Frank Kofsky interviews FZ
Frank Zappa Interview by Frank Kofsky
from "The Age of Rock", Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, edited by Jonathan Eisen
A Vintage Book, a division of RANDOM HOUSE, New York.
When I read into what you're trying to do in your music is not just play music, but also agitate and educate –
And synthesize ...
It strikes me as a kind of musical version of Berthold Brecht. Might that be a correct inference?
Well, I'm not a Brecht fan because I don't know that much about what he does, but people keep saying that, so maybe it's true. I've read hardly any of his stuff. I've heard the "Threepenny Opera" – like half of it one time – couldn't sit through the rest.
I don't necessarily mean that you were copying him. It just seems to me that his idea was that you could use art to galvanize people into some kind of action.
Oh, I think we can definitely galvanize people into some kind of action. We galvanized somebody into singing "Louie, Louie" tonight, who was asleep. [In the Mothers' first show at the Garrick Theatre that evening, a young man who was apparently tripping out at the time had volunteered to come up from the audience and sing "Louie, Louie" accompanied by the Mothers.] From zero to "Louie, Louie" in ten seconds is not bad. We can generate that sort of wave, and I hope that once we get on a footing where we can reach more people at once, more mass-media exposure, then we'll be able to get more of that happening. Some of the stuff we get for fan mail, although it's not huge in quantity, what those letters are saying, no other group in the world is getting. We get fantastic letters from anarchists, nineteen years old: "Help me in my town," and all that stuff.
Are those the people you want to appeal to, or is that what you want people to do then – destroy the system?
No, not exactly destroy it. I want it modified to the point where it works properly. A lot of people think that a new political movement, the ideal new political movement, is to bust it all up and start all over again with tribes and feathers in your hair and everybody loves everybody else. That's a lie. Those kids don't love each other; they're in that because it's like another club – it's like the modern-day equivalent of a street gang. It's clean pachucos, a little hairier perhaps. But it's not right. First of all, the idea of busting it all down and starting all over again is stupid. The best way to do it, and what I would like to see happen, what I'm working towards, is using the system against itself to purge itself, so that it can really work. I think politics is a valid concept, but what we have today is not really politics. It's the equivalent of the high school election. It's a popularity contest. It's got nothing to do with politics – what it is is mass merchandising.
Then your kind of politics is something that raises real alternatives: say, a thorough revamping of American foreign policy – doing away with the American Empire; really discussing the issues that exist and not simply running two television candidates.
How do you envision the connection between what you're doing now and generating that kind of a movement?
First of all, I would like to manufacture a thing called the Interested Party – I'm taking steps in that direction now – which would be a third party that lives up to its name.
Then it would be a second party, really.
Actually, yes. The people that would be active in such a venture would have to be the ones ... in every small town there's a little guy that lives there that knows what's happening and everybody thinks he's a creep, and he's the only one who's right, you know? We have a way of reaching these people, because they come to us, they find us, because they say, "Maybe there's a chance." So suppose we don't sell ten million albums. We've reached most of those kids in those towns. A lot of them have written to us, and the other ones have heard and at least been made aware that somebody is thinking in the direction that they're thinking. I think what we do is really constructive, although a lot of people are repelled superficially by the sound of it, the way we look, and some of the grotesque action on stage. But those are all therapeutic shockwaves.
Sometimes when you insult the audience, as in "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here," and in the notes to the first album - this is all part of the thing of stinging them into action, isn't it? You're trying to arouse them and make them angry instead of apathetic.
Yes, yes, I think that it's easier to make somebody mad than to make somebody love. And seeing as how hate is the absolute negative of love, if you can evoke hate and it's really there, you can polarize it, and then you really could have love.
Don't you think that this emphasis on love that we see among hippies really reflects not so much their ability to love at the moment, but their desire to create the kind of society where it will be possible to love?
No, I think that what they do is a definite indication of their inability to love, because the whole hippie scene is wishful thinking. They wish they could love but they're full of shit, and they're kidding themselves into saying, "I love! I love! I love!" And the more times they say it, the more times they think they love. But like it doesn't work, and most of them don't have the guts to admit to themselves that it's a lie.
Do you think that this is because it's an early phase of the thing?
Oh yeah, I see it growing into something that really works. I'm glad the kids are pretending they're dropping out, because when they find out that that doesn't work they'll be ready for some sort of action.
Sure. I think a revolution – not the sloppy kind, but the kind that really works – you know, it's about time for that.
Do you want to distinguish between sloppy kind and – ?
The sloppy kind is blood-in-the-street and all that bullshit. Today, a revolution can be accomplished by means of mass media, with technical advances that Madison Avenue is using to sell you washing machines and a loaf of bread and everything else. This can be used to change the whole country around – painlessly.
Because all those facilities are available, and facilities that the people are using now on Madison Avenue – there are techniques above and beyond that which they aren't aware of and which I think I've come into – things that they're not ready to believe exist yet. Because they have a tendency to get into a formula, like they get into their bag with their motivational researchers with their degrees, who have only scratched the surface of what the youth movement is about. They don't know youth from shit. And that's the market. You know they're still selling products to the youth on a glandular level. There are ways to move the youth to action through their brains and not through their glands. You have to start off part of the thing on the glandular level just to get their interest.
As you do now.
But we're not nearly as glandular as most of the rock and roll bands, because we're not selling sex that much.
Well, you insult people too much to be really glandular. You challenge them.
But we've got enough so they don't lose interest in us completely. If we tried to just be straight up there and sing our songs and go away, we wouldn't make it, because we're old men compared to rock-and-roll standards, and there's no sex appeal to an old man singing a straight song. So if we do something that makes us bizarre, we got that happening for us.
The thing that occurs to me at this point is, we know the powers that be in this country are pretty much opposed to people revolutionizing their society-witness the way Johnson deals with Vietnam when the Vietnamese try to do that. Do you think that those same powers would be any more lenient with you if it looked like you were trying to take everything they had away from them?
