David Walley's Exclusive Interview
The interviewer is Paul Remington, David Walley wrote a controversial book about Frank Zappa which recieved enormous criticism and praise in almost equal measure, here is a great interview in which he gives us his insight into Frank Zappa.
The interviewer talks to David about his controversial book "No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa", but most of the interview focuses on Walley's perception of Zappa as a musician and as a man, fascinating reading, enjoy. Thanks to David Walley.
When and how did you formally present your book, "No Commercial Potential", to Frank Zappa?
Maybe it was in 1970 or 1971 that I approached him with the idea. "I don't want to impair your ability to earn a living," he said to me. "But you're not," I replied. There's a passage in "No Commercial Potential", in the older section, which gives the gist of our conversation on the subject. Don't forget that I was one of the few writers in NYC that was on his side, who knew how to write about what he was doing. "You're one of the few people who understand what I'm doing," he told me. I remember when I was winding up my stay in LA (around the same time that Nigey [Lennon] was living under his piano) and I told him that I was too overwhelmed by the material, that I was distressed that he could live in such surrounding chaos (the inter-band, family backstage politics, etc.) and yet be so alone. He looked at me very queerly and didn't say a word, but I knew that I had hit home. I remember telling him – must have been four or five in the morning – that I couldn't do the book, that I didn't know what to do. And for a change, he treated me like a human being, not just someone he was enduring an interview with, imparting information. He made me feel better.
"Of course you can do it, you know what's going on. You're a good writer." You see, I also knew that the only way I was going to get him to be real with me was if I totally lost control and was real myself; maybe too real. I think that he had trouble being honest with people because he thought they were going to hurt him – that, in effect, that's what he was always looking for and found. If you want to know the truth, he knew that I knew, but he also knew that I wasn't about to catch him out. What would have been the purpose? I could have talked to all his old girlfriends (well, I did) and used that material. I could have talked to his ex-wife who would have had lots to say, but that wasn't my intention. That was small shit. It was always a question of recognition, if you will. I knew who he was, but he didn't have a clue who I was. He had a magnetic personality and I could see how easy it would have been to capitulate to him. But, then again, I would no longer have been my own man and this book would have been a piece of promotional trash instead of the serious thoughtful and insightful history it has turned out to be.
When you first approached writing "No Commercial Potential", did you intend to approach it from a sociological level, or did that transpire as a result of discovering how much American culture and society was a part of Zappa and his music?
I looked at the music of Frank Zappa as a cultural historian. It was interesting from the point of view of not only what he was writing (lyrics, musical assemblages of styles) but how he was doing it. If he was just a rock and roll star, though I might have enjoyed what he was doing, I wouldn't have been so obsessed with it. Look, I was a grad student finishing up a MA in Modern European History and doing an essay on "Student Revolutionary Movements in the Paris Commune". This was 1968. Paris was going up, and I was wondering what the use of history could be if not as a predictive tool. I looked on what Zappa was doing as a primary resource, an opportunity to discuss American culture as it was happening.
You were the first to cover Zappa in a biography. What was there about Zappa that inspired you to write a book profiling him?
He was something more than just a rock and roll star. Well hell, he really wasn't. He was a composer who used rock and roll music like another form of American music. I was struck by his use of musical forms of all kinds as well as the satiric edge of his lyrics. He had the words and he also had the music, and he was a unique American character, much like Charles Ives and Howlin' Wolf. What I'm saying is, I was fascinated that he drew from all areas of music and made something larger. He had a larger context than just a pop star. If he was, as a cultural historian, I wouldn't have been so intrigued. Of course, I would have grooved, but I wouldn't have been so enamored with what he was trying to do. He was also a figure that was "serious" and at the time "counter-cultural," but not in the fashion jeans sense of the word.
What stimulated your interest in writing "No Commercial Potential"? How did it begin?
It was 1967. I went over to see Butchy McCormick and he turned me on. He also played "Help I'm a Rock", and that's all she wrote. [Smiles] Then I saw the Mothers at the Garrick [Theater, New York City]. When I moved into New York City and started working for Jazz and Pop, I did a review of "We're Only In It for the Money" and "Uncle Meat." Since my publisher was a friend of Frank's, I was able to meet him at the Newport Jazz Festival where he read the article and told me that I was one of the few people who know what he was doing. So I continued writing about Frank, and was one of the few critics in the Underground Press to give him more of a voice.
How did you decide on the approach you took to the 1972 edition?
The material decided the approach for me. [Smiles] At the time I was reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle", I was struck by the phrase, "As it was supposed to happen," which fed into the way I was thinking the life of Zappa was set up.
Did you find profiling Zappa to be a difficult task?
It was hard work because the material was leading me, I wasn't leading the material. I started with the idea of trying to present this man in his own time and proceeded from there. One can't help but be influenced by the way Frank makes music, and I just wanted, as a writer, to make a prose representation of how he makes music, i.e., using his techniques to write history, because that's what I do.
How broadly was "No Commercial Potential" accepted when it was first published? Obviously, it's considered one of the essential Zappa bios now. Was it embraced the same way back in 1972?
It had favorable reviews in all the major music magazines of the day; Rolling Stone, Creem, Rock Magazine, Win Magazine. Of course, that was helped by the fact that many of my colleagues who knew me and knew what kind of shit I'd gone through wanted to be supportive, it was also a really fine piece of work of which they approved. He was a formidable presence in his "original" Sixties configuration after all.
