Frank Zappa Puts Us In Our Place
By Matt Resnicoff
Musician, November 1991
We usually celebrate artists for their accomplishments rather than for the traits that make them creative. These, we'd just as soon crucify them for: their single-mindedness, retentiveness, mortality. The very best of human nature. All this and more lies just past the studio booth whose welcoming sticker reads Corporate Rock Still Sucks, past a wall of videotapes holding every breath of CNN Desert Storm coverage, and a morass of reels marked with recognizable titles, and a few unrecognizable. In a small chair past all this, in a dim receiving area, Zappa sips tea to nurse an uncharacteristically hoarse, weak voice.
Zappa's artistic standing remains respectably constant, though his celebrity fluctuates in almost strategic sympathy with the needs of his brisk little family business. In the weeks prior to organizing and releasing 14 hours and 53 minutes of newly unearthed music, his presidential candidacy went under judicious evaluation (he hasn't yet tossed in his hat), he booked a fact-finding trip to Prague (after being kiboshed as trade rep by a politician's PMRC wife) and was diagnosed by journalists as having cancer ("You can put me on a torture rack, he says, "and I wont discuss my health").
Two hours after arriving, I know what Frank Zappa thinks, though I can't really say how he feels. His art is, always has been, a distorted window; he's probably never written a song in the first person without the voice of some character he was looking to crucify often for those very same traits that make him an artist. But what a character. We'd only spoken once before, and he says he remembers my face. I tell him our conversation took place on the telephone. Frank points to his head, smiles an uncharacteristically warm, avuncular smile, and says his memory is that strong ...
You don't miss playing guitar?
Not really. I'm faced with a bit of a dilemma which is going to smack me right in the face on Thursday. I'm going to Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and I've been invited because they're having big celebrations. The last Russian soldier leaves Czechoslovakia on the 24th and Hungary on the 30th, and they want me to bring my guitar over and play. And I haven't touched it for years. I don't have any calluses! I don't know what to do with that fucking thing. And if I don't take it along with me I know a lot of people will be disappointed, but I know if I plug it in they're going to be even more disappointed, [laughs] 'cause I can't play anymore.
Your guitar solos have a healthy disorganization to them, uncharacteristic of what's going on in guitar right now.
I make them up as I go along. People now, they practice their fuckin' solos! Most guys who go onstage are going to replicate the solo that was on the record because the audience must hear that in order to think the guitar player is good. "Can he play exactly what he did on the record? Okay he's good." "Did he play it faster or louder than he did on the record? Boy, he's better than I thought he was." You know? I make it up as I go along. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not, but ... If I had to play exactly what I did on any record, I'd have been out of the business a long time ago.
I don't want to insult Los Angeles, but it just strikes me that ...
Go ahead, insult it as much as you want. I always do.
All right, the most improvisational occurrence in Los Angeles city limits is when someone farts. So I'm surprised that since you hardly deal with record companies other than the one you own, and with a fax machine you could live wherever you want, you live in a town that offers no live music.
But I don't participate. I have no link to the cultural life of Los Angeles. The closest I'm going to get to anything that is official L.A. cultural life will be when I go into a rehearsal hall that's being provided as a courtesy by the LA. Philharmonic to this German organization who are sending 25 musicians over to rehearse some of my music for a festival – they sure as fuck ain't doing it for me. Let me give you an anecdote: About a year after I did that concert with the L.A. Philharmonic in 1970, they said they would like to have me write a two-piano concerto and they would give it the world premiere. I said, "Oh, that's really very nice of you." They said, "Yeah, but we want you to buy us two grand pianos." And that was the last I had to do with the L.A. Phil, okay? Why pick on me? 'Cause I'm in rock 'n' roll? What, you think I should go out and spend $100,000 to get you a pair of Bösendorfers, so that you'll do two rehearsals and play my two-piano concerto? Go fuck yourself. So this town offers me nothing in the way of live music or cultural anything. I get excited if I find a good restaurant and my wife and I can go out every once in a while and get some decent food. And they're few and far between. I stay home. All my stuff is in the house. This is a self-contained cottage industry: Editing here, storage in there, studio in there, another vault under the front yard with 10 times this amount of stuff stashed away. A little office up above my bedroom. A bed and a kitchen. And I don't need to participate in the so-called cultural life of this city, because it's just like you said: If somebody farts, that's as improvisational as it gets. The only other improvisation that could occur is if somebody adds a little bit extra rosemary to the sauce that they put on a fucking dumpling or something that they give you in one of these nouvelle cuisine restaurants. It's very freeze-dried here. lt's pathetic. And that's the reason why it's so sad what's happening in New York now, because I always thought, "What an unbelievable place New York was."
