Could a man who stamps on poodles and sings about lonely person devices become president of the US?

asks Susie (spare the creamcheese) Shapiro

Sounds, December 18, 1976

Right all you Zappa heads and those who know of Zappa even peripherally (and you do unless you're a deaf ten year old with no groovy friends or sunbathing in the deserts of Mauretania, in which case they don't sell this or any other paper and you haven't the money to buy it anyway):

Frank Zappa is alive and well and touring in the USA with his new band, Zappa, and there's a record off called 'Zoot Allures' (only comprehensible to frogs at Brooklyn) which, like the other 14 Zappa records, has its moments of waggish controversy and finely conceptualized frivolity. Beware though, you may learn something from a Zappa record, ignorants need not apply.

Zappa is a founding Mother whose offspring is his art; his credits and critical articulation could fill several books. His musical background, chock full of specialties -- writing, singing, producing, re-mixing, engineering, virtuoso of synthesis, metamorphosis and catharsis -- has been pressed from every musical root in Eden. Zappa was more conscientiously affected by and effective in mastering the significant elements of the rock pop culture, putting him ages ahead of his peers.

The temptation to speak of his career in retrograde is strong because of his incredible span of the popular vox[?], from 50s doo wah lovesongs through Edgar Varese, Stravinsky and beyond; from composing for and conducting orchestras to pouring out a flawless intensity on electric guitar. Whether he's leading a continually changing band (that launched Captain Beefheart, Flo and Eddie, Jean Luc Ponty, George Duke) or supervising and starring in the brilliantly annoying film '200 Motels', Zappa rests squarely in the centre of all his projects.

He has always played it close to the edge, where artistry becomes insanity and manure becomes fertile soil. He's continually navigating in and out of thrashingly esoteric jazz and loud, cacophoneous noise. He can descend from impressively sinister social satire to doodoo caca lyrics aimed at first grade funnybones and spiral back up the cerebrum without losing balance. You either get involved in Zappa's music or he won't have you, and you won't want him on any other terms. He can prank out an audience, but only one that loves him, or eggs him on. When he misses, he can be offensive and irritating.

Zappa's scan is imperious and implicates everybody, even himself. He can magnify the trivial into the grotesque, and twist sensitivity into caricature. He laughs at nobody that doesn't have a sense of humour. Because he gives so much of himself away, he walks that fine line between art and artless, heart and heartless, affection and anger,

Life magazine described a slice of life from a typical Mothers of Invention concert, circa 1968:

"On stage there is the possibility that anything can happen. Dolls are mutilated. A gas mask is displayed. A bag of vegetables is unpacked and examined. There are spaced intervals of 'honks' and suddenly The Mothers perform 'Dead Air'. They stop, sit down and ignore the audience. Zappa might get a shoeshine from Motorhead, the percussionist. They keep this going for as long as it takes the audience to become unsettled, uncomfortable and angry. Then Zappa calmly approaches the mike and says, "It brings out the hostilities in you, doesn't it?""

Zappa did not agitate such responses at his recent Halloween gig at the Felt Forum in New York. Instead, he adopted a disc-jockey FM-style patter that made him a bystander to his own party. He patronized the audience, baited them, tested their limits of decibel endurance and preconceived notions. He would throw in non sequiturs of inflammatory humor: "Mars [Manx] needs women!" Two men sitting behind me were jeering, a funky couple beside me were cheering. Zappa did most of 'Zoot Allures' while drummer Terry Bozzio lost the beat that makes you tap your feet, and singers Bianca and Ray White provided some rich keyboard and guitar work over and beyond the call of competence.

'Zoot Allures' shows a tamer side of Zappa than has been seen before. Many will be tempted to evidence it as a decline in his outrageous quotient, but it's merely a more direct musical phase which is reaching out toward an audience Zappa always deserved, the mainstream. 'Zoot' is mellower and more acessible and, even as Zappa skinny dips into the cultural slime from which he takes his more savoury nuggets.

For those who do cherish Zappa's mordant moments, there's comfort in "The Torture Never Stops", an ominous litany of rats, snot, vomit, winos peeing in their clothes, dungeon of despair, and a female voice alternating currents of cackles and submissive moans of pain, or is it pleasure?

I prefer the more endearing music and comedy of 'Disco Boy' and Zappa's ode to higher education, 'Wind Up Working in a Gas Station'. The two instrumentals are the usual superlative group weave to Zappa's running stitch -- one was recorded live in Japan. 'Zoot Allures' is an incredible wedding of science and art, and its main draughtsman is equally formidable.

