An indefatigable inventor

By Joe Jackson

The Irish Times, December 10, 1993

One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier.
– Gustave Flaubert (Letter to Madame Luise Colet, 1846)

Definition of rock journalism: People who can't write, doing interviews with people who can't think, in order to prepare articles for people who can't read.
– Frank Zappa (From an old interview)

Both the above quotes are from the Sticks and Stones chapter of Frank Zappa's biography: The Real Frank Zappa Book. The latter quote, in particular, has always made me ache with a longing to interview the man. Not to contest his deliciously pompus point of view – more, maybe, to confide (off the record) that it's probably less false than true. Though in which ways I'll leave you to decide.

Sadly fate often throws us opportunities which, later, we almost wish we'd missed. Such was the case earlier this year when I found myself securing what now turns out to be one of the last interviews Frank Zappa gave during the months leading up to his death.

What follows is more a report of a conversation than a formal interview. It took place in the Hollywood Hills, to which I'd been invited as "an Irish writer" covering the Chieftans' visit to Los Angeles to receive their Grammy Awards for Another Country. Indeed I wasn't even introduced to Zappa when I joined him and the Chieftans for lunch, having been told "as you can see, he's very ill, it might freak him to know there is a journalist in the house."

My first impression was that Frank Zappa did indeed look sallow and pale, a condition that was rather cruelly highlighted by the California sunshine burning its way through the window beside his wickerwork chair. Nibbling on a sandwich in a disinterested and distracted manner, he was obviously lost in the kind of reverie that was only occasionally shattered by the loud laughter of one of the Chieftans, all of whom were seated at a table nearby.

At one point his son Ahmet – who, we'd been told, "has given up playing in his own band so he can spend this time with his father" – walked by and smiled sadly, while fleetingly squeezing Zappa's shoulder. The unspoken bond between family members and their acute awareness that each month, or maybe moment, could be Zappa's last was also evident in the way his wife of 25 years, Gail, kept glancing across the room as if to say, "are you o.k.?"

If she had been in Zappa's home studio half an hour later, Gail would probably have heard him whisper "no." The Chieftans were there to record Tennessee Waltz with Tom Jones, and moments after Zappa had helped Paddy Maloney to untangle a particularly unyielding sequence of orchestrated notes, he quietly explained "because of the illness 'I have to go back to my room now and rest before I have another blood transfusion."

Nonetheless, despite his delicate condition, he gracefully agreed to give me 'a quote or two about the Chieftans' as soon as he was informed of my assignment. He was clearly eager to address the suggestion that the Chieftans are probably less highly rated in Ireland than US. However, the "quote or two" soon turned into a 15-minute chat in a darkened room. It was the first and, I hope, last interview I ever conducted in whispers. Or in what patently was the presence of impending death.

"U2 is the most popular, and successful, musical export coming from Ireland today, but there's no comparison between the musical quality of what they do and what the Chieftans do," he said. "We play together here nearly every time they're in town and I love the sound these guys make. I love the melodies, the chord changes and especially the way their music is performed. Each member of the group is expert on his instrument, not just in terms of technique, but in terms of the concept they have of what the final ensemble product is supposed to sound like. That is something you are only going to get with a group that has been together 30 years."

Frank Zappa had shaken his head in a negative fashion when, earlier in the studio, someone mentioned that U2 now described themselves as "post-modern rockers." Why did that phrase, which is so appropriate in relation to his own work, so offend him when applied to this particular band?

"Post-modern rockers, what does that mean? Do they themselves know?" he asked smiling wryly. "And which would you rather have? Mediocre invention or a direct linear descent from Celtic culture, which is what I hear in the music of the Chieftans? And even if you do stumble across excellent innovation, what are you going to do with it, how are you going to appreciate it, if you don't first appreciate your own culture?"

"The Chieftans are their own culture and I hear traces of not only Celtic history but global history in their work, echoing back to the beginning of time. I've noticed that when they play here in my home with ethnic musicians from all over the world."

As a composer and guitarist who defined avant-garde rock during the late Sixties with his group The Mothers of Invention, Zappa could easily claimed to know exactly what he'd talking about – although he did pull back from using the phrase "post-modernism", explaining, "no one has yet pointed out to me exactly where modernism in music, or art, ends."

