Frank Zappa vs. The World

By Michael Branton

BAM. October 5, 1979

If you thought "Jewish Princess" was offensive, wait till you hear "Catholic Girls."

Los Angeles – Frank Zappa sits leaning over the mixing board, yellow pencil in hand, studying a typed lyric sheet. Wearing a grey, shapeless shirt, grey pants, purple socks and brown loafers, he looks like a pleasantly absorbed research scientist in the midst of a fascinating experiment. It's approaching midnight, but in the shadowy confines of Village Recording Studios, that means very little to the group of musicians at work.

"Let me hear that bridge again," he says to engineer Joe Chiccarelli, who responds by flicking a dozen switches in a matter of seconds. Zappa takes a slow drag from his cigarette. "I'm trying to decide whether we keep the singing or add talking here."

He looks up suddenly, acknowledging the guests who have sidled into the tiny control booth. They're putting the final touches on a concept piece, he explains, entitled Joe's Garage. It's about an upstanding young man whose life turns topsy-turvy when he puts together a rock and roll band that starts jamming in his parents' garage. "After this girls, Lucille, messes Joe's mind up, he goes to the First Church of Appliantology for help," Zappa says. "L. Ron Hoover, the leader of this church, tells him that he has to go into this club, called The Closet, dressed up like a housewife, and speak German. Then he's got to pick up one of the groovy appliances that spend their time dancing around in this club. He meets this computer and goes home with it."

"And gets a blowjob?" somebody asks.

"Oh, it's worse than a blowjob!" he leers. "This is really sick!"

Giggles erupt from the half-dozen people crammed into this smokey, cluttered room, as Zappa turns his attention back to the problem at hand. For the next few hours, he keeps vocalist Ike Willis busy laying down double-track harmonies for an ethereal ballad called "I Can't Wait To See What It's Like On The Outside Now." When his visitors finally drag themselves out into the West Los Angeles morning, Zappa is reaching for another cup of coffee from the thermos at his feet, and eyeing another typed lyric sheet.

That, in a nutshell, is the Frank Zappa the public never sees. Never mind the lurid stories about the "gross-out" contest allegedly held between himself and The Fugs – which Zappa supposedly win after eating his own feces onstage – or the wild rumor that has him stomping baby chicks to death during one especially rocking encore. Zappa doesn't have time for such non-musical antics and he never has.

The 38-year old musician has released 28 albums since the Mothers of Invention zapped the world with the conceptual double LP, Freak Out, in 1965. Since then, Zappa projects have ranged from the 1968 Beatles parody, We're Only In It For The Money; to the orchestrated granddaddy of the jazz-fusion genre, Lumpy Gravy; to this year's Sheik Yerbouti, a double disc helping of breezy sleaze that had people praising and damning the no-holds-barred contents.

Sheik Yerbouti was hardly on the market before the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith filed a formal protest with the FCC. The League claimed that the lyrics to a kazoo-propelled ditty called "Jewish Princess" were "vulgar, sexual and anti-Semitic references which leave very little to the imagination."

Despite, or perhaps because of the furor, Sheik Yerbouti was an unqualified commercial success. "Dancin' Fool," the disco send-up that was inoffensive enough to become the album's single, peaked Billboard magazine's sales charts at Number 23. This from an artist who was dismissed by at least one music critic in 1965: "With voices that should put an alley cat on a fence at midnight to shame," wrote the disgruntled reviewer about Freak Out, "these 'mothers' have wasted two records and an album cover of indescribably poor taste recording 80 minutes of pure trash."

 But criticism has always rolled off Zappa's back like water off a duck. While the League was harping, he was readying other projects: Warts And All, a double live album, was culled from performances at the 1978 Halloween show in New York and a January engagement at the Hammersmith Odeon in England; Shut Up And Play Your Guitar is an album of blistering Zappa guitar work, sans vocals, which he plans to sell mail-order. "It's just for fetishists," he says, laughing. "For those who want to hear my guitar work, that's the album for them."

