Hungry Freaks Zappa

By Bjorn F. Gasmann Jr.

Music Canada Quarterly, March, 1974

Approximately nine years ago, at the time when the Beatles wanted to hold your hand, an unusual looking lot called the Mothers Of Invention released a two record set called Freak Out. This release exemplifies what is meant when they say – "ahead of their time". Freak Out was a freak out. Out of nowhere came sounds that poked fun at you and your khakis, cheap teenage love affairs, be-bop harmony, alienation nihilism, protest and whatever else no one seemed to give a second thought about. If you weren't prone to taking things, including yourself too seriously – then Freak Out at certain times made you laugh till it hurt.

Frank Zappa, the mastermind behind Freak Out and a whole slew of satirically and musically brilliant records, doesn't take very much too seriously either, although his recordings and recent concerts are the result of conscientiously dedicated hard work. Does he take his music seriously? "Yes and no.", he says, yet he can't stand musicians who would do a halfhearted show to conserve their strength on a two show evening. He and the band go all out as was plainly seen at their recent Toronto gig. [1]

Frank sat relaxing as well as he could in Toronto's Massey Hall dressing room, his legs stretched out and propped up on a chair. When he looks at you, blankly, seemingly friendly with a slight spark of interest, his strong clever eyes seem to bore right through your own till his stare seems to touch the inside of your skull. His intelligence is obvious. His manner demands that you be specific, that you attempt to ask some reasonably intriguing questions. He listens carefully to your questions and replies if he feels that you haven't been too vague or if he has a chance to be a little snide. "I've been doing research in behavioral studies since 1955 ... I'm still doing it ... I'm researching you right now ...", he says rather matter-of-factly. And that is how Frank made me feel – scrutinized and open to quick criticism for fumbling words, yet he did it all with a somewhat gentle humour.

For a time, weird tales of macabre grossness concerning the Mothers swept across North America. Indeed, who knows whether they urinated on stage, or vomited on their audience, or ate their own excrement – I wasn't there to see it and now it all depends on who you believe. Frank discounts most of these tales as rumours that never happened. He says "Tough tushee!" to those who have chosen to accept these rumours as truisms.

Frank and his various Mothers spend seven months of the year on tour. Each show is taped and Frank chooses the best tracks to stick on records. Touring is obviously extremely hectic and as Frank says, it "gives you bags under the eyes. Sometimes it interferes with your digestion. It makes you feel glad when you get a day off."

Movie-making is something else again however. "You don't know what hard work is until you try and make a movie. 200 Motels was shot in 56 hours, seven eight hours days; ten eleven-hour days of video editing. Three months of film processing and tightening up the work print and post dubbing, sound effects and all the rest of that crap. Part of that was five years to write the movie. Long time on one project." Uncle Meat still lies waiting in the can for some backer to snap it up. Meanwhile Frank is currently working on a film which should be complete by the end of this year.

Reputed to have M.A.'s in Sociology or some such field, Frank comments " I've got one semester of general college, my degree, a high school diploma, that's it." All that he has learnt about the guitar came from books or records. The last book he read was Manchester's Arms Of Krupp, and that was three years ago. He reads newspapers on airplanes, doesn't go to the movies or the theatre and listens mainly to music by composers such as Stravinsky and Honegger while at home. It seems remarkable that a man who involves himself very little in catching the current art forms should have such an insight into the workings and mania of 20th Century lifestyles. The man listens with strong perception to the people he comes in contact with.

I asked him to tell me when he first became aware of the madness and absurdity of our times. He replied - "Well actually, I had been aware of it when I was fifteen, but it really didn't hit me till I was eighteen. I just woke up one day and – 'what the fuck? !' It just builds up over a period of years and you go – 'ah come on!"

"The first rock and roll song I ever wrote was Memories of el Monte. I had never written anything that resembled rock and roll up until the time I was twenty years old. All the rest of my compositions had been chamber or orchestral music. So I happened to like Rhythm and Blues and I decided to try and write a Rhythm and Blues song."

When told that it had been said that he was known to take nothing seriously, he said quickly – "I don't." Frank, though, still produces fine music. Pick up the Overnight Sensation l.p. on the new DiscReet label, distributed here by WEA.

1. This interview was made in November 23, 1973, when Zappa had two concerts in Massey Hall, Toronto.

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