First of all, it will never look to them like I'm going to take everything away from them, because I'm not taking it all away from them – I have no intention of taking it all away from them.
Well, taking their power. I didn't necessarily mean taking their personal possessions. But their power right now is the ability to command what the man on the street thinks through their control of the mass media and so on and so forth.
That's where I have one basic human drive on my side that they can't defeat – greed. You see, they're so greedy, and the powers that be are not necessarily the government, but you're talking about big industry and the military and all, and that's greed – motivated activity. Industry wants to make money and I'm getting into a phase now where I'm being used by industry to move products. A lot of the industries now are aware of the fact that they're in a vicious cycle: in order to sell their goods to the youth market, which accounts for the major market of most of American products, that same market that buys most of the records, you have a weird situation where in effect record companies especially are helping to disseminate the information which will cause the kids to wake up and move and eventually destroy what they stand for, and they can't help it.
Ralph Gleason tells me that this is happening by kids in the Haight-Ashbury in particular, by simply turning their back on big-corporation society and going out and creating a parallel society of their own.
That doesn't work. They can't survive. That's like saying, "We're going to secede from the union; we'll have our town secede from the union." That's stupid.
In a sense, I agree with you, but it also seems to me that there's a certain element of wishful thinking in what you propose, too. In my rigid Marxist bag, it does seem to me that the power Elite (or ruling class), when you get to that point where it looks as though you are somehow going to emancipate the population from taking orders from them, they simply aren't going to let you have it that easily. They are going to try to do the same thing they tried to do to Fidel Castro or to Ho Chi Minh ...
That's all a question of how you perceive what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to take power.
No, I'm not saying you're trying to take power, but you are trying to –
You originally brought up the question of power. Now, power is a thing that bears on this case, but what we're really talking about is modifying the system just so it works. The present principles of democracy that were originally set up when they invented it aren't being applied today, and I think that with an educated population, democracy works. So what we need are things that would change the shape of education.
I didn't mean that you personally wanted to take power, but I do think that you meant that you wanted to undermine the power of those people who have it now – the power to control people's minds.
It's like this. A person likes to feel useful in the society; people have certain things that they can do. I happen to have a knack for doing that sort of thing, and if I can apply it to good use, it gives me satisfaction just to know that I'm functioning. Where normally, you know, I wouldn't have a chance to use my trade, because what I can do is spread out over a broad range of activities. I like to do them all because it feels good to do that. If I can help at the same time, that's groovy. If it works, fine. If it doesn't work, at least I kept myself occupied for a while.
So in other words, this isn't some rigid prescription that you're trying to force on people?
No! If I thought it was like that, I'd be wearing armbands or be out there with a costume on – the robe – and doing it with some showmanship. But we've taken our time about presenting our case and the scene itself has been developing at a rate – it seems like its developing slower than I wanted it to. But, I am not in a position of where I can govern the growth rate
No, isn't it a question of feedback from your audience to you, I would imagine?
Yes and no. We keep track of what's going on out there, but what they do and what they say doesn't have a hell of a lot of bearing on what we're going to do for them. Except that I try to forecast certain social-politital events. We have some material that's going into the next album about the concentration camps in California – you're seeing this before the world even knows what the tune is because I turned these out the other day. These are going on the album, The Mothers and Lenny Bruce, which is due for September release.
Well, how does that go? Is it going to be real Lenny Bruce on there?
Yeah. I'm editing the tapes of Lenny's and interspersing these special tunes, so we come up with an oratorio thing, and the name of the album is Our Man in Nirvana.
I suspected that you and I had a lot in common, and one of the things we had in common was being turned on by Lenny Bruce.
Besides growing up in Los Angeles, putting twin pipes on our car and reprimering the right front fender and going to drive-ins. I wonder if anybody understands all of that kind of thing?
That whole album Freak Out! is Southern California. Nobody else knows what a swimming pool is.
No, this is a new type of Iyric that I'm getting into. These are also social-political things. This is straight bizarre lyric, based on – I made research tapes of behavior of some seventeen-year-old kids in Ontario, California, and this is based on those tapes.
How long do you carry some of this stuff around in your head?
Well, "Call Any Vegetable", for example, was written two weeks after we finished Freak Out!, when we were in Hawaii, and it took a year to learn how to play it. "Son Of Suzy Creamcheese" took a year to learn how to play. Can you tell why? The time, the time – it's fantastic. It's four bars of 4/ 4, one bar 8/8, one bar of 9/8 – O K? And then it goes 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, then it goes 8/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, and back into 4/4 again. To get it together now, we just toss it off and it becomes a flop.
Are there a lot of splices on "Absolutely Free"? I thought I detected places where there were very abrupt changes, and it hadn't been like you paused and changed tempo. but that you'd spliced one part into another. Am I right about that?
Oh, yeah. There was a lot of editing. Since that time, we've adjusted our playing so we can sound like we've been edited. I like that effect.
When I've heard jazz groups change tempos, they usually pause and make it quite apparent that the tempo is being changed.
That's silly though.
Yes, it is silly.
Because you lose the impact.
Yes. Why aren't the lyrics to "Absolutely Free" –
No. Let me back up. I've heard rumors – I know rumors are unreliable – that there was some censorship problem in making this album.
Yes, there were.
And I wondered if you deliberately made the lyrics unintelligible.
No. The censorship problem was not in the lyrics being unintelligible on the record. I wanted to print the libretto as the liner notes.
That was my next question. Why wouldn't they let you?
There's a legal difference between what's on the record and what's on paper.
In other words, you can say it and not get –
You can sing it, and that's part of a work of art; but the liner notes to an album are not – you can't defend that in court as a work of art.
Who's the genius who decided that?
