Frank Zappa ... Live!
By Allan Handelman
The Rock Report, July, 1989
Editor's note: The following interview was recorded during a recent edition of "East Coast Live," which is aired every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on The Rock. Frank Zappa was interviewed by Allan Handelman, WXRC's program director, who shared the forum with other interviewers and phone-in questioners.
Allan: He's incredible, one of the most influential, innovative, controversial, sometimes misunderstood, musicians around. He's been around since the birth of rock and roll and is still a very important figure. He's a social satirist, a composer, owner of a record company, several as a matter of fact, such as Barking Pumpkin Records, and recently he came to national attention with his voter registration efforts. He was also one of the outspoken critics of the PMRC which wanted the ratings on records and were afraid of such things as backward masking. He is a rock and roller who speaks his mind. He's got over 50 albums out, some of them double! He's done a lot of rock n' roll, some jazz, classical, and blues. He has recently published a book, "THE REAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK," and it's a good thing because if there is one person who has been the victim of public misinformation it is this man, Frank Zappa! Frank, what was it like writing this book, was it emotionally draining?
Frank: No, I don't get emotional about that kind of stuff. It all happened in the past.
Allan: Frank, is there any truth to the rumor that you are the son of Mr. Green Jeans from the Captain Kangaroo show.
Frank: No, my father was not Mr. Green Jeans, his name was Lumpy Brannum. I did a song called "Son of Mr. Green Jeans" and somebody thought they were being astute or something and came up with the wrong answer.
Allan: Another misconception. I've met people who listen to your music, keep up with you in the news, and they ask me if you do drugs. I tell them no, but some of them actually are offended. They can't believe it.
Frank: Well, most of the people in the US, unfortunately, do use drugs, and you're an oddball if you don't, so I can see where someone might be mad. But, I don't think anybody should use drugs. It may ruin some sort of rock n' roll mystique or something, but didn't anyone ever think there could be something more interesting than drugs?
Allan: Whatever happened to the spirit of the '60s, when people believed that the music could change things? Now, things are at such extremes with the TV evangelists and their scandals, but they did have so much power in the government that it was scary. And the PMRC came out of that phase. I think rock music owes you a lot for what you did. You stood up for what you believed in and weren't intimidated by these people.
Frank: Why should you be intimidated by those people. They're just a bunch of people who happen to be wrong. Actually, things may be worse now than before because no one is paying attention to it. 'There was an article in the trades a few weeks ago, a group was claiming to have found real constitutional basis for censoring record lyrics. They're still studying it and contending that rock lyrics can make you do things Rebecca: How would you define what an artist is?
Frank: I don't usually think about that word because it's been abused so much. There are so many different uses of that word and I don't think any of the ones I've heard lately really apply. Usually, artist is the term used by a record company to describe the person who gets screwed after the accounting is over. That's probably the most accurate description of an artist today.
Allan: Like they made you change your band's name from just the Mothers to the Mothers of Invention. One of Frank's first bands, Joe Perrino and the Melotones, you got so frustrated over the way they were treating you, you actually put your guitar behind the sofa for 8 months. What did you do all that time?
Frank: I was working as a commercial artist at the time. But eight months is nothing. I put it away from 1984 to 1988, 4 years, and didn't touch it.
David: Your book is great! Is there any chance you'll write another one?
Frank: I'm thinking about it, if this one is successful. It's a lot more work than I wanted it to be.
David: Have you ever considered running for a political office?
Frank: I've thought about it and may yet do it, but now is not the right time. It's not something you just do, because it won't just affect me that would affect my whole family.
Allan: Tell me, what happened to the feeling of the 60s of helping one another, the feeling that started all the music we have today?
Frank: How can you have that feeling when all the record companies want today is to have a hit. A long time ago you didn't have to be a platinum selling artist to get your music played on the radio, there was an outlet for non-commercial music. Today, that outlet is gone. FM is just like AM and if a guy is going to make his living from being a musician, he has to sell records and the easiest way to do that is to be commercial.
