Frank Zappa – Trading Partner

By David Corn

The Nation, March 19, 1990

Such is the dizzying pace of events in Eastern Europe, you may have missed the news that Frank Zappa, avant-garde rock musician and composer, is now working with the Czechoslovak government as an emissary for culture. Zappa, who has been involved is U.S.-Soviet joint ventures, traveled to Moscow in January for the Financial News Network to help put together a television program on which Soviet and American entrepreneurs would discuss potential business opportunities. While in the Soviet Union, he decided to go to Prague to shoot some short news reports for FNN. Soon after returning from Czechoslovakia, Zappa talked with Washington editor David Corn. – The Editors

DC: How did you make your first contact with President Václav Havel?

FZ: I called Michael Kocáb, who is both a famous Czechoslovak rock-and-roll musician and – now here's progress – a member of Parliament. We had met in Los Angeles last year, and now all of a sudden he's in the middle of a democratic revolution. "Could I possibly have an interview with Havel?" I asked. No problem, he said. Thousands of fans greeted me when I arrived in Prague with my video crew. For twenty years, my albums have been smuggled into the country. After spending a day or so just looking about at life in Czechoslovakia, I went to Hradčany Castle to meet President Havel. The President told me he especially likes my early records with the Mothers of Invention and the Bongo Fury album I made with Captain Beefheart. He asked me to play at a concert honoring him during his state visit to the United States. He was hoping that the Rolling Stones and Joan Baez would also perform. [But the final result would be quite different. Instead, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie played at the New York concert for Havel.]

DC: But you were there to discuss business as well.

FZ: Right. I stated to talk to him on behalf of FNN. "What sort of foreign investment is Czechoslovakia looking for? Why should foreign investors put their money into Czechoslovakia?" These questions, Havel said, should be addressed to his financial ministers. Then at a small lunch with Havel, his wife, Olga, Richard Wagner, Vice Minister and adviser for economy and ecology, and Valtr Komárek, a deputy prime minister and leader of their new economic team, we discussed how the country could increase its income, and the conversation continued later that day at dinner in a villa near the castle. At my request, Milan Lukeš, the Czech Minister of Culture, was present. Havel and his ministers know they need some Western investment, but they don't want all the ugliness that often invades a country with Western investment. The easiest way to keep the lid on that is to have someone involved whose primary concern is culture, who can reject or modify a project if it is going to have a negative impact on society. Hence my request for the involvement of the Minister of Culture. After dinner, Lukeš went on television and announced that I would be representing Czechoslovakia on trade, tourism and cultural matters. The next morning I received a letter from Komárek, which began, "Dear Sir, may I entrust you [with] leading negotiations with foreign partners for preparation of preliminary projects, possibly drafts of trade agreements?"

DC: So what's the plan for Czechoslovakia?

FZ: What they don't want can be summed up by the comment urgently made by one of the many kids who trailed me throughout my visit: "Frankie, Frankie, please don't bring me Las Vegas." There is a direction in which they want to head. Look at Austria, which does $10 billion a year in tourism. Austria has managed to convert its culture – its concert halls, museums and architecture – into a consumable commodity and at the same time preserve its heritage. Czechoslovakia, with its musical, theatrical and artistic legacy, has the potential for the same. All I knew about Czechoslovakia before I got there was what I had seen on Cable News Network: people walking around in dingy, gray street and having a revolution. I had no idea how pretty and quiet it is. Prague is clean and comfortable, and the food is good. The airport is not a hellhole like Sheremetyevo in Moscow. This is a very pleasant country, and it's in good shape. They need to create a tourism infrastructure that makes it more accessible to the West. According to Vice President Vladimír Dlouhý, the total amount of hard-currency trade between Czechoslovakia and all Western country is $4 billion annually. If they can increase it by only $1 billion, that would represent a 25 percent boost in the overall standard of living. I doubt whether any other Eastern European nation could do so well in the short-term.

DC: But what about hard industry? General Motors is setting up a factory in Hungary. Will we see the same in Czechoslovakia?

FZ: Havel and his advisers do want industry, but they do not want to import businesses that will exacerbate the ecological problems left behind by the Communists. Since Czechoslovakia still burns a lot of coal, I suggested that the government explore magnetohydrodynamics [M.H.D.]. This is a process in which low-grade coal is burned but the emissions are cleaned, put through a loop and used to increase the electricity output – like a turbocharge. How do I know about this? In 1986 I sat on a plane net to a lobbyist from TRW, which developed M.H.D. My associate Jim Nagle is now collecting information on M.H.D. to forward to Prague. Just about every telephone company on the plant has been to Prague offering to fix the country's inefficient telephone system. And, no surprise, the price tag is enormous. Last year, for instance, A.T.&T. announced a deal with the Italian government to rewire the phones there at a cost of $30 billion. Not one of these companies had suggested to the Czechoslovak government, as I did, that it go cellular. Skip the rewiring and hand out cellular phones to everyone. This will make unnecessary the stringing of wires through ancient buildings with nine centuries of history. Better ways of burning coal, a new phone system, tourism – this was our dinner conversation. This is a brand-new government made up of artists, writers and musicians. They know they are making over society. That's their mission. But they realize the will ultimately be judged on whether they – an artistic, humane group – can run an economy.

DC: So, have Western firms and entrepreneurs eager to do business in Czechoslovakia found you yet?

FZ: Are you kidding? Before I returned to Los Angeles, the calls and letters were already coming in. A division of McDonnell Douglas wanted to talk. An Australian company that has developed something called the Jac tractor – a four-wheel drive, all-terrain minitractor capable of doing allsorts of clearing work that runs on a gallon of gas a day and is perfect for Third World farmers – wanted to talk. I heard from someone who wanted to open a pet-food factory in Czechoslovakia. We're having lunch.

DC: And what makes Frank Zappa the right person to advise a nation on its trade and economic development?

FZ: Do I need to be an expert in international finance to do this job, to help writers, musicians and intellectuals achieve their vision? I'm the guy who sat next to a guy on a plane who knew about M.H.D. You collect all this information, you make the connections that need to be made. Now we have a chance to make a lot of new connections. It's just like making a piece of music. You start with the theme. Then, what's the melody? How do you develop the harmony? What's the rhythm below it? You don't have to know about international financing. You just have to know about composition.

This article is taken from, where it contained following note:

More interview for you! This is from the 3/19/90 issue of left-wing-rag-and-proud-of-it The Nation (which, former editor-in-chief Victor Navasky recently reminded the Boston Globe, has been losing money for something like 135 years.) It is accompanied by one of the crudest, yet deadliest, caricatures of FZ I've ever seen. Wish I could reproduce it here. And now, the article. (You better appreciate it – do you know what it can do to a man to type "Czechoslovakia" every third word?) – Chris Ekman

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