Frank Zappa – A Would-be Chemist Who Turned to Music

By Rip Rense

The Valley News, December 30, 1977

"If I wasn't doing what I am doing now, I would be a chemist," Frank Zappa said deliberately, puffing on a cigarette.

He sat in what is probably his favorite place in the world – the basement of his Laurel Canyon home. In front of him was rather imposing motion picture screening and editing apparatus, to his left was an ante-room brimming with recording equipment. Thousands of records stood filed on shelves, sharing wall space with such unique items as the Cal Schenkel sculpture used on the album cover of "Burnt Weenie Sandwich" and the hood of what is rumored to be a '39 Plymouth. A framed poster advertising a performance of Edgard Varèse's "Poème Électronique" hung behind him.

"Chemistry was my first interest. My father used to bring home whatever he could steal from his job at the Edgewood Medical Center (Maryland) and I would experiment with it. Edgewood is where the government manufactured poison gas for the war, and because of that everybody had to own and know how to use gas masks. That was my other toy."

Little Ahmet Zappa, age 3, burst into the room with a broken two-by-four and a small hammer, announcing, "This wood DOES break!"

"QUITE on accomplishment," his father said, then picked the boy up, hugged him, and said "I love you." He continued the story.

"Being a naturally curious person, I punctured the canister in the gas mask. I used to run around with it on my head. I thought it was a space helmet."

"In Monterey, Calif , when I was about 11 years old, I made oxygen in my bedroom. I didn't know if I had oxygen or not, and proceeded to ignite it. It was oxygen."

Zappa actually is a chemist of sorts. His beakers are blank pieces of paper and his elements are sounds. He creates a musical formula, allows it to mix with musicians, and "proceeds to ignite" the combination.

The product, at least for the last 15 years, has been some of the more unusual music of its day.

From the experimentation of the original Mothers of Invention to "Lumpy Gravy," an avant-garde ballet composed in 1967, to the multi-media creation, "200 Motels," to the "King Kong" sessions with Jean-Luc Ponty to the "Grand Wazoo" Orchestra to the Abnuceals [Emuukha] Electric Symphony Orchestra – Zappa remains in the forefront of contemporary musical innovation.

Lately, however, he has been spending about as much time conferring with lawyers as composing music.

There are four Zappa creations recorded and ready for marketing, including a concert performance by the Abnuceals [Emuukha] Electric Symphony Orchestra and a mysterious piece called "[Greggary] Peccary," but the four albums are unreleased.

Furthermore, Zappa is urging people not to buy any of his Warner Brothers recordings.

"I had a contract with Warner Brothers. It was lousy but it was a contract, and I lived up to my contract.

"Between last October and Dec. 31 of this year I was required to deliver to Warner Brothers four completed albums. I delivered all four in March of this year. According to the contract, upon receipt of the tapes, they have to pay me. They received the tapes and they did not pay me." he said.

Also, Zappa charged, Warner's is withholding royalties on other Zappa albums in its catalog, something the musician described as "just another case where a large corporation figures they're going to push an individual around."

According to Zappa, Warner's recently "threatened" to issue a recording from Zappa's latest tour entitled "Zappa in New York" – a threat that drove off a deal to start a Zappa Records label with Mercury-Phonogram.

He is suing Warner Brothers for breach of contract, and has also filed suits charging fraud, breach of fiduciary responsibility and "various other malignant activities" against Herb and Martin Cohen, his former manager and former attorney.

Sources of the suits are fairly complex, but boil down to "things looking really stinky in terms of dollars and cents routed into areas where they shouldn't have been routed," according to Zappa.

Points of departure for the suits are what Zappa explained as the "unauthorized use" of some of his touring equipment by Cohen, the "unauthorized and over budgeted issuing" of an album by Kathy Dalton on Zappa's former label, DiscReet, the "unauthorized issuing" of another album by a group called "Growl" ("something I never would have signed"), the "unauthorized sale" of a Zappa film to a German television station, and assorted "chincy" things.

His creative output undaunted by monetary problems since early days of playing "Louie Louie" in beer bars, Zappa continues to be prolific.

He recently completed a film called "Baby Snakes" and a new symphonic work called "Wooool" (spelled with slashes through the first and last o's, umlauts over the two middle o's, and a tilde over the L – thus pronounced something like "Woh-ooo-oh-luh," but modern typesetting prohibits such reproduction here.)

"Wooool" is scored for a Mahler-sized orchestra: 60 strings, four flutes, piccolo, all other woodwinds four-deep, eight french horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, six percussionists.

There are currently no plans to perform the piece, mostly because of the logistics involved. (Performance and recording of the Abnuceals [Emuukha] Electric Symphony Orchestra concert at UCLA two years ago cost about $200,000).

Known foremost as an outstanding guitarist with a one-of-a-kind style, Zappa's orchestral efforts have been both lauded for their sonic exploration and panned as the work of a "child with a new toy." The 37-year-old musician is not bothered by negative analysis.

"I am a composer in the grand traditional sense of the word. I take material and organize it. Composition is like architecture, you know. A person who designs a building has to make sure there are toilets in it, places for the wires to go, doors, windows; must slant the roof so the snow falls off – all of these things; structural problems for holding different weights of floors. It's the same way when you're building a composition.

"Instead of using only notes, though, I'm using notes plus personality plus equipment plus other features like choreography and pacing.

"That's a different way to look at composition in the some way that earthworks would be a different way to look at the world of art. It's not a painting but it's still a work of art. People who judge my work on the basis of individual songs are missing the point because you've got to look at the whole scheme of the thing," he said.