Allan: One of the things I learned in the book is that in the " old days, listening to psychedelic bands, you didn't really hear the band but the session players who would tweak the sounds or get them in tune and such. So when I hear these songs it's not even the real bands playing them.
Frank: The thing is, the guys who did play the stuff really hated it too. Here's a gross example from even before that time, "Bongo Rock," by Buddy Epps. The guitarist on that is Barney Kessel, a jazz guitarist. He did a lot of that. He hated rock and roll but he got paid so he did it. I've heard that Duane Eddy's records were played by a guy named Al Casey.
Allan: Let's talk about the media bias. One thing I've heard is that people who do talk shows and people who run TV and radio station are too liberal.
Frank: It is a fabrication. They've tried to make the word "liberal" like the word "communist." In fact a lot of the right wing guys use those two interchangeably. It's like creating a scarecrow. The fact is that no one who is liberal or left wing owns a broadcast license. All the big stations, all the big papers and magazines are owned by people on the right.
Billy: Of all your records, what is your favorite?
Frank: In terms of production, there are three that really qualify: "Shake Your Booty," "Joe's Garage," and ''You Are What You Is." For my own personal enjoyment, I like some of the guitar albums. As a balance, I would say that One Size Fits All is a great album.
Billy: Do you have any records or tours in the works?
Frank: Broadway the Hard Way has just come out on CD.
Mike: Will "Shake Your Booty" be released on CD?
Frank: They all will be eventually, all 58 of them, that boosted it 13K.
Billy: What is the thing about the "litigation albums" I've read about?
Frank: It's a long story. I delivered these tapes to Warner Brothers and they were supposed to pay me. They didn't and so were in breach of contract. Instead of paying me they went ahead and released the albums. It took me six or eight years in a lawsuit with them.
Billy: I heard you gave Alice Cooper his big break in rock n' roll.
Frank: They were the first artists signed to Straight Records, my company I had started. I produced parts of their first album and then had a dispute with their manager who then moved them to Warner Bros. But they had opened for us on several shows.
Allan: I remember the last time you did the show, you were talking about Dweezil and he was into heavy metal, is he still? That was 4 or 5 years ago.
Billy: Do you listen to any classical groups?
Frank: Yes, I listen to a lot of classical music. That's why watching MTV 20 minutes is so funny. I normally can't stand MTV.
Allan: But you've got a project with them coming up right? Doing the news or something?
Frank: No, I've proposed a lot of deals with MTV but they've never worked out. So it's just a "Big Forget It" for me.
Dave: How do you feel about Top40?
Frank: It's great for people who want to listen to it, but for me it's just something that doesn't apply.
Allan: When disco was hot, everybody expected Frank to jump on the bandwagon against it. He said if it makes people happy let them listen to it.
Frank: That's the way you should treat all music, there's no one music that appeals to everybody. Music is for enjoyment, if you like it, listen to it. What I don't like about radio is that they don't offer enough variety.
Allan: As a record company president, Frank, I hear that the companies are trying to get people to buy CDs, but have they started lowering the quality of the vinyl to make people buy CDs? A little more hiss here, one less track there ....
Frank: No, not that I know of. First of all, I hate to release material on vinyl anymore just because I know it will sound so much better on CD, but we still have a vinyl audience. Not a big vinyl audience but there are people who want to get the product on vinyl.
Allan: One of the things you'll learn in Frank's book, one of those little trivial tidbits is that Mick Jagger actually took a splinter out of Frank Zappa's finger.
Frank: Actually, it was my toe.
Allan: You were stumbling out of the studio and stubbed your toe on a piece of wood or something and, first time you met the guy, he took a splinter out of your toe.
Allan: The first time I interviewed you, you said you believed that the government was manufacturing and distributing LSD during the '60s. It sounds pretty wild, but four years later "60 Minutes" did a story on it, too.
Frank: I still do think that. LSD was developed as a chemical warfare agent and the first tests were done on US army guys, unknown to the guys. They gave the drug to the guys to see what happened. And that's the thing with all chemical and biological warfare, you can't just run tests on animals, sooner or later you have to test it on humans.
