Sharp Words From Music's Cutting Edge
By Ron Chepesiuk
Gallery, June, 1989
The poster is one of the most memorable in rock history, pure Frank Zappa in its reflection of the zany '60s style. Zappa, leader of the iconoclastic band, the Mothers of Invention, sits nude on the can, looking, well, like a guy who is enjoying a good crap. The caption reads: "Phi Zappa Krappa."
The poster is now part of pop lore. The Mothers no longer exist. For many of us, the '60s have receded into oblivion along with our hairlines. But Frank Zappa lives! Today, at 48, not only is he living but he is thriving as one of the most exciting and controversial personalities in music.
That's "music" and not "rock music" because Zappa's discography now includes 50 albums that defy easy labeling. Over the past 23 years, Zappa's wide range of musical styles has featured everything from jazz to classical to rhythm and blues to, of course, rock 'n' roll. During that time, people who know music have said he is one of today's most innovative and influential artists. Zappa has written over 300 compositions on subjects as diverse as gays, lumpy gravy, dental floss, televangelism, and teenage prostitutes in Los Angeles. His classic albums include We're Only In It for the Money and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Some radio stations have considered many of his songs so perverted that they have refused to play them.
Time has not dulled the creative juices, as Zappa has continued to experiment with music, recently all but abandoning the guitar to take up a New Age musical instrument known as the synclavier. It was only because of his 1987 world tour that Zappa came back to the guitar after a two-year hiatus.
The tour broke all current musical conventions as Zappa traveled with an 11-piece band, setting intimate theater dates and putting on a show based on music rather than choreography or hairstyles. Among the new songs Zappa performed were "When the Lie's So Big," about Pat Robertson's presidential campaign; "Why Don't You Like Me?" which lists people who are not the illegitimate children of Michael Jackson; and "The Planet of Baritone Women," the tragic story of a whole generation of male junior executives who achieve success by carrying purses.
But there is more to Zappa than just music. Articulate and intelligent, Zappa has been outspoken about a variety of issues affecting our country and planet, from the environment to the commercialization of rock music.
Most of all, he has achieved prominence in his almost single-handed counterattack against the would-be censors of rock music, the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), which is led by Tipper Gore, Nancy Thurmond, and other wives of prominent and powerful U.S. politicians. In 1985 Zappa testified against the rating of rock lyrics before a Senate Committee. At the hearings, Zappa said, "The complete list of Parents' Music Resource Center demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training program to housebreak all composers and performers."
Interestingly, Zappa was not the target of the PMRC but showed up for the hearings. Superstars such as Prince and Bruce Springsteen were targeted, but they stayed home.
Through it all, Zappa has remained married to Gail, whom he met in 1966 when he was the Mothers' leader and she worked at Whisky a Go Go. They live with their four children -Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva. Moon Unit had a top-40 hit seven years ago when she and Frank teamed to record "Valley Girl." Dweezil has appeared as a guest VJ on MTV and has earned a reputation around L.A. as a lady killer, which led to two feature stories in People in 1988.
Gallery sent contributing editor Ron Chepesiuk to interview Zappa at his chalet-like home high in the Hollywood Hills of L.A. "Zappa is a nocturnal creature, so he scheduled the interview for six PM. on a Saturday night," Chepesiuk recalls. "We talked in the dark, cluttered subterranean den, surrounded by hundreds of videos and memorabilia and paraphernalia from his musical career. Zappa was surprisingly soft spoken. I didn't really expect that from a guy wh9 is known' to have strong views. Dressed in black slacks and a pink and gray Hawaiian shirt, Zappa chain-smoked his way through the interview.
"The day before, I had lunch with Zappa's agent, Jim Nagle, who suggested that I could get the interview off on the right foot by talking politics. Nagle enthused, 'Frank is a political animal.'"
GALLERY: Let's start off with what everybody else has been talking about: politics. George Bush was sworn in yesterday as president. What are your thoughts on the occasion?
