Frank Zappa's Getting Out The Vote (!)

By Joe Morgenstern

The Milwaukee Journal, November 6, 1988

WHEN YOU buy a cassette of “Video From Hell,” a recent product of Frank Zappa’s imagination, funny bone and bile, a gift comes with it: a pair of cardboard “No-D” glasses that you assemble by pushing little tabs through little slots. The instructions for this, and for attaching an ample cardboard nose modeled on Zappa’s own, are set forth in elaborate, deadpan detail.

One note at the bottom of the instruction sheet, though, has nothing to do with No-D and everything to do with Zappa’s latest overmastering obsession:

“Register to vote and read the Constitution before it’s void where prohibited by law.”

Register to vote? Read the Constitution? What bourgeois fate has befallen the father of the Mothers of invention, the long-haired rocker who lashed out so wildly and hilariously at the American middle class in “Freak Out!”, his first album in 1966, and who gave us the ineffably raunchy “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”? The Zappa of old would have told us to use his No-D glasses, which are opaque, for watching the current No-D election campaign.

But tuning people out of the political process is not what the resident muse and CEO of Barfko-Swill merchandising, Barking Pumpkin Records and Honker Home Video is up to these days. On the contrary, Zappa has been working tirelessly at turning the citizenry out to vote.

His voter-registration spots, along with those featuring Stevie Wonder, John Cougar Mellencamp and others, were shown frequently on MTV. During a hugely popular, 27-city concert tour called “Broadway the Hard Way” earlier this year, Zappa took time during the first part of every show to urge his fans to register at their first opportunity.

“If you don’t register,” he warned them. “you can’t vote, and if you don’t vote, democracy doesn’t work.” He also made sure their first opportunity came a few minutes later, at intermission, by setting up voter-registration desks in the theater lobbies.

THIS CAMPAIGN, organized by Zappa with the help of local members of the League of Women Voters and other citizen action groups, resulted in about 11,000 sign-ups, most of them first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 25.

It also produced a resurgence of interest in Zappa himself, one of pop culture’s most intriguing — and enduring — icons. “60 Minutes” followed him on tour, then sent Morley Safer to do the obligatory sit-down interview. Life magazine treated his political activities with respect, although it also fell back on the familiar zaniness of his family life in a piece called “The Zappa Zoo.” (He and his wife, Gail, have four children: Moon Unit, 21; Dweezil, 19; Ahmet, 14, and Diva, 9.)

Behind much of this new attention was sheer bafflement, or the bemused assumption that another ’60s rebel had gone straight, like the turncoat yippie Jerry Rubin.

For those who have followed the twists and turns of Zappa’s career, however, his latest exertions on behalf of voter registration and the Constitution come as no great surprise.

Zappa has always been a freedom freak, with or without long hair and the trademark “stinger” sprouted neatly below his bottom lip. He is the man who put on his best suit and testified eloquently before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1985, against a scheme, advanced ardently by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.’s wife, Tipper, to impose ratings on rock lyrics, and who has made a point of abstaining from alcohol and drugs (although he smokes like a chimney).

There has long been reason to suspect, then, that the private Zappa is an extremely solid citizen. To check this suspicion out, I drove to the Hollywood Hills one recent night, paid a visit to his large house (the exterior style is Tudor by way of Bavaria) and listened while he talked until dawn.

STILL BLEARY-eyed from sleep, or lack of it, he greets me in a faded pink T-shirt, baggy gray Bermudas and Reeboks. “The one bad part about staying up alone at night is I’m not a cook, he says. “If I get hungry, it’s peanut-butter time.” We chat for a while in the grungy lounge of his lavishly equipped studio, surrounded by racks of audio- and video-tape: a life in oxides. It’s dim, verging on dark. He prefers it this way, he says; daylight reminds him of criminals. I say I usually associate crime with the dark.

“That’s because you think of criminals as little individuals doing harm to other individuals. I think of criminals on a grander scale, like government and corporate managers. You’d be hard-pressed to find an individual mass murderer who could do as much damage as one good corporation.”

Eventually we decamp to the control room, the throne room of Zappa’s Synclavier, a wondrous instrument that unites synthesizer and computer in digital wedlock, and costs as much, Zappa says, as six Lamborghinis — “not that I like Lamborghinis, but it’s a point of reference for readers.”

The Synciavier enables its grateful owner to take seemingly familiar sounds — you’d swear genuine human beings were playing conventional instruments — and build them into compositions that are too complex or demanding for mere mortals to perform.

A combination of anger and dogged faith seems to fuel him. Like hydrogen and oxygen in a booster rocket, they mix. explode and hurl him into high dudgeon. Although he doesn’t make an issue of the faith, he claims that he’s angry all the time. “I mean, there’s so much —— that I really can’t stand. and I’m not shy about telling anybody what it is that I hate.”

Government, for one thing, especially as it has been practiced in the Reagan years (he himself is a registered Democrat and a strong Dukakis supporter), and the religious right for another.

Zappa likes to think of himself as a traditional conservative.

He says he’s anti-union, and takes pride in his success as an entrepreneur. It’s easy to see why, even if his corporate style is a parody version of the American way: in a field dominated by media giants, Zappa’s home-grown ventures not only survive but flourish. Although neither husband nor wife will discuss overall grosses or profits, the Wall Street Journal reported that Barfko-Swill, their mail-order business, sold about $1 million worth of records, posters and T-shirts in 1986 alone.

HE INSISTS that he could identify with Republican doctrine “if you were to subtract from the Republican Party the evil influence of the religious right.” But the Christian fundamentalists have driven him wild ever since the 1985 campaign to impose ratings on rock lyrics — “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk,” one song from the recent concert tour that will be a new Zappa album, denounces TV preachers stashing “Jeezo-bucks” in the bank — and he sees their influence undermining American democracy.

What has happened to the presidency as an institution in the United States is a disaster. It’s not a matter of conservative vs. liberal; it’s a matter of fascist vs. freedom. Because what you’ve seen for the last eight years is bunting-encrusted fascism waving a flag in one hand and a cross in the other.

It should be noted that Zappa is non-partisan when it comes to insulting individuals with his sometimes trenchant, sometimes puerile lyrics. His new album also includes a song about Jesse Jackson called “Rhymin’ Man,” which accuses Jackson of rhyming fast and loose with the truth. But modern government as a whole provokes his greatest scorn.

Government, Zappa says, has turned into “the entertainment branch of business,” a show that’s seen to best advantage on C-SPAN. “C-SPAN is wonderful, some of the best television that has ever been presented to the American public. If you like it raw, there it is; that’s they real sushi bar of American politics.”

Note. A much longer version by the same author appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 30, 1988.

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