Zappa's Post-Funk LP "Zoot" Suits Him Just Fine

By Jim Trombetta

Crawdaddy, September 1976

LOS ANGELES – For a truly intimidating stare, try steely-blue contact lenses, brown eyes don't make it. Frank Zappa's glare lacks real menace. But, he insisted, "They're afraid of me" – he was talking about interviewers – "because I know they're full of shit."

Frank turned away, bored with his experiment in terror. "Statistically I've probably submitted to more interviews than anybody in rock 'n roll," he explained, "and the results are this mass of hostility. I don't hate 'em for it, but I know they're sleaze. They're a go-between, between a product and a potential teenage market. Let's suppose the guy who writes the thing gets a cheese sandwich at a press party or a pat on the back from a record company person. They ought to be honest about it and let the kids know what's really going on," concluded this father of three.

Zappa was attending the Billboard Talent Forum at the Beverly Hilton in the hope of moving a two-year-old videotape of a Mothers show, called A Token of His Extreme. It has splendid animation by Bruce Bricktord in the manner of a nightmarish Gumby cartoon and represented a $200,000 investment to Frank, who had also brought to the convention mixes from his two forthcoming albums and the one he had produced for Grand Funk Railroad, Good Singin', Good Playin'. Like any good salesman, Frank was remembering visitors' names, whether or not they wore them on plastic badges. Offer him the power handshake and he'd return it; you could also get the traditional shake. It was your choice.

Still, he claimed "I'm not a regular guy." By 5 p m. he was sitting wearily at the far end of a couch, looking happy to be alone. "I'm not the kind of guy who's gonna write 'baby baby baby leaves are coming down it's summertime' and situations like this," he counselled. "I have a small circle of friends that talk about stuff that other people are not interested in." Such as? "The Flosser! Know what that is? It's like a slingshot. It's plastic with a big grip and all it is is one piece of dental floss across the bow of this thing. Five ninety-five. OK, Channel 13, make me buy The Flosser tor $5.95."

Some silly love songs from Frank's next solid-rock album Zoot Allures (formerly Night of the Iron Sausage) testify to his esoteric interests. "Pinky," for instance, is the tale of a sexual prosthesis: a rubber baby's head with a wide open mouth and a vibrator in the throat – only $69.95:

She never talks back
like a lady might do
She always looks happy
when we're finally through.

"Pinky" has a bowstring-taut power riff gradually interwoven with '50s R&B falsetto, just the kind of hybrid only Zappa would grow.

Then there's a bluesy number on the lp called "The Torture Never Stops," augmented by female screams, unnervingly beautiful, oscillating between pleasure and pain:

Green ties buzzin'
down in the dungeon.
All it requires
is lockin' in.

Just outside the bars an evil prince eats a smoking pig, snout and trotters first. There's also a "sinister midget" to mop up the blood The song is a photofinish race between horror and hilarity.

Other highlights include the sardonic "Disco Boy" (which is never going to be played in a disco), the insinuating "Find Her, Finer":

Sneak up behind her,
Rap like a mummy till
You finally unwind her,

and a number in which Frank urbanely drawls, "Lost control of my bodily functions," offering the insouciant excuse, "I'm just a wino, ot course."

The cerebral disgust and satirical moralism are intact; the music never sacrifices a high energy level to its own complexities, which are considerable, merging genres, working in Beefheart, Hendrix ("Third Stone From the Sun"), bullfight horns and even Beatlesque reversed tapes.

"That's reversed lead guitar," observed Frank, mellowing as he heard his own music. "I played the guitar backward, behind my head. That's how I get my sound. If you listen closely you can hear a voice whispering 'Paul is dead.'"

Zappa had also just completed Six Pieces for Orchestra – "really low-budget symphony orchestra" comprising tunes like "Regyptian Strut" and "Bogus Pomp." The piece he played reminded the listener most of Stravinsky. He seemed to be dividing his rock and classical avant-garde interests into commerical and non-commercial categories.

"What are you doing with Grand Funk?"

"I'm not doing anything with them," Zappa emphasized. "All I did was in a documentary way make a record which tells you exactly what they really sound like. For the first time on record, you can hear Grand Funk Railroad ... and they're fantastic, fan-tastic with an F three times taller than you!"

Grand Funk reciprocates Frank's affection. "His whole viewpoint on what rock 'n roll is all about is basically the same as ours," said drummer Don Brewer "You go in and do exactly what you do live, without overproduction. Keep it as simple as possible and really bring the balls out of this thing.

"He was totally ditterent from what we expected. Frank Zappa's basic image to the world is that someplace in the 1960s he was doing so much acid that he freaked out. But he's a very straight cat and he's not ego-ed out." For the record, Zappa is a noted drug teetotaler, though he does an occasional Winston.

Zappa played two Grand Funk cuts, a tear-jerker called "Miss My Baby" and an all-out "Can Ya Do It?", a Contours original with all the frenetic drive of that early-'60s Detroit band. The mixes were punchy and vivid, the songs exciting and full of an adolescent conviction thah must have appealed to Zappa and would no doubt appeal to countless fans. But it was the Zappa rockers off Zoot Allures which ran through the listener's head for days afterwards.

Gradually various reps and delegates filtered into the suite to view A Token ot His Extreme. They seemed tickled to meet Frank and his cordiality in greeting them seemed in the end less forced than his earlier contempt. On the TV screen a clay Frank Zappa golem played a guitar lead so hot his hand melted on the frets, divided like a mad cell into a squirming anenome, and finally coalesced into a gaping serpent – Frank's own hand, this was – which reared up and bit him on the jugular. Frank howled in pain and suddenly was transformed into an atrocious bat-fanged thing.

"Let the kids know what's really going on." Is man's heart no more than a mixing console? The writer received a lukewarm glass of Coca-Cola in the suite. A publicist materialized next to him and spoke in shadowy tones: "Maybe you could surprise Frank by not knocking him."

– Jim Trombetta