Godmother Zappa

By Charles Shaar Murray

Go-Set, September 22, 1973

"Got news for you," said Frank Zappa, There's a new one that's just coming out that's got me singing all over it," he replied with a certain dark relish. "I am back in the singing business again. For the kind of lyrics that I write, it's hard to get somebody else to identify with them to the extent that they express 'em properly. There's millions of people who can sing better than me, but there's not many who understand the lyrics sufficiently to get them across. So I figured that I might as well do it myself. I have a pretty limited range – I can't sing very high so there are certain things that have to be done by other people. Ninety percent of that album is me singing the lead vocals."

To what extent has the Mother's influence percolated onto AM radio?

"I couldn't say, because I don't listen to AM. You'd be a far better judge of that than I am." What about Zappa's pioneering use of electronics? The use of synthesisers and other madcap contrivances has certainly become highly prevalent of late.

"That's probably because the technology available to groups has improved and increased in quantity. There's more gizmos available."

Does he think that they're being used constructively, or merely as sound effects?

"Little of both. There's nothing wrong with a good sound effect if you stick it in the right place. Spike Jones made a living out of it. Really one of the greats".

What are the topics that Zappa is writing about these days?

"Well, there's a song in this album about dental floss. Dental floss is a type of flaxen string which is coated with wax and comes in a 500-yard spool in a little plastic box. You pull it out and tear a strip off and you pull it between your teeth to remove food particles."

Wowie zowie! Does Frank think that dental floss is a subject that has been previously neglected by songwriters?

"I think it is, and that's why I have decided to attempt to fill the gap. There are some anatomical areas that have been investigated on this album. There's three hot ones on there, dealing with glandular subjects "Camarillo Brillo", "Dirty love", and "Dinah-Moe Humm" are glandular epics. "Montana" is the dental floss song. "Zomby Woof" is a very strange sort of boy-girl situation. "I'm The Slime" is a song about television, and "Fifty-Fifty" features a lot of interesting instrumental work around the screaming vocal which whirls around the room in quad.

"This is our first quad release. I think it's a very excellently recorded album. It's got a very clear production, and on two speakers it still gets the idea across. It even sounds good on cassette machine.

The conversation proceeded, by various devious routes, to a famous occasion on which the Mothers got censored on TV. "What happened was that they wanted us to mime to our hit." Their what? "Our hit. We never had one, but we were on this local TV show in New York, and we were supposed to mime to 'Son Of Suzy Creemcheese' from the 'Absolutely Free' album. All the guys in the band said, 'Yeah, sure we'll do it', and I told them to just stand up there and say 'Motherf–-er' throughout the whole thing, and not to make any attempt to match the words on the soundtrack. So we did. Unfortunately, they just turned the video off whenever it got to anybody who was on camera, so you'd see random shots of a drumbeat, a flashing light, close-up shots of the fingers on the guitars. The only times we run into big problems now is if we're doing a network television show – which we very seldom do – or if you're working in a culturally deprived area and the promoter puts weird clauses into your contract.

Had there been any real change over the years in the way that Zappa's material has been received?

"Only in quantity. Our audiences are generally larger than they've ever been before, but there's no guarantee that the understanding has increased proportionately. Next year is our tenth anniversary."

What's the current progress on that fabled nine-album set?

"All I can say is that there's a depression in the United States, folks. It's very difficult to imagine putting out nine discs and having anybody afford to buy 'em".

The next question was "... let's start again. Maybe it was the weather or something, or it could have been the extract of poodle's pineal gland that I'd shot up twenty minutes before starting the interview. Anyway, the next thing I knew was that I heard my own voice emitting the following barbarous words: "Uh, Frank, what are you listening to these days. " I could have sworn that the traffic outside stopped. The sky darkened. There was a crack of thunder and the coffee-cups rattled ominously on the table. Joe Stevens' moustache turned white. The room was filled with an awful stillness.

"Let me tell you something about this question that you're asking me right now." he began ominously. I quailed, and lit a cigarette with a trembling hand. "I've been asked this question in every interview that I have ever done. The answer has never been published once. It's amazing. I've never seen my answer in print once. I tell 'em I listen to classical music. I've never seen anybody write in the article. When Frank goes home, he turns on his record player and listens to Krzysztof Penderecki".

Well, Frank, if that's how you feel about the Press, why do interviews?

"Here's the thing. If you don't get on the radio, you don't get on television, how else is anybody gonna find out what you're doing unless you do some interviews? So it's functional from a business point of view to answer questions like 'what sort of music do you listen to?' It has merit. It's just unfortunate that some of the people that you wind up doing interviews with are badly adjusted to the typewriter as a form of expression and have horrible feelings of guilt and inferiority and have feelings that they're being abused by society in general and they wind up taking it out on you because you happen to be in the rock and roll business. I stopped reading interviews about two years ago. It's been so long since I read one that even resembled what I said.

"Usually what happens is that the guy writes the thing and then it goes to" he impersonates a trumpet fanfare – "an editor, who modifies it to suit the editorial slant of the publication, and also to correct the grammar of the person who wrote it, and usually to insert things that will enhance the style. Then these things go into a file, after they've been published. And then some guy comes in and says – not to point the finger at you, because it's happened a million times 'Oh, my cassette machine's not working. Just tell me. I'll remember.' And he sure can't write as fast as I talk. And then someone says to you, 'What did you say in that interview?' and the guy has just gone back to a file and dug up a bunch of stuff and just taken extracts from it.

"He's not going to tell his editor that his tape-recorder didn't work. I remember one time that we played in Toronto. A reviewer came to the concert. He was so stoned that his girlfriend carried him out after we'd played three songs and the next day he wrote a review of the concert that was a rewording of an article in the 'New York Times', that some other famous rock writer had done. It was just unbelievable.

