The Last Days Of Frank Zappa
By Ben Watson
During the 1980s, Ben Watson published a series of articles in various literary magazines called Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play. It extolled Zappa’s virtues as a revolutionary artist in the tradition of William Blake, de Sade and Wyndham Lewis. In October 1993 – just six weeks before Frank died – Watson was invited to Zappa’s home in Los Angeles to read him extracts.
On Tuesday, I tell Frank he is so good at answering “nerdy journalist’s questions” that I have prepared 20 I would like him to answer. He tells me to get the tape recorder running and fire away.
It’s rare that any musicians who’ve worked with you do any better when they’re out on their own. If your musicians solo they do so at the peak of their intensity - how do you stop them coasting? Is it a matter of giving them instructions, or just the challenge of the musical environment they’re given?
I don’t understand the question.
Your musicians always play – it seems to me – at the peak of what they’re capable of doing. One of the things I really like about your records is that if there’s a solo people don’t noodle, they don’t coast – they really play hard.
Is that because of what you tell them before they play? Or is it simply the challenge of the music?
The reason is that I tell them before they play and because all the live stuff is edited, so l look for the best work that each musician can do, It’s not just a matter of cloying something together, I try and make the performance of each tune exemplary in some way. So I’m not just optimising what I write, I’m optimising what they improvise.
I was thinking about seeing you at Hammersmith and watching Eddie Jobson play violin.
He’s free to play what he likes when he goes off on his solo.
Yeah, well, that’s the way it is with all the guys. They know what key they’re supposed to be in – they know what kind of a solo it’s supposed to be and they know roughly how long it is they’re supposed to play. So after that it’s them, not me.
I’ve seen you many times, but your musicians never play that kind of up and down the fretboard fusion thing, that boring thing fusion players so often do.
You mean in my playing?
Not just yours – anybody in your band.
Well, they know the other guys are listening . It’s a strong incentive to do a good job – it’s a pretty critical audience up there on the bandstand, let alone who’s out there in the seats. If you’re playing shit, the other guys on the stage are certainly going to let you know about it.
People find the mixture of signals in your music – cerebral abstractions one minute, shocking moments of human dishevelment the next people find this very confusing . .
Do you have any advice?
Well that’s the universe – it’s the way the universe is.
How do you place the score in your work? Is it just a means to an end? In other words, is the art in the score or is it in the master tape?
Well, there wouldn’t even be a score if what was being requested of the musicians wasn’t too complicated for me to hum it to ’em. I n the most instances, for the rock’n’roll stuff I find I get the best results if they’re playing this stuff they’ve memorised rather thon stuff they’re reading. The point where the piece goes into muscle memory, you can then conduct it, do things with it that are impossible when they’re reading [lights Marlboro]. So the final artistic result is the master tape.
You’ve made me think harder about the relationship of art to life then any other artist. Do you have a formula to guide you?
Relationship of art to life? Well, I told you before, what I’m doing is entertainment. Choose between an entertaining life or the other kind – the ‘art’ life. The answer becomes obvious.
Even though the music industry has done the most it can to suppress you, are you aware that it needs contrary figures in order to keep people interested in the product?
They don’t care, they don’t care.
It’s as simple as that?
Why have you chosen to talk to Rolling Stone? [Music editor David Fricke was invited out two weeks after Watson’s visit but Zappa wasn’t well enough to come downstairs and meet him. Gail played him some tapes in the studio and he left without an interview.]
Because after all these years, they have got so desperate about having me be interviewed, because I’ve complained so many times about what a piece-of-shit kind of publication it is and I’ve got a new distribution deal and a new album coming out – I thought that it would probably be as good a time as any to do it if I’m ever gonna do it.
Why is James Joyce on the list of names on Freak Out! ?
Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything by Joyce all the way through, but the few pages I looked at, I saw it and said, Now there’s a real guy. It doesn’t take much to have an influence on me.
There are signs that literary and academic people are at last coming round to appreciate your monstrous creativity. I think I can see signs of a Zappa industry in academia that one day might rival the Joyce industry.
Do you have a message for such people?
Get a real estate license.
Why did Spence Chrislu [Zappa’s recording engineer] spend weeks editing the Al Malkin tapes? [25 cassettes recorded by rhythm guitarist Warren Cucurullo] ?
He didn’t edit them.
Catalogue them, sorry.
What he did was transfer them from normal cassette to digital cassette, he equalised them and catalogued them – so at a later date I can make a ‘thing’ out of it, and it’s easier to ‘make the thing’ if it’s a piece of tape with code on it – that way you can find the line you’re looking for.
I don’t know if you want this known or talked about but there was a letter from Terry Gilliam being passed around on Friday night [it referred to a film script Zappa had written and showed to Gilliam]. I was wondering if you’d like to say anything . . .
Talk about being flattered!
Did you ever watch Monty Python or see Brazil?
Yes – Brazil’s my favourite movie.
It’s one of mine, definitely. I always liked his things in Monty Python more than the sketches – his graphics.
Yah. He’s so funny it’s hard to imagine he’s an American.
What kind of project is it?
Well I wrote a screen-play and I was looking for someone to direct it. I’ve been working on it for years.
This is a question from a friend of mine, Johnny Black, who’s just written a long article about The Fugs and he wanted to know if they came to see you at the Garrick Theatre?