With these works completed (but as yet unreleased), Zappa moved into Village Recorders on April 11, planning to record a couple of songs and then split. By the first of June, he and his entourage had completed a dozen tunes. According to one studio staffer, Zappa claimed to have exhausted his supply of written material, but asked to extend his stay nonetheless. "I'm going home and writing an opera this weekend," he told the skeptical staff. The following Monday, he was back in the studio with Joe's Garage.

This concept piece wove the material Zappa had already recorded with other songs he'd written over the weekend. The final product was a three-record rock opus detailing the adventures of Joe, a struggling electric guitarist, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Mary. Narrated by the Central Scrutinizer, a spy for the music-hating Future Police, Joe's Garage takes on promiscuous Catholic schoolgirls, wet T-shirt contests, venereal disease, weirdo cults, horny appliances, kinky groupies, and perverted record company executives.

Joe's Garage, Act One was released in early September as the first installment of the trilogy. This disc traces the story up until Joe's involvement with the Church of Appliantology. The two remaining acts are slated for release as a double-record set in mid-November. Zappa insists that the whole project was an outgrowth of a very simple recording project. "It just kind snowballed," he says, shrugging.

Mary Griefinger, Zappa's longtime publicist, puts it another way. "Frank needs a vacation, but he doesn't know how to go about it like normal people," he says. "He just doesn't know how to go somewhere and relax."

One week after the all-night recording session, Zappa and Chiccarelli sit listening to their final mixes of the new material in the basement of Frank's Laurel Canyon home. A huge, state-of-the-art mixing board dominates the low-slung, wood-paneled room. More recording equipment, gleaming machinery and boxes of recording tape are piled up in the cramped work space. All of this will eventually be moved into the recording studio Zappa is building alongside his house.

Joe's Garage, Act One is blasting through overhead speakers. The title track, a '50s-style rocker, with doo-wop male backup chorus and bleeping saxophones, leads into "Catholic Girls," the lewd follow-up to "Jewish Princess." A lighthearted number with a bouncy beat. "Catholic Girls" celebrates fellatio parties in a rectory basement : "Father Riley's a fairy/But it don't bother Mary... With a tongue like a cow/She could make you go wow!"

Zappa sits at the board, smiling slightly, as other snappy tunes rattle by. "Crew Slut" is what they call Mary when she runs off with some roadies from a rock band. In "Wet T-Shirt Nite," Zappa is the voice of an emcee working over a contestant (Mary) in a cheesy flesh show. Ike Willis sings his socks off in "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?", an essay on the painful physical effects of VD.

When the tape winds to an end, Zappa flops onto an old-fashioned, burgundy-colored couch to talk about his current projects.

* * * * * *

This new music sounds great, but why did you bother recording this spring, if you already had Warts And All and Shut Up And Play Your Guitar finished and ready to go?

Oh, I'm just a crazy kind of guy. We went in there to cut two songs – "Joe's Garage" and "Catholic Girls" – which I was going to release together as a summer single. And we just got into it and the next thing we knew, we had all those tracks laid down.

As a prolific composer, you must get really anxious to hear your new material actually being played by musicians.

Oh, yeah... I can't wait to hear it, but it's so expensive to hear it, you can only do it at certain times of the year. You need a reason, like making a record. What I really want to hear is that orchestra stuff I wrote for the Vienna Symphony, but that's too expensive. That program was cancelled because the Austrian television station [which had planned to broadcast the program] backed out of the deal.

I know you've been working on a film, Babe Snakes, for about two years. What's the latest on that?

 Well, some of it's sitting in those boxes over there, and some of it's in the vault. It's another case where I didn't have enough money to finish it. I already put $400,000 into it and needed another half a million dollars to complete it. All we did for about three or four months was wander around looking for people to put up the money, but we couldn't find anybody. The general attitude in Hollywood is that concert movies don't sell. They believe that the only concert movie that made any money was Woodstock. So they don't want to talk about it if there's a concert involved in it, which is the case with Babe Snakes.

You wrote the soundtrack for a film, The World's Greatest Sinner, when you were 21 years old. What was that about?

