Signs Of The Times

By Bob Guccione, Jr.

Spin, July, 1991


The image of Frank Zappa as a mad scientist has, like a stubborn vine, so entwined itself through the garden of rock n’ roll mythology that its origin is completely indiscernible. But when I meet him in the dark living room that appears to be the center of the Zappa universe, he is dressed in a t-shirt and beach pants, and his long gray-streaked hair and moustache accentuate the intensity of his eyes and he looks more like a wizard in exile.

His most famous song is “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” released back when the ’70s still had credibility, and the most familiar Zappa record isn’t even his, it’s his daughter Moon Unit’s “Valley Girl,” which he collaborated on. Yet a generation that not only didn’t grow up on his music but were mostly not even born when he first became popular has accepted his place of prominence. Like an ambassador, he means something, stands for something strong and resolute, but this generation is not really sure how and exactly why.

In his 25-year career as a recording artist, he has released 50 records: As of this writing, which is to say this morning—I can’t vouch that he won’t issue something later today. He has created almost every type of music from rock n’ roll to classical. Hardly a staple of MTV, the image of a conservatively suited Zappa testifying before the Senate at the infamous “Porn Rock” hearings in 1985 is his thumbprint on video culture: a soundbite from a sound banquet.

He speaks in a deep voice and with intellectual precision articulates his world view, which is dark, passionate, and finally optimistic.

SPIN: Is education really out of touch now in this country? Are we twenty years away, a whole generation away, from repairing education in this country?

Zappa: No, we’re further than that. Because in a way, I would agree with George Bush in that education in America needs to be reinvented, but certainly not in the way he would imagine it. Because the biggest problem we’re facing right now is that education needs to imparted to a postliterate generation. People who have no feeling whatsoever for a book or any data on a printed page, which should be worrisome to anyone who publishes a magazine.

SPIN: It is.

Zappa: And you have to teach people basic things that they will need in order to function normally, forget about achieving greatness, or even competing with Japan and Germany. Just to function, how are you going to do it if people can’t read, refuse to read, and are so adapted to receiving data from optical and audio sources. I think you have to meet them halfway and install equipment into classrooms that are going to be able to deliver data into the language that the kids already understand. Costs money. And when you’ve got a state like California, with such a huge educational system willing to take up the twelve billion dollar deficit out of the schools, it also tells you something about the parents that would allow that to happen. Because obviously the parents don’t give a fuck, ’cause they didn’t enjoy school that much themselves. And giving the choice between paying more taxes and just hoping that it gets better and letting the “education President” take care of it, I mean, everybody is sticking their head in the sand.

SPIN: Do you think somewhere along the line, it serves the powers that be, the pervading government for the last 10 years, to have education dilapidate to where people don’t think enough to really challenge?

Zappa: No question. I don’t think it’s any accident that the educational system in America has been brought to its current state. Because only a totally uneducated mass of people will be baffled by balloons. And yellow ribbons and little flags and buzz words and guys saying “new world order” and shit like that, I mean, only a person who has been dissuaded from any kind of critical thinking and doesn’t know geography, doesn’t know the English language—I mean if you can’t speak English, then this stuff works on you.

One of the things that was taken out of the curriculum was civics. Civics was a class that used to be required before you could graduate from high school. You were taught what was in the U.S. Constitution. And after all the student rebellions in the ’60s, civics was banished from the student curriculum and was replaced by something called social studies. Here we live in a country that has a fabulous constitution and all these guarantees, a contract between the citizens and the government—nobody knows what’s in it. It’s one of the best kept secrets. And so, if you don’t know what your rights are, how can you stand up for them? And furthermore, if you don’t know what is in that document, how can you care if someone is shredding it?

SPIN: What was your reaction after the Gulf War, and the jingoism and the euphoria that followed?

Zappa: Well I had a very bad reaction to the war in general because it was such an incredibly stupid idea to do it. All you got to do is look at what’s happening in Iraq this week, and see whether it was a good idea to send a half a million guys over there to blow shit up. It’s a bad idea. So I look at it as the utter failure of diplomacy, the utter failure, embarrassing failure of the U.N. to stand up for any of the original principles that it was supposedly constructed to uphold. It was well worded into putting a rubber stamp on the war, because George Bush decides that there ought to be something called the new world order. I did an interview with a German television station not long ago, and the guy said: “ ‘New world order,’ doesn’t he know that Hitler said that? That is a Hitler line.”