ZAPPA: It's a bunch of garbage! There we had all those Republicans – who should have been at the inaugural with flashlights, trying to find George's thousand points of light – while around them were people who would love to have a bowl of rice and a roof over their heads. Bush could have made big points with everyone if he had rented some fucking tents for those [homeless] people to get them through the winter!
GALLERY: Well, Bush has started his presidency by telling the American public that he is going to be a kinder, gentler, more caring president.
ZAPPA: It bothers me to see that type of money – somewhere around $27 million – spent on low-grade entertainment [at the inaugural]. It's like government by fucking fantasyland! It's absurd to say you're going to be kinder and gentler when you come to the inaugural and literally have to step over the homeless and poor who are starving in Washington to get to the podium.
GALLERY: Do you expect to see a change under Bush from Reagan's approach to government that has seen the neglect of the poor and other social ills plaguing the country?
ZAPPA: I think the change is going to be in the style that the cover-up is going to be conducted.
GALLERY: By cover-up you mean ...
ZAPPA: The cover-up is the fact that I don't believe anything is going to be done to deal with the problems, although I don't know if it's going to be on the same level as under Reagan. Reagan had the gall to say poor people were poor because they chose to live that way. He moved into fantasyland when specific incidents of what the poor and homeless had to do to survive were pointed out to him. When, for example, it was pointed out that some people were sleeping in graveyards, he suggested that the people who slept there were crazy. George has campaigned for the "gentler, kinder, thousand points of light, I'm for the environment" bullshit. So to maintain any sense of integrity beyond the hundred-day honeymoon all presidents get when they come into office, he is going to have to go beyond the hocus-pocus that Reagan fooled the American people with and do something concrete.
GALLERY: Well, you know George Bush is being presented as the moderate pragmatist, whereas Reagan was portrayed as the inflexible ideologue.
ZAPPA: He may be viewed as a moderate, but I think in order to survive, he is going to have to payoff some IOUs. You know that the $27 million [for his inauguration] didn't come from moderates. It came from extremists on the right who want to overthrow Roe v. Wade , who want to send money to the contras and to finance other conservative causes. It's like the old cliché: He who has the money can make people dance to his tune. I don't think those people would have given money to Bush unless they thought he could be made to follow Reagan's right-wing line. But I'm going to give George the benefit of the doubt. I'm going to give him a hundred days and keep my mouth shut. Then, in 100 days, if George doesn't do anything, a bell is going to go off in my head and I'll be on George's ass like a lot of people (laughs). I think the next four years are going to comprise a critical period in American history. Let's hope George hires a lot of people who are smarter than he is and who can come up with brilliant ways to deal with our debt, the Third World debt, the hole in the sky, and the other crisis problems.
GALLERY: The public thinks of Frank Zappa as the gadfly of the establishment who likes to live outside mainstream America. But many of them may not know that you were actively involved in the 1984 elections, registering young people to vote. How did that come about?
ZAPPA: My group was on tour while the primaries were going on, so I thought it would be a natural to get involved with voter registration. The United States is the least registered industrial country on Earth. Something like a mere 15 percent of the eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast ballots in the 1984 elections. That's pathetic! I don't believe an American has a right to complain about the system if he can vote and doesn't. For an American to say "I don't understand politics" or "I don't have the time" is no excuse.
GALLERY: How many people did you register?
ZAPPA: We managed to register about 11,000.
GALLERY: Wow! Organizations like the League of Women Voters must have liked you.
ZAPPA: Yeah, you would think so. But in certain cities, political groups that you'd think would have helped me with voter registration didn't. In Albany [New York], when I asked one political group to send over registration forms, I was told that they didn't have time (laughs) . These are the same people who say we don't have enough registered voters!
GALLERY: I'm sure you heard this line when you were on tour and trying to register young people to vote: Why should I vote, Frank? There's really no choice between the Republicans and Democrats.
ZAPPA: Basically, what I said to them was: There's more to voting than putting your "X" for your choice of president. In California alone, there was plenty of shit to vote for. We had all those insurance initiatives, banking measures, and gun-control issues. Even if you didn't like the candidates, there were plenty of economic measures to vote on. If you don't vote, you can't express your opinion on issues that affect you. I strongly believe that.
