Frank Zappa: Outraged Consumer
"I Was the Villain Because I Dared to Say Flower Power Sucked."
By Scott Cohen
Circus Raves, No. 123 December 1975
If rock 'n roll didn't have a character like Frank Zappa, the editors of Mad Magazine would have invented him – to rape the minds of teenagers. Most people assumed Francis Vincent came from New York City because he wore a beatnik goatee and looked like an anarchist. Actually he was born in Maryland in 1940 and raised in California from age ten. He calls himself a "creep" and says it's his upbringing that made him that way.
In the high desert lands of California he became friends with Don Van Vliet, boy wonder. Both were composing in several media even before they were kicked out of high school. Zappa became the definitive freak, but he was never a hippie. He never took drugs, smoked weed only ten times, never took the easy bliss out, and this he wants to make perfectly clear. He listened to Howlin' Wolf and preferred Willie Mae Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" to Presley's. Meanwhile Van Vliet listened to Al Jolson and continued the sculpture he began at age five. Van Vliet grew up and became Capt. Beefheart, named after the famous tomato that bulges to heroic proportions in the valleys. Beefheart and Zappa played dirty music together in 1962 – "very experimental stuff." Zappa made money on a filmscore venture and immediately turned it into a sound studio – "Z" in Cucamonga, Ca. The first Mothers LP was 'Freak Out!' in 1964, the first double album in rock history. Zappa later formed Bizarre Records which featured LPs by the GTO's, Wild Man Fischer, and the first two Alice Cooper albums (he was Cooper's hero and the main reason Furnier moved from Phoenix to L.A.). Then Jim Guercio, Dr. John, Van Dyke Parks, Lowell George, Kim Fowley, Aynsley Dunbar, and many others recorded with him. Capt. Beefheart played and sang on Zappa's solo LP, 'Hot Rats.'
Beefheart formed the Magic Band, and after cutting a record on Buddha went over to Zappa's DiscReet Label where he recorded the famous 'Trout Mask Replica.' Trouble. Beefheart had a beef. Claiming Zappa had produced it badly, Beefheart sued Zappa for alleged non-payment and other sins. Words were exchanged and then no words were exchanged and the friendship screeched to a dead halt.
Bongo Fury (on DiscReet) is the result of the first Zappa-Beefheart collaboration in about five years. And it is the maddest stream of absurdity to issue from either party in that time.
Zappa and Beefheart reunite to celebrate the Bicentennial: "200 years gone ca-poot." The main celebrant is Sam "with the showing scalp flat top. Sam's particular about the point it makes. Arrrrgh, Sam's a basket case." The themes of patriotism are intertwined throughout the wild and bluesy songs. Yessir, this platter ought to be piped through the Capitol Building intercom and daily grooved on the Ford's turntable. Send a copy to your local senator, now.
Do you think 1967, "The Summer Of Love," was the last great year for us collectively?
Are you out of your fucking mind? What was hot about 1967? To wake me up with a statement like that … No, the answer's no.
Was that a bad year for you?
No, but what was so hot about it that anyone in his right mind would make a statement like "the last great year" ...?
Do you think it was just another year?
Yeah. They're all about the same.
Do you have any particular stand-out years?
Well, I used to be very fond of 1955 and 1958. They were good years for records.
A lot of my favorite rhythm and blues records were released then. "Home On Alcatraz" by The Rolling Crew, "Can't Get You Off My Mind" by Jenne Barns, "Do-Wah" by the Spaniels, "Tell Me Darling" by The Gaylarks.
Where were you living then?
Were you the first to be into the kind of music that you're into – sort of political, social, witty and rock 'n roll all at the same time?
You know this cultural revolution they say happened at the end of the Sixties?
This cultural revolution – you know, dope, long hair.
What about it?
Do you think it ever happened?
Well, I guess the hair actually did grow and the dope actually was sold and bought and people did use it ...
Don't you think those years were qualitatively different from the previous and following years?
Well, I'd say the action really started around 1964 and petered out and plummeted to its lowest ebb by the time you got to Woodstock, because by that point all the hippies were so impressed with themselves they didn't know which end was up. They got to the point where they were taking themselves so seriously that they thought they were going to rule the world.
There were good vibrations in the '67–'70 period, and you were particularly cynical then.
