20 Questions: Frank And Moon Unit Zappa

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Photography by Raul Vega

20 Questions: Frank And Moon Unit Zappa
Playboy, November 1982
By David and Victoria Sheff

Rock's knight-errant and his valley-girl daughter assess the state of dating, drugs and – gag us with a spoon! – american culture

Frank Zappa's 30-odd albums include such rock classics as "Lumpy Gravy" "We're Only In It For The Money" "Hot Rats" "Sheik Yerbouti" and "Burnt Weeny Sandwich." Now his daughter Moon Unit has catapulted herself into the rock limelight with the father/ daughter collaboration "Valley Girl."

David and Victoria Sheff cornered the father of musical weirdness and his daughter (he has three other children: Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva) in the Zappas' Hollywood Hills home recording studio. The Sheffs' report: "Never second guess a man wearing shocking-purple blousy pants, a gray-silk shirt, pink socks and red tennis shoes with a silver z on them who once composed a piece of music titled 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?' And Moon seems like a very nice person, too."

1. How have things changed in the Zappa household since Valley Girl became a hit?
FRANK ZAPPA: When it started, it interfered greatly with Moon's school, coming at the end of the year right in the middle of finals. She had all these interviews to do while I was in Europe, and it was hard for her to study. Her friends helped her, calling her up and keeping her posted on what she had missed in school. Now that I'm back, I don't accept things without asking how she feels about doing them. I mean, she's 14 years old. She wants to have a good time.

MOON UNIT ZAPPA: It's so weird. Like, when I get my hair cut and go out shopping, people look at me funny and say, "Oh, my God! She got her hair cut!" People who normally get their hair cut don't get that reaction. But on the other hand, record stores are a lot nicer to go into. The people at my school are pretty supportive. But the ones I never was very friendly with and the ones I didn't like are really negative. They finally have a chance to categorize me. They call me a soc or a snob – God knows what.

FRANK: We've had calls from Universal, United Artists, even Norman Lear asking to do a film on Valley Girl. My manager and I will see about the best deal. Also, people have been sending Moon all these stupid fucking scripts; one was for a movie called Planet of the Teenagers. There have been a few others where they're looking tor a voluptuous teenager who takes her clothes off and takes drugs. She's obviously passed on those. If we do Valley Girl as a movie, she'll be in it, so she'll have to miss some school. But she'll have a tutor. I refuse to let her just walk away from school.

2. Now that Moon has her own income, is her allowance cut off? Is she going to save the money for college?
Well, she won't have any income from the song until the publishing period. Those royalties are paid only twice a year. When they come in, whatever they are, she can take the money and do whatever she wants with it. In the meantime, she still gets her allowance and does whatever she wants with that, too. For example, she bought a pair of shoes yesterday. That's a kind of teenage thing to do.
MOON: I'm not going to college. I don't know what I'll be doing with the money. Now, when I need money – like, I desperately need it to go shopping – I get the money from my parents.

3. What kind of guys are you interested in? And does your dad check out all potential suitors?
MOON: I can't stand guys who are loudmouths. I like a guy who can make me laugh and keep me laughing. On dates, I like to go places and observe people. I love watching people eat. I particularly like to watch people eat who don't have any manners. As for checking my dates out, first, my mother meets them and talks to them. They're always really scared to meet my dad. My father will come in and look them up and down, head to toe, and he'll make a grunting noise and walk out. You have to take that grunt as either approval or disapproval, but you don't always know which. He is polite – I mean, don't get me wrong. He shakes their hand when he meets them.
FRANK: I'm an Italian dad. Of course, I check them out. There are some types of people I wouldn't trust. But she's got pretty good taste. All the ones that I've met tend to be pretty much from the Leave It to Beaver school – people who could have gotten a part on My Three Sons.

4. How does a Valley courtship proceed? Does sex happen or is it just talked about?
MOON: You can never tell whether a Valley dude likes you or not, because he just doesn't make phone calls. The girls usually do the phoning, because girls have a better chance of getting their phone bills paid. Then, first, you have to go out in cliques. After you really get to know the guy and he's OK, you might want to go out to dinner somewhere affordable, like McDonald's. If he doesn't drive, you might go to a movie at a local theater; if he does drive, then it's on to Mulholland to watch drag races and to get a six-pack of beer.

As for sex, it's done. It's also talked about, but it's done – usually when your parents are in Palm Springs for the weekend. The girl will beat around the bush, just saying, "Yeah, we went all the way." The dude will have to describe it play by play for the guys.

5. What's the biggest problem for Valley girls? And what do they do about it?
MOON: Acne is the absolute worst unless you've got thunder thighs and stretch marks. Girls say "I'm so fat," hoping someone will say they're not fat. Then they go on the Beverly Hills diet, because it's the most effective and it gets the most attention, with Tupperware containers filled with pineapple and various tropical fruits. Acne you don't talk about. You just jump hearing the word zit. I know I do. [The phone rings. It's for Moon. She exits.]

