Frank Zappa Of Necessity Founded The Mothers Of Invention

It's the turned-on group that plays fundamental cosmic tones forthe e-Baltimorean turned entrepeneur.

By James D. Dilts

The Sun Magazine, May 3, 1970


ACCORDING to the "Big Bang'' theory of the origin of the universe, everything started about 10 billion years ago when a volume of material about the size of a softball exploded and the thing has been expanding ever since.

Frank Zappa holds the "Big Note'' theory, where everything – light rays, soundwaves, atoms – may be vibrations of the same "Fundamental Cosmic Tone." Zappa is interested in all sorts of tones, mostly amplified, but he has interests in other areas of show business, too.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's science fiction film ''2001: A Space Odyssey," came out a while back. Zappa is now shooting his own science fiction film: ''Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People!" His production company is ''Intercontinental Absurdities, Ltd."

''The Penkovsky Papers," a book about spies, was published in 1965. Frank's book, "The Groupie Papers," about the girls who follow rock musicians, will be out shortly.

Motown records recently released an album of Broadway show tunes by Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations. They do "Malteds Over Manhattan" and ''Leading Lady Medley." One of the latest albums to come out under Zappa's Bizarre label features an ex-mental patient named Larry (Wild Man) Fischer, who sings ''85 Times" and ''Which Way did the Freaks Go?" The album is called ''An Evening with Wild Man Fischer."

BBD&O (Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn) gives the old-line New York ad agency look to such products as Breck Shampoos and Campbell's Soups. Zappa has an ad agency too with clients such as Hagstrom Guitars and Luden's Cough Drops. It's called NT&B (Nifty, Tough and Bitchen). And so on.

Frank Zappa – musician-composer, satirist, bizarre talent scout, writer, filmmaker and Renaissance man of rock culture, is also the head of what is perhaps the country's first anti-middle class conglomerate: Bizarre, Inc.

One approaches it circuitously. After all, this is the war room. How do you dial the underground? After several phone calls I finally got connected to the Bizarre, Inc., office in L.A. where I ended up talking to Jon Gordon, a Johns Hopkins graduate who now handles Zappa's public relations.

"The Sun Magazine, huh?" he said thoughtfully, the wheels turning, locking into place. "How many pages you think the story will run?" I told him that depended on how much time he got me with Zappa. You learn to play the game after a while.

Gordon, after more questions about circulation, cover possibilities, etc., turned out to be as cordial as you could expect of a West Coast promotion man, so I flew to Los Angeles. I called Gordon the next day. Zappa ws still sleeping. But he would talk to Zappa's secretary and see what was happening that afternoon and call me back. Gordon, who was, I was beginning to appreciate, only the outermost sentinel of the palace guard, never did call back.

I called him. Tomorrow, he said, Frank's going to be editing some films. You can talk to him about 4. But give us a call around noon to make sure he isn't doing something else at 4, okay? Right.

So I called the next day at noon. Gordon wasn't there. The hell with it, I thought, and went to sleep.

Gordon's phone call woke me up. "Frank is up," he said, ''and you can come on over."

My first encounter with Frank Zappa was in 1967 when he came to Baltimore, with his rock group, the Mothers of Invention to play a concert at Eastern High School. In fact I'd even managed to interview him. It had been simpler then, without all the intervening arrangers.

The Mothers' music, in its less frenetically amplified moments, had been melodic and sophisticated, surprisingly so since it was performed by the freakiest band I had ever seen. (Zappa has shoulder-length hair and is fond of T-shirts that inevitably fail to cover his stomach and are always emblazoned with ''Frog Hollow Day Camp," or some such arcane message.)

THEN last summer, Zappa and the Mothers appeared at the Laurel Pop Festival. It was the usual Mothers' madness – weird appearance and zany satire of musical periods from the Baroque to Hollywood. The audience responded but not as enthusiastically as it did to less musical but more emotionally demonstrative groups, and after a few more concerts last summer, the Mothers disbanded. Zappa wanted to explore alternative means of propaganda, it was rumored. "These kids wouldn't know music if it came up and bit 'em," he was widely quoted as saying after the breakup.

