Frank Zappa: a Mother Only a Face Could Love
By Michael Bourne
American Eye, October 23, 1974
All about the stage was vegetation. Ferns framed the drums. Near the keyboards, a cactus watched. And once the theremin was switched on, a plant began to play. It was the official 10th anniversary concert of The Mothers – and all was as usual. Groupies swarmed about. Media types looked important (or thought so). Zappa rehearsed and otherwise soundchecked the band. Off in the wings, a union stage man reacted disfavorably, "Put the plant back on!" And Unity, the ever-pleasant Mothers roady, shrugged: "What a life!"
The tour wasn't the greatest. Zappa wasn't much pleased. "I liked one concert out of 24. I don't remember why." The lights were wrong throughout – union problems. But the music was bright as ever. Napoleon Murphy Brock sang and danced about irresistibly, a rock and roll Harlequin. George Duke played octopus on keyboards, funky with every hand. Bruce Fowler assaulted a $17.95 blowup plastic woman, with a rubber chicken, a trombone, and whatever else was on stage. Fowler's abuse was so intense that the plastic snatch inverted into a quaffs-cock in an onstage transsexual act Alice Cooper et. al. will never equal. Everyone laughed a lot.
At midnight, thereafter being Mother's Day, Zappa spake the sage of The Mothers and re-created Freak Out!, with which the audience freaked indeed – the climax of a decade of The Mothers, wherein they offered a century of great music.
Zappa talked with me before all this, after a less hectic concert. We began with Gesamtkunstwerk (a quasi-Wagnerian concept wherein all that Zappa creates is of a whole):
Bourne: So how is the Gesamtkunstwerk?
Zappa: It's coming along.
Bourne: It isn't really Wagnerian, complete unto itself, but ever-evolving ...
Zappa: I'm not the kind of a person who likes to stick his hands into the drawer under the table and fetish a pair of silk underpants in between each note. Did you know that? That was one of Wagner's ...
Bourne: Isn't 200 Motels a climactic piece?
Zappa: You can mark it as a placal cadence. You shouldn't think of it as the end of a segment but as more of a summary or review of certain aspects of what's been going on. It doesn't in any way summarize the complete event from the beginning to where it's gone. But it takes a certain portion of it and spells out the classifications that were functioning and some of the events that took place within the classifications that were important. And that, ladies and gentlemen, predicts the future!
Bourne: It catalogues the characters – the groupies, the agents ...
Zappa: It doesn't catalogue the characters the way you're imagining it, like giving them their complete label. All it does is give you one view, the view of touring. If I had the budget and if enough people were interested in what the other side of that business looked like, there could be something like a negative space version of 200 Motels. You could see the other dimension of all that, and then put the two of them together and get like a stereo-optical view of what's really going on. But unfortunately, that's not the way show business works.
Bourne: Did you ever wonder whether an audience that knows your music and knows about you would appreciate the film more than an audience not really into the Mothers?
Zappa: Oh yeah. If you have people who've paid attention to your work for a long time, who've done you the kindness, in most instances, of liking what you do enough to stick by it, you certainly want to entertain them in a way that befits the attention paid to you. So I know that by making any kind of work of art that people with a certain kind of background will get off on better than the guys that just walked in right off the street with a little curiosity. There is a certain continuity, and it does get permutated and stuck over here and bent over there, and if you follow it, it's really entertaining.
I know that it's full of predictions. But if you look at it today, especially in view of the behavior of Mark (Volman) and Howard (Kaylan), the direction that Aynsley (Dunbar) has gone, and some of the other maneuvers of the characters, it's a very mysterious movie.
Bourne: I assume you liked how Ringo played you?
Zappa: He was fine.
Bourne: What did Ringo predict in you?
Zappa: I wouldn't want to be verbally specific about it. If you know anything that's happened to the group since then, picture what's taken place and dig what it's saying in the movie.
Bourne: ... in the evolution from Freak Out through the Mothers with Mark and Howard and the Mothers from then till now?