SPIN: What’s your theory of why America didn’t finish off the war, why we left Saddam in power?

Zappa: First of all, there’s no guarantee you can get him. The other thing is, on Crossfire last night, Stephen Solarz was arguing that we should start the war again and go in there and not just get rid of Saddam Hussein, but root out every aspect of the Baathist Party in Iraq. Tell me, what the fuck kind of tweezers are you going to need to do that? If you kill Saddam Hussein the Baathist Party—it’s just like trying to get the Communist Party out of Russia. At every level. There’s Baathist Party guys running everything. Plus five different forms of secret police. How are you going to do that?

The thing is, there’s nothing more threatening to those bogus monarchs down there than democracy. If the Kurds and the Shiites succeed in toppling Hussein’s government and they go for a democratic parliament and the rest of that stuff, if that trickles southward then it endangers the Kuwait [Emir] and the whole Saudi royal family. They don’t want democracy anywhere near that peninsula. And also from the U.S. national interest point of view it’s probably easier for our business guys to deal with one corrupt monarch or another then to deal with some unruly democratic parliament. It’s easier to pay off one guy and the rest of his relatives.

SPIN: In think in many ways the reaction to this was was an attempt not only to exorcise the Vietnam syndrome, but to distract attention from how screwed up we were in the ’80s.

Zappa: The only way you can feel good about the ’80s is if you can’t feel anything at all. In a ten-year period, twelve percent of the homeless are Vietnam vets with nowhere to go, maybe thirty percent were dumped out of mental institutions when Reagan closed them in the early part of the ’80s, and the rest of the people were families that got dispossessed during Reagan’s depression during ’82-‘83, when his economics first took its toll, and other people are making a zillion dollars in the stock market by selling junk bonds, and renting puffed air to each other.

So to feel good about the ’80s, I think you would have to be mutated away from the human condition quite a bit, because if you look at the ’80s, there was nothing that swell about it. Fortunately for us the music of that period leaves an accurate record of how empty that whole era was.

SPIN: Do you think much music came out of the ’80s that was valid, as music or as social criticism?

Zappa: Well, I kept doing it. I’m sure there were a few people in America who did it, but you never heard it, because the bulk of what you heard is what you saw. The beginning of the ’80s gave us MTV, and music changed and switched from an audio to a video medium.

SPIN: For better or worse?

Zappa: For worse, because I believe that the way music is to be consumed is through your ears, and it shouldn’t be too important whether the person performing it looks like a model.

 The record companies thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to them because it was a way for them to get cheap commercials. And so the tail started wagging the dog. The record companies stopped signing groups that could play in favor of groups that looked good in pictures because they figured we could always get a producer to sing their songs and do their stuff for them, and that happened plenty of times. So you get a bunch of models to make the video and forget about the music. So that part of that worked. A young audience who never experienced any music to speak of started watching MTV the same way they watched Saturday morning cartoons. And it caught on. There was no competition. Before MTV if you wanted to have a hit record, there were probably 10,000 stations in America where you could break something regionally and have it spread. Now there is one MTV with a short playlist, and because of that the record companies put their own balls into the bear trap and sprung it on themselves, now they can’t make a move without calling MTV and getting permission, they call up in advance to say we are getting ready to make a video, we are going to have such and such pictures in it, what do you think, and MTV is a total censorship organization and it has all the major record companies at its mercy.

I started getting really weary of MTV when they started inventing rock n’ wrestling, where we’re seeing videos of Hulk Hogan urging kids to take their vitamins, urging kids to grow up big and strong like him, and be an American. It really was on the level of a Saturday morning cartoon.

SPIN: What do you think of the crossover of rap? I don’t mean Vanilla Ice, because that’s just a cartoon character thing too, but the crossover of heavy black rap, and style and fashion taken on by whites.

Zappa: I don’t find anything strange or wrong with that.

SPIN: No, I don’t either. But how do you explain it?

Zappa: Well, there’s a corollary when those black groups were singing about their girlfriends in the ’50s. Because not everyone that bought those records was a black teenager in Manual Arts High School. And there were white suburban teenagers who were going, “I know a girl with the same name.” It was their tune for life. If the music speaks to you then I don’t it makes a difference what the race or orientation is. Besides, today, rage is rage. Rage is a commodity. And the unfortunate aspect is that I know there’s white suburban rage, but there is no voice for it.

