That Ol' "Fish Thing"

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From The Washington Post
August 30, 1984


Francis Vincent Zappa, the wild and hairy cult phenomenon whose musical antics tend to upset adults and industry executives, took another bite of his club sandwich and placed another banderilla into the music industry's side.

"Have you ever bothered to think why we don't hear more contemporary music in symphony halls?" he asked.

"Dead men don't collect royalties," he answered in his trademark after-midnight-sex-charged-FM-deejay voice. "I mean, like, I thought the rock music industry was corrupt – until I dealt with the classical music people. They will suck you dry. They don't want new music, they want more music to march to."

The world had nearly forgotten about Frank Zappa, the freaky '60s musician whose "Suzy Creemcheeze" and "Cruising For Burgers" made life bearable for a loyal band of the perpetually alienated. But in the land of the comeback, anything is possible – if Richard Nixon can do it, why not one of his chief nemeses? Tonight, 12 years since his last concert in the nation's capital, Frank Zappa and his seven-piece rock band will perform at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though he has recently tried his hand at symphony concerts, tonight's will be a good old-fashioned rock show, featuring material from "Fish Thing," [sic] his late-September release, along with favorites from the 40 or more albums he's produced since the seminal 1966 "Freak Out!"

Let's say he's been waiting in the wings for the right climate.

"There will be no nuclear war," Zappa says in a moment of clairvoyance. "There's too much real estate involved."

His hair is neater than ever, tucked back from his face in a short ponytail, splashes of gray at the temples. He has traded in his jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts for brightly colored all-cotton Williwear Bermuda shorts and shirts. And last weekend he was staying in a genteel East Side hotel usually occupied by heads of state. But he is still the same Zappa, hurling aphorisms between bites of a club sandwich in his fancy Mayfair Regent suite.

"What do you mean I'm back from the '60s? I don't want the '60s to come back," he says, flicking an ash from his cigarette. "It was just one big chemical experiment put on by the CIA. Taking drugs and dropping out. Rolling Stone magazine, you know, is a CIA plot – has been since 1968.

"Jogging is another CIA experiment, like drugs in the '60s. Let's be logical. The draft is coming back, okay? You have a whole attitude toward fiscal prudence, right? You wanna get more for your money, right? America wants to get economically sound, right? It makes economic sense to encourage people to be healthy, right? So that when you draft them you have to spend less to get them in shape. Okay. And now that they are used to wearing short pants and cloth shoes, the uniform that they use to kill other people will be cheaper and more fashionable.

"You might even get people to enlist if they could wear jogging clothes when they are killing," he says, his brown eyes exploding.

Zappa's conversation wanders, touching on 10,000 subjects at once. His mind is as complex as his music, which takes in rhythm and blues, salsa, atonal classical, heavy metal and reggae – a lot of it denounced by critics as so much noise. Serious conductors have called it unperformable. Record industry executives have said it doesn't sell anymore. Three years ago Zappa formed his own label, Barking Pumpkin, so he wouldn't have to deal with the industry.

"I mean, do you know what music people are doing?" he asks, referring to his epic battles with various labels. "What they are doing is moving boxes of vinyl artifacts wrapped in cardboard from one location to another. They don't care what's on the vinyl as long as it moves."

"Valley Girl," a satirical single based on the lives of his daughter Moon Unit and her friends in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, brought Zappa back before the public. And, to Zappa's surprise and dismay, "barf me out," "gag me with a spoon" and "grody to the max" entered the national lexicon.

"It was a joke," he says of his first Top 40 hit. "It just goes to show that the American public loves to celebrate the infantile. I mean, I don't want people to act like that. I think Valley Girls are disgusting. Somebody opened a Valley Girl boutique in Bloomingdale's. We told them to stop."

The joke, however, sold, and freed Zappa to pursue his first and less lucrative love: classical music. On his Barking Pumpkin label, he released a digitally recorded album of atonal orchestral works, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Kent Nagano of the Berkeley and Oakland symphonies.

In Paris last February, the renowned French composer Pierre Boulez conducted three original Zappa compositions, commissioned for his noted chamber group, the Ensemble Intercontemporain at Theatre de la Ville. And this spring saw the world premiere of "Sinister Footwear," a full-length puppet ballet composed by Zappa and choreographed by the Oakland Ballet Company.

But this preoccupation with serious music does not mean that Zappa has given up his epic vision of American junk culture or his rock 'n' roll fans. He has boundless energy and an extraordinary capacity to work in two worlds, as his new album will attest. "Fish Thing" is more than a record – it is a three-disc score to a Broadway musical that Zappa hopes to stage.

"It goes like this," he says. "An evil prince called Fish Thing, as anyone who buys the album will learn in the book which comes with each vinyl artifact, wants to rid the world of all unwanted highly rhythmic individuals and sissy boys. The prince invents this disease and puts it in the water supply. He also puts it in bottles of cologne called Galoot Cologne – pronounced ko-log-nuh. His object is to make the Broadway musical safe once again for boring productions like 'Hello Dolly' and 'Peter Pan.'

"I mean, have you ever been to a Broadway show?"

