Frank Zappa

By Howard Smith

The Smith Tapes, June 6, 1971

Frank Zappa and his new assemblage of the Mothers, with the notable inclusion of singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (Flo & Eddie), are on tour promoting his latest album, Chunga’s Revenge, and upcoming film, 200 Motels. Howard Smith surprised Zappa, showing up at his hotel room for this interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had wanted to meet him. Tonight they’re plotting the second of a two-night stand at the Fillmore East, and the show will be recorded and released as Fillmore East - June I971. The year will end badly: A fan will shoot a flare gun during their December Show in Switzerland, burning the casino, along with their equipment, to the ground. Then, in London, a fan will push Zappa off the stage into an orchestra pit, nearly killing him, and confining him to a wheelchair for a year.

SMITH: For a time you’d been in New York and then went to LA. Have you moved back out there permanently?

ZAPPA: Yeah. I served my time in New York.

SMITH: What do you mean?

ZAPPA: I didn’t like it that much when I was here and I like California a lot better. It was so depressing during the time I was here. I really hate to come back .... I got a place with a buncha trees around it and some space. I don’t have to shuffle around the street and walk over people who’ve pissed all over themselves and are lying down there in the gutter and policemen coming along beating ’em on the legs screaming at ’em to get up and dogs shitting all over the place. It’s just a little different in Los Angeles.

SMITH: On stage, you run the group in a way you don’t see in rock — they’re watching you very carefully.

ZAPPA: That’s because I’m conducting the music; it’s like a little orchestra .... I can make anything happen that I want to up there. I can invent a whole composition. If I think of one that minute, I can turn around and do it. That’s why they watch.

SMITH: Do you do that often?

ZAPPA: Every time we play. That’s becoming an increasingly large part of the show. The way I organize each of our performances is we have a certain length of time we’re supposed to appear onstage. and I try and program the material that is played during that length of time into one large composition. It’s like all the melodic and harmonic material that all the different songs and sections are based on is similarly related. I can arrange these parts in different sequences and make hour-long compositions with no breaks in it.

SMITH: What about audiences? Do you find that it’s changed at all?

ZAPPA: An audience. you just compute it at the point where you come into contact with ’em. You can get a feeling for what sort of a mood they’re in or what sort of people they are. judging from the way they behave .... New York audiences, especially at the Fillmore. are not too good. A lot of ’em come there to entertain me and I don’t wanna be entertained by them.

SMITH: I didn’t notice you doing — I used to call it your nasty act.

ZAPPA: It’s not an act: I do what I feel like when I go out there. If I’m in a bad mood, I’m not gonna pretend like I’m a clown or something. I’m a human being; I have feelings.

SMITH: I saw you last night on the first show and at the end of that they were all standing on their seats. There was wild cheering but you just refused to do another one.

ZAPPA: That’s right.

SMITH: How do you decide — do you ever do an encore?

ZAPPA: Sure. We played until about four o’clock in the morning last night.

SMITH: But on the second set.

ZAPPA: Yeah, but I didn’t think that was a good audience for the first show. I would say that more than 50 percent of them were not. We weren’t tuned in properly and I didn’t think it was worth the amount of physical investment to go out there and play another piece for ’em.

SMITH: How do you feel it?

ZAPPAI A lotta times, you just judge from what you hear called out from the audience. Sometimes they call out requests for songs and sometimes they just like to make noise. And you have to compute whether or not they’re just full of nervous energy or they’re just there to make so much noise that you’ll stop playing music and then get involved in some exchange of words with them. And that’s boring for me. It’s always the case where some guy wants to yell something out and then I’ll turn around and say, “Go fuck yourself.” And then the rest of the audience will go, “Yay.” They’ll clap and everything and it’s so predictable and dumb. I just didn’t feel like doin’ it last night. because that’s all they wanted.

SMITH: That doesn’t happen outside of New York much?

ZAPPA: Very seldom. There’s a lotta people who call out song requests or they yell things out, but the Fillmore audience is particularly low-grade. It just has its own aura. You know what I mean? I get the feeling sometimes they come there to see whether or not you are going to give them their three dollars’ worth. No more ‘n’ no less. They don’t really wanna hear what you have to do, just “I paid to come in here and see a show, so you better give me a show, you jukebox, you.” So we gave ’em a show. And there it was.

SMITH: Bill Graham’s closing the Fillmore.

ZAPPA: That’s nice.

SMITH: He said the same kind of thing — the audiences don’t know what’s up.

