A 'Blacklisted Genius' Zaps The S.F. Sound

By Philip Elwood

San Francisco Examiner, December 24, 1975

Frank Zappa doesn’t mind being called a genius – in fact he identifies himself with such terms quite regularly.

And picking through Webster’s one finds Zappa and “genius” often synonymous: “tutelar deity,” “a spirit,” “talent.” “peculiar nature” and “extraordinary power of invention.”

Composer, guitarist, singer Zappa for 10 years has been the tutelar deity who, utilizing talent, spirit and his peculiar nature, has created extraordinarily powerful music with his instrumental ensemble called the Mothers of Invention.

Spending a few minutes in conversation with Zappa is like selecting food from an overstocked cafeteria assortment. He has thoughtful comments on all subjects, musical and otherwise, is often dogmatic and usually iconoclastic.

With a small, six-member, Mothers ensemble Zappa will be presenting “the most theatrical concert of our career” at the Oakland Paramount on Friday and at Winterland on Saturday [1]. Having said that, Zappa noted that he hates playing ice arenas, dislikes affectations for the past (such as restored movie palaces) and, as a matter of fact, doesn’t care for the San Francisco scene.

“Ive always thought San Franciscos rock) bands and this atmosphere up here was overrated. San Francisco has been telling itself and the rest of us how significant and important its music is for so long and in so many publications (especially Rolling Stone), that I think they believe it, and so do a lot of other people.

“But the San Francisco sounds havent changed over the years . . . and music and art have to change,” he stated.

In the current Mothers show, which musically includes old and new material, there are 18 tons of equipment involved. “We are specializing in illumination, with 165,000 watts of light set in a 40 foot square framework and controlled to the point that we can light up a soloist from top, bottom, front, rear – and pinpoint the instant when a solo occurs.

“I have choreographed the whole show, mixing movement with music, and lights and, of course, sound,” Zappa said.

In the current Mothers is saxophonist Norma Bell, who most recently has played with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and his electric new-jazz group. Former Zappa colleagues JeanLuc Ponty, the violinist, and George Duke, pianist, are also associated with the new-jazz sounds.

“Is your music drifting into a new-jazz category?” we asked, naively. “Ohhhh, never . . . ,” Zappa groaned, holding his head, and continuing (typically), “Let me tell you something. If playing chromatic and pentatonic scales fast and calling non-music ‘modal expression is where jazz is going, then it is already in trouble.

“Every time I hear a musician say hes ‘into a rhythmic thing, I groan. And what happens when everyone who wants to can play as fast as everyone else, then what happens to structure, and melody, and musicianship?”

Zappa then whipped out a sheet of music manuscript paper (having found that I could read drum parts) and in less than a minute had filled a couple of lines with complex rhythmic patterns. “Here is what we’re doing with rhythm,” he explained. “My drummer, Terry Bozzio, puts these rhythmic devices within normal meters. He may have seven, 13, 17 or more notes to play within each rhythmic beat, but the basic rhythm of the piece continues. ‘Free-form’ rhythm just leads to technical displays, not new music,” Zappa stated.

And so goes a chat with Zappa. He is sure there is a TV network blacklist that keeps him off the tube. He cant understand why his “magnificent” TV film, “A Token of His Extreme,” been shown only once in America (at the University of Michigan) and yet has been acclaimed in Europe.

From his animated and detailed description of its complex production techniques he got me wondering why it hasnt been picked up for TV showing here.

Otherwise, Zappa wants us all to know that Napoleon Murphy Brock is still with the Mothers. playing sax and singing, and that Roy Estrada (who was with the original Mothers “Freak Out” band) is back in the fold.

The current pianist is Andre Lewis. whom we saw in the spring of 1974 leading his wife Maxayns band.

Zappas conversational pace is deliberate, his voice quiet, his mood contemplative at times, evangelical at others.

On stage he seems to be a combination of pied-piper and the mad scientist of comic strips.

Years ago Zappa commented. “I was never a hippie. Always a freak, but never a hippie.” With a touch of genius thrown in.

1. Read the concert review "An Old Flame Flickers Low".