Frank Zappa. Interview in Playboy
Interview in Playboy
May 2, 1993
A candid conversation with the most original mind in rock music about world affairs, jewish princesses, fighting cancer and life beyond the fringe.
Few would doubt that Václav Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-politician, and Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons", make an odd pair. Yet in separate interviews, when asked which person had the greatest influence on their lives, both came up with the same name: Frank Zappa. "Who else?" wondered Groening. "I listened to the music, I dissected the lyrics and it transformed me."
Havel and Groening are not alone. In this years Playboy Music Poll, our readers chose Zappa as the 43rd inductee into the Playboy Music Hall of Fame, where he joins the likes of Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. But even before the votes had been counted, Playboy's editors had Zappa on their minds and had invited him to sit for the "Playboy Interview." The result is an unusual coincidence: For the first time in the magazine's history, an issue of Playboy both announces the Hall of Fame winner and features him in the interview.
What makes this occurrence even more unusual is that Frank Zappa is no mainstream musician. While he is lionized in Europe, his avant-garde compositions and pointed, satirical lyrics are seldom heard on America radio. As he admits, people are often confused and angered by his work. As the leader of the Mothers of Invention, one of the weirdest – and most brilliant – experimental bands ever, Zappa earned a prominent place in rock lore. He didn't do drugs, he fought censorship and he distributed a poster of himself seated nude on a toilet, calling it "Phi Zappa Krappa." It's no wonder that the first chapter of his autobiography is called "How Weird Am I, Anyway?"
Over the course of his career, few were left unscathed by Zappa's wicked satire set to music. A Randy Newman with fangs, Zappa went after fashion, hypocrisy and stereotypes, managing to offend an amazing array of people. Women were incensed over the song "Titties 'n Beer," parents were horrified by such lyrics as "Watch out where the huskies go/and don't you eat that yellow snow" and gays were furious over "He's So Gay." The Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith denounced "Jewish Princess" ("with overworked gums, she squeaks when she comes") and demanded an apology. As always, Zappa refused.
Like his fans, his enemies could take some consolation in the fact that they weren't alone. Zappa's attacks crossed political and ideological lines; he skewered Jesse Jackson, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, rednecks and televangelists.
His music confounded his fans, too. His range often seemed limitless, as he jumped successfully from rock to jazz to classical. He has released more than 50 albums, including "Freak Out!," "Sheik Yerbouti," "Apostrophe (')," "200 Motels" (also the name of a film, now a cult classic) and "Jazz From Hell." His classical music has been lauded in stuffy circles, and he has released albums of his work performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. in Frankfurt, Germany, his soon-to-be-released "The Yellow Shark" was the highlight of a festival last fall, and earlier this year the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York presented "The Music of Frank Zappa" as part of its Great Performers series.
Zappa was able to make enemies even when he wasn't making music. He took on Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James Baker, when they demanded that records be rated according to content – the same way movies are. Zappa testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, calling Gore, Baker and their committee "a group of bored Washington housewives" who wanted to "housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few." He lost the crusade but remained a vigorous advocate of First Amendment rights.
He has also campaigned to encourage his audiences to vote. Voter registration booths were set up in the lobbies of the concert halls in which he performed. In his "Video From Hell" (the companion to "Jazz From Hell"), he included a note that read, "Register to vote and read the Constitution before it's void where prohibited by law. " His frustrations with government led him to consider being part of it: In 1991 he announced that he was running for president.
After some bad experiences in the record business (in the song "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," he memorialized the businessmen who screwed him), Zappa and his wife (and manager), Gail, formed their own record labels and merchandising operation. (There's even a Zappa hotline: 1-818-PUMPKIN.) His broad insight into economics and politics inspired the Financial News Network to ask him to guest-host a talk show. That gig took him to Czechoslovakia to meet with Havel, then the president, before the country split into two republics.
Zappa's music had been smuggled behind the iron curtain since the Sixties, and he had become a hero to the Czech people. His song "Plastic People" was an underground anthem. When he visited Prague, students told him that he had been considered one of the worst enemies of the Communist state. One student told of being arrested by the secret police, jailed and beaten. "We are going to beat the Zappa music out of your head," the officer screamed. Upon meeting Zappa, the boy said, "Our dream has come true today."
Havel was so enamored of him that he made Zappa the country's special ambassador to the West on trade, culture and tourism. Zappa had big plans to help bridge cultural and economic barriers with the West. The appointment, however, was derailed by Secretary of State Baker. Columnist Jack Anderson reported that Baker was "carrying an old grudge" from Zappa's dismissal of Susan Baker as a "bored housewife." "When [Baker] arrived in Prague," Anderson wrote, "he had his surrogates convey his displeasure to Havel." Havel succumbed to the pressure and canceled the appointment.
Zappa came far to have such high-placed enemies. A song called "Son Of Mr. Green Genes" made people think his father was the character on "Captain Kangaroo," but in truth, he is the son of a meteorologist who did research on poison gases for the military. Gas masks hung on a wall of the family's home in case of an accident with the chemical weapons his father studied.
The family moved frequently before ending up in Lancaster, California, where Frank played drums in the school marching band. His musical taste, however, was eclectic; while his classmates swooned over Elvis, he listened to composers such as Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern.
In Lancaster, Zappa formed his first garage band, the Black-Outs (so named after the night some of his bandmates drank too much peppermint schnapps and blacked out). He later joined the Soul Giants, which became the Mothers of Invention. With Zappa as their guitar-wielding leader, the Mothers were known for their excellent and innovative music – "Uncle Meat," "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" and "The Grand Wazoo" are classic albums – and for their antics. One of the more colorful rock legends maintains that Zappa and Alice Cooper had a gross-out contest onstage: After Cooper allegedly squashed some live baby chicks, Zappa supposedly picked up a plastic spoon and ate a plate of steaming feces. Although Zappa denies it, he's been haunted by the story for years.
