Bizarre goings on with Uncle Meat

By Roy Carr

New Musical Express, April 7, 1973

For that memorable hot summer night when, at the tender age of 16, Sharon Twynkletits had willingly surrendered her maidenhood to a pimply English drummer in the parking lot of the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Strip, she had been an avid rock fan.

In the 12 months since that suspicious occasion, the young lady had taken it upon herself to commit to memory the astrological sign of every superstar on the Top 40 (with a bullet), along with inside trouser-leg measurement, fantasy, fetish and the serial number of Jeff Beck’s gee-tar.

So when, over a Hamburger in the star-infested Rainbow Grill, Sharon’s boyfriend of 48-hours, Ricky Android, informed her he had been assigned by ‘Paranoid’ magazine to interview Frank Zappa, Sharon dropped her half-eaten burger into her lap and, clasping her hands tightly over ample teenage bosom squealed with delight: “FRANK XEROX … far out and solid.”

“No … Zappa”. Android corrected her.

This was Ricky Android’s big chance. Though never hostile, it was still common knowledge that Uncle Frank wasn’t over-fond of the gentlemen of the press. So the fact that Android had been invited up the man’s high-walled house in the Hollywood Hills was something that would keep the young scribe in free Tequila Sunrises for at least a month in the Grill.

Android was determined not to blow much a heaven-sent opportunity. So tactfully declining Sharon’s invitation to go back to her place and get blitzed on Grand Funk albums by giving her a “shove off scumbag”, the journalist spent the next two hours carefully preparing a list of important questions.

Probing questions like: what instrument do you play, what sign are you, what’s your favourite colour and why do you write dirty songs that no-one can understand or dance to?

When he entered Zappa’s house later that same evening, Android was surprised to find absolutely no signs of an indoor swimming pool, nor a giggle of groupies, no Bob Dylan or Bette Midler and no Ahmet Ertegun jammin’ on a 12-bar.

The only thing that came into vision was Uncle Meat looking extremely tired and pasty as he rummaged through hundreds of tape boxes strewn around an open-play living room which resembled a thrift-shop.

“Hot Rats”, Android muttered to himself, “I thought HE was only in it for the money!”

Upon enquiring, Android discovered that apart from putting a brand new edition of the infamous Mothers together, Zappa was in the throws or programming yet another spiffy album.

“Uh … hey man”. Android began, after quickly committing the “How-To-Address-A-Pop-Star” chapter of his “Guide-To-Instant-Rock-Journalism” handbook, “how come you always seem to change bands as regularly as your socks?”

“The tendency today”, Zappa replied from the thick, matted black fungus around his mouth, “is for everyone to look upon their own kind of thing which is wonderful if that’s what everyone is interested in.

“The evolution of the rock and roll industry over the last few years has been such, that the minute someone gets into a group and that group achieves some degree of recognition, someone walks up alongside the stage and says to everyone in that band: ‘you’re wonderful’. Once this has happened a few times, that person is thereby induced to go out and form his own band.

“So seeing how slavery was abolished a long time ago, I have absolutely no control over people doing what their own personal tastes decree. And because of this, I have to be realistic as to the chances of any of my groups staying together for any length of time.”

Android was speechless. He didn’t realise that rock stars could string more than three chords let alone three words together and be so articulate as the subject of his interview. Before he could compose himself and fire one of his prepared questions Zappa continued.

“When I first put the Mothers together, the rest of what was going on in the music business had a different sort of feeling. People liked the idea of a group that was going to express itself as a group.

“Now in a few isolated areas, there are still a few people left who want to express music as a group, but otherwise I feel that this idea has pretty much vanished. Musicians today are more interested in developing their own individual things.”

Despite, what Zappa terms, “the constant wind of change that fans the Mothers,” this winner of the Ringo Starr look-alike competition emphasized the advantages of retaining a group who expressed his crotchets and quavers as an entity. Android took note. “The music will definitely sound different from a band of musicians hired to manipulate a particular instrument.”

Diverting his attention from a rather explicit action-shot of Tina Turner that he had discovered while flicking through the pages of an obscure publication, Android wiped the sweat off his brow and mumbled: “Do you get frustrated?” Luckily, for him the answer he received filled his absent-minded questioning.

