Close-up: On Zest in the West - Rocking in the Sun

By Edwin Miller

Seventeen, March, 1972

Everybody rocks in California as if plugged into some psychic source of cosmic energy that manifests itself as music. The hills of San Francisco, where Grace Slick was first heard belting out her revolutionary ballads backed by the Jefferson Airplane, still reverberate with the heavy stomping rhythms made by the Grateful Dead. Across the bay Creedence Clearwater Revival watch their giant water bed quiver, rehearsing in their Berkeley warehouse studio. Down in Hollywood, Randy Newman sings his surrealistic visions; along the sandy beaches of Malibu, the Beach Boys are a continuing legend with their harmonized joys of surfing in the sun, and in Los Angeles the four girls who call themselves Fanny romp to a big bass beat. Past and present, from the Monterey pop festival to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, good vibrations resound everywhere. But the music maker who distills the essence of the California scene with his satiric assaults on the establishment is Frank Zappa (below) and his madcap Mothers of Invention. An unforgettable thin-as-a-knife figure with long curly hair, curving moustache and hawklike nose, he could have emerged nowhere else. He coined the phrase "freak out" in his first big album, recently made his first movie, 200 Motels, a fantasy about a rock and roll band.

Frank Zappa. The pop rock musician chiefly responsible for the appearance of the term "underground music" put together his band, Mothers of Invention, in California seven years ago. Since that lime, his bizarre musical satire has made him a cult hero to the cool population, a shock to the uptight. His musical philosophy has been expressed in such albums as Lumpy Gravy or Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets. Here's Zappa himself.

BEGINNINGS: "At eighteen I was a fledgling buffoon and went to junior college. When I finally dropped out I spent five years married. Most of the time my wife was supporting me as a secretary. I was a musician in cocktail lounges, working in a white tux with patent leather shoes. I was also a commercial artist at a greeting card studio which made silk-screen cards of an extremely midwestern nature. I tried to do some experimental things, conceptual greeting cards, like one with a blowup of a typewritten script that said, 'Captured Russian photograph shows evidence of American presence on moon first.' Inside was a detailed illustration of a lunar landscape with Jesus Saves carved on one of the rocks. It didn't sell."

CALIFORNIA: "If I had come out of any other state, my development would have been slowed up. I think California is about fifty years ahead of the rest of the country, maybe the world, in experimental life styles."

PHILOSOPHY: "I believe the basic stuff of the universe is in the shape of waves, not subatomic particles. Then, if the two components of the universe, waves and time, are actually one, and if a wave equals a wave, all time equals all other time and you aren't going nowhere because you've already been there. Viewing this whole mechanism from a distance, it would just be a solid object."

BEING A MUSICIAN: "In a band you could get together in little pockets of resistance just to survive against old people who didn’t care or want to know that there was something happening in that age bracket below twenty-one. I started composing when I was fourteen. I worked in a record store where I was on a personal crusade for rhythm and blues, didn’t write rock and roll until I was twenty!"

MOTHERS OF INVENTION: "When I put the first batch together, all they knew was rock and roll. No classical, no jazz, no knowledge of structure other than what you would know from a two-or-three-minute record which has a beginning, middle and an end and goes boom bap boom bap all the way through. Slowly, so as not to frighten them, I got them involved in the idea that what they were doing was more than just playing in a band. It was like a self-conducted music school. In those days, if you played original material, no one would hire you. Before we finally got a record contract, all the while we were out scrounging pop bottles so we could cash them in to buy bologna, cigarettes."

HUMOR: "The original guys in the Mothers were very funny and I thought that would be an interesting element to share with an audience, seeing how the ordinary rock and roll groups go around taking themselves very seriously, believing their press releases and reviews of their albums and concerts. I don't like taking things so seriously you can't enjoy what you do."

ROCK: "I stopped listening the minute they started putting violins on Ray Charles and Fats Domino records. This is it, I said; there are some white people sneaking in there, fixing this stuff up, and it doesn't appeal to me anymore. For relaxation and enjoyment, I listen to Ravel, Stravinsky, Penderecki, Varèse. Give me lush orchestrations or crashing dissonance!"