While his reputation for weirdness is his trademark, his private life seems eminently sane. Now 52, he has been married to Gail for 25 years and is a devoted father to his four children – Moon Unit, 25 (she was the voice of the obnoxious "Valley Girl" in his 1982 hit song), Dweezil, 23, Ahmet, 18, and Diva, 13. It was Moon and Dweezil who shocked their father's fans in November 1991 when they announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The illness forced him to drop his planned presidential campaign, and both work and travel have been disrupted. His "Playboy Interview," was conducted by Contributing Editor David Sheff, who most recently chatted with Steve Martin for the January 1993 interview. Sheff reports:
"The Zappa home is a mock-Tudor Pee-wee's Playhouse in fast-forward mode. In one room, a state-of-the-art recording studio, engineers work on computers and recording equipment, and in another room, editors pore over frames of videotape. Various assistants dash through halls decorated with memorabilia such as gold records and Zappa license plates. On one wall is a poster of Ronald Reagan as Adolf Hitler.
"I waited for Zappa in a wood-paneled room on a comfortable old couch opposite a redbrick fireplace. When Frank came in, he attempted to sit comfortably in a large purple leather chair. But comfort was impossible – Zappa explained that the pain had invaded his lower back.
"The interview was interrupted briefly by assistants bringing coffee or Frank's dinner, a bagel and cream cheese. Gail sleepily stopped in to say hello; she was exhausted after an all-night flight from Tokyo, where she had gone with Diva and Moon Unit to see Dweezil play guitar with a Japanese pop star. Later, Diva came in, flopped on her dad's lap and gave him a big kiss, telling him how much she had missed him.
"Zappa, with his trademark mustache and sideburns, chain-smoked while he spoke with unmistakable passion, and urgency, about his music, his politics, his family and his illness. Occasionally, pain overcame him and he stopped speaking. I asked if he wanted to take a break and resume later. 'No,' he said, 'let's keep going.'
"We finished after seven straight hours and as we wound up, I fell both inspired and deeply saddened. I thanked him and told him it was a good interview. He said, 'As long as it goes beyond the fringe.'"
You once said that your job is "extrapolating everything to its most absurd extreme." Does that still hold true?
It's one of my jobs. I guess it must have been my main job that day. But yes, I like carrying things to their most ridiculous extreme because out there on the fringe is where my type of entertainment lies.
Is it frustrating that more people don't get it?
The crux of the biscuit is: If it entertains you, fine. Enjoy it. If it doesn't, then blow it out your ass. I do it to amuse myself. If I like it, I release it. If somebody else likes it, that's a bonus.
How important is it to offend people?
You mean, do I wake up and say, "I think I'll go out and offend somebody today"? I don't do that. I don't write lyrics much anymore, but I offend people just as much with the music itself. I put chords together that I like, but many people want rhythms that they can march to or dance to; they get tangled up trying to tap their foot to my songs. Some people don't like that, which is OK with me.
You certainly offended people with the Phi Zappa Krappa poster.
Probably. But so what?
And some of your antics from the Mothers of Invention days, like the famed gross-out contest.
There never was a gross-out contest. That was a rumor. Somebody's imagination ran wild. Chemically bonded imagination. The rumor was that I went so far as to eat shit onstage. There were people who were terribly disappointed that I never ate shit onstage. But no, there never was anything resembling a gross-out contest.
Another rumor was that you peed on an audience.
I never had my dick out onstage and neither did anybody else in the band. We did have a stuffed giraffe rigged with a hose and an industrial-strength whipped cream dispenser. Under it we had a cherry bomb. That's how we celebrated the Fourth of July in 1967. Somebody waved the flag, lit the cherry bomb. It blew the ass out of the giraffe. Another guy reached behind the giraffe and pushed the button and had this thing shitting whipped cream all over the stage. That amused people for some reason.
So it was simply contained outrageousness?
To entertain or just to alleviate boredom?
There was a third factor, too. There's an art statement in whipped cream shooting out the ass of a giraffe, isn't there? We were carrying on the forgotten tradition of dada stagecraft. The more absurd, the better I liked it.
The titles of your records and songs are art statements, too.
Well, you have to call them something, so why not call them something amusing?
For example, Burnt Weeny Sandwich?
I still eat burnt weeny sandwiches. It's one of the great things in life. At least it's a great lunch. You take a Hebrew National, put it on a fork, burn it on the stove, wrap two pieces of bread around it, squirt some mustard on it, eat it and you're back to work.
You've also used your songs to level political attacks. You wrote Rhymin' Man about Jesse Jackson. What made you so angry?
An article raised some questions about whether or not Martin Luther King actually died in Jesse's arms. There were reports that Jackson dipped his hands into King's blood or even used chicken blood and rubbed it on his shirt, which he wore for a few days afterward as he met the media. So I did this song about the idea of communicating through nursery rhymes, as Jackson is prone to do. It rubs me the wrong way. I'm not saying that all of Jesse's ideas are bad; I agree with some of them. But I'm not confident that Jesse Jackson would be the person I would look to to implement any of them. I don't want to see any religious people in public office because they're working for another boss.
You also assailed former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in a song.
HBO ran something like "Dr. Koop Answers Your Questions About AIDS." On it, I saw him explain how AIDS got from the green monkey to the human population. He speculated about a native who wanted to eat a green monkey, who skinned it, cut his finger and some of the green monkey's blood got into his blood. The next thing you know, you have this blood-to-blood transmission of the disease. I mean, this is awful fucking thin. It's right up there with Grimm's Fairy Tales. And Koop was such a cartoon character with that uniform and everything. Before Ronald Reagan, when did you ever see a surgeon general dressed up like the guy in the Katzenjammer Kids?
Because of songs such as Dinah-Moe Humm ("I got a forty-dollar bill say you can't make me come"), He's So Gay and many others, you have been accused of being sexist, misogynistic and homophobic.
Some people miss the joke. In general, I was a convenient enemy and they could get exposure for their causes by coming after me. But I'm not antigay. When Ross Perot announced he was running for president, I wanted him to choose Barney Frank as a vice-presidential candidate. He is one of the most impressive guys in Congress. He is a great model for young gay men.
