Frank Zappa - a misunderstood man

By John Swenson

Register-Pajaronian, April 28, 1988

      "It's not by choice that I went and set myself up on the fringe of everything, but there's nothing in the normal structure of the business that accommodates my needs as an artist" 


On a GRAY, inhospitable afternoon Frank Zappa sat in a dimly lit hotel in Albany, N.Y., preparing to begin one of the most musically ambitious rock tours ever assembled.

      He looked like anything but a rock star.

      Zappa cut a sober figure in surroundings more businesslike than the frivolity associated with a rock tour. His room was filled with newspapers, documents and music scoring paper. A pitcher of orange juice and a pot of coffee sat on a low table. An unopened bottle of wine and a cheese plate sent up by the hotel management had been set, untouched, on a side table.

      The following day, after months of painstaking rehearsal, Zappa would begin a series of concerts comprising an overview of his collected work - more than 50 albums' worth of some of the most challenging arrangements ever written for rock instrumentation, spanning nearly a quarter of a century.

      It was Zappa's first tour in nearly three years, a major musical event, yet when asked why he was going on the road again, the outspoken musician explained, "It's an election year."

      Frank Zappa on the campaign trail?

      "Yeah, but in a twisted way," he said "I'm not running for anything. Let's just say I'm a booster for democracy."

      Zappa had arranged a voter registration campaign in each city his band was to visit, and several of the new songs in the set lampooned Pat Robertson, the television evangelist-turned politician.

            "We're not gonna tell you who to vote for," said Zappa with a whimsical twist of his trademark Groucho Marx meets Fu Manchu moustache. "But we'll tell you who not to vote for."

      Frank Zappa may well be the most misunderstood man in the history of popular music. A brilliant composer, arranger, musical and political satirist and social critic, Zappa has nevertheless been typecast as an eccentric crank who writes funny controversial songs with dirty lyrics.

      His songs do indeed conjure up a fundamentalist's nightmare of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but Zappa is anything but depraved. He has been married for 20 years. He and his wife, Gail, who runs a mail-order business called Barfko-Swill that took in $1 million last year, have four children.

      He does not drink alcohol. He does not take drugs, and has campaigned against drugtaking since the 1960s. He does not permit his band members to take drugs on the road. He does not drive fast cars. In fact, he doesn't drive at all, despite living in Los Angeles.

      Frank Zappa puts every bit of mental physical and spiritual energy he has into creating music. He has been battling government, the record industry and music critics since he began recording in the late 1960s, and in the 1980s he has taken on anti-pornography campaigns and fundamentalist preachers as well.

      His critics write off as sour grapes these attempts to be accurate, efficient and unrestrained by political forces in pursuit of his musical goals. But Zappa's bands over the last 20 years have included some of the finest musicians of the era and continually offered the most creative approach to rock instrumentation.

      He coined the word "xenocrony," or strange synchronization, to describe his organizational principle of matching different parts of different concerts to create an entirely new musical statement. In the basement studio of his Laurel Canyon, California home is a room filled with recordings of finished projects, unreleased outtakes from studio experiments and thousands of hours of live recordings. Zappa hasn't even listened to it all, but he says he knows which performances contain unique musical events.

      "I've done a lot of experiments in the basement." Zappa said. "You'd be surprised as to what will synchronize and sound as if it's really happening.

       "I've done things like take a drum track from three or four different songs and chop it up, the bass part from something else, a piano part and a guitar part, print them all on separate tracks, play it back and mix it, and you would swear they were just jamming their brains out."

      Zappa used the "xenocrony" technique to remarkable effect on a series of 1981 instrumental albums. "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar." "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More" and "The Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar." Like most of his 1980s work, the records were released by his own Barking Pumpkin record label.

      In addition to albums with his working group, Zappa finally got the chance to release his first classical recordings in the '80s, "London Symphony Orchestra" Volumes I and II and "Boulez Conducts Zappa, The Perfect Stranger." The 1980s, it became clear early on, were not the years for Frank Zappa to slow down.

      As a child, Zappa idolized avant-garde composer Edgar Varese. Now 47 and firmly established as an uncompromising composer himself, Zappa continues to find inspiration in his childhood hero.

      "The music that he wrote was so brave." said Zappa, "because it broke with many of the traditions of normal composition. For all this bravery he was rewarded with a life of poverty and obscurity just like in the movies."

      Zappa maintains that the same narrow-mindedness that ruined Varese is at work today, and he fights the forces of convention as if he is determined to avenge his hero by succeeding on his own terms.

      Zappa is the only major popular musician working outside of the corporate structure of the record industry." I'm distributed by Capitol, but it's not the same as working for them," he said. "I think there is an attitude in the corporate hallways that I would be bad for them to sign because when they mess around I'll sue, whereas most artists won't do that."

      Zappa's terms also include unabashed use of profanity in his complex and intellectually demanding music. Profanity, he argues, is simply another element of the language. "Let's be serious about this," he said. "What do you make of a society that is so primitive that it clings to the belief that there are certain words in its language that are so powerful that they could corrupt you the moment you hear them? That's what it's down to with people worrying about these magic words that conjure up these incredible visions of smut and depravity as soon as they're uttered.