GALLERY: You were approached by the Libertarian Party and asked to run on their ticket as a vice-presidential candidate. But you turned them down. Why?
ZAPPA: I don't agree with their platform.
GALLERY: But the Libertarians are very strong on civil-liberty issues and so are you.
ZAPPA: Well, I don't agree with certain parts of their platform. To get involved with the Libertarian Party means you have to recite their doctrine in toto. I'm not that type of guy. I'm too independent, too critical in my thinking.
GALLERY: A lot of people think of Frank Zappa as a radical, anti-establishment type of guy. But in listening to you so far, you project an image of a level-headed guy who likes to work within the system. What is the political philosophy of Frank Zappa?
ZAPPA: I like to think of myself as a practical conservative. I'm for that part of conservative doctrine that is for smaller government, less taxes, and
GALLERY: (Laughs.) That sounds like the Republican platform.
ZAPPA: It is the basic part of the Republican platform. If they could get rid of that other fascist shit they've picked up over the years, I would register as a Republican.
GALLERY: What fascist shit are you referring to?
ZAPPA: I'm talking about the evil influence the radical right has had on the Republican Party. If Abraham Lincoln came back today, he would not recognize the Republican Party as he knew it. If Jesus came back today, he would not recognize what is being said [in his name] as Christianity. A lot of the negative things the Republican Party has become I blame on Pat Robertson and the religious fundamentalists who have flocked to the party. I think their influence is undermining American democracy.
GALLERY: When people think of Frank Zappa, most likely they conjure up an image of a musician who is into the drug scene. Is that the real Frank Zappa?
ZAPPA: No, not at all. I don't drink or do hard drugs. I've smoked less than ten marijuana cigarettes in my life. When I'm working on music with other musicians, like, say, practicing for a tour, I keep very strict standards: no drugs. They can do what they want on their own free time.
GALLERY: So what is your view on drugs?
ZAPPA: According to libertarian philosophy – that part of libertarianism I adhere to – I own myself. The government doesn't own me. The government exists at my leisure because I, as an individual, give it the right to exist. The policeman has the right to carry a gun and enforce laws because you and I give him that right. If you decide to fuck up your life with drugs, you have that right. But you don't have the right to fuck up someone else's life. If an individual decides to participate in any kind of chemical alteration – whether it be drinking too much alcohol, smoking marijuana or a regular cigarette, or taking some other kind of chemical substance – he has the right to do it without the government getting on his fucking back. Where I draw the line is when the individual's actions impinge on the safety and lifestyle of another person. There are people in occupations that are critical to the life and safety of others. So they cannot engage in those practices while on duty.
GALLERY: Do you believe drugs should be legalized?
ZAPPA: I prefer the word recontrolled. Drugs are controlled substances. The controls in place right now don't work. There always will be people who need drugs and will find drugs anyway they can. They ought to be able to get them in a federal dispensary. Think back to Prohibition. It was the biggest sin in the world to take alcoholic beverages. But Prohibition didn't work. It bred criminality.
GALLERY: It is a consensus opinion that America has a drug problem. Does the fact that many people are compelled to take drugs say something is really wrong with our society?
ZAPPA: There is a hopelessness that drives people to consume drugs. There is a hopelessness that drives people to sell drugs. So we have to attack the problem on these two fronts. It's difficult to convince a kid in the ghetto that he should be working in a McDonald's at five dollars an hour when he could be making a quick thousand dollars selling crack or cocaine on the street. So we have to find ways to deal with the quick-buck mentality, while at the same time helping the guy who can't look to the future and is strung out on a controlled substance he never knew would consume his life when he first started using it.
GALLERY: What's the answer?
ZAPPA: I don't know if there is one. Solving the drug problem is going to take a lot of money. But the real problem is that our society is a selfish society. The average guy who stays home and minds his business and doesn't take drugs doesn't want to know about that stuff. It's dirty! Keep it away from me! Does he want to spend a dollar to help a junkie or a poor kid in the inner city who might become a junkie? No fucking way! But doesn't the average guy realize that if something is not done soon to help the junkie, he may be in his house pretty soon looking for money to feed his habit?
