Frank Zappa's latest gig:
Bringing business to Eastern Europe
Continental Profiles, 1991
By Neil Cohen
Continental Profiles is a magazine provided by Continental Airlines as reading material for their in-flight customers.
The face seems to be everywhere. In wire-service photos from Prague, meeting with new Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel. In New York, lunching with new Yugoslavian vice prime minister Zivko Pregl. On television's Financial News Network, adroitly fielding phoned-in questions from business people on how they can do business in the new Soviet Union. The hair, mustache, and signature chin duster are moving from black to gray. And a blue business suit has replaced the black T-shirt. But it is unmistakably Frank Zappa, rock and roll musician/composer/maverick, founder of the Mothers Of Invention, producer of albums called "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" and "We're Only In It For The Money," composer of songs called "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing." For a quarter of a century, creator of the weirdest, most satirical, most provocative music you couldn't find on the radio.
The music is still coming, but now pushing 50, Zappa has entered a new phase in his life. Always a fancier of the Dada-esque approach to life as random and absurd, Zappa has jumped in to the most Dada-esque scene today, the ever-changing political and economic situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations. He is a self-described Marco Polo, traveling through Eastern Europe, helping to open the new Orient to trade from the West. He meets with heads of state, with newly enfranchised entrepreneurs, and tries to set up joint ventures and licensing arrangements between Soviet and American business people. If something clicks, he'll take a commission, usually 5 percent. He's formed an international licensing, consulting, and social engineering company. It's name: Why Not? "Public diplomacy is very big these days, and Frank is becoming like an economic public diplomat. " says Vladimir Zvyagin, bureau chief of Soviet television in New York. "He is a person genuinely concerned about how he can contribute to expanding trade relations between the two countries. " To those who have know Zappa in his previous life, the metamorphosis is not a surprise. "Frank's got a brilliant mind," says Howard Kaylan, Eddie of the duo Flo & Eddie, who played with the Mothers in the early '70s and now does a radio show on WXRK in New York. "And all the way back, he's been a political animal. He's been challenging the system. Now, he's using his savvy to work from inside and affect a change. It's not strictly financial. As far as Frank's concerned, he's a citizen of the world. "
Chez Zappa sits rather funkily, surrounded by manicured fenced-in estates, on a winding road in the Hollywood Hills. The view of Los Angeles below would be spectacular if Zappa ventured outside to take a look. He rarely does, often sleeping days and working nights. "I don't like Hollywood," he says, his well-modulated baritone often rising in dramatic counterpoint to punctuate a thought. "I don't go out. I stay in my place because I find that life in this town is depressingly, er, SHALLOW, WOULD BE A NICE WORD. "
The house is most notable for the number of cars piled into the two-car driveway. The building not only houses Zappa, his wife Gail, and their four children – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodan, and Diva – but a cottage industry. The product of that industry is Zappa himself.
Zappa is a businessman from way back. The financial and creative differences with recording companies that led to two lawsuits prompted Zappa to take control of his business affairs early in his career. He now has his own record label, Barking Pumpkin Records, and pays record companies to distribute his albums and CD's instead of collecting royalties from them. Rather than license his famous mug to others, he has his own mail order company, Barfko-Swill, for Zappa Souvenirs, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia. There's also a video production company, Honker Home Video; a music publishing business, Munchkin Music; and a rock and roll rehearsal studio, Joe's Garage. (editor's note: 'Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III' is the album. 'Joe's Garage' is the name of the rehearsal facility. ) All are run by Frank and Gail Zappa. The names of the companies may be whimsical, but the revenues are real.
Zappa's inner sanctum is in the control room of the $2 million recording studio that occupies much of his basement. While a computer hums in the background, and son Dweezil's guitar licks drift overhead, Zappa settles into an overstuffed chair, pulls over a lobby-sized ashtray, and lights up the first of an endless chain of Winstons.
It was a music connection that first launched Zappa into the world of International commerce. A friend, Dennis Berardi, who owns Kramer Guitars, told Zappa he was thinking of opening a guitar factory in the Soviet Union. "I told him he was crazy," Zappa recalls. "I knew exactly what everybody else in the United States of America knew at the time about the Soviet Union – nothing. You can't know anything unless you go over there and look at it. IT'S ANOTHER PLANET. So I went over there and met all these people and it was shocking. I was not prepared for the amount of data I was receiving. I was given an education in politics, sociology, and anthropology of the Soviet Union that you couldn't buy anyplace else. "
What he saw, he says, was a market of 289 million customers who needed just about everything – consumer products, industrial technology, agricultural engineering – 480 million, if you counted the rest of the Warsaw pact nations. He couldn't help but see the possibilities.