      "I think all words are useful in order to get ideas across but the way that certain segments of the population feel about the legendary four-letter words, which we're so fortunate to have in our language because they're so expeditious, the way people fear these words and the lengths that they go to keep these words from appearing in broadcasts is preposterous. It's really stupid."

      One of Zappa's latest projects is a 10-CD overview of live material from his basement vaults dating back to the beginning of his career, the most ambitious application of compact disc technology to newly released material.

      "The only way to get a whole show onto a recording nonstop," Zappa said, "is on a CD. This project is called 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore.' It's all unreleased stuff.

      "The earliest tape is Oct. 24. 1968. the most recent tape is Dec. 23. 1984. It's all stops in between. No overdubs. And any band from any year can be directly edited to any other band from any other year. So listening to it is like if you could go to a concert and have 20 years of different bands all on stage at the same time ready to come in on the right beat. It took several years to edit the stuff.

      "Zappa has flaunted convention, tweaked authority and merrily pointed out the absence of substance in the emperor's new clothes even before he formed the Mothers of Invention in 1965. He once said that at age 6 he offended his father because "I refused to read Shakespeare because I said it was ------ ."

      Francis Vincent Zappa Jr., the oldest of four children in a Greek-Sicilian household, was born on Dec. 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Md. When Frank was 9 the family moved to California. Zappa began playing in school bands in the early 1950s. By the time he was in Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, Calif., he was playing guitar in a band called the Blackouts.

      At 16, the young nonconformist developed ulcers.

      After graduating high school Zappa married his first wife, Kay, and struggled to support himself writing soundtrack music for films and composing avant-garde music that no one would perform. He took music theory courses at several colleges before quitting formal education in disgust.

      In 1963 Zappa received royalties from a film score he had written years earlier, and he used the money to buy a good electric guitar and open his own recording studio, Studio Z, in Cucamonga. He spent days experimenting with his own recordings while playing bars at night in a band called the Muthers.

      Studio Z folded after Zappa made a 10-minute porno film for a used car salesman who turned out to be an undercover policeman. Zappa was arrested, served 10 days in jail and was on probation for three years.

      The stage was set for Zappa to take on everything he felt was phony and corrupt about American society. He moved to Los Angeles and formed the Mothers of Invention, which became a kind of ad hoc house band for a growing society of post-beat, pre-hippie nonconformists who Zappa dubbed "United Mutations."

      Since then, Zappa's challenges to political and religious repression have often taken on the aspect of a crusade. In 1984 he took on TV evangelists with a vengeance on the "Them Or Us" tour, but his 1987 tour lampoons Pat Robertson with as much force as Zappa has ever mustered.

      "Every person has the right to believe what they want," said Zappa, "but they do not have the right under the U.S. Constitution to inflict their religious beliefs on legislature. "I describe Robertson's campaign as the effort to elevate superstition to the level of legislative enforceability, and that is something everybody ought to be concerned about."

      His criticism of President Reagan's years in office is just as biting.

      "During the last seven years, we've seen an incredible blurring of the distinction between church and state and that's got to be cleared up," he says. "So what I'm trying to do on this tour is get as many people as possible to register. What I'm telling them is, 'If you don't register, you don't vote, and if you don't vote, democracy doesn't work.'

      "I don't tell them how to register, I don't care about what party they register in. Believe it or not, we have Republican fans. I wouldn't have the cooperation of the League of Women Voters if I were telling them what party to register in. I'll tell them to register to vote, and once I've told them, then I'm free as an individual to sing on stage about the different things that are going on in this society

      "If you don't try," Zappa said, "nothing will happen."

      Other candidates in this year's batch of presidential hopefuls also draw Zappa's fire. After the on-air feud between George Bush and CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, Zappa sent Rather a telegram saying, "We're with you Dan. Nuke the weasel."

      As for the other candidates, Zappa says, "I am offended by most of the rest of them."

      New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is the man Zappa would like to see in the White House. "I think we need somebody with brains in that office," he said. "Mario is the only one of those guys I can see sitting across from Gorbachev."

      Zappa was amused to hear that Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., part of the congressional committee investigating rock lyrics that Zappa testified before in 1985, was in Albany the same day he was earlier this year. Zappa has sparred in public debate with Gore's wife, Tipper, who is co-chairman of the Parent's Music Resource Center (PMRC), a lobbying group intent on policing the lyric content of popular music by rating records. It was after the record industry complied with the PMRC's request for ratings on rock records that Zappa decided to start a one-man lobbying campaign to protect his free expression.

      "Once all that stuff started happening in 1985," he said, "I spent basically about a year expressing my views on the matter in public. I didn't see anybody stating the case at all. I have the right to state my side of the case as an independent guy.

      "What the record companies did is obvious," he continued. "They bent over because they had legislation to worry about and they were more than happy to sell the artists down the river."