But you were criticized for Bobby Brown Goes Down and He's So Gay.
But see, I'm a journalist of a sort. I have a right to say what I want to say about any topic. If you don't have a sense of humor, then tough titties.
Is that what you said when you were attacked by the Anti-Defamation League for Jewish Princess?
They wanted to convince the world that there's no such thing as a Jewish princess, but, I'm sorry, the facts speak for themeselves. They asked me to apologize and I refused. I still have their letter nailed to the wall. They got a lot of mileage out of it, but it was a tempest in a teapot. They just wanted to give the impression that here, in the world of rock, was this rabid anti-Semite who was besmirching the fine reputation of everybody of the Jewish faith. Well, I didn't make up the idea of a Jewish princess. They exist, so I wrote a song about them. If they don't like it, so what? Italians have princesses, too.
Is there rhyme or reason behind the subjects you choose to attack?
Whatever I'm mad at at the time. I like things that work. If something doesn't, the first question you have to ask is, 'Why?' If it's not working and you know why, then you have to ask, "Why isn't somebody doing something about it?" The government, for starters. Most institutions. The nation's education system is completely fucked up.
Fucked up how?
The schools are worthless because the books are worthless. They still are on the level of George Washington and the cherry tree and "I cannot tell a lie." The books have all been bowdlerized by committees responding to pressure from right-wing groups to make every aspect of the history books consistent with the cryptofascist view-point. When you send your kids to school, that's what they're dealing with. Your children are being presented with these documents, part of a multibillion-dollar industry, which are absolutely fraudulent. Kids' heads are crammed with so many nonfacts that when they get out of school they're totally unprepared to do anything. They can't read, they can't write, they can't think. Talk about child abuse. The U.S. school system as a whole qualifies.
Did you find alternative schools for your kids?
In California you can take your kids out of school at 15 if they can pass the equivalency test, so the first three have escaped. Diva still has a couple of years to go.
Before they escaped, how did you deal with it?
We had them in public school and private school, back and forth, trying to find the best possible education that we could get for them.
Regardless of what they learned at school, they certainly must get an education around here.
There definitely is a little stimulation around here. They meet a lot of people from all over the world and of all different nationalities and races and business backgrounds. The kids aren't shoveled into a room.
Did the perspective you gave them prepare them for those bad schools?
It caused them trouble, because when they compared what qualifies as the real world here in this house with what they experienced as the real world in school, it was very different. Sometimes their friends think they're weird. On the other hand, their friends like to spend the night over here.
Were the teachers horrified?
Some of them. They had a few teachers who were great. One could have taught a couch to read. She was fired because she wasn't Mexican. The school had an ethnic quota, and she was out.
If Tipper Gore was right and exposure to an uncensored world is bad for kids, your kids must be monsters.
My kids do OK. I like them a lot and they seem to like me and their mother. They don't use drugs. They don't drink. They don't even eat meat.
What have you said to your kids about drugs?
All I told them was, "You see examples of drug-crazed people on television and all you have to do is look at those assholes." They get the point. The biggest thing you can do for kids is give them the ability to figure things out. I use a risk-reward program. One of my kids comes to me and tells me he or she wants to do something. I say no if I don't think it's a good idea. If they can convince me, logically, that I'm wrong, they get to do it.
You're creating your worst nightmare: a house full of lawyers.
I don't think we have to worry about any of them becoming lawyers. But it does help to develop reasoning and communication skills – you might even call it sales skills – to manage to get your way in a fast and efficient manner. I don't think it hurts. Look at the alternative: They could go "Wah-wah-wah" or break things, or sneak. We don't have very much in the way of tantrums or sneakage problems. I look at kids as little people. The little people have certain assets and liabilities. They're born with an unbound imagination. They're born without fear and prejudice. On the other hand, they don't have the mechanical skills to do big-person stuff. But if you treat them like people, they'll learn. If you think of them as your precious little commodities and you want to mold them and shape them into something that you imagine for them, it breeds problems.
You obviously don't buy the argument that you have to give your kids something to rebel against.
Well, my children certainly have decided not to grow up like me. They don't smoke. They don't eat hamburgers or bacon. They find their own way. I just want to keep them out of trouble and make sure that they can get to adulthood with some sort of marketable skill and a chance for a happy life on their own terms. I don't want them to be like me or like Gail. They should be like them. And they should be as well equipped to be themselves as possible. As parents we have to do everything to give them the equipment to be themselves, so that when they go out into the world they can maintain their identity and still survive.
Would they have been different had you named them Sally or John?
It's the last name that gets them into trouble.
I'm viewed as being weird. When somebody calls you weird, then anything you touch becomes weird. On the other hand, they like being weird.
And their first names distinguish them for anyone unconvinced by their last name?
I want them to be different. I know that the people in these schools will never be different because they're afraid to be different. But my kids are genetically different, so they might as well be different all the way.
Chastity Bono once told a reporter how terrible her name is. She said when she complained, Sonny reminded her, "Be thankful we didn't name you Dweezil." Have any of your kids threatened to change their names?
No. I think they like them, though you'd have to ask them. We all get along well. That seems to be a rare thing in a family today. The family itself is a vanishing artifact. In the Nineties, if you have a family and the people inside the family have affection for one another, it's kind of a miracle. It's mutant behavior. I mean, they yell and scream at one another like any other kids. But most of the time they play together.
How did you meet Gail?
She was working at the Whisky a Go-Go in L.A. I fell in love with her instantly.
Is it true you didn't give her a wedding ring;
I didn't have one, so when we got married, I pinned a ballpoint pen on her dress. It was a maternity dress because she was nine months pregnant.
These days, particularly in your profession, twenty-five-year marriages are uncommon. Why has yours lasted?
We both are busy with what we care about. She's good at what she does, and I leave her alone when it comes to that. I spent so much time on the road that we were always glad to see each other when the tours were over. The other thing is I guess we like each other.