But there is more to "Fish Thing" than a family newspaper can possibly describe – or many Broadway producers can stomach. By turns as scatological as Swift and as pornographic as Hustler magazine, the musical moves through a fantastic world of gay liberation, women's liberation, Reaganomics, conspiracy theories and biological warfare.

"It's a joke," Zappa says.

Joking seems to be Zappa's own worst enemy. Not only is he having trouble finding backers for his $5 million musical, but he also made a music video that MTV will not broadcast – because it, too, is kind of a joke. In the three-minute video, a Hollywood look-alike of Reagan sits strapped into an electric chair while a man repeats the words "Mercedes-Benz" over and over, pink Pepto-Bismol issuing from his mouth.

"Music videos stop the mind from thinking," Zappa says. "My music makes the mind think.

"Be in my music video," he announces in his FM deejay voice. "Atomic light will shine through an old Venetian blind, making patterns on your face. Then it cuts to outer space. It's a mindless formula, see?" (Lyrics from Be In My Video, Ed.)

The world of Francis Vincent Zappa began 43 years ago in Baltimore, almost like everyone else's, with a father and a mother – and a gas mask. His father, a Sicilian immigrant, worked in an arsenal, studying the effects of weather on mustard gas. Everyone in the compound owned a gas mask, in case one of the tanks developed a leak.

"I opened mine up with a can opener to see what was inside," Zappa says. "I was probably the only one in the compound who did that. But it made it much easier to breath without the stuff inside. We were real poor. It was my only toy. The crazy thing is, if the gas tanks had leaked I would have suffocated." (Later he would write "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask.")

Zappa had trouble breathing anyway. He was a sickly child, asthmatic, and so the family moved around the Sunbelt, first to Florida and then to California. "I didn't have any friends," he says. "I developed an affinity to creeps, and I've surrounded myself with them ever since. I was, you know, an urchin, a scurvy bum type. Raised a Catholic, dumped it. Set fire to the high school in San Diego. Got turned onto Zen by my English teacher."

He was 14 years old when he discovered classical music. "I was reading Look magazine one day in 1955 and I discovered Edward Varese [sic] the 20th-century atonal composer he claims inspired his serious side. The article was really about Sam Goody, the record store maganate. It said, 'Sam Goody is such a brilliant merchandiser that he can sell anything – even records by Edward Varese, who writes the ugliest music in the world.' I had to have it. The ugliest music in the world."

He had his first run-in with the world of classical music when he wrote a piece for a competition and sent it in with a diagram of the musicians' setup. Unwittingly, he had drawn the outline of the grand piano backwards – with the curved side on the left, rather than the right.

The rejection slip said: "We will be unable to perform your piece because it requires a left-handed piano."

At the same time he was listening to Varese – and to Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern – Zappa also discovered rhythm and blues: Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Slim, and all the doo-wop groups. He learned to play the guitar at 18 and formed The Blackouts. "It wasn't popular," he says, "because it had Mexicans and blacks in it."

In 1966, after bumming around Southern California for a while, Zappa and his band, the Mothers Of Invention, had their first big hit. "Freak Out!" sold records – how many, he can't recall – but often without the blessing of the critics. "Mothers Invent Sounds Worse Than Music," one headline ran.

In a 1967 "CBS News Special" interview, Zappa prophesied, "A lot of the kids that are walking around the street with long hair, a lot of the kids that you see from time to time and wretch over, are going to be running your government for you."

By 1970 Zappa was famous with longhairs on college campuses across the country. If not for his music, for his poster. "I was the sardonic guy on the Phi Krappa Zappa toilet poster ... That picture was all over the world – it was probably one of the best selling posters in history, for which I received absolutely no money. Everyone said, 'Frank Zappa, he's that guy on the toilet.' They had no idea what I did. I mean, everything was filtered through the goddam toilet."

The same year, French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty recorded an entire album of Zappa compositions, from "King Kong" and "Idiot Bastard Son" to a full orchestral work titled "Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra." And Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered Zappa's ambitious "200 Motels," an "opera for television." Including such Zappa classics as "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich," the opera was a financial failure.

Wounded by the insensitivity of the recording industry, Zappa retreated to his Laurel Canyon home and studio. He wrote music, toured, fought record companies and raised a family with his second wife, Gail. The family now numbers four "units" – Moon Unit, 16; Dweezil, 14; Ahmet, 10; and Diva, 5. Zappa still spends as much time as he can at home. Though he says he hates Southern California, his imagination seems to thrive on the freaky West Coast scene.

And then came the'80s. Suddenly the climate turned conservative, and the world seemed ready for another jolt of Zappa's antics. This family man, who had survived nearly 20 years in Hollywood without doing drugs or letting setbacks ruin his life, emerged from his cocoon. During a sound check for last weekend's New York concert, Zappa, standing in in the outdoor auditorium on the 44th Street pier, even appeared to have mellowed a little.

"It doesn't really matter whether I play in Carnegie Hall or out here on the pier," he said. "The same kids come to see me. It is not your elite audience. We get a lot of kids from lower-class families in New Jersey, Brooklyn, the Bronx. They're poor. They're not intellectual. They drink a lot of beer. And they fall down. They don't even know what I'm doing. But they know it's a joke.

"I hope they know it's a joke."