Frank Zappa's Revenge

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Frank Zappa's Revenge
by Ted Templeman
From MUSIC Magazine, July 2, 1987


Frank Zappa is patiently enduring what is now the second hour of a proposed "20-minute" phone interview when the conversation winds around to one of his favored topics of condemnation: organized religion. To be more specific, television evangelists, and Zappa's reaction to the just-breaking Jim Bakker/PTL sex scandal story.

"I've got CNN on now with the sound down and I've seen the story go by three times now. What happened?" he asked with a renewed interest in our conversation.

I began to fill him in on all the unsavory details: Tammy Faye's drug dependency, Jim's motel madness with a church lady, the cover-ups, blackmail money and the "friendly" takeover of Bakker's time-share ministry by Jerry Falwell, when Zappa began to quietly snicker. It was a sinister, self-appreciating laugh (an unwitting imitation of Dr. Paul Bearer's famed chortle) and Zappa's devious, though rarely exhibited, shit-eating grin was easily detectable despite over 2000 miles of telephone line. It was clearly evident ... Zappa was pleased.

Though the events of the day were no real surprise to him, the PTL scandal was a vindication of sorts for Zappa, an artist who prides himself on spotlighting the hypocrisy lingering behind even the noblest of public facades. Though it goes largely unnoticed by the critics who routinely attack the lyrical frivolity of much of his work, Zappa has had his moments. Whether it was his unflattering portrayal of the hip, counterculture during the Summer of Love, his sexually sordid imagery in "Princess" (which earned him a lawsuit from the Jewish Defense League) or the subtle irreverence inherent in almost all of his "serious" orchestral compositions, Zappa's targets are broad and all-encompassing.

In 1980, he fashioned minor masterpiece of a double-album entitled You Are What You Is, though People Magazine offhandedly dismissed it as one of the worst records. The theme revolved around sponsored greed, teenage indifference and the power of religious fundamentalism. And "Heavenly Bank Account," Zappa's indictment of the Falwells and the Bakkers of the television world, was both lethal and precise.

"If those lyrics aren't relevant today, I'll eat the record jacket," Zappa laughs, referring to the song's figurehead who has "20 million dollars in his heavenly bank account," "thousand dollar suits" and "a private plane ... all for the use of his special friends."

"And if you think it's all over now with Falwell taking over the board of directors, don't bet on it," Zappa predicts. "There's a guy with some skeletons in his closet I'll bet ya."

At 46 years of age, Frank Zappa is a master of the unprecedented. A pioneer in modern digital recording, Zappa has a lengthy history littered with ingenuity and innovation. Though he rarely did anything first (tape manipulation, concept albums, music fusion), he did do them all, and with a high degree of skill and intelligence to boot.

He became a "commissioned" rock composer in 1967 when Capitol Records hired him to "compose and conduct" Lumpy Gravy. It was an unparalleled tour de force, mixing orchestral music; spoken dialog, free-form improvisation and rock and roll that wound up thanklessly unpromoted when Zappa's contractual status was being argued in court, leaving Sgt. Pepper's to corner all the kudos for "expanding" the perimeters of rock composition.

Likewise, in 1969, while Miles Davis was busy "breaking down barriers" in jazz by incorporating rock into his repertoire, Zappa had already fine-tuned the idea years before, with live performances of lengthy jazz-rock excursions like "King Kong."

No one took him seriously in the '60s when he talked of forming his own "record club" to make available his rapidly expanding library of concert and studio recordings. Yet 20 years later, Zappa is now doing just that with a thriving mail order business for his own (self-financed) Barking Pumpkin Records.

Frank Zappa stands in a unique position as a completely self-sufficient recording artist. He owns his own 24-track digital recording facility, a digital mobile studio unit, all of his master recordings (except for 200 Motels), and his aforementioned record label. Though he licenses some of his material out to companies like RykoDisc, which has mounted a massive campaign to release Zappa's almost 50 LPs on· compact disc, Zappa is, today, one of the few that can unequivocally state that his only boss is his record-buying public.

But Zappa is at a crossroads in his career. Amid persistent rumors that he has forever given up guitar-playing, Zappa has become a recent technological convert and a very vocal supporter of the Synclavier. The quartermillion dollar device that can mimic any instrument you'd care to name has, according to Frank, freed him from the rigors of maintaining a touring rock band while, simultaneously, allowing him the opportunity to create orchestral music without the need of a cost-prohibitive orchestra.