Is there a lot of music in your house? What music do your kids listen to?
When Ahmet was in sixth grade, he liked Fiddler On The Roof and Oliver! Recently he discovered Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Diva likes rap music of all languages. Moon likes dance-oriented stuff. Dweezil likes anything with a guitar in it.
How do you like his music?
The best of it, I think, is his instrumental music, which is very involved technically; the rhythms and intervals are complicated and his execution is spotless.
How about you? Have you lost your interest in rock and roll?
My main interest is composition – getting an idea and manifesting it in a way that people can listen to.
How much has technology changed your music?
Without the computer I would still be at the mercy of musicians to play my music. I would also be at the mercy of governmental and civic entities that fund performances.
After your last tour, you said you wouldn't be touring again.
Well, I couldn't afford it. I lost $400,000 on it and I don't wish to experience that again.
Do you ever miss the ...
Rock-and-roll life? No.
How about the experience of the performance?
A little bit. Every once in a while I, feel like playing the guitar, but I stop and think what I'd have to go through in order to do it. The urge goes away.
Is it particularly gratifying to get commissions such as the one from the Frankfurt Festival last year?
That one was really something. It was a whole evening of my music, which was part of a whole week of my music, new pieces and old. It was performed in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna.
Do you have any theories about why your music has been more popular in Europe than in America?
Germans, in particular, have a history of supporting new composition. They also have a viable contemporary tradition of new music that gets funded and performed regularly.
Was it always your goal to do classical music?
That's where I started. I didn't write rock and roll until I was in my twenties, but I started writing other kinds of music. I couldn't play it, I could only write it.
Where did the interest come from?
I liked the way music looked on paper. It was fascinating to me that you could see the notes and somebody. who knew what they were doing would look at them and music would come out. I thought it was a miracle. I was always interested in graphics, and I spent most of my creative time in my early days in school drawing pictures. I got a Speedball pen and a jar of Higgins India ink and some music paper and, shit, I could draw those.
It was originally about a picture, not a sound?
Yes. And then I got someone to play it. I went to my grandmother's funeral when I was little and I sat there looking at the candles. The choir was singing, and when they would sing a note, the candles would respond to it. I didn't know why. I was a little kid; what the fuck did I know about physics? But it was a physical manifestation of a sound. I remembered it; I put it in the memory bank to see what I could do with it later. It shows how bored I was at the funeral.
Did your parents play music,
No. We had a very unmusical household.
Your father worked with poison gas for a living. Did you understand the implications of that?
Yeah. I just took it as a fact of life. We lived in a place where we were obliged to have gas masks hanging on the wall in case the tanks broke, because you could die. Thinking back on it, if those tanks had broken, those gas masks wouldn't have saved us.
How close were the tanks?
There were tanks of mustard gas next to the Army housing we lived in. We were right down the street from this shit. We had a rack in the hall, with Daddy's mask, Momma's mask and Frank's mask hanging on it. I used to wear mine all the time. It was my space helmet. There was a can at the end of the hose that had the filtration unit in it, and I always wondered what was in it. I took a can opener and unscrewed it to find out how it worked. My father got very upset when I opened it up because I broke it and he would have to get me another one, which he never did. I was defenseless.
Were your parents religious,
Church and confession?
Oh, yeah. They used to make me go. They tried to make me go to Catholic school, too. I lasted a very short time. When the penguin came after me with a ruler, I was out of there.
So you were headstrong.
Yeah. I still went to church regularly, though, until I was eighteen years old. Then suddenly, the light bulb went on over my head. All the mindless mobidity and discipline was pretty sick – bleeding this, painful that and no meat on Friday. What is this shit?
Is the irreverence and outrageousness in your music a reaction to being a good Catholic boy?
Well, I think it was possible to do what I've done only because I escaped the bondage of being a devout believer. To be a good member of the congregation, ultimately you have to stop thinking. The essence of Christianity is told to us in the Garden of Eden story. The fruit that was forbidden was on the tree of knowledge. The subtext is, All the suffering you have is because you wanted to find out what was going on. You could still be in the Garden of Eden if you had just kept your fucking mouth shut and hadn't asked any questions.
Did the end of your refigiousness coincide with your step into rock and roll?
It was right about the same time. I was pretty isolated. There weren't any cultural opportunities in Lancaster. You couldn't just go to a concert. There was nothing.
Were you tempted by drugs?
All you'd have to do was look at the people who used them and that was enough. People would do frightening things and think it was fantastic. Then they would discuss it endlessly with the next guy, who had taken the same drug. I tried marijuana and waited for something to happen. I got a sore throat and it made me sleepy. I'd look at them and go, "Why?" I'm not going to be Bill Clinton and say I never inhaled. I did inhale. I couldn't understand what the big attraction was. I liked tobacco a lot better.
Were you involved in other aspects of the counterculture?
In order to be a part of it, you had to buy into the whole drug package. You had to have been experienced, in the Jimi Hendrix sense of the word. And all the people I knew who had been experienced were on the cusp of being zombies.
Was it disconcerting that your audiences were high much of the time?
The worst part of it for me was that I really didn't like the smell of marijuana. I had to go into a place that had the purple haze and work for a couple of hours in that. They were entitled to do whatever they wanted, so long as they didn't drive into me under the influence of it.
But you told people drugs were stupid, before Nancy Reagan did.
One of the reasons we weren't rabidly popular at that time was that I said what was on my mind about drugs.
Did you feel like an outsider? It's safe to say that every other major rock star in those days was
Looped. It wasn't just the other musicians but the people in the band. The guys in the band who wished they could do drugs couldn't because it meant unemployment. I was unpopular for it. As for the rock stars, if you've met them, you know that they generally have very little on their minds. I never had any great desire to hang out with them.
Did any of the big acts of the time interest you? How about Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones?