Allan: And they're busting the same people they're supplying.
Frank: Well, the government works in strange and mysterious ways. I hope I've got my information correct here, but I've heard that at one time Noriega was hired by Bush when he was head of the CIA.
Allan: What would you do about the drug problem?
Frank: I have suggestions. We've already tried prohibition on alcohol, and it didn't work. If people want to do drugs, they'll do them whether it's legal or illegal. Now, there are a certain amount of people you can educate away from the drugs by telling the harmful effects from early on in school. Still others, only turn to drugs because their life is totally hopeless and they want to stop the pain of an existence that seems to not be going anywhere. For those people you've got to offer them some other kind of hope. If you take away the basic desire to do drugs then you can stop them. But spending hundreds of millions of dollars on AWACS flying around the gulf and other superexpensive, low-yield measures need to be re-examined because they just ain't working.
Allan: And last week, the Gallup Poll reported that kids under 21 are actually drinking more than ever despite the laws because they're angry over it and are drinking in defiance.
Allan: What happened with Dweezil's MTV deal?
Frank: They got a new boss over at MTV and he didn't like Dweezil, so Dweezil was gone.
Cathy: How do you feel about videos in general and can we expect one from you soon?
Frank: I've made videos, they just don't play them on the air. You can be creative in the video medium, but MTV has such a limited scope of images you can use. They want every thing to be pretty much the same. You can watch an hour of MTV and you'll see basically everything.
Allan: Can you get the original version of "200 Motels?"
Frank: That's released by United Artists. I have a copy.
Cathy: What can people do to fight off things like the PMRC?
Frank: Bear in mind, even if you don't read about Tipper in the papers, there are a lot of other Tipper's out there. There are all sorts of local incidences where someone goes on a rampage and bums some records or gets a concert stopped. Just keep your eyes and 'ears open where you live and if someone tries to inflict censorship on you you've got to stand up and fight it. Laugh at them and argue with them.
Allan: And if they say they aren't looking for censorship ...
Frank: Then laugh even harder .
Allan: I don't know, as program director, I see a lot of album covers that are violent and aimed at one thing: Making preachers mad so they can get good publicity. These religious cable shows show the album covers and read the lyrics. They don't get radio airplay, so they go after this type of exposure.
Frank: But most of the buyers aren't watching those shows.
Allan: But their parents are.
Frank: If that is their idea of a merchandising scheme it is pretty misdirected. The other day someone asked me to define obscene, and I said, "Well, first, what is not obscene?" There is no such thing as a dirty word or a dirty picture. Wars are obscene and breeches of public trust are obscene.
Allan: I agree. And I think it's obscene for someone to try and say where you're coming from or what's on your mind when they don't even know you.
Frank: The English language, too, is pretty funny. You can change the meaning of a word just by raising your eyebrow. The name of one of our presidents, Dick. Say it the wrong way and you're in trouble.
Allan: I've noticed this, but never really thought about it much, that you hardly ever sing about love. In your book you explain how you think that love lyrics may be dangerous to mental health.
Frank: The lyrics you hear in love songs indicate an attitude about love and create expectations that will never be met in real life. And so, I leave that to other people.
Allan: Where were all the other rockers when it came time to defend the music from the PMRC? You, Dee Snyder, John Denver, and Donnie Osmond oddly enough, were the only ones, along with a few others.
Frank: Prince and Bruce Springsteen were both conspicuously missing, and they were the main targets of the PMRC. I never had a record on the PMRC list. "It's a pity they didn't stand up and say, "Eat this!"
Allan: At one time, all the members of the Mothers wanted to kick Frank out of the band. Why?
Frank: Yeah. One guy told me to go to
Scott: Why have you been so ostracized by the radio milieu?
Frank: I don't know, maybe I've been blacklisted. I don't know what I've done to these people but it must have been pretty special 'cause I've been in music for 25 years and you could probably count on your fingers how many times I've been played on the radio.