      In his statement to the congressional committee, Zappa claimed that the ratings system was a violation of his constitutional rights and that its focus on only rock records was a protectionist strategy by Gore to favor the country music made in his home state.

      Several senators, particularly Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Paula Hawkins, R-Fla., were openly hostile and contemptuous of Zappa during questioning. Ironically, Gore complimented Zappa and told him he admired his music.

      "I wonder what albums Albert Gore ever had," Zappa mused, "or what sort of activities he and Tipper were engaged in while they were listening to my records. "And what about the drum set in the basement? Tipper apparently used to be a drummer. So what if one of the Bangles were suddenly to get sick, would Tipper be a substitute Bangle? That would be some photo opportunity."

      Even though he had to take time off from his musical pursuits to press his point on censorship, Zappa has no regrets. "I'm sure glad that they raised the issue," he said, "and I'm very glad that I got a chance to go" to Washington.

      "Prior to the time I went there I was just like everybody else who doesn't pay that much attention to government. But if you see it live and in person it will certainly change your mind about a lot of stuff."

      During the committee hearing, Zappa was cool under pressure from the senators. He disarmed the panel when Hawkins wondered out loud what kind of toys a man like Zappa would give his children and he answered, "Why don't you come over to the house and I'll show you?"

      "I actually called her office later and said I'm serious, I'll give you a date, c'mon over. Her aides laughed about it, but Paula didn't have much of a sense of humor," Zappa said.

      Zappa testified before the committee along with folk singer John Denver, who compared the ratings system to artistic repression in Nazi Germany, and Dee Snider, lead singer for the heavy metal rock band Twisted Sister, who Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., addressed as "Mister Sister."

      "The great thing about Dee Snider's testimony," Zappa said, "is that he was the only one whose music had been personally attacked by Tipper. At no point in the PMRC campaign have they attacked my music and the fact is if they were really interested in explicit lyrics, I do that.

      "And the other examples that they cited, like Captain and Tennille's 'Do It To Me One More Time,' they call that  explicit? They'd better get a dictionary.

      "You have to understand the protocol," Zappa explained. "There's a rule that you can't speak to them unless they ask you a question. That's why when Slade Gorton delivered this speech about how I didn't know anything about the First Amendment, he was like the hitman, he was the one sent to get me. I couldn't answer him back unless he asked me a question, and there was no question involved.

      "That was one of the most prominently used news bytes of the hearings, Slade Gorton telling me I didn't know anything about the First Amendment. Slade Gorton is no longer a U.S. senator, I must remind you. Neither is Paula Hawkins, who wanted to know what kind of toys I buy for my kids. "I don't think it was well advised for those eminent forces to try and get me."

      The Albany concert was a successful start to the tour, and the registration tables in the lobby were swamped with prospective voters. "It was by far the most voters we've registered at a single event," said Susan Richmond of the League of Women Voters.

      From there it was on to New York City, where the band played three completely different shows on successive nights. On the third night, Zappa was joined onstage by his daughters, Moon and Diva, and sons, Dweezil and Ahmet. It was the first time Zappa had brought his kids on stage during a show, an event which must have had special poignance for a man who wrote so eloquently about the alienation between generations in the 1960s. "Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad," a younger Zappa had sung on 'Mom and Dad.' "It's such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad."

      That is obviously one problem Zappa's children never had. "Moon and Dweezil have a deal with CBS for a sitcom," said a proud but bemused daddy Zappa after the show. "I've got no idea what it's going to be like. I've got nothing whatsoever to do with it."

      Zappa stayed long after the show was over, signing autographs and talking to fans who, in some cases, waited hours for an audience. It was difficult to believe he ever had the boogeyman image that once plagued him. In fact, Zappa's image has changed subtly as he has grown older. His lampoons have often been accurate enough to outlive the subjects they skewered, and his seemingly tireless ability to speak out eloquently in defense of artistic freedom has added an almost statesmanlike quality to his speech.

      Zappa has been sought out as a public speaker since his Senate testimony, giving a keynote address to the New Music Seminar and speaking at a fund-raiser for Fundamentalists Anonymous, a legal organization attempting to retrieve contributions made by PTL members to Jim and Tammy Baker.

      Zappa will probably never overcome the stereotypes placed on him. Fans at concerts still wear T-shirts with a 20-year-old picture of Zappa sitting on a toilet. "The symbolicness of my personality," he said, "is more the result of wishful thinking on the part of the people who approve of it. I think that they like what I did in the Senate hearings because they think they would have done it themselves if they were in my position."

      The image of Zappa the statesman may not be as rewarding as Zappa the musician, but at least it is a step up from Zappa the geek, as he was portrayed in a variety of 1960s posters.

      "I used to say about my music career," he concluded, "that more people knew me because I had a picture taken of myself sitting on a toilet than ever listened to my records. I got more famous for that than I ever did from 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh'.

      "Since 1985 I'm probably more famous for having Slade Gorton tell me I didn't know anything about the First Amendment than for any song I ever wrote. It may even come as a surprise to people that I play the guitar.

      "But the world is full of surprises."

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