“Well, I don’t bite my finger-nails”, said Zappa putting his shoeless feet on the table before him, “but I do have a musical problem as a result. You see, I always find it hard to find musicians who can play the stuff that I write and want to stay in the Mothers for any length of time.

“To be truthful”, Zappa continued with his best album cover yawn, “it does tend to hamper my own progression.” Ricky brightened, he’d seen that yawn before on the cover of “Chunga’s Revenge” and somehow its cosy familiarity made him feel better about the whole deal as Zappa chundered down the microphone of his “Made In Japan” cassette recorder.

“Of course it holds me back, simply because the style in which I’ve been putting my music together is so heavily orientated to the personalities of either the persons who are playing the instruments or singing the lyrics.

“I write for the musician as an instrument rather than writing say, a trumpet part without a particular person in mind. That way, you only get one result.”

At last, straight from the horse’s mouth, Android had managed to decipher the hidden meaning behind “Burnt Weenie Sandwich”.

“But if you know that trumpet player, know what he can do and something about his personality you can change things around as you write his part, and during rehearsals that piece will grow,” continued Frank.

“Now if that group manages to stay together for any period of time, and if who ever is writing the music for that group pays close attention to those personalities, you will then get a very specialized kind of music that you can’t possibly hope to create in any other way.”

Having majored in mathematics in First Grade and observed the almost life-size garnish painting of a rock ‘n’ roll speedwagon hanging over the fireplace, Android attempted to put two and two together and asked of the man if perhaps he looked upon musicians as being just spare-parts in his garage bands.

Retaining his nasty-leer, Zappa replied, “No … I don’t take that kind of attitude. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I’m paying your salary, so do this and that’.

“I’ve never functioned under other musicians and I don’t imagine that any musician treated that way is gonna do his best work”.

Ricky flicked through the magazine once again keeping the page open on the shot of Tina Turner, which for some obscure reason made him think of Sharon Twinkletits and her Grand Funk albums.

Grand Funk, something in his mind clicked, Zappa had demolished Mark Farner in the recent popularity polls, so he must be good.

So how come Zappa didn’t push himself as the hottest guitar in the Hollywood Hills. “Because with everyone else pushing themselves as a guitar player I don’t want to take up their time,” said the guitar man.

“The kind of material that we were playing when the Mothers first got together didn’t allow much space for fancy guitar soloist”.

“You see, what we were doing was basically social commentary satire. Anyway, if I did play the leads nobody paid any attention because of the context that it was in.

“Come to think of it, I’d hate to make an album where you hire a bunch of musicians to be subservient to you … that’s pretty weird. You know the scene: stand back you guys while I solo out for the next five hours. Sure, I might get a bigger reputation as a solo instrumentalist, but that kinda session doesn’t sound much fun to do”.

Having ever managed in upstage Rodney Bingenheimer as the definitive freeloading Hollywood socialite, acned Android had already found himself in the company of such people as Wild Man Fischer and Captain Beefheart as well as numerous ex-Mothers. Without exception, all of them had badmouthed the Mother Superior. He put this to his interviewer with more than a tinge of ‘get-out-of-that-one’ in his fractured voice.

“The problem there is, if you’re in a group that’s successful, your name is gonna get mentioned this many times in this many articles and you’ll get to be famous.

“Now, once you leave that band you’re not working any more. So how do you get your name back in the papers and let people know that you’re alive? The easiest thing to say is, ‘I was in that band over there’. But after that, what else have you got to say for yourself.

“If you say anything good, you’ll get a few lines but if you say something real bad, the guy whose writing the article will say: ’Oh Yeah Man ... tell me some more about that stuff’. Therefore, it’s a practical method to run a free advertising campaign on an unknown product.”

Zappa’s voice became more intense as he leaned over and leered at Android, who frantically looked around for something to defend himself with. “If you’d had that happen to you as many times as it’s happened to me, you’d then know how it feels…”

Android gared up Zappa’s flared nostrils and listened intently.

“What happens is that you hire somebody and in many instances improve their musical knowledge and ability over a period of time by giving them a chance to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Giving them the best technical facilities that are available to make it happen, paying them well for doing it. Improving their chances for economical survival by making them known to a public that would support them later on if they decided to do something of their own.

