Dialogue: Frank Zappa
COQ February 1974
After a brief bout with death when he was pushed off a London stage during a tumultuous encore by the Mothers of Invention, Mother of Mothers Frank Zappa, purveyor of classical rock and dirty blues filtered through smudged crystal spectacles, is at it again. Two or three new albums are in the can, several new films are in the offing, and Zappa's latest band is on tour.
Francis Vincent Zappa, Jr., was born of Sicilian-Greek parents 33 years ago. He was the weirdo on the block, the freaked-out genius who dabbled with test tubes and chemistry sets and grew up with dada-wheel drive. His avant-garde sensibility comprises cultural artifacts that range from music of Varèse, Stravinsky, and the Coasters to realized figments of the imagination such as the Fillmore East, Suzy Creamcheese, and a number of memorable motels (200 to be exact). Zappa's vision has caused groupies to grope, musicologists to mortify, and stoned-out audiences to stare, stupefied. After releasing 16 albums, directing one film, and letting several million dollars slip through his musically dexterous fingers, Zappa finally admits that he's not in it "only for the money " or for the music and the fame or even the "cheesy sex." Like his fans, Zappa says he's "curious."
COQ began this interview, which was conducted in Los Angeles, by asking about the accident that nearly stilled permanently one of the most irreverent, energetic, and essential creative voices in pop music history.
Somebody pulled you off the stage in England recently because his girlfriend was getting hot for you. Weren't you almost killed?
I don't know what happened. I never saw the guy, I never saw the girl. I don't know anything about it. I just knew I was in the orchestra pit. My leg was broken. My ribs were broken. I had a hole in the back of my head. My neck was almost broken. My chin was caved in. They thought I was dead when they saw me down there, because my head was completely bent over on the side of my shoulder.
And now you look perfect. What effect did it have on you? Did you flash for a second that your last note had been played?
No, I just woke up and I didn't know where I was. I didn't even know that I was on the road.
Can you describe your latest album?
The new album is called Over-Nite Sensation and it's got quite a bit of interesting stuff on it. It's all vocal as opposed to what we have been releasing for the past few albums, and I'm doing most of the vocals. It's interesting.
Is Frank Zappa music still freaked out?
How can you go back? Some of the titles are Zomby Woof a song about a guy who takes a nap and wakes up and finds out that he's someplace other than what he thought he was. He winds up raiding a dormitory, hitching up a nude maiden, and doing it to her on the roof. Then there's Camarillo Brillo, which is a song about a girl with a certain kind of frizz hairdo that is popular among teen maidens who practice witchcraft in their spare time. There is a song called Fifty-Fifty, which has extremely absurd solos in it, one of which is a raging solo on a pipe organ. The LP certainly has a lot of good stuff in it. I think it will be the most popular album since We're Only In It For The Money because it has a lot of very funny lyrics in it. All the musical performances are good, and the cover is unbelievable. It's a still life that was painted by a guy named Dave McMacken. It's a surrealistic scene that takes place in a motel room and has all these weird souvenirs from various tours that we have done.
Your film 200 Motels was your view of life on those tours. How did that project get started?
I've been writing music in hotel rooms for years and years. I wanted to find some way of getting it played. It was more of a musical diary. So I devised a screenplay that chronicled in an abstract way the activities of the group on the road for a certain period of time and used the music that had been written in the motels as the scoring for the film.
Do you think that the music and the movie reflected what you had in your head?
The film was shot in seven days. That is to say exactly 56 hours, seven eight-hour days of shooting. We used four video cameras and video tape and then eventually transferred to 35mm film. When the 56th hour rolled around, we had only shot one third of the script. I had to restructure the material that had been done because we weren't shooting in sequence. I had to sequence that information into another kind of plot that would at least carry some continuity. The cost of the film was $679,000. If I had had double that, I would have been able to shoot the whole script and had a better realization of what the thing was supposed to be.
It lost money.
No. it didn't. It did not lose money.
A lot of people came out of the theaters scratching their heads.
Well, they come out of concerts the same way, but at least I've given them the chance to go in and see something that will allow them to scratch their heads instead of letting them sit in front of a television set and scratch their balls and know in advance what everybody is going to say and what everybody is going to do.
Your work in films came as no surprise, because one or two of your projects were scrapped before completion. On top of that, Zappa music has always been highly theatrical in concept. As a matter of fact, you wrote one of the first rock operas, I Was A Teenage Malt Shop. How biographical was it?
Malt Shop? Oh, strictly fantasy-type stuff. It was about an old man who has a daughter named Nelda, a cheerleader. The old man has a recording studio that hasn't had a hit, and there's an evil landlord who's going to foreclose on him. So there's this group that comes in with a high school hero called Med the Mungler who's a teenage Lone Ranger.
Were you arrested for dabbling in pornographic filmmaking?