It was this image of Zappa, hairy and outspoken, that I had in mind as I started out for the Bizarre, Inc., office on Wilshire boulevard. It's just a couple of rooms, plastered with Bizarre album covers. A young couple sat on the edge of a desk with their arms around each other staring at the wall.

A secretary led me to Gordon who was typing in a back office. He finished the page, showed me briefly around the place and we left. The couple on the desk hadn't moved.

We rode through Hollywood for what seemed like an hour, up narrow roads into the hills, stopping at a house on Woodrow Wilson drive. Zappa let us in.

The room was dark except for a movie screen ablaze with tilting, whirling shots of the Mothers of Invention. From the back came blasts of music and occasional dialogue. There was some talk about the fundamental cosmic tone and a discussion between a couple of effeminate-sounding young men about some ''bogeymen'' that had attacked them. Close-ups on the screen showed the Mothers' noses and mouths. There were also shots of the Mothers doing outrageous things to a doll they used to carry with them.

What did it all mean? Well, said Zappa, shutting off the projector and turning on the lights, it was a film about the Mothers that he was matching a soundtrack to. It was to be called "Burnt Weenie Sandwich."

Zappa looked positively presentable. He was wearing a body shirt, bell bottoms, socks and shoes and his hair was tied back so tightly it looked as if it had been shorn.

Zappa is a tall, thin man whose chief physical features are his hair, which usually hangs down on either side of his face in scraggly curls, and his nose, a truly marvelous aquiline blade built of odd planes and angles. The finishing touch is a heavv black moustache and goatee which give his face a sinister cast.

We were in a basement room, or two rooms really, with a movie screen pulled between them. A pretty girl wearing a T-shirt sat on the floor in front of the screen playing with two children. Zappa's wife Gail, served coffee and then took Moon Unit, their daughter (they call her "Moony'') and Dweezil, their baby son, upstairs.

There were two huge, shoulder-high speakers in the room, a set of drums and several keyboard instruments, including a baby grand. A strange collection of furniture included a couch, an old trunk and a wheelchair. A skateboard lay on the bright blue rug; a dummy stood in the corner. Most of the upper half of one wall was covered by a huge painting of of a purple car of about Dodge Airflow vintage that had orange flames shooting out of its hood and fenders. The projector was in what seemed to be a reconstructed washroom. In the second room, on the other side of the movie screen, were several shelves filled with cans of film.

Frank explained, in his precise way of speaking, that he himself had shot some of the film we'd been watching and got additional footage from TV cameramen who had covered the Mothers' appearances. (According to Gordon, the PR man, "Burnt Weenie Sandwich" has since been merged with "Uncle Meat," a documentary about the Mothers of Invention that will include Zappa's interviews with members of his band.)

''Film is funny," said Zappa. ''The only arbiter is how much money you have to get the thing together." He had just found out that Filmways would finance ''Uncle Meat.'' He said it will play in special theaters and would probably open in New York in late spring. He is now editing it.

He is also editing, in a different medium, "The Groupie Papers.'' In an article for Life a year and a half ago, Zappa defined the Groupies: "These girls, who devote their lives to pop music, feel they owe something personal to it, so they make the ultimate gesture of worship, human sacrifice. They offer their bodies to the music or its nearest personal representative, the pop musician."

The book will consist, said Zappa, of a collection of interviews transcribed from tape. They are based on the diaries of two girls, Cynthia and Pamela, and how they grew up, from age 16 and 8 respectively, in the United States with Beatlemania.

"There's also a phone conversation that bears on this case," said Frank. ''Cynthia is a pudgy girl from Chicago who thinks she's ugly. She has an inferiority complex but she also has a fantasy about achieving sexual relations with all her pop heroes. So in spite of her inferiority complex, she manages to talk to 'em and go up to their hotel rooms and end up in bed.

"Well, the two girls meet each other over the phone and fall in love and then there's some letters and Miss Pamela hocks her most prized possession – her phonograph – to go to Chicago.''

