Zappa Keeps Zinging Along

By Frank Rizzo

Hartford Courant, February 16, 1988

Call him irrepressible.

More than two decades after starting the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa still is creating his distinct brand of non-conformist music – as well as being the gadfly of the music business. Whether he's tackling the Parents Music Resource Centers efforts to rate rock records or warning the public against the dangers of less-than-holy television evangelists, Zappa never has been one to worry that his opinions will affect his career. His career always has rolled along on an independent path.

At 47 Zappa also is having a great musical year. His world tour with his 11-piece band is selling out around the country. (His shows at the Bushnell Memorial Hall 10 Hartford today and Wednesday sold out within hours in the midst of a snowstorm).

His latest album, his 49th, "Jazz From Hell," is one of his most well-received albums in years. And although he calls the Grammy Awards "fake," the record nonetheless received two nominations for best rock-instrumental performance and best instrumental composition.

But it's his political activism, not his musical innovation, that is receiving most of the headlines these days.

At his concerts during this tour, Zappa is setting up voter registration tables. His Albany show earlier this month was the largest ever single voter-registration session in one day in Albany, Zappa said. In New York City, 10 percent of his audience signed voter-registration cards. But in Washington, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters had reservations about supporting Zappa's voting drive (despite the league cooperation with Zappa in other cities.)

In a telephone interview last week, Zappa suggested that his outspoken Senate testimony against record censorship may have had something to do with the cold shoulder he received for his Washington voter registration drive. (Sign-up tables were set up with the help of another local voter-registration group.)

"Washington is such a cozy little community," Zappa says, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Still, the Washington incident was only a minor setback in his efforts – and his attempts to get other performers – to persuade concert-goers to sign up to vote. "Maybe I'm being optimistic," Zappa says. "But I like to think that people who come to our concerts have an open mind. Just looking at them, there's something going on [in their heads] besides fanaticism. And I would rather they had a ballot in their hands than not."

Though he does not support any candidate, he does feature songs in his shows sharply attacking television evangelists, and GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson in particular, a man he describes as "dangerous and loathsome" as well as "organized and rich."

But it's not just certain politicians that Zappa zaps.

Since he started his career, the music industry itself has been a favorite Zappa target.

"The last seven years have been pretty bad for the music industry in general," he says. "But the music business merely reflects the sterility and narrow mindedness of the Reagan administration."

Zappa is asked about a quote attributed to him in Dave Marsh's book, "Rock & Roll Confidential." In it Zappa states: "All the music business is basically corrupt, but the fundamental drive behind the rock business is still sincere. ... The basic drive, the fundamental sincerity still exists."

"I think I said that before corporate rock was invented," Zappa says. "I would have to amend it these days to say the fundamental drive to make music still exists in people, but those people don't necessarily get record contracts. People still do original things. They just don't get signed to the major labels. The people who do get signed are the ones with the best hairdo.

"It is not hard to do something original because the imagination is self-replenishing, and in America there is plenty of stuff to write about," Zappa says. "But the basic problem of new music is a marketing problem because the distribution chain is controlled by the major record companies, and they have a very narrow view of what should be sent out to the public. A lot of it has to do with the problem of format radio, and fm radio is faced with the problems of the FCC, which is a direct tool of the Reagan administration, and we know how creative they are.

Still, plenty of artists are doing the music they want and putting it on vinyl on their own. That's how Zappa began in the '60s, and that's pretty much how he still operates. It's an independent philosophy that he carries with him on tour.

"It occurred to me that there is a trend in pop music away from real guys doing real stuff," he says. "Some of the biggest groups are now going out and virtually lip-syncing their hits."

Not Zappa, who is always experimenting with musical form and concert format. For this tour, Zappa will be back playing guitar. It also will be his first tour with the synclavier, a computerized keyboard that can store and play an unlimited variety of sounds.

"The one thing I felt was missing from pop music was a strong harmonic base," Zappa says. "Most songs have a melody line, a beat and a bass line, with just a dab of chorus in the background. It's been one of my pet theories in music that the human ear wants to hear harmony, that it likes notes played simultaneously in tune with each other. And I was so right. For this tour, people just loved the [harmonies created by] the horn section."

And who is the typical Zappa fan these days? "The people coming to the shows are not of the age bracket of people from the 60s," he says. "It's a lot younger crowd; and I think a lot of them are coming for the first time. In fact, I would say it was 50-50. The ones who like it like it a lot and can't get enough of it." Zappa says he has a hard-core group of fans, especially on the East Coast, that amazes even him. "There's one guy, we call him Mr. Regular, who follows us from concert to concert on his motorcycle. We see him at sound checks and he gives us suggestions for songs he'd like to hear. And if it's in our repertoire, we oblige him. After all, here's a guy who is devoting a substantial part of his life to listening to what we do. How can you ignore that?"

But Zappa also is aware that his unconventional and eclectic music, not to mention his politics, keeps him from being loved by the masses.

"I'm sure the people who don't like me will never like me," Zappa says.

"And I prefer it that way."

Frank Zappa will perform Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Bushnell Memorial in Hartford. There is no opening act. Both shows are sold out. Zappa also will perform March 13 at the mini-arena of the Springfield Civic Center and March 16 at the Providence Civic Center.

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