The material you would have to work with if writing "No Commercial Potential" today would certainly be richer and different than the material you had available in 1971. I would assume the way in which Zappa's life changed over the years might alter how you would view him as a biographical subject. How has the way in which you viewed Zappa changed since first being inspired by Vonnegut's words?
I don't know about "richer and different." I wrote "No Commercial Potential" to contextualize Frank, to give readers some idea of where he came from. Most pop stars have no context other than the commercial world. Zappa's was much more rich. I mean, the Sixties was quite an interesting period in American history, very unique. Once one has a context, everything else follows from there. Look, Frank was not a hippie, he was a freak. Hippie is a made-up merchandizing word. Here's the way it goes: beatnik-head-hippie-doper-yuppie. Zappa's satire touched on all those changed. Contemporary American political history was also part of the pool from which he drew his inspiration, the newspapers, TV. If you're a satirist, you work with what you have. Well hell, he was like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce who used newspapers as part of their acts, to draw material from. Zappa drew from the electronic newspaper, so to speak.
Yes, that's one of things I find so fascinating about Zappa: he embraced everything, commercial and otherwise. He was beyond commercialism. It's interesting he was so caught-up with it in terms of desiring commercial acceptance. On one hand he satirically bashed it, yet on a personal level he strove for it to embrace him. Do you feel he was trying to fight a losing battle in his attempt to redefine what is commercial, which is what would have had to happen had the commercial world accepted him?
I don't think he was "beyond commercialism." He had a highly developed sense of what was commercial, or at least how to do that part of the business. I think he was just trying to get his stuff sold to as wide an audience as possible. In my opinion, there are many other groups who should have learned something from Zappa – about how he went about his little commercial dance too, positive and negative. [Smiles] You see, when I blew out of grad school, I was heavily dosed with the classics: Horace, Petronious, Heredotus, Livy, etc. And I was also a very enthusiastic acid-head in terms of the fact that I learned from acid about what metaphors are. So anyway, isn't show biz just a large stage and if you've got the eyes to see, there are interesting fables and lessons to be learned, positive and negative, like, "never believe your own publicity." It's all about the importance of having good maps.
I'm reminded of the phrase, "She's frosting a cake with a paper knife [from "Flakes"]," which was humorous stab at the stupidity of American commercialism. Later in Zappa's life his interest in observing the American way of life was expressed as concern with him becoming politically active, striving to make a difference, and to influence us to make a difference. Interestingly, unlike Zappa's experience with the PMRC and many other clashes with the American "establishment," he never incorporated his displeasure with how the US government handled his association with Havel and the Czech government into his compositions. Do you have any opinion why, and do you feel Zappa viewed the outcome of his work with the Czech government as a "failure?"
I think he just shined it on. I mean what's the use of pissing off a whole country full of fans. Anyway governments are funny like that. Actually, I've been doing some sleuthing in the question, and contrary to what Frank may have said publicly about the incident (the Czech government has said little officially), it more than likely appears that the reason for the "demotion" was due to the fact that Frank started making inflated claims about what he was gong to do and didn't vent any of it with the Czech government. At the time, as you know, the government was new in the community of nations, so Frank kind of put them on the spot. I've been in communication with the Czech embassy in Washington DC trying to track down the "real" story. I've also sent out a few Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department for cable traffic between Foggy Bottom and Prague and I'm awaiting their reply (if any).
"Beyond commercialism" was actually in reference to his music, not him personally. As commercial as Zappa's music can be, it is so often ignored from airplay. Would you agree?
Depends on what piece of music you were talking about. I think that for most program directors, his music was too difficult to conceptualize. They had to think too much about it, and because they had to think too much about it, they figured that their audiences would feel the same way. Not the case at all. The program directors were just very un-evolved. Some of it was too sophisticated, some of it was just too "dirty." Frank pushed the limits. Unfortunately, the limits pushed back. [Smiles]
"No commercial Potential" contains such a focused view of the Freak scene on LA during the late sixties, one wonders if you actually were a part of it, or associated with it at that time. Can you explain your background, and how that background gave you the knowledge-base you needed while writing the book?
At the time I was working for the East Village Other Jazz and Pop Magazine and freelancing around. I was living in the Lower East Side of New York. My paper's office was above the Fillmore East on Second Avenue, culture central as it were. Because of my work as a journalist, I had access and a certain amount of freebie flights to the coast where I met the rest of my colleagues. Anyway, the Village was happening and there I was on 74 E.7th Street, right in the middle of it. My "background" was as a trained cultural historian who was into music generally and rock and roll as it was constructed then. I guess I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time; "As it was supposed to happen," in my humble opinion.
What contact, if any, did you have with Zappa and his associates prior to writing the book? Or, did you develop contact with key personnel during the writing process?
I actually had no contact with the members of the band before writing the book. Well, maybe in passing to say hello. I developed my contacts during the writing of the book, most specifically with Don Preston and that gang, and later, Mark, Howard, Jim, Aynsley, Jeff, and George while I was doing full-time work.
What was Zappa's first reaction to the book, and did it change over time?
He was amused but not overly enthusiastic:
Listen, now that I'm thirty years old, now that I'm over the hill, I don't give a shit ... I don't' care, really. If you want to make a book about me and put your theories and talk balloons and stuff like that, should I stop you if there's a market? But as far as working intensively to produce some historical document with all the hot poop, why just the mere fact that nobody got into it does not interfere with the facts.