Oh, yeah, I was set up by the vice squad with a small intriguing plot where they sent a guy into my studio disguised as a used-car salesman who was requesting material to present to other used-car salesmen at an alleged party that was supposed to take place the following Wednesday. They came to me because my studio received a lot of publicity in the Cucamonga area and I was attempting to raise money to produce a science-fiction film called Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People. They had a whole big spread on the studio in the Sunday papers. The place itself had no windows and it was directly across the street from a holy roller church and a block away from a grammar school in a town of 7000 population. I was the only guy in town who had long hair. It was weird.
So there was a curiosity in the community about what I was doing. They came to investigate me and performed what is known in the trade as an "illegal entrapment." The guy requested that pornographic material be manufactured. He specified what he wanted, and I didn't make him a film, I made him a sound tape because I had no idea that making it would be doing anything illegal. I thought I was doing a public service for a bunch of used-car salesmen who wanted to get their rocks off. So I made this tape for $100. It sounded really fine to me at the time because I wasn't eating. He came back the next day and offered me $50 and I said, "Wait a minute. There is something strange here." He whipped out a badge and all these guys came in with cameras and this whole big thing. I didn't have any money to take it to court and I couldn't have fought the case. So I pleaded nolo contendere, which means: "I give up, I don't have any money, I can't afford a lawyer, but I do not say I'm guilty." There was a 27-year-old district attorney who just did not like me and insisted that I be sentenced to six months in jail. The judge said, "No, we'll give him six months with all but ten days suspended and three years probation." So I went to the San Bernardino jail for ten days, tank C.
No film was ever shot?
No film, and anyway the tape that was made was no worse than side four of the Freak Out album. So that's what's so hilarious about it. This was '64 and the Freak Out album was '65.
In November 1966 you moved to New York and took up residency at the Garrick Theater. The New York Fugs were around the block at the Players Theater. It must have been a hairy scene back then.
It was quite amusing in those days. Our show ran longer than theirs, I think. We just kept on going. I have films of a lot of the activities that went on there.
It was a milestone in your career.
It was a milestone in musical history. No other group has ever done that -- had that long a residency and the amount of work that we did per day and each one different and tailor-made for the audiences that came in there.
You performed marriages onstage, goosed young virgins, and spat at your audience. What was going on?
That's what the audience liked. There was one kid in there who came back 20 or 30 times. His idea of a good time was to grab the microphone away from me, scream in it at the top of his lungs, hurl himself to the floor, collapse still screaming, and have me spit Coca-Cola all over him. Every time I would see him in the audience I would say, come on. He would run up and scream, I'd spit Coca-Cola. and he loved it. I mean, that's an art statement, isn't it?
What about the Marine atrocities?
A Marine had been stabbed in Greenwich Village and there was a rumor going around that all the Marines were going to come into the Village and stomp all the hippies in sight. We were rehearsing one afternoon and three Marines in uniform came in and sat down. I said hi to them and told them that they could stay and watch a rehearsal, and they did. So when it was over, I went down and talked with them. The rest of the guys in the band were going, O man! are they coming down here to get us? They turned out to be real nice guys. and they asked for autographs. I asked if they would like to sit in with us that night. They said sure. I asked if they could sing. They said yes, House of the Rising Sun and Everybody Must Get Stoned were the two songs that they knew. So I told them to go across the street to the T Angel and get drunk and then come back and sit in with us. They came back and got up onstage in full-dress uniform. So the United States Marines started singing Everybody Must Get Stoned and House of the Rising Sun, and everybody loved it.
So asked them if they would be interested in demonstrating some of their combat techniques onstage. They thought that would be fun. I send someone around the corner to my apartment to procure a large doll that was about four and a half feet tall. When the Marines came back on stage for the second show I handed them the doll and told them to pretend that it was a gook baby and do whatever you do to people in Vietnam. They tore the doll apart, completely wasted it, with musical accompaniment. And then when they finished doing it, I picked up the doll and I think I said, "Let's hear it for the United States Marines." I held up the dismembered doll. There we played weird, quiet music. People were crying. It was pretty heavy. And then after that was over, everybody clapped and I introduced the guys to let them take a bow. The first guy walked up to the microphone and said, "Eat the apple, fuck the core," and the second guy said, "Eat the apple, fuck the core." And the third guy said, "Eat the apple, fuck the core, some of us love our mothers more." I saw one of those guys again when we played Philadelphia. He was out of uniform by then.
You have an incredible reputation for doing what most artists would never do to their audience. You criticize them outright, blatantly put them down. Isn't that biting the hand that feeds you?
No. If I'm in a concert situation and somebody in the audience is acting obnoxious and doing something that is disturbing the program, I'm not going to sit there and smile at him. I'm going to deal with him, so that the other people who came to watch the show can get their money's worth. That problem arises especially with East Coast audiences.
You used the word "obnoxious." A lot of people think that sometimes you actually fit that category.
Well, a lot of people could say the same thing about Lawrence Welk, or they could say the same thing about any other music that they didn't like, you know. But we do enjoy it, and the people who have negative opinions about it can use any adjective they want to describe it.
