Mother In Lore
By Patrick and Barbara Salvo
Melody Maker, January 5, 1974
If "necessity be the mother of invention," Frank Zappa is then an obscene colloquialism.
Francis Vincent Zappa Jr, 33, born of Sicilian/Greek parentage, is not a necessity; he is mandatory. The obligatory weirdo, freaked-out genius. The kid with horn-rimmed glasses who dabbled with test tubes and chemistry sets and grew up to be a human musical rocket ship with dada-wheel drive, four on the floor and an ear for the avant garde, Suzy Cream Cheese (sic) and the Fillmore East.
Groupies grope, musicologists shudder and stoned-out audiences stare in stupor. Look out old Frank is back.
After a brief bout with death, incurred while being pushed off a London stage during a tumultuous encore, Frank Zappa, purveyor of classical rock fusion à la dirty blues and blacks, filtered through psychedelic LSD, pseudo hippy trippy glasses, is at it again.
After 16 albums, a "loss of status at high school" and several million dollars running through his dextrous musical fingers, Frank Zappa finally admitted he wasn't in it "only for the money," nor the music or fame or even "cheesy sex," but like his fans, for the "curiosity."
The interview was conducted by PATRICK and BARBARA SALVO.
You once said "I was never a hippie. Always a freak, but never a hippie." What made you a freak and not a hippie?
Because there is a generic difference. You see the origins of hippies as per "San Francisco flower power Haight Ashbury", is quite a different evolution from the Los Angeles "freak movement," of which I was a part and there was just a difference in the concept of it.
I was never a hippie. I never bought the flower power ethic.
You have an incredible reputation for doing what the majority of artists would never do to their audiences. You criticise 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 programme, 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.
I can't bow down to the wishes of .00 per cent of the audience who wants to make a bunch of noise. Now 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.
But we do enjoy it and the people that have various negative opinions about it can use any adjective they want to describe it.
"I Was A Teenage Malt Shop" was perhaps the first rock opera. How biographical was it?
Maltshop? Oh strictly fantasy-type stuff. It was the idea of an old man who has a daughter named Nelda who was a cheerleader.
The old man has a recording studio that hasn't hit and there's an evil landlord who's going to foreclose on him. So there's this group that somes in with a teenage hero that goes to the high school called Med the Mungler, a teenage Lone Ranger, and it was just a fantasy-type thing with rock and roll music on it.
Was your childhood a very lonely period?
Well, we moved around a lot. My father was employed in various capacities as a civil servant. He was a weatherman, then a meteorologist. We usually didn't stay in any one town more than a year, so I didn't have too many friends.
You once had aspirations to become a scientist.
I used to be interested in chemistry.
Do you think you succeeded as a scientist or sorts?
I'm not done yet I may yet become a straight-ahead scientist, if I ever get enough spare time to study some maths.
You used to listen to your father rather than talk with him. Did it help?
Listening to my father? I said a few things to him of course, but they never did any good. It's not so much that my father was providing me with these pearls of wisdom for me to cherish. My favourite expression that he said was "The road to hell is paved with good intentions. "The only other thing he said was "You're going to lose all your teeth by the time you're 25."
That was for eating too many candy bars.
Didn't you finish high school quicker than most other kids?
Well, I had fewer than the required number of units to graduate, because I was thrown out of school so many times. And they just let me out rather than keeping me.
Theoretically, I shouldn't have graduated, but I had spent the right amount of time in school.
A few albums ago, you recorded "Cruising With Ruben and the Jets." Wasn't that a parody of those white singers like Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka?
It wasn't really a parody. If you are familiar with the development of the music of Igor Stravinsky; at one point he started writing a whole series of compositions that were in a style grossly unpopular at the time.
He styled his own ideas in the old-style classicism; the rigid and certain type of harmony and certain type of scale structure. Basically that was what was happening with Ruben and the Jets.
It was a neo-classic album. It uses all the structural elements of those type of songs. And it adhered to that form, except it was a modern-day thing, a modern day production.
In the classical vein some of your music has been reflective of the works of Edgar Varèse. How did you first get acquainted with him?
I got hold of one of his albums and I thought it was the greatest music I had ever heard, and I hadn't heard any one else who dared to write anything near it.
Better than Bach, Beethoven, Mozart?