GALLERY: We have talked about the average guy. Let's talk about Frank Zappa, the average guy with a wife of over 20 years and four kids. Has it been difficult being a musician and family man?
ZAPPA: No, not really. I've got a wife who's supportive. Gail's got a great organizational mind. She handles the business part of my music career.
GALLERY: Well, has it been tough being a parent and musician? You hear so much talk today about how tough it is to raise kids.
ZAPPA: I don't have any problem kids. Strangely, I don't have any angry rebels on my hands (laughs).
GALLERY: How do you explain that?
ZAPPA: (Laughs.) Luck, man! just luck.
GALLERY: Your children seem to be drifting toward careers in entertainment. Have you encouraged them in this direction?
ZAPPA: No. They can do what they like. I like to stay out of their lives. But I'm there if they need me. Dweezil and Moon Unit are of legal age now. If they want to go do something, they can go do it.
GALLERY: Looking back 20 years, do you ever get nostalgic for the '60s?
ZAPPA: There are things I don't miss. I think we were incredibly naive in our belief that we could change America. But, on the other hand, there are things I do miss. It was an exciting time. I was young, starting out, on the cutting edge of my career.
GALLERY: Many people think the music back then was better. Do you agree?
ZAPPA: Well, some of it was. But the reason for making music now is different. Today, the music is being made by bands who are into elaborate stage sets, outlandish hairdos, and formula music. But I guess if that is what the market wants, that is what it will get. Back in the late '60s, a lot of songs were about something. They made a statement. I don't think you have that today.
GALLERY: You have not exactly played ball with the musical system and recording industry. How do you explain your success?
ZAPPA: There are people who like musicians who don't go commercial. There are probably more of them than we suspect. But I've had to work hard to get established. I had to organize my own record label [Barking Pumpkin] and mail-order company [Barfko-Swill] to market my music.
GALLERY: What if you were starting out today as a musician? Could you do it your way? Could you compose and play essentially the same type of music and still be successful?
ZAPPA: No, no way! I think it would be almost impossible.
GALLERY: So what does it take to get a recording contract today?
ZAPPA: You have to be stupid.
GALLERY: In what way?
ZAPPA: Well, the recording company figures that if the group hits it big, they are going to try to find out what the company did for them . Where's the money? But, fortunately for the recording companies, the groups today are stamped out of a machine. The groups need the recording companies more than the recording companies need the groups. For every group you see on MTV, another one is waiting down the hall to take its place. Back in the '60s, when a recording company signed a group to a contract, it believed that it had a stake in the group's development. They took their time and brought the group along. You don't have that today.
GALLERY: What's going to happen to rock music if the record companies aren't going to take an interest in developing young musicians?
ZAPPA: One thing happening is that there has been an increase in home recording equipment. Kids are buying the equipment, taking it home, and recording their music. They are realizing that a lot of those groups they see on MTV-making the big money, enjoying the fame, winning the awards are musically less competent than they are. They are beginning to realize that the rock scene is bullshit.
GALLERY: Yeah, but there is still a system involved. How is an aspiring, original, young musical talent going to get a recording contract and get the wide audience he needs to hear him?
ZAPPA: They won't unless the record companies wake up and introduce a whole new concept as to who and what gets signed. Let's be optimistic. Let's say the plastic music goes on and on until worldwide record sales come tumbling down. This will force the industry to make drastic changes. A big part of the change will be to fire the record company executives who are making the decisions. Sooner or later, the companies are going to have to realize that music doesn't have to be plastic to sell. Changes have happened before. In the mid-1950s, rhythm and blues was great. Then, about 1958, the record companies decided it was too rough. It needed violins. So we got Ray Charles and Fats Domino with violins. Then everything had violins. Rock music became corporate rock. But the music got so bland that the public couldn't stand it anymore. So the music industry got rid of it and gave us the punks. Punk came in, but sure enough, the corporations said once again it was too rough. They cleaned it up again and gave us New Wave. But they said that was too rough, too, and took off all the edges and really smoothed it out. So here we have New Age music. (Laughs.) The perfect music to listen to while you are in the dentist's chair. The music industry is going to have to wake up and realize there's a market for all types of music. It doesn't have to be harmless or all the same.