But if you were expecting a maniac in a black leather cape and painted red fingernails, forget it. Zappa is open and soft (until aroused by dumb questions), his coolly Olympian stage persona is nowhere present in his hotel suite. He is the essence of Natty Dread, white silk shirt, white California cotton pants, hair pulled back in a pony tail. But it's the eyes that get you, fickle green and borderless. No proscenium or amplifications to protect him. Zappa turns out to be a human.

There is a legend concerning the abominations Zappa has done to reporters and other forms of life he could live without, but it sounds like touchy rumour.

Anything else I might add would comprise a stab at placing him firmly in some manic perspective from which he could escape at any moment. Anyway, Frank Zappa talks the best about Frank Zappa and today he's in a good mood:


What is your religious background?

Zappa: "You mean, in the olden days, or what do I do for a living? In the olden days I was raised as Catholic."

Does that account for your constant preoccupation with taboo words?

"No, that doesn't follow at all. If I were a psychology professor, I'd flunk you with a Z. The words I use onstage are designed for directness of communication rather than as a protest against my Catholic upbringing. If you're gonna talk to somebody, it might as well be in a language they understand."

You use lyrical simplicity and match it against an enormous complexity in music? The people who understand the graphic images may not catch the complexity in the music.

"So what? With or without the graphic images it'll escape them. If people hear music, they hear it; if they can't, they won't. But we have a little something for everyone (the disc jockey voice)!"

I hear you were on the Steve Allen TV show about 100 years ago. What were you doing?

"Playing a bicycle. And it wasn't a hundred years ago, it was 1962. You play a bicycle by blowing through the handlebars. You can strum the spokes like a harp; you can also bow the spokes and play fiddle. Meanwhile, I had someone recite poetry. I told the guy to just go ahead and say his favorite poem, which was Mary Had a Little Lamb ... obviously."

Were you ever invited back?

"Oh no. The problem was with the lyrics, ha! Mary Had a little lamb ... the continuity department came down on that. That guy hasn't worked much either since that time."

You have a definite love/hate relationship with the opposite sex and I was wondering about it.

"I warn you right now, you can ask all you want but you're getting into trouble. This is one of my stock routines with lady interviewers who like to give me the business about lyrics ..."

Like titty-squeezing time, for example?

"Yeah, and all that male shauvinism."

Oh no, that's not what I had in mind. I was interested in your womb envy: naming your band the Mothers on Mother's Day and having your debut lp cover show you and the group with infants. Your putting a bra on the other night at the concert ... the tits and beer parties of the show, sitting on the poodle's face imitating the woman ...

"I would say those indications exist more in your lack of comprehension than in my supposed womb envy."

Unfair. Just because I choose to find those aspects significant.

"The fact that you bring it up as a topic for serious discussion when someone throws me a padded brassiere onto the stage ..."

Oh, that was spontaneous?

"Well, I didn't pay someone to toss me the brassiere 5 minutes and 28 seconds into the show."

Well, then it was one of the few spontaneous moments in the show.

"The only thing that's structured in the show is the skeleton: the sequence of tunes is changeable. The skeleton's there for the reliability of the musicians so they know what comes where. But inside each of the songs there's all kinds of latitude, especially if you're playing NY on Halloween.

"If you play a locked show you're dead, because they're always gonna try and amuse themselves at your expense. I look forward to that; they can come and raze me as much as they want 'cause I got something for them. But you know, someone throwing me a brassiere ... the funny thing about that was I threw the bra out to where my brother was sitting and he docked cause he didn't want the thing on his body."

That's Bobby Zappa, the ex-Marine from New Jersey?

"Yep. Now working for McGraw Hill, College Textbook Division. He's 31 I think, that's a guess. He was there with his wife and a couple of friends right there in the second row! Here would you like to sample some cookies his wife made? Real live New Jersey cookies."

No, thank you. Where's the booze?

"Just a minute, I'll get you some. (He fixes me a Johnnie Walker neat, none for him.) You should have been at the second show. Smothers (Zappa's large bald, black bodyguard) sang 'Muffin Man', that was the Halloween surprise. I'd say a verse and he'd sing it."

Gee, no pumpkins.