Look, let me put it to you this way: I wasn't particularly cynical, I remained to be as cynical as I ever was. The fact of the matter was everyone else was going around kissing everybody else's ass, and if you didn't have two fingers up in the air, some beads around your neck, a song tied on your head and a couple of flowers in your pocket, then you didn't have any peer-group status. But that whole thing was an immense pile of shit. Now I said so, so what did that make me, weird? That put me on the outside of what was going on. I was like a villain to everybody because I dared to say flower power sucked. I suppose you were into flower power? A lot of people were really into it. They thought it was the end-all. They really thought they were going to rule the world with a flower in their hand. It was nuts. They were believing in all these Yippie leaders and whatever else these assholes were telling them. They were just so full of dope that they were going blindly their own way, not thinking for a moment that the origin of LSD was in the CIA and a lot of them probably don't like to think about that now. By taking LSD they were helping the CIA in one of their favorite experiments. After they got done taking volunteers from the army, they actually made a profit selling it to people on the street, and seeing what actually happened to a civilian population. They got it in the ass so bad from the CIA that they don't even know. So to sit on the outside of that and say it was stupid will not make you any friends in the group of people who really believe in it, and since there were more of them than of me, it sort of set me up in a negative light for all the years to come.
But you liked playing that role, didn't you?
What, saying flower power sucked? Look, I'm not a villain. I'm an honest person and I'll say what I believe, and if that's what it takes to be a villain, I'll put on the black cape any day.
Do you think your audience is different now from then?
Of course. The audience is different now because of the drugs they take now as opposed to the drugs they took then, while society had its conscience altered in a' different direction from where it is now.
How is it altered now?
It's a different series of drugs, that forms the backdrop, and then there's more conformity.
You think drugs are really cultural?
Of course. They're a cultural phenomenon, they're an industry, and they're a tool by which the government keeps the kids in check. They also use the same thing to keep the housewives down. Every time you take some dope and you think you're getting some escape from your life, you're just playing right into the government's hand. Everytime you use whatever it is that you use, you're registering yourself as a pawn.
But either way you are, whether you use drugs or not.
Well, the difference is this: society has made existence next to impossible on a practical level, you know what I mean? In the everyday struggle for survival. But they ain't gonna take my mind. The minute you start taking those drugs, they got you. I'd rather be free inside of my mind. If you don't have enough money to beat the system, the least you can do is keep your self-respect and know what you think is not chemically induced by a governmental agency.
Is there a new generation of Frank Zappa freaks?
They're in their early teens, a lot of them are girls.
What do you think your appeal is?
It's hard to determine. I think a lot of them thought my first album was Apostrophe ('). I went out and did a tour after that album came out, and they were convinced that that was the first album I ever made. Of course, on the other hand, we played Washington, D.C. and it was the year of our tenth anniversary and we were playing a lot of stuff from the Freak Out! album, and the 13-year-old girls at that concert who were standing at the edge of the stage were squealing and when we played something from the Freak Out album they knew all the words. They would have had to be three-year-olds when that album came out. It was just weird.
Is one of your children named Moon Unit?
Son or daughter?
Is Moon Unit the oldest?
What do you call her around the house?
I call her Moon and I call Dweezil 'Dweezil' and I call Ahmet 'Ahmet.'
I'm wondering what psychological effects a name can have.
Well, first of all, I knew that they were going to be unique anyway because of certain other attributes, so why not have a name that goes with it. They all like their names and the kids at school do too. They don't make fun of them; in fact, most of them are jealous of their names. You know, it always amazes me when someone who is in my age group, or even younger, asks me a question like why did you name your children that. It's a reactionary kind of question. Why the fuck not name your kids something like that? They're having a good time. Besides that, if they ever wanted to change their names they can do it. It only costs about $15.
You can't tell from the name Moon Unit whether it's a boy or a girl. Had Moon Unit been a boy, would you have named him the same thing?
No, I would have named him Motor Head.
Do you think children understand your work better than adults?
Yes. My kids love it. They take the records to school and the other kids like it.
What do you tell people who ask you what you do?
I just tell them I'm in the record business because if you say something with a word "business" they can understand it.
You're more or less a household name in our generation.
I don't know what generation you're talking about and I don't know what it means to be a household name.
I'm talking about people from, say, 20–35 who know your name like they know the name "Jello" or "Post-Toasties."
Well, they might know my name, but I don't think very many of them know what I do or listen to my records since 1967 when I told them they were all full of shit.
What do they think became of you?
I don't know, they think I retired. I met one guy in a coffee shop one time and he asked me what I had been doing and I told him I got a job as a grocery checker at Ralph's Market. He believed me. Not only that, I told him I could get him a job there too.
Have the GTO's retired?
Let's see, one of 'em is dead, most of the rest of 'em are married, and one just got into a car accident. One of 'em went into the acting field and she was on a soap opera. That was Miss Pamela.
Did you get the name for the Mothers on Mother's Day?
That's when our first gig was. I can't remember what we were called, yeah, I think we were.
How long did you play in a band before you got your first contract?
Let's see, this band I played in was when I was 15 and the first contract I got was when I was 22 or 23.
You really persevered.
