The Zappa Zoo

By Jennifer Ash

Life, August, 1988

Freewheeling father Frank makes a case for voter registration

Mom and Dad – their kids call them Gail and Frank – met in 1966 when she was a secretary at the Whisky a go go in L.A. and he was the lead singer of the rock group The Mothers of Invention. A year later Zappa was photographed nude on a toilet. The picture was bootlegged as a poster titled Phi Zappa Krappa, and it became an underground classic.

Dubbed the Rasputin of rock, Zappa is still, at 47, known for his raunchy rapid-fire lyrics and public antics. He has written more than 300 songs on subjects ranging from Jewish princesses to yellow snow to penguins in bondage. Now he’s taking on – in all seriousness – the task of getting young people to register so they can vote. In the last presidential election only 15 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast ballots. (The national average was 53.3 percent.) “The United States,” Zappa says, “is the least registered industrial nation on earth.” He believes that “if they don’t express their wishes, they really don’t have a right to complain.”

During his recent 26-city tour in the U.S., Broadway The Hard Way ’88, Zappa frequently ended his performance by shouting, “If you don’t register, you can’t vote! If you don’t vote, democracy doesn’t work! Consider the alternative!” As his fans – everyone from strung-out kids to hard-core music buffs – streamed into the lobby, they found an array of tables manned by members of the local League of Women Voters or other citizen action groups. Zappa, along with Stevie Wonder, John Cougar Mellencamp and others, filmed voter registration spot announcements that have been airing on MTV since April. Except for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, Zappa has probably gotten more young people to register – over 11,000 – than anyone else.

The Zappas – Frank and Gail and Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva – live in an ersatz Swiss chalet high in the Hollywood Hills. House rules are few: Childish graffiti on the walls is encouraged. Frank considers such activities creative. Sex is permitted (the two oldest children may have their lovers sleep over). But drugs absolutely aren’t. Zappa insists he has smoked “maybe” 10 marijuana cigarettes in his entire life. Gail, 43, keeps the family on track. She looks after Frank and the kids, their friends and the stream of musicians who work in the studio with its $2 million in equipment. She also runs the business (a mail order company that sells albums, T-shirts and novelties) and tends the Zappas’ conservative investments. The family employs eight.

Moon Unit (being a girl she escaped being christened Motorhead) had a fluke hit six years ago when she teamed with her father to record “Valley Girl.” Now 20, she has had bit roles in three films, including National Lampoon’s European Vacation. She and brother Dweezil, 19, have been signed to make a CBS pilot for The Dweezil and Moon Show, which they describe as a takeoff on Donny and Marie. The writers’ strike put the project in limbo.

Dweezil (it was Zappa’s pet name for one of his wife’s toes) recently brought out his second album, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama. If the title sounds like something his father might have written, he did – back in 1968. Dweez did a blistering guitar solo on Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat,” made an antinuke video of his own (with Jane Fonda playing a caterer) and has had bit parts in the movies Pretty in Pink and The Running Man.

The elder Zappas believe in getting their kids out of the education system as early as possible. His philosophy: “We let them grow like weeds.” Both Moon and Dweezil tried public and private schools and tutors who specialize in teaching dyslexics. All the Zappa kids – and Gail – have the condition. Frank says schools “clog their minds and prevent them from developing their creativity.” Moon and Dweezil dropped out at 15, but passed the high school equivalency test. Now 14-year-old Ahmet is in a private school’s independent study program. Described as “a hunk” by his father, Ahmet has an agent and goes to auditions. Diva (named for being the loudest baby in the hospital nursery) is eight and set on a career as a lawyer, singer or tap dancer.

Besides his registration drive, Zappa has recently taken on the televangelists. He says, “I’m a registered Democrat – until the GOP rids itself of their evil influence. Reagan’s administration owes its existence to money that flowed to them from those right-wing church sources.”

“America is great material,” says Zappa. “All you need to do is hum the news.”

Zappa once testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington against rating rock lyrics. “The complete list of Parents Music Resource Center demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training program to housebreak all composers and performers.” Thus spoke Zappa at the hearings.

He remains a boisterous renegade and, as he has for more than 20 years, continues to inspire controversy. After Zappa’s most recent concert in New York, a Times critic wrote: “Mr. Zappa considers himself a scathing social critic as well as a sophisticated maverick musician, yet a lot of his would-be satire amounts to rude name-calling, and he treats his fans as juveniles to be harangued.” Others claim he’s a genius, and fellow rocker Andy Summers says, “He’s a great musician. We need Frank Zappa in the world because he’s the voice of truth.”

Zappa’s latest grandiose project is a full-scale opera that he hopes will debut at Milan’s La Scala in 1992. “It may be a little hot for the U.S.,” he admits. One thing certain to offend is the opera’s title: Dio Fa, slang that Zappa says translates into “God is a liar.” Is La Scala buying? Well, Zappa has recorded two albums with the London Symphony Orchestra. So anything’s possible.

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