Well, as far as writing about the artist and still having the artist around ...
Yeah, I know. The minute you start doing anything like that in the field of pop music it's automatically ...
But I don't consider you a pop composer.
Well, it's irrelevant whether you consider me that or not. The more I think of it, the less I'm interested in impairing your earning power, anyway.
Well, you're really not.
Zappa's referred to himself, more than once, as being "over the hill" at the age of 30something. Why?
No, he was just being smart-ass. I mean really the whole concept of being "over the hill" comes from that same fiction perpetrated in the Sixties of "Don't trust anyone over thirty" when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were way over it; in their mid-thirties, I think. I didn't pay that comment no never mind, I just used it because it showed how Frank thought. His humorous side I suppose.
Did any of Zappa's associates side with you over this controversy between you and Zappa, or did they stay out of the whole ordeal?
Many of Zappa's associates approached me and told me that I'd written a dynamite book. However they told me NOT to tell Frank they'd said so because he would have fired them. I respected their wishes, naturally, but found some matter of satisfaction in their approval of what I'd tried to do.
Interesting. A sign of the control Zappa had, not only for his music but also his band members. How did you find his band members felt about the control Frank required?
They bitched naturally, (cf. 200 Motels), but they also played great things and had a good time. Of course they had to watch what they said around him or in the press.
Did you find Zappa's early band members respected him? If so, on what level?
His early band were a group of contemporaries, they had their own issues with him, i.e. whose band was it. By the time Frank fired the first Mothers and he was in control – he was the leader. He paid them and they worked for him, not, I suspect, with him.
There's a controversial aura around "No Commercial Potential". I've read negative, offended opinions from some readers. Do you feel "No commercial Potential" is a potentially offensive book?
No, it only offended Frank, everyone else told me that whether he liked it or not, that's who he was. I refer you to "Our Bizarre Relationship" which can be accessed through Bill Lantz's homepage, Evil Bob's homepage, or in the BIBLIOGRAPHY FAQ in "No Commercial Potential". Somewhere in my files I have the original letter I wrote to Zappa about it, which of course he never replied to.
I think many may develop the impression that you placed a "spin" on "No Commercial Potential" based on your dislike of some sides of Zappa. Not many people who write a profile have such sharp things to say about the subject.
I didn't set out with any sort of "spin" at all. The material that I gathered presented itself that way. As I said, I let the material take me where it could and I just held on for dear life at times. Believe you me, I wasn't looking specifically for any negative spin. In my opinion, the "negative spin" theory came from Frank himself, thinking what I could have said but didn't. Maybe he could have dealt with it much, much better had I done so. But, I still don't understand what's negative about saying that human beings are fallible. He was a human being in a human universe. He was a great artist, possibly a genius. Even geniuses can be assholes at times – so what. Frank spent lots of his time calling other people assholes which was his right, but he could never look as clearly at himself. Then again, how could he? All I can say is that I was lucky to have found topics which inspired me and made me intellectually grow. Each of the biographies I've done, on Zappa and Ernie Kovacs (formerly released under the title of "Nothing in Moderation" or "The Ernie Kovacs Phile"), have shown me how to approach my own work.
WE agree on this, but others may not. My objective view isn't that the "negative spin" impression of "No Commercial Potential" came from Frank. I see it as a matter of accepting the human sides of Zappa, which many of his fans (as well as Zappa) find it difficult to do. It's hard for most to see their hero as less than bigger-than-life. It's easier to attack your credibility as the writer. You're the main target. Would you agree, and how have you learned to deal with this?
I'm too much of a small fry as a writer to give "a good goddamn" about it. I know what I did, I know the care and sweat and toil which went into the writing and research of the book. As a writer, I'm not as heavily invested in myths as fans might be. When I was working as a rock and roll critic in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I met a lot of musicians. Some were decent smart guys while others were just assholes. They weren't pop stars to me. They were, for the most part, my contemporaries, and we talked about a whole range of things: art, music, politics, literature. They knew it was a joke. I knew it was a joke. We just tried to have good conversations about things that mattered. About the only really bad interview I did was with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart when Rocket Rodney was playing with Beck. Between the two of them I couldn't manage to cobble together a half of an interview. But, for the most part, the people I met were quite intelligent. They all admired Zappa for what he was doing too, especially The Bonzo Dog Band and Viv Stanshall, though I think that there was some sort of mutual admiration society there.
That's understandable, as I'm sure a large segment of your audience were not offended by your approach. Have you received any feedback from individuals that really made you feel good about the book. I'm sure you've always felt good about it, but when someone you admire and respect comes forward to express kind words, that can really mean a lot.
As a matter of fact, yes. I've had tremendous feedback from readers who bought all the other editions; from music professors, especially. When I got online and started talking about it, it was really gratifying to see how long a shadow my book had cast on the Zappa world in general. One writes, one finishes up one book and starts another. It's like making a record and putting in the tracks. Some of them have "legs" and some of them don't.
Did Zappa take any legal action towards you for publishing the book?
None, he, or more importantly, Mutt Cohen, Herbie's brother, made noises like they were going to sue. My publisher was at a loss, thinking that I'd never gotten song permission. But I'd done my homework, had given them the permission slip which was lost when the publisher's accountant died and the papers were lost on the desk for six months. [cf. "Our Bizarre Relationship"] I was even prepared to personally excise the offending lyrics (above the fair use quotient), have each person who helped sign the book and place across the cover "Censored" which would have certainly increased the value of the book, at least as a historical artifact. When we finally found the slip, we sent in the money which they returned. We finally said "fuck it" and published the book. It all seems to have worked out well enough in the long run, eh? [Smiles]
Oh man ... [Laughs] Censored across the front! Now, that would have been a real bold and realistic statement. I'm sure Zappa wouldn't have liked that, but how could he disagree with it? What stopped you from doing it?
