Zappa Comes Clean

By D. Housing

Berkeley Barb, March 27 - April 2, 1980

Everything looked so normal. The large, ranch-style house glistened. Here, up the winding road that leads from Hollywood to Laurel Canyon, only the sounds of kids playing interrupted the calm.

“How are you doing, Dweezil?” the man asked a young boy playing in the driveway. The kid said nothing for a moment. Then, looking down at the pavement, he whined, “Fine.”

A teenage girl came skipping down the stairs from the house. “Where’s your dad?” asked the man.

“He’s in there,” she said, pointing to a door slightly ajar.

As I said, it looked normal. But looks can be deceptive.

The man, a publicist for a Hollywood-based management company, pushed open the door. “Frank,” he called out. The metallic sting of an electric guitar was the only answer that came from the dark room.

“Frank, it’s Marv,” repeated the man.

Here, amid the wealth of film, TV and music biz stars, lives that saboteur of American culture, Frank Zappa. After my eyes adjusted to the light, I focused on the silhouette of a tall, skinny man with short, black, curly hair, bending over an electric guitar.

It was my second confrontation with Frank Zappa. The first had occurred over five years ago when he had flown up to San Francisco for a day of quickie interviews. S.F. Chronicle in... S.F. Chronicle out. S.F. Examiner in... S.F. Examiner out. Berkeley Barb in... you get the picture.

On that occasion, Zappa had slouched at the furthest corner of his hotel room, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and looking the epitome of the jaded cynic. His hair hung down to his waist then, and an expression of constant irritation crossed his face.

“If people like you are my fans, I’m in big trouble,” he said at one point.

“Frank has mellowed in recent years,” Marv had explained on the drive up to Zappa’s house.

Oh yeah?

Wearing a black silk shirt, collar up, high-waisted slacks and brown and tan saddle shoes, Zappa looked well off, but not the least bit decadent. And in contrast to the persona of his records, not the least bit weird. As he said during the interview, “I’m a no-nonsense person with a sense of humor who is very creative.”

But if Frank Zappa, age 39, is less apt to insult journalists these days, and if having a wife and four kids (along with 22 employees for whom he feels responsible) has made him a more “mature” person, one thing is certain from listening to his recent recorded output: Zappa’s art is as tough and scathing as ever. Frank Zappa is still OUT THERE.”

“I think that you have to have the desire to be out there and the strength to deal with the consequences of confronting what’s out there,” says Zappa. “Most people have the horrible suspicion – which I will tell you is grounded in fact – that if you knew what was out there, you wouldn’t like it. Once you step beyond your everyday existence and start realizing facts that you haven’t dealt with before, then that changes your relationship to your prior existence.”

Zappa is sitting on a purple, velvet hardback couch. During our three-hour conversation, he talks in a low monotone. His deadpan humor alternates with cynicism and occasional flashes of humanitarianism throughout the interview.

“If I presented to you absolute proof that there were three people in the world who were running everything and planning to have you gassed tomorrow, do you think you could relate to your everyday life?” asks Zappa matter-of-factly. “To be able to contemplate seriously that such acts are right around the corner, that changes your relationship to the everyday environment.

“Most people would rather have a beer, go to a football game and forget it, because that’s more fun,” Zappa claims. “Where’s the get-off in thinking about the three guys with the gas? Anything that becomes a subdivision of the three-guys-with-the-gas syndrome is threatening in various degrees.

“Just pick any phenomenon that would be the ultimate revelation of how shitty the world is, that’s what you fear. To know, deep in your heart, how shitty everything really is and how you have no chance, you have no future. It’s all gone. YOU HAVE BEEN BOUGHT AND SOLD. YOU’RE DEAD. OK? That would be the thing nobody would want to know. It’s one thing to suspect it. But to know it! That ruins you. Anything that hints toward that is stuff that people get afraid of. They don’t want to deal with it.”

“But in a lot of ways, that is the reality,” I say, thinking of Three Mile Island and the recent nationalist “get the Russians” fervor that stuck it’s ugly mug into the collective consciousness.

“Hey,” pops Zappa, “remember the old saying? ‘Know the truth and the truth shall set you free?’ Some people don’t believe that knowing the truth will set you free. They would rather know the fear and pitfalls. These are things that scare Americans. These are the taboos of this culture.”

“But how does it set you free?”

“Once you realize... now I’m not saying I know everything about everything. Don’t get me wrong on that account. I’m sure there’s lots of stuff I don’t know and plenty of stuff I don’t want to know, ’cause I’m too busy to know it. But I think people have such an infinite potential for evil. I think that at a moment’s notice your best friend can be so fucking shitty that it’s not worth having a best friend. Once you get to the point where you can understand that, and live with that, and get past the point of feeling sorry for yourself, feeling sorry for your condition or hating things, then you can get to work. Just go to work and have a good time.