I believe they do have things that they are pissed off about, but I don’t think they’ve found a vehicle to express it, because if the white suburban kid decides to do rap, then he’s not using his voice, he’s just shouting through someone else’s rented megaphone. And it’s not too unique or original, and at one point, if you do that, it’s like you’re copying off someone else’s commercial gimmick. And it takes away from the authenticity of whatever else you have to say.

SPIN: You’ve gotten involved in doing business in Czechoslovakia. What has failed in Eastern Europe?

Zappa: The United States Government.

SPIN: What do you mean by that?

Zappa: Because after all these years of saying “We’d love to be rid of Communism,” and then we built up these weapons to destroy Communism, and this huge army, it rots before your very eyes, and you’ve got this opportunity to go in and spread democracy, which all the Presidents have talked about. “This is democracy, it’s good, everyone should have it, our way is the best,” and all it would have taken is a couple of bucks, and some advisers to say, “Here’s how a free-market system works” and a little friendly help. And that just wasn’t there.

SPIN: What was your background? Your father worked in a nerve gas company?

Zappa: Well it wasn’t nerve gas, it was mustard gas.

SPIN: Is it true he volunteered to be an experiment?

Zappa: That was a way during the war you could earn extra money, you could be a human guinea pig for these things called pap tests. They wouldn’t tell you what it was, they would put stuff on your skin and then cover it up with a big bandage. So he’d have these big bandages on his arm, and sometimes come home with two or three on his arms, and they’d itch and burn, and he’d suffer with these things, but they’d be thirty dollars more a week. And I don’t know what they put on it.

SPIN: What was it like growing up in that environment—how aware of that were you?

Zappa: I thought I understood it pretty well at five or six years old. It was about killing people. My father worked at a place that manufactured stuff to kill people.

SPIN: And how did that affect you. Looking back now, forty-five years later, how did it affect you?

Zappa: That was WWII. There was a reason for going out and doing those things. Everybody has a different outlook. And the other thing was that he was a Sicilian, and it was not a good idea to be of Sicilian or Italian extraction at that point in American History; he had to try extra-hard to be patriotic, I think.

SPIN: How does that affect you today?

Zappa: It give me some kind of perspective of how long we’ve been doing these things. At least forty to forty-five years.

SPIN: What did you think of punk?

Zappa: Well I liked the attitude of punk, I didn’t necessarily like it from a musical standpoint; it is anti-musical. The whole idea was we’re gonna play shitty and fast and so what? The so what part I always like. But anybody who’s against music I don’t like. I don’t like people who smash instruments. I don’t like the abuse of things that could produce beautiful results.

SPIN: Did you find any punk musically good? What about the Clash?

Zappa: One of my favorite punk records was “Gidget Goes to Hell” by the Suburban Lawns—I thought that was good.

SPIN: Did you ever make any punk records?

Zappa: Oh sure, yeah.

SPIN: You made punk records?

Zappa: Not whole records, but some punk tunes: “I’m So Cute” on the Sheik Yerbouti album.

SPIN: What do you think about the sexism in heavy metal, and in Andrew Dice Clay routines, and in rap? How do you relate that to the criticism against you in the past, the way you allegedly depicted women in your songs?

Zappa: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with depicting women the way I depict them. I think I depict them in a rather accurate way. Because women are not perfect. But the bulk of my songs are about men and the stupid things that men do. And they never complain. So, is it because the men are so inferior—which then proves the women’s point, that they’re so fucking stupid they don’t know what to do, or they’re too lazy to complain—or is it because women think they really should get special treatment and they should be treated with kid gloves, like Israel sort of? You could never say anything bad about Israel or people would say you’re anti-Semitic. If you happen to say that Israel behaves like Nazi Germany toward the Palestinians, which happens to look like quite a fact when you see a videotape of what’s actually going on, people go “Oh, you’re anti-Semitic.” You know, it’s not true. The same way, if you say “Women do this thing that’s stupid or that thing that’s stupid,” you should say it. It’s a journalistic medium as well as a musical medium.

SPIN: What’s the thing you’ve been most criticized for, in sexist terms?