ZAPPA: I think that Bill Graham, if he wanted to do that sorta thing as a public service — which I’m sure he doesn’t, because he’s a businessman — but if he wanted to do it, he should move his operation to the Midwest, because the Midwest is just now catching up to the other so-called civilized parts of the United States. Madison, Wisconsin, for instance. He could probably run a really thriving business there, because that’s like the Berkeley o’ the Midwest. It appears from the way they dress and the way they act, the type of drugs they’re using, they’re approximately three years behind the rest of the country. We played there about a week ago and it seemed like it was exactly three years back, slightly post-flower power, super-acid consciousness.

SMITH: Which you preferred?

ZAPPA: No. I’m just evaluating it for what it is. I don’t prefer that at all — it’s all fads and trends and bullshit, just growing-up phases, just adolescent development. But that’s where they’re at right now, and that would probably be a better place for him to do his operation if he likes that kind of an audience, because they just wanna have a good time. They haven’t got to the point where they believe themselves thoroughly sophisticated and wanna just sit back and demand that they be entertained, or expect something of you in advance.

SMITH: When touring, have you started to notice a more political consciousness of the audiences, though?

ZAPPA: It’s as superficial as their musical consciousness. It’s just another aspect. of being involved in the actions of their peer group. One guy in the group says, “Hey, politics,” and they go, “Yeah, politics.” or he goes, “Grand Funk Railroad” and they go, “Yeah, Grand Funk Railroad.” It’s the same thing.

SMITH: I have a feeling it’s gonna increase, and although part of it might be a fad a great amount of it isn’t.

ZAPPA: Why do you have so much faith in the people?

SMITH: I don’t ....

ZAPPA: Then why do you think that it’s not a fad?

SMITH: Because within every fad that sweeps along, there’s a certain residual effect that remains and keeps building upon the next, even after the fad is gone. ZAPPA: But that residue just gets computed into the next fad. I’m speaking strictly from my experience as an American ... This is fad world.

SMITH: You don’t see any real change that’s gone down?

ZAPPA: Sure, I see a lotta changes, but I think that they’re all temporary things and any change for the good is always subject to cancellation, upon the arrival of the next fad. The same thing with any change for the worse: that will be swept along with the next fad. You have a nation of people who are waiting for the next big thing to happen.

SMITH: Before each concert, do you think, “Oh, God, those idiots out


ZAPPA: No, I don’t think, “Oh, God, these idiots out there” until I find out they’re idiots. I give ’em the benefit of the doubt. I can find out during the time that we’re setting our equipment up, and if that isn’t enough proof, we play three songs in a row for the first part of the show and then we stop and we can gauge the response by the amount and quality of the applause, or whatever sort of grunts come out of the audience at that point in the show, and I’ll compute the rest of the show based on that. The show is rehearsed to the point where certain things I know are going to happen; there’re programmed into the show.

SMITH: Like what?

ZAPPA: Well, you rehearse your material to have a certain effect. You know roughly where the laughs are going to be and roughly where the sporadic type of applause ... That’s gonna happen there; it just does. Because you’re dealing with a programmed audience. You can just compute them based on ... Let’s say you figure the average age of what your audience is. In the case of the Mothers of Invention, when you get to New York, the age range is somewhere between fifteen eighteen. A lotta people over that, but the bulk of ’em are in that age bracket, and you figure how much TV they watch and what sort of radio they listen to and you can sorta know. Those people are ready to respond blindly to any sort of thing that you’re going to do that strikes that particular chord, that makes them clap, makes them laugh, makes them grunt or whatever.

SMITH: You sound so cynical. I get the feeling that you’re doing something for people you don’t have any respect for, so why do it?

ZAPPA: But I don’t do it for people.

SMITH: You do it for yourself?

ZAPPA: No, I just do it. I would make an extremely bad mechanic or plumber. I don’t wanna earn my living working in a gas station. I like to play the guitar and I like to write comedy music. I like to go out there on the stage and wave my hand around and get weird noises coming outta the band. I enjoy doing that — that’s what I know how to do and that’s what I do. I’m fortunate that I can earn a living front doing that. So if there’s an audience out there and they have a good time, well, that’s a peripheral benefit. If they’re out there to make noise, then we’re only gonna be out there for an hour and it don’t hurt that much.

SMITH: Why do you think the country moves in fads?

ZAPPA: Because it doesn’t have any real sorta values. A fad provides you with a temporary occupation for your imagination. It doesn’t have any real culture. It doesn’t have any real art. It doesn’t have any real anything. It’s just got fads and a gross national product and a lot of inflation.

SMITH: But that also puts you in as pan of the fads, right?

ZAPPA: I’m an American; I was born here. I automatically get entered in a membership in the club. But you can compute me any way you want.