FZ: Drowning in the News Bath
By John Winokur
The Portable Curmudgeon Redux, 1992
Jon Winokur: I've read that you're nocturnal.
Frank Zappa: Yes, if left to my own devices I would function exclusively at night and sleep during the day.
JW: What do you have against sunlight?
FZ: Aside from the fact that it can be hazardous to your health, which wasn't always the case, I dislike the feeling that you experience during the daytime, when so many of the world's souls are awake, being industrious. It's a bad feeling and I don't want to participate. But at night it's a whole different thing. The people who are awake at night are my kind of people. The animals that are awake at night are the better animals: owls, raccoons, bats, the insects that don't want to show off. The ones with the bright colors have to go out in the daytime to get their money's worth, but the nighttime is natural for the drab, beetle-like, slug-like, monastic kinds of life forms. Superior life forms, like silverfish.
JW: You've been quoted as saying that books make you sleepy.
FZ: Yeah, I don't read. People always send me books, but I can't stand them. People ask me to write intros for books, and even when I know the book is great, I can't deal with it. I read about three paragraphs and I start to pass out.
JW: Then how do you get your information?
FZ: I take a "news bath" every afternoon. I've got it down to a science: at four-thirty on Channel 34, which is the Discovery Channel, you tape Christian Science Monitor; then you switch over to CNN at five and watch Bernard Shaw make a fool of himself for a little while; then you switch to the local CBS news and hope to see Michael Tuck, who does the most outrageous things on the air. But the fun really starts at six-thirty, when you go to Channel 7 to get the very beginning of Peter Jennings and ABC News to find out what their lead story is and start taping that; while the tape is running, immediately flip over to Channel 2 to see what the lead story is going to be on CBS. The way the commercials are staggered on the six-thirty news, if you start with the ABC News you can get the first big chunk before the commercials start. Then, when Jennings goes to a commercial, you immediately switch over to CBS.
JW: What about NBC?
FZ: You skip NBC at this point because Brokaw hardly ever has anything interesting or competitive with the stories on the other networks. You go directly to Channel 2 and pick up another three minutes of news before they go to a commercial. At that point you have to decide whether to give Brokaw his riff or go back to Jennings. You ping-pong back and forth like that, ending up on Channel 7 because their news goes longer than the CBS News. When that half-hour block is over you flip it to Channel 6 for the tail end of MacNeil/Lehrer. And when they're done you go back to CNN.
JW: You once said, "The United States is a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced," and within the past few years you've battled censorship and have been active in national politics. How do you assess the health of American democracy in the late twentieth century?
FZ: Democracy is one of those things that looks good on paper, but we've come to a crossroads in contemporary America where we really ought to decide, Do we want it? When you have a preponderance of people in this country who will willingly accept censorship – in fact, ask for it, demand it in the case of the Gulf War – you've got a problem. Asked random questions about the First Amendment and how they would like to have it applied, if you believe in polls at all, the average American wants no part of it. But if you ask, "What if we threw the Constitution away tomorrow?" the answer is "No, that would be bad!" But living under the Constitution is another story altogether.
I've come to the conclusion that there's only one party in this country and it's divided into two parts: Republicans and Republican wannabes. Republicans stand for evil, corruption, manipulation, greed – everything that Americans think is okay after being conditioned to it during the eighties. Republicans stand for all the values that Americans now hold dear. Plus they have more balloons than God, and for a nation raised on cartoons, that tells you something. Anybody with balloons, they're okay. They don't tell you what kind of crippled people had to blow those suckers up.
The Democrats have no agenda, and when they speak on any topic, they want to sound as Republican as possible while still finding a way to retain the pork. I'll be blunt with you: I'm considering running for president as a nonpartisan candidate because I am sick to death of this stuff. The "news bath" is not a warming experience; it makes me deranged for four or five hours a day.
On a show for Bill Moyers called The Class of the Twentieth Century I said that the faces that really belong on Mount Rushmore are J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy and Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper and maybe even Roy Cohn and Michael Milken, because they've had the greatest impact on American society. They have shaped the way things are done in this country. One of the problems with the world in which we live is that people have become accustomed to lies upon lies upon lies.
JW: Would you call yourself a misanthrope?
FZ: I have been called a "misanthrope", but I prefer "curmudgeon"; it's folksier and less threatening. "Misanthrope" sounds like you'd have to have gone to college to be one.
JW: Are you an irritable person? Are you tough to get along with?