"In order to hear an entire composition you're forced to deal with unions, paying other people to do it and putting up with a bunch of bullshit that has nothing to do with music," Zappa states, defending his use of machines over musicians. "With a Synclavier, you push a button and you get a finished composition which, I'd say, is every composer's dream."

In light of these computerized leaps and bounds, is Zappa's concern that the Synclavier has given his recent music a machine-like response?

"So what?" he fires back. "It was never intended to have the human element because what is the human element? ... Mistakes?"

Perhaps, but it's precisely that kind of human intervention that has been the catalyst of Zappa's live performances for over twenty years. Until recently, Zappa has meticulously maintained rock's most talented, revolving-door ensemble, with guys like Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Steve Vai, Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio and Chester Thompson (to name a scant few), all cutting their teeth on Frank's complex musical inventions. Some of his early live shows in and around L.A. are legendary, having incorporated freak [missing text -Ed.]

"I couldn't do a tour now if I wanted," Zappa says when asked about giving up the road. "I don't play the guitar anymore, I don't have any calluses left and I don't have any enthusiasm for doing it. It's like that part of my life is ... done."

Zappa curiously pauses before finalizing his statement. More than once, actually. Though he insists that he just can't see himself "going out there and doing it again," he is naturally reluctant to simply close the door on a quarter-century of his life. Although he had, at one time, disbanded his famed Mothers Of Invention in the late '60s citing "lack of consumer interest," this time, with a viable alternative in the Synclavier to answer his compositional needs, Zappa seems resolute.

"In a way it's heartbreaking for me," Zappa confides uncharacteristically, "because I get letters every day from Europe, Australia, Germany, saying 'Please get back on the road.' But these people just don't know what they're asking. The marketplace determines what will survive and the kind of time and money that I used to invest in those bands, nobody in their right mind would do that today, because you just can't sell enough tickets."

As for the guitar, arguably his one emotional link with his audience, Zappa says he hasn't even picked one up since 1984.

"What I like to do on the guitar has more to do with spontaneous improvisation," he explains. I'm not really a technician on the guitar and I'm not interested in showing off for myself, I'm interested in playing music and in order to have a reason to do that requires a live situation, otherwise I'd just be sitting in the sterile environment of a studio and jacking myself off." Again he seems resolute, though only time will tell.

Instead, Zappa has turned his attention to his warehouse full of live concert recordings (he has taped nearly every one of his shows for the last 15 years) and is on the verge of releasing what may be some of his most important (certainly his most exhaustive) work to date; a ten-record (and multiCD) set entitled You Can 't Do That On Stage Anymore. A six-hour retrospective (all previously unreleased) spanning the history of Zappa's Mothers of Invention from 1968 to 1984.

"We'll have some multiple versions of the same songs so you can hear the different styles from the different bands over the years. I'm looking to include three versions of 'King Kong' and a few versions of 'City Of Tiny Lites.' There's also a weird 27-minute version of 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow,' which was recorded in New York and Hammersmith that induces this guy from the audience who wanted to come onstage and recite poetry. I think you'll get a charge out of what happens with that.

"I've also included something called the 'Cookie Jar Lecture.' It's where I tell this short story about this kid who's trying to get some oral gratification involving some raisin cookies and a box of milk. And after he's got his gratification, he goes back upstairs – and here it kind of turns into that Jim Morrison song,'The End' – he goes back upstairs and finds his father beating off into a copy of Playboy magazine and he says,'Father, I want to kill you!' and the father can only say, 'Not now son, not now'.

"We also used to have this little featurette in the show which was like a news flash of what happened the night before on the road and some of those are real sick. On one of them (vocalist) Napoleon Murphy Brock started making up the words, based on a true story, about a guy who tried to force his way into (percussionist) Ruth Underwood's hotel room in Pittsburgh, Penn. She had ordered room service and she was wearing some kind of nightgown and she opened the door to push the tray out and this Xerox salesman-type guy tried to jump in the room and she kicked him in the nuts. Napoleon sang it all on stage the next night.

"So there's a lot of different kinds of things that you can do when you have a band that is not playing a canned show night after night. A band that is really playing live on stage and can respond to the moment, improvise on it and develop it to create an event that happens on stage only once and just for that audience. That is the essence of what you can't do on stage anymore.

"The business of touring has degenerated to the point where the audience expects you to go onstage and recreate your video. Most groups won't take the chance to deviate because they're out there promoting an album. That's the sole purpose of the tour. They're not there to make history; they're just there to do commercial."