Zappa: “Jewish Princess” [from Sheik Yerbouti]. The criticism came from an organized entity, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith. As if to say there was no such thing as a Jewish Princess. Like I invented this? They asked me to apologize. I said no. I told them I wouldn’t. And they managed to get PR for their organization for a year out of me. And actually it helped me. The Sheik Yerbouti album turned out to be the best-selling album I ever had.

SPIN: Do you think the outcome of the censorship movement can ultimately be meaningful?

Zappa: Let me point out something about democracy. Does anybody remember how Hitler took over Germany? He was voted in. People said, yeah, he’s got the right message for us. Now when you have a democracy, there’s always the possibility that they guy who could turn out to be the biggest menace to the planet could just get voted in. And the place where it’s most likely to happen is here, because of the media saturation, the illiteracy rate of the population, the social desperation of the population. Hitler came to power because things weren’t so good.

All we have to do is look at the early days of the Reagan administration and see how these factors converge. First of all, he owed a big favor to all the fundamentalist Christians and the television evangelists who helped him one way or another get elected. Forget about the October Surprise, he also had the help of these other groups. Then there was that depression. Americans like to believe in miracles, they like to believe in magic and when they consume religion it’s not on a philosophical level, it’s on a miraculous level. Jesus can do things for you. It’s about goods, it’s about the transference of goods and services from the cloud to your living room. You’re broke, you lost your job in the early days of the Reagan administration and instead of watching Madonna on TV you’re seeing these guys teaching prosperity theology. If you send your money, you gotta prove to Jesus that you really care, and he’ll reward you tenfold. It’s like buying a lottery ticket.

It’s always the free flow of information which is the major threat to the American way of life. To right-wing guys, there’s nothing more dangerous than free access to information. And you know what that stems from? It stems from the beginning of Christian theology, when Adam and Eve were in the garden, how did we get into trouble? It wasn’t because it was an apple, it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge, so the essence of Christianity is, nobody gets to be smarter than God and access to knowledge and ownership of knowledge damns you. Knowledge itself is the work of the devil. We must not have knowledge and what leads to knowledge? Information. Nip it right there, nip it in the bud.

SPIN: What would it take to puncture the apathy of the average American, especially with elections coming up? Campaigns for that election will start in less than a year.

Zappa: I don’t think you’re going to puncture it in one swell swoop. It doesn’t puncture that easily. I’ll tell you, I’m thinking of running for President in the next election.

SPIN: Really?

Zappa: Yeah. I’ve called two political consultants in Washington and we’re just gonna do a little feasibility study to see what it would take. The idea is to run as a nonpartisan candidate and urge other people around the country to not only run but resign from the Democratic and the Republican parties because the Democrats stand for nothing except “I wish I was a Republican” and the Republicans stand for raw, unbridled evil and greed and ignorance smothered in balloons and ribbons. So that’s really not much of a choice and it’s nauseating to watch Democrats make speeches because they all wish they were Republicans.

SPIN: What do you think your chances will be?

Zappa: Not good, but a chance is a chance.

SPIN: You’re very serious about this? You’re not just making a statement?

Zappa: If I did run I would do a real run. The problems about doing it are that in order to do a credible run you have to be on the ballot in every state. That’s about a million dollars in legal fees and organization and bullshit just to get on the ballot. That’s before you even buy an ad.

The theory that I have is this: Instead of going out and running the same way the other guys do for one thing I got no primary that I have to compete in, I don’t have to go to Iowa, I don’t have to go to New Hampshire, I don’t have to join the greased pig race, I don’t have to do any of that stuff. All I have to do is say, I’m gonna volunteer to run, I’m willing to do this. I’m willing to give up music for four years. I like this country enough that I’ll give up something that I love for four years to do this job that nobody is doing right here.

 George Bush, what has he really done here? He brought the troops home. He never should have sent the fucking troops there! And we read his lips, and now this education President thing. That’s going to turn into a fiasco.

One of the interesting things about my platform is I want to do away with income tax.

SPIN: How would you do that?

Zappa: Income tax should be done away with anyway because when it was established it was an emergency tax and was supposed to have an end to it. Just like the toll booths on the highway. Income tax is a racket. The one thing the income tax does to everybody who pays it is it pisses you off because you earned that money and now the government is taking it away from you. If you gotta pay a tax, pay a tax when you buy something, not because you worked.