Soloing, you favor certain modes, and most go over less intricate vamps. For some players that means more pressure to come up with something interesting. You often emphasize the nine and mixolydian ideas in your solos – do you have target notes? Is it conscious?
They're aesthetic decisions, sure. I mean, some people like to play on II-V-I changes and can bebop themselves into a frenzy; and there are other people who even like to listen to that sort of thing. I can't stand it myself. I pretty much loathe chord progressions. [chuckles] Look at Indian musical culture: They don't have too much in the way of progressions, and that's some of the most interesting, beautiful music ever. You don't need changes to play great lines. All you need is a tonic and a 5th and away you go; sometimes you don't even need the 5th. That's the aesthetic principle that I go on. But if your ear hears a harmonic foundation of something, then the interest of the solo is the theoretical difference you perceive on a note-by-note, nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis of what the improviser inflicts on the established tonality. In other words, if you hear in the bass a C and a G, you know, "You're in the key of C, buddy." You are anchored to a tonality, and when a soloist comes along and plays the C#, he's sending you a message. And where that C# goes is part of the adventure of playing the solo. And if he's playing a B natural or an F# against those notes ... they're like ingredients in a stew. I mean, there's a right way and a wrong way to stick a C# on top of a C-G groundbase. If you play all notes that are part of the C major scale, the recipe you have just prepared is oatmeal, know what I mean? So it's like the difference between eating oatmeal and eating salsa.
Steve Vai uses the human speech pattern as a source of phrasing. "Andy" has that dynamic.
People don't talk in a straight up-and-down rhythm. You're used to hearing conversation with pauses, inflections, different kinds of accelerandos, ritardandos in the speech, so why should you just play the same way? Because if you're playing a solo you're talkng to the audience, aren't you? Or you ought to be, unless you're Milli Vanilli.
Steve also mentioned the most valuable lessons he had learned coming from the "school of Zappa"; one was to keep your publishing. And by listening to five seconds of his improvisations you can hear the others. What would you hope musicians bring to their own careers after working with you?
I don't know. I mean, that's up to them. If they had signed up for a school and were paying me to teach them, that would be a good question, but I don't think it applies. In fact, it's a very bizarre situation, because I'm paying them to learn. How sick is that? I don't think the people who came into the band did it because they wanted character development. Generally, if they had a unique musical ability, they knew that if they went in any other direction, they would never be able to be unique. What is Steve Vai going to do? As a young musician, how do you get to be unique, when a record company doesn't want to sign unique people? The easiest gig for a unique person is a format where uniqueness is acceptable. Bruce Fowler's highest practical note on the trombone is an E flat above the treble clef which is the same highest note as an alto flute – fairly unique guy. How often do you get to use that if you're a trombone player? A drummer like Vinnie Colaiuta is capable of playing all these unbelievable polyrhythms, but if he gets a studio gig, that's the last thing in the world they want to hear on their record: You know, "Just give me that fuckin' fatback." So a lot of these guys were auditioning just because their musical alternatives led them into situations where they wouldn't have the chance to do anything challenging. But then a strange thing happens when they get in the band: They complain about being asked to do things that are hard. And then after they leave they brag that they were in the hand!
Virtually everybody I've encountered who's worked with you has spoken reverentially. That's not necessarily a function of being in an employer/employee relationship.
Well, everybody's got different motivations, but there have been certain trends that I've spotted, since I've hired maybe 115 guys over the last quarter of a century: They all are different when they leave, for better or worse, and what they leave with depends on what they wanted to get while they were in there. Because I've never withheld any information from any of them.
