The Father Of The Mothers Zappa!

By Terry Wilson

Focus Rock Entertainment, December 15-31, 1976

Late one Monday [1] night I found myself face to face with one of the most enigmatic figures of the international music scene. Frank Zappa's influence in rock music may not be fully appreciated for a long time (possibly not until he dies) but his imposing contributions so far have bent, twisted and broken many clichés of both pop and jazz.

Zappa impresses on several levels. He is a clear-headed professional musician who makes it his business to have most things under his control. He looks exactly as he does on his LP covers. (He has the weirdest color eyes, sort of a yellowish-brown, the whites very clear.) His well-known disdain for interviews and interviewers had me uptight at first, but his responses were honest and soon I had detected a great deal of warmth and sensitivity under the hardened exterior. A nice surprise.

Zappa is two conversational personalities, however. As the interview got underway the room was crowded with people and his responses were the expected wise-ass variety. Later, when it was more one-to-one he was almost totally different. Zappa is, without a doubt, one of the most significant contributors and personalities in modern music.

FOCUS: How many tours do you work per year?

Zappa: "One long one."

FOCUS: How long?

Zappa: "Six months."

FOCUS: With six months on the road and most of the rest in the studio, how do you divide your energies and maintain control?

Zappa: "I'm bionic ... just look at those legs." (Points to the purple tights he still has on from the show.)

FOCUS: How long have you had this new band together?

Zappa: "About twenty minutes ... give or take a week or so. Really, it's just a pup-tent of a band." (All laugh at this, but I learned that there had been several last-minute substitutions in personnel.) [2]

FOCUS: You have never made any pretension of being anything other than a rock artist but what about the jazz/rock descriptions of your music?

"I frequently tell them (record company executives) to kiss my ass. I also have good reason for doing that because the company doesn't do very much for me. It's sort of like pulling teeth to get them to make the records available."

Zappa: "Perish forbid!"

FOCUS: Seems to be hard for some to handle.

Zappa: "Yeah. They don't want to know about jazz."

FOCUS: In your mind and in practice, what is the relationship between jazz and rock?

Zappa: "Well, whenever you need some money, a jazz musician will play rock. The missing link between jazz and rock is the cash register."

FOCUS: Other than your own parts, which seem to remain consistent, the focus of the new band is around more straight-out rock. Another new chapter?

Zappa: "Yeah, loud ... and vicious."

FOCUS: This is what the people ...

Zappa (Interrupting): "It's what I want to do! I do respond to the audience, but I can actually only respond to what I can sense. The further away the audience is, the tougher it is. When there's a big pit between me and the audience it's harder to read 'em. It helps to be able to see a few people every once in awhile. I know what I'm up there to do; I know what the show's supposed to be and I modify it to suit the event.

Like ... the audience in Cleveland was so downed out, they were just in bad shape. A really rowdy audience, there was no room for any subtlety; we couldn't play anything other than horribly loud."

FOCUS: Screaming out requests and the like?

Zappa: "Yeah. They just wanted to have a good time, but they were really ripped, like, right up against the stage. The kids were passin' out and pukin' all over each other. They were so tight ... they couldn't even fight with each other ... they were throwin' Jack Daniels bottles."

FOCUS: I thought tonight was rowdy.

Zappa: "It was nothin' compared to Cleveland. Cleveland was World War Six!"

FOCUS: What about the Grand Funk album? (Good Singin', Good Playin', was a Zappa production)

Zappa (Fire in his eyes): "What about it?"

FOCUS: I enjoyed it!

Zappa: "There's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy it. A lot of people ask me about it who haven't even listened to it."

FOCUS: How many LP's do you have out, in total?

Zappa (No hesitation): Forty-five. That's including twenty-two I've made, eleven that Verve repackaged and about a dozen bootlegs. I've probably got more records out than anyone else in rock-and-roll."

FOCUS: I've recently heard you described as the most underrated guitarist in rock. How do you rate your playing?

Zappa: "Oh, I think I'm bitchin'. Somewhat out of the mainstream, however."

FOCUS: As far as rock is concerned?

Zappa: "Yeah."

Terry Bozzio (Mothers drummer): "As far as anything is concerned!"

FOCUS: I noticed some obvious spaces for improvisation that you left open tonight during the performance.

Zappa: "There's always some space in the programs, but you can't put those spaces in until the band is sure enough of what it is to ... take advantage of the spaces. My bands, when they first start out, have a development process they have to go through. Just like, if you're growin' an apple ... at one time it was a flower; there's not much to eat there. You gotta wait awhile."

FOCUS: Do you figure on working with these people awhile?