M-G-M legal department. And this is the one that'll really kill you. You see that copy [of the libretto to "Absolutely Free"] you've got in your hand? Look what they censored out of it – the word "thirteen"! "She's only thirteen and she knows how nasty" [from "Brown Shoes Don't Make It]. You know what they took out? The word "thirteen," not nasty. Yes, they wanted us to say that she was ... Look: "Magnificent Instrumental, Ejaculation Number 1." They had to cross it out and change to "Climax." [Laughter] You dig? They wanted to change, "I'd like to make her do a nasty on the White House lawn," [from "Brown Shoes" ... ] they wanted to change it to –
White House bathroom?
No, "I'd like to make her do the crossword puzzle on the back of TV Guide."
Are you kidding?
Read it. You want to know something else? M-G-M says, "Now, we know – you and I both know – that you want to make her do nasty on the White House lawn can mean only one thing: you want to make her shit on the White House lawn."
That's what he said. "Now, look, there are some things that are in bad taste...."
Napalm, of course, is perfectly in good taste....
Like dig the way these guys think, man. Also, "she's only 13 and I hear she gets loaded," ["Brown Shoes" ... again] M-G-M says, "We might run into trouble, because in some states – "
You're not supposed to drink until you're eighteen. You know, in some states the legal drinking age is eighteen. I reviewed the record and I reviewed it without the libretto; and I admit I was very uptight by not having the libretto at hand; and I kind of thought that this might be some kind of publicity or money-making gimmick on your part.
The whole logic behind that is, the only way you can teach an American is by example, because they've gone past the point where they'll believe what you tell them. That's the way it is. They have to get it from a different source. They have to be shown by example. So – in other words, the American advertising system, which is one of the main evils of contemporary society – the whole idea of making people buy things that they don't need is morally wrong. And the only way you're going to mak'em know is to do it, really overdo it – buy, sell, cram. Until they finally say, "What the f*** is this?" Now, the way the libretto is going to be handled is it's going to be printed in Evergreen Review, I believe, either Evergreen or Ramparts. The idea is to carry the whole liner notes; and it will also be available in booklet form, if they want to send for it.
It seems to me very coincidental that the Beatles' new record Sgt. Pepper's ... came out the same time "Absolutely Free" did. I find a great similarity. The Beatles seem to be rejecting the idea that you have to be enslaved to commodities; and that when you're sixty-four years old, all you have is two weeks summer in the Isle of Wight.
I think it's probably more subjective than that. It sounds to me like "what's going to happen when we're sixtyfour? Are you still going to buy our shit?" It's a humorous treatment of what happens when a rock and roller gets old.
I didn't get that impression. I juxtaposed that track with the George Harrison thing in front of it ["Within You Without You"], which was talking about, "We could change the world with our love." It seems that what they're saying, "On the one hand you can go off and be free if you want. On the other hand, you can enslave yourself to buy, buy, buy, buy, buy."
I believe in what George Harrison says that you can change the world with love – if you really got it. If you really care, you can do it.
Can you love in a society that only teaches hate?
Why not? Just to be contrary, you can do it. If you really want to be a rebel, honestly try and love something. And if you really want to be gross about it, try and love the society that's shitty – try and love it enough to do something about it. If you can get enough zealots out there that believe in that sort of activity, you can't stop them, no matter what they look like and where they live, because those are the kind of people that move mountains and you can't do anything about it. They won't take no for an answer.
Let's put in a note here when this thing is edited for the magazine not to take the word "f***" out and the word "shit" out, and so forth, because that would be contrary to the spirit of the interview.
Well, like if they're going to substitute any words substitute "do-do" for "shit," got that? And for "f***" we'll have "hunchy-punchy ." [Society has become very permissive in its acceptance of the use of four-letter uwords, especially in serious publications. We admit to being rather conservative but do permit the use of some four-letter words as this interview indicates. We recognize that in the future it will be difficult for a responsible periodical to omit the use of all four-letter words. Ed.]
California is clearly the center of the new popular music. I wonder how you relate the Mothers to some of the Northern California groups like the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead, and though it's a Southern California group, Love. I'm curious as to how you see the relationship between you and your audience compared to the relationship between them and their audience.
The whole San Francisco scene is promoting a love relationship between the audience and the group. The group is supposed to love the audience to death.
Do you think this exists in practice?
No, I don't think so.
Have you seen this firsthand?
Sure. Because I find it equally as nonexistent as well, you go to the Avalon Ballroom and they pass out feathers and bells. That's it, man. That's phony. That's like if we were to pass out Molotov cocktails in the lobby, it'd be just as phony. It's childish, because it's like a club. The key club – you bring a feather and a bell.
What do you think is the relationship between, say, the Airplane and its following, then, if it isn't really love? Do you think it's just, as you suggested earlier, a street gang without fights?
I can't really evaluate other band's followings, because I don't know that much about the inner workings of their promotion. All I can say is that people who like the Jefferson Airplane like'em, and people who like the Grateful Dead, they like'em. People have different tastes.
How about the relationship between the Mothers and their audience?
It's a little bit different, because our initial appeal is to the outcasts, the weirdos.
Especially the L.A. weirdos. Your whole thing is steeped in the L.A. mystique.
Well, we're definitely a product of our environment. That whole band grew up in L.A. I don't see how people can lump us in with the San Francisco bullshit scene, because it doesn't sound like San Francisco music to me, no matter how objective.... Anyway, the people that we hear about that like us – I could show you some of the fan letters. They're just unique, man. These are really the cream of the weirdos of each town, and they're coming from all over. We're getting letters from very strange places.
Do they think in political terms, or what?
Some of them do. Some of them think just in terms of like, "I feel funny because people think I'm strange." And, "Say that you like me, please, Mothers of Invention, so that I'll keep on being strange and I'll stay alive in my small town."
What do you do with those letters?
We haven't answered any of them yet. We're just now setting up our correspondence. We've got a total of about three hundred fan letters for the past year.
You take this pretty seriously, then?
Sure. Why not? Those are live people out there. If you can think of it as somebody who paid four dollars for an album, that's one way to do it, and then you send him an autographed picture. But I'll show you the material we've been preparing for fan consumption.