FZ: I hardly ever leave the house, and during the day I hardly ever talk to anybody because I work by myself and just type [music] on the computer. So, if I have to have a conversation with somebody, chances are it's either going to be a member of my family or somebody who works here, and I like all of them. The only other people that I'm with are the journalists who come here to do interviews, and most of them are okay.
JW: Since you don't go out, I don't suppose it bothers you that L.A. has become a zoo.
FZ: That's one of the reasons why I don't go out. L.A. is like a big cancer cell. You get on the plane and you go away for two weeks and when you come back, another globule of something has been added. It just pops up, and you know it's not going to last more than twenty years, because it's made out of twigs and stucco. Every time I have to leave this house and drive down into Hollywood, which is maybe every two or three weeks, there's incremental growth of ugliness upon ugliness. It never ends.
I used to be the major booster of Southern California, at a time when the world thought San Francisco was the aesthetic center of the universe. I always took great umbrage at that because I thought the whole scene there was a figment of Rolling Stone's imagination. I used to stick up for L.A., but I don't anymore because there's no longer anything going on here aesthetically that's worth defending.
JW: What makes you leave the house?
FZ: There are certain mechanical functions that I can't do in my own studio. I can't do video editing here, so if I have to video edit, I have to leave. If I have an invitation to dinner, I'll go to a restaurant. I've even been to the movies recently. That was a real piece of sociology. I happened to see Die Hard 2 and it was unbelievable. I was flabbergasted by the audience's response. It made me feel good because the bad guys turn out to be the government and they get their just deserts in the end and the audience loves it. That made me feel good.
JW: When you are out and around, do you encounter much anti-smoking sentiment?
FZ: [Lighting a cigarette] Well, I'm not here to impinge on anybody else's lifestyle. If I'm in a place where I know I'm going to harm somebody's health or somebody asks me to please not smoke, I just go outside and smoke. But I do resent the way the nonsmoking mentality has been imposed on the smoking minority. Because, first of all, in a democracy, minorities do have rights. And, second, the whole pitch about smoking has gone from being a health issue to a moral issue, and when they reduce something to a moral issue, it has no place in any kind of legislation, as far as I'm concerned.
JW: But if you look at the studies, side-stream smoke is harmful.
FZ: I'm not buying the data. First of all, it comes to you from the United States government. If you thought by stamping out all tobacco smoke in the United States you were going to improve the quality of life for everybody in the country, you'd be a lunatic. The things that will really harm you, the government won't touch.
JW: For example?
FZ: Dioxin in toilet paper, dioxin in tampons, dioxin in water filters, dioxin in coffee filters, dioxin in tea bags, dioxin in your vegetables because of the runoff from paper plants. Why do they have to bleach paper to make it white, anyway? It seems paltry, punitive, and insignificant to go after smokers, who are not an insignificant minority but about forty-five percent of the population. The way I would deal with the problem is induce more people to smoke, make them the majority and then... kick ass!
JW: Have you ever tried quitting?
FZ: A couple of times. The one time I really tried the hardest was when I had a chest cold and I was in the middle of a tour. We were in Canada and I had to travel every day and sing every night in these cold, hockey rink-type places. I really didn't feel very well and every time I would smoke with this cold it just made it worse. So I decided to try to quit for a while, and I managed not to smoke for about a week or ten days. Then my sense of smell started coming back and the hotel we were staying at, which looked okay, actually smelled very, very bad. Something in the hall – the rugs maybe. In fact, the whole world didn't smell very good, and within a week my cold went away and I was smoking again.
JW: You haven't toured in a while, but you've recently begun "bootlegging the bootleggers." Can you explain how that works?
FZ: I think it is conceptually one of my better plans. Through Rhino [Records], we stole the actual records released by the bootleggers, we used digital technology to clean them up, and we're releasing them in very luxurious packages.
JW: Let me ask you about your tastes as a listener: They've lately been showing the "three tenors" concert on television – Pavarotti, Carreras, and Domingo in Rome. Do you like that kind of music?
FZ: Guys who sing good with an orchestra in the background? I respect what they do, but that style of music is not something that will retain my interest for any period of time. In fact, I am not particularly amused by any television broadcast of serious music, because usually the pictures detract from the music. When I want to hear that kind of music, I want to listen to it – I don't want to look at it.
JW: When you say "that kind of music," do you include Mozart?
FZ: I don't usually listen to Mozart. I like Stravinsky, Varèse, Webern, Schoenberg, Bartók, Takemitsu, Messien, Penderecki...