"There were some in the audience, wondering why they were there. Most people come to my concerts because they wanna see something, they wanna have something done to them. I had 3000 people at the Berkeley Community Theater doing jumping jacks in 1968. I said 'OK, now you're gonna get up and exercise, you people look like you're too tired, c'mon, get up.' I had 'em outta the wats. The house lights were on. I stopped the music. They kept on doin' it. Then I said 'OK, listen, this is what just happened. I told you to stand up and exercise and you exercised, is that right?' Yeah, that's right!

"I tell you to do anything you'd do it, wouldn't you? That's the way the government operates. They tell you to do something and you do it. You're put there doin' jumping jacks, now isn't that stupid? And all the while they're still jumping, they're waiting for the punchase. So we started playing again, the lights went down and the show resumes."

That's a very delicate and brave thing to do. It just as easily could have turned hostile.

"Why? You're doin' them a farce, you're telling them the truth. How can they hate you for that? Manipulation is a semantically overloaded term."

Find a better word.

"OK, prank. I played a prank on them. Such pranks are pulled every day, and far worse. Forget politics. One of the most depressing pieces of manipulation I saw was the Sly Stone segment of the 'Woodstock' film, that kind of bogus hysteria."

I noticed in your live show that the drummer was not necessarily the one who kept the best all the time.

(sighs) "In Bozzio's case the drum is hardly ever the instrument that keeps the beat. Since that guy discovered lipstick it's tap your foot or die. Now I love Bozzio, he's one of the most brilliant drummers I've ever worked with but, I'm sorry, sometimes he goes nuts. You're the second interviewer to say that. I'm gonna have to tell him the word is out."

I thought it was calculated that way.

"Well, if you don't calculate with Bozzio what the time is before you start playing, you're up shiiiiiit creek. See, the biggest problem onstage is hearing what you're doing. The sound changes radically every three feet because of the directionality of the speakers, your distance from the other instruments, their acoustic output and what's coming out of the side fill.

"Because of the sight line problems at the Felt Forum we were using about 1/3 of the side fill monitors, which is where you hear the drums. So it was hard to hear the beat, period, up there and when I go three feet in either direction from my amplifier I can't hear what I'm playing: it's all guesswork.

"The words of the song, how loud and fast we're gonna play it, that's all worked out beforehand but once the lights go on and Bozzio's girl-friend puts on his lipstick you can't turn to him and say: now Terry, I've been wondering about the downbeat on this particular bar. There's no time to do that. And if you berate him after the show and say: goddammit I was tryin' to play a really good lick there and I didn't know where the beat was, he gets upset. He's a very proud, energetic young musician and you can't bang him over the head."

That sounds like a classic problem.

"The problem is, for a drummer to have a solid, coherent, rock and roll beat he's got to have enough of an animal instinct to play it that way; but if he can only play that, then he can't play the rest of what I write. Terry's learned to read music since he's been with the group. But he's sometimes interested in letting the earth know he has all these manual skills and, from time to time, he decides to show you all of them in [?] bar. And if it happens to be at the beginning of your solo well, toooooough shit. He gets very passionate and carried away while he's playing."

Do you write out all the music parts?

"I only write out the drum parts that are so technical that you can't hum it to him. The rest of the time I say, 'it goes like this -- blah blah blah.' And they say, 'so you mean blah blah blah?' And I say, 'that's right, now can you play it a little slower please? Blah ... blah ... blah'. If it's more complicated blah blah's then you have to write it down so they'll be able to synchronize everything."

Are you ever going to work with orchestras anymore?

"Thing about orchestras is, I like the way they sound but the experience of working with them is invariably depressing. Orchestra musicians are concerned with one thing: their pension. They don't give a fuck about music.

"I don't think belonging to a union necessarily makes you a bad person but there is an attitude of pseudo-professionalism that pervades a lot of the entertainment unions. People on the technical fringe of show business get into the syndrome where they won't command the respect of the other crewmen unless they're totally disinterested in the product they're working on.

"If you do show any interest well, what are you? A sissy? You gotta go back there and drink coffee with the guys screw the show. We're gettin' paid this huge fee.

"If you've got two more bars of music to record and the contractor's watch goes to zero that's it. I've got tapes of the contractor yelling: that's it! with two bars to go in the session. And if you play those two bars it'll cost you $5,000. Enough to spoil a recording."

You said a few unkind things about your record company during the concert. If you feel they're not behind you, how are you going to sell 'Zoot Allures'?

"My first plan is, during every concert I'm going to hype the album just like I was doing a television commercial. I figure I shouldn't be shy about that, it really is a good lp. I don't think the audience minds knowing that it's out. If Warners doesn't arrange for me to go to into the radio stations, I'll go myself."