GALLERY: Is the rock music scene a total cultural wasteland or are there some good groups out there?
ZAPPA: I'm sure there are, but I haven't heard any.
GALLERY: Do any of today's rock musicians teach you anything about music?
ZAPPA: No, what's there to learn? I've been around 20 years.
GALLERY: Let me throw out the names of some groups and rock stars who might be popular with our readers and hear what you have to say about them. U2? Their music is supposed to make a political statement.
ZAPPA: Good! Beyond that I'm not particularly fond of the music they make. I think a lot of their music is derivative. By the way, are they or are they not born-again Christians?
GALLERY: How about Van Halen?
ZAPPA: I like Eddie [Van Halen]. But outside of his stage skills, I don't think he has given music anything new.
GALLERY: How about the Boss, Bruce Springsteen?
ZAPPA: I don't really know a lot about his music. I've seen a couple of his videos on MTV, but I haven't taken the time to listen to his music.
GALLERY: Michael Jackson?
ZAPPA: You could take the average kid next door and give him the marketing and packaging that Michael has gotten and turn him into another Jackson clone.
GALLERY: You're saying he's a corporate creation?
ZAPPA: Yes. I think Quincy Jones has played a big part in Michael's success.
GALLERY: All the names I've just mentioned have had success on MTV. Is it possible to reach stardom in rock music without looking good in a video?
ZAPPA: I would say it's possible, but highly improbable.
GALLERY: Have you put out a video?
ZAPPA: Yeah, but it didn't do so well.
GALLERY: Where do you get your musical ideas from?
ZAPPA: By being alive. I get them from reading a lot of newspapers, all kinds of books, listening to TV, talking to people ...
GALLERY: How do you go about composing a song?
ZAPPA: It depends on what kind of song it is.
GALLERY: Okay. Let's take two cuts off your recent album. How about "Promiscuous," your satire of Surgeon General Koop? [C-Span showed him, all dressed up/ In his phony doctor god getup/ He looked in the camera and fixed his specs/ 'N gave them a little lecture/ About anal sex.]
ZAPPA: It is a rap song, so it was easy. First of all, I wrote the words and got the rhythm down. I just gave it a typical rap background and I was done.
GALLERY: How about the one about Pat Robertson: "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk." [Now, what if Jimbo's (Jim Bakker) slightly gay/ Will Pat let Jimbo get away?/ Everything we've heard him say/Indicates that Jim must pay.]
ZAPPA: That was more complicated. Each section of the lyrics had to have a different type of music. It took a lot longer to compose.
GALLERY: Do you like to tour?
ZAPPA: After the last tour, I don't know. It took me about eight months to put together: Four months practicing and four months on the road . I think it was a success but it took a lot out of [me] . Right now I'm trying to look for an alternative which will allow me to get my music to my audience.
GALLERY: While we are on the subject of tours, I have to ask you the question: Is that story true about you once eating shit onstage?
ZAPPA: The closest I ever came to eating shit while on the road was once-when I ate dinner at the Holiday Inn. Otherwise, there is no truth to that fucking story.
GALLERY: Well, how did that rumor get started and why has it stayed around?
ZAPPA: I really don't know. All I can say is that it's real vicious and has followed me around in my career. Unfortunately, people still believe the rumor.
GALLERY: I came across this quote by a critic who said: "Mr. Zappa considers himself a scathing social critic as well as a sophisticated maverick musician. Yet a lot of statements amount to just rude name calling, and he treats his fans as juveniles to be harangued." That appeared in Life magazine.
ZAPPA: So what? If the guy actually said something, I could respond . But I believe in free speech. He has the right to say w hat he wants about me even though he has nothing to say.
GALLERY: In 1985 you were at the center of a battle against the PMRC involving rock censorship. How'd that come about?
