Make A Zappa Noise Here
By Alastair Sutherland
In spite of his fight against cancer, Frank Zappa had a busy 50th year – he finished a new classical piece, put out two live albums and an eight-CD box set of "factory reprocessed" bootlegs, and still found time for political commentary as well.
"Let's say you found a turd. If you took the turd and buffed it, you'd still have a turd. And that's what you have with these releases – a digital replication of a buffed turd."
Frank Zappa is talking about Beat The Boots, an eight-CD boxed set of mostly live recordings that have never – at least legally – been available before. That's because the records were all made by bootleggers – a species of life that is, in Zappa's lexicon of evils, right up there alongside Tipper Gore and the PMRC. For while some may consider the bootleggers mere "Zappologists" – diehard fans who taped concerts in locations as diverse as New York, Paris, and Stockholm – to Zappa they are "sleazebags," and "bootlegging the boots" is his attempt to put them out of business, or at least reap the publishing royalties that are rightfully his.
Among all the box set retrospective packages that have come out this year, Beat The Boots' live bootleg origins make it unique. It's an odd project, coming as it does in a brown cardboard box that opens up into a pop-up art display, with a T-shirt and button included. But what else would one expect from Zappa, whose career has been at least as odd as it has been long?
"In 25 years I've put out 52 albums," he explains from L.A. "In that time 400 bootlegs, eight times more garbage material, has come out with my name on it. I've made a pretty good living off those 52 LPs, but I could have earned eight times more, which I could have invested into eight times as many projects."
Of course no one, and certainly not Zappa, expects Beat The Boots to bullet up the charts – there is, after all, a limited market for a live version of "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast" that was recorded 13 years ago in Saarbrucken by a German with a cheap tape deck. However, anyone with a strong interest in Zappa's career will find more than a few gems in the 90 or so songs assembled: there's everything from a 1967 Mothers Of Invention concert in Sweden to a Barking Pumpkin-era show at the New York Palladium in 1981.
That means there's lots of "hits" – "Concentration Moon," "Camarillo Brillo," "Dancin' Fool," "Bobby Brown," "Cosmik Debris" – as well as a fair smattering of obscure guitar-laden tracks whose precise titles probably had Zappa himself scratching his head. And while the sound quality may not exactly be superior – Zappa says he taped the songs right off the bootleg vinyl and "factory reprocessed" them – it's not horrible either. "It's for the Zappa collector," he says, "the people who like to have extensive catalogues."
In the meantime, Zappa isn't waiting for the money to come rolling in. In spite of rumors that he's in seclusion or planning his presidential campaign, as well as the now-substantiated fact that he's been fighting prostate cancer for some time ("No comment" was his comment), he's had a busy year.
He released two double live albums, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Make A Jazz Noise Here, both recorded during his ill-fated 1988 tour. (In spite of excellent reviews, it had to be abandoned before it hit America because, in Zappa's words, "everyone hated the bass player.") And he's been working on a piece of music for the Ensemble Moderne (a 28-piece German orchestra) which will be performed at the Frankfurt Music Festival later this year.
"This is a special thing for me," he says. "The Frankfurt Festival is investing an enormous amount of money to do an entire week of my music. There will be two full symphony orchestra concerts, three performances of this new piece, a lot of pieces on the synclavier, possibly a ballet staged by John Forsythe and an audiovisual installation. So it's a big deal."
In addition, Zappa has his sociopolitical concerns. He traveled to Eastern Europe to meet with various heads of state, including Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel (a longtime fan) and Gabor Demski, the mayor of Budapest. There he discussed not only life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but also business. There are a lot of Zappa fans in Europe, which means there are also a lot of Zappa bootlegs in circulation.
"When I was in Russia, I met one young guy who had worked his way through college by getting my LPs from Yugoslavia and making tapes and selling them," Zappa says. "That didn't bother me so much – bringing a musical artifact into an authoritarian society is understandable. But in the free world there are laws that supposedly exist to protect artists. The problem is, nobody enforces them, and the subtext is, 'Who needs you guys anyway? Your business and livelihood don't matter."
In other words, now that the Eastern bloc is free, the citizens should be free to engage in all the activities that living in a democracy entails, which includes the right to buy a high-fidelity copy of Uncle Meat, or for that matter, Absolutely Free) and make sure the cash wends its way back to the creator.
Closer to home, Zappa remains an astute commentator on the state of the Union, even though because of his health he won't be able to make a bid for the presidency after all. Nevertheless, he's nothing if not opinionated.
"Things are getting worse in the United States," he says. "The whole mood is on the verge of becoming a police state. For a while, every time you turned on the TV there was a fucking military parade, yellow ribbons, missile launchers, people lining the streets trying to feel good about themselves because we'd killed however many Iraqis – we'll never know the real number. And for what? Saddam Hussein is still in power."
Does he ever feel musically inspired by such goings-on? "Not likely. But I've done plenty of other songs about American behavioral stupidity."
At this point the time seemed right to ask Zappa a question that has puzzled listeners for decades: what is the song "Let's Make The Water Turn Black" REALLY about? (Originally on 1967's We're Only In It For The Money, it's included on Beat The Boots and, as an instrumental, on Make A Jazz Noise Here.)
"There were these two guys I used to know in 1962," says Zappa, warming to the question. "Ronnie and Kenny Williams. You talk about people with bizarre habits – Ronnie saved his snot on a window in his room, and his brother Kenny saved piss in jars and kept them in the shed in the back. And one day they noticed there were things swimming in the jars. And that's 'Kenny's little creatures on display.' It's basically a song about two guys who were weird...."
One gets the impression that Zappa's time as a caustic observer of all things idiotic has passed, and his principal interest now is in pushing himself to further musical extremes. "It's not likely that I'll be putting a rock 'n' roll band together and going out on the road," he says, adding that he lost $400,000 on the last tour fiasco. (Of course, his health is a factor, and it forced him to skip his own 50th birthday celebration). "I think the project in Frankfurt is going to open the door for a lot more work in the classical music field. You know, if you're my age, that's not a bad age to be a classical composer. But it's a terrible age to be a rock 'n' roll musician!"
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