What Frank said publicly was many times in opposition to how he acted. What does Whitman say? "If I contradict myself, I contradict myself." Of course, it would have sold the book quick and made it an instant artifact, and here I'd be using "time and those waves" which the book set up to sell it. [Smiles]
Your answer still leaves us hanging. Why did you refrain from releasing it with "CENSORED" splashed across the cover? He might have, had he been in your shoes. The controversial aspect of the entire situation is fascinating to me, although I can certainly see a reason for you not going that far.
I guess, in retrospect, I could have done so, but then it would have been a lie. Had he served me with a restraining order, I and my friends would have gone into the warehouse and excised all the material above the "fair use" limits. That would have been the only reason for resorting to that expedient. My publisher thought it was a neat idea. Anyway, I knew I was right and fuck him if he couldn't take a joke. [Robust laughter]
If you're simply relaying facts, then I don't understand Zappa's response to your work. As you said, perhaps he felt the book contained a personal spin based on how you assimilated those facts, which is the writer's prerogative.
Anybody with any grain of sense also sees this, so I never understood why he proceeded to spend years of his life (most of the Seventies) trashing me. I remember telling him that if he didn't like the book, he didn't have to mention it. But as they say, "Sorrow, sing sorrow, but good win out in the end."
How, specifically, did he personally trash you?
He gave interviews in Gallery magazine and in Penthouse where he characterized me as a psychotic – a disturbed person who had no understanding of what he (Zappa) was about. He said in interviews that I must have made it all up, that none of it had any basis in fact!
How did that feel, having your subject turn on you, so to speak?
I was really hurt by Frank's response to my book since I had nothing but respect for his work and what he was trying to do. I thought it was an unbelievably paranoid response, but in retrospect, I suppose it was a product of his world view (which I amply demonstrated) as well as the fact that indeed he was quite sheltered, or better, demanded that he be sheltered. He was most stung by what Captain Beefheart said, though I found what he had to say very accurate and telling. Frank was big for criticizing everyone else, but couldn't take the heat himself. He disparaged his old band, called Ray Collins in an earlier edition of my book before it was cut out because of bullshit legal pressure and because I could no longer produce the tape," "An archetypal acid burn-out victim," which was a fair enough assessment – cruel, but fair enough if taken in the context with whatever else he was saying. Anyway, Frank's comments really got me, and in some ways, inhibited my confidence, though I did go on to write a biography on Ernie Kovacs, and that was in a way therapy because Kovacs was such a wonderful, quirky and brilliant man. There wasn't the same kinds of resentments involved with him that were obviously involved with Frank.
Referring to "Our Bizarre Relationship", how did you view your correspondence with Ben Watson? [Author of the Frank Zappa book, "The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play", ISBN 0-313-11918-6]
I found Watson awfully condescending, and that was the major vibe in his book too. I found it offensive, but then again I probably offend too easily. I have no real love to pretension, which is why I liked much of Zappa's music. His music was loaded with pretension, so much so that you had to laugh with him, not at him.
What's interesting about Watson is he's not an American and has never grown up in the American society that influenced both you and Zappa. Do you feel this may have an impact on Watson's view of Zappa?
I did bring that up to him, but it seems my comment was below his notice, well he's a Cambridge educated twit who's just not smart enough. If he was smart, if he was a real intellectual, instead of erecting barriers to understanding and insight, he'd tear them down. Intellect is the clear sword that makes things if not simple, at least comprehensible. It's like Watson's knowledge is only for him and to hell with everyone else.
It is interesting to read both your correspondences. It's clear you both harbor different schools of thought. And, perhaps that's good. Having more than one point of view can result in a different view of Zappa, I suppose. For those that see eye-to-eye with Watson, his book becomes valuable.
You could have blue-pencilled more than a third of the book and still had something interesting. His editor obviously was overwhelmed by the force of Watson's bogus-pomp critical theory to weigh in with his opinions. God knows, I'd have whacked huge chunks out of it.
For me, my main gripe with Watson's book is similar to my gripe with Nigey Lennon's book, "Being Frank" [California Classic Books, ISBN: 1-879395-55-X]; I don't CARE about Watson. Nigey's book seemed more a book about her during her short period with the Mother's of Invention and Zappa than about Zappa. I don't have anything against Nigey and respect the work she produced, but I'm not interested in Nigey, I'm interested in Zappa. Likewise, I'm not interested in Watson's slant on social and political views. I don't think that slant was helpful to his daunting, yet at times fascinating book.
I've been through this with a number of people. From my perspective, from what I know/knew of the man, I thought Nigey's book was an interesting portrait and quite accurate. If you perhaps read our two books together, another dimension of Zappa appears, that's all I'm trying to say here. Nigey is an extraordinarily bright, competent writer, very funny too. It's another context of him, before the accident, which inalterably changed Frank, really.
So, you would corroborate Nigey's view? You also saw the change in Zappa following his 1971 injury.