6. Is it strange for your children to be Frank Zappa's kids? FRANK: If we lived in Brooklyn, it would be a different story. But I'm virtually unknown here. If you are the son or daughter of somebody who is a TV star, it's a different story. It's very strange down at this school. The kids all talk about "How many bathrooms you got in your house?" and that kind of thing.

7. Do you go to P.T.A. meetings at the school?
I go down to the school. I don't belong to the P.T.A., but whenever there are plays and musicals and things like that that I can attend, I go. And, no, I don't help them with their homework. I'm not competent to do that. If they need any advice in my field of expertise, it's there any time. But the stuff they're doing now is outside my specialization.

8. We read that David Bowie's son, Zowie, now prefers to be called Joe. How do your children – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva – like their names?
They don't have any problems with their names. Remember, they're going to school in the Valley. They've got some other weird names down there. When Moon was young, she came in and announced that she wanted to change her name. I said, "Fine, what do you want to change it to?" She said, "Beautyheart." So that blew over after a while. And before Diva was born, Ahmet came in and said, "I have the perfect name for my new little sister," 'cause he was convinced it was going to be a girl. I said, "Yeah, really? What do you think we should call her?" He said, "Bone Sauce." That one didn't work. I liked Diva better, because she was screaming louder than the other babies in the hall at the hospital where she was born.

9. Some people are surprised that you've written for and worked with several of the world's best' symphonies. Where do classical music and rock 'n' roll meet?
I don't think that classical in the ordinary sense has anything to do with rock 'n' roll. When I write music tor orchestra, if it ever gets played, it will be consumed by a rock-'n'-roll audience, not by the same people who go to see Beethoven's Fifth. Most music in the United States is consumed only because of its fashionable function in relation to a given person's lifestyle. If you're a very modernistic kind of person with modern hair and so forth, you will not go and hear country-and-western music, even if you like it. There are cultural boxes that people put themselves into, and they stay there. For people who have a hard time figuring out the way the world works, I, guess it helps.

10. Are you an exception, comfortable at a rock show and at an L.A. Philharmonic concert?
The fact is, I do neither. I don't go to see the L.A. Philharmonic, because I don't think it's very good and its repertoire doesn't entice me out of the house. I don't go to rock shows, because I'm not interested in what's being played at rock shows. I would buy a ticket to see the Chicago Symphony play Arcana, by Edgard Varèse, for instance. But that ain't gonna happen, so I'm staying home. Boulez is my favorite conductor. A lot of people think he's too cerebral. A lot of conductors like to look good while conducting, and they wave their arms around a lot – a series of useless gestures that don't tell the musicians where the beat is. And if the beat isn't clear, the musicians don't play the notes all at the same time, the way they ought to, so the chords don't stack up right. With some music, such as slovenly romantic sleaze, it's no big deal, but I like a more rhythmic approach, and Boulez has always been careful about that.

11. Would you get dressed up in a suit and tie – or even a tuxedo – if the occasion called for it?
Well, I have many suits and ties. I mean, I've been to court before. I've got all the costumes necessary to deal with the world. I even own a tuxedo, but I very seldom wear it. I've got a suit by Giorgio Armani and another one by Yves Saint Laurent and another one by some Italian whose name I can't remember. I've always had suits. As a matter of fact, one time, I went to the Grammy Awards in this beautiful blue suit and no shirt. Try it some time. Got a suit? Wear it without a shirt. It looks great, especially if you've got a tan. You got to do your neck, though. Hold a cigarette lighter up there.

12. Describe the state of rock 'n' roll.
The state of radio determines the state of rock 'n' roll. A healthy society would not tolerate what's going on the air right now. That broadcasting is in the state it is tells me there are a lot of people out there who like it, who crave it – and they're fucked. It's like ostrich time; stick your head in the sand. People give up, they're afraid of the future. The biggest things that sell are the noncontent records – records that sound OK but say nothing – and all of them sound the same. I'm a pretty good listener, but I find it difficult to tell the difference between REO Speedwagon and Journey. They all blend together because it's planned that way. The radio becomes wallpaper to your lifestyle. Certain types of themes and ideas are repeated over and over again. You turn on the radio to your favorite station that plays those special kinds of noises. And it triggers the same response over and over again. It becomes your life.

13. What kind of mail do you get?
A lot of it is just complimentary-type stuff and a lot of "Can you help me with my personal problems?" stuff. Although I haven't answered any mail recently, last year I was pretty good about it. I didn't answer the stuff from deranged, crazy people. There are people with weird interpretations of my songs – like, one guy wrote me and told me he "figured out" Idiot Bastard Son. He figured that Ronnie is Ronald Reagan and Kenny is Ted Kennedy. He was wrong. The song is about two brothers named Ronnie and Kenny. In back of their house was a shed or a garage or something. At one point, Kenny, the younger brother, had moved into the shed for some reason. There was no toilet there, and he and this other guy would piss in these canning jars. Instead of dumping them out, they would pour them into these big crocks. Soon, they had gallons of piss. It got to be such a thing that everybody in the neighborhood would come over and piss in these fucking crocks. They had these crocks of piss sitting in their garage. Then these things started growing in there, swimming around in these crocks, and to this day, nobody knows what they were or where they came from. Finally, their father found out about it and made them pour the whole thing down the toilet – not in the gutter, not in the street, not on the lawn but down the toilet. OK, so I figure, if those things are alive and living in piss, you pour them down the toilet and flush it and these things are'probably this big in the sewers underneath Ontario, which is where it happened. While Kenny is doing this, Ronnie is living in the bedroom with this guy named Dwight. They used to save their snot on a window over Ronnie's bed. Just like everybody would piss in the jar, every night they would contribute of couple of boogers to this window, until you couldn't see through it. Just, you know, little kids having a good time. So I wrote a couple of songs about it: Let's Make The Water Turn Black and Idiot Bastard Son.

