Frank Zappa's Crusade – 25 Years And Counting
By Drew Wheeler
Billboard, May 1990
In the "Porn Wars" waged by the Parents' Music Resource Center and like-minded legislators, Frank Zappa has shown uncommon valor. His September 1985 appearance before the Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee categorically challenged the authority, reasoning and goals of the PMRC. Less than a year later, Zappa gave further testimony, this time before the state legislature of his birthplace, Maryland. His activism on anti-rock issues is tireless, and dominates his interviews both in print and over the airwaves.
Peculiarly, Zappa albums have never been included on a PMRC hit list of morally impure music. Ever more peculiar because a random sampling of Zappa material proves its obvious sticker-ability: His 1965 excoriation of the Watts riots, "Trouble Every Day," deserves a "V" for violence; 1974's pusher-bashing "Cosmik Debris" would surely receive a "D" for drugs; and his 1981 song "Suicide Chump," which holds teen suicide up to a cynical light, well, you get the picture ...
Have you yet turned up – along with W.A.S.P. and everyone else – on any list of people offended by your music?
I heard that there is a book that has been published by one of these evangelist guys. They had some kind of a list in there and it actually has Dweezil in there too, but that's the only instance that I know about. I've never been on the PMRC list ...
Do you think the general public's perceptions of record labeling are different today from what they were in 1985?
I think the average guy in the street never liked it to begin with; it's only the screaming mimis that thought that it was a good idea. And as far as I can tell, these extremists are still getting away with their stuff – except that now it's not just talk, it's legislation. It could've been stopped then if the executives in the record companies and the RIAA would've done the right thing.
Why do you think a country that has a First Amendment is so often hostile to free speech?
Basically because the literacy rate has gone down over the last couple of decades to a frightening level and I think that plays a major role in it. The level of education. And also the fact that after the Vietnam War uprisings, the subject of Civics was systematically removed from the U.S. schools. So you have a whole generation of people who don't even know what their rights are or what those rights mean.
What do you think has to happen to defeat these proposed pieces of legislation?
Well, three things. One: The people have to realize that it is that dangerous first step to taking the rest of your rights away, and I would give as an example, the recent Supreme Court cases that have attacked the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. Pretty soon, you're gonna have a blank sheet of paper as far as your rights go.
The other thing that needs to be done is the voting record of your local representative has to be checked. You should scrutinize your guy in your district at every level – state, local and federal – and see how he's voting on this stuff, and if he's on the wrong side of the issue, get him outta there.
And, obviously, there have to be some test cases that go to the Supreme Court. And if we find out that the Supreme Court, stacked by the Reagan Administration, is still hell-bent on taking our rights away, then I guess there's only one thing to do – take a lesson from the people in Eastern Europe. I mean, if you can get the Communists out of there, certainly we can get the Republicans out of here.
A dozen years ago, a "downbeat" magazine interviewer asked Zappa it he would ever go on a State Department sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, to which Zappa replied: "If I go to the Soviet Union, it won't be for a long time, I'll tell you. I'm not a Communist enthusiast." As one who believes that a government's worth is directly proportional to the civil liberties it affords its citizens, Zappa has often created in his music sonic scenarios of political and artistic repression. His Kafka-inspired 1967 depiction of "Camp Reagan" can only be called premonitory, and he later cast himself as the Central Scrutinizer, the Big Brother-esque narrator of "Joe's Garage" – a story whose prescient premise is of a government turned hostile toward music.
In keeping with the who-would've-believed-it-back-then nature of Eastern Bloc progress, Frank Zappa has recently traveled to both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia under the aegis of the Financial News Network. Zappa first appeared on and then guest-hosted FNN's "Focus" program, and his views on Soviet-American business opportunity led the broadcaster to send him as a liaison with budding Soviet entrepreneurs.
Why is the democratization of Eastern Europe a big issue to you?
I've always thought that democracy was a good idea. I've always thought that if you're going to have a political system, that's the one that's the most in phase with how people actually think and how they like to live their lives if government would leave them alone. And so I think that it's something that's worth supporting.
Your records were never distributed in these countries.
No, they've always been illegal. Also, the people that purchased them, or acquired them, or even possessed transcripts of the lyrics were beaten by the secret police. On one of the occasions, when we were doing kind of a question-and-answer thing in a club in Prague, there were two guys who said that they had been grabbed by the secret police and before they were beaten, the guy said, "We are now going to beat the Zappa music out of you." And nobody in the audience seemed too surprised about it, because apparently it has happened to a lot of people.