Absolutely! In fact, during conversations with her, both on-line and on the phone, she confirmed my suspicions. It was a real revelation speaking with Nigey because she's such a brilliant woman and one hell of a writer. By the way, you should check out her books on Artaud and Mark Twain, "The Sagebrush Bohemian", which deals with Mark Twain in the West and her thesis that Twain was actually a Western writer, not an Eastern writer.
It's logical you would be associated with Nigey. How and when did you first meet her?
John Scialli [father of asteroid Zappafrank] "introduced" us on-line. He gave me her e-mail address and I dropped her a line. We started writing, and writing, and writing, and then calling, and writing and then collaborating.
Zappa's life was so influenced by American culture, it almost appears Watson was unable to identify with it. Now, as an American, I found this aspect of "No Commercial Potential" perhaps the most fascinating. As Frank said about music, there's no right or wrong. Your book and Watson's book are what they are. We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, accepted or unaccepted, liked or disliked.
Sure, that's what makes horse races, that's what makes the history of biography so interesting. One thing that's for sure, without me, Watson wouldn't have had a clue. Anyway I've been told by real live professors at real live universities and colleges that if one wants to know about America in the Sixties, my book puts them there quickly, accurately, and deftly. Don't forget, I've always seen myself as a cultural historian, even when I was writing about pop music. At one time I thought that it was a mirror into the soul of America, now-days it's more like just another sealed tuna sandwich in the consumerist mall world we all know and loathe.
I don't mean to slam Watson. I've heard him interviewed, and was quite taken by his intelligence and ability to analyze. And he is very insightful at times. For me, he has a tendency to over-analyze. Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play contains a lot of really interesting information. I just didn't care for the way he wrapped his own words around some of the information, and the slant he put on the book.
That's exactly right, and that's exactly what I told him though I don't think he responded to me, or if he did, it was in code. Life's too short to be spending time playing the kinds of intellectual games Ben finds fascinating. But, then again, England only has four television stations. [Smiles] Real intellectuals don't need to obfuscate what they analyze. Put another way, real intellectuals make things easy to comprehend because they have an overview, and that's something I don't think Ben has achieved yet. Maybe it's a function of his age or the company he keeps in England, I really don't know. For me it was showboating of the worst kind. I'm not interested in the kinds of power games or submission and domination that Ben seems to prefer, at least in Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play.
Have you read any of the other Zappa books, aside from Watsons, and have any impressed you?
As far as it went, I thought Michael Gray's book had some merit (more on Pamela Zarubica who'd I'd love to get back in contact with). Gray did use much of my book (and credited me with same, thanks Michael). He has a definite opinion about things and talks about his family (something which I thought was beside the point). Whatever Miles does is fine with me, I know him and trust him as a journalist. As for the rest, I can't say, though I'd like to see what Neil Slaven has to say for professional curiosity surely.
Regarding the latest edition of "No Commercial Potential", why did you take such a different approach in the chapter content between the 1971 and 1980 edition, then again between the 1980 and the 1996 edition?
For one thing, I was no longer in contact with Zappa, as you no doubt can understand now. Funny about the 1980 edition, it was actually the booksellers, the salesmen in the field for EP Dutton who asked the publishing house if they could get an update. That was pretty neat. By the time 1995 rolled around, the old man had died, I was older and perhaps a little wiser, and had some more perspective, I decided on that approach. By the way, the new chapter was written using the Internet, and my was it helpful! That's how I found the Marshall interview. I then found out that it was my old friend Bob Dean, who I'd known since the late Sixties, who was also a big Zappa fan and who'd actually used what I set up in the first edition to frame his interview questions.
I see, so the update was initiated by the publishing house. Did you have thoughts of updating it yourself, prior to their contacting you?
Absolutely not! I thought that I was done with that part of my life. [Smiles] It was Gary Lucas, an old colleague of mine – one hell of a guitar player who played with Beefheart – who kept going on about how I should check out Da Capo Press, how they put out all kinds of great rock and roll books. So I did a cold call to Mike Dorr, did my dance, he read the book, proposed it to his editorial board, and the rest, as they say, is history (or better, a continuation of history).
When the book was released, did you have any idea it might become an important sociological and historical "period-piece?"
No, not really. I was just concerned at the time in trying to present an approach which reflected my subject, so the reader could understand through prose what Zappa was up to. Remember, I told you I was trying to use Zappa's tools ("time and those waves") to do so.
"Time and those waves" is an interesting way to describe it. You begin "No Commercial Potential" describing how Zappa's concept of time and those waves applied to his work. What was there about this approach Zappa found appealing? He carried his use of "time and those waves" through Civilization Phaze III.
I liked the way he used his own time, enfolded into his creative time, how he made it all part of his Project/Object, i.e. his larger oeuvre. You see, the Project/Object was all of his time: interviews of him, films etc., his concerts, his studio work. To understand the whole scope of the Project/Object perforce one has to be conversant with ALL and EVERYTHING. Which is what, in some ways, "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore" is all about. Once one grasps that Conceptual Continuity, one can have a full appreciation. Of course, as I might have said, Zappa was at times not the best judge of what was really good, and from his perspective, everything he ever did showed great genius, or a genius in the making. Not always the case.
And, of course, as you've pointed out, the only person who really was conversed with ALL and EVERYTHING was Zappa. His vault holds evidence of this. With him gone, who can assess everything that's in there from memory? So, the Project/Object was primarily an appreciated concept within Zappa with us enjoying his Conceptual Continuity as an observer. Would this be a correct statement?