I think we knew them from when they were playing in San Francisco. I don’t know whether they came to the Garrick – we were both working there at the same time. They were working every night and we were working every night, so….
What did you think of them ?
Well, I thought it was a proper piece of entertainment for the time.
When I interviewed Dweezil and Ahmet they did a big routine about Lou Reed, attacking him. It was really funny. I sensed the rivalry going way back to the time of Tom Wilson and Verve and all the rest of it.
There wasn’t any rivalry. I only met him once or twice back then.
When I talk to Velvet Underground fans I play them Venus in Furs by Lou Reed followed by Penguin in Bondage and I say, Venus in Furs is just a list of sadomasochistic clichés everyone knows, while Penguin in Bondage is something strange.
Huh-ha-ha. Yes it is.
Is the point that you’ve experienced more than other people, or just that you care to write about experiences that a lot of people might have but not think to write songs about?
I don’t know what the statistics are on the number of people who have experienced anything resembling Penguin in Bondage, but I just happen to choose song topics not previously covered by other journalists, y’know – dental floss, stuff like that.
Do you think the way that women are attracted to famous musicians gives those musicians a special attitude? Isn’t it strange that so much information given to young people about sex comes from men in a very favoured position?
I think so, I think that’s true. There’s always been a tradition of didactic blues artists – there’s plenty of advice on how to treat your woman, what to do if she treats you bad, how to get one – these are common blues lyric topics.
Hmm. That assumes that the audience is male.
I think for most blues it’s true. There’s not too many female blues fans.
Does everyone have interesting dreams?
I don’t know. I suppose to themselves they do. If you’ve ever had somebody tell you one of their dreams, it’s usually presented in a way that now you’re being given the opportunity to hear the most spectacular far-out fucking thing that anybody ever dreamed up – they’re all proud of their dreams, even if what you’re hearing is miserable.
Did you ever hear the expression Jeder Mann sein eigener Fussball?
No, never heard it.
It means, Everyone their own football.
It was the name of a Dada magazine that became a universal catch phrase during the working class revolts in Berlin at the end of World War I.
You know, that was what was great about the ’20s, the way you could combine the concept of working class with Dada. God, they don’t know what they missed in those days.
The Dadaists went on an anti-militarist procession through the working class districts and got applauded by everyone. It was considered wild.
I’ve always appreciated Dada and I keep trying to get Ahmet to read about it, because that’s him in the flesh, he’s a genetic carrier of that particular gene that has been pretty much bred out of the species. It’s like Stravinsky says, It’s not enough to want, you have to be. There are people that wish they were Dada but they’ll never make it. He doesn’t even know what it means, but he exudes it.
What’s your favourite colour?
It used to be Naples yellow, but I think purple.
I think of lot of people will be really surprised by purple . . . Hendrix, Prince . . . for what it means.
Well, it’s a combination of red and blue, isn’t it.
What would you do with radio?
Hmm. Bring back live dramas. There’s no live drama on the radio in the US – I know there’s still bits and pieces in Europe, maybe in the Far East, but it’s a type of theatre that I really used to enjoy when I was a kid because it frees your imagination, and if there’s one thing the US needs, it’s a little bit of freedom
I don’t know if you heard, but the British National Party – the Nazis – won on election in the Isle Of Dogs recently. Would you join the Anti-Nazi League?
No. I won’t join anything. It’s not that I like Nazis – I really hate them. I don’t join shit.
It’s just that in England, with the position in Europe – Le Pen in France and so on – the Nazis have grown very big. The idea is that everyone who hates the Nazis joins together and says, Not in England.
Yeah. Well, I’d probably have to think twice about that if I thought that me joining would have any impact at all, but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t, because you have to remember why those guys are there in the first place – first of all it’s a protest vote, and secondly no-one knows who or what they’re voting for. So, it could happen anytime anyplace.
I noticed certain ‘new age’ sounds in the music that preceded Beat The Reaper on Disc Two of Civilisation Phase 3- surely you’re joking?
What’s a ‘new age’ sound?
Sounds I associate with new age – shakuhachi or some kind of flute . . .
Mmm [affirmative grunt].
. . . and the throat singing – quite atmospheric sounds. I was quite surprised to hear you use them. Normally . . .
Normally in new age material there is no hint of dissonance, so no matter what you’re orchestrating it with, the fact that you’re not dealing with lush triads would set it apart anyway. The only thing it has in common with new age music is that the chords are held a very long time, but you couldn’t go out and get a new age record contract with that tune, because there’s too much going on in it.
You won’t collude with the basis of a question, you always say something that blows up the area from where the question’s coming from.
The problem with doing a rock interview in the first place is that the person coming to talk to you (a) doesn’t know anything about what you do (b) doesn’t know about music in general and (c) has already made up his mind in advance before he comes to you what the answer ought to be to his precious little question. There’s no reason to collude. I’m not there to make his life miserable, but you know, by the same token, if you want facts I’ll give them to you – you want something else, go someplace else. I still think it’s one of the smartest things I ever said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read”.
I’ve always loved that one. I also love another one, I think you said it round the same time: “Some rock musicians make a bunch of money and stick it up their noses – I stick mine in my ear”.
Yes, millions of dollars worth.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net