[Quoting Mothers' first answer to fan mail:] "We could have sent you a cheesy form letter, all purple and mimeographed, something that would probably say, 'The Mothers of Invention want to thank you blah blah for writing such a nifty letter blah and they love their fans who are so loyal and thoughtful blah and blah. But they are so busybusybusybusy that it would be virtually impossible for them to even begin to attempt to consider the possibility of any sort of warm personal reply, blah, blah, blaaahhh.' We could have sent you that sort of cheesy letter, instead we have sent you this cheesy letter, the text of which reads: " 'Dearest Wonderful and Perceptive Person: The Mothers of Invention want to thank you blah blah for writing us such a nifty letter, some of which you have written to us on toilet paper – how wonderfully original. Golly gee, we are so awful busy being thrown out of restaurants and hotels in Montreal, ignored by taxis in New York – have you had that trouble too – it's getting so you don't even have to be black not to be picked up – mugged by policemen in Los Angeles and scrutinized by the censors of all major U.S. media. Willikins! It takes so much time to do all that crap we hardly have any time to answer each of you in a warm, personal way. So: If you are a worried girl and you wrote to us because we turn you on and you want our bodies and/or you think we are cute, here is your own personal section of the letter. The answer to any and all questions is, yes, we love you even if you are fat, with pimples. If you are or are considering the possibility of becoming a boy and you think you are very hep and swinging and you wrote to us on a piece of toilet paper, this section is for you: Keep up the good work. We would like to encourage you to become even more nihilistic and destructive. Attaboy. Don't take any gas from your metal shop teacher or that creep with the flat top in physical education who wants to bust your head because you are different. Give them all the finger, just like we would give you the finger for writing to us on a piece of toilet paper ' "
Solid! End letter. That's not all, I have to type up a few more sections. OK, that's the initial reply to a fan letter, which has to be modified, because I understand that there are legal complications to saying anything sexual in a form letter.
There are legal complications to everything. Then follows: "Would you be interested in joining what's called a fan club for the Mothers? The official name of the organization is the United Mutations. We call it that because we are certain that only a few special people might be interested in active participation. It will cost you three dollars and you must fill in the accompanying questionnaire. Name, age, sex, height, weight, address, state, zip, father's name, profession, mother's name, profession. Answer these questions briefly: Who is God? ESP? Yes? No? Describe. Best way to deseribe my social environment is: If I had my way I would change it to: How will you change your social environment? When? What are you afraid of? What sort of help can the Mothers give you? "On another sheet of paper describe your favorite dream, or nightmare, in clinical detail. Send both sheets with three dollars to the address above and in return we will send you useful information about the Mothers, a small package with some other things you might be interested in. Thank you. Your signature in ink, please." This is the follow-up letter that accompanies the package: "Hello. Thank you for responding to our initial proposal. It is necessary to know a few more things about you. We hope you won't mind answering another form letter, but our files require it for continued membership. If you are interested in this worthwhile program of let's call it self-help, please be advised that our work can be continued only if your membership is kept paid yearly and we have periodic reports of your activities within the context of our program. You will be notified by mail for your next membership report. For now, please fill in this form and return it to us and read the enclosed material carefully. We are happy you took an interest in us. Answer these questions briefly. Please enclose a small photo of yourself. "Are you a mutation? What can you do to help us? People's minds: how many do you control? Why not more? How do you control your subjects? Do they know? Do other people know? How do you avoid problems? Do you group think? Is there another operator near you? Who? Does he/she belong to our association? If no, why not? Describe your relationship with your parents. How can the Mothers assist you? Your signature in ink, please. Date."
I take it you're mostly interested in young people, in particular high school students?
Well, they seem to be the only ones left alive.
Perhaps this is a mis-estimate on my part, but so much of your thing seems to be directed towards the high school scene, for example, "I'm losing status at the high school" [from "Status Back Baby"]. For people who know what the public education system is, they're obviously going to be in sympathy with you. They won't be convinced because you've already reached your conclusions on their own. They don't need any more propagandizing. And the ones who aren't convinced, they're not going to be convinced by that, because they're not even going to listen to that record, or if they do, they won't listen to it a second time. So then, who is going to be –
Influenced by "I'm losing status at the high school?"
So there are, in small towns and so forth, all these people who really think that there's something wrong with them because they're losing status at the high school?
That's right. Think about this for a minute: If you were to graphically analyze the different types of directions of all the songs in the Freak Out! album, there's a little something in there for everybody. At least one piece of material is slanted for every type of social orientation within our consumer group, which happens to be six to eighty. Because we got people that like what we do, from kids six years old screaming on us to play "Wowie Zowie." Like I meet executives doing this and that, and they say, "My kid's got the record, and 'Wowie Zowie's' their favorite song."
How did the kid get the record in the first place?
They may have an older sister or brother who got hold of the thing and who played it at the house, but the young kids that hear it like "Wowie Zowie," and then there are other high school kids – they're all trying to find something on there that they can identify with. I've gotten a lot of replies that kids like the "Watts Riot song" ( Trouble Comin' Every Day ).
Who are the Brain Police?
I can't tell you that – it's a religious song. But the ones who say they like "Brain Police" like it because it's got some screaming and they love it. The ones that like "Help, I'm A Rock", you know that mumbling part at the end, haven't come to realize what the musical structure of that is. They'll perceive it because it's got some gag lines in it.
Who played the piano solo on it?
That's what I thought. Hence, "If you want to become a piano player, go out and buy a Cecil Taylor record." [As Zappa stated in Hit Parader].
That whole Freak Out! album is to be as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names in there, if anybody were to research it, it would probably help them a great deal.
The list of names preceded by, "We have been influenced by – , do not hold it against them?"
There again you seem to be very conscious of packaging, promoting, that sort of thing.
Of course. The Mothers were packaged two years before we actually put the band together, because I had been doing motivational research in the field, watching successes and failures of other people in the industry.
What were you doing before you got the Mothers together?