Absolutely! You buy the music of Zappa, you buy into his universe which he was always in the process of defining, refining, commenting on, living, etc., etc.
You stated in "No Commercial Potential", "[Frank] works so hard at not being serious, that he even is serious." (P.4) This appears to apply not only to his social side but his compositional side. I'm thinking of compositions like Billy The Mountain, and many others. Learning what makes Zappa tick, one might be surprised by this dichotomy. Do you have any feelings why – even through his frustrating childhood and professional life, which instilled a mounting level of cynicism – he maintained such a biting sense of humor? Perhaps it was his way of sneering at the world?
It was his defense against critical failure. What he had most of all was a naked will which showed in his compositional efforts. At any rate, he thought of himself as an Outsider in the classic Colin Wilson mode (great classic book on alienation). Look, the world is a pretty absurd place, people are strange, right? If you can't laugh at it, you have to cry. Who needs that? There's also something of cosmic laughter in Zappa's satire, though it did get more than a little heavy-handed at times. I think that was due to his pandering to the tastes of his audience as they developed.
Zappa's life was his work, which he never actually considered "work," from what I've been able to determine. During your friendship with him, did he have recreational activities and personal interests outside of music?
[Robust laughter] Are you serious? When would he have had the time? His amusements, I suspect, were being on the road and watching and writing, you know, the experience of being detached and out there in the Netherlands. Touring does make you crazy, and Frank was crazier than most. After a while one tends to view the world from the aspect of a traveling musician on tour, it can't be helped. I mean, room service is a "heavy" concept while living the normal life that we lead, unless we're Yuppie capitalist scum/bond traders living in an American Express Gold World.
Was the view of Zappa you placed in the Afterword formed during and after your work on "No Commercial Potential", or was it formed before the book was written?
It was written on the day that I heard that he died. Oh, I'd been thinking about writing something, just for my files, just to get it off my chest. I actually sat down and wrote the Afterword the day that he died, edited it quite a bit and sent it off to the New Yorker Magazine. When I finished the update, I decided that I wanted it in the book as well; as my voice, my thoughts. I'd done my "job" as Zappa's biographer and I thought it was time to step out from behind the footlights and give my little speech. If the book hadn't been re-released, the Afterword would have stayed on my hard drive as blank, empty electronic space. [Smiles]
Reading the Afterword, it seems as though you criticize Zappa with the same level of cynicism Frank was known to express himself. Why did you feel this was a proper conclusion to the book?
What's good for the goose is good for the gander, I suppose. It's what I felt, and I thought I was being honest with myself because indeed I was conflicted about him. I really did love the man and his work. I just didn't like how he treated me when I'd done nothing to him. I think that considering what I could have written, I definitely was rather "nice" to him in that regard. Anyway, what would have been the point about writing a book which trashed someone whose music I respected and whose vision I somehow shared. What, writers aren't supposed to express themselves? He was a big one for honesty, and a big one for truth telling. I thought it was only fitting that I expressed my views. It's too bad it didn't appear in the New Yorker, it would have been a revelation.
In the fourth paragraph of the Afterword you state, "[Zappa] was a victim of his own publicity, and always seemed afraid to commit himself ... Still, it was a cop-out not to commit himself while being famous for accusing others of that failure." Yet, in the following paragraph, you state, " ... [Zappa] was deeply committed to musical excellence." Can you clarify what appears to be a contradiction?
Well that's the way I saw it. I was talking about intellectual honesty vs. musical integrity, I suppose. He disparaged his music even as he performed it and intensely cared about it. It used to blow his mind when I said that I really liked his classical music; best of all, his chamber music. He couldn't just present it, he had to stick your nose in it to show you just how smart he was when all he had to do is be himself.
Can you give an example of how Zappa used his intelligence?
No, I really can't. You see, he had a way of intimidating people, and you had to be very strong to hold your ground. It's almost like conversation was an effort to him, or better, at least to me, it always felt like even when he was talking to you, he was being interviewed. The only time I got him to be real with me was when I made the decision to just lose it – to drop my journalist/biographer mask. That's when I told him that I was having trouble with the material and I didn't think I could do a good job. And he actually made me feel better. But this, of course, was before he saw the galleys and we had our little discussion about "facts" vs. "opinions."
We're your personal visits with Zappa an "effort" for him, or was this the way he was while in the public eye?
From what I have found out, he did that with everyone, even when he was in bed. You'll have to ask Nigey about that, but that's just the way he was. He was uncomfortable within himself and only was really happy when he was working and writing. He was a monomaniac, but in a good way, I'm thinking. [Smiles] In public he had this persona that he was genial but detached. Well, at least to me it was kind of an imperious attitude. After a while it didn't bother me so much and I just talked "through" it, didn't pay it any mind, kept on trucking, smoked another cigarette and waited.
You say, he was uncomfortable with himself – In what way?
Body language. His inability to "dance," perhaps. I think he was uncomfortable with language, though, in my opinion, he was a good writer when he had the mind. He once told me that writing was "a low evil mean form of enterprise," but I knew that was just Frank being cute.
I wonder if Zappa's conversations with you were an effort for him, in a sense, due to the issues he had with "No Commercial Potential". What do you think?
