Zingers From Zappa

By D. Housing [1]

Prairie Sun, April 26, 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 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, its Marv," repeated the man [2].

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.

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 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 is grounded in fact – that if you knew what it was like 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 the 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?

"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 only 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 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 counter, thinking of Three Mile Island and the recent nationalist "get the Russians" fervor that stuck its 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. 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-culture 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 erupting out of L.A., San Francisco and England, well, as I said earlier, looks can be misleading. For if Zappa was as antiestablishment 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.

Still, Zappa's freaky image 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."

"My function over the last 15 years in rock 'n' 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 'n' 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 'n' 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 these 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.

CBS will distribute Zappa's draft song

(NEW YORK-ZNS)-Columbia Records has agreed to distribute Frank Zappa's new anti-draft single, 'I Don't Wanna Get Drafted", after Phonogram/ Mercury Records, Zappa's U.S. label distributor, decided against handling the controversial tune.

Prior to Columbia's agreement to distribute the single, Zappa had been manufacturing and distributing the record on his own to cities where his current tour is scheduled to stop.

According to Zappa, the deal with Columbia is for distribution of this one single and no-others.

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."

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 so non-typical. And we deliver something that has some lasting musical value, as opposed to manufacturing a product for instant consumption," Zappa explains. 

1. The article is taken from Berkely Barb, another member of Alternative Press Syndicate.

2. Marv Griefinger, Zappa's longtime publicist.

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