14. You've said that your best audience is in the New York area and that the East Coast is your element. Why, then, are you living in Los Angeles?
You got any idea how much space this complex occupies? Do you know how much it would cost to put this in Manhattan? You couldn't do it. And besides that, I've got green grass and trees and a swimming pool that my kids can have a good time in. I don't like Los Angeles, but I live here because of my work – all the equipment that I need is ten minutes away. But I don't like the people here; I don't like the values of the area. It's so bleak. People pretend to have culture, but there is no cultural life here at all. I stay, but I stay in my house, and I guarantee you that there is something going on in my house. As tar as being a participant in the local scene, that's not for me. I ignore all party invitations.

15. Let's clear one thing up: There have been reports that you have a panty fetish and have encouraged women in your audiences to take theirs off and throw them up to you onstage. Well?
A few years ago, in Philadelphia, a girl approached the stage and pitched up this little pair of blue panties. I knew that the drummer and one of the other guys in the band liked to sniff girls' underpants, so as soon as she pitched them up, I made the drummer get off the stand and come down and sniff them. He did and immediately pretended to gag and faint and rolled all over the stage. The audience loved it. The girl, however, was somewhat chagrined, but I have it on good authority that the panties 'were' semi-lethal. Anyway, I decided that since the people seemed to enjoy that so much, every night, we would invite girls to take their panties off and throw them up to us. But when I looked out at the audience, I realized how many of the girls were wearing pants. To assist them, I came up with helpful ways for them to take their panties off without taking down their Levis. I suggested, it they were wearing bikini panties, that they rip them on the sides and pull them off that way. If they were wearing those big, ugly cotton jobs, I told them to go back to the toilet. We did collect a large quantity of panties – hundreds of them. We gave them to an artist in Colorado named Emily James, and she's making a wall hanging out of them. She'll eventually exhibit it.

16. Do you take drugs?
I don't take drugs. I don't advise anybody else to take drugs. I think they are bad. I fire people from the band and the crew if they use drugs, not because I wish to rule their lives but because – especially in Europe – if you're in possession of some illicit substance, you'll go to jail and they'll treat you mean.

Drugs don't appeal to me. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a dope fiend? They got nothin' to say. They're dead people. It's not like I like to sit around and talk with people, 'cause I don't. I prefer to just do my work and get on with it. About the only time I have a conversation with anybody is when I'm doing an interview. And even when I'm working, the fewer words said, the better. The vast majority of people in this country are using one kind of drug or another all the time. It's the only thing that keeps them from going .totally ape-shit with the way things actually are. But that's creating part of the problem, because the drugs help you hide.

17. You don't have any vices?
I wouldn't say that. I smoke a pack and a half, two packs a day and drink gallons of coffee. I'll drink a bit of wine if I can get a good bottle, and occasionally, I'll drink whiskey.

18. Another rock institution, of course, is the groupie. Do groupies help or hinder rock 'n' roll?
Usually, there are resident groupies who come with the halls no matter who is playing. They're part of the furniture. I'm glad they're there, because that's who fucks the crew and the other guys in the band. I'm not interested in those girls, but I'm all in favor of it tor the others. When you go on the road, the more girls who get pooched, the happier the whole tour is. That's the key to a happy tour. The band and the crew that don't get laid when they go out tliere are the meanest, grouchiest, most unpleasant bunch of people to hang out with. "Go out and get pooched," I tell them. But I'm not interested in the girls who come to the hall for that purpose. I don't find them amusing. I like women full blown, with credentials. You know – an actual, functioning brain.

There was one groupie I wrote about on the Fillmore album who wouldn't tuck the guy unless he sang her his hit single first. That's a true story. It happened to the two guys in the Turtles who were in the band with me at the time. She wanted them to sing Happy Together. And they did; you know, because why not?

19. Of what clubs are you a member?
I belong to the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. That's it.

20. The image of Frank Zappa is that of a wild and outrageous person. Is that just an image?
I'm really quite wild and outrageous but in ways that people wouldn't recognize. Today, if you actually work 18 hours a day and you like it, that's pretty outrageous. And if you don't compromise and don't put up with a bunch of bullshit and you punch your way through life, which I kind of manage to do on the budget available to me, that's out-fucking-rageous.