I had a recording studio, and prior to that I was in advertising.
I heard you talking about UCLA. Did you go to college?
No. I dropped out of junior college after one semester.
So you're a self-educated man; but then, everybody's a self-educated man.
It's almost like college was invented by Madison Avenue so that after you've gone for a certain number of years and spent a certain amount of money on products which they're helping to sell to you, you'll get a piece of paper that says you're educated.
That's definitely where it's at; and all you have to do is teach in one to find that out. Nobody's interested in getting an education in college – they're simply interested in getting out. That might not be true at Harvard – there may be a few freaks around at the top schools who really want to learn something. But if you go out in the provinces, like the University of Pittsburgh, forget it.
I'm interested in how you would classify the Mothers, assuming you were forced to classify them. In a musical sense, if you talk about a spectrum in music that extends from straight rock groups like the Jefferson Airplane and the other San Francisco groups on the one hand, to jazz groups like Archie Shepp's group or John Coltrane's group. Now in these terms, how would you go about describing the Mothers?
It's a collection of opposites. Our music exists because we jam things that don't belong together. In other words, we attempt to do the impossible and demonstrate that it can be done. One aspect of what we do, most people have ignored until now. They take for granted the fact that we go from one speed in one time signature to another speed in another time signature in a split second, without any hang-ups, without any planning in advance. We change tempos and change songs with no forewarning most of the time. Like, maybe I'll only tell them we're going into three songs out of a set. That's what all that jumping around is about. If I jump and hit the floor, that's the first beat of the next bar, and they have to figure out what the song is by two notes. We trained to put the thing together that way. And of course we have other signals which indicate certain sound events are supposed to take place, like that rumble and smash and speedup and noise.
One thing I've noticed about the Mothers is that they're very definitely an improvisational band. They play solos; and they seem very heavily jazz-influenced, especially your saxophonist [Bunk Gardner].
It's amazing to note that we had to force him to play in that [Coltranesque] vein, when we first had him in the band he was playing straight out of 1955 – Howard Ramsey's Light Love All-Stars.
Oh, really? Well, now it sounds to me like vintage 1962 John Coltrane, especially his work on the soprano; and also I hear some of the new music on the tenor and alto. You listen to that, then, I take it – beside Cecil [Taylor], you listen to Coltrane, too?
Well, I don't own any Coltrane, except that he's one artist on the anthology album that Tom Wilson produced in 1950. The one that has Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. It's called Jazz in Transition – it's a classic.
I thought I detected in your music a strong Coltrane overtone especially in the use of modes for extended improvisations. This is what puzzled me, though: Why do you keep the steady emphasis on 2 and 4, the steady backbeat?
So the people can identify at least the rhythm.
Have you thought about playing dances at all?
Yes. They dance, in a bizarre way. Los Angeles is the best place for us to play for dancing because the kids dance better there; they dance free. Here in town you get these pigs trying to do the boogaloo and all that stuff to what we do, and their legs get all tangled up and they fall down.
Ever since I got the John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard Again, I've been dancing around the house to it, and there's not a fixed beat. From that, it occurred to me, people have said that one of the reasons jazz is losing an audience is because you can't dance to it, but that's nonsense. You can dance to it, but you can't just do the boogaloo to it. You can dance to any piece of music you hear – in fact, you can dance even if you don't hear music.
To go back to that earlier question, I guess you see yourself as melding together all these things.
Yes. We want to try and put together a theatre of a bizarre sort. The spoken word is differentiated from the sung word, in its rhythmic sense, as in poetry. But even normal speech patterns are beautiful in themselves. Because the way people talk, it doesn't make a shit what they're saying; in fact, most of the time what they're saying is really ugly. But when you think about the rhythm, or the way certain gas-station attendants might speak, you know, what they're saying is useless; but if you just listen to it as a piece of music ... I like to simulate things like that.
You're very conscious of that, aren't you? For instance, I notice when Jim Black sings, "TV dinner by the pool, I'm so glad I finished school" [in Brown Shoes Don't Make It], he does it the way that guy would say it. I've heard that guy talk, I don't know what his name is but – that's a typical Southern migrant to Los Angeles at the age of seven, now working in a defense plant. There's some Jungian symbol fixed in my brain that immediately clicked: "I've heard that voice before!"
It's all around you; it rules the world. It rules California.
I think it rules the world. Actually, it's cannon fodder like the rest of us.
Love, a group I'm not terribly impressed with as a whole, also have a saxophonist and are trying to combine jazz improvisation with rock.
Actually, what they're trying to do is to imitate our band.
I heard them first. Is it just coincidental that their album was released first?
Well, let me tell you of a few interesting coincidences that I've noticed, that lead me to suspect that we're making more of an impact on the industry than the people in the industry would like to admit. I was mailed a picture of Paul McCartney many months ago, from a girl in Europe, with my mustache and my tie, with my earphones, conducting an orchestra. And this is about the time I was preparing an album for Capitol where I was conducting an orchestra.
What do you mean, your earphones? I don't understand.
I mean, that's the way I ... it looked like me in the studio and I really shit in my pants when I saw it. I've never met them. It was a bizarre coincidence. And like him conducting the orchestra on their recent album [Sgt. Pepper]. I don't know how much that amounts to, because the orchestra is used as an effect.
Have you listened to that album carefully?
Do you think there is any similarity between Lovely Rita, Meter Maid and certain parts of Help, I'm A Rock?
The way they're doing "huffa-puffa, huffa-puffa" in the background? Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. There's also a coincidence in the use of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a reprise and the way we do America Drinks and Goes Home on Absolutely Free.
Was your album released at the time that they were preparing Sgt. Pepper?
Do you know when Absolutely Free was recorded? It was recorded before Thanksgiving last November. Before we came to New York.
What kept it from being released earlier? Was it the censorship problem?
Do you think that the Beatles would have had access to that?
