Master Of The Musically Absurd

By Dee Ann Rexroat

The Gazette, July 31, 1987

If there were a Grammy award for parody, satire and wit in lyrics, Frank Zappa would win hands down.

There probably isn’t another person in the entertainment industry with a more highly developed sense of the absurd than Zappa, a man who named three of his children Moon Unit, Dweezil and Diva.

Yet he remains one of the most misunderstood musicians currently working. He has two seemingly opposed images. On the one hand, he’s a serious composer of orchestral music, a pioneer in fusing jazz and classical with rock music, and an outspoken and incisive satirist. On the other hand, he’s a “smutty, sneering crowd pleaser whose hyperintricate music has been called by critics a gratuitous display of advanced technique” (to quote the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll).

Always in the forefront of recording and video technology, Zappa recently began re-releasing his titles on digitally-remastered compact discs, and in the fall will begin releasing his avant-garde films directly for home viewing.

Because he is one of few artists to retain rights to his recording catalog (he has a discography of more than 50 albums) he was able to secure a three-year, 24-title contract with Rykodisc, a small CD manufacturer (see story on page 14C). He spent months in his studio remixing the master tapes, some of them 20 years old.

Although Zappa is by no means a Bruce Springsteen in terms of record sales, his CDs have made a respectable showing.

Still, it’s not likely you’ll hear a Zappa song on the Top 40. You might say he doesn’t follow conventional pop formats. Long ago, Zappa formed his own record company – Barking Pumpkin – so he’d have complete artistic control.

Zappa’s always good for a colorful quote, particularly when he’s thumbing his nose at authority like he did on Grammy Awards night in 1968 when he and his band, the Mothers of Invention, performed for a recording executives’ dinner.

“All year long you people manufacture this crap, and one night a year you’ve got to listen to it,” he told them.

He laughed when he was reminded of that comment during a recent Gazette phone interview from his state-of-the-art North Hollywood studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen.

”We opened up by playing a really horrible, horrible version of ‘Satin Doll,’ a parody of what (Woody Herman) had been doing all night long (at the Grammy Awards),” he recalled. “After the 15-minute set was over, I walked out of the stage area to go to the toilet. I had to walk out in the lobby and there was this woman in an elaborate ball gown, obviously the wife of a major record company executive.

“She walks by me and says, ‘You’re disgusting.’ I just walked right up to her and put my face right into her face and said, ’You’re a pig!’ The result was she was so stunned, have you ever seen like a wind-up toy when the spring breaks and it goes twirling all around? That’s what she did,” he said, laughing some more.

More recently Zappa clashed with Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore, the presidential candidate from Tennessee. In typically eloquent fashion, he called her Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) record-rating demands in 1985 “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”

Two weeks ago Zappa debated potential first lady Gore on “Nightline” about her latest target – rock videos.

“Tipper has shifted into the video domain,” he reported. ”Word for word it’s the same crap that she was saying about records . . . that implies that parents are so unbelievably stupid that they need assistance from Tipper Gore. And I don’t think that‘s the truth.”

It seems nothing is sacred to Zappa or beyond the reach of his biting satire. Some of his ethnic stereotype songs – not necessarily “Valley Girls” but certainly “Catholic Girls,” “Sheik Yerbouti” and “Jewish Princess” – have offended people and branded Zappa as notorious and controversial. The B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint with the FCC for “Jewish Princess.”

Zappa’s extremes include his use of unblushingly graphic sexual lyrics and bizarre live entertainment practices. During the ’60s, his stage show incorporated a big stuffed giraffe that sprayed whipped cream into the front rows of the theater.

He defends his practices forcefully and fluently.

“Music is always a commentary on society, and certainly the atrocities on stage are quite mild compared to those conducted in our behalf by our government,” he said in 1968. “You can’t write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.”

Zappa’s production company, Honker Home Video, will soon make available his often risque films routinely banned by broadcast and cable channels. The first four releases scheduled for fall are “Baby Snakes – The Complete Version,” Zappa’s 1979 film combining concert footage with ribald clay animation; “Uncle Meat,” a performance-art feature Zappa has been working on for 20 years; “Video from Hell;” and “The True Story of 200 Motels,” about his 1971 film, “200 Motels.”

The videos will be available at video rental stores or by calling (818) PUMPKIN.

Zappa is finishing up his next album project, another recording of synclavier compositions that should be on the shelves by Christmastime.

“It’ll have no resemblance to ’Jazz from Hell,’ ” he said, referring to his 1987 release. “It’s all just the strangest things. There’s maybe just one tune that has a beat.

What will he think of next?