As if a ten-record set isn't enough, Zappa is also putting the finishing touches on a second volume of his London Symphony Orchestra tapes, which will include seldom performed orchestral works like "Bob In Dacron" and "Strictly Genteel." Also In the works is a three-record box-set from Zappa's 1974 tour of Finland called The Helsinki Tapes, which includes (among other things) an audience member who kept yelling for the band to play "Whipping Post" (The Allman Brothers classic), a request deemed so bizarre by Zappa that he had the band work it up for performance the next night and it's been a staple of the group's live shows ever since. Currently available is a 35-minute cassette distributed by Guitar Player Magazine entitled The Guitar World According To Frank Zappa that features a handful of selections that will soon be available on Zappa's upcoming Shut Up And Play Your Guitar, 3-record box-set, Vol. Two. And he's just completed the CD transfer for Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III, a 1977 recording that will be available in about 6 to 8 weeks as a double compact disc from Rykodisc.

Releasing this unending supply of recorded output would be artistic suicide for your average performer, but Zappa claims that his core of devoted fans keep begging for more.

"People actually send me letters with cash saying 'Here's my money, when you do something just send it to me.' I have to send it back because legally in mail order you have to be able to deliver something in six weeks. I'm releasing all of this stuff to take care of the consumer demand that is actually there, all around the world."

And Zappa's non-music project list is nothing short of unbelievable either. He hit the lecture trail for a couple of weeks last year, inked a deal to write his autobiography (tentatively entitled The Real Frank Zappa Book) and is also still trying to court network interest in a self-produced television show, with himself as host and performer. So far, his discussions with Showtime (who wouldn't cover his production costs), Fox Broadcasting, Motown and ABC have yielded little and the idea is still in limbo.

"The problem is twofold," Zappa says. "On one hand, they think that I just might be an anecdote for some of the problems that exist on television today. On the other hand, somewhere along the line, somebody in an office goes, 'We can't do this. We can't take a chance on this guy. There's no telling what he'll do once he gets out there.' "

A case in point was Zappa's scheduled appearance as host of The Late Show (starring Joan Rivers) just a few weeks ago. His much-ballyhooed appearance wound up being canceled at the last minute when, according to Zappa's press office, Fox got cold feet over the political nature of his guests, journalist Daniel Schorr and Gerard Straub, a former host of the 700 club and author of a scathing inside look at religious broadcasting entitled Salvation For Sale. Fox wanted prime time personalities, Zappa wanted people with something to say. Fox wanted hunks' and bimbos, Zappa wanted issues and answers. Fox just said "No way."[1]

To illustrate the seriousness of Zappa's quest for television time, he even went so far as to approach the people at Disney. As in Walt Disney. Just how does Frank Zappa expect to relate to the image-minded moguls at Disney? I asked.

"Why not?" Zappa dead-pans. "I think I'm the missing link between Dumbo and Goofy, with a little Scrooge McDuck thrown in on the side."

As yet, Disney hasn't agreed.

But as is usually the case when Zappa is stonewalled by the mundane regularity of corporate thinking, he does an about-face and takes the hard way out, by forming corporate thinking, he does an about-face and takes the hard.

Billboard magazine reports this week that Zappa has formed his own video company called Honker Home Video (named after his nose, of course) which will soon release Baby Snakes – The Complete Version, his 1980 concert film; The True Story Of 200 Motels – a Dutch video documentary on the making of his 1970 movie 200 Motels; Video From Hell – a satirical magazine-format video; Uncle Meat – the original movie project begun in 1967, and An American Dissident, a collection of Zappa interviews and "documentary stuff" that will largely document his testimony on Capitol Hill regarding censorship in rock music.

In a manner of speaking, Frank Zappa has somehow managed to beat the system.

When his former record companies censored his work (as MGM did) or refused him project backing (like they all did), he simply opted to put it out himself. And when the mass-medium of television or radio deems his work either uncommercial or unsuitable, Zappa merely appeals to his listeners directly, via mail order; in effect, by-passing the powers that be who tend to regulate our intake on a daily basis.

But with the imminent release of over 17 albums worth of unheard material in the next 6 to 8 months, and the steady flow of remastered reissues of past work for compact disc, Frank has finally gotten things his way. For all the "record company pricks" he so caustically characterized in "Tinseltown Rebellion," who somehow believed (or merely wished) he'd just go away if ignored, Zappa gets the last laugh.

Like Orson Welles aging and venomous Charles Foster Kane, whose last-gasp spit in the face of authority held an undying aspiration to "be everything that you hate," Frank Zappa' gets his revenge. A sweet revenge. A justifiable revenge.

Notes