Zappa: The basic thrust of the early Mothers was that they weren't exactly musicians. They all came from other useful fields. Ray (Collins) was a carpenter. Roy (Estrada) was a truck driver. Jimmy Carl Black used to work for the electric company. They were musically unskilled. Their tastes in music, the kinds of things that got them off, were so far from what we were doing as a group that it created a constant tension. They'd say "Why don't we just go out and play the blues?" There was always that desire to just do something simple. But they went along with the gag.
If you can imagine Jimmy Carl Black worrying about growing his hair out, hiding it inside his shirt every time we went into an airport – that's the kind of people the early Mothers were. Each Mother maintained a private image that he was the freakiest of all the Mothers, but they were actually a most conservative bunch. But over the period of five years that the group was together, their personalities started trading off, mutated into each other. So this folklore developed inside the band where people started talking like other people. They were just words or phrases; it's hard to describe just what they really meant. There was very seldom a straight conversation, where you could say, "Will you get me a blah blah?" They would say (unintelligible), these weird things that went back ten years to something that happened to one guy in the group. One night he told somebody else and they all laughed at it, and they kept saying it over and over again until, after five years, everybody went around saying nothing but that.
Now you get the group of Mark and Howard. The same style or thing happened to the personalities, but their personalities were vastly different. Mark and Howard were sort of the vaudeville school. They're really success-oriented, ambitious entertainers who could sort of sing. And they like to be extroverted, on and off the stage. They like to have a good time. They like to get ... they like to have a good time.
Bourne: That band realized your theater ideas.
Zappa: They could do the theater ideas because they had technical skills. They had already done a certain amount of cavorting when they were the Turtles. So it was only a twist of the wrist, so to speak, to get them to take the things that had happened to them personally and re-enact them onstage for a large number of people, to expose a weird corner of their private lives in such a way as to amuse people. There were people who thought it was all fantasy, but the weirdest things that happened on stage with this band were all generated from real-life events. The best example is that business about the girl who can't come unless the guy sings his hit single. That happened to Howard and he told me about it one time, and I laughed so hard that I said, "Let's do something about that, let everyone know!"
Bourne: If that is so, just as some people presumed the early Mothers screwed vegetables, they'll assume that the Mothers then were obsessed with penis size.
Zappa: That falls into the same category as the logic of the people who would come up to me and say, "You once made the statement that you were only in it for the money – is that true, Mr. Zappa?" And I have to sit there and tell them they're assholes for presuming that that's what the title of that album was all about. It's that same kind of illogical continuity where they hear a phrase, then attach their own bullshit to it.
Bourne: Has the audience appreciated the evolving whole?
Zappa: The thing that I've noticed is that over the past ten years we've managed to amuse a lot of people on a constant basis. Once they got onto what was happening in terms of the continuity, then they'd watch it for the next installment, like one of the serials you used to see at the movies. But surprisingly enough, we've picked up new people, who just might've walked in one day because they didn't have anything else to do and don't know what went before. They have no idea about the Garrick Theater or the vegetables or any of that early stuff, but just liked it for what it was at the time that they saw it. And then we have other people who liked the early group because of its crudeness, and thrive on crudeness, and reject us if we do anything musically sophisticated – which leads you to say that you can't please everybody all the time.
Bourne: Have the critics reactions been any better?
Zappa: I don't think they've changed very much. I wouldn't say that the largest part of our fan following is in the field of journalism.
Bourne: Is the American audience aware of better music now? Is the music itself better?
Zappa: Obviously there's a larger variety of things available on record now than there has ever been in the past, and it's there for people to listen to. So as long as it's there, it means that the odds have to automatically go up, that somebody's hearing it. That doesn't mean they're hearing it on the radio, but the records are available.
Bourne: Do they scream for Louie Louie as much?
Zappa: Louie Louie has been transcended by someone screaming for Boogie! We still get requests for Caravan with a drum solo. But the main change that I've noticed in audiences is that when we first started off – believe it or not, folks! – we were a dance band. People would actually get up and dance to what we did, no matter what. In L.A. the kids didn't care that it wasn't 4/4 tempo, they'd just get up and jump around. I mean, we've been playing in five and seven since we first started off. I've noticed less and less physical movement in the audiences that we play for. It just decreases every year.
Bourne: Do you think the audience expects you to be obnoxious?