But you still show signs of contempt for a system that creates a musician capable of meeting the requirements you demand as a bandleader. "Yo Cats" from Mothers of Prevention suggested that maybe the mechanization of studios was poetic justice for those unmusical people who became sight-reading cretins.
Well, a "Yo Cat" is beyond being a sight-reading cretin. A "Yo guy" is part of this special species that popped up in Hollywood studios – the A-team mentality. You have an A-team mentality in the New York studio business too, I'm sure. A handful of guys get all the work. That's the A-team. And they do it day in, day out, three sessions a day; they grind it out. And one must ask at the end of the day: "Was it music?" "Did they care?"
You sort of indict Berklee in that song.
Well, let's look at the motivation for going to Berklee. Do you go to become a musician because you love music, or to get another credential? "I've been to Berklee, I can play fast! That means I'll get a studio gig!" Then so what?! I like music. I like music as a living, breathing art form, whether you're doing it with a machine or your home Casio system or in a band. I like the idea that human beings can create music. And when they're serious about it – when they're interested in music rather than careers or stardom or lip-syncing – then it's a beautiful thing. And anything that works against that, I hate. I really hate it. I do not indict Berklee for creating people with skill, all I say is, what is the skill ultimately going to be used for? Why do people go there? The only good reason you should do anything is because you want to do it right, not just for money, not just to be famous, not just for bullshit reasons. And whether you go to Berklee, or Juilliard, or you take a part-time job in a gas station so you can practice at home, whatever it is – if the motivation is to play music, to make capital M, Music, something that's part of your personality, you're contributing that to the overall global world of music, that's good. The record business is not good. The touring business is not good. The TV music award-show business is not good. This is all shit. And I hate it. And unfortunately, as a bandleader, you have to deal with people who come into the band and use it as a stepping stone, and think if they can just survive that one tour, they can go out and say they were in the band. Then it's like a Berklee credential. Well, more power to 'em. If that gets them a job someplace, fine. But it's just sad. You know, I look at what Dweezil is going through now. He's got a good album, he's a good musician, he really loves music, and now he's finding out, as a young man, what show business is really about. It's depressing.
That hadn't already trickled down from you?
It's different. I can tell him, "Yeah, this is the shit." He just finished his first tour. Now, that's where you find out! [laughs] He just did a couple of weeks in Europe and a couple in the United States and I said, "Okay Dweezil, you see how you feel" – I mean, he came home beat. "You see how you feel, don't make the same mistake I did; I did it for 25 years. Don't do it"
But most of your recorded output – your bread and butter – has come from that work.
But see, I did it at a time in American musical history when you could get away with it. And I established a franchise for a certain clientele that happened to enjoy that particular service provided by me. I don't think in a world of MTV, fake awards shows and massive beverage sponsorship for mega-tours which rely more on stage lighting than musical artistry – today's world – that anybody could manage to do what I did ... and survive. Couldn't do it. Because when I started, nobody knew what the fuck they were doing – there were no rules. You made it up as you went along and whatever worked worked. And if you just kept doing it long enough you could stay in show business. I refused to stop doing it, and that's the reason I'm still here.
It's discouraging to see the way things have developed, compared to what I hear about the '60s.
Well, I have never been a fan of the '60s, but one thing seems perfectly clear at this time: Sociology and politics aside, it was easier for an oddball something-or-other to get a record contract then than it is now. Not with a little label, but with a major label. You could do it because there was an upheaval in American music: when the British Invasion occurred, and millions of albums were flying out the door, the work of people from another country who didn't look like U.S. musicians – we had surfers, and they had people who had long hair who sang and played their own instruments. It was a different thing: self-contained bands. The U.S. music business went, "What the fuck is that?" So they were starting to issue contracts to anything they could get their hands on they thought might sell. That's how we got in. Not because somebody said, "Oh, this is great." They just said, "Okay, we'll try this shit."
!s there a significance in the revival of Faces-era rock that bands like the Black Crowes are now purveying, as opposed to something that isn't so directly derivative? Like R&B, or some of the music that you grew up by and glorified even on your stranger albums?