Although probably best known for his exploration of poly-rhythms and tonality, and for stretching rock in a symphonic sense, Zappa also worked from a more traditional base, he said, "loving normal melodies, modal tunes and chord changes and rythyms in groups of three, which is where a lot of the Chieftans' music comes from."

As such the best of Zappa's music was fashioned in a world where Varèse, Stravinsky and Anton Webern met the similarly dissonant sounds he originally heard in guitar licks by the likes of Guitar Slim. Having composed what he described as his own "classical works" at the age of 14, he joined his first r & b band, The Ramblers, in 1956. Six years later he had his first hit as a composer, Memories of El Monte, a doo-wop number recorded by the Penguins. In 1966 he formed the Mothers of Invention and invented "freak rock."

Despite the fact that the "freak" aspect in the latter phrase had its roots in "freaking out" on LSD, in his book Zappa categorically claimed not to use drugs, adding that "between 1962 and 1968, on maybe 10 occasions, I experienced the 'joys' of socially circulated marijuana. It gave me a sore throat and made me sleepy. I couln't understand why people liked it so much."

Nevertheless, his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy was a John Cage-like "psychedelic" canvas to its core. Within another six years he would be studying contemporary music in Germany alongside Stockhausen and Boulez and producing staggeringly imaginative and, at times, maddeningly indulgent orchestral jazz-based albums such as The Grand Wazoo.

Later albums such as Tinseltown Rebellion becameeven more political, firing vigilantly violent missives in the direction of the fundamentalist Right in America. Not surprisingly he was always more popular in Europe than in the US. Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel once appointed him Special Ambassador for Culture, yet the US State Department refused to recognise the appointment. When I spoke to Zappa he was clearly frustrated by the lack of support given to his music in his homeland, claiming people probably came into contact with it by seeking it out rather than having it delivered to through the normal process in the music industry.

"And people write and tell me which albums they like best, and why, and that has always been immensely gratifying, an inspiration to go on,' he said. 'But most people here haven't an idea what I do, or have done. I rarely, if ever, get played on US radio. If they play anything they play the 'hit records' like Don't Eat Yellow Snow or Peaches En Regalia, but none of these things are my best work."

"My best are things like The Jazz Discharge Party Hat or Dangerous Kitchen. The former comes close to Schoenberg, with its jazz accompaniment to a Sprechgesang text presentation, and the latter – the lyrics were written but the pitched recitation was something that was done free-form on stage, with the band following."

Obviously, at the time of his death, Frank Zappa had long since left behind the base ignorance of those rock critics who once described his work as "musical gibberish." Of late, his music was more often to be heard on BBC Radio Four than Radio One. His final album was Yellow Shark, a recording of a concert he did in Germany in September 1992, and just before he died he announced the premier of his opera Civilisation Phase Three, which he was completing when we talked and "hoped to stage in Vienna in 1994, if all goes well."

Speaking of music at this level, Frank Zappa seemed to tap into some inner reservoir of spiritual, even physical strength which, sadly, soon faded to such a degree that he had to immediately leave the room when his wife called to inform him that the nurse had arrived for his treatment. However, my abiding memory of the man will be that final burst of conversational energy before he rose from the sofa and shivered, despite the intense heat of the California sunshine.

"There is very little, if any, singing in the opera", he said, as enthusiastically as a child who has just discovered music. "There is the human voice, but most of the material is spoken and 90 per cent of the musical accompaniment is done with computer. And the spoken text, though comprised of comprehensible sentences and paragraphs, when you hear what's said, you're still left scratching your head in terms of what people are actually saying."

"Largely because it was created out of found objects, pieces of conversations that we edited together to produce the plot. I hope you get to see it; I think you'll really enjoy it."

As he left I finally asked a tentative question or two about his health. "It's not good," he said, then paused, before almost whispering "I have prostate cancer and it has spread to my bones."

Asked if it was terminal he turned and smiled, saying "Everything is terminal, but as to the question of whether it is, in the short term, the only thing I can say is that I hope not."

Longer versions of this conversation are:
- "A Mother Of Invention", Hot Press, April 7, 1993
- "Frank's Wild Years", RCD, June 1993