Some of the really good things that Hendrix did was the earliest stuff, when he was just ripping and brutal. "Manic Depression" was my favorite Jimi Hendrix song. The more experimental it got, the less interesting and the thinner it got. As for Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited" was really good. Then we got "Blonde on Blonde" and it started to sound like cowboy music, and you know what I think of cowboy music. I liked The Rolling Stones.
Did Mick Jagger once pull a splinter out of your toe?
Yeah. He came by my house and I was hopping around because of this splinter, so he pulled it out. Good story, huh? I did like his attitude and the Stones' attitude. Ultimately, though, the music was being done because it was product. It was pop music made because there was a record company waiting for records.
Is that why you founded Straight Records?
I naively thought that if there was some venue for nonstandard material, the material would find a market. But it failed because it was independent and had in dependent distribution. We lost our butt on that one. So the only way you can really do an independent label is to distribute through a major that has some clout to collect from the retailers.
How are your current labels, Barking Pumpkin and Zappa Records, doing?
We have a very loyal fan base in several countries. Although the sales figures worldwide aren't anywhere near what the big rock stars would do if they released an album, the people who like what we do are very enthusiastic about it. That gives you a certain amount of leverage with record companies. You hook up with a major distributor but still control what you do. Since I have a record company of my own that controls the masters, the amount I make per unit – as the record company as opposed to the artist – is substantially more. I can sell three units and stay in business.
What inspired you to form your first band, The Black-Outs?
In Lancaster there wasn't any rock and roll, unless you listened to it on a record. Most of the people who liked R&B were not the white sons and daughters of the alfalfa farmers or defense workers who lived there. There were a number of Mexicans and a lot of black kids, and they liked that kind of stuff. So I put together this racially mixed ensemble that liked to play that kind of music. We banged our heads against the wall just like every other garage band, trying to figure out how to play, it. There's no guidebook.
Were you playing high school dances?
No, they wouldn't let us. I had to mount my own events. One time we rented the Lancaster Women's Club to put on a dance. When the authorities heard that there was going to be this rock-and-roll dance in their little cowboy community, they arrested me at six that evening for vagrancy. I spent the night in jail. it was right out of a teenage movie. But the dance went off anyway.
Did that group metamorphose into the Mothers of Invention?
That was just a high school band. After I got out of high school and moved away, I played other kinds of gigs, like a short stint with Joe Perrino and the Mellotones. We are allowed to play one twist number per night. The rest was Happy Birthday, Anniversary Waltz and all the standards. I wore a little tux and strummed chords, bored. I got sick of that and stuck my guitar in the case and put it behind the sofa and left it there for eight months. I got a job doing greeting card designs, and for fun I wrote chamber music. I ran into some people who knew a guy named Paul Buff who had a studio. I started doing some worker over there. I met Ray Collins, who was working weekend gigs with the Soul Giants. He got into a fistfight with the guitar player. They needed a substitute guitar player in a hurry, so he called me. I got really involved and learned how hard it is to run a band, especially if you are trying to put together some nonstandard musical offering with no money. You try to convince a musician that it is a worth-while thing to do, when deep in his heart every rock musician thinks that he, too, should be the fourth member of Cream or the eighteenth Beatle. That group of people became the Mothers, anyway.
So named because?
I don't know. We chose the name on Mother's Day.
Do you look at those as the good old days?
I look at those as the old days. But we did have fun.
What was the music scene like?
Pretty bizarre. It was the days of all these Sixties bands, including Jefferson Airplane and Paul Butterfield and Johnny Rivers. We opened for Lenny Bruce at the Fillmore West in 1966. I asked him to sign my draft card, but he said no.
Is that when you had your runnin with John Wayne?
Yeah. He came to one show very drunk. He saw me and picked me up and said, "I saw you in Egypt and you were great . . . and then you blew me!" Onstage I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's Halloween and we were going to have some important guests here tonight – like George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party – but unfortunately all we could get was John Wayne." He got up and made some drunken speech, and his bodyguards told me I'd better cool it.
There were other characters – such as Cynthia Plaster-Caster. Tell us about her.
Eric Clapton introduced me to the Plaster-Casters. They had all these statues of the dicks of people like Jimi Hendrix. One of them mixed the plaster stuff to make a mold, and the other gave the guy a blow job. She took her mouth off the guy's dick, and then the other one slammed the mold onto it. We declined to be enshrined, so to speak.
During those years, the Mothers were famous for being a hardworking band. You were on the road all the time.
We played everywhere. Like the time we spent in Montreal, when we played a club called The New Penelope and it was twenty degrees below zero. We walked from our hotel to the club, and the snot had literally frozen in our noses by the time we got to work. The wind instruments got so cold that if you tried to play them, your lips and fingers would freeze to them. The instruments couldn't even be played until they were warmed up. It was pretty primitive. If we hadn't experienced that, we probably wouldn't have come up with some of the more deranged types of audience participation and audience punishment things that we were doing at the time.
Audience punishment things?
The question became, How far would they go? What could we get an audience to do? The answer seemed to be anything. We'd bring someone up and go, "Take your shoes and socks off, put your socks on your hands and lick them while we play." Anything we could think of. So long as the person telling them to do it was onstage, they would do it. The rest of the people in the audience were laughing at the person who was doing the most ridiculous things but saying at the same time, I could do that! That could be me!" At a theater in New York, which had once been a porno theater or something, there was a projection booth at the far end of the stage. We ran a wire from there to the opposite side of the stage. We had pulleys on it. Our drummer, Motorhead, was instructed to attach objects to the line at random times during the show and fly them down. When they would land onstage, whatever arrived, we would improvise on it. Once, he sent down a baby d4" a doggie-style position with its head removed. It flew over the audience, whizzing by like in apparition over their heads, and crashed into the post over us. It was followed shortly by a three-foot-long Genoa salami that sodomized the doll. It seemed to me that there was no reason to waste this perfectly good salami, so I invited this lovely girl with very long hair, wearing a kind of Little Miss Muffet costume, to come up onstage and eat the whole salami. We played and she ate the salami. She started to cry because she couldn't finish it. I told her it was OK, that we would save it for her and she could come back and eat the rest of it. She did.
