings – the first step towards censorship, he believes. He continues to be a preeminent music innovator, rock poet and self-contained music-business man. The graying 47-year-old Zappa has the softer edge of a reasonable gentleman. But make no mistake, he is a gadfly who can be derisively cutting and humorously cynical about the injustices he sees in the world, vividly evidenced in a stream of brilliantly orchestrated records (see discography).
Zappa’s latest offering is Broadway The Hardway on his own Barking Pumpkin label, featuring new material from his recently completed worldwide tour. Per usual, Zappa’s work owes more to Spike Jones than to Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones; it’s a freewheeling hodgepodge of social criticisms and musical eclecticisms. There are political satires of Pat Robertson ("When The Lie’s So Big"), Jim and Tammy Bakker ("Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk"), even a jab at Jesse Jackson ("Rhymin’ Man"). There’s the hilarious "Elvis Has Just Left The Building," and a biting attack on Wall Street effeminates called "Baritone Women." And, as with all his records, Zappa’s sidemen are stellar musicians, including Chad Wackerman on drums and Bobby Martin on keyboards. Zappa needs virtuosos to handle the sometimes inhuman arrangements he conjures in his studio. (Over the years people like George Duke, Adrian Belew, Aynsley Dunbar, Terry Bozzio, Peter Wolf and Chester Thompson have played by his side.)
I’m visiting Frank Zappa in his Laurel Canyon Swiss-style home where he has lived and worked since 1968. A nocturnal soul, Zappa likes to work in his home studio during the wee hours of the morning in order to avoid the phone and other interruptions. This morning his schedule is reversed, and he’s just getting up instead of winding down to go to bed, in order to do more mixing on live tracks to be released early next year. I wait in a dark lounge on a funky old couch, surrounded by shelves of 24 track tapes. The room is next to his more brightly lit state-of-the-art studio, but we choose the more dungeon-like atmosphere for early-morning conversation. Zappa lopes in, collapses in an armchair next to me and lights a cigarette, looking as if he needs a cup of coffee, which an assistant brings a moment later. (Coffee and cigarettes are his only two vices; he is vehemently anti-drugs, claiming to have smoked less than ten joints in his life.) He gazes wearily in my direction, obviously tired, but willing to talk, because he enjoys it, but more importantly because he advertises very little for the multitude of products his companies produce. Interviews are a cheap and accurate way to get the word out.
"I have to finance my own product," Zappa explains. "I then go to Capitol and pay them to press it and ship it. Nobody can tell me what to put on records, or take off. They have nothing to do with the promotion and advertising; in fact there is hardly any advertising at all."
Zappa’s home-grown industry involves three companies; Barking Pumpkin Records, his mail-order business Barfko-Swill ("Purveyors of Official Zappa Goods") and Honker Home Video. He reportedly grosses in excess of $1 million annually on Barfko-Swill paraphernalia alone. His theory is that the more he controls, the more money he makes – and the less he will be censored.
Zappa points his finger at the ceiling, as if threatening the gods. "As the major record companies get stronger and stronger, and get a stranglehold on the retail end, the artists are in a more difficult position. The record company can force you to keep your mouth shut. This came into full bloom in 1985 after the Senate PMRC hearings. [Parent’s Music Resource Center, an organization pushing for lyric ratings, sponsored by Tipper Gore, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore’s wife.] Record companies, for whatever perverse reason, applied more pressure upon the artists to keep their lyrics within a sort of mongoloid framework. Just songs about boys and girls."
Bitterly Zappa recounts an incident of censorship, blowing smoke in the face of the misguided decision-maker taunting his vision.
"Somebody once said, ’Don’t stock Zappa, don’t play Zappa,’" he intones like a prosecuting attorney "It happened in L.A. in 1985 when I put out the Mothers Of Prevention album. The album used excerpts from the PMRC hearings in the songs. The guy who runs KROQ sent out memos to all the DJs saying, ’Under no circumstances play the new Zappa record.’ Before it had even come out! They didn’t even know what was on it."