It's about a guy who decides to form a religion. He calls himself God and gathers all these followers. Then one night, he wonders whether or not he really is God. So in order to check himself out, he breaks into a supposedly Catholic church, steals a communion wafer, runs home and sticks a pin in it to see if it'll bleed. It leaves a trail of blood all the way across the lawn and he repents and ... oh, it was stupidity.

I also understand you've been working on a musical play called Hunch In Tooth?

No, no – Hunchentoot. It's about a giant spider and an evil space girl. The script and music is all written, it's meant for a cabaret-type band. I've got all these things I'd like to do, but unfortunately, they don't just happen. It takes somebody to put up the money and most of the money that I've got right now is tied up in building a studio [alongside the house]. So when somebody comes along with money to do a Broadway show, there's Hunchentoot; somebody comes along to do a movie, there's Baby Snakes; somebody with money comes along who wants to do an orchestra concert, there's tons of orchestra music sitting out there. I just do my job.

Zappa Records is also about to release an album by an Indian violinist named L. Shankar. How did that happen?

I met him at a pop festival in Germany, when he was working with [John] McLaughlin. I think Shankar's probably the best violinist in the world; he's really incredible. We recorded an album in England, with and English rhythm section. Most of the compositions are his. I added a few lines and wrote the lyrics that are on the album, and I did the arrangements and orchestrations.

Over the years, have you come to rely more and more on yourself when recording?

I do as much as I can. My responsibilities increased rapidly over the first three albums, and then stayed the same. Once I started producing the records, that was my gig.

Have you always been attracted to mechanical devices of a creative nature?

Well, I like machines (...) because they don't usually argue, and you only have to pay for them once. If I wasn't making records, I'd probably have something to doodle around with. But I don't use this stuff as a toy; I don't come down here and just putz around with it. These are the tools that help me make music, which is my life!

What did you think about "Dancin' Fool" being an AM hit?

In the words of a very wise man, there's no accounting for taste. I really don't think that the Bee Gees consumer is the same consumer for "Dancin' Fool." It's too hard to dance to – it's just a comedy song. You can dance to the new one that goes, "Fuck me you ugly son of a bitch." ["Short Girls," a tune on the forthcoming Joe's Garage, Act Two.] That's a good dance song. We'll see if it stirs any excitement in New York. [He chuckles.]

Does it surprise you when people take offense at your humor, or at least, pretend to?

No, because hypocrisy is the cornerstone of the American Way of Life. It's the pretending to be offended that's really hypocritical about it. They know what's going on! But Americans are trained to be just like other Americans. It's like, how do you know if you're a cool guy? If everybody likes you! How do you make other people like you? By being just like them! Because, you know what other people like more than anything else in the world? Themselves! Because nobody ever agrees with you unless they already agree with you. So everybody blands themselves out; and if the strongest person in the social circles pretends to be offended, why, you must pretend to be offended too.

In America, you've got no reason to be offended by anything. That's not to say that we're worse than anybody else – I think that civilization is an illusion, a verbal fantasy conjured up by people. It's like the emperor's new clothes; civilization is about as transparent as the clothes the emperor was wearing. You're living in the jungle – maybe you smell a little better, maybe you found a way to put cloth on your body instead of mud, but things aren't that much better.

You've never seemed to care whether or not people agree with you ...

It's not necessary that people agree with me, nor is it advisable. It wouldn't be good for their well-being if they agree with me all the time. Who's to say whether I'm right or wrong?

What do you think when people try to read meanings into your lyrics?

If you want to read things into works, mine or anybody else's, go right ahead. If I fulfill a need in a person's life for something to identify with, then that makes me wonderfully functional to that person, and I'm happy to be of service. That doesn't mean that what you read into it has any bearing on reality.

Americans are really funny. Did you ever meet an American who would admit that he was smart? Nope, you won't! Americans don't want to be smart, they want to be good guys and groovy gals. But they don't want to be really stupid; they want, from time to time, to exhibit flashes of insight. And analyzing things like record jackets is a nice hobby for people who want to impress their friends with momentary flashes of insight while they're being good guys and groovy gals.