Well, the idea of setting yourself up as a derivative band is a road that leads nowhere, because what you're hoping to do in recycling a previous fad is to revive that fad, and that's giving you a very short shelflife. Your "revivalist band" will be useful as an entertainment device only if the trend resurfaces in a general way, and will only be viable as long as that trend is regurgitated by the pop press. And if it catches on with clothing manufacturers and they choose to support it with a style that re-evokes that era; then you can be a "thing," but a short-term thing. What's that got to do with music? That's got more to do with how to make a buck, and I think it's a dubious way. I'm not trying to cast aspersions, because I've never heard the band you're talking about, but as a general concept, revivalist groups are at a disadvantage because they limit their audience and their shelf life.
Really arcane or avant-garde music kind of experiences the same thing.
What do you mean, arcane? If a guy creates something new and original, is that bad?
Not at all. I'm not using the word pejoratively, but more like something ...
It's something you never heard before.
Something that's frighteningly ...
I want the frighteningly original all the time. I want those guys to have a chance, to be able to say and do something that is new. Not like a new group that plays faster than the last group that was imitating a certain trend, but now with better hairdos, faster fingers – or a lead singer who sings higher with a raspier voice. I mean, [chuckles] there's really no aesthetic future in that. There's always a commercial future in it because the entertainment mill will most assuredly grind out more products like that.
But once something becomes stylized, it becomes rigidly marked by the public. The notion of a "guitar solo" has preconceptions placed on it, even if it's Allan Holdsworth who does it, no matter how amazing or how frighteningly original; people automatically refute it because it's supposed to be selfindulgent or "for musicians." It's almost like things become iconographic and somehow lose their value for outsiders.
Well, whose fault is that? That's what writers do. Musicians don't do that. The average person doesn't sit around thinking about the "iconographic problems of a gultar solo." You're talking about a sociological, emotional phenomenon associated with the need of a writer to earn a living by describing something which is very difficult to write about: music. And the hardest thing to write about is that kind of music, when it's really personal, when a guy is really trying to do something, which I think Allan Holdsworth is. He's a brilliant musician. And when you start digging the thesaurus out and delving into things like "iconographic" and tacking shit like that onto stories about guitar solos, well, [laughs] then the problems begin! A guy might listen to it and go "I like it" or "I don't like it," but to have it explained to him by a writer that "we now have an iconographic problem," that's another can of worms, wouldn't you say?
Well, you might be putting the cart before the horse. I don't know if writers are the sole cause for certain music being shunted off by the mainstream of the industry.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Sure. How do you think taste is made? See, it works like this: A guy's writing in a magazine which some insecure record company executive has been told is hip by his secretary that he's trying to get to blow him. She says, "This is a hip magazine," so in order to get that blow job, he's gotta read a few paragraphs. And in this magazine he'll read this: "There's an iconographic problem with Allan Holdsworth's guitar solos." And a trend is set in motion where the next person who bears these dangerous iconographic tendencies comes to get a record contract from this guy and might be refused. In the hands of insecure record company executives, A&R men and pootheads, the writer's article can be a dangerous force in shunting off certain types of expression, just because it is no longer hot since it would seem so from this fountain of information, this special hip magazine – and we know how many hip magazines there are that determine these things. The minute somebody says, "Iconographic-No Longer Hot," you're dead. Because you're dealing with real mental pygmies in these record companies. Not to cast aspersions on any pygmies in the audience, [laughter] but these guys do not have musical priorities. Their priority is, "Keep my job, keep my job." They get up in the morning, look in the mirror, spray their hair, say, "I'm going to keep my job. And I don't care whose dick I have to suck, I don't care how many Milli Vanillis I gotta sign, I'm keepin' my job." And they do. They recycle from one company to another. They get fired, because, oh, they made a mistake, they signed the wrong Milli Vanilli and they got caught. They'll wind up at another record company. These guys never go from record company to gas station; they move sideways, from record-world company A to record-world company B. The top executives just rotate. Now, how did they earn the right to be the gods of the record industry? These fuckers came from the shoe business, a lot of them. And they are the ones who finally make the decision of who gets the zillion-dollar contract, the big tour, the big push, the big endorsements, the big hosejob on MTV. These esteemed gentlemen, based on advice received from hip magazines that tell you what's hot, will then reshape the size and texture of American musical culture in their own pinhead image.