Allan: How do you feel about Oliver North.
Frank: Oliver North, some people think he's a hero. I don't. I think he should probably be punished and I think the people who asked him to do what he did should be punished even more. Because, not only did he take an oath to be in the military that he was supposed to uphold the Constitution, but because someone in the government told him to draw up a plan to suspend the US constitution, and he went out and did it.
Allan: The Oliver North thing is so big. I've even heard we were backing the drug dealers.
Frank: Of course we were. At that time, the psychology of the Reagan Administration had made the decision that it was more important to aid the Contras than to stop the drugs coming in. That's what is hypocritical about Reagan's war on drugs. They made deals, there are documents stating that planeloads of weapons would go to Nicaragua for the Contras and would come back full of drugs and would land at a US army base. That was the trade put. This is all public information, all you have to do is remember what you see and hear.
John: Do you think the AIDS foundation will find a cure anytime soon?
Frank: Well, the man who finally does find a cure for it will probably become a very rich man. Imagine being able to go out and have any kind of sex you want with anyone you want and not being afraid of dying. It'll probably cause a revolution. And a lot of these right-wing people don't want to see this revolution. They don't like sex so they don't want anyone else to have it either.
John: How do you feel about the UFO cases of the government?
Frank: I feel there's a lot more to it and seeing how much else the government covers up, there's no reason for them not to cover up UFO information...
Russ: Your basic approach to composing. Do you start out with the lyrics first or what?
Frank: That's not the way it works. First of all you think of what piece you want to do, what style it's going to be in, and then choose what's more important, the music or the words. I talk about that in the book.
James: Why do you integrate live and studio tracks on your albums?
Frank: Why should they be mutually exclusive?
James: Well, do you prefer a live sound on certain tracks, like a guitar track?
Frank: It has to do with the way the final result sounds. I've done it every which way, live and studio recordings in the same track, a live guitar and a studio dubbed drum or synthesizer, just to change the texture of the sound.
Allan: It's getting scary with our personal liberties being taken away slowly, there seems to be an apathetic atmosphere towards it.
Frank: That's how they can take them away so easily. When nobody cares its easy chop them away. What makes living in the US different from living anywhere else is that we have in writing the rights to be free, but in practices we don't take advantage of it. We relax and somebody else can easily come in and take these liberties away. Some people think life goes better when one person calls all the shots. Take a look at China.
Tammy: What is your view of feminism? In your music it is fairly obvious that some of your lyrics are abusive to women.
Frank: Do you think I'm abusive of men?
Tammy: Well, yes.
Frank: Well, I'm just plain abusive, ain't I? In my opinion, if someone does something stupid, no matter what sex they are, I'm going to state my opinion.
Tammy: Is it fair to make generalizations about people according to their heritage, like the British taking tea?
Frank: If that's not fair, then what is? When I made the song "Jewish Princess" I wasn't cutting down Jews, I was just stating facts. It doesn't allow for more prejudice because everyone is already prejudiced in one way or another, And there are good as well as bad prejudices.
Allan: I've seen you several times around the country and would like you to play Charlotte. There are lots of people down here who think you are a guitar genius and would love to see you. You've done probably more for music than any other modem day musician.
Frank: Well, I'd love to play Charlotte, but I don't have a band and I don't plan on touring.
Allan: I don't understand, Frank, how, if you sold out almost every show on the last tour, you still owe four hundred thousand dollars.
Frank: That's the difference between playing arenas and theatres. If I had toured six months and sold out arenas, I would have made a profit. But, playing theatres with three to five thousand seat capacity, you can't pay for the tour, and that's how you lose money.
Joe: Where do you come up with these bizarre ideas for your songs? "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" for instance, and who is Nanook?
Frank: How that came about was, I was talking to a school teacher in Kansas, and she was talking about the English language. She started talking about how language develops according to what is important to the people who speak the language. As an example, snow is so important to the Eskimos they have seven or eight different words for it, she said. Yellow snow, for example, that you don't eat. That's how some ideas get started, just conversations.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net