"You give me the most random things and I'll find some way that there is a relationship between them," he says. "It's just the way my brain works. From meeting people, hearing what they had to say, picking up statements like God, I WISH WE HAD THIS, and also knowing WHO DID HAVE IT someplace else, you would logically try and see if you could make the people cooperate. "
For instance, on this day, his first back home after a week in New York after guest-hosting the FNN Focus program, he is reviewing faxes and letters that have come in while he's been away. There is one potential deal that he is particularly interested in pursuing. The McDonnell Douglas Corporation and Finnair have a joint venture called FAIT, which is trying to bring business to the Soviet Union. An Australian company has an all-terrain tractor. Zappa is trying to interest FAIT in manufacturing or licensing the production in an Eastern Bloc nation. "It runs on a gallon of gas and can pick up 2,000 pounds in logs. " he says. "A product like this would be very useful to the Soviet Union because now they have land reform and the individual farmers are going to be more aggressive. They do have rubles to spend. The lowest estimate that I have heard was 150 BILLION RUBLES STUFFED IN MATTRESSES. And if they make these tractors well enough, this is something they can export to other countries for hard currency.
In every story Zappa tells about his visits over there, there is another business opportunity he wants you to know about. In telling of his first visit to Moscow, he is off on a tangent about the lack of luggage carts at the airport. "PLEASE," he leans into the tape recorder, "THE GUY WHO OWNS SMARTY-CARTY, YOU'VE GOT A MAJOR OPPORTUNITY IN THE SHEREMETJEVO AIRPORT IN MOSCOW. " A discussion of the transition from communism to private ownership in Yugoslavia segues into a litany of possible U.S. ventures. "They are selling everything," he says. "The selling price of the entire Yugoslav rail system – $5 billion; the entire Yugoslav phone system – $3 billion. If AT&T or Sprint or even Joe Blow's Phone Company wanted to come in and buy the phone system, they could do it. There's an Italian guy who made a deal with the Yugoslavs to build a coastal highway through all of their tourist areas – for so many years he gets a monopoly to build all the gas stations and motels on the side of the road. I can tell you right now that there is a place in the Soviet Union that wants to do exactly the same thing. SURELY, THERE IS AN ASPHALT COMPANY IN THE UNITED STATES THAT IS SMART ENOUGH TO DO ONE OF THESE THINGS. " Not that putting deals like this together has been easy. For all the ideas that he's thrown at the wall, so far only one has stuck. Zappa put a San Fernando Valley jewelry maker in touch with several suppliers of Soviet amber. "It sounds paltry when I say it," Zappa says, "but so many more ridiculous things have been offered that went nowhere. " Zappa has learned the hard way about the bizarre obstacles all business people must overcome in what he calls the Wild, Wild East. The most obvious is the ruble itself, a soft currency that is controlled by the Soviet government and not allowed to fluctuate on the world market. That means it cannot be exchanged for dollars, deutschmarks, or yen. But there are other more subtle, insidious, and just plain weird obstacles: ignorance about how to do business on the part of the people who never have, unrealistic expectations about the fruits of western capitalism, and most of all, the red-tape-strewn Soviet bureaucracy.