"How does the book end?"

''Disillusionment,'' said Zappa.

Music, however, remains Zappa's main interest though sometimes his various cultural and business pursuits overlap. Take Miss Pamela of Diary Fame, as Frank calls her. Miss Pamela is one of the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously) who also live in Laurel Canyon. (Laurel Canyon, the Woodstock of the West, is where you live if you've made it as a rock musician – or a groupie. Cass Elliott lives down the street from Zappa in one direction and Sly and the Family Stone, the other.)

THE GTO's are groupies as well as recording artists for Zappa's "Straight" label. Zappa played a little of their new album. The dialogue is indeed outrageous. Will it pass the censors? ''We'll soon find out," Zappa said thoughtfully.

The evening's guests had begun drifting in. One was a young film-maker, Bill Norton. He'd brought along several of his efforts. Zappa began running the reels on the projector.

One was an anti-war film called "Star Spangled Heroes," narrated in the old Paramount newsreel style and starring Sergeant Rock Balls. It was all about him and the "Yellow Peril" and had farcical scenes of jungle fighting and satiric verses, one of which, sung by an operatic voice, described how ''Lyndon Baines is sniffing glue to keep the pain away." Zappa laughed for the first time that afternoon. The final scene showed a soldier in uniform with a large American flag on his shoulder running among dozens of white crosses in a cemetery while a stirring march played in the background.

''I made it in 1965 when I thought the war would be over," Norton said.

''Ha, ha,'' said Zappa.

Zappa monitors vibrations from a number of sources. In his basement message center, the reading material ranges from Teen Magazine and ''Sgt. Fury and Howling Commandos,'' to ''Musical Instruments'' by Gieringer and ''Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear," by John Russell Taylor. He was listening to old rhythm and blues records. To these musical and literary inspirations, one must add over and underground movies, the barrage of messages from the media and more esoteric emanations from such far-out groups as the GTO's and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. (Beefheart, whose real name is Don Van Vliet, is a guitarist and gravel-voiced singer who also records for Zappa's label. He wears a Van Dyke beard and is partial to top hats and general weirdness.)

"Well, we're definitely a product of our environment," Zappa told an interviewer about the Mothers. "That whole band grew up in L.A."

Zappa grew up in L.A. but he was born in Baltimore. His father (''a sometimes musician") taught math and history at Loyola High School. When Frank was 10, the family moved to California. At 15, he was playing drums in a rock 'n' roll band in Sacramento. The next year the Zappas moved to a small town where Frank finished high school and decided, after hanging around for a while with nobody to talk to because they were away at college, that he might as well go, too.

IT was a mistake. He lasted a semester at a junior college in Ontario, Calif., but while he was there, he did some taped interviews with 17-year-olds that later formed the basis of some of the Mothers' inventions.

''I estimated," Zappa says, ''that for $700 I could do six months of research on the connection between certain types of teen-age behavior and musical phenomena. They said nobody will give you any money if you don't have a degree. I said by the time I sit around here long enough to get a degree, nobody will give me any information. (Zappa, round 30, is old by rock 'n' roll standards.) So he left.

In the meantime he'd gotten married. He held a number of jobs, becoming for a time a commercial artist (he designed greeting cards) and then, in 1963, when he was living in Cucamonga, he bought a recording studio for $1,000. About that time he got divorced. He moved into the studio and began experimenting. Many of the recording techniques Zappa now uses were worked out there. After about a year the studio succumbed to a roadwidening project but in the meantime Zappa had formed the Mothers of Invention.

He had also been doing research on other rock groups and had come up with the basic packaging of the Mothers some time before they started playing. Even so, in the beginning, things were tough. One of the problems was getting the Mothers to look and play ugly. They mastered the first marvelously, but never really succeeded at the second.

The Mothers started out playing for $6 a night in beer joints. Then Zappa began calling up the clubs, telling them that the Mothers sounded like the Rolling Stones. This was in 1965. The Mothers finally got a booking in Pomona and were something of a hit, Zappa related a few years ago, more because of their act than because of their music. ''People used to go away and tell their friends that here was this group that insulted the audience."

