Head Mother Speaks

By Lorraine Alterman

Fifth Estate, December 1, 1967

His name has a certain zing to it. Zappa – a name you don’t easily forget. Like the man, Frank Zappa, leader and creator of The Mothers of Invention who perform at the Ford Auditorium on Dec. 1. [1]

His long, skinny frame is echoed in his incredible long skinny nose set in the midst of a face framed by Medusa-like hair. Even at a time when people are getting used to guys in long-hair, no one can resist glueing their eyes to 26-year-old Zappa. It’s kind of like he’s a presense or maybe an apparition from another world.

Zappa really is of another world, a world of his own making. To the untrained observer he may look like a hippie, but he’s not. Zappa has no use for hippies. As he said over breakfast, “I don’t give a damn about the hippies! It’s o.k. if they’re there. I just don’t care. They don’t do anything except just sort of sit there.”

As we sat in a downtown coffee shop, people walking by the window would stop to gawk at Zappa and customers inside also kept looking at the man. Since the Mothers had just returned from a European tour where they played to large crowds in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm, I was curious if people there stared too.

Zappa answered that in Europe it’s o.k. to stare as much as you want to and people would just stop dead in their tracks for a look. “I don’t know if that’s judging you or not,” he said. “They have a different set of values there.”

According to him, in this country people decide that you must be a degenerate if you dress strangely. “The same way people look at a man in a suit and tie and assume that’s a decent citizen,” he added. “Both ways are wrong. Just because a person dresses up is no reason to assume he’s the solid American type.”

The music the Mothers play is just that – music. Zappa stays clear of labels like “rock ’n’ roll.” As he puts it. “We do whatever we feel like doing at the time. Basically it‘s music.”

Since I haven’t seen a Mother’s live performance yet, let me quote Bob Shelton from the New York Times. “The Mothers of Invention are primarily musical satirists. Beyond that, they are perhaps the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock with the serious music of Stravinsky and others. Both in their material and in their looks, they are also furthering some of the more outrageous elements of anti-convention, thus contributing to a new style that might be called “shock-rock”.” 

Zappa himself, who was born in Baltimore, but grew up in California, is a musician interested in the serious music of this century, particularly the work of Edgard Varèse.

He’s not particularly pleased with pop music, for as he explains. “Pop music is sitting there pretending it’s going to grow and any minute going to turn to something.”

The problem as he sees it is that “most of the kids are not equipped to listen. The schools haven’t prepared them. Music appreciation as taught in the schools is garbage. The only music they hear on radio is pop. On TV they can hear the Beverly Hillbillies soundtrack or once in a while Leonard Bernstein thrown in to appease them. It’s as if the networks say every quarter, we’ll do a youth show to let the kids know we’re thinking of them.”

To change the situation Zappa said he would, “first give the kids guitar lessons in school for credit and also drum and electric bass. They should prepare the kids if they are going to play.

“The music courses in school now play the kids Mozart, Bach and The Messiah at Christmas time. The schools give them all rigid, stereotype music. They say this is classical music and they ignore every development in music in the past 100 years. In serious music today some of the most exciting advancements in composition is taking place. Most of it is coming from Poland where something creative is really happening.[2]

Zappa says that the Monkees are putting together a TV special in which each Monkee has his favorite artist appear. Zappa is Mike Nesmith’s. What does Zappa in turn think about the Monkees?

“America is designed for things like that, consumer oriented products,” he answered. “The Monkees are not a bad consumer product which is not to say it’s bad if you go for that product. The Monkees fulfilled a need of young teenage girls . . . The Monkees are a by-product of our screwed-up sexual code. Screaming and tearing their hair, is a substitute for sex among young girls. It’s instant auto-eroticism at the live performance level.”

Zappa believes that if parents were able to honestly communicate the facts of life to their kids “it would have been all over for the fantastic four. Fortunately America is so screwed up that the Monkees will continue to be popular for another 15 or 20 minutes. Then Hollywood will manufacture another group.”

The Mothers soon haves a new album coming out called “We’re Only in it For the Money.” The cover, Zappa says, is “Sgt. Pepper complete every detail only the absolute negative of the Beatle’s cover.” Zappa himself has a solo album coming out which features a 35 piece orchestra and electronic effects. Zappa calls it a ballet. Why? “Why not,” he says. “Call it a soap opera, call it a square dance if you want.”

The Mothers had a show which ran in New York for five months but the Dec. 1 Ford Auditorium show is only their second perfoming venture in the mid-west. “Someday we may even play Kansas,” Zappa threatens and that should really be something to see.

1. Concert in Ford Auditorium, Detroit, MI.

2. Zappa is talking here about Krzysztof Penderecki, whom he has repeatedly named as one of his favorite composers.