When the director of the Luzhniky Sports Complex, a massive, but underutilized public health club in Moscow that houses a stadium and indoor arena, told Zappa he wanted to add a hotel, casino and shops, Zappa put him in touch with Wesray Capitol, a New Jersey based investment firm whose holdings include Wilson Sporting Goods, Avis Rent-A-Car, and Six Flags. When Wesray decided it was interested, the Luzhniky director doubled the price, the deal died. Zappa bemoans that the Soviet businessmen who have the potential to do something really big don't have the business knowledge to do it. "There are business terms that don't exist in the Soviet vocabulary, like investment, or capital gains," he says. "Until there is an increase in knowledge as far as how the deals work and the idea that WESTERN CAPITAL IS NOT A PRESENT THAT COMES FROM HEAVEN AND LANDS ON YOUR DOORSTEP AND SUDDENLY WONDERFUL THINGS HAPPEN, nobody is going to invest a nickel in there unless they're going to get a profit out of it. And profit is another word they don't understand. "
Another possible hotel venture brought Zappa to Leningrad for further indoctrination into the mysterious ways of the Near East. The Soviets wanted to convert the Carriage Museum, which has become a taxi grease rack under communism, into a combination hotel and home for the Leningrad State Ballet. The Soviets agreed to do a feasibility study by a set deadline, and Zappa agreed to find prospective builders. He found some interested parties here, but he's still waiting for the study. On that same visit to Leningrad, Zappa got wind of a vast collection of paintings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that no one had ever seen because they were being kept in a vault. Zappa contacted the man who controls the vault, a Rubin Milonov, and told him how he could arrange for a television program to be done about the collection, for books to be published, and exhibitions to be held. "Mr. Milonov says fine, let's do a contract," Zappa says. "So I draw one up and he signs a contract for what is called 'The Hidden Treasures of Leningrad,' which I still have in the other room. Apparently, Mr. Milonov didn't have the authority to sign the contract because no one has ever seen those da Vincis. " So finally, Zappa got nothing. "Those are the kind of things that can happen to you over there," he says. "You walk away with a signed, sealed, legal document in two languages and you still don't know who you're doing business with. " Bringing the Soviets around to Western business ways is a slow process, Zappa says, and then he does a few bars on the "Volga Boatmen. " "It's DA-DA-DAAAA-DA. It's really turning the big wheel with muscle power. "
He admits that all the obstacles can be frustrating. "It would be frustrating if this was the only thing I did for a living," he says. "I probably would be crazy if by every Friday I had to post a deal some place. But since I do have another source of income, I don't have to worry. " "It's culturally interesting to me. From a business standpoint, it's something that has to be done, whether I'm doing it or somebody else is doing it, and I genuinely like the people over there. I think their system is punitive, and I think the U.S. system can get a little bit out of control sometimes, but the way you change those things is by continually pushing. "
Frank Zappa is definitely still in the music business. He wrote the score for the Cousteau Society documentary, "Outrage At Valdez," that aired on TBS in March, and has two new collections coming out this year to commemorate his twenty-fifth anniversary in rock and roll. His visits abroad have also paid off in a deal to have five of his albums legally distributed in Czechoslovakia (they had been smuggled in for years, he says). His schedule is a mixture of music and economic policy events. Although he never received mass acceptance as an artist in his own country, he has always been big in Europe – now more than ever. In June he will be in Finland where his music will be played at a contemporary music festival, Meeting of the World, in a town near the Soviet border. [Editor's note: Frank did not make the trip to Finland] In September he will be in Lyon, France, where the orchestra and ballet will stage an evening of his works. And in January, he will be back in Prague for a premier of new Zappa music.
As for the future of his Marco Polo activities, Zappa says he is less optimistic about putting U.S. businesspeople together with East bloc parties than he is putting East Bloc businesspeople together with people from other parts of the world. "This country still has got a lot of Cold War pollution that swirls around in the media, and it creates a psychological atmosphere here where people don't believe their eyes," he says. "You see one report on television that is a act: The Berlin Wall came down. You see another fact: They have a brand new government in Czechoslovakia. But this is followed by a very right wing commentary that does everything it can to FOSTER, BOLSTER, AND REUPHOLSTER the whole Cold War mentality. I wish I had a collection of every Wall Street Journal article I've read that said 'Can Gorbachev Hold on to Power?' or 'He's going out this time,' trying to come up with names of guys breathing down his neck. It's like SCRAPING THE BOTTOM OF THE COLD WAR BARREL to create this impression that it's all going to evaporate overnight. "
He believes that Gorbachev has been so willing to concede troop number superiority to President Bush because the Soviets have gotten beyond that, that they know that future battles will be economic ones. "Those battle lines have already been won, and we didn't even know, as Americans, what the game was," he says.
"We're still talking about megatons and throw weight and strategy of some arcane nature when the Japanese and Germans went straight to the bankbook. Let's be realistic about who's winning World War III. The major weapon in that war is the cash register, not the nuclear warhead. "
With his new visibility, Zappa's credibility outside of music is building. "I think everyone in the business world would say, 'Yeah, he's out there doing something," says Robert Regan, FNN's vice president of programming. "Havel is an artist and the head of a country. These people have something to say, and they have the power. And Frank has something to say. He has ideas, and isn't that what business is all about, giving ideas? His involvement is just another way the world is changing."
Ex-Mother Howard Kaylan takes it one step beyond. "I wouldn't be surprised if he could carry it into a larger, global political position, a part of the United Nations or something equally major," says Kaylan. "I saw his picture the other day in the Daily News. He didn't look like a rock star. He looked like a world leader. "