Do you keep up with popular music now?
What's to keep up with? If anything's sensational, it won't be on MTV, it'll be Sister Souljah on Larry King.
You had your own talk show on FNN for a short time. What started that brief career?
I was invited to be a guest on Bob Berkowitz' show to talk about business opportunities in the Soviet Union, which I knew something about from my travels there. It was a fairly amusing half hour. After that, Bob asked me to guest-host his show while he was on vacation.
You tried to book Czechoslovakia's president Václav Havel as a guest, right?
I knew a guy who had been a rock-and-roll musician who, after the revolution, was a ranking member of the Czech parliament. I asked him whether or not he could arrange for me to meet Havel so that I could interview him about the country's economy for FNN. I met with Havel and found that the minute I started talking with him about economics, he turned me over to his advisors; he didn't know anything about it. We didn't do the interview, but it was great meeting with him.
I happen to think that the Velvet Revolution was a little bit of a miracle. Since he was kind of the focal point of the whole thing, I thought he'd be a nice guy to talk with. He was. In the middle of everything, he mentioned that Dan Quayle was coming to visit. I expressed my condolences. I told him I was sorry that he was going to be forced to have a conversation with anyone that stupid. It eventually must have gotten back to the U.S. embassy. Instead of sending Quayle, Jim Baker – who was on his way to Moscow – rerouted his trip and went to Prague.
What do you think of the breakup of Czechoslovakia?
It's a big mistake. The crash program for economic reform is part of what led to the breakup of the country. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who was the advocate of the fast economic reform a la Poland, is a person who is well respected by Western financial people because he talks their language. This has a tendency to assure potential Western bankers, who are not comfortable with a guy who wants to go slowly. But there are factors that make it necessary to go slowly. Now there is no intellectual core in charge of the revolution, and the country has divided up, which is a mistake. Smaller entities tend to be less efficient; every small country has to reinvent the wheel. They have to set up a new constitution, a legislature, currency. It's happening in every one of the small breakaway republics. It gives the people personal gratification as a nationality, but the price is chaos.
But you're all for smaller governments and more local control, aren't you?
No, because that means more governments.
But smaller governments might better reflect their constituents.
That's a reasonable assumption, if it were all going to work fairly. But I think that behind each breakaway movement is a breakaway demagogue who will set up his breakaway demagogue government. In many breakaway countries the governments now say, on paper, that you are free to be an entrepreneur. Well, that's great if you have cash to invest. But who has the cash? The party bosses who were there before are the new entrepreneurs. Guys who got thrown out of office wound up buying restaurants, hotels or factories. The drones who were wandering around the streets are still wandering, even though they have the right to be entrepreneurs. That's certainly true in Russia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I haven't been to Poland yet.
Was it surprising that you had fans behind the iron curtain?
Yeah, and lots of people who didn't like me – like the secret police.
What did the secret police have against you?
In Prague, I was told that the biggest enemies of the Communist Czech state were Jimmy Carter and me. A student I met said that he was arrested by the secret police and beaten. They said they were going to beat the Zappa music out of him.
How did Czechs know about your music?
It had been slipping in there since 1966 or 1967. The first album that was really popular there was Absolutely Free, the one with Plastic People on it. In Moscow, I was in the Ministry of Culture and met a young guy with a big Communist pin on his chest who said that he had earned his way through school bootlegging my tapes in from Yugoslavia.
Were you glued to your TV set when the Berlin Wall came down and the rest of the U.S.S.R. unraveled?
Yeah, and I was thrilled, even though I'm pretty disappointed by what's happened since then. See, in that part of the world, the average guy in the street is like the average guy in the street anyplace else. He has the same desires. He wants something to eat, a roof over his head. He doesn't want to freeze, he wants to get laid, he wants to have a long and happy life reasonably free of pain. If he has a trade or a craft, he wants to be able to do his job. Unfortunately, these normal people are represented by bad people, just like here. But they want what we want. The average guy there is just like us, Joe Six-pack, except his beer tastes better.
How do you feel about America's reaction to the changes in the former Soviet Union?
It's underwhelming. I would call it reactionary.
What would you have the United States do?
If you really believed that the major threat to the universe was communism, the minute you saw it crumbling, wouldn't you do everything you could to make sure it never came back? To make sure that the people in that part of the world have a chance to participate in something better, so they aren't tempted to vote communism back in? That's a real danger in these countries. Now that they have free elections, so long as there is any remnant of a Communist Party, even if they call it something else, it could easily be voted back in because their economy is in such bad shape. They don't need a tank or a gun to regain control, they just need a ballot box.
You planned to become involved in Russian businesses. What happened to the company you founded to do it?
Since I got sick, nothing happened. The idea was that there are a lot of small-to medium-sized U.S. companies that would like to have access to raw materials, patents, processes or other things they don't know about that exist in Russia or other countries. A nation that plays chess that well, and where you can still get 15,000 people to show up to hear somebody read poetry, has something going for, it. There's a brain at work there. I suspect that because of their economic condition they've found was to use string, chewing gum, reprocessed turnips – whatever they use – to do things in a way that we haven't thought of. Somebody needs to go snooping around to find out what's there and try to put those people together with American investors. It would help both countries. That's what I was going to do. It was a better solution than having the Russian scientists flock out of there to get jobs making weapons for the Arabs or the Indians.
Sometimes you sound like a political candidate. How serious was your plan to run for president?
I wanted to do it. It's a bit hard to mount a campaign if you have cancer and don't feel well.
If you hadn't been ill, would you have run?
Yeah. And it's a shame. We got calls and mail throughout the election. Squadrons of volunteers called.
If you had run and won, what would President Zappa have done?
I would have started by dismantling the government. At least I would have presented the idea to the voters.
Nothing too revolutionary?
In the Beltway and places that have large federal payrolls, the idea wouldn't be too popular, but in other places people would think it's great. One strong selling point is that you could do away with federal income taxes, or at least reduce them to a point that people would have something left at the end of the week. In the end, I think people, in their enlightened self-interest, would consider voting for that.