I don't know. Yes, it's possible, because rumors in the industry have a tendency to go very fast. And on The Rolling Stones' album, Between the Buttons, they've got that camp song Something Happened to Me Yesterday. But we recorded ours before theirs; though theirs was released before ours.
Just from the grapevine I know that there are several English groups like the Yardbirds and Eric Burdon's that seem to be intrigued by what you're doing. Can you think of any other English groups, or American groups for that matter, that have made the Mothers' influence explicit?
No, but let me tell you how far it's gone with the Animals. First of all, it's common knowledge in the industry that, the way it was explained to me (and this is not my opinion of what they've done up 'til now), that they were the typical noncreative rock-and-roll group who have made a success performing material that was not necessarily original and which was not written by any member of the group.
They've said that. Eric Burdon has said that they've had great problems writing their own material.
OK, so I had an experience arranging some stuff for them, and I found that not only were they not particularly original, but were hung up in that R & B bag, which is deadening when you get little white boys trying to be little black boys, screaming the blues and being funky and all – that's shitty.
The best thing about the Rolling Stones was that they didn't do that very long.
Yeah, but when they did it, it was funky. It wasn't necessarily colored-sounding blues, but it was really funky.
Yes, British working-class funk.
And it was valid for that, except when they tried to do too much Chuck Berry. Now, after Eric went to a party at my place, I don't know what happened in his head – I believe he was a little bit psychedelically jacked-up that evening or the two nights that he spent over at my I place. It must have been something, because now there's this album that they recorded about a month or two ago with [Tom] Wilson in Los Angeles; their new group is psychedelic. One of their songs is seven minutes long. It's a poem about the Black Plague and it's accompanied by tape-recorded sounds of a monastery. They've got another song about San Francisco policemen ... Wilson said they went into the studio and played Suzy Creamcheese note for note – I mean the one on the Freak Out! album – played Return of the Son of Monster Magnet note for note. So if that's the kind of stuff they're practicing, if they use that album as Point Zero to start from, that's dynamite, man. If every group in the industry would do that, and I would love to see them do it, the whole complexion of the music would change in a hurry, and it would be very gratifying to hear that weirdness on the radio coming from people other than us.
Do you have any indication that your music is catching on I in the industry?
Well, I notice that every time we work with another act – we usually accompany somebody who's "a star." Whenever the star group is on a couple of sets, the next time we hear them they're playing | something that sounds like something we do. I realized that from the first time we worked with the Blues Project till the next time we saw them, they were doing songs with time changes in them. But they were stopping in between, so they counted off and started again. They still hadn't gotten down to the point where they could actually bring themselves to actually jump in the air and land on the first beat of the first bar. And other groups? We just notice that experimental things are creeping into their bag. And although the people who are trying these things believe what they're doing is original and all that, I can't help but feel that we had something to do with motivating them to try something more unusual than they might have if they hadn't heard the Freak Out! album or heard that somebody was doing something weird. When you're writing a song, as most of the groups do, it's a cooperative effort, they all get together, you have certain alternatives that you can do in putting that song together. At a certain point in the arranging of the tune, you can decide whether or not the bridge is going to be a simple bridge or if it's going to be a bit weird. Most of the time now, the kids are choosing something that might be unique – a time-signature change, a weird chord here and there, a suspension, you know. It's happening; their idea of what music is is broadening!
Do you hear this in the San Francisco groups too?
San Francisco still seems to be either hung up on modality, plastic Yardbird imitations, or R & B. I got soul, baby, even though I'm Jewish.
In what category would you fit the Jefferson Airplane?
Well, they started out as being modal city. I liked the stuff on the first album more than the second. As a matter of fact, they asked me to produce their third album. I couldn't do it, 'cause I couldn't leave the [Garrick] theatre [in New York] just to go out there and do it, which means a loss of a lot of money.
Have you produced any albums yet?
For other people? I've produced singles for other people and I'm getting ready to produce an album of a group called the Auto Salvage, which is very promising.
Have there been any singles released by the Mothers?
What happened to them?
Well, How Could I Be Such A Fool?, which was released as our first single, sold 4,000 in Detroit. Imagine us on the radio selling records in Detroit.
What was the B side?
The B side was It Can't Happen Here. [Laughter.] I mean, I couldn't go too straight. Then came the "Watts riot song" Trouble Comin' Every Day in a scaled-down version with Who Are The Brain Police? on the other side. If the DJ put that thing on to test – if they ever got around to checking it over – forget it!
How well did that sell? Did it do anything?
A record doesn't sell unless it gets on the radio. Then the third single was There's A Big Dilemma About My Big Leg Emma, with Why Don't You Do Me Right? on the other side.
That hasn't been put out, has it?
Yes it has. I'll give you a copy of it.
No, I meant on an album.
No, fortunately, and I hope it never is, because it was a straight commercial attempt to just go in with a piece of absolute shit for a market that is based on shit. It was an experiment.
How did it work?
Not too well.
That's encouraging in a way. It shows that you can't merchandise straight shit.
Well, we could. I have another way. There's different categories of straight shit. That was straight-shit jug band, OK? The other side was straight shit R & B, with a little humor thrown in. Maybe people were offended by the fact that I did a takeoff on Wild Thing, or Sit Down I Think I Love You, or something like that.
Now the next single that we're going to put out is a beautiful song and it's done with a beautiful arrangement. It's got some lyrics that will go directly to the consciousness level of the thirteen-year-old girl. It's a song about a thirteen-year-old girl who has parents that don't understand her, who gets her rocks off by listening to her favorite singers on the radio and digging their picture on the wall, and living in that putrid world that they invent for themselves locked away in their bedrooms. It's a song that takes the attitude, "We know where you're at, and if you need any assistance, just give us a buzz." It's not like we say, "Come to us," but just by saying that we know what you're doing in your bedroom, which is more than anybody else has said so far, at least we came out and said it. And I think it will be a winner.
How long is it?
It's about two minutes.