How many more years are you under contract?

"That's arguable. I would love to be rid of them right now. They say I owe them four more albums. I'm trying to decide whether I'll hand them all four more right after this tour, cause I got 'em, I got more than four. And they know that. If Warners keeps fucking around like this they're gonna get a little present when I get home. One of the tapes is an orchestra album."

What's stopping you from doing that right now?

"If I do that, they'll definitely shit all over this record. I am giving Warners a fair chance, I'm saying: perform on this album. This is my first release for Warners, not DiscReet; it's not subsidiary, it's not a little independent company, it's hey, here I am on your mainline label, now what are ya gonna do about it? So far they've done diddly-shit."

Have you received other offers?

"Yeah, I've been talking to other people. My contract calls for two records a year, so the longest it could run is two years. I could actually give a company three records a year, it all depends how much time I spend touring. I've been doing 6 months on the road, 6 months in L.A. Last year I went round the world, this year I'd do the same."

Are you looking for AM hits?

"Of course. There's a single being release from 'Zoot', 'Find Her Finer', destined for the AM airwaves. The single was selected by the geeks at Warners who actually have to go out and sell it. So if they think they can sell 'Find Her Finer' better than 'Wonderful Wino' so be it."

Tell me about other songs on the record.

"Ms. Pinky is a song about a lonely person device. We have this fan in Finland called Eric and everytime we come in Finland, he's there, with his shopping bag. I think he works in a Volvo factory. One time he showed up with presents, candy and his favourite Finnish pornographic magazine. A publication called Kalle. Had the worst pictures you've ever seen.

"There's a problem with lithography when you don't get your color balance right. Things either go too red or too blue. Well, split pink is one thing, but split pink that looks infected is another. And when the people are [?] ... There was this one article called 'And now, from Leningrad', and this girl looked like she had just came out of a concentration camp, doing this splat on a bleak little bed in a bleak little room. It looked like a medical picture.

"And then they had ads for lonely person devices. There was an ad for Pinky. It was a head with it's mouth wide open and its eyes shut and a short haircut. And I thought: hmmmm, anyone who's gonna buy a plastic head just give himself a gum job is Right Out There.

"By the time we got to Amsterdam I sent Smothers out to buy one, to use onstage. Sure enough, for $69.95 he came back with Ms. Pinky. It was even worse than I imagined. Not only is it a head, it's the size of a child's head. The throat is sponge rubber and its got a vibrator in it with a battery pack and a two-speed motor. Sticking out of the neck is a nozzle with a squeeze bulb that makes the throat contract."

"'Black Napkins' is a song I've had for a year or more but it was finally named last Thanksgiving when we were having this horrible Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Sliced turkey roll with the fucking preservatives just gleaming off of it, and this beat-up cranberry material. The final stroke to this ridiculous dinner was the black napkins sitting next to the dishes. That really said the most about the dinner."

You don't smoke dope, do you?

"No. I've smoked ten marijuana cigarettes in my life. And they've given me a sore throat, a headache and made me sleepy. I can't understand why anyone would wanna use the stuff. It seems to be as impractical pastime as you can get sent to jail for it."

That seems to be less and less consideration. Pot laws have eased up.

"It's still a consideration. You never know when somebody'll go berserk at City Hall and wanna clean up. I heard a story about some guys last week who got 25 year sentences for having [?] in their pockets as they crossed the Mexican border.

Have you ever considered going into politics?

"Sure, but I'm not ready yet. I'd be a perfect President. I'd not only win but I'd be good at the job. One of these days I am going to run for President, but not until I think it would be fun."

Did you vote Election Day?

"Absolutely not. Frick and Frack."

You didn't vote but you would run for office and have us elect you!

"That's right. And you will elect me."

Are you a megalomaniac?

"No. I'm a person with a very strong conscience who knows he can do certain things very well, and has no reason to pretend he can't, and will actually do as much good as he can while he's got the chance to do it. Strictly business."

This magazine would love to know what you're favorite records are?

"'Three Hours Past Midnight' by Johnny Guitar Watson, 1955; 'Soul Motion' by Don and Dewey, '59 or '60; 'Newly Wed' by the Orchards; 'Can I Come Over Again' [Let's Start All Over Again] by the Paragons."

A quite different version of this interview is "Zoot Allures!", printed in Gig, February 1977.