Zappa's parents saw some of the Mothers' shows. "The first time they came to a concert, they couldn't discuss it, but my father got a few laughs out of it," Zappa says. "But when I was living in the recording studio and starting to grow my hair out, they wouldn't let me near the house. My father was also a barber."

Pretty soon the Mothers had a recording contract. They have at least seven albums out now, probably none of which has ever been played on the radio. But ''Freak Out," their first album, sold a quarter of a million copies and the Mothers developed into the leading underground rock group in the country. (At least Time said they were, and so, of course, they were.)

BUT there is other evidence. A couple of years ago, in still another business venture, Zappa was working as a consultant to Unicord, Inc., a speaker manufacturer in the New York area. The company conducted a small FM radio compaign offering a poster of Zappa and the Mothers if the kids would write in for a speaker catalog. The slightly awed Unicord executives got 14.000 requests.

In 1967, the Mothers played the Garrick Theater in New York for six months. They achieved a kind of guerrilla theater – rotten vegetables were stomped into the stage, dolls were dismembered, stuffed giraffes were blown apart with cherry bombs. That year they made the first of their three foreign tours, two to Europe and one in 1969 to England and Canada. They have even won awards. In Amsterdam, the Mothers received an Edison, a European version of the Grammy, for ''We're Only In It for the Money." Zappa gave it back when they played a censored version of the album.

"We're Only In It for the Money" is not nearly so suggestive as some of the rock n' roll tunes of a few years ago such as ''Work With Me Annie," or some of the records that are being played on the air today for that matter. But it is rather strange. It is a primer of Zappa's musical sources and styles.

ZAPPA'S guitar playing is competent though not brilliant; his chief distinction is as a composer. He has achieved what few artists manage: a unique and identifiable style. And though he has taken some courses in composition, he achieved it mostly himself, by going to the library and listening to records. Early influences included Stravinsky, Ravel and Varèse.

Stockhausen is not much of an influence (''I don't like most electronic music, it's disappointing," says Zappa) but John Cage is. Cage, famed for his "prepared piano" and dramatic silences made his presence felt in the Mothers' music in several ways. One was their performance of "Dead Air," where the band stopped playing, sat down and ignored the audience. Another is a composition for voices with which Zappa concludes one side of "We're Only In It for the Money." In a variation on a Cage piece for instruments, two of the Mothers talk at the same time and in the same tone of voice, one about what he's going to do with his first royalty check, the other about how wonderful it is to be playing music for the kids today. In stereo, it is quite effective.

The ''Only Money'' album incorporates phone calls, orchestral passages, snorks and boings, electronic wheezes and ripples, brilliant musical parody (''Bow Tie Daddy") and some fine musical composition (''Let's Make the Water Turn Black.") The lyrics might be described as freaky California high school weird. There is a concluding Zappa collage that sounds like electronic music but is not.

Zappa's liner instructions for the playing of this piece, ''Megaphone of Destiny'' (Kafka's ''In the Penal Colony'' set to music) are detailed. The album liner also contains this note:

''All the music heard on this album was composed, arranged and scientifically mutilated by Frank Zappa (with the exception of a little bit of surf music.) None of the sound is generated electronically . . . they are all the product of electronically altering the sounds of NORMAL instruments. . . .

'' 'THE PRESENT DAY COMPOSER REFUSES TO DIE!' Edgar Varèse, July 1921.''

Zappa supervises all aspects of his recordings, from selecting the artists down to writing the copy, choosing the type faces and photographs and specifying the layout of the record jacket. There's a lot of method to his madness.

Zappa, an underground entrepreneur, is as adept at exploiting its commercial potential as any straight businessman. How does he just happen to have the recorded phone conversation during which Miss Pamela discovers a kindred soul, Miss Cynthia, to enliven the Bizarre album of the GTO's? Simple – he set it up and recorded it (and with a remarkable naturalness).

