Nobody Looks Good Wearing Brown Lipstick

Frank Zappa, the politician you thought you knew

By Russ Cooper

Warrior, March, 2005


I'll spare you the details of my ongoing trollop through the annals of the music world. The shlong of it all is that, at this point in time, I'm utterly disenchanted. Where the horse of wild, unbridled youth once raged with burning passion through the canyons of my mind, digging its powerful kick into the soil of crusty old convictions, it is now plagued with a festering botulism on the hoof from an overbearing industry and mass dissemination. It's not just watered down, its potency has dried up. The rock industry has turned into a fluff factory.

It seems that, save for a handful of key bands with a message and a vision no matter what the cost to their business, music has lost a lot of its ability to effectively move people to think twice about their place and time in society. This used to happen all the time! People were drawn to powerful musicians for their ability to redirect the public's views in a positive direction. There are the strong ones who manage to get their voice across and actually make a difference (such as DC's Fugazi whose tactfully disjointed manifesto music has become "political music for the common man" to many). This becomes, in essence, a political struggle, a clash that pits the people against the man in a battle for a valid and audible voice. Me, I look to the past. To see what might lie ahead, one must look behind.

How do you do it? First, you rebel outright. Once you find out that doesn't change cross-eyed blueberry dick-all, you infiltrate.*

Frank Zappa made his first menacing public dissemination on March 14, 1963 on The Steve Allen Show. Clad in short hair and a dry, conservative-grey, grey suit, he demonstrated a bicycle he had turned into an abstract horn and called it 'cyclophony'. Around this time, his band, the first version of the Mothers of Invention (MoI) called 'the Muthers' were playing around Pomona Ontario, California. They became moderately known for verbally abusing the crowd, pointing out what a bunch of phonies they were in their trying-to-be-Freaky outfits and/or straight-laced ways of life. He started playing in odd time signatures and cacophonies of dissonant bombardments, intermingled with standard yet lyrically scathing doo-wop pop numbers to appease fragile-eared. All the while, Zappa and his band had to scrounge for pop bottles to buy baloney and cigarettes. The point is that Zappa made a choice, whether by nature or by conscious decision, that he had to inform his immediate circle that there was more out there than Pat Boone and the Crew Cuts and that they were idiot cattle. The truth hurts.

Fast forward a couple of years. On 1967's Absolutely Free (Rykodisc), the MoI's second album's lead track 'Plastic People' inspired group from Czechoslovakia to exercise the birth right to rock and roll. The Plastic People of the Universe were formed by bassist Milan Hlavsa, artistic director/manager Ivan Jirous, and guitarist Josef Janiček in late 1968. Prague had become reminiscent of Berkeley circa 1967 for a short time, until the Kremlin cracked down on the liberal government of Alexander Dubček. The Kremlin instituted a 'normalization' program to reestablish moral and social behavior suitable of a communist country. The Plastics refused to change. They had their professional licenses revoked, their instruments confiscated, and their rehearsal space occupied. Performances became underground events, word would circulate by mouth, often resulting in police waiting by the stage. Their music was deemed to have a .negative social impact'. The government would hound the band throughout its career, eventually throwing Jirous and musicians into jail in 1976.

A group of artist-supporters, among whom was an avant-garde playwright called Václav Havel, rallied around the cause. Naming organization Charter 77, Havel said the Plastics were defending 'life's intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way'. Charter 77 eventually became a world-human rights organization that would also land Havel in jail. Their actions were a precursor to the national revolution twelve years later.

Václav Havel became President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. He replaced commie officials with dissidents and rock musicians. At the invitation of Havel, Frank Zappa flew Prague in January of 1990. Zappa had known bit about what these people had gone through but was emotionally overcome when meeting some of the older fans who had been beaten for listening to his music. The coolest part was naming Zappa as Czechoslovakia's 'Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism:' Unfortunately, this appointment lasted two weeks. Secretary of State James in all his objective diplomatic rationality, said Czechoslovakia could do business with the US or it could do business with Zappa. They were forced to choose the former, but luck it. The disturbance was there anyway.

This is rock roll, brothers and sisters. I mean, Zappa. as a much as he had a penchant and technique for attempting to swing points of view could never have imagined Zappa the impact on world politics. It could also be said that Zappa had inspired a country to overcome oppression and fascism. It could be said that he changed a country's fate with his music and his voice. And a country not even belonging to him, at that.

But what was he doing in his own country? Does anyone remember the PMRC battles of the mid-eighties?