Gracie Slick of the Jefferson Airplane once called you the most intelligent asshole she's ever met. What do you think she meant by that?
I don't know. Would you presume that "asshole" has a negative connotation? Maybe she likes assholes. Hitler was an asshole. He just had a good p.r. department. Also a good tailor.
A lot of critics admit that you are a pretty neat musician, but there are a couple of blue meanies out there who accuse you of stealing certain classical composers' music. They claim you are a good arranger but not a great composer. Would you like to set the books straight on that?
I have nothing to say to those people. They are deaf.
One of the more fascinating, and least-known, documents of groupie life was the album Permanent Damage by the GTO's. Who were they and how did you come to record them?
The GTO's were a group of girls who used to hang out at my house. They had an interesting lifestyle. They used to write poetry and do little skits and live sort of a fantasy life. I thought it would be interesting to share their experiences with people who had never come in contact with anything like that. So I encouraged them to set music to their songs or get somebody to help them put their poems to music and I would record them. It was just a sampling of their lifestyle.
Another woman of infamy in your world was Suzy Creamcheese. What's her story?
Suzy Creamcheese was a girl named Jeannie Vassoir. And she is the voice that's on the Freak Out! album. The myth of Suzy Creamcheese, the letter on the album, I wrote myself. There never really was a Suzy Creamcheese. It was just a figment of my imagination until people started identifying with it heavily. It got to weird proportions in Europe, so that in 1967, when we did our first tour of Europe. people were asking if Suzie Creamcheese was along with us. So I procured the services of another girl named Pamela Zarubica, who was hired to be the Suzy Cream cheese of the European tour. And then she maintained the reputation of being Suzy Creamcheese after 1967. The first one went someplace, we don't know where. She's back in town now; I saw her.
What was the origin of the name Suzy Creamcheese? Is there a sexual connotation?
I think it came from a dream.
A wet one?
No, it wasn't even a cheesy one.
In 1969 you issued the famed Mothers of Invention obituary letter. Was it just financial strain that led to the end of the group or was it a lack of understanding of your music by the audience?
Oh, it was a lot more things, too. But I didn't think that those things were of interest to the people who were to receive the letter. So for nine months there were no more Mothers.
At that point you said you had had enough. Was that enough of the other fellas or of the Mothers' identity?
There were economic problems, and there was also the fact that many members of the group at that point ceased to perform to the best of their ability.
Were you upset at the public for not understanding your music?
You know, just everything seemed to be going wrong at that particular time. I didn't think I wanted to continue beating my head against the wall under those circumstances.
Do audiences understand now?
I don't know whether they understand. Some people like it, some people don't. I don't even know whether the ones who like it understand it. I'm sure the ones who don't like it don't understand it.
Do you think anyone could possibly understand?
Sure. I mean, there are a few I've run into. I know it's quite amazing.
Upon coming out of "retirement." you did a concert with Zubin Mehta and the L. A. Philharmonic. How did that turn out?
I think it was successful from a number of standpoints and then a musical flop in some ways. It is virtually impossible to make any kind of music in a basketball arena, and if you're trying to stick a symphony orchestra in a basketball arena that holds 14.000 people and put an electric band alongside of it, any mixer in the world is going to have trouble trying to make it sound like it should. So we just had to struggle with those problems. It drew about 14,000 people: there was a big audience that wanted to see the event. There was no place available that had that seating capacity and better acoustics. That was just the only place we could have don.e it.
Right after that some of the Mothers and some of the Turtles joined forces. What new musical concepts did you get into with that group?
They were very strong on the vaudeville. It was more rustic bumpkin. If they did choreography or anything onstage it wasn't controlled. It was spur of the moment random weirdness. It was OK for working in a 300-seat theater. but little actions with dolls and things like that are invisible when you start working 4000 or 3000-seat auditoriums. You just can't get it across. So you need larger gestures, and Mark and Howard of the Turtles were good at large gestures.
Who is in your group now?
Ian Underwood from the Garrick Theater. Ruth Underwood on marimba and percussion. George Duke on piano. Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Ralph Humphrey on drums, Bruce Fowler on trombone. Tom Fowler on bass. and we're trying out a harmonica player named Craig Stewart.
Do they understand?
No, I wouldn't say that they understand. These are extremely skilled musicians and most of them fall into the virtuoso category and all have complete instrumental control.
Do you think that your music is communicating?
Sure, but that doesn't mean that I'm communicating 100 percent.
What do you think has to be done so that musical barriers can be crossed?
There is no way to know.
Are you still knocking your head against the wall?
No. I just stopped getting agitated about it; it doesn't bother me.
Isn't that frustrating?
Only if you let it be.
Why do you think people keep coming back?
Curiosity, that's what the audience is into. They are there to be entertained and they sometimes go to see things because they are curious.
Is it a freak show to them?
To some, yeah. I just do what I do. and I'll take my chances as to who gets off on it.