Better than everybody. At the time I heard it first, I related to it only on the "turned on" level because I didn't know musical theory, to say the counterpoint was brilliant or something else.
I thought it was fantastic. Same way when I first heard "Annie Had A Baby" I thought that was fantastic.
In 1965, you entered the record industry by buying your own studio in Cucamonga, California. How and what did Studio Z do to your then budding career?
It was the only place at that time that had a five-track recorder. It was a handmade machine. Done by a guy named Paul Buff who owned the studio before me. And this machine enabled me to sit there and do overdubs.
Once I learned how to work the equipment, I would sit there 12 hours at a time in the studio and play all the instruments myself onto the tape and practise what I was going to do later when I got into a bigger studio. It was a lab for me.
Didn't Studio Z help create the forerunner of the Mothers Of Invention, the Muthers?
Yeah, it was a three-piece group with Paul Woods on bass, Les Papp on drums and me on guitar, and we worked at a club called the Saints and Sinners in Ontario, California and it was about as close as you could get to an Eric Clapton-Cream type format at that time.
We weren't full of amplification and power but we were the same type of format, a guitar trio and I was doing the vocals, a rhythm and blues type thing.
Then came "Muthers" which was just short for mother f---.
You were arrested for dabbling in pornographic film making.
Oh yeah, it was around that time. 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 requesting material to present to other used car salesmen at an alleged party that was supposed to take place the following Wednesday.
Because I received a lot of publicity in the Cucamonga area through the studio, 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.
It was directly across the street from a holyroller church and a block away from a grammar school in a town of 7,000 population – so they came to me.
I was the only guy in town that had long hair even though it was shorter than a crew cut. It was weird.
So there was a bunch of 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." They 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 'cause I had no idea that the manufacture of such a tape would be doing anything illegal. And I thought I was doing a public service to a bunch of used-car salesmen who wanted to get their rocks off.
So I made this tape for a price of $100. It sounded really fine to me at the time because I wasn't eating, and he came back the next day and offered me $50 and I said "wait a minute, there is something strange here." An 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, which means: I give up, I don't have any money, I can't afford a lawyer but I did not say I'm guilty. The judge said, "We'll give him six months with all but ten days suspended and three years probation. So I went to the San Bernadino 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. That's what's so hilarious about it.
This was '64. The Freak Out Album was '65.
It's around '65 now, The Beatles have already splashed down, LSD is pretty hip and the Mothers of Invention moved to L.A. Could you detail the stream of L.A. consciousness around that era?
Most of the people that were into the freak scene in Los Angeles were getting their costumes together, dancing a lot. The real freaks weren't using any drugs at all. Then there were the "weekenders" who used to come in and stick anything in their mouth that they could find. And you were hearing about people freaking out on acid all over the place. And it was quite colourful.
The real estate speculators who had something to do with Sunset Boulevard, which is where all the freak-outs took place, started complaining that the accumulation of all these weird people on their street was bringing their property values down.
So they induced the police to make illegal roundups of all these people.
Were they more extraordinary than the rest?
Um hm, well, Vito was about 60 years old, married to a 20-year-old ex-cheerleader, and they used to have this place down by Cantor's delicatessen and he would train people in how to be a freak.
What, who and where was Suzy Cream Cheese (sic) at?
Suzy Cream Cheese was a girl named Jeannie Vassoir, and she was the voice that's on the "Freak Out" album; And the myth of Suzy Cream Cheese, the letter on the album which I wrote myself – there never really was a Suzy Cream Cheese.
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 Suzy Cream Cheese 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 so she maintained the reputation of being Suzy Cream Cheese after 1967.
The first one went someplace. We don't know where. She's back in town now, I saw her.
Who were some of the big musical names that passed through the Mothers camp?
Dr John auditioned for the Mothers before we recorded "Freak Out." He came down and when he heard the words to "Who Are The Brain Police?" it scared him and he didn't think that he wanted to do it. Jim Guercio, now with Chicago, was in the group for a very short period of time in a club called The Trip, playing guitar, Van Dyke Parks played electric harpsichord, in and out.
Van Dyke was not a reliable player. He didn't make it to rehearsal on time and things like that, and Guercio, I can't remember how he left.
What was the social significance of your earlier tunes like "Help, I'm A Rock" and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It."