Suppose you consider the alternatives.
Were you always conscious of being a freak?
Well, I knew I was different.
Do you think it's still important to be a freak?
For freak's sake, no. As I said before, it's important to keep control over your thought patterns.
Do you think the sensibility of your songs has to do with Los Angeles?
Of course. That keeps it honest because that's where I live and that's what I know.
Could you talk about L.A. in terms of American culture?
It's a very misunderstood place. Unless you've lived here for at least a year and met acquaintances and checked the place out, it's vastly different from any other city in the United States or the world. It's a different kind of a set-up, and it's hard for people who've never seen it to imagine it. And when you consider that most of the people in the world haven't seen it and the only thing they know about it is what pricks from New York have written about it – whenever writers from other metropolitan areas write about L.A. they talk about it as if it were Dante's Inferno or something. It's true, but it's jealousy.
A lot of people feel L.A. is less real than New York.
Do you know why they feel L.A. is less real than New York? Because they have to say something positive about New York. The only thing you can say about New York is that it's real. Los Angeles is real. Look at it this way. L.A. is superior to most other places in terms of climate, facilities, space allotted per individual. You're not so cramped here. Plus the cost of living is lower here than a lot of other cities in the United States. If you have no money it's easy to mooch in Los Angeles because the people are friendly and they take you in. So some schmuck writer comes out here from some metropolitan center and looks at it and says it's not real. I mean, they couldn't believe it's real because they're living a tooth and claw existence in the big city that makes them feel like a he-man because they put up with that shit. If they knew what was good for them they'd say fuck that and come out here.
My bags are packed.
And the other thing is if they say anything good in their article the editor of the magazine changes it for them.
What's the basic difference between New York and Los Angeles besides the palm trees?
Well, that's a big difference there. Take some of those laboratory experiments of rats living too close together. When they get irritable it changes the personality of the rat.
There's not enough terrain for them to have any kind of individualism. And whenever you jam that many people close together like in New York, that's a horror show.
Did you start getting into the stage atrocities in New York?
Is atrocities your word for what you were doing?
What were some of the most atrocious things you did onstage?
Most of the things were based on the idiosyncrasies of the audience. Remember, we were working in a place that was in the middle of the Village when it was a tourist attraction for weekend hippies from Long Island. We were there six nights a week, two shows a night between Easter vacation and Labor Day and our business ranged anywhere from lines doubled around the block to three people in the audience and it didn't make a difference, we still played. About July the air conditioner went out in the theater and we still had to play. It was 120 degrees in there and the people would sit in that horrible red room watching these shows and all they wanted was to have something horrible happen to them. They had no interest in the music or anything except the show aspects of it, so I decided why not give it to them? There was one kid who loved to run up out of the audience unexpectedly, grab the microphone and scream into it at the top of his lungs and then he would lay on the floor and ask me to spit coca-cola all over his body and once I would do that he would get up and go back to his seat. He would do it about five or six times. If I saw somebody in the audience who looked like he really needed a lift I would send somebody out and we would kidnap him and drag him physically up on stage and we would do things to him, then turn him loose.
How old are you?
Do you dance at parties?
I don't go to parties, but I occasionally go to bars and I'll do the bump.
Do you think that it's good that you can't dance to most of your songs?
I think everything I've written can be danced to. It can't be danced to by people who don't have a certain amount of creative ability and it's an excellent way to weed people out. If you can dance to one of our songs I think you have some creative ability and don't want to dance in a regimented manner. The beat's just as good on our records as on anybody else's records. It so happens that there's more of them in funny places.
Do you think of your albums as each being separate or each as a part of one big album?
A big album.
Rock 'n roll seemed more exciting in the Sixties because it was more rebellious and now it seems more traditional.
Well, whose fault do you think that is?
You mean, do I think it's the musicians' or the audiences' fault?
No, I'd say it's the writers' fault.
I wouldn't have thought of that.
Figures. I can observe trends in rock 'n roll journalism that work in cycles. Certain things go on and off the charts in terms of the overall perspective of the favor of the rock 'n roll journalist. Like, things are seasonal, and become seasonal by virtue of publications that are assigning certain articles on certain things because of record company pressures and it all comes down to dollars and cents, none of it's for real. It's all jive. You guys are in the grind of turning out pseudo opinions about rock 'n roll music. None of it has anything to do with the music. Most of it has to do with the personalities of the people you're writing about. Most of it is fan mail-type stuff on one level or another. So when you talk about these trends in the music you're not talking about the music, it's just an interpretation being placed on it by people who never should have received a typewriter to begin with. I think it's about time people found out what's really going on in sports, rock 'n roll, politics – all of it. It's all been handled in such a stock way, in the most convenient way. It's time for a consumer outrage.