Zappa – The Great Satirist

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Zappa – The Great Satirist
Interview by Bob Dawbarn


Will the real Frank Zappa kindly stand up!

Most of us would probably get quite a shock if he did for we each seem to have invented our own personal Zappa.

There are revolutionaries who hail this former advertising executive as their own. There are record company executives who regard him as one of the most cunning capitalists in the business. There are musicians who consider him a fine composer – composers who rate him a superb musician.

Me? I think he is one of the greatest satirists of our time.

We are probably all wrong, or, at least, only partly right. Each of our do-it-yourself Frank Zappa kits only reveals more of what we want to believe' than it does of Zappa himself.

He is the distorting mirror in which we look at our twisted selves and the cock-eyed, unfair society we have constructed.

The man has his own weird logic which can turn what one considered a profound question into naive jibbering and a simple enquiry as to his movements into a dialectical argument.

Speaking to Frank this week via that modern marvel the transatlantic telephone, I built up my own confidence by first asking about his forthcoming visit to Europe, and in particular to his latest project "200 Motels" which, it has been reported, is to be filmed by Dutch television.

"We will be performing the material from '200 Motels' which we can do without an orchestra throughout the tour," reported Frank without obvious hidden meanings. "It depends on the scheduling of the concerts how much we do on any one show, anything between ten and 40 minutes from '200 Motels.'

"I'd rather not make any more statements about it right now as we are involved in an expansion of the project."

The Mothers of Invention on this tour will be the same line-up that played Bath in the summer.

"The Mothers aren't really a permanent fixture these days," agreed Frank. "Some of the guys are interested in doing other things and everybody has led groups before or else has recording plans. But after Bath the guys say 'What are we going to do now?' So we did two fairly long tours in the U.S. The result is we are thinking and behaving more like a regular group every day."

Anybody who has seen the Mothers in action will realise that the almost telepathic way in which the group follows Zappa's signals can only come from familiarity and experience.

"Before going back on the road we rehearse for three weeks, five hours a day," agreed Frank. "In fact, by the time we played Bath that was our fourth or fifth job and the group was fairly tight by then.

"An interesting thing was that we were playing a small place in Wisconsin a few days ago and in the middle of the show all the newer guys in the group finally discovered what they are really supposed to do. Up to that point there was a lot of pressure on the new guys. They had to have one eye on me to watch for the hand signals and that made only one eye for the improvisation. A couple of days ago they really caught on and forged ahead."

Deciding to risk the Zappa scorn, I asked if he did not feel that with so many musical roles – rock musician, 'serious' composer, humorist and the rest – he did not feel that his talents were too widely spread, too diffuse.

"From the audience point of view I'm aware that the danger exists," he replied. "Audiences expect a group to develop a style and stick with it. If it deviates then it is getting into dangerous territory. They want Led Zeppelin to sound like Led Zeppelin. And Crosby, Stills and Nash to sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

"We tend to change every night – and to have a sense of humour. We deal in dangerous territories.

"We aim humour at the people in the audience and we play any kind of music that seems to be right at the time. I find that sort of freedom concept disturbs some members of the audience. They can't accept it.

"They forget that what I like to do with the Mothers, apart from just playing music, is to take their individual personalities, try and know the members of the band well enough to find a format through which I can project their lifestyles, their personalities, their meaning as people, to the audience.

"The way you get to do this is achieved on the road. Over a period of time any group on the road will develop it's own mythology providing everybody gets along together. If they have any sort of rapport this mythology will develop, the group's own folk lore.

"Each member of the group will unconsciously start playing a role – a villain, a joker, a hero, a square, a Romeo. All stereotypes, but the personalities will go in those directions and legends start building up."

Which role, I wondered, had Aynsley Dunbar assumed with the Mothers.

"Usually he is a Romeo or a villain, though not both at once," Frank brushed the interruption aside.

I took the opportunity to rephrase my original question about whether he thought he might not be utilising his talents in too many directions at once.

"That question is assuming that I want to make a reputation as strictly a composer or strictly a rock-and-roll musician," he said. "It happens that I have a life style which involves various forms of artistic expression. I try to get into those various forms of expression rather than being top notch at any one thing. If I find something interesting and can find a means of conveying that interest to somebody else I will do that in whatever form is best suited to do so.

"Bartók used to collect folk songs and use them in his compositions. In my case I collect folk lore of a verbal kind, from the street or from the people immediately surrounding the world of the group, and convert them into a musical reference.

"That is perhaps an unfortunate analogy. Today, when somebody reviews one of my albums they point to the classical influence of the composers that I like. They say 'That sounds like Stravinsky.' They only say that because Stravinsky was mentioned on the cover of the 'Freak Out!' album. They wouldn't really know the influence of Stravinsky if they heard it.

"I don't mind influences being spread around but when I complete my recorded work it will be the sum total of that work on which I should be judged not on individual parts of that work which are not important."

A dangerous question after that, but I commented that until his album with Jean-Luc Ponty and the Mothers' "Weasels" LP, I had not associated him with jazz influences.

"One of the reasons why the Mothers have never been associated with jazz is because most reviewers have never listened to jazz," retorted Frank. "They wouldn't guess unless it said on an album cover that we were influenced by jazz. If I had stated on an early album that I had been influenced by Eric Dolphy or Archie Shepp then for the last five years they would have been writing about jazz influences instead of Stravinsky influences.

"The group has always been encouraged in jazz-type improvision within a framework of atonal music. The trouble is that most of the audience thinks of jazz as going from Louis Armstrong to Blood Sweat and Tears. They don't know about today's self-determination music."

Undaunted, I asked if it was possible that the Zappa humour might not have tended to obscure his message over the years.

"That goes back to the idea that nobody can be humourous and serious at the same time," he admonished. "The humour is as accurate and as honest as I can make it. If a disaster occurs I am not going to be dishonest about it even if some people might find it incomprehensible that I can find humour in that particular situation – to be blasphemous enough to find them funny."

I decided to touch another raw spot. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary confrontations in Zappa's career was his appearance, last year, at the London School of Economics[1]. It was a case of mutual disillusionment for students who had thought of Zappa as a leader of their revolution, and for Zappa who had no desire for any such role to be thrust upon him.

"An interesting thing happened when I was last in London," Frank mused when I raised the subject of the LSE. "I was sitting in the Speakeasy and there was this young man, an American, buying drinks for a large number of people. He came over and apologised, said he was one of the people who had been bleating at me at the London School of Economics.

"I remembered him. He was really running his mouth. He wanted to know what did I do with my money. He was in the full Che Guevara costume. At the Speakeasy I asked why he was in England, why he was at the LSE. It turned out he was there on his parents' money, avoiding the draft or something.

"Actually, my main disagreement with those Maoists is not that they want to change things. I want to change a lot of the same things. But most of the really radical revolutionaries' conception of change is a swing of the pendulum in one direction only."

Notes

  1. For further reading on this event see articles:

Frank Zappa: The Mother of Us All
The Truth Is – They're Not As Ugly As Their Pictures
An Explosion Of Non-Communication
Zappa – Outrageous Star