Frankly A Freak
By Charles Shaar Murray
The Observer, September 3, 1989
Attacked as a misogynist, homophobe and general sexist, his biggest sin is probably die-hard individualism. Musician, composer, philosopher, comedian – he was a freak but never a hippie. CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY flew to West Hollywood to see if the real Frank Zappa would stand up.
'DO YOU SUPPOSE Frank Zappa's his real name?' asks a bored cop in Down River, a recent novel by Stephen Gallagher.
'Whose?' replies his equally bored colleague. Worse, a few years ago, Zappa's wife Gail, paying for groceries by credit card at a local supermarket, was asked by the checkout clerk if she was any relation to 'Frank Zappa, the comedian'. Not 'Frank Zappa, the guitarist extraordinaire'. Not 'Frank Zappa, the pioneer of the Sixties rock avant-garde'. Not 'Frank Zappa, the political philosopher'. Certainly not what Zappa himself would most like to have heard: 'Frank Zappa, the composer'.
Still, maybe he was getting off lightly. It could have been 'Frank Zappa, the guy who had him elf photographed sitting on the toilet.' Or – if the clerk had chosen to adopt a feminist critique – 'Frank Zappa, the leering sexist pig who wrote "Titties And Beer", "Dinah-Moe Humm" and all those horrible songs about groupies.' To a born-again Republican right-to-lifer, he would be 'Frank Zappa, the ageing degenerate who defended pornographic, violent rock music from the righteous wrath of the Washington Wives at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.' In other words, Frank Zappa wears a vast quantity of different hats.
His latest is 'Frank Zappa, the author'. The Real Frank Zappa Book, written with the assistance of friendly ghost Peter Occhiogrosso and published here this month by Picador, fulfills a twofold function. One, prosaically enough, is to compete with various extant tomes about Zappa which have met with their subject's disapproval: the other is somewhat more ambitious. 'The main reason,' explains Zappa, 'is the chapters in the back of the book, which weren't part of the biography. If I wanted to write a book of essays, there's no shelf space for it; there's no category. This book go.es into the category of "star biography", so they already know how to merchandise it.
Therefore, they gave me permission to express myself in the back of the book, on certain topics, if I included the autobiographical stuff in the front. Talking about my life is – y' know, so what? But there was no other vehicle for putting out my political views. Basically, what I express in the book is my opinions on stuff supported by those facts to which I had access... and common sense.' In the finest tradition of American paranoid libertarianism, his various opinions evade simplistic left/right classifications: his attitude towards the military-industrial complex, the ecology and the creeping power of televangelist, fundamentalist bigotry strike a resounding chord (probably an augmented ninth with a flattened fifth in the bass) in liberal circles, while his economic philosophy (abolish all income tax and replace it with a purchase tax) would not sound amiss proposed over brandy and cigars at a meeting of some Thatcherite think-tank.
He is an all-American dissident curmudgeon: a fervent believer in Western rationalism, secular humanism and participatory democracy. On hi 1988 'Broadway The Hard Way' tour, he set up voter registration booth in the foyers of the theatres in which he played; and by the end of the tour had signed up more than 11,000 voters.
Over 25 years and more than 50 albums, Zappa has earned himself a devoted following, whose consistent support of his disparate endeavours (ranging from collections of in-concert guitar solo to orchestral composition via his patented collages of mercilessly mutated rock, jazz and classical clichés) has enabled him to operate independently of the mainstream. His records may not sell in the kind of quantities to which Michael Jackson, Guns 'n' Roses or Dire Straits have become accustomed, but they sell enough for Zappa and his wife to operate their self-contained, self-financed cottage industry. In recent year, the Zappa's have re-acquired the master tapes of the complete back catalogue from the various record companies which originally released them, and they are in the process of reissuing the Complete Works (plus assorted supplementary material) on their own Zappa Records label.
Since 1981, Zappa has had a state-of-the-art recording studio – the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen – installed in his West Hollywood home near Laurel Canyon. It boasts a $350,000 (£220,000) Synclavier computer-music system which, when augmented with floppy-disc 'samples' of a variety of instrumental sounds, renders the contributions of other musicians almost entirely superfluous. Following the financial calamity of the 1988 tour, which lost $400,000 despite playing to packed houses everywhere, Zappa is determined not to play live concerts again for the foreseeable future and, with all this hardware under one roof, there is virtually no need for Zappa to leave the house at all. So he doesn't.
The Zappa is strictly a nocturnal mammal these days: he is available for conversation either at 6 a.m. (at the end of his 'working day') or at 10 p.m. (towards the beginning). He tends to rise around 8 p.m. for breakfast and the evening news, work for 10 to 12 hours in his studio, either composing on his Synclavier or else editing and mixing existing tapes, and then collapse into his pit somewhere in the vicinity of 10 a.m. He is a willing slave to his music, existing under voluntary studio arrest. There is literally nothing he would rather be doing. This includes talking to journalists, especially British ones. >
To put it mildly, he is not altogether fond of our green and pleasant land. Considering that a deranged punter threw him off the stage of the now-defunct Rainbow Theatre in December 1971 (necessitating six months in a wheelchair and a further year in a leg-brace), that the Royal Albert Hall then cancelled an orchestral performance of his 200 Motels on rather shaky obscenity grounds, and British courts subsequently found against him, and that a very expensive series of 1983 recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra resulted in what Zappa regarded as a travesty of his original score... well, his animosity is not altogether surprising.