ZAPPA: The PMRC is an organization involving the wives of government officials. They threatened an entire industry [the recording industry] with the wrath of their husbands' powerful committees. They thought they could perpetuate the myth that sex equals sin by removing all references to sexuality in rock music. The PMRCs program is unworkable, given the quantity of recorded material released each year. If Congress would have enacted their entire program , American musical culture would have become hostage in the Beige Zone, somewhere between the Salem witchcraft trials and the McCarthy era.
GALLERY: You weren't a direct target of the PMRC, were you?
ZAPPA: No, I didn't appear on any of their censored lists.
GALLERY: So it must have dismayed you when musicians such as Prince, who was a direct target, didn't step forward to defend himself. They didn't seem to care.
ZAPPA: Yes, but I don't know Prince, so I didn't know what was going through his mind at the time. But I thought it curious when he got upset and threatened to sue somebody over the use of his lyrics to one of his songs.
GALLERY: Would you say you were the difference in the dispute?
ZAPPA: If I wasn't there, the PMRC would have steam rolled their whole program through.
GALLERY: That's kind of frightening, one person standing between a powerful lobbying group and censorship.
ZAPPA: What's frightening about it? That's American.
GALLERY: Well, it would have been nice if you had some support.
ZAPPA: What kind of help do I need? Look, the technique basically is this. I see bullshit. So I go find a platform and stand on it. I shout (shouts): I SEE BULLSHIT! Soon enough, other people are going to answer (shouts): YEAH, I SEE BULLSHIT! Sure enough, the bullshit goes away. So what you need to do first is to stand up and shout "bullshit" and say it in such a way that a lot of people hear you. Anybody can do it, if they take the time to do it. They should do it because it's the American way.
GALLERY: Do you see yourself playing rock 'n' roll at 60?
ZAPPA: No, but I hope there is such a thing as rock 'n' roll when I'm 60. If the recording industry doesn't take a long, hard look at itself, I won't have to worry about playing rock 'n' roll. By the time I'm 60, people might be saying: "How did they do it? (Laughs.) What did they call it? You say, rock and roll (laughs)?"
GALLERY: What have you got in the works in the next year?
ZAPPA: Well, I guess the big thing is that Simon and Schuster will be publishing my autobiography in May  . The first part is chronological and contains al l the usual stuff you would expect to find in an autobiography. The second part is arranged topically and contains my views on drugs, politics, music, etc. I'm calling it The Real Frank Zappa Book because a lot about what has been written about me during the last 20 years has been unreal.
GALLERY: Anything else on the horizon?
ZAPPA: I'm hoping to go to Russia this year. I'm working on a proposal to the Russian government right now. I'd rather not get into details. If it works out, it will hit the newspapers.
GALLERY: Do you have fans in Russia?
ZAPPA: Oh, yeah! One day during last year's tour, one of my assistants called me at my hotel in Denver to tell me that I had got a call from Russia. It's fairly tough to make a call into Russia. But do you know how hard it is to make a callout of Russia? Anyway, this Russian
somehow had managed to get the hotline number for my distributing company and wanted to talk to me. I told my assistant to give the Russian my hotel number in Denver and to tell him to give me a call.
GALLERY: What happened?
ZAPPA: He got through. [Mimics a Russian accent] Ven ahr you comink to Russia? Yoar recordz ahr very diffikult to find. Vee vahnt to heer you . (Laughs.) I've gotten letters from not just Russia but Poland, Yugoslavia, and other communist countries.
GALLERY: Looking back over your music career, what would you consider to be your greatest achievement?
ZAPPA: Being able to earn a living this long playing music.
GALLERY: You're also a good musician who happens to be a sharp businessman.
ZAPPA: Well, I don't know about being a sharp businessman. If I was such a sharp businessman I would have done something else that made me a lot more money and gave me a lot more security.
GALLERY: Yeah, but you wouldn't have been able to do it your way and you wouldn't have been doing what you wanted to do.
ZAPPA: As I said, I've been lucky.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net