Not before the book or before he saw the galleys. I spent quite a bit of time just hanging out with him, watching him edit tape, and talking with him while he did. The bottom line was that every time I was in LA, I could always see him. He always told me to come by, and I did. I didn't cover him like a cheap suit. When he was in New York City at the Fillmore, I'd see him at the One Fifth Avenue or backstage at the Fillmore. He was nice. He was cordial enough. I thought we were becoming friends in a certain way. At least he appeared to "like" me as far as he was going to "like" anyone who wasn't directly connected with his job.
Were these social visits, or were these visits in context with the research required to write "No Commercial Potential"?
I guess a bit of both. For the record, Frank always claimed after the book came out and when we were still talking that I "abused his friendship," and I could never figure what that meant. I think he genuinely liked me and enjoyed talking to me if only because I knew at least musically what he was trying to do. But his life revolved around his studio, the road and writing music, as far as I could tell. Friendship works both ways. It was okay if I sought him out (hell, I was being "useful" to the Project/Object). But as far as him giving me a call or dropping me a line, I don't think so. Look, I genuinely loved hanging out in the studio where time stood still, where one could walk in at nine at night and come out when the sun was coming up again. I liked that. The trouble was that I always ran out of cigarettes about half-way through these sessions and I'd have to smoke his shitty Winstons. [Laughs]
[Smiles] Did Zappa remain as detached when he realized you weren't intimidated by his responses?
I couldn't tell you for sure. I was just trying to maintain my "cool," such as it was. What I'm saying was that it was my "perception" that he was detached, but subsequently I've been told that his general style was like that too. According to Nigey, even in bed.
This seems to be the general approach his family has taken. While I might refrain from saying they are "detached" from the commercial community and the public eye, they do live on their own island, much the way Zappa established himself. Do you feel they are this way because they've learned to be that way, or because they've learned that's what works?
Perhaps they have learned, but it seems that his kids are just like in the Steely Dan song, "Hollywood Kids" (Making movies of themselves, you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else, etc., etc.). I guess if your Dad's a cool rock and roll star, even if you only see him for less than six months a year, that's worth points in the high school. Still in all, Frank was a good provider for his family, that was his function and he did it well. As far as not being around for your kids when they're growing up (or even when you're there) – not being able to see them because you're on a different schedule – artists have that problem with their kids all the time, it just depends on how they deal with it, in my opinion.
How did Frank deal with it, from what you saw? He appears to have divided his life into two areas, his music and work, and his family, never involving Gail in his music. Yet, he did involve a few of the kids in his music at times, and Gail did run the home business. They seemed to be involved in his working world to some extent.
As I must have said, Frank was a terrific teacher and I saw that the pitfalls were of imbalance, the need for the balance between force and form, that old occult dictum. As I said, the music business was a moral/spiritual theater and if you had eyes to see it, and the brains to process all that information, you could learn how to live a successful life. There are positive and negative lessons. It's like learning how to smoke dope, or deal with psychedelics, or even alcohol. It's all about finding limits – testing yourself. When I was a kid, I used to have this saying by Thomas Jefferson over my desk, "You don't know what is enough until you know what is more than enough." Really, it's all about maps. You can be in the right place, but with the wrong maps or no maps, you're lost.
Did you spend enough time in the studio with him to be able to gain a sense for how he "operated" in the studio, using the studio as a tool? If so, can you share some of your experience?
I never saw him record but I did spent time with him while he was editing Uncle Meat (around the same time that Wadleigh was cutting the negative for "Woodstock"). It can be dull-fucking-boring work unless you're into it. I remember the evening because I'd gotten a freebie out to LA as – get this – a reporter for the East Village Other covering Playboy After Dark. Frank said I was welcome to hang out. He'd be in the film editing studio and if I wanted to come and hang, I was welcome. As a rock and roller back in those days, the record companies had a little more money to spread around. There were junkets (just like the grown-up media). Dig this! I was given a roundtrip first-class trip on TWA, comped to stay at the Tropicana Motor Lodge on Sunset Blvd., a notorious sink of rock and roll depravity. I went out there with $20, I came back with $9. So I guess the answer is that I really didn't see him in his studio environment. Look, any piece of technology connected to media, once Frank got the hang of it, was a useful studio tool: Moog synthesizers, ARP synthesizers, all that Guitar Player World techno-shit. He was a tinkerer, an authentic American character. Maybe he thought of himself as Edison or Nicola Tesla, for all I know. But, again, I'm a cultural historian looking for patterns or better, allowing them to coalesce. Still, it's the quality of time spent with Frank, alone. I always had to be on my toes. After all, I did understand he was working. And it's true, artists use the excuse of working in all kinds of ways. Some do so to avoid their wives or families or the accreted bullshit that builds around the two. If you have an understanding wife, you're a lucky man. If you have an understanding supportive wife who not only can tell you things but you'll listen – that you're acting like a jerk around your kids – then you've got a jewel. To be an artist's wife – to be an asset – she's got to be as creative with what she does as you with what you do. Luckily, mine's a therapist and a damned good one, If the truth be known. I owe so much of what I am now to her. Writing is also my life, but without the other human component, it really wouldn't be what I want it to be – with my words having weight, power and force, making me able (in whatever I address myself) to make a statement which just hangs out there like Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. (Well, what can I say? It's a powerful, powerful transcendent jam.) [Smiles]
It sounds like your married life and working life are in balance. Is it completely separate, or do you involve your wife in your work? For instance, have her proof material, involve her in your ideas, etc.