It seems inconceivable that five years, three years, maybe two years ago, that you could put out two albums like the two you've put out, that the record companies would be convinced that there was any market for that material. Do you agree with that assessment? And if you do, what do you think has caused the change?
First of all, the market that we reach always existed, but the manner in which we reached that market was carefully planned; and the way we were presented to the record company was carefully planned. We were still turned down by every major company, which was best because we wound up with Wilson; I think that was a great advantage. He's been responsible, having been producing a long time, for most major weirdnesses in music. He was the first man to record Cecil Taylor, and he recorded Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. He was the one that made Dylan go rock and roll.
Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues was a monster record. I heard that thing and I was jumping all over the car. And then when I heard the one after that, Like a Rolling Stone, I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: "If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else," but it didn't do anything. It sold; but nobody responded to it the way that they should have. They should have listened to that and said, "Hey, that record got on the radio. Now, wait a minute, we've got a chance to say something, you know? The radio is for us to use as a weapon." It didn't happen right away, and I was a little disappointed. I figured, "Well, shit, maybe it needs a little reinforcing."
Obviously it does, because people respond to those things and yet they can't immediately go beyond just responding emotionally and internally. They can't like go and do something at once.
You've got to make them involve themselves.
Exactly. There was a very poignant thing I read, I believe it was Mary McCarthy writing about Vietnam in The New York Review, seeing the soldiers there – they're all nineteen-year-olds – singing Blowin' in the Wind and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? And then going out and killing the gooks – kill for peace! So obviously just identifying with "the message," while certainly a step forward, is not sufficient.
Listen, we had three Marines in full-dress uniform on stage one night with us.
What did you do then?
I'll tell you the story. A Marine was killed in the Village, remember? And there was a rumor that every Marine within shooting distance was coming down to beat up everybody they found with long hair. The week following that rumor, we're rehearsing in the theatre and in walk three full-dress Marines. So I said, "Oh, hello there, why don't you come in and sit down." I just went on with our rehearsal; we didn't pay any attention to them. When we were done, they said, "We just bought your album and we really like it." These kids, nineteen years old, stationed on the carrier Wasp at shore here, clean, you know? I said, "Well, I'm glad you do. Hey, listen, how would you guys like to work with us a tonight?" They were really turned on. I said, "Can you sing?" They said, "Yeah." "What do you know?" "Well, I know, Everybody Must Get Stoned and House of the Rising Sun. So we went across the street to have dinner; I ate and they practiced their songs. Come back, we do this number. I said, "Now look, there's one little thing I want you to do. When I give you the signal, I want all three of you guys to lunge for the microphone and start screaming 'Kill!' " So we played like that "Archie" [Shepp], weirdness, with the dissonant chords and all that, and on cue they ran right to the mikes, started screaming "Kill!" The audience just went – they couldn't handle it. Then when it was over, they clapped. So I said to the audience, "Thank you"; and then Ray [Collins] says to the audience, "Thank you"; and then when I pointed to the Marines to have them say "Thank you," the first one walks up to the mike and says: "Eat the apple, fuck the core" [i.e., Corps]. And everybody went, "Whew!" Oh wow. And then the second one, he comes up and says: "Eat the apple, fuck the core." Point to the third one; he goes up, he says: "Hey, you know, I feel the same way as my other two buddies: Eat the apple, fuck the core. Some of us love our mothers more." Full-dress blues, man – they just burned a dozen flags.
Right. Court-martial city, all right? So then, we took an intermission and they stuck around. I said, "Do you guys know ... ?" "I don't care, man. They can only get you once." All right, go back on. I told Gail to get the doll. This is the first time we ever used the doll. We had this doll that somebody gave us, it was really shitty – big plastic doll. Bring it down and I say, "Hey, ladies an' gennlemen, the guys are, uh, gonna sing Everybody Must Get Stoned. They go through all that shit and I says, "Now, we're gonna have basic training. Uh, ladies an' gennlemen, this is a gook baby; and the Marines are going to mutilate it before your very eyes. Kill it!" Tossed it to them, they ripped the arms off, beat it up, stomped on it, and just completely tore it apart. After they're all done, the music got real quiet, the lights went down, and I held it by the hair and showed the audience all the damaged parts of the doll's body, pretending ... . There was one guy in the front row, a Negro cat just come back from Vietnam, was crying. It was awful and I ended the show there.
I guess you did.
You know, "Thank you. Good-bye." It was an atrocity, it was the most ...
That sounds like Lenny Bruce at the London Palladium, you know that thing he does with the entertainer? A leper on the Art Baker show: you asked for it – an arm.
Who says that [on the Absolutely Free album]? You say that, right?
Right. Oh, noooo. Oh, nooooo.
You seem to be very entranced with that phrase on Absolutely Free.
Well, that was a phase I was in. Also, I had an idea of the commercial value of any phrase repeated in that context. In other words, the catch phrase of that album, that's the Suzy Creamcheese of that album.
What is the meaning of that prune and vegetable symbolism? Or is it just nonsense?
Dada dynamite. You know, if you try and respond to that – like try and tune in to that and respond to it like you would ordinary images. That would have the effect, if you let that grab you and move you around the way it's supposed to. it'd jerk you apart. Try and tune into that and flow with it – "moonbeam through the prune" and tune into that and flow, the "magic Go-cart."
I asked you this before and I don't think I got a definite answer. Do you think you could have put this material out five or six years ago and have gotten the same response?
I don't think we could have five or six years ago, but let me tell you something. I've got tapes of original versions of a lot of these songs, which were recorded five or six years ago when I had my studio. We have since refurbished and tried to bring them up to date, in the current rhythmic formats and things like that. Like there was a time when shuffles were popular, but they're not exactly in vogue now. Popular rhythms change, which is an interesting study in itself. Also the use of parallel fifths is coming back and the use of flatted fifths in a blues guitar line, which was gone for years. All guitars heard on top 40 records were very sterile white notes – bend a third; and a bullshit chord, maybe hit a sixth in there once in a while. But now they're getting back to that distorted nastiness that you hear on old blues records.