"We began to breathe easier, but Frank hadn't finished yet. "The interviews are one thing, but then there's the pictures". Joe Stevens' camera twisted itself out of its master's hands and got halfway to the door before we got a half-nelson on it and put it back to work. "I mean that's really the bane of my existence. I'm surprised that anybody even recognises me from the pictures that I've had published. I would say that seventy-five per cent of the people who come at me with a camera say, 'For this guy – the wide-angle lens'. They focus straight in on my nose, and then they say, 'Smile!' Have you any idea what that could do to a human face ?

"There was one time when a guy took a picture of me for a newspaper article in the Sunday review section of a Maryland newspaper, a three or four page article. The opening picture looked like something out of a carnival freak show, and it was so embarrassing that the editor had to insert an asterisk by the picture saying 'Face distorted by wide-angle lens'. It was that far out. He knew that if they ran that picture, someone would read the article to find out how somebody who was that physically deformed could actually talk. I'm fully in favor of artistic expression as long as the editor dares to put an asterisk by the picture saying 'Face distorted by wide angle lens'.

Since Zappa is in the rock and roll business more sociologically than musically, does he find it a good place to be?

"The best of all possible worlds. Where else could a man whose face has been distorted by a wide-angle lens find refuge?" Oh well, back to the old wide-angle-lens-obsession routine. On with the show, and a few more of Frank's observations drawn from his encounters with the Press. "When most people come out and see me it's just one segment of a varied day of the business that they're in, which is operating some kind of writing device, or preparing a cassette for somebody else to operate a writing device, someone who wasn't actually at the interview. Most interviewers don't even transcribe their own cassettes, and then you hear the results of that. The guy says, 'Sure you said it, I got it right here on the cassette, my secretary wrote it up', I've been misquoted so horribly from cassette recordings because my diction is so bad," he slurred. "Besides you end up saying things on cassette recordings that the people who're transcribing you can't spell – like Krzysztof Penderecki!

"Like Mayall, Korner and Miles Davis, Zappa's various bands have always provided an opportunity for musicians to make a name for themselves under his saturnine wing before embarking on their own projects. Or – have they?

"It has been in the past, and I'm not prepared to have it happen in the future. I'm tired of it. I do not intend to be providing that service in the future".

What's interesting is that people who've been through the Mothers have developed in very different ways since. Take, for example, Jim Guercio (now Chicago's producer) and Canned Heat's Henry Vestine...

"Not really, because you didn't see the band at the time that they were there, and the band is always a reflection of the musical tastes and abilities of its members. I write around the musicians, so the repertoire that we were playing when Henry Vestine was in the group certainly took advantage of the things that he was able to do on the guitar. He's a blues player, and so we were playing a lot of funky stuff at that time. You said that they went off into different areas, but all they did was follow the direction that they'd been going in with the Mothers. 'King Kong' started off as a piano exercise and was written in 1965. At the time, that was a hard lick to learn. As soon as they could play it, we recorded it.

The way we play it now, it's ten times faster than on the record. When I listen to the record now, it seems like a dirge. It's not really that hard. You ought to bear the stuff we're playing now. It's hot sheeeit! Lemme tell ya – this band is playing the hardest repertoire you ever heard. They got some unbelievable things to do – from memory. With the Wazoo they were all playing off sheet music".

How long did it take to assemble the Wazoo?

"About three or four months. It was very hard to get together, because they're all studio players, and they were all busy. It came as a considerable surprise to them to learn that they were going on the road. They'd never experienced it before, and I'd never been out on the road with a group that large trying to perform electric music. It was a worthwhile experience. It only cost me $2000. That's how much I lost on the tour. The tour grossed $97,000, and the expenses exceeded that by $2000."

To what extent are the Mothers economically viable?

"Well, a group that size, earning that amount of money, carrying that much equipment, going to Europe, playing that few jobs in that amount of time cannot make money at all," he replied with his best creepy leer. "It just does not work. You gotta four piece band? You're gonna make money. You just get out there and play blues."

Why is it necessary to pose to play the blues? My man Albert King don't do no posin'.

"Well, he's very imposing. He has stature. If you don't have any stature, then screw your face up and stick your leg out, and compensate that way. It's always nice to see someone twitching around, There's more spectacle. The larger the place you're playing, the larger gesture you have to make to get to the point across. If you're playing to fourteen thousand people in a hockey rink and you stand still on stage and play your best, it does not go over. But if you stand on stage in front of fourteen thousand people in that hockey rink and the lights are good and you twitch and you play one chord then you are sensational. The tactics of the show have to change if you're going to get across to the guy's who's sitting at the back of the fourteen thousand seater hall. To him you're just a speck, and if there's not proper lighting he can't even see you at all. So you turn on the colored lights and if the speck is jumping around in time with the beat of the music, then it's all right. The guy feels that the price he paid for this ticket was worthwhile. But if you're just standing there playing, the chances are that he can't even hear you anyway."

I have a black T-shirt. A black silk T-shirt that looks as if it's torn at the sleeves, but in fact it's not. It's sewn that way to look like it's torn. It's really a groove. Of all the things you should wear to play the blues ...

"How about scars and pimples?

"I have no scars, but I've got pimples, I'll be so busy cavorting, grimacing, posing, singing and playing the blues that I will not – repeat, will not – have time to show any scars. The pimples may well show through because of the scantiness of the T-shirt. You have to imagine the scars, and all the sheer hurt and anguish. There is degradation; there is also perversion and hotness.

The longer original version of this interview was published in NME, 25. August and 1. September 1973.

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