Zappa has partners and a manager, Herbie Cohen, to help him look after Bizarre, Inc., the parent corporation, but he keeps a close watch on it himself. (''If you don't, someone's going to end up doing things you don't like ")

THE income from the various enterprises has helped Zappa finance projects he might otherwise have had difficulty getting money for. One such project is the Uncle Meat documentary.

A few nights after our first meeting, a group of freaks in headbands and strange costumes, some of them from the UCLA film school, gathered in Zappa's basement to edit rushes for Uncle Meat. Several girls lounged about.

Films of the Mothers playing concerts, getting on trains, eating cafeteria lunches, all accompanied by recorded sound from the two monster speakers (the music and films always seemed to go together) went on far into the night.

The freaks left and Zappa talked for a long time on the phone to Herb Cohen. At last only Ian Underwood, a former Mother, and Francisca, a girl with black hair, black sweater, black bellbottoms and black boots, remained. She was from Paris and said she was doing modeling in L.A. or wanted to.

''Herbie has us set for a concert at the stadium in Amsterdam," said Zappa when he returned. ''The problem is, we need a drummer. There'll be a million groups there. It's usually the group that jumps around the most that wins the prize. I hope to be able to play something good enough so we don't have to jump around.''

Zappa pulled out a score sheet and he and Underwood connected an electric piano to one of the speakers. While Underwood, reading the score, slowly picked out the tune on the piano, Zappa, playing the vibraphone, got him over the rough spots.

''It's a thing Frank wrote today," Ian explained. Said Zappa, ''I think we'll call it 'Here Come the Monsters' – with 11 flats.'' ''It's three measures of 3/4 and four of 1/4.'' He moved over to the drums.

''I'll just keep time," he said. ''Do you know it well enough now to play it at speed, Ian?''

Underwood nodded and began to embellish the spare outline of the tune with chords, fills and runs. Zappa kept up a steady barrage of drum figures, maintaining less a steady beat than a series of accents between bass and snare, cymbal and cowbell. The piece, full of unexpected melodic turns, was reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. Francisca slept through it all.

''Well," Zappa said as they wandered to a stop, ''if we could just get a loud enough keyboard we could go over and do the job by ourselves. ''

Franscisca, awakened by the silence, surfaced from the couch, stretched and allowed as how she might go home. Underwood was calling on Beefheart.

Zappa rooted around among a pile of props on a shelf and came up with a golden plastic Roman helmet. Underwood put it on. "He always likes gala things," Zappa said. "He'll love you if you wear that." The helmeted Underwood disappeared into the night.

It was now about 4 in the morning. Zappa said he usually gets up around 2 in the afternoon and works 12 hours or so, going to sleep when he gets tired. ''I have an inner time clock that allows me to sleep eight hours,'' he said.

Much of the time he spends composing or rehearsing. "I wrote half the music for 'Hot Rats' in hotel rooms," said Zappa, "and half of it here. Yesterday we had a rehearsal for six hours with Ian and Art Tripp (the Mothers' drummer). We were doing some linear material. The harmony is a result of all the lines working against each other. The chords range every note.''

It was to hear such compositions that Zappa formed the Mothers in the first place. ''I'd been writing stuff and I couldn't get any orchestras to play it. Then I learned the awful truth. People don't want to hear that kind of music. They want to hear rock n' roll.

THE difference between what the Mothers were doing and what other groups were doing was that I was composing and they were writing songs. I wanted to write concertos for a small electronic orchestra. The audience would assume that since we had long hair and electric instruments, we should play something they'd recognize."

Is he a serious composer in the fashionable pose of a rock musician? ''There's this big misunderstanding of who and what I am," Zappa said. "People would rather imagine I'm creepy and something of a monster."

Well, what about all that business at the Garrick Theater?

"First of all, we took the job so we could work. We hadn't been working for six months. We were put in a fantastic situation. 'Hair' was just developing. We were freaks from the West Coast, installed in a 300-seat theater on Bleecker street and we were a side show. We were one of the attractions in the Village along with the Fugs for the kids from Long Island who come in on the weekends."