In 1985, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Democratic Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, bought her daughter the Prince album, Purple Rain. In a wonderfully descriptive passage, Prince outlines his darling Nikki diddling herself with a magazine in a hotel lobby. Tipper's conservative little mind freaks out, and she rounds up her crew of 'bored Washington wives' (as Zappa put it) to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Among these fine ladies: Nancy Thurmond of Strom fame, and Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, the king of UltimatumsVille, USA. The PMRC accused the Recording Industry Association of America of exposing youth to 'sex, violence, and the glorification of drugs and alcohol'. Sending letters pseudo-via their powerful law-making Senator husbands to the Broadcasters Association, they demanded a rating system for records, threatening that individual stations would risk losing their licenses if they played songs with explicit lyrics. At its core, the PMRC was set on labeling and controlling, even banning, what they considered to be offensive music. Their

'Filthy 15' list included Judas Priest, Sheena Easton, and Cyndi Lauper (they all violated the holy institution of good of wanking & humping); Def Leppard (as the defiler of pure livers, encouraging drug and alcohol abuse); and the hardestcore of them all, Twisted Sister, (for inciting all of us to riot and punch with 'We're Not Gonna Take It'. Under one possible interpretation, if you wore a Motley Crüe shirt, you could be fined $5000 and spend three years in jail.

Enter a mobilized Zappa. He was there throughout all the mid-eighties PMRC battles (by his side: Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, and ... John Denver – lest his 'Rocky Mountain High' be misconstrued as an anthem on drug use). Acting against censorship and the infamous 'explicit lyrics: parental advisory' sticker on unsavory records, Zappa sat in on Senate hearings, gave statements to Congress, wrote to President Reagan to defend First Amendment rights all in his signature flippant manner of scalding/scolding intelligence. On September 19, 1985, he reminded Congress, in simple language:

No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. ...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. ...It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.

Frank even got a haircut for the occasion.

I don't think anyone counted on someone who'd written songs about scraping inch-thick noomies off windows with a putty knife, making love to appliances, making quilts out of underwear, and arid foot odour would be as clever; bright, and absurdly aware as Frank Zappa was. Strangely enough, Zappa's own songs - this would include such ditties as 'Catholic Girls', 'Titties 'n Beer' and 'Why Does it Hurt when I Pee' – although thought of as unpleasant, were never stamped as offending entities.

Ultimately, the bill passed, and records soon donned the 'Tipper sticker'. Having the predictable last laugh, it actually became a selling tool and some records not on the blacklist voluntarily wore the label. In fact, albums became more and more obscene, essentially burying the legislation under a Billy the Mountain of adulterated filth passing itself off as 'expression'. Where are those stickers today? I can see Frank's imperial soul patch crinkling as he smiles down from the rock and roll afterlife, sending the Washington wives cowering in their church-issue belly-button-high morally-pure cotton panties off to bleach their mustaches.

Think about this shit. Here is a guy many consider, myself included, to be one of the most important figures of the 20th century, often deemed an immature nuisance who was up to his eyebrows in chemical refreshment. He was not. With tenacious vision, he rallied people worldwide one way or another to think for themselves and to resist the oppression of dogmatic sonsabitches on righteous missions to destroy independence.

Where is this nobility and fervent musical vision today? Perhaps I'm just looking back at it differently because I wasn't really there. But I do know that we are too good to live in the situation we are living in right now. The pendulum must inevitably swing back and into the light. Who wants to start a band?

* In May of 1969, Frank Zappa spoke at the London School of Economics. After a mundane question period, the crowd became uptight about the topical nature of the seminar. When asked about the recent demonstrations in Berkeley. Zappa said, I'm not big on demonstrations. Infiltrate the establishment. That's the way it happens. Infiltrate until there's another generation of lawyers, doctors, judge – I don't think you should harm people' After hissing and booing from the churned-up crowd, Zappa commented; 'Revolution is just this year's Flower Power'.

 

ESSENTIAL ZAPPA INFORMATION

'The Oracle Has It All Psyched Out'

Zappa article in Life Magazine June 28 1968

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa

and Peter Ochiogroso

200 Motels (1971 full-length feature film)

Albums

Freak Out 1966

Ahead of their Time

(recorded in 1968 released in 1993)

We're Only in It for the Money 1968

Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970

Just Another Band From LA (live) t9'71

Playground Psychotics released 1992

Waka/Jawaka Hot Rats 1972

Apostrophe 1974

Zoot Allures 1976

Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention 1995

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