The '60s Mother Still Breaks Social, Musical Convention

By Ben Fong-Torres

San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 1984

STOP THE presses! Frank Zappa, that mother of a curmudgeon, has been spotted actually smiling! Get out the red ink – he even chuckled once or twice during an interview!

It took him a while to loosen up that much; and the subject was one of Zappa's favorites; the dismal state of the world. And on the way to those rare breaks in his sourpuss manner, he unleashed dry-icy attacks on symphony orchestras, today's pop music, MTV, the rock press, the '60s, drugs, the U.S. government, Hollywood and show business.

But you expect that with Zappa.

After all, this is the man who, in the late '60s, led the Mothers ot Invention onto the rock scene and messed up a lot of heads with his gloves-off satire, his acidic put-downs of hippies and drugs, then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the rest of the Establishment.

Zappa now 43 cloaked himself in the imagery of the time, dressing his band members in women's clothing for one album cover – this is 1968, 15 years before Boy George – but composed music that was as classical and avant-garde (influenced mainly by boyhood hero Edgard Varèse), as electronic and jazzy, with nods to Spike Jones, as it was rock.

Through the years, he has challenged and pushed people and institutions and done it in an intelligent, articulate style. But with his sober glare, until recently framed by long, Tiny Tim hair; droopy moustache and a square clump of a goatee, and with his relentlessly monotoned delivery, he has put off a lot of people. If he were interested in such things as parties, there wouldn't be many to which he'd be invited.

Zappa, of course, understands this. "I have two problems that keep me totally out of phase with American reality," he said. "One, I don't use drugs, so I can't associte with most of the people who do business. They don't want me around; I spoil the party. The other thing is, I don't lie. I say stuff that a lot of people don't want to hear. It sounds real negative, but it's the truth the way I see it, and a lot of people suspect what I say is accurate but they won't think about it further because it depresses the f--- out of them."

 In the course of an hour, Zappa supplied plenty of samples. He was in town for the American premiere of his work, "Dupree's Paradise," performed by the Chamber Symphony of San Francisco. He struck local observers as being serious about symphonic activities. Last year, he conducted works by Varèse and Anton Webern at the Opera House, and this month he returns for "A Zappa Affair," a stage production featuring the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and 60 life-size puppets.

Zappa, in fact, is giving up on symphonic works. He cited economic reasons. "It's a hobby," he said in his suite at the Meridien Hotel. "All any composer in America can be is a hobbyist. You can't take it seriously because nobody takes you seriously. They don't want you, they don't need you, they don't want new music; you should be dead."

Since his first symphonic piece in 1970, Zappa has only lost money on such ventures. How much? "Give or take $50,000, I've spent between $300,000 and $400,000 for my various works. That's the cost to have the parts done and the scores prepared."

Symphonies, he said, are underfunded. Orchestras have insufficient time to prepare, and the music suffers. "Union regulations," he added, "make these things impossible. Especially large orchestras. They're not designed to make sound; they're designed to look at their wristwatches. It's this big sluggish, arrogant, non-musical club that sits there and waits for a piece of music to come along so they can murder it."

Recording-session musicians fare no better. "I have no respect for what goes on in Hollywood," said Zappa, "because those guys hate music more than anyone else on the planet. They're the ultimate musical whores."

Yet, Zappa was willing to put his own money – earned from his rock-style efforts, most recently the novelty hit, "Valley Girl" – into orchestral music. "I have the same desire as any other composer. You write something, you have the desire to hear it because you like sound. That's the medium you work in, so if you can't hear it without paying for it and you can afford to, you pay for it. I've done it, but I'm not going to do it any more."

This summer, Zappa will hit the road with a rock band, and the concerts will include reprises of his R&B, doo-wop send-up called "Ruben and the Jets." Also coming, from his own Barking Pumpkin record label – Zappa has been with, has left and has sued three record companies – albums of oldies, of a one-act play, "Francesco Zappa," and of a Broadway show, "Thingfish." Before all that, there is "A Zappa Affair," which seemed to get him as close to excitement as he gets. "Nobody's ever attempted anything resembling this," he said. "It's completely new, and the size of the orchestra is unbelievable." His four pieces will be played by a 111-member orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano and the stories will be acted out by a combination of choreographed, life-size puppets created by John Gilkerson of the San Francisco Miniature Theater, and live actors.

