Frank Zappa: Bad weather in person

By Steven Reddicliffe

Chronicle Telegram, Elyria, Ohio, September 29, 1978

MIAMI – The dark clouds gathering outside Frank Zappa's Key Biscayne hotel room might as well be inside, to get metaphorical about it.

Zappa's face is bad weather personified, and he seems to revel in the stormy cynic's role.

"I'm a grouchy son of a bitch," he says, flopping down on a white and too-green couch. "That's how I earn my living."

He expects to be in business a long time, too. "The sources of discontent," he says casually, "are endless."

ACTUALLY, HE EARNS his living making records and performing. He kicked off a two-month tour of the United States with a Miami concert last week and will perform Sunday at Cleveland Public Hall.

For 15 years, Zappa has been criss-crossing the country, taking outrageousness with him. His songs are usually funny, sometimes obscene in the ears of those obsessed with the so-called seven dirty words, almost always musically adventurous.

He and his Mothers of Invention took on the 1950s long before it was fashionable (with Ruben and the Jets), lampooned the pompous boorishness of Crosby, Stills and Nash when nearly everyone loved them, told America that "brown shoes don't make it" and urged us all to call any vegetable in the song of the same name.

If there is one reason for his enduring appeal, it is that he doesn't seem to care much for convention, and backs up that attitude with inventive, often inspired material. And if there are reasons for the limits to that appeal, it is that outrageousness does not age gracefully; where, after all, is Johnny Rotten now that we need him?

ZAPPA DOES NOT stake all his art on that particular peg, however, which has saved him from the obscurity that awaits those whose acts are based on breathing fire.

He does not suffer inquisition gladly, particularly people who write about music.

"If they're forced to write about music, they can't appreciate it," he says. "If they appreciate it, they'd be musicians. Writers are inferior."

A few minutes later, after pronouncing music "the finest thing in life," Zappa says that writers "should stick to something they know, like football."

THEN WHY PUT up with all the interviews, the long-distance phone sessions and the in-person conversational collisions?

"This is the era of the gigantic hype," he says, defining hype as the Big Lie. But rather than offer press releases and p.r. claptrap, Zappa says he offers himself.

"I'm the product. I'm the person. I do it the old-fashioned way. That way, when I shave in the morning I can look myself in the face."

He nods, then smiles with a lot of teeth showing, which is his way of daring you to take him seriously. The choice is yours, and it is obvious he thinks you're a jerk either way.

BUT HE IS FAIRLY funny and, stretched out on his couch in nothing but faded cut-offs, he seems to enjoy fishing for targets in the American cultural mainstream.

He is not, for example, a big fan of the modern novel.

"I hate 'em. I don't like to read. I don't like the damage it does."

Zappa explains that most people "misconstrue" what they see in print, taking the typed word as that of God.

Reading, he concludes, "is a continued source of bad mental health in this country."

And he is not, for another example, very happy about the way popular music is going these days.

"IT'S NOT MUSIC any more," he says, "It's a product." He says people can't get their fill of this "mediocrity."

Radio is one part of it. He says "radio programming is a computerized art'' these days, and that he refuses to listen. Still, he claims "I'd be a hell of a disc jockey. I'd play a wider spectrum of music than they play now."

And even though he facetiously answers his hotel room phone "home of the hits," he wouldn't mind a hit single, something he has never had.

"A hit single is a free, three-minute commercial for an album. I don't think a single is a bad idea. Of course, I won't do anything beneath my dignity to get one."

AND FROM HIS description of his next album, a two-record set due in January, it sounds as if Zappa has kept his dignity intact. There is a punk song called "I'm So Cute," an instrumental called "Rat [Tomago]," and another song called "Trying to Grow a Chin." The record will be released on his new Zappa Records, which has as its motto "We Don't Mess Around."

He also is planning a new movie, even though his first, "200 Motels," was a critical and commercial disaster. He won't say what the new one is about except that it's "a movie about ideas."

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