You do a lot of that on those short breaks.
Because my whole guitar-playing background is not jazz. I can't play jazz worth a shit and I never would claim to.
What is your musical background?
Self-taught. Listen to records.
But, you listen to everything? You seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge.
And I remember what I hate.
How did you get into music at all?
I was playing since I was fifteen.
In rock bands?
Yes. I started out playing drums, in San Gabriel [Calif.] in a band called the Ramblers.
Why didn't you go directly into music? Why did you go into advertising?
Well, I was married for five years and I was an eight-to-fiver. But I was more than an eight-to-fiver, because during the time I was doing that I was also working in what you might call a tiptoe-through-the-tulips-type band, wearing a white tuxedo coat (which I've still got), black pants, black patent-leather shoes, hair slicked back, choreography, played three twist numbers a night, and the rest of the stuff was "Oh I How We Danced on the Night" ...
You condensed that experience beautifully on America Drinks and Goes Home.
Because a lot of the guys in the group have gone through that shit.
You did that. I cried when I heard that.
Did you get that guy swinging back and forth in front of the microphone like they do?
Oh, yeah. Got the cash register, the glasses, the drunken voices, the piano arpeggios, the shuffle rhythm on the drums – it's all there. Which is one of the reasons why jazz musicians don't want to play whiskey clubs anymore. And the audience doesn't understand it. You know, like, "We pay those niggers. Why don't they want to go and be slaves any more?"
Yeah, "If you won't play, shine my shoes, goddamit!"
The one thing that I think is really good about our music is that the settings for the lyrics are so carefully designed. Supposing you had to listen to America Drinks and Goes Home for a million times – it would drive you crazy, for one thing. But eventually, if you're the average stupid layman who hates music anyway, you might realize how perfect that setting is. Those words, man. Those things are so carefully constructed that it breaks my heart when people don't dig into them and see all the levels that I put into them.
That ballad on America Drinks and Goes Home – I hear Tommy Dorsey playing Getting Sentimental, or something like that, every time it comes on. It's kind of the prototype of all modern sentimental crap Tin Pan Alley songs.
Because it was written based on the same subconscious formula that all those pukers use. You know, II-V-I chord progressions, modulating all the way around. They modulate normally in a regular song in a circle of fifths. But this changes key and modulates and it gets weird. There is something happening in all those changes. And the melody, if you just were to play the melody as a straight thing, it's an interesting tune. But those stupid, stupid words, and in that setting with the cash registers and all that – we spent hours putting that together. Herbie [Herbie Cohen, manager of the Mothers] was playing the cash register. We rehearsed the crowd noises. The talk track itself, which is underplayed in there, is funny, because they're saying things like, "I got a new Mustang" [Laughter], and like the girls are saying, "Sally, will you go with me to the bathroom?" You know, that stuff?
Is that all in the libretto?
You can't hear it on the record.
I know you can't. But it's great – it's hysterical. You hear all those drunks, man, you just want to go in there and kill them all.
But that's not all that's happening – technology is not up to reproducing that one song. I'll tell you what's in it. You've got the song itself. And the tune, which is a parody of all the changes. You've got the lyrics, which is a parody of all the lyrics. You've got the vocal performance of the lyrics, which is a parody of that. You've got the improvised dialogue, which is a parody of everybody's closing bullshit.
I know; that's what's so pathetic.
You've got the sound of the setting, of the glasses and the cash register, which is right in there. You've got the crowd mumble, which was carefully programmed, like choreographed. Then on top of that, which you can't even hear, there's a fight going on. We had the crowds separated in two rooms. In the main studio we had ten people sitting around the microphone, doing these lines on cue, with the cash register over here and the glass on one microphone. Then in a vocal booth off to the side we had Ray and Jim [Black] and Roy [Estrada] going through this number. We had Bunk [Gardner] trying to pick up two girls. You know, "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" All that stuff. And then Jim's an Okie wanting to beat up a Mexican, who is Ray. They started out as good buddies and they're drinking beer together, and find out ... the Indian accuses the Mexican of going out with his wife and they punch it out. And meanwhile, the chicks tell this other guy to fuck off because he's coming on too strong, you know, "What kind of girls do you think we are?" And it's all happening in there, but you can't listen to it all. You've got to have it on ten tracks so you can walk around the room and see where it's all coming from.
It must take hours to do that, not to say anything of recording costs.
Well, the cost of the second album was maybe a third of what Freak Out! was, $21,000.
That's right. That's a heck of an investment for an unknown group.
For two LPs that's about five times what it would take for a jazz group.
We really had a good budget for that, which has not been offered to us since, because at the time we recorded the second album, the sales had dipped on Freak Out!
I meant to ask you earlier, when we were talking about your singles, how has the album done overall? Have you seen an audit on that?
Sure, I'll tell you very happily that the first album is around 150,000 right now; and they project sales of 250,000 for the second album by August. And Freak Out! still sells regularly between two and eight thousand copies a week, every week in places like Montana, Wyoming, Florida, Virginia, and all those places, man.
I know it's one of the top sellers in the record store in what passes for a campus area in Pittsburgh.
Well, you see, it doesn't stop. It's the kind of thing where somebody can hear it at a party and they'll remember the name of it.
Some of my students at Carnegie Tech turned me on to it and the Andy Warhol album at the same time.
I like that album. I think that Tom Wilson deserves a lot of credit for making that album, because it's folk music. It's electric folk music, in the sense that what they're saying comes right out of their environment.
It's folk in the sense of relating to a milieu.
Love is that kind of group too, because what they sing about is the folk music of the L.A. freak. What we sing about is the folk music of our environment from Pomona to L.A. You know, being kicked around in go-go bars, and like that.
You're older too, I think.
Our average age is thirty. The age range is twenty-four to thirty-five.
This article was put on these web pages with permission of the author, Mr. Frank Kofsky. I'd like to thank him for his graciousness.
– Robbert Heederik