"The absurdity of all that – here we were, a special kind of band capable of playing good music and people wanted to see wild stuff. We had this stuffed giraffe and on the Fourth of July there were a lot of cherry bombs in the Village. So we started blowing up the giraffe.

"So, take the product of the kapok and the cherry bomb, then take the product of the stupidity of the American public and the American government. . . . It was theater of the absurd."

At any rate, the Mothers toward the end of their career were making $18,000 for two nights at the Fillmore with this sort of business, but their average on the road figure was $5,000 per appearance, which had to be divided among nine musicians and a couple of road managers, as Zappa was quick to point out.

"That means 11 hotel rooms and plane tickets and there's just no way," he said. "The last tour the Mothers made was $10,000 in the red.

"I'm just thankful I can earn a living and not have to work in a gas station and still be able to write the music I want to hear. The way a person can make money in the music business is to be a writer and have his own publishing house. It's paid for my house and it's kept me alive."

Zappa is buying his two-bedroom Laurel Canyon house. He was reticent about its cost, but he did say that his food bill sometimes ran to $200 a week with all the people moving in and out. Who are they? "I don't always know," he said.

"A lot of people think I'm pretty rich – I scuffle for my money. You ask how big is the house. Take a businessman. He needs a briefcase and a suit. I need a $600 guitar, an $800 amp, a $75 wah wah pedal and a device that costs $35 to make the guitar sound like its strangled – just to go onstage. If the people in the offices had any idea of the difficulty of this sort of life, I don't think they'd trade."

I asked Zappa if he worried about his status among his peers in the underground music business the way businessmen worry about theirs in the office.

"I just do what I do. The difference between what I do and what others do is that I'm not trying to make a hit record. The other groups record with the idea that 'We are making a hit record.' " 

"I don't see anything wrong with being able to make a living by composing or writing poetry or making films. In Europe a poet or composer means something. In Europe, they say here's a TV studio, take an hour and a half, be creative. Here they say, all right you got two minutes – do your hit."

The Europeans may have regretted their cultural tolerance. A Mothers of Invention Paris telecast caused such a furor, Frank indicated with inverse pride, that the French have since banned rock shows on TV. I asked him what they did in the studio.

"We just played our music," Zappa said. "And we didn't do any giraffes." (I was reminded of something Bill Mundi, the Mothers' former drummer, once told me: "We don't have to be obscene. Just the way we look to most people is obscene enough.")

"America's got no culture," Zappa said. 'The closest thing they've got is rock n' roll and some of the blacks. The American society in all of its mechanized magnificence does all it can to kill dreamers."

(The Zappa script for the Captain Beefheart film, a wild satiric fantasy – starring Beefheart and others – based on "2001" and the moon flights contains this line:

''CECIL/AGENT: (cold and sinister) The United States Government does not like dreamers. They are dangerous. They cause confusion, ferment and sometimes even happiness. You dared to dream the Great American Dream . . . the one where you start on the bottom & work your way to the top. You wanted to match wits with THE SYSTEM . . . you challenged ITS SUPREME AUTHORITY . . . defied ITS UNIVERSAL MEDIOCRITY . . . all because you were A DREAMER.")

ZAPPA dreams on. "I'm gonna keep on composing and working on the film and get one good one and then go on to some others.

"I'm interested in TV also because I believe that TV has made the audience very sick. It's made people want the wrong things. The answer is to get on the same media. We're negotiating now for a TV show. One station already chickened out."

The cab I'd called arrived and Zappa walked me to it. "It was going to be a panel show," he said. "I wanted to have as my first guests Hubert Humphrey, Captain Kangaroo and Mick Jagger. We'd play Edgar Varèse's 'Ionization.' And I wanted Jagger to give Humphrey a dancing lesson. Then they could sing 'Satisfaction.' And then . . . "

The cab traveled slowly down out of the hills, past the darkened houses. Only an occasional all-night restaurant was open on Sunset Boulevard going downtown. The city was taking a well needed rest from the day's insanity – except for those few lonely souls in the message centers whose job it was to monitor the vibrations and send out responses. One could only wonder what they would be like in the 1970's.