I don't want to leap to the defense of the press because I don't respect a lot of it. On the other hand l wrote an article recently in which I suggested that Edward Van Halen might have stagnated with his band, and his manager called me and up and called me a "no-good motherfuckin' kike."
Oooh! Nice man! I hope you ran that!
We did, and we received a lot of mail. Not that I needed anymore convincing, but that was a confirmation that ...
People are listening! I'm telling you, that's the influence ... The worst thing that can happen to a person who is an MTV-size "star" is for somebody to write they're not hot. I mean, [smiling] stagnating is not very hot. And that's a career-crunching thing, especially to apply to somebody who's playing hot guitar solos. To even imply that – you can imagine the manager going, "My 15 motherfucking percent, it's goin' up in smoke! That little kike! The motherfucking kike! I gotta call him now!" [laughs] I don't even know this guy, but I just hear that ratchet going.
Now, how culpable is the press there? I feel it's that Edward Van Halen is being constricted by somebody who would rather not see him go off and do a progressive power-trio record.
Well, let me set you straight on a couple of things that I see slightly differently than you do, partly because I'm 50 years old and you're not – and I don't want to sound like grandpa. But to reinforce the negative side of the activities of the press: I lived as an entertainer through one era of rock 'n' roll where the rock press was absolutely the blowboy of the industry. In the '70s, when corporate rock really blossomed into this stinking apparition it became, companies were giving cocaine, girls, money, junkets and all this stuff to famous rock writers, just greasing them from one end to the other so they would write nonstop, wonderful glowing articles about groups that needed to be promoted. It was pure grease, okay? I detect from the way that this interview is going that you have a little bit more integrity – a lot more integrity – and more of an intellectual edge to what you're trying to do than the people I had to talk to in the world of rock in the last 25 years. I mean it as a compliment, I'm not trying to stroke you or any thing. I find it refreshing to talk to anybody connected with a music magazine – whether he's a little motherfuckin' kike or not [laughter] – who has an idea of the relationship between music, the industry and the realworld. Because most interviews you do, people are just talking about ... nothing. No-thing! I put up with that for too long. And it wasn't until 1985, when I went to Washington to testify in front of the Congress, that I started having the chance to talk to people in the press who were not from rock 'n' roll, just regular writers, who were intelligent, normal human beings. I started doing fewer rock interviews, and my attitude toward the press changed at the moment where I didn't have to do so many conversations with the people who determined whether or not you were hot. The world of hot – I don't give a fuck about the world of hot. And that's all they care about in that world, okay? So I wouldn't be too quick to defend the rock press because of its rather ... checkered past. And it may have evolved, and it may have matured, might have even been perfected by now, who knows? I don't read it any more. But if you're any example of what's out there in terms of rock interviewers, I'm gratified. Especially if you're going to get a call like that from Eddie Van Halen's manager, you must be doing something right.
I don't want to keep harping on Vai, but he was talking about the experience working with you that brought him through a really weird period after he left, where he was seeing things with a relentlessly cynical perspective, but wasn't balancing it with your sense of humor. Were you aware this was happening?
What, that he was getting more cynical?
Well, to the extent that he was throwing himself into fitful depression and nearly lost his mind.
I didn't invent Steve Vai's mind. All I did was sign his paycheck, and I had no idea that was going on with him. I saw him a few times sick onstage, but that was physical, not mental. We played a gig in Salt Lake City – he was a real soldier, he was puking into a bucket on the side of the stage, but we got through the show. I always saw him as a thoroughly professional, on-the-case, totally talented, fabulous musician, and you couldn't ask for a better guy to be in your band. It was great. And I had no idea that he had these fits of depression because suddenly he found himself to be cynical, but I mean, how bad was that? Is he doing badly now? I think if he's doing well it's because he did have at least a passing acquaintance with cynicism. You can't just go into rock 'n' roll and think. "Oh, now the world is really wonderful," because boy, will you be disappointed.
You told me you didn't want to tour anymore, but I read it was because of your bass player, Scott Thunes.