What this really gives you access to, in terms of tax recoupment, is the underground economy because when a guy is making a covert buck the goal is to spend the covert buck and at the point where you spent the covert buck you are now being able to tax every one of those guys who has laundered the cash. They gotta buy a yacht someday, a house, they’re gonna buy something.

SPIN: You’re going to drive all of that Colombian drug money into foreign countries, like Canada.

Zappa: Let them do away with the income tax. The other thing is you would save a great deal of money on the personnel of the IRS itself. You still have to have somebody do administrative sales tax. I think you could do it with five percent of the labor force you have in the IRS. Naturally it would take an act of God to do away with state income taxes.

SPIN: Fantastic idea. Not easy. Lots of problems.

Zappa: Well here’s the other thing, think about this. Suppose I told you, from tomorrow on, you pay no income tax, no federal income tax. You’d be happy. You’d suddenly realize that you had another couple thousand bucks in your pocket. And it doesn’t go in the bank. You’d go out and spend it. And there’d be a spike in the economy that would just go boom! The Dow went to 3,004.42—what do you think happens the day after they know that there’s going to be no more income tax?

What I would propose to do, is have a five-year plan where the sales tax would be at twelve to fourteen percent on certain products. I’d try to exempt necessary foodstuffs, because that’s where the poor get hurt. And I don’t think that many Colombian drug dealers are buying that many cartons of milk and eggs and stuff. And so you’re not really going to cripple the nation’s economy by exempting that sort of thing. So for five years you keep that sales tax a little higher just to deal with the deficit. And at the point where the deficit is done away with, then you bring the sales tax down to a maintenance level. I think you can run a pretty good economy that way.

SPIN: Have you discussed this with economists?

Zappa: I discussed it with my accountant who used to work for the IRS in Washington, D.C. He was head of collections for the Baltimore- Washington, D.C., area. He loves it.

The idea is that this is a zero balloon campaign. You want balloons then blow your own balloons. And the goal is to run the cheapest campaign in political history. I can sit at home and do talk shows all over the country on radio and answer questions directly to people who might want to vote. And it would cost what? Nothing. I don’t believe that you really have to spend fifty millions dollars or apply for matching funds from the federal government and then be forced to abide by all those rules in order to do it. Because if you’re a nonpartisan candidate then what the fuck?

SPIN: Do you think you’d be appealing to mass America even with that platform?

Zappa: There’s only one way to find out. I mean, if I lose, then so what?

SPIN: Do you think you’d make a difference if you won?

Zappa: Oh yeah. How could I make things any worse than they already are?

SPIN: The least that could happen is that a lot of consciousness could be raised.

Zappa: Well, here’s the least that could happen. You know what the other guys are going to say before they say it. And television is an entertainment medium. Now, you don’t know what I’m going to say. Now you’re in the middle of an election year and it’s real dull. Do you think they would send someone over to talk to me every once in a while just to liven things up a bit?

I’m not going to debate these guys. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist. Why should I sit there and talk over their bullshit. These guys want to sit there and riddle you with statistics. And what do you know? You’re watching a debate at home and you’re like, “Oh yeah. He knew a lot of numbers.” Total horseshit.

SPIN: How do you define yourself as a musician? I was listening to on the way over here, The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. I heard part Spike Jones, part Kurt Weill, part Mahavishnu Orchestra—many things.

Zappa: The thing I do is build things. And I have to participate in their manifestation. That’s why I had to become a band leader and a guitar player. I would have been happy to just write it and turn it over to someone else. But they don’t play it if you give it to them. I learned that when I first started to compose it.

SPIN: Are you also a satirist?

Zappa: Yes. I’m a composer-slash-sociologist.

SPIN: My last question comes from a 23-year-old waitress in Malibu: Are you happy?

Zappa: Today, yes. Tomorrow, I don’t know. Yesterday, so-so. I go day by day. If you’re looking for an average, maybe not. Because you can convince yourself that you’re happy because of where you live and what you own, but if you watch TV and watch the news, it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re happy because of what’s going on. I spend most of my free time watching the news. I’m addicted to it. If I’m not watching the news broadcasts then I’m watching the raw footage on C- Span. And it pisses me off.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net