Zappa: "Umm ... I'd say chances are pretty good. As long as the sense of humor maintains. (Top 40 deejay voice) As I've told 'em many times before, this band is just crawling with 'po-ten-chum!'" (sic)

(From across the room): "It's crawling on my arms!"

Zappa: "And on the walls ..."

FOCUS: I've always admired your ability to work within one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world (Warner Bros.) and at the same time so effectively poke fun at the ones who run it and all they hold sacred. Do you actually have much dialogue with the executives of your record I company?

Zappa: "I do have dialogue with them, yes. I frequently tell them to kiss my ass. I also have good reasons for doing that, because the company doesn't do very much for me. It's sort of like pulling teeth to get them to make the records available. I argue with them a lot and I'll be delighted when I can get away from them."

FOCUS: How much time?

Zappa: "Anywhere from two minutes to two years, depending on certain events."

FOCUS: On how you feel?

Zappa: "No, on legal things."

FOCUS: You've been with them for...

Zappa: "Too long."

FOCUS: Have you decided there are better places to go?

Zappa: "Well ... when you get right down to it, none of 'em are very good, but I'm just tired of fighting with Warner Bros. I'd rather fight with someone else."

FOCUS: With the 'Bizarre' and 'Straight' labels (no longer in existence as susidiaries of Warner Bros.) the promotion money had quite a way to trickle down to you.

Zappa: "It's sort of like pissing up a rope."

FOCUS: Is the significance of your lyrics and spoken word portions of your program still the same?

Zappa: "It's the same as it's always been; you don't need volumes of words to say, 'Yer gonna end up workin' in a gas station.' And you don't need a symphony to say it, either."

FOCUS: What about the significance of the format of the show as a whole?

Zappa: "I always change it around. We did stuff tonight that we haven't done anyplace else on the tour. The sequence and the choreography is different every night. A lot of stuff that looks like it's planned down to the millisecond is just spontaneous. In fact, I've talked to some people who said, "'Do you write everything for the group?' 'Cuz they think I write all their solos, too. Thirty to forty per cent of the show is made up right before your very eyes."

FOCUS: Solo breaks and segues between pieces?

Zappa: "Yeah, and the content and shape of the song. Some of the things have just the first melody and what happens for the next ten minutes is a matter of ..."

FOCUS: Filling in the framework.

Zappa: "Yeah, but tonight I just changed the framework all around. Some of the pieces bore a resemblance to the way we've done them in the past ... extra solos ... I just changed it right there."

FOCUS: Masters like yourself, who have become band leaders, seem to favor a constant evolution in personnel.

Zappa: "You mean a new band every year?"

FOCUS: Yeah.

Zappa: "Well, I like variety. I also know that nothing lasts forever. If you are dealing with people who have a lot of skill ... sometimes they only join my band as a stepping-stone to another event in their career ... I can't make 'em stay. I can't tell them that this is the best of all possible worlds. That's why a lot of people have been back three to five times."

FOCUS: Do you get along with former members, like George Duke?

Zappa: "I get along with everybody's that's been in the band, as long as those paychecks keep comin' out! You might say that this is probably the happiest, most socially compatible band and crew on the road. This band has one thing most other bands don't: somebody to take the rap. If something goes wrong ... here I am. If they wanna hate something ... if they need to do that ... I'm here for that, too. It's my show. I pay the bills. It's my equipment out there ... something's wrong with it ... it's my fault. I'm only there to do my job."

FOCUS: How long do you figure to be working on the road?

Zappa: "Till it's no fun."

FOCUS: It's still fun?

Zappa: "Sure. The show's fun, but the rest of the crap is not."

Zappa might have been referring to the hassles his troupe experienced getting from Cleveland to Columbus that day. The usual: snow held the plane connections up, they had to travel by bus, they arrived just in time for a sound check, back to the hotel for a meal and a change of costume, then the show. He mentioned that he got some sleep in between, but I don't see how.

Zappa has done just about all there is to do in rock and he still keeps coming up with newer and stranger ideas. But his ideas, no matter how wacky, have an uncanny rightness to them, charged with Zappa's unerring eye for the world's foolishness. As in Catch-22, craziness is relative. When the whole world is crazy, the craziest of the bunch may be the sanest one of all.

1. The interview date is Monday, November 22, 1976 after the concert in Columbus, OH. The Cleveland show mentioned in interview was on November 20.

2. Reference to Bianca Odin, who left the band after the November 11 show. The rest of the band was: Terry Bozzio – drums, vocals; Eddie Jobson – keyboards, violin; Patrick O'Hearn – bass; Ray White – guitar, vocals.

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