Zappa pauses, always his own devil’s advocate. "On the other hand, if you take the libertarian point of view, the guy owns the store. He can do what he wants." If his lyrics are as biting as 20 years ago, his musical techniques have evolved with the computer era. Zappa hasn’t used studio musicians since 1981. Working primarily on a Synclavier in his lavish home studio, Zappa uses the powers of digital sound-sampling to fashion his idiosyncratic works. But it is in his live shows that he reaches his apex of communication and musicianship; indeed he is anything but the "jukebox" he accuses most major rock acts of becoming. Due to popular demand, he is releasing a double set, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. I & II on Ryko CD, (as well as on Barking Pumpkin three-record set and cassette). Volume II is his immortal 1974 Helsinki concert featuring "Stinkfoot," "Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?" and "Montana Whipping Floss." And yes, Vol. I contains the infamous "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" (’where the huskies go’), performed in London.
The collections are accompanied by dryly funny liner notes written by Zappa himself. An example: in the song "Zomby Woof" recorded at an outdoor venue in Milan, Italy he writes: "When the show began and the lights came up, the entire band was swarmed by mosquitoes. We spent the rest of the evening swatting them off and trying to dodge the discarded disposable syringes tossed on stage by the unfortunate users in the front row."
Additionally Zappa has digitally re-EQ’d and remastered 22 of his early albums, from Freak Out to Zoot Allures, encompassing most of the work of the Mothers of Invention before their breakup. Other new product includes Frank Zappa: Guitar, a collection of his favorite solos. Also on tap are new video releases on his Honker Home Video label including The True Story Of 200 Motels, and Uncle Meat.
Comments Zappa, "We’ve cleaned up the old stuff; eventually we’d like to do all the albums this way. There’s no reason you should have to pay $100 for a hard-to-get Zappa release."
A major thorn in Zappa’s side has been the proliferation of illegal bootlegs of his work, mostly stemming from the voracious hunger of his cult following for obscure material. "All the bootlegs of my stuff, against which I get no assistance from law enforcement or the musician’s union, qualify as one my pet peeves."
On this subject, Zappa quotes from his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book (to be published by Simon & Shuster in May). "I have a curse that I place upon all the bootleggers out there: ’May your shit come to life and kiss you.’"
Zappa is primarily a self-educated man, having gotten no further than high school in his home town of Lancaster, a high-desert town to the north-east of L.A. An admitted news and information addict, he prefers spending a Sunday tuned into C-Span and the documentary-laden A&E channels, or curled up with a political science book. Zappa is loquacious and well-read, and in interviews he is candid about his wide-ranging beliefs. (See sidebar for a few gems.) But he is reserved in talking about his personal life, an understandable situation considering the ogling attitude the press has taken toward his uniquely christened and talented children. With his wife Gail he has four kids: Diva, 9; Ahmet, 14; Dweezil, 19; and Moon Unit, 21. Both Moon Unit (featured on her Dad’s hit, "Valley Girl") and Dweezil (whose second album is called My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama) have show business aspirations. They are high school dropouts, opting for the equivalency tests, not entirely to the displeasure of Frank, who has little faith in the American school system’s ability to educate.
"The problem is not so much what is written in the laws, but the willingness of the people in this part of the 20th century to believe things that are obviously not true," says Zappa. "The Big Lie. The desire to engage in a terminal level of wishful thinking. It’s an education problem."
"Americans have never studied their arithmetic carefully." continues Zappa, blowing little zeros of smoke. "If they did they would realize that the amount of debt is frightening. On Wall Street there have been all these ’leveraged buyouts’ during the Reagan era. They buy a company for a dollar in cash and a billion in debt, then they cut up the pieces and sell it off, with enormous profit to the stockholders. But it screws up the industrial base of the country There’s no new production. A lot of people lose their jobs."
When I ask Zappa why the new record dwells so much on the evils of religious fundamentalism, his eyes narrowing with disdain.
"Unless you happen to be the kind of person who enjoys being told when to kneel down, these people should be feared. There are some who believe that certain beliefs should be forced on them through legislation. That’s bad. And as far as I can tell through the constitution, it’s against the law.