Zappa's pieces are titled "Mo 'n' Herb's Vacation," "Pedro's Dowry," "Sinister Footwear" and "Bob in Dacron/Sad Jane." The plot lines are prime, zany Zappa. For example, in his words:

" 'Bob in Dacron' is about this dumpy middle-aged guy who's getting dressed to go to a singles bar. He's wearing black shoes, socks, garters and those ugly boxer shorts middle-aged guys prefer. He jumps onto the stage, and there are these racks of stupid-looking clothes. In the center of the stage is this thing behind which is hidden three imaginary girls, the kind Bob imagines would respond to a groovy guy like him. He goes from rack to rack, and finally gets this really ugly wardrobe on.

"[Th]en we get to see what his body really looks like; this animated painting shows it. Also, we have a tennis instructor, a shoeshine boy and a doctor giving him advice on the care and maintenance of bis body; they're joined by the three girls and pair off.

"The scene changes to this '50s beatnik club where Bob makes his grand entrance. The bartender gets so busy waiting on tables that be splits in half and his guts fall out.

"The puppet splits in half and two dancers hop out. Bob gets drunk, makes an a-- of himself and gets thrown out. He meets Jane, a bag lady. He's still trying to get a piece of a--, but he can't quite do it with her. She doesn't like him either and goes to sleep.

"As she dreams, she emerges from her pile of overcoats and she's this beautiful naked girl who starts dancing around. Bob's imagining that maybe underneath these rags there's this terrific girl, but it turns out it's not true."

 Here, Zappa seemed to be relishing the story, and he cracked a smile.

"Because eventually we find out what Jane's body is really like." Another smile. "And it has a surprise ending."

The other pieces are similarly crazed, seemingly the result of Zappa's penchant for taking shots at American society combined with some wretchedly vivid dreams. Zappa shook his head.

 "These are from real life," he said. "You're trying to tell me there's no Bob in Dacron somewhere who thinks he's the cat's a-- putting on ugly clothes before he goes out to pick up girls? Bob is real, and so are all the others."

Most of the characters are presented as puppets, played by 10 professional dancers, "and two or three live people." Zappa has worked with puppets since childhood. "That was the first thing I did in show business when I was maybe 10 years old and living in Pacific Grove. My next-door neighbor's father was a carpenter and built us a puppet stage."

 Zappa's second thing, of course, was music. From the beginning, he had difficulty winning followers, not only among critics, but also within his group.

"The Mothers," he said, "were just guys who had a job. Most of them hated what they were doing. They didn't like to rehearse. They were just average fun-time guys."

Zappa blames the rock press – particularly the then-San Francisco-based Rolling Stone magazine – for painting the Mothers' music and stance as "entirely unacceptable, undesirable."

But in fact, one early review called Zappa "a supreme genius of American music"; another remarked that his wit "makes the Beatles' lyrics look vacuous by comparison." It seems that Zappa, like many artists when it comes to the press, remembers only the bad.

"It didn't help that we were the only group during the '60s that turned around and said, 'Hippies are f----d, that this is a fake.' People said, 'You have no respect for your audience.' Well, we had enough to tell them the truth, especially, 'If you're using drugs you're a schmuck.' "

 Zappa was turned off by drugs when he saw its effects on some friends who "used drugs and turned into a jellyfish in front of my eyes. And I don't think life should be that way."

But, he said, the rock press was blinded by the scene and "built it up for merchandising purposes without any regard for the quality of the music – a lot of the stuff out of the Fillmore was bilge – or what the scene was really about. It was fake."

The use of drugs, he said, "has changed the way Americans conduct their lives. Decisions on what's on television are being made by cocaine-infested executives who'll laugh at anything; their taste has gone up the nose and out the window."

 Zappa, of course, has fought with the various entertainment industries for years; he's written and performed protest songs for years. He appears more pessimistic than ever. Can an artist like him affect changes?

"I can't have an effect at all, and don't expect that I should." That, he said, is because he tells the truth. "But the trick is, you have to come to the conclusion that things really are bad before you can be happy about it. You get to the point where you know things are so bad that you can say, 'This is a perfect world.' "

Zappa smiled again, wider than before.

"And that's when you begin to laugh?" his visitor asked.

"Yeah." And Frank Zappa laughed. A big, secret laugh.


"A Zappa Affair" will play Friday and Saturday nights at 8 at Zellerbach Auditorium of UC-Berkeley and on June 20 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts .