Frank Zappa waves flag for freedom

By Don McLeese

Chicago Sun-Times, February 21, 1988

The 'model citizen' of rock waves flag for artistic freedom.

NEW YORK – The last two times I had seen Frank Zappa, he was smartly coiffed and clipped, and he was wearing a tie. It was a far cry from the image he projected two decades ago, when the widely circulated "Phi Zappa Krappa" poster showed the wild-maned artiste perched on his porcelain throne. When Zappa's Mothers of Invention debuted with their "Freak Out!" album in 1965, fans and foes alike considered Zappa himself a freak, a label he seemed to wear proudly.

As we sat in his suite in the posh Mayfair Regent hotel, the afternoon following the first of his three triumphant, sold-out shows at the Beacon Theatre on Broadway, Zappa seemed more like the epitome of social responsibility. The man who had frequently celebrated groupies in song was accompanied in New York by his family. When he talked with Gail, his wife, about the laundry, or admired the nail polish of Moon, his eldest daughter, it could have been scripted for an '80s version of "Father Knows Best."

"Hi, Moon," he says as she enters.
"Hi, Daddy," she replies, offering her hand for perusal.
"Oh, nice," he says affectionately.

He has turned his first tour in more than three years – which will stop at the Auditorium Theatre on March 3 and 4 – into a massive voters' registration drive. When the Senate held its hearings in 1985 on rock lyrics, Zappa emerged as the music's most outspoken and articulate defender of freedom-of-song. Not that Zappa has become such a model citizen, I asked him whether he was embarrassed by any of his earlier material – "Titties and Beer," say, or "Enema Bandit from Illinois" or "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" – whether he thought he had ever gone too far.

"No, I don't think I've gone far enough with anything yet," said Zappa, slightly irritated, a man who enjoys being considered conventional about as much as Pat Robertson would like being called a godless commie. Much of our earlier conversation had been concerned with Robertson, who represents even more of a nightmare for Zappa than Zappa ever could for Robertson.

"And I take exception to your 'model citizen' statement, too," he continued. I mentioned family, social responsibility and the fact that he had worn a nice shirt and tie to play at the Beacon.

"Just because a guy wears a tie? [Attorney General] Ed Meese wears a tie. Is that a model citizen'? Please."

OK. Point, Zappa. But he'd have to admit that, 20 years ago, the worst fear of many parents was that their kids would turn out to be something like Frank Zappa.

"Well, that's their problem," he said. "They could've done worse. What if their children grew up to be Ed Meese? Would they be proud? "You know what is to be learned from this? I mean, it's kinda mundane, but have you ever heard the one about never judging a book by its cover? All those things are based on what I looked like, because I have been saying the same things in interviews for 23 years. The only thing that's different is my hair's shorter."

Let's accept that a haircut and a tie don't make Zappa a model of conventional decorum, any more than an electric guitar makes him a conventional rock musician or long hair made him a drug-addled freak. Zappa never has had much use for drugs or drink or other substances that cloud the brain. Creative freedom has been enough of an intoxicant. He has long maintained that repression is far more dangerous to a free society than any form of expression.

"What's the ugliest part of your body?" a Zappa song once asked. "I think it's your mind," came the reply.

A champion of freedom of expression throughout his musical career, Zappa has long been a strong advocate of voters' registration. "Don't forget to register to vote," he advised on the liner to 1971's "The Mothers: Fillmore East" album. Seventeen years later, registering young voters is a major impetus for Zappa's decision to return to the road.


He launched his "Broadway, the Hard Way" tour in Albany, the state capital of New York where he claims that 10 percent to 15 percent of the audience was persuaded to register. At the first of the Beacon shows, he prefaced the concert with a voting spiel. He then devoted his entire first set to a "Republican Retrospective Medley." mixing new and old material into an extended warning on the dangers of allowing the political status QUO to perpetuate itself.

"The Republican Party is divided between enterprisers and moralizers," he explained the next day. "I have no problem with enterprise. I think it's great, and I think the Democrats should pay more attention to enterprise. But the moralizing is an absolute idiocy.

"The more they want to modify the moral climate in America, the more bizarre the suggestions are for changing the way people behave. And I think that people who have that type of thought process need medical attention. I would rather see them in a mental hospital than in the legislature."

Zappa fans can thank Robertson for inspiring the tour's most pointed new material. In "When the Lie's So Big" and "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk," Zappa accuses the Christian telecaster-turned-candidate of heading "into the 'Twilight Zone,' " and warns his audience that "Jesus will think you're a jerk ... If you let those TV preachers make a monkey out of you." Such sentiments don't qualify as sophisticated political analysis, but subtlety has never been a sign of Zappa's brand of satire.

"It seems to me, because of the theology he preaches, that the risk is greater for nuclear war with a man who believes that Jesus will not come back until there is a final conflict ... And that the faithful, the good guys, won't suffer at all because they will be assumed into heaven, and they get to watch all the sinners roasting and toasting." Zappa said. "'If a man who has that theology is sitting next to anything that resembles a red button, we're in big trouble here'.

Even those who agree with Zappa's political views might find his satire simple minded, particularly in comparison with the complexity of his instrumental compositions. Fortunately, for those who value his music more than his humor; the second set of his concert at the Beacon demonstrated his range and innovation as a composer, arranger, guitarist and bandleader.

With an 11-piece band – including five horns – that ranks with the most accomplished he's ever assembled, Zappa conducted an egalitarian course in music appreciation. In addition to a diverse array of original material, the band performed razor-sharp renditions of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" (didn't the Beatles retire from the stage because songs such as this couldn't be performed live?) and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Though the latter was among the most popular rock-radio staples of the 70s, Zappa claims never to have heard it before he called for the song in rehearsal as a joke. Not only could the band rip right through it, but also saxophonist Paul Carmen provided a note-for-note arrangement of the guitar solo to be played by the five horns.

Those familiar with Zappa's classical inclination will likely be less surprised by his inclusion of Stravinsky's "Royal March" and the first movement of Bartok's "Third Piano Concerto" in the band's live repertoire. "I think that the Bartok is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written," he explained.

"And the 'Royal March' has been one of my favorite pieces since I first heard it. As a matter of fact, we included a little piece of it on our second album, 'Absolutely Free.' It was in 'Call Any Vegetable.'

Zappa's ability to defy convention and expectation in those early albums, his musical mixtures of surprisingly disparate elements, have kept his work from the '60s fresher than much of what he has recorded since. In recent years, he has tended to separate musical tendencies that he once combined, releasing albums that will appeal to a more specific type of taste.

"The last album we had out was 'London Symphony Orchestra Volume II,' " he said."And I'm sure that the same people who want to hear 'Titties and 'Beer' will never buy that record. And if they did, they wouldn't enjoy it. If you have the different styles blended together, it tends to please no one.

"My ideal audience would be a person who could have the same perspective over all of it as I do. I don't make the distinction between, now, this is the high-class music and this is the low-class music. I think of what I do as entertainment. To me, it's the same entertainment. It comes from the same guy."

Few musicians enjoy Zappa's latitude, for he's the rare performer with complete control over his musical output. After numerous legal skirmishes with record companies, Zappa not only issues his music on his own Barking Pumpkin label, but has regained the rights to his past catalog of more than 40 albums.

"I don't believe I have been ripped off more than other artists," Zappa said. "Considering the number of albums that I sell, and the fact that they would do things to me, imagine what they're doing to guys who sell triple platinum. ... An axiom of the record industry is that no one ever sent in an accountant to audit a record company's books and had the accountant come away empty-handed."

A defense of his vested interests as well as his rights motivated Zappa to testify at the 1985 Senate hearings on rock lyrics. The common perception that the record industry and the Parents Music Resource Center led by the "Washington wives" were on opposite sides of the battle. Zappa insists that the industry was willing to play ball with the PMRC in exchange for congressional consideration of a bill taxing blank tape.

"There wouldn't have been a PMRC situation if the record industry would have looked at these women and treated them like the fleas they actually are" he said. "The husbands of these women were the people who were going to hear the blank-tape tax in committee [a proposal to thwart home taping which the profit-conscious record conglomerates consider tantamount to theft]. The record industry acted in its own self-interest and agreed to throw these ladies a bone ... Really, it was a case of extortion.

"The fact is, I went there to testify because I own a record company, I own a publishing company, I am an artist. Who's looking out for me? I'm not interested in seeing any kind of legislation passed or a climate set up in which I can't ply my trade. I really can't see any of the big shots from CBS or Warner's – I've sued both companies before – doing anything to expedite my business."

Frank Zappa – capitalist, concerned citizen, defender of the Constitution, proud father, loving husband, taxpayer – is a man who believes in the American way of life. Where others complain about the collapse of morality while wrapping themselves in the red, white and blue, Zappa insists that the greater threat is posed by those who would protect us from ourselves.

"I happen to think that America is a moral country." he said, "if you'd let it be".

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