If you dismantled the government, you'd put yourself out of a job.
No, because most reasonable people would agree that we need roads, for instance, and water you can drink and breathable air. Most people realize that there has to be some coordinated infrastructure and a national offense that is commensurate with whatever threat you feel from other countries.
I mean – well, what we have now is national offense. We should have national defense.
You've said that you're not a peacenik.
Human nature and human stupidity often breed violence. When violence escalates to an international confrontation, you should be able to protect yourself. On the other hand, to plan for it – like we did throughout the Cold War – based on badly handled intelligence estimates of the threat to our national security is just stupid. Most intelligence estimates indicated that the Soviet couldn't do shit to us, but they were ignored order to maintain the level of employment and financial activity in the defense industry.
Do you think that our recent election was irrelevant?
Yes, because America has to be completely restructured. We have to question every institution in terms of efficiency. I'm serious about abandoning the federal system.
Is there any way that it's likely to happen?
Not this week, but I wish people would at least consider it. They think, There it is, we're stuck with it, it will go on forever. It doesn't have to. The Soviet Union didn't go on forever. If you want reform, the people who've been doing a bad job have to get fired. They have to go back to the used-car lot from where they came.
Yet you've always pushed people to vote. Why bother?
Even if you don't like the candidates, there are issues that affect your life. Bond issues affect your pocketbook. That's the only real reason for voting. As far as the rest of government is concerned, forget it. The amount of overstaffing, overlapping, wasted energy and pompous pseudograndeur is science fiction. All of it is supported by this universe of political talk shows. CNN is one of the worst offenders on the planet. It maintains the fiction of the theoretical value of the thoughts and words of these inferior human specimens who manage to become Beltway insiders.
Do you want to name names?
Do we need to see John Sununu as a talk-show guy? Or, on CNBC, Gordon Liddy or Oliver North? Let's face it: Some of these people are criminals. Why do we need to be presented with them as voices of authority whose opinions are something we should even waste our time with? Why?
What do you think is behind it?
It's a whole program designed to modify behavior and modify thinking on a national level. They're happy to take the slings and arrows of the outraged minority in order to keep these voices of stupidity in your face all the time. It's all propaganda.
How planned is it?
Completely. It is the residue of the domestic-diplomacy department that Reagan established during the Irancontra days. The idea was to control the news. From that office, a guy would make phone calls and certain journalists would get fired and news stories would get changed. Then it was the obvious control of the media we saw during the Gulf war.
So you maintain that the media are no more than pawns?
The media are part of the package. You think really liberal people own those outlets? I don't. Even if they were Democrats, it wouldn't mean anything, because who can tell the difference between those two criminal classes?
it sounds as if you are as cynical as ever.
It's hard not to be.
Yet you feel it's worthwhile to raise some hell?
Pessimism and the natural instinct to raise hell are not mutually exclusive. Raising hell comes naturally to me. Still, I am not optimistic about what will happen to this country unless some radical change is made. It's going to take more than just firing a few bad guys.
You were involved in politics firsthand when you tried to stop record companies from being forced to label records, much like movies are rated. Your opponents got their way. Has it had any impact?
A chilling impact.
How? Don't you think that the warning stickers help sales? Kids want stuff with bad words.
But groups that are getting signed to recording contracts are being told what they can and cannot sing.
That doesn't ring true, It seems that there is less censorship than ever. "Motherfucker" is almost requisite to rap songs in heavy metal, Axl Rose screams, "Suck my fucking dick!" What's being censored?
If it's some guy selling thirty million records, the record company isn't going in with scissors. But the new bands just signing up have no leverage. They do what they are told.
Many of the rap artists aren't selling millions.
But they're on shaky ground. Time Warner was ready to succumb to the protests over Cop Killer before Ice-T backed off. It's all hanging on a cliff, ready to go over. More frightening is the Child Protection Act. It holds people responsible if they in any way influence someone to commit a crime. The record companies are worried.
You obviously don't believe songs can make people kill or rape or commit suicide.
There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something, we'd all love one another. Violence in songs functions the same way violence in movies does. In Lethal Weapon, people get blown up, mashed and mutilated. The people in the audience would never do anything like that.
Have you been censored?
No. I do what I want to do, though there are certain socially retarded areas where my records are not to be seen. That's one of the reasons we have a mail-order business. There's this ludicrous fear of the power of music manifesting itself in the corruption of the youth of America. It's idiotic. But censorship, in effect, is turning the United States into a police state, as far as ideas go. It's not about children learning dirty words. It's about putting a lid on ideas. Whatever they don't want to confront, whether it's about sex or racism or anything else, is what they want to censor. One way to shut off the avenues of dissent is to put a lid on rock and roll. Then come books and everything else. But censorship is communism. Why are we buying into communist suppression at a time when everybody else in the world has realized that it doesn't work? The people who want to censor do not care about saving your children. They care about one thing – getting reelected. Let's face it, folks: Politicians in the United States are the scum of the earth. We have to go after them individually because they're varmints. The legislation they are passing, piece by piece, converts America into a police state. The mentality that has existed since Reagan and Bush is that the population of the United States has to be subjugated by law.
Did the record industry fight the labeling hard enough?
The record companies are interested in one thing, which is making a profit. If "Cop Killer" sells millions of records, they are happy about it. They are not happy when police officers' pension funds sell their Time Warner stock and people boycott Time magazine.
It must have been strange for you when Al Gore was nominated as vice president.
They felt it was a good way to counteract the Dan Quayle-family values nonsense. But why would anybody need to counteract Dan Quayle?
They obviously didn't care about your vote – or the vote of the people concerned about Tipper's ratings campaign.
Not necessarily. Deep in their hearts, those politicos think they're really cagey strategists. They figured they'd get a certain amount of column inches because of Tipper. It was advertising they didn't have to buy.
Your song Trouble Coming Every Day, about the Watts riots, could have been written about the more recent L.A. upheaval.