“I take this approach,” he philosophizes. “Music is my religion. Music is the only religion that really delivers the goods. I’ve found something that I really like. And until such a time where I’m so polluted with radiation, and all the rest of the things that are negative in this society finally put me in a condition where I can’t work, I’ll devote everything I’ve got to something that I feel is positive. That’s what it’s all about.”

It has been nearly 15 years since Zappa himself picked something he liked and “hit it.” It was in 1965 that he led a band of cranky musicians he called the Mothers of Invention out of some low rent L.A. garage and into the hearts and minds of a counter-cultural that took the title of the Mothers’ debut album, Freak Out!, very seriously.

Since that time, Zappa and the Mothers have parted ways, but the skewed humor, schizophrenic music, and daring concepts have continued unabated. Just last year, Zappa released three albums, two of which were two-record sets. His most recent concept, Joe’s Garage Act I and Joe’s Garage Acts II and III, managed to be as outrageous, dirty, funny, and musically inventive as most of his previous efforts.

Zappa’s live performances are typically amazing tours de force that include healthy chunks of his inspired guitar gymnastics. And Baby Snakes, Zappa’s second film project to see the light of the projection booth (the first was the cult classic, 200 Motels), is even now making the rounds in the U.S. and Europe.

Frank Zappa is beyond trends, beyond contemporary fashion. If the Mothers’ debut in 1966 seemed a part of the swirling psychedelia that was errupting out of L.A., San Francisco and England, well, as I said earlier, looks can be misleading.

For if Zappa was as anti-establishment in his message, music, and image as any Haight Street hippie, circa 1966, he was also firmly anti-drugs and just as down on the hippie culture.

In “Are You Hung Up?” which appeared on the Mothers’ 1968 album, We’re Only In It For The Money, Zappa mocked the Summer of Love. “Think I’ll just drop out/ I’ll go to Frisco/ Buy a wig & sleep/ On Owsley’s floor/ Walked past the wig store/ Danced at the Fillmore/ I’m completely stoned/ I’m hippy and I’m trippy/ I’m a gypsy on my own/ I’ll stay a week/ & get the crabs/ & take a bus back home/ I’m just a phoney But forgive me/ ’Cause I’m stoned...’’/Not exactly in sync with the love/ peace/ wear-a-flower-in-your-hair crowd.

Still, Zappa’s freaky image – his band was pictured on the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money wearing dresses and he wore his hair down to his ass for most of the ’70s – has given him the appearance of being part of the late ’60s psychedelic army. However, when that particular trend faded, Zappa stood out for the idiosyncratic anarchist that he is. And he has continued to create music on his own terms that steadfastly avoids any pop music trend, fad or cliché.

Although he has commented on successive changes in pop fashion, his body of work (29 albums, eight of which are two record sets) ultimately refers only to itself. I would expect that 15 years hence, Zappa will still be single-mindedly pursuing his own phantasmagorical visions, whether the latest trend is zydeco-disco or surf-funk.

Frank Zappa has paid a certain price for his uncompromised individuality. Though the critics seemed to be siding in his favor in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the last five years have found them blasting Zappa’s records as “dated, adolescent, redundant and repetitive.” Critics have been particularly offended by Zappa’s preoccupation with sex, his humorous look at groupies and crew sluts. Some see Zappa mining the same vein over and over.

“Well, have I written about a crew slut before?” he asks, when I mention the criticism.

“Not specifically.”

“These songs are based on facts,” says Zappa adamently. “Same thing with my song, ‘Jewish Princess.’ ” (Sample lyrics: “I want a hairy little Jewish Princess/ With a brand new nose, who knows where it goes/ I want a steamy little Jewish Princess/ With over-worked gums, who squeaks when she cums/ I don’t want no troll/ I want a Yemenite hole.”

The Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith took particular offense, for some reason. Zappa’s follow-up was an equally tender number, “Catholic Girls,” about fellatio training in the rectory basement.

“Nobody is going to prove to me that Jewish princesses don’t exist, not when they call me up and thank me for writing a song about them. I don’t make these things up. I’m only the Roman messenger, so to speak. I’m just telling you these things exist. If you want to stick your head in the sand and forget it, that’s your business. But this stuff is real. It’s journalism.”

Asked about the criticism of such songs by rock critics, Zappa says, “What sort of a person would criticize that process? Should we analyze that person’s social problems? It’s a very simple process. A person who writes for a rock and roll newspaper... I’ll requote myself. Basically, it’s people who can’t write talking to people who can’t talk in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read. And all this is done under the auspices of a publisher who is only interested in raising the ad revenue of his publication.

“My function over the last 15 years in rock and roll has turned out to be that of the object that is held up as the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that is good and holy in rock and roll. They always compare all this good stuff over here to this stinker... me. It’s totally unwarranted, ’cause basically what I do is quality work. In many instances it’s superior musically, and on a number of other levels, to the things that are raved about two pages over in the same publication.

“But I’m a convenient kind of a personality to use for that function. It’s getting to be a very old joke. They ought to find somebody else for the ’80s to use as the doormat for rock and roll.”