And then there was another statement that was made in Czech by one of the guys in the audience at that same time and I had it translated. And what it said was that when the secret police would arrest you, they would question you and the two biggest enemies of the state at that time – which apparently was the '70s – were Jimmy Carter and Frank Zappa. And I'm going, "What the fuck am I hearing here?"
And then NPR ran a little thing in the middle of the week – an interview with an East German guy who talked about how if you owned one of my records in East Germany your phone got tapped and they followed you around. So, let's ask ourselves this question: If I'm such a menace to those kinds of systems, then why in the fuck aren't they playing my records on the air in the Land Of The Free and The Home Of The Brave? Could it be that there's not much difference between one authoritarian regime and another?
I thought we were supposed to be "kinder and gentler?"
I think we're just more prudent and number.
How do you feel about the Bush administration's reaction to what's going on in Eastern Europe?
It's totally unacceptable. I think that in the face of such major world events, to have a guy sitting there saying, "Well, we must be prudent," and just making those mincing little motions with his hands and pursing his lips and kind of looking glum when the Berlin Wall comes down. All it shows me is they've got no forward thinking, they got no real foreign policy, and this is something that shouldn't be in a country that has such a superiority complex. A superiority complex is OK if you really are superior and you can back it up with something, but I haven't seen any evidence that the big talk coming out of Washington is backed up by anything. Certainly not by logic.
Does your interest in Eastern Europe have anything to do with musical or business projects?
Well, when I first went there it didn't, but I think it's turned into something that could probably be worthwhile. For one thing, I've made a record contract, I have made arrangements to have five titles distributed legally in Czechoslovakia for the first time. And the company that's doing it also has the right to distribute them in Hungary, Poland and East Germany. So, what remains of a secret police in each of those states is really gonna get a snootful.
Would you write any special material for them?
Well, I think that some of the older albums are just as appropriate today – for here and for there – as they were when they were released. "Joe's Garage" is a good example of that.
Throughout his 1988 "Broadway The Hard Way" tour, Zappa provided voter registration materials at every venue, and thus added 11,000 new voters to the rolls. Some of those 11,000 were infants when he first wrote on an album sleeve: "Don't Forget To Register To Vote." And on that tour – featuring songs about Jimmy Swaggart, Jesse Jackson, the Iran-contra affair and Surgeon General Koop – the band at times struck up a Ray Charles-ish version of "America The Beautiful," ending with a sweet Zappa guitar solo over bluesy choruses of "Sea to shining sea ... " Scratch a staunch First Amendment champion and you may find a patriot.
Why do you think our government has never approached you to do voter-registration public service announcements?
Because in some of the places where we tried to do voter registration, the city governments tried to keep me from doing it, because there are certain places where they don't want to change the voter-registration mix. They like things just the way they are, and they're afraid that if you have some new voters put into the equation, that some of the people that are trying to hang onto their jobs might lose 'em.
So, In Philadelphia for example, they refused to give us the forms. We had to smuggle in forms from someplace else in order to have voter registration when we played in Philly. There were two different officials. One guy said. "Well, these forms cost money" And the other one said, "We already have enough voters."
After countless cut-and-paste biographies, in 1989 Frank Zappa published a sort-of autobiography, "The Real Frank Zappa Book," now available in paperback. Although including several entertaining chapters of biographical and musical anecdotes, much of the book was devoted to a wide range of issues, from record labeling to Star Wars to parenting to the reform of the Internal Revenue Service in a chapter Zappa entitled "Practical Conservatism."
"The Real Frank Zappa Book" was edited by Ann Patty, VP and publisher of Poseidon Press, am imprint of Simon & Schuster. "I think of Frank as truly an extraordinarily intelligent man with really far-ranging interests," says Patty, "If you're gonna do a biography of a rock star, you probably can't get one more interesting than this one ... He gave me a quote once – which I had on my bulletin board for about two years: 'My job is extrapolating everything to its most absurd extreme.' And that, to me, is Frank ... It's a good mission in life."
Have you gotten any surprising reactions to the book?
Well, when I was in Czechoslovakia, at the same time those kids were talking about how the secret police used to beat 'em, a guy stands up in the middle of the crowd holding a copy of my book and introduces himself as Zdenek Pecka. He works for the U.S. Information Agency – he's attached to the U.S. Embassy in Prague. He's standing there with the book in his hand, saying, "I think that the most important work you have done is the work against the PMRC. And I tried to give a lecture to these people about your 'Porn Wars.' and they did not understand it. They like your music very much here but they are not that familiar with your politics, and I think that your chapter on practical conservatism is some of the most cleverest stuff I've ever read." And I looked at this guy and I said, "I didn't get much sleep last night but I know I'm in The Twilight Zone now."