Scott has a unique personality. He also has unique musical skills. I like the way he plays and I like him as a person, but other people don't. He has a very difficult personality: He refuses to be cordial. He won't do small talk. And he's odd. So what? They're all odd! They should tolerate each other. Unfortunately the real world doesn't work that way, and I don't want to name who got this thing started, but it turned into a personal vendetta against Scott Thunes. A couple of guys in the band were the ringleaders and were doing such petty stuff. On the last of 11 dates in Germany the promoter was going to give us a big cake onstage and had all the guys in the band's names on it, and one of these assholes who didn't like Scott sneaked backstage and scraped his name off the cake. It was nauseating stuff, and it had gotten to where we had done two months in the U.S., two in Europe and were supposed to have a short break and do good-paying, large-scale outdoor things all over the U.S. And by the end of the European part of the tour, things were going astray rather badly and I started taking a poll of different guys in the band: "Do you hate Scott Thunes so much you wouldn't go onstage with him for these gigs in the summer?" and they all said, [gremlin voice] "Yes, we hate him, oh, we hate him. He's bad. He's a bad person. He can't play the bass." They were so convinced this guy was the loser of all time that I had no choice. If you replace anybody in a band that has rehearsed for four months, you've gotta go back into rehearsal. I couldn't replace Scott to assuage everybody in the band who hated him. There's no bass player who could have done that job. The repertoire was so large, the workings of the show so complex, you had to know so much – there was no way. So I had to lose the income of all those dates because the band refused to go onstage with Scott Thunes. That's why I put out The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life. But let me give you the final payoff to this: The band realized they provided for themselves total unemployment. Everybody on that tour got paid but me. I lost $400,000. And within six months I was hearing, "Man, we made a mistake. Scott's not such a bad guy." And the same people who hated his guts were running into him in restaurants and saying, "Scott, I'm sorry, I don't know what got into me," this kind of stupid, stupid shit. It was just like little children ganging up on a kid at a boy's school. It was really P-U.
Poetic justice ...
Well, I'm not interested in inflicting poetic justice on anybody, remember? I like music, and if that band had stayed together all this time, not only would it be the most outrageous touring band on the planet, but I'd still he playing guitar and I wouldn't be forced with my dilemma going to Prague and Budapest. I pay people to rehearse, so in order to change anybody, I would have to rent a sound stage, which is $2000 a day, stick the band in there and pay them to learn to live with another bass player. And I would resist doing that simply because I don't like the idea of having a whole band ganging up on me, forcing me to get rid of a bass player I liked. I enjoy playing with Scott. So, what's the fucking deal? And one of the most egregious things: One of the sax players who'd been complaining that Scott didn't give him enough support on his solos – after he heard Best Band, he came over here and said, "Oh, he sounds good, man." [laughs] Stuff like that makes me sick.
Eccentricity's got to be an offshoot of being an excellent musician, because you've excluded things for the sake ...
If you're highly motivated to be a spectacular drummer or guitar player or whatever, other parts of your life will suffer. People looking at you living your life will go, "He's weird," not realizing you don't give a fuck about those other parts of your life 'cause you're focused on something else. The person might say, "W'hy does he behave like that?" And the answer is, he just doesn't care as much about that other incidental shit as you do. That doesn't make him a bad person; the same thing is true of computer programmers, scientists, painters. When you care so much about one thing, maybe some other stuff slides, like your personal appearance, your breath, your teeth, your wardrobe, your hairdo, your complexion, your desire to engage in small talk, whatever And then other people who really care about things like, "Are you hot?" – hot in terms of acceptability – worry about total acceptance all the time for everything they do.
Mercer Ellington once said that Duke was not necessarily a good father, but he was a good man. Do you ever think that the two things might be separable?
Well, let me put it to you this way: I happen to think I'm a great dad, and I think any of my kids would confirm that. Whether I'm a good man, I don't know, that's pretty subjective, but I think the empirical evidence is on my side that my kids turned out okay, and they like me and I like them. And we get along fine.
Have there been parts of your life that you've neglected because you've been as absorbed as you are in your music?
Well, what am I missing? Do I regret not going horseback riding, or learning how to water ski? Well, no. I don't want to climb mountains, I don't want to do bungie-jumping. I haven't missed any of these things. If you're absorbed by something, what's to miss?