'I DON'T DISLIKE individual Britons,' says Zappa magnanimously, slouched over a cigarette in his comfortable, dimly-lit listening room, 'but if one in my position had to make assumptions about one country versus another, the British Isles would not figure high on my list of places where I would feel comfortable or wanted. I know I have fans there – I've met 'em, I've talked to 'em, they're great people. And when the British get hooked on something, they're fanatical about it. Dog shows, horse shows, beer, darts... whatever it is, they go for it all the way. It's obsessive behaviour and this is something I can identify with, but the rest of what has happened to me as a person in that country... I just don't have fond memories of it. This is something that I will probably feel the rest of my life.
'There is a certain... filter through which I will always see anything British. My personal experience of going through the court system there, after winning every other point in that Albert Hall case... The judge said that the contract had been breached; he said that the show itself was not obscene; everything that I had said and done was correct... The only problem was that they weren't going to let me win because, basically, "this is Royal, you're an American, get the fuck out of here". And you can't just walk away from all of that and not have some kind of attitude about what really goes on over there.' Frank Vincent Zappa will be 49 this December. The wild, tangled mane of old is now short, neat, frosted with grey and thinning just a little on top. And the trade mark moustache and- goatee combo has been severely trimmed back, but his lean six-foot frame is untouched by time, and pop's most prominent proboscis is as imposing as ever. His in-concert persona – part pedagogue, part provocateur, part dirty old man, part Dadaist game-show host – is an almost libelous exaggeration of his quiet, thoughtful everyday demeanour.
Zappa is certainly no longer the Wild Man Of Rock, if indeed, beneath the grunge and grimaces, he ever really was. He drinks sparingly and – even at the height of Sixties madness – doped not at all, ruthlessly firing musician who indulged. (I remember a member of one of his early Seventies bands pleading for a new acquaintance to slip him a joint, but as surreptitiously as possible in case Frank found out and send him home on the next plane.) His vices are strong coffee, endless cigarettes, perfectionism and workaholism. Zappa, you see, was never a hippie: he was a freak. Even today, 20 years after Woodstock, he believes that the distinction is vital.
'Hippies were basically a uniform and conformist group,' he explains. 'They had a special costume that they wore, they had their own special language that they spoke; they had their own culture, their own folk ways, and they had their own idea of what was a good time. In my mind, a freak would be a person ·who basically exists as an individual, who has his own individual style. There may have been a number of freaks all over the world, but I would think of them as individuals. They were mutants that stood out from the rest of the community. Though a freak may have long hair and a hippie may have long hair, they are not the same kind of person.
Nevertheless, whatever remains of the counter-culture (be it post-hippie or post-freak) has not been entirely approving of Zappa's activities. When he has not been accused of being either too weird or overly sophomoric, he has taken his lumps from rock critics and feminists for alleged misogyny, homophobia and sexism in general. Not surprisingly, he energetically rebuts these charges: 'If you looked at the number of songs that I've written and how many characters in the songs are men, most of the songs are about men. No men's group ever said, "Hey, how come you're sayin' we're stoopid?" Women are sensitive if you say they're stupid. I like women: women are fine. But – men do bad stuff, women do bad stuff.
Who's the worst? You guys arm-wrestle over it. I'm not gonna tell ya.' The conciliatory approach – gets 'em every time.
Zappa has occasionally intersected with the broad mass of the record-buying public. His album, Apostrophe, included a song called 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow'. 'We were in Europe on tour, and a radio station in Pittsburgh had a company policy of playing novelty records from the Sixties along with their Top 40, because they figured that their young audience had never heard these things and they threw 'em in just to be cute. One DJ got hold of the album, heard "Yellow Snow", says "Oh my God, it's a modern-day novelty record", edits it down from 10 minutes to three, puts it on the air and within a week it's a Top 10 record.
'With "valley girl", my daughter did a radio interview and brought along an acetate of the song. They played it on the air, and the phones went crazy. The station held on to the acetate and kept playing it, and the thing was such an instant grassroots hit that other stations were taping it off the air and playing it. It didn't sell a lot – maybe 350,000 copies – and the album Ship Arriving In Time To Save A Drowning Witch maybe did 125,000 units; but sociologically it was the most important record of 1982 in the United States.
'Another instance was "Bobby Brown" from Sheik Yerbouti, the biggest selling single CBS ever had in Scandinavia, and the album did 1.6 million, the biggest-selling of all my albums. A travelling DJ in Norway decided to play this song in a bar and people liked to dance to it, and it became an obsessive thing.
After a year, it was still a hit in Scandinavia, so they released it in Germany and it was a hit there. It stayed a hit in Germany until someone translated it. Then they took it off the air.' Zappa plays through a few tapes from his loss-making 1988 tour; by releasing live recordings from the show he can recoup maybe 25 per cent of his initial outlay. The sequence includes both Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire' and Ravel's Bolero, but both are arranged as reggae. Another gaping studio session yawns before him in his ceaseless battle against the world's stupidity glut. He's in for a long haul.
'I can't imagine a condition in the real world where stupidity diminishes. It has a real long shelf-life. And if the stupidity curve is ever to take a dive, we are looking many, many eons into the future because the universe itself is constructed from stupidity. There is more stupidity than hydrogen, and it replicates itself at an unbelievable rate... '
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