"Help I'm A Rock " wasn't written. It was just a thing that spewed out at that session. What was happening was what was in the air that night. "Brown Shoes" was a song that relates specifically to people who are emotionally disturbed, who wind up going into politics and making laws to regulate the conduct of other people , "Brown Shoes" is probably more applicable today than ever before.
Didn't you have the Los Angeles Philharmonic sit in on "Freak Out?"
Some members of it. There was one public session, a late night session on a Friday night I believe. About 200 people were there. A lot of people came by and jammed.
You would have had to have seen the people that walked in there, what they looked like, some girls wearing nothing but a doily-type tablecloth and guys dressed in nothing but leotards and a long stringy hairdo with garbage attached to them.
You know, highly aboriginal-looking freaks who came stumbling into the studio. And these engineers normally saw nothing but sports shirts, They were union men.
What did the Philharmonic people think?
Well, when I brought them in we were using six cellos and they were voiced in a way that each cello was playing one string of a guitar for special voicings that I was doing on this one thing.
And they sat down and looked at their parts and the first cellist looked at them and said " Look out, we gotta play some real music now." Because normally what a string section does on a record is they play a bunch of whole notes on the background.
They very seldom play any complicated lines.
Your next album "Absolutely Free" included the masterpiece "America Drinks," and its sequel "America Drinks & Goes Home," complete with clinking cocktail glasses. What were you presenting there?
We used to work in cocktail lounges. I didn't think that anyone had really presented the horror of the cocktail lounge sufficiently and so we tried to relive a little of it.
Everybody in the band at that time knew what the story was with the lounge musical life and they got off on making a parody of what they'd experienced in those lounges.
All the clinking glasses and the fight that is going on in the background is specially stated. We had people all over the studio: a guy in the corner playing a cash register (Herb Cohen – Frank's manager) another guy dropping broken glass into a garbage can and shaking it and three people off in another booth having a fight over who was going to take this girl home, and it was all done simultaneously.
What other type of multimedia were/are you into?
Well, I've been writing since about 1955-'56, when I started writing stories which were either science fiction or pachuco-type humour. And then I started doing 8mm films and experimental stuff like exposing the roll five times, doing opticals inside the camera.
At this point did you use your stage act to present your political views? How political orientated were you at that point?
Most of my songs are not political, they are sociological. It's more a bane to my existence. People said I was talking about political stuff, and the only thing that I can see is remotely political is "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" 'cause that's about legislators.
But all the themes of my songs, I think, are sociological rather than political.
You have some rather strong views about how the so called hip revolution was going at that point, it wasn't going anywhere, was it?
Well, that's right. It wasn't, and probably never will.
Well, you must remember that by the time flower power had happened in San Francisco and been reported in Time Magazine it didn't exist any more. Because you had people who had no experience with the movement in San Francisco suddenly popping up and deciding that they were going to be hippies.
And then you had phoney people faking it in their own locations. It was roughly the same thing that happened when surfing became a craze. There were people in Kansas that had woody wagons and a surf board and there wasn't even a lake!
In November '66 you moved to New York and took up residency at the Garrick Theatre, The New York Fugs were around the block at the Players Theatre. It must have been a hairy scene back then.
Oh yeah. It was a milestone in musical history. No other group has ever done that and had that long a residency with the amount of work that we did per day, each one different and tailormade for the audiences that came in there.
You performed marriages on stage, goosed young virgins and spat at your audience. What was going on?
Well, that's what they liked. There was one kid in there, and he came back 20 or 30 times, and his idea of a good time was to be allowed up onstage while I was singing, 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.
I said "Sure, I'll spit Coca Cola all over you." I mean that's an art statement, isn't it?
What was Pigs and Repugnant all about?
Well, that was the name that was given to our show there at the Garrick Theatre It was just the name of the show. It was called either Absolutely Free or Pigs and Repugnant.
Can you tell me about the great marine atrocities?
When the marines came up on, stage? Sure, a marine had been stabbed in Greenwich Village and there was a rumour going around that all the marines were going to come into the Village and stomp all the hippies in sight. And 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. So when it was over I went down and talked with them. And :the rest of the guys in the band were going "oh man, are they coming down here to get us?"
But they turned out to be real nice guys and asked for autographs and so forth, and I asked if they would like to sit in with us that night. So they said "sure." I said, "Can you sing?" and they said "Yes 'House Of The Rising Sun' and 'Everybody Must Get Stoned '."
