Frank Zappa Has a Tip for Serious Musicians: Get a Real-Estate License
By Laurence Vittes
Los Angeles Reader, October 13, 1989
Frank Zappa's new book, The Real Frank Zappa Book (Simon & Schuster; $19.95), is a refreshing look at the life, lifestyle, and ideals of a talented musician who has not only successfully worked in the rock system but also made surprising inroads into the classical world. ● When Tipper Core's Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) attacked the first amendment in 1985, advocating rating records according to their suitability for very young children and others, Zappa testified eloquently before Congress, "The methods they [PMRC] propose have several unfortunate side effects, not the last of which is the reduction of all American music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show. If the parent is afraid to let the child read a book, perhaps the $8.98 can be spent on recordings of instrumental music. Why not bring jazz or classical music into your home instead of Blackie Lawless or Madonna? Great music with NO WORDS AT ALL is available to anyone with sense enough to look beyond this week's platinum-selling fashion plate." ● He was interviewed at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
Why did you do the book?
There are probably ten other books about me. But they're all exploitation books – from which I get no revenue – and they're fiction. On that basis alone, there was a need for something called The Real Frank Zappa Book.
Why does the book, which begins by telling about your life, end with chapters such as "Marriage (as a Dada Concept)," "Porn Wars," "Church and State," and "Practical Conservatism"?
It was absolutely intentional. I don't think my life is that interesting, so my main interest was to have a forum in which to put the stuff at the back of the book. That was the deal with Simon & Schuster.
Is a book the best place for stuff like that?
Yes. To say those kinds of political and religious things, you're not going to get into a periodical or on the radio. If you stick it on a record and sing it, the point doesn't get across the same way. To put it in print, you've got a document.
You're clearly concerned with the state of society today. Is it as bad as the sixties?
Much worse. The major challenge for every American today is to imagine a U.S.A. where the government worked, where you got bang for your buck, where everything they said was fabulous actually was. Probably more difficult than sticking a man on Mars.
What role can artists play?
I don't know. It's not a fair question. It presumes that artists are a species apart, that they're not citizens. If Michael Jackson, at the top of his popularity, had said, "Okay, everybody who's eighteen, go and register to vote," it would have made a difference. But artists in the normal sense, what can they do? Paint a picture? Do a dance? Write a poem?
What was it like testifying before Congress?
Kind of funny, kind of nauseating, kind of infuriating, and a little bit confusing. You can't speak to those people like they're people. You can't speak to them unless they ask you a question. You just can't have a normal conversation.
Considering the financial problems of classical music, could classical musicians take over the means of production?
Maybe, if there was a genetic mutation. ... Here's the problem: Most people who have devoted themselves to some sort of artistic endeavor are not good at business. They don't have the guts, the interest span, or the drive. Based on the classical musicians I've met, they'd be eaten alive. They'd probably be better advised to keep their money where they'll get the best return on their dollar. Plan for survival. My advice to people who want to make money from classical music is: Get a real estate license.
Are the people who run the classical system as cutthroat as those who run the pop side?
At least as bad. Maybe even worse. At least in the pop world they don't make any bones about being commercial. In the classical section, they pretend to be artistic when in fact they're just as big whores as the pop side.
What plans do you have for recording your orchestral music?
I've been working on a deal in the Soviet Union with the man in charge of a company called Soyuz Kinoservice, which works with westerners who want to make films in the Soviet Union. When I was in Moscow, he had been given control and responsibility for the Russian National Movie Orchestra, one hundred thirty musicians, and he didn't know what to do with it. Since in today's climate, everybody over there wants to do something to bring in hard currency, I came up with this idea: There is a worldwide need for all the people who write music for orchestra to find an orchestra to play it. I suggested creating a company that would do individual co-op deals with the composer, the conductor, the orchestra, and the recording engineer and divide up the profits. Nobody gets paid until the record comes out.
You've had some pretty weird experiences with orchestras?
Here's a stupid example of orchestras and me in the U.S.A. The world premiere of Sinister Footwear was given by a Berkeley orchestra in '83 or early '84. They did two nights in Zellerbach Hall with the full ballet, staging, everything. Kent Nagano was the conductor. The Berkeley orchestra is a combination of professionals, semi-professionals, and students, and they rehearsed for a month just to learn this thing. The agreement with them was that they were going to pay me $7,000 (after it had cost me $80,000 just to get the parts copied and the score printed), but this did not get me the right to release a record. They did the performance, which Berkeley Pacific radio station KPFA broadcast live and taped. When a bootleg of the concert started circulating, I went to the Berkeley orchestra and told them I wanted to release the concert myself on record, based on my own tapes, and they asked me for $10,000 even though they had never paid me the $7,000!
How did the discussion with Pierre Boulez earlier this year at UCLA go?
I didn't think it went very well. I think a lot of people went there expecting to see a musical performance even though it was never advertised that way. Maybe they felt we were going to jam or something. He did come over for breakfast about a week before and played a little piece on the Synclavier.
What do you think of him?
He's a good guy. I respect him. The world of music is fortunate to have an activist like Boulez. You're talking about a person who could run a record company. He's a composer, a conductor, an administrator. He's got an organized mind and he's got a lot of energy. This is a unique guy. There are maybe two or three like him on the planet. People like that could be part of the solution for some of the ills in the world of serious music – but only for France. The position that he holds in France he could never hold in the United States, basically because of the difference between French and American attitudes towards things artistic. In the United States, artistry is judged by millions of units sold. Nobody in classical music sells enough to matter in the United States.
How does it feel to be approaching fifty?
Not bad, aside from the fact that I have to wear glasses and that I have no desire to go out and do things of a social nature.
What's your work day like?
Today, I got up at 1:54 in the afternoon, had some eggs and potatoes and a cup of coffee. Took a shower. I gave the afternoon over to interviews. At seven, I'll go into the studio and finish at six or seven in the morning. I've also got a word processor upstairs where I crank off letters to congressmen.
Are you glad two of your children are working on television?
I was more delighted to hear that my youngest son went to the circus to be a clown than that my two oldest kids made a deal with CBS for a sitcom. I know the world they're going into and I hope they can still be happy teenagers at the end of the season. It's an ugly world. The problem is you can't do an excellent job because the networks won't let you be excellent. And my kids like the idea of being excellent and that's the conflict they'll be up against every week. I don't how they're going to deal with it.
You're kind of like the Bill Cosby of the rock scene: fatherhood and advice on how to raise your kids. You also portray yourself as a man with a strong moral mission.
It's going to sound corny, but that's the American way: If you believe it, go do it. And if you fuck up, take responsibility for it and don't do it again. Basically, too many Americans want to sit around and say, "Go do it. Muddle through and everything will be okay. Here's a little flag. When the president comes by, wave it real fast." Better not show the people that on the stem it says, "Made in Taiwan."
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