Mephisto In Hollywood

By  ?

Time, October 31, 1969

"Five thousand young people are there," TIME Correspondent Timothy Tyler wrote, describing a Frank Zappa concert in Philadelphia. "They are expecting to be blasted out of their seats by a succession of rock groups like Jeff Beck, and Sly & the Family Stone. But the Mothers of Invention, who come on first, take the heart right out of the kids. They look old, entirely too old to be a rock group, and underfed, and definitely weird. Especially Frank Zappa, scrawny and at his most unappetizing in long red underwear, straggly black hair tied in a ponytail, a sinister goatee elongating a sallow, canine face. Noise comes out of the band, noise like a zoo is burning down. It is King Kong, one of Frank's creations. The kids start to rock back and forth like they always do. But as the full shock of this noise hits them, you can see them shrivel down in their seats until they sit there paralyzed, barely breathing. Twelve minutes later, the piece rumbles to a stop in the middle of an unbelievable shriek of saxophones. The kids sit stunned."

As it happens, that was one of the Mothers' last concerts. For five years, Zappa and the eight other Mothers tried to make satiric hash of rock, displaying a suicidal urge, or so it seemed to many, to play music so weird, as Zappa put it, that "you just have to run screaming from the room the moment you hear us." To many people, Zappa, in fact, has often seemed to be a force of cultural darkness, a Mephistophelian figure served as a joke, brutal reminder of music's potential for invoking chaos and destruction. Zappa sees himself merely as a devil's advocate who started out by disguising his own serious music as rock ("There's nothing reprehensible in atonal music played over a boogaloo rhythm"), hoping to find a permanent place for it. At 29, Zappa has now disbanded the leading underground rock group in the U.S. "I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons," he says. "Those kids wouldn't know music if it came up and hit 'em on the ass."

The move was far from suicidal. Zappa already has enough material recorded to produce twelve more Mothers LP. If they are like the first eight, that will mean words too dirty and music too complex to be played on the radio. No matter. It is plainly time to branch out further. Zappa is now president of the first underground rock conglomerate ever, Bizarre, Inc. It includes two record labels – Bizarre and Straight – as well as a management firm, a public relations agency, an advertising agency, several music-publishing companies, a film-production company and a book division that will start off with The Groupie Papers, a book at life among the female camp followers or rock.

In signing talent, Zappa has only one criterion, the acts have to be even weirder than the Mothers. And are they ever. For Bizarre, Zappa has even recorded an ex-mental patient named Wild Man Fisher, who has made his living for years by standing on the sidewalk of Sunset Strip and shrieking distraught songs of his own creation at people for a nickel a song. The Straight label offers groups like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, a gaggle of males who live together in a big house in the San Fernando Valley, wear dresses, sheets and lampshades and rehearse their mad meanderings 14 hours a day.

Personally, Zappa is as bizarre as any of the people he is pushing. He even shocks other pop musicians. A few years ago, he performed at the Grammy Awards, making pig noises for about 20 minutes because he found the audience rude and noisy. What may or may not qualify as slightly more appetizing is the line spoken by a girl on the Bizarre LP Uncle Meat "No one could ever understand our bizarre relationship because I was your intellectual frigid housekeeper, especially when you'd be going to bed with one chick at night and I'd wake up in the morning to find ... you weren't with the same one you were with the night before ..."

It would all be sheer horror if the talent, however wildly misused, were not there. But it is. Zappa's LP Ruben & the Jets, an irreverent look at rock 'n' roll of the mid-1950s ("Cheap thrills, in the back of my car/ Cheap thrills, how fine they are"), is musical satire at its best. The Return of The Son of Monster Magnet on the album Freak Out!, atonal, multi-rhythmic, gratings off, puts most of today's electronic composers to shame for unpretentious thrust and sheer zany imagination.

Moon Unit. A self-thought composer whose idols are Stravinsky and Varèse, Zappa thinks that he would have been taken a lot more seriously if he had chosen a classical life. His current success, however, is the best proof possible of the cross-pollinating of movies, television and recordings now occurring in Hollywood. These days even the freakiest musicians can go independent, be their own managers, producers and A & R men – and make money. Working in the basement of his Laurel Canyon home, which he shares with his wife Gail, their daughter Moon Unit, and a baby son whom they call Dweezil. Zappa is editing his first film Burnt Weenie Sandwich, a documentary about the Mothers. His second, Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People, is ready for the camera. Neither one of them could possibly compare to the $4,800,000 flick he hopes to do next. Zappa is ready, willing, able and graphic in talking about that one if someone listens.

"It opens in a concentration camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the Establishment has founded up all the hippies, the Mothers included, to re-educate them in the American verities, with lectures on things like the American hamburger. Whenever anyone falls asleep in class, he is killed by a huge torture machine which carves the name of his crime in his back. In the end, the Mothers and the other hippies are saved by Mothra, the giant moth of movie fame, and Godzilla, and Gorgo, and King Kong, and all the old monsters, and in the Armageddon it is discovered that the camp had been run by Colonel Sanders, who turned out to be nothing more than an electric doll in the glove compartment of a Volkswagen bus which was being used as a Chicken Delight truck."

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