"Reagan was put in power partially by men of God, who turned out to be men of commerce." spits Zappa, looking nauseated. "Jim and Tammy Bakker donated to Reagan’s campaign and were invited to the inauguration. Pat Robertson was involved. Just because a guy invokes the name of God doesn’t make him right. What about the guy with the sword on the Staten Island Ferry?"
Despite his low opinion of the characters inhabiting the current political system, Zappa has a strong faith in the system itself. His registration drive at his concerts, with the cooperation of the League of Women Voters, netted some 11,000 new voters, putting him second only to Jesse Jackson in registering young voters.
"Until proven otherwise, I believe it’s a viable system, he says. "The problem has been the people who inhabit the system. If you believe there’s any hope for human nature, then you must believe there’s a chance, no matter how small it might be. It seems today that the kind of people who go into politics are bad lawyers or used car salesmen, or some mix in-between."
When Zappa isn’t railing against the stupidities of government, he’s criticizing the music business itself, which he sees as creatively bankrupt, too tied to commercial considerations. As an outsider to mainstream commercial music, he feels free to analyze the business honestly.
"The most unfortunate part about the record business today is that there is so much of an inter-marriage between beverage companies and teenage product manufacturers; there’s a desire to put out stuff that’s hooked together. It’s as sick as the Saturday morning cartoons being controlled by the toy companies. You no longer make music just because you want to make it."
As our interview comes to a close, Zappa talks about some of his current hot topics, including the alleged plot by Reagan and Bush to pay Khomeni to hold the embassy hostages until after the 1980 elections. But his favorite pet conspiracy involves the army and AIDS, with the army ostensibly responsible for its development as a chemical weapon. Zappa’s father, it should be noted, worked as a meteorologist for the government, studying the effects of poison gas in the atmosphere. One of young Frank’s toys was a gas mask, and as a kid was he was interested in chemistry So Zappa takes the story seriously Even prime- time TV fiction entertains the thought, he claims, a childlike excitement in his eyes.
"Did you watch Favorite Son on NBC last night? In the plot one of the guys is artificially infected with AIDS. One of the heroes was researching how this could happen. In this show it was mentioned that he should go to the Army because it’s their job to develop weapons. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was the first time on American TV anything like this had been suggested."
As I get up to leave, Zappa seems fully awake, as if finally brought to life by the army-AIDS connection theory an outlandish idea to say the least – the plot of the century if it’s true. It’s the touch of fantasy about this one that excites Frank Zappa the artist, as opposed to Frank Zappa the practical political activist. After saying goodbye with a wink, he closes the door and heads back into his dark halls, safe from the warming sun.
ZAPPA ON THE MUSIC BIZ:
"Today you can turn on MTV and see Hulk Hogan waving an American Flag. It can be said that in the
eighties, rock became as real as wrestling."
"I don’t like love songs. They contribute to bad mental health. The message of most rock & roll creates
expectations about relationships that will never be met."
"I dislike singer-songwriter types who wish to spread their heartbreak across vast continental areas. It’s a
despicable way to make a living."
ZAPPA ON GEORGE BUSH:
"The only thing I know about the ’thousand points of light’ is that it is what shows through all of Bush’s rhetoric. Like the holes in Swiss cheese."
ZAPPA ON AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
"How many people reading this article will voluntarily go to an affirmative action brain-surgeon?"
ZAPPA ON THE DEVIL
"At no point since the middle ages have so many people believed in the devil. The belief in a guy with a tail gives unstable personalities a chance to say ’The devil made me do it,’ And thereby be absolved of
ZAPPA ON THE GULLIBLE PUBLIC
"There’s nothing more frightening than ignorance in action. People voluntarily withhold information from themselves. People swallow gobs of rhetoric like it was cotton candy."
ZAPPA ON TV POLITICS
"If the Nazi’s had television with satellite technology, we’d all be goose-stepping. Americans are just as
ZAPPA ON REAGAN & THE HOMELESS
"Prior to Reagan we did not have whole families living on the street just because they got their house taken away! Is it because we've been eating too much artificial sweetener that we've forgotten who did this to us?"
ZAPPA ON OUR CONSERVATIVE YOUTH
"There’s nothing wrong being a ’young Republican.’ But there’s nothing to balance it off There is no
counterculture, no counter-anything."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net