You were on the TV talk show, Dinah!, recently. What was that like?

It was really amusing. There was no communication whatsoever. I was on the same show with Peaches & Herb, the Bee Gees' mother and father, this girl named Ren something-or-other who sings in the movie, Hair [Ren Woods], and Jan & Dean. They called me up and said they'd read about this "Jewish Princess" bullshit and they wanted to get me down there and talk about it. I said, "okay." So I went down there and apparently Dinah [Shore] got ahold of the lyrics to "Jewish Princess" just before we went on the air, and it offender her so much that they never discussed it once all the time I was on the show. And then after the show was over, she came up to me and said, "Why did you write that? It's so totally dehumanizing." And I thought, "There's no way to talk to this woman. She's got a concrete block for a mind." What's so dehumanizing about "Jewish Princess"? It's just a nice song to rollerskate to.

Why then would the Anti-Defamation league, which claims to be looking after the best interests of the Jewish people, attack that song the way they have?

What an agency like that says it's supposed to do, and the way it operates in the real world are usually two different things. See, you've got people who are employed by this organization who have to create work for themselves. In other words, suppose you're a gabber for the ADL; you've got to always go out and find somebody saying something about Jews that you think is bad. They probably hit a slump, and I was convenient newspaper material for them during that slow season. So they get on my song. Hey, you know what I say to those people? Go fuck yourself. One other thing I want to point out: I don't think that most Jews feel that way about that song. I think that the opinions expressed by the Anti-Defamation league are probably their own and not the opinions of national Jewry at large.

Do you think a similar Catholic agency will take exception to "Catholic Girls"?

Who knows how stupid these people want to be? I mean, can't they take a joke? I can't help it if these people were born without a sense of humor and can't laugh at themselves. The things that are said in "Jewish Princess" are absolutely true and correct. Anybody who has ever known a Jewish princess understands the song and sees that what's going on there is accurate reportage of the way they are and the way they act. I'm not here to decide how they got that way or whether it's good or bad. In "Catholic Girls." I point out the fact, according to various members of the band who have experienced this splendid event, that there are actually girls who give guys blowjobs in the rectory basement.

Is your new song "Wet T-Shirt Nite," based on some actual reportage? Have you ever seen  a wet T-Shirt contest?

Yes (....) fondness for behavioral studies. [He laughs.] I thought that the one I saw, at the Brasserie in Miami, was so sickening that I didn't even stay to see the T-shirts get wet. It was just so preposterous, it was happening on such a mongoloid level. This show was particularly revolting, because they had a girl there – I guess she works there every week – called the Good Fairy. And she was in the above 200 pounds range – this girl was large. She had these humungous, flobulant tits, and legs about this big around – a carnival-like girl. And she was short, with glasses and frizzy hair. She came out in a ballet skirt with these big jellyroll legs and a man's T-shirt, with these biiiiiig tits hanging down and a magic wand, right? Check this out: when they announce the contest, the dance floor fills up with guys sitting on the floor – they're all sitting right up to the edge of the stage. And what happens is, the regular contestants would come out and the emcee would be talking to them, and the Good Fairy would jump out with her wand and whip up her T-shirt and hit guys in the head with her tits and then jump back up on the stage. I mean, it was really carnival time. "Hit me with the big one, I can take it."

That sounds like a perfect subject for one of your inimitable satirical sketches. Frank, after years in the music business, you're still going strong. Do you have any advice for struggling musicians?

Well, first thing you have to do is decide whether or not you like struggling, because you're going to be doing it for a long time, unless your father owns CBS. And if that doesn't scare you, then keep on struggling until you make music. Or take the easy way out: just learn to play well go work in a studio. Making music and playing well don't always go together. A lot of people just render notes. There have always been people who've played musical instruments in an unmusical way, people who just did it for the wrong reasons. As far as I'm concerned, music is the most important thing there is – it's a total love of making music, the whole idea that you're doing something that animals can't do. So I make music until I'm tired. Just get in there and do it.

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