Of course, it’s more than Zappa’s musical genius that has allowed him to remain on top. He has been with three different record labels and has sued two of them. After making three albums with Phonogram/Mercury, he has just severed his relationship with the company because it refused to release a timely, topical single, “I Don’t Want to Be Drafted,” that Zappa recently recorded.

Zappa is one of the most business-minded of rock musicians. His knowledge of the music business has allowed him to use it to further his ends, while most groups find themselves kicked about like empty beer cans on the street.

“Well, I do business in a way that will make it possible for the music to get to the people who want to hear it,” he says, “whether it’s in concerts or through records or video tape or whatever. I have to engage in certain processes that I don’t really enjoy, Such as talking to some of the people in the business who actually do the nuts and bolts work. If you don’t do that, then bad things can happen to you.

“To give you an exaggerated example, there have been people who have had problems with record companies and given the choice between fighting it with a long law suit or giving up and starting some place else, they gave up.

“Well I’m not that kind of guy. One of the reasons I’ve lasted so long is ’cause I’m too mean to quit. I never felt like there was anybody at any company who was going to keep me from doing what I wanted to do. A lot of the process of staying in the business is really unpleasant. It’s not musical. It’s not fun. But if you don’t do it, you won’t survive.”

Frank Zappa has been an individual who has stood up to abuse from his contemporaries since childhood. “I got a lot of training being ridiculed,” he recalls. “I lived on the East Coast during the tail-end of WWII. Because my family was Italian, and we were living in a hillbilly area, there was a lot of ridicule. You get used to it and it doesn’t affect you. What’s the difference if people talk about your nationality or your clothes or your behavior? Once you’re into it, it’s all the same.”

When he was 12 years old, Zappa turned his attention to pop music. It was drums, not guitar, that first obsessed him.

“My dad had a guitar he used to play in college. I couldn’t figure out how it worked. I thought drums were more fun; got a pair of drum sticks, and began beating up furniture. My parents were horrified that I was interested in music as a career, because they couldn’t see – and rightly so – how anyone could earn a living playing music in the U.S. It was just not a thing to do.”

Zappa became a commercial artist after high school and played in bar bands on the side. It was in the early ’60s that he worked with his high school buddy, Dan Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, and gradually assembled a band that became the Mothers of Invention.

“What I had in mind when I formed the Mothers,” says Zappa, “was that I liked blues music. By experimenting around, I noticed that blues scales took on an entirely different character if they were placed in another harmonic climate. I had been writing a lot of orchestra music and chamber music, but couldn’t get that played. I was interested in certain rhythmic things that weren’t common to either popular or orchestral music, and I wanted to mess around with those. The band was the only thing that would allow me to do that.”

The early Mothers were, for the most part, former R&B and rock and roll musicians who wore their hair straight and greasy. According to some accounts, Zappa had to insist that they dress “freaky” to fit the times. “As far as what the band would look like,” says Zappa, “that was pretty much governed by where we could play. The clubs in Hollywood that hired rock bands wouldn’t hire you unless you had long hair, so that was one thing I specified to the guys in the band. They’d better start growing their hair out.

If Zappa and his Mothers purposefully presented, both in concert and on album covers, a persona of the bizarre, it was only to prepare the potential record buyer for what was in store musically. “If you thought the record cover looked non-typical,” he explains, “wait until you heard what was on the record. It’s a public service, doing it that way.”

Zappa’s non-conformity has never fit with the ever trendy music biz. He had to constantly watch for potential sabotage while recording for Verve Records, his first label. “We had problems at Verve because it was a subsidiary of MGM and some lawyer or top exec at MGM in New York was a personal friend of Lyndon Johnson. When we did ‘Brown Shoes’ with the line, ‘I want to make her do a nasty on the White House lawn,’ he went ape shit. They were afraid, given the climate of the times – the whole war syndrome – that whatever leverage a company of that size might have with certain friends in Washington might be compromised by having artists on their record label that those friends wouldn’t agree with.”

If the critics have mostly disowned Zappa, his fans have continued to multiply. “They get younger and younger,” said one of Zappa’s road crew, who I talked to briefly after speaking with Zappa. It also seems that Zappa has managed to keep many of his original fans, while appealing to each new generation of rock fans. His albums sell close to a million copies worldwide, which isn’t bad for a guy of whom Clive Davis (former president of Columbia Records, now president of Arista Records) once said had “no commercial potential.”

In fact, it’s quite amazing that Frank Zappa has managed to not only maintain, but expand his popularity in a business known for its here-today/gone-tomorrow stars.

“It’s ’cause the music is non-typical. And we deliver something that has some lasting musical value, as opposed to manufacturing a product for instant consumption,” says Zappa.

You can catch Zappa Tuesday at the Berkeley Community Theatre or Thursday at Stanford’s Maples Pavillion. 

Slightly edited version of this article was reprinted in April 1980 in Prairie Sun as "Zingers From Zappa"