The only part that wasn't apropos was the woman driver getting machine-gunned in half because she drove through a stop sign.
What were you doing during the riots?
I taped them from top to bottom while flipping through the channels. I got it from every angle that I could, some amazing stuff, things that weren't reported nationally.
Shots of a group of soldiers in a barracks in Orange County wearing Desert Storm nerve-gas clothing. Now either the Crips and Bloods had nerve gas or there were some plans of dealing sternly with the rioters.
What did you do with the recordings?
When I performed in Germany, we had television sets in the bar during intermission showing the finest of American cultural entertainment. On one set, nonstop riot. On another, nonstop televangelists. On another, C-SPAN. On another, Desert Storm. You got to have your light beer and watch the American media at its finest.
You said that you couldn't do some things you wanted to – including running for president – because of your illness. How else has cancer affected your life?
The minute somebody tells you you have cancer, your life changes dramatically, whether you beat it or you don't. It's like you have a fucking brand put on you. As far as the American medical profession goes, you're just meat. It complicates your life because you have to fight for your life every single day, besides doing your shit. To do the music is complicated enough, but to think of doing things that involve travel and other kinds of physical stress is too much. Whatever medication you take fucks you up, too.
Are you currently taking any medication?
I'm forty pounds overweight because the stuff that I'm taking fills me up with water. I'm a walking balloon. You can't just take an Advil or a Nuprin and forget about it. It's a fucking battle.
Can you travel, or do you have to stay close to your doctors?
Well, you do have to be tested periodically, every couple of months. You want to be close to a doctor you trust. You wouldn't want to go to a Russian hospital. That could put you out of business in a big hurry. A friend of mine was in an auto accident there and wound up in a Russian hospital. They had no anesthesia and no disposable syringes. As the doctor was setting her leg without anesthesia, he said, "Nobody ever died from pain."
How long have you known about your cancer?
I found out about it in the spring of 1990.
It hit out of the blue?
I'd been feeling sick for a number of years, but nobody diagnosed it. Then I got really ill and had to go to the hospital in an emergency. While I was in there, they did some tests and found out it had been there for anywhere from eight to ten years, growing undetected by any of my previous doctors. By the time they found it, it was inoperable.
How about other treatments?
I went through radiation and that fucked me up pretty good. They were supposed to give me twelve shots of that, but I got to number eleven and I was so sick that I said I couldn't go back.
Was it helping,
I don't want to dwell on all the morbid details of what happened to me, but I'll summarize it. When I went into the hospital, the cancer had grown to where I could no longer take a piss. In order for me just to survive, they had no poke a hole in my bladder. I spent more than a year with a hose coming out of my bladder and a bag tied to my leg. That'll keep you from traveling. The result of the radiation was that the tumor was shrunken to the point where I could get rid of the bag and could piss again, but there were bad side effects. I don't want to talk about it. It's not a picnic.
It seems that you can still do a lot of the things you care about – composing, at least.
Some days you can do more of it than others. Part of the problem is that it hurts to sit some days, and this work is done sitting at a computer terminal. I used to be able to work sixteen, eighteen hours a day and just get up from my chair and go to sleep and go back to work, and it was fine. But some days I can't work at all. Some days I can work two hours. Some days I can work ten.
How does it affect your life with your family?
Well, it's not a secret around here. They're very nice to me. They take care of me.
Is it an emotional roller coaster for you?
The emotional aspect is more influenced by the drugs than it is by the idea that you're sick. What can you do? People get sick. Sometimes they can fix it and sometimes they can't. But the chemicals that they give you to treat it take a toll. The week before last I found myself in the hospital for three days riddled with morphine. That was definitely an experience I don't want to repeat. When I got out, it took almost ten days to get the residue of all the drugs they'd given me out of my body.
At a certain point it must be confusing about what's making you sick, the drugs or the disease.
It'll really turn you around. It's difficult if you are the boss of a company, even a little company like mine, and you have to make decisions about what's going on and you can't trust your own decisions because you don't know, chemically, what's happening. It's also difficult not to know how you're going to be one day to the next. The only reason I agreed to do this interview at this time was I thought I was reasonably clear enough to have a conversation. That's debilitating. If you can't trust your own judgment, that's really hard. When you're writing music, every note you put down is a judgment call.
We've been talking for hours and yet you seem tireless.
You got me on a good day. I mean, tomorrow I could be flat on my back in bed. So you get to be very time-budget conscious. Certain things are time-consuming and the time spent doing them is productive. Other things are time-consuming and it's like being hijacked. I have a low tolerance for wasting time. I try not to be irritable about it, but it's my main concern. I'm trying to live my life the same way that I lived it before, without indulging in any of the things that would waste time.
Some people would retire – go to live their life out on some beach.
Not me. I'm less inclined to travel, less inclined to leave the house for any reason, just because I happen to like my life in this place, and I like my family.
How does it influence the music you're writing now?
I don't think it does now, though it did for a while. It's so uncomfortable to work, you may be tempted to say that something's done when it's not done. You physically can't stand to work on it anymore. During one period, I was working on some pieces that I let go before their time. Since they hadn't been released yet, as I gradually felt better, I went back and worked on them to make sure that the level of competence was maintained.
But hasn't it affected the mood of the music?
No, I haven't started writing sad music. Time is the thing. Time is everything. How to spend time. We all want something to do with our minds. The choices are a major human preoccupation. The people who find the easiest solutions, like beer and football, might be happier if they had just a little dimension to their lives. But most people, once they achieve a certain level of gratification for time disposal, don't go beyond it. They already know how good they're going to feel when a football game comes on, and they have their beer. They don't want to know beyond that. They build a life around it. It's been the same for me since I got cancer as it was before. I have to look way beyond the football game and the can of beer. Once I've gone out there and dabbled on that fringe, I feel as if I may as well bring some artefacts back, in case anybody else is interested. That's what I do. I come back and go, "Here it is. This is what happened after the football game."