“Setting up a situation like this and then having these very same people turning around and blaming all over you … that’s very disconcerting.”

Android then mumbled something to the effect that why as the straight man in the […..] did Zappa always make the rest of the Mothers come across as a bunch of rancid freaks.

The Macchiavellian maestro looked his adversary straight in the eyes as he replied.

“What we’re tried to do over the years is … if somebody in the Mothers has an idiosyncrasy, rather than have him wear some apparatus to conceal it, we amplify it so that the rest of the audience can get off on it.

“In some cases the weirdness we’ve dealt with has been quite trying … but once you’ve faced out how wonderful their weirdness is you want to share it with the whole world.”

For the last five minutes Android had become acutely aware that Uncle Meat was taking mental note of all his mannerisms. Self-consciously, Android asked with his hot drydog breath range: “But doesn’t anybody object?”

“Sure”, Zappa snorted, “nobody is forced to do it and so we don’t do anything like that against their will. There was now case of one guy in the band who had an enormous amount of idiosyncrasies and they were all truly magnificent. But all the conflicts that occurred on him about having all his idiosyncrasies deployed to a large number of people were a result of what his wife was telling him rather than what he felt.”

“Hey”, Zappa […..] suddenly, “you wanna hear some of my tapes?”

“Ummm”, indicated the visitor, as Zappa shuffled over to a giant chrome playback machine in the other room.

“I’ve got to get a new album together,” the mastermind behind Cletus Awreetus Awrightus declared as he crouched malignantly amid the confusion of tape boxes and music, “so why don’t you tell me what you think of the numbers I’m gonna play with you?”

For the next couple of hours the stereophonic sounds of Zappa jammin’ with Jack Bruce, the last bunch of soul-sounding Mothers in concert, plus some experimentations with Jean Luc Ponty. They all echoed around the sun-hot youth’s empty cranium.

When Android gave his super-newie critical appraisal, Zappa took note. Android would already visualise his Executive Producer’s credit […..] on the cover art work.

“You know somethin’ kid”, Zappa said, taking his attention away from the machine, “I like each album to be its own thing. There are a lotta groups who say, ‘we have our own style’, and then go out to produce 35 albums that all sound like Brand X. I look upon each album as an opportunity to explore a certain area of musical research.

“I never had a formal musical education and therefore I presume that I’m still going to school. So depending upon how much time I have to spend on an album I learn about the stuff for each album. For the first three or four albums I was still finding out what were the technical possibilities of the studio.

“About the time of the ‘Uncle Meat’ album, I had absorbed this knowledge.”

“Sheer trivia,” thought Android, who was well perplexed by the lack of material opulence in the Zappa household. He delicately put this to the man who had gone on record as argulating : “I’m Only In It For The Money.”

“I’ve got a swimming pool outside,” was the discorrected reply. “But I rarely go in it. In fact, I never go out unless it’s to go to play.” Zappa […..] as he threaded another spool of tape over the play back heads. “I haven’t got a sports car either.

“I’ve worked for years to get enough money so I could set up my own laboratory” – he made a sweeping gesture with his arms – “where I could work on all these things. This is what I’ve always wanted and that’s all I like doing.

“I’ve got about 20 albums in the stores of which a lot have lost money … but the way I look at it if I paid for a college education to learn my trade I still wouldn’t have been able to get this kind of experience. The way I’m doing it now is if I make a mistake, I pay for it.

“Unless you have a pretty word and unique deal with a record company, the artist has no pay the cost of the product he’s recorded. The company usually advance the money and then recoup from the sales of the albums.

“The other thing, in our case every album is cross-coupled against another album. This means, if I do two albums a year and the first one doesn’t sell and still doesn’t pay itself off, but the second one does, I still don’t get any royalties from the second until both of them recoup their costs.”

The hour was late. Having done the dance of the rock and roll interviewer, Android shook Zappa’s hand, wished him good luck and motored back to the Sunset Strip and Twinkletits, who was where he had left her in the Rainbow Grill six hours earlier.

“Did you do yer Frank Xerox interview, did ya, did ya, huh, huh,” breathed Sharon.

Android took a deep breath and exhaled as dramatically as he could. Coughing violently he weezed. “Sure did. Let’s had ass back to your place and we can rap about it.”