Zappa's compositional talent was greatly inspired by the music of composer Edgard Varèse. As a young boy, Frank purchased a Varèse recording in a La Mesa second-hand store and played it on a small phonograph to the point of driving his mother to distraction.

The same album, (which Zappa still owns, scratches and all) featuring a cross-section of Varèse's music recorded under the composer's supervision, was recently reissued. The liner notes were written by an admirer named Frank Zappa.

"It's a great disservice to Varèse to lump him in with electronic composers 'cause there isn't an electronic composer walking around today who can kiss his shoes," Zappa said.

"He managed to get new sounds out of regular instruments. He dreamed of sounds that were designs and shapes that nobody had dreamed of before; sounds that could easily be executed today with electronic equipment. He found a way to get that with an orchestra – and that is doing something."

Many of the percussion passages in Zappa's orchestral compositions reveal his respect for Varèse and other composers including Igor Stravinsky.

Will Zappa ever put down his electric guitar, walk away from rock 'n roll, and work exclusively with a symphony orchestra?

"Why should I? What I have going now is the best of all possible worlds."

Rock 'n roll in the best of all possible worlds right now consists of one of the most expressive guitarists ever to pick up the instrument plus one of the better bands ever to play Zappa's music. The six-man group plus FZ (as he is often listed on albums) last month completed one of the most successful tours of Zappa's life.

Have college audiences changed much from the people who watched the Mothers grimly satirize the Vietnam War in 1965?

"All audiences change a lot. They change every time the government gives them a new drug, every time a new form of alcohol becomes popular. There's a difference in the way people get drunk on tequila, the way they get drunk on beer, and the way they get drunk on Jack Daniels. It's the same way there is a difference between the way people get high on marijuana and LSD. And then you see people combining all of those things.

"In New York they were snorting laughing gas. In Washington, D.C., they were doing joints made out of parsley flakes soaked in horse tranquilizer," he added.

Zappa, who has never found any pleasure in drugs, is known to dismiss band members who are too intoxicated to play his charts.

Some of his more complex music came during this decade's various ventures into jazz (perhaps culminating with the 1974 Mothers featuring keyboardist George Duke, drummer Chester Thompson and percussionist Ruth Underwood), Zappa has no desire to return to such ventures.

"Absolutely not. All of the musicians I'm playing with now are jazz-derived. I'm always screaming at those guys not to play that stuff. The more that is played at the same time, the less it is understood.

"I mean, when everybody wants to noodle out at once, it becomes a constant war against audio mud."

His present band brought the audience to its feet at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion with an incredibly colorful three-hour-plus show of new music. A new set of compositions to be played in on upcoming European tour will be premiered at Pauley in a special New Year's Eve concert this week (Ex-Mother Roy Estrada and the legendary Captain Beefheart are possible guests).

From drummer Terry Bozzio's never-ending flurries of 16th notes to guitarist Adrian Belew's invention and dramatic flair, the group performs Zappa's music with dispatch and zeal.

(A particularly interesting segment of his Pauley concert included a choreographed number in which the devil – Bozzio – refused Zappa's soul in favor of the souls of the defendants in Zappa's lawsuits.)

Persons attempting to describe Zappa music to those who are unacquainted with it generally find a great challenge. His creations are diverse in style, scope, lyrical and musical direction to the point of sprawl.

Zappa's solution is simple.

"My music is folk music from a country that hasn't been invented yet," he said.

"By that I mean that the music is actually based on folklore – folklore derived from the people who play it. The "Fillmore East" album is classic folklore, true stuff. '200 Motels' is true."

A country that hasn't been invented yet?

"Well, the folklore is derived from the musicians in the group and there's not enough of them to form a country yet – but I'm workin' on it.

A person who says he has "horribly defined" political views, Zappa's musical targets of satire often center on television, money, government, or combinations of the three.

To whit:

"I am gross and perverted,
I'm obsessed and deranged,
I have existed for years,
But very little has changed.
I'm the tool of the government,
and industry too,
For I am destined to rule
and regulate you.
I may be vile and pernicious,
But you can't look away,
I make you think I'm delicious
With the stuff that I play
I'm the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I'm the slime oozin' out from
your TV-set."

– 'I am the Slime," 1974

It is because of television, and the reason for its existence – profit – that the United States will never disintegrate, he said.

"Have you heard of that new form of television being experimented with in Columbus, Ohio? You see a product on the screen, press a button, and the product is delivered to you at the end of the month accompanied by a bill.

"I don't think the United States will totally break down. No way, because there's only one thing that matters in this country, and that's money. And money is a matter of pride to the people who control it. They'll do anything they can to keep the country going just so they can play with their money. That's all it's about."

Not that Zappa is opposed to the concept of profit.

"I'm all in favor of profit. But there's an honorable way to make a profit and a dishonorable way."

When home, he usually can be found at work in the basement on any of a variety of projects, or negotiating business on the telephone. Occasionally, Captain Beefheart drops by and they stay up all night listening to the likes of Frankie Lee Sims, Johnny Guitar Watson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Guitar Slim, the Chantels, the Chimes.

Otherwise he spends time with devoted wife Gail and their three beautiful, inquisitive children, Ahmet, Dweezil, 8 and Moon, 10. Lately the old man has been showing his kids how to make movies by actually drawing on film.

How do they view their father?

"They look at my job and work the some way as you would look at your dad if he was an engineer at Lockheed" the gentle-mannered, precise man said.

An engineer at Lockheed? Perhaps in a country that hasn't been invented yet.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)