JW: How about John Cage?
FZ: I have many John Cage recordings, but I find his writing more interesting than his music.
JW: Do you like rap?
FZ: If it wasn't for rap there would be no poetry in America. I think we went directly from Walt Whitman to Ice-T.
JW: How do you feel about pop romantic songs, ballads, love lyrics?
FZ: I think love lyrics have contributed to the general aura of bad mental health in America. Love lyrics create expectations which can never be met in real life, and so the kid who hears these tunes doesn't realize that that kind of love doesn't exist. If he goes out looking for it, he's going to be a kind of love loser all his life. Where do you get your instructions about love? Your mother and father don't say, "Now, son, now daughter, here's how love works." They don't know, so how can they tell their kids? So all you love data comes to you through the lyrics on Top Forty radio, or, in some instances, in movies or novels. The singer-songwriters who write these lyrics earn their living by pretending to reveal their innermost personal turmoil over the way love has hurt them, which creates a false standard that people use as a guideline on how to behave in interpersonal relationships. "Does my heart feel as broken as that guy's heart?" "Am I loving well?" "Is my dick long enough?"
JW: One of the things that I appreciate about your music is its precision. Are you a taskmaster?
FZ: Well, I'm not murder on them, but I don't let them mess around. Just because it's a rock 'n' roll band is no reason you shouldn't have the same discipline and precision that you ask for in an orchestra- after all, you're handing a guy a paycheck. You try to hire people who can actually play, but even people who can play get lazy. Musicians are unbelievably lazy. And the discipline that you have to create in order to get them to show up on time, to get from place to place in a group – it's a little bit like running an army. Working with live musicians tends to take some of the fun out of life, I won't make any bones about it. You may life the results when you finally listen to it, but it's just like making sausage: not a pretty process.
JW: Would you prefer not to have to rely on it?
FZ: Yes, and that's the way I live now. The things I can do with the synclavier are mind-boggling. It truly does give you the ability, should you choose to do so, to do away with human beings as musical performers. All you've got to do is get a sample of a single note. If you can get a guy to blow one note on the clarinet, he's gone.
JW: Do you miss performing in front of a live audience?
FZ: I used to love going on stage and playing the guitar, but now I don't play unless I've got a reason. Why make your fingers wiggle if you already know what the notes are?
JW: So now you just sit in a room and write music?
FZ: Right. I'm lucky that I've got a wife who likes that I do that and will take care of the mundane stuff while I'm doing it. Without help, I'd be in deep trouble.
JW: What do you see for the future of the planet? For example, how are we going to deal with the population explosion?
FZ: The population has doubled since 1960, it's going to double again before what, 2020? And it's not just that it's doubling, what language is doubling, what skill level, what intelligence level, what education level? And what chemical level? In other words, how many crack babies? They're going to have to be warehoused because they'll have brain damage. They'll be an unemployable work force. And there will be tons of them.
Thank God the yuppies didnt reproduce. Did you ever consider that LSD was really one of the most dangerous drugs ever manufactured because the people who took it turned into yuppies? In the eighties it was not fashionable to stand up for anything. It was a decade where bending over was the thing you did to get ahead. The way up the ladder was with your mouth attacked to the anal orifice of the creature – whatever its denomination – in front of you. It was pushing upward and sucking at the same time as you went up the rungs, with junk bonds spilling out of your pockets and your mind reeling from the LSD experience that you had had in the sixties.
The yuppie lived in a special type of aquarium created for him by the Reagan administration. It was an era when there was enough cash and enough movement up and down in the stock market and enough shady deals that these incompetent little shitheads were able to make vast amounts of money to buy their Ferraris and snort their cocaine and ruin the economy. Now there's nostalgia for the ability to do that. People wish that the good old days of the eighties would come back.When there was still something to steal.
This interview was first published in The Portable Curmudgeon Redux, 1992. Later reprinted in Return of the Portable Curmudgeon and Big Curmudgeon. This text here is taken from home.online.no/~corneliu/interviews.htm and corrected according to Big Curmudgeon, 2007.
Jon Winokur about this interview:
When: Early May of 1991, in two sessions of about six hours (!) each.
How: Sent him a letter requesting interview. Got no reply. Sent indignant second letter which he happened to read (“I don’t read,” he said. “I just happened to look down at your letter and it shamed me into doing the interview.”) Went to the house on Mulholland for dinner and we talked through the night. Went back for follow-ups about ten days later.
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