I told them to go across the street to the Tin Angel, get a drunk and then come back and sit in with us and they did, got up on stage in full dress uniform. So the United States Marines starred, singing "Everybody Must Get Stoned " and "House Of The Rising Sun" and everybody loved it.
So I asked them if they would be interested in demonstrating some of their combat techniques on stage. They thought that would be fun. I sent around the corner to my apartment to procure a large doll that is about four a a half feet tall. And when they 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 it to these people in Vietnam.
They tore the doll apart, completely wasted it with musical accompaniment and then when they finished doing it; I think I said " Let's hear it for the United States Marines." And I held up the dismembered pieces of the doll and with weird quiet music I just showed these parts to people in the audience.
People out there 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, f--- the core," and the second guy said "Eat the apple f--- the core," and the third guy said "Eat the apple, f--- the core, some of us love our mothers more."
I saw one of those guys again when we played in Philadelphia. He was out of uniform by then.
What is the connotation of "Lumpy Gravy?"
You never heard it? It's from a commercial for Aloma Linda Gravy Quick, that's where the name came from.
I was offered a chance to write for a 40 piece orchestra by a producer, Nik Venet, who was with Capitol Records at the time. It was the first chance I had to get a professional recording of my stuff with an orchestra and we did it.
Then there was a thirteenmonth litigation that held up the release.
Were you really only in it for the money when you recorded the LP of the same title?
I mean anybody who looked at that album could tell that the reason that it was titled that was because it was a parody of the Beatles only being in it for the money.
And anyway, a group that looked like we did and played what we did couldn't have been in it for money because there was no way we could really make any money doing it.
That's the reason the first group broke up, there was just no way.
Considering that the artwork was a parody of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," was there any flak from the Beatles camp?
No, they held up release of the album by withholding permission to do the parody cover about 11 months. I was supposed to go over to Paul McCartney's house for a lunch or something and I had to call and say I was going to Copenhagen that day and at that time I asked him on the phone if he could give M.G.M. permission to go ahead and print the parody cover.
He said that he couldn't, in sort of a snotty way, and that he would have to get permission from all the other guys and some weird bullshit.
So the thing finally got settled by some attorneys.
Do you really believe that all of your music is really only one long extended piece of music?
Sure ... Theoretically you could put out a record, a tape, that had it all on it if you wanted to sacrifice the quality by running the tape at a slow enough speed, and then if you could get anybody with a long-interest span who cares.
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 composer's music and using it as your own. 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 these people. They are deaf.
What was your association with Captain Beefheart. He now has a beef against you for one reason or another. He was one of the stronger advocates of that theory.
Well I have nothing to say, because I can't say anything positive about him.
Is he good to work with?
I wouldn't go so far as to say that. No.
Do you think you succeeded?
Look at Alice Cooper. We were the first ones to sign them. They existed. I didn't , put them together, but I put out their first two or three albums.
How did you discover Alice Cooper?
They came to my house and auditioned.
How was he at the time. A naive kid or was he into that destructive thing?
No, he was into it. About a year after we signed them they started really costuming it up. But they were always strange.
Who exactly were the GTO's "Together Outrageously."
The GTO's were a group of girls who used to hang out at my house that were very interesting, had an interesting life style, and they used to write poetry, do little skits, and live sort of a fantasy life.
I thought it would be sort of 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 told them I would record them.
You then made an album titled "Permanent Damage" with them.
It was just a sampling of their life style, songs that they wanted to have on the record and them talking about their way of life.
Why did you decide to do a concert with Zubin Mehta?
I write music for all different sizes of instrumental ensembles and I like to write for an orchestra, and if you want to write for one it doesn't do any good unless an orchestra plays it. I had the opportunity to have some of that music played.
And in relation to the Los Angeles Philharmonic they wouldn't do the concert unless there was a group called the Mothers that was going to be on the bill to help insure that they would have an audience. So I put together a group called the Mothers for that particular concert.
At one time, in your career, someone dubbed your music as "no commercial potential."
That was Clive Davis who said that by the way.
You haven't had a single 45 release of monumental proportions, when is Frank Zappa going to have a smash Number One single?
Sure, I'll keep releasing singles. It's a formula thing. The game for me is to do something that's not formula and have that become the hit single.
Is Frank Zappa music still a freak out?
No, its changed to something else. After all, it's been nine years since "Freak Out!"