I stand accused: Zappa lays down the law

By Jeffrey Sewald

The Pitt News, November 30, 1984

Frank Zappa is an enigma. He accepts this. His review clips often read like adjective-embellished D.A. rap sheets โ€“ indictment after indictment after indictment. Frank Zappa, the consistently controversial composer/arranger/guitarist: arguably the most accused man in the history of popular music.

"I think I am. When people don't like what I do, they take it out on me personally. It's got nothing to do with my music. People actually hate me as a person because what I do seems to threaten something about the way they live."

After a series of more than 30 albums spanning the better part of two decades, rock's bastard child, its elusive entity, has launched yet another concert tour in an effort to bolster support for his latest vinyl endeavor, Them or Us.

A double set of extreme variety, the album runs the gamut from a Zappasized cover of the Allman Brothers' hit "Whipping Post," to a track co-authored by his 10-year-old son entitled "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips." Them or Us is a definitive departure from his albums of recent years.

"Man From Utopia was probably one of the most despised records that I ever did because it had some songs on it that were just too weird for people. This album doesn't have any resemblance to that except that I happened to like the Man From Utopia album where nobody else did."

It is almost as if he can't help himself. Counter-indictments of the musical press run wildly throughout his speech. Those critics. Those selfrighteous, know-nothing paragons of misunderstanding. They're on the streets. They're in the bushes. They cast stones of ignorance at Zappa. A slight case of paranoia? Perhaps. But Zappa's contention that his work is often misinterpreted shines of truth. There is a constant desire to define him, to explain, to label. To evaluate Frank Zappa in a "pop" sense. Did I say "pop"? Face it. Songs like "Jazz Discharge Party Hats" and "Dangerous Kitchen" were never designed for the Billboard pantheon of goldies.

"Look here," Zappa interjects with a characteristically resonant voice. "If you want to label it, the best thing you can do is say that it's specialized entertainment for people who can tell the difference. I conceive it as entertainment. It's not like taking castor oil. You're not supposed to hold your nose and sit and suffer through it. If you don't like it, don't listen to it. It's designed for those people who already like it, who already know what the humor is or know why this stuff is impossible. Given the climate of the times in the America of the '80s, it is statistically impossible that] exist."

The mass-market America of the '80s. Somehow, it doesn't seem like the appropriate sounding board for Zappa's specialized brand of entertainment. But the American market is still the world's largest with respect to potential record sales. A quick scan of the charts leaves Zappa in the dust with a hungry market consuming more and more hype everyday.

"I'm not here to fulfill the needs of the person that must own a Boy George record. I've got nothing against Boy George or the music he makes, or against the people who buy it. It's just that what I do is vastly different from ordinary pop music, OK? And I don't intend to change. There are people who like what I do, and they want that. I do it for them."

While proclaiming his altruism toward those with the Zappa mind set, Zappa fails to mention an important part of his audience himself.

"If I want to write 'Valley Girl,' I'll do it. If I want to write ']azz Discharge Party Hats,' I'll do it. I don't give a fuck. I'm not waiting for someone to pat me on the head and say I'm doing a good job or someone to say I'm doing a shitty job. I don't live or die on the opinions of what people on a newspaper or a magazine have about my work because, basically, it's irrelevant. The final decision as to whether or not it turned out good is mine. I'm _the only one who knows what the initial idea was and I'm the only one who knows how close the performance gets to the original idea."

1979 saw the charts Frank-out for a while when "Dancin' Fool," a parody of the then flourishing disco scene, rocketed its source lp to the No. 22 spot. Ship Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch yielded more social stereotype satire with "Valley Girl," one of the more memorable novelties of 1982. But still, most of Zappa's material remained radio inaccessible.

"Well, everything is radio inaccessible unless you're paying them to play it, do you understand? Look, if I wanted to spend a quarter of a million dollars, I could take any one of those things and say, 'OK, here it is. Here's your hit record.' But what the fuck for? I'm not in the business of making hit records. I'm in the business of doing whatever kind of music I feel like doing at the time."

Throughout Zappa's diatribe on the evils of mass-marketing, his anger toward the critical world often bubbles over into direct affront.

"Here's the point. The press is wrong. Nobody in the press ever bought a fucking record, OK? The press is entitled to its opinion, but I do my work for people who buy records and buy concert tickets and listen to it and like it. The press is out of step with the desires of those people who have bought literally millions of albums since I started, OK? Now somebody is wrong, and it's the guy with the pencil."

Zappa's criticism of the print media, while not completely unfounded, fails to acknowledge the fact that the press has done much to perpetuate his image as a renegade musical force. The more he is despised, the more beloved he is to his fans. Is he a joke or a genius? This question has followed him throughout his career. Perhaps a dichotomous relationship exists in his work, that of the sneering satirist balanced by the serious composer.

"That's not true, because, first of all, I started off writing orchestral and chamber music when I was 14, and I didn't even write a rock 'n' roll song until I was 21. So, it's not like I suddenly decided to write classical music. I've done that stuff for years. Inside the instrumental music there's all kinds of stuff, but a person won't know the satire unless he has a broad knowledge of other instrumental music so he can see where the musical jokes lie."

Zappa will not openly divulge his list of stylistic influences, but he will confess that his inspiration comes from the same source as everyone else's: "Little golden drops from the sky that come down and tell you you're creative." His little golden drops have looked like hellfire to much of the press.

"They're threatened. They're upset that I can keep doing it. That it exists. They realize that they don't understand it and if you don't understand something, in order to maintain your self-esteem, you have to say this thing I don't understand is shit. And that makes you a better person and that makes me a villain because I'm doing this stuff. People have been trying to explain me away for 20 years, and I think that a longtime from now, they're are going to discover they made a mistake."

Critics. Critics. Critics. The world's full of them, and Zappa feels that few are willing to place their heads on the chopping block by expressing delight at his work lest they fall from the grace of their peers and their readership, en masse.

"That's one ofthe reasons why if somebody gives a good review to something, then everybody else follows suit because they don't want to be left out. It's kind of an American herd instinct that takes over."

Never one for the frilly world of commerciality or the corporate gambit process, Zappa's career has withstood many dips and detours. Throughout all, his loyal following has remained intact. But, while America has been a reasonably steady market for him, his records have done surprisingly well overseas. Part of the problem in the U.S. is the fact that the majority of his work never hits the airwaves. Radio programmers are tough on enigmatic musical renegades.

"The musical outlook of the country, in the broadest sense, is determined by all media. First of all, what do you hear on the radio? You only hear what is formatted. What do you read in the papers? It is what is connected to what will sell because the rock 'n' roll business is like any other business. It is not flying by itself. It has little cohorts along with it. Merchandisers, clothing manufacturers, candy companies, beer companies โ€“ shit like that. The merchandising factors are immense. OK, I don't play the game. Anybody today can have a hit record if they pay out the right bribes to the right people. That's what the rock 'n' roll business is. It's an ugly fact, but that's exactly what it is. It's back to the same payola that existed during the '50s. It used to be a $100 bill stuffed inside the sleeve of your 45 single and you sent it to the disc jockey and he played it on the station and it was a hit.

"It's a racket, and I'm not interested in being in the racket. I want to make music, and I make it in a way that appeals to people who don't like bullshit. If there is one thing that has been interesting about this tour, it's that the response of the audience to what the band is doing is like 'thank you for not stopping.' "

Frank Zappa, the ceaseless enigma of rock 'n' roll. But then, what is an enigma if not a victim of scrambled signals?