Absolutely she's involved. She reads all my material. And thank God for the computer because in the old days I'd bring in material which she'd read and be afraid to make any suggestions because she knew how long it took me to type it all up on my Selectric. Now she has no fear and I don't mind – a few keystrokes and PRESTO, new copy. She has a very good sense of what works and what doesn't, when I'm being clear and when I'm not. She's my partner. She keeps me balanced, which is a blessing because I find that writers tend to get unbalanced and out of touch. Actually, it's having a family which keeps things in perspective, and for that I'm thankful. If I hadn't married my only wife, I'd really be in a bad way. She keeps me on target and focussed, gives the reality check I need when I get out of line. She's an equal partner. I don't think Frank approached the "Gail" question quite like that, and that's too bad. If Frank had a wife who was his equal, or who had good maps, Frank could have been greater still. Oh well, life is strange like that. It's like my old dear late friend Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzo Dog Band used to say, "Afterlife, after shave."
The pop star of today has been redefined over the last three decades while popularity and acceptance is a universal dream that remains the same. Zappa rarely appealed or was accepted by the pop market, yet harbored a brutally loyal fan base that was built with little influence of airplay (in the US). Do you feel Zappa had an inner desire to be accepted much the same way as a "pop star?"
Sure, he wanted to be a pop star but only on his own terms. Not an unreasonable idea. Just like I wanted to be accepted for the writer I am, one who writes about important subjects in a unique manner. Frank was lucky: he developed a fan base that supported his concerts and bought his albums and because he had total control of the artistic and manufacturing end, he was able to make a fine living doing so. He had it all, in my humble opinion.
For him to desire to be a pop star on his terms, it would require a re-definition of what "pop" was at the time (or any time). Do you feel he was aware of this?
Sure he was aware of it. These are the rules: if you want to win, you've got to have "time and those waves" at your disposal. I'm sure that Frank was amused to get his "Lifetime Achievement Award" from NARAS, but he knew it was a shuck and a jive. He sure as hell scared the shit out of them when he was alive, didn't he? I think Frank wanted to be remembered, and perhaps might be, once the bloom of fandom had been burnished a bit, as an American original Composer like Charles Ives. It's a tough call to make, a tough concept, I think, for a lot of people who happened to be habituated to the idea of consumerism.
As a historian, do you feel Zappa immerged at just the right time, considering how much the current social and cultural world affected his musical output?
Absolutely! He (and we of that generation) lived in interesting times, fruitful for satirists and social critics. I know no one wants to hear it, but living through the Sixties was an exciting and scary time. Frank was THE quintessential artist of his time, even if most people preferred to concentrate on the Beatles. Frank was a product of "time and those waves." He appeared "as it was supposed to happen."
What's new in the latest edition of "No Commercial Potential"?
Life after 1980, concepts of creative continuity, how he makes his music, a short survey of albums, how they fit with the overall continuity of his work, updated discographies, bibliographies, videographies, fanzine lists, Internet references, his fascination with Synclavier and reasons for same, 1988 tour melt-down, etc. If you look at the chapter precis at the beginning of the book, that will give you the overview.
Were there other additions you would have liked to have included, but just didn't have the time or support of the publishing house?
You see, the thing about the original edition of "No Commercial Potential" was that it was a once in a lifetime kind of effort. There was no way I could actually BE that person I was back then, I no longer had the time. Anyway, back then I was un-encumbered (well that's not the right word) with responsibilities. Now I have four children, a wonderful wife, four mini horses, seven cats, two dogs, some fish, etc. What made even updating the book so difficult was that I had to keep the same set of "eyebrows" on the material, the same overview. Talking to a new set of musicians wasn't going to get me any more insight than I already had. So what was the point of that? Putting it another way, I couldn't duplicate the original thrust of "No Commercial Potential", the 1972 edition. Of course I could have done some more historical sleight-of-hand, but really, I was less interested in that.
Can you explain "eyebrows"?
Same tone, feeling of ironic detachment, that's what I mean by eyebrows. The eyebrows of the face give the face character. I guess that's what I'm trying to say here.
What are you working on now? What's next for David Walley?
I'm working on a book for Plennum Press (a subsidiary of the same company that Da Capo is) called "TEENAGE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: music, politics and high school in the Post-Elvis Age". It started off a few years back as a book called "PLAY SCHOOL: the highschoolization of American Life", and it managed to segue into Teeenerve. Seems my Da Capo editor was talking with the Plennum editor. The latter wanted someone to do a book on rock and roll. My editor suggested me, and that's how it happened.
When can we expect to see it hit the market?
If I'm a good boy (and I'm hoping to be), the manuscript is due in two months. With luck, it will appear in the Fall of '97.
Will it be hardback, softback, or is that and the price yet to be determined?
Hardback, I think. But this is more of an academic house and I haven't really sat down with my editor yet. From looking at their list, I'd venture to say that Plennum has never done anything like this. Me, I'm hoping that it's more than a fair approximation of what I've been thinking about for the past twenty-five years. I've been waiting a long time to write this book, and I have a feeling many other people out there have also – some of them readers of "No Commercial Potential".
Will it have international distribution?
Why not? It could also be sold to a mass market paperback house. I could appear on Charlie Rose and Letterman. [Laughs with a sarcastic grin]
Of all the profiles you've written, which is the most inspiring for you, personally?
Two for two – Zappa and Kovacs ain't too shabby for this cultural historian! [Smiles]
David Walley lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts with his wife, four mini horses, seven cats, two dogs, and various other animals. He continues his freelance writing, is currently working on his next book, and a collaboration with Nigey Lennon.