Zappa: I don't think they expect it anymore. They did for a while.
Bourne: Did you ever expect to escape that image?
Zappa: Let me tell you something. I used to be purposely obnoxious onstage. That was definitely called for, based on the audiences we played for and the manner in which the text/content of the songs had to be put across to the audience. What we were saying at that time was something you didn't just want to say: "Excuse me, but I'd like to inform you that..." You went out there onstage and you yelled it at them, and smashed a few vegetables, because our audiences then were really very straight. There wasn't too much of the long-haired hippy element coming to see us. It was mostly very straight kids who needed to relate to the fact of other possibilities in life.
Bourne: Do you still hear tales of radically gross behavior, apochryphal [?, ed.] weird things?
Zappa: Oh yeah, they pop up all the time. The persistent rumor of The Fugs gross-out contest which never happened, or the rumor that Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo is my father.
Bourne: Your influences are known (Stravinsky, Varèse, et al.), your appreciation of modern orchestral music and 50s rock-and-roll at the same time. Has anything impressed you so far in the 70s, not simply in music, but in anything?
Zappa: Gee, that's hard to say. The largest thing that impressed me recently was being in the hospital and sitting in a wheel chair for a long time.
Bourne: Do you think that incident (a broken leg and other pains after a crazed fan from the audience hurled Zappa off a stage into the pit) was a manifestation of anything, an omen?
Zappa: Oh yeah, it's all an omen.
Bourne: Is politics as bothersome now? You're into more overt satire now.
Zappa: It was just called for, that's all. If I see something that amuses me to the point that I'll type it down on a piece of paper, I'll do another song about it. For years I wasn't doing any vocals at all. And within the past year, as the band changed around, I've been looking to find a vocalist who could give an accurate performance of the lyrics. A lot of guys can sing, but I hand them my words and they go "Well, I ..." They get a little embarrassed about having that stuff come out of their mouths. Or they give it a good try, but just don't get the inflection right. So out of necessity, I started "singing" again. I had a limited range and a limited type of material that I could perform. So the recent examples of overt commentary types of songs, like "I'm The Slime" and "Cosmik Debris," were partly to accommodate my vocal limitations, and partly because they were subjects that were amusing to me.
Bourne: What's your vocal range? Basso-perverto?
Zappa: I'm a bass-baritone and I have an octave range, all of it real shaky. I don't have perfect pitch. I have a rough time figuring out where I'm going. It's harder than shit for me to learn to sing. I can talk in pitch, Sprechstimme. I've been doing that for years – and I learned it from John Lee Hooker, not Arnold Schoenberg.
Bourne: Is there anything you haven't done you want to do?
Zappa: I wouldn't want to put that in an interview.
Bourne: How do you envision the new records within the whole? What's the extension of Over-Nite Sensation from The Grand Wazoo? It seems rather a strange tangent.
Zappa: What's wrong with the strange tangents? Let me tell you a tragic story. There's a vinyl shortage, you know. I wanted to put out an anniversary album that had one disc from each of the four periods of the Mothers: quad recordings of the first group, the Mark and Howard group, the ten-piece brass group that preceeded this, a lot of stuff from the group with Jean-Luc (Ponty), plus all the recordings on this tour. I wanted to put out a four-record set or something like that. We can't do it anymore. In fact, we can't put out a double record. And we can't even put out gatefold albums because there's a cardboard shortage. Coupled with the vinyl and cardboard shortage, there's a state of economic depression. If you were gonna put out a nine-record set, as discussed, over the last X number of years, I don't think anybody could afford to buy it. Even the most avid of fans is gonna be hard-pressed. So in lieu of that, I was gonna do a tidy little summary of four discs with four or five different groups. Now I can't do it.
Bourne: Ever figured out why?
Zappa: You have to do a demographic breakdown of the whys and wherefores of rock-and-roll journalists all over the world, and see where they're coming from and make some statistics on that. A lot of them got into it for getting free records, getting next to groups so that they could get laid vicariously, or just trying to do something to further a writing career in some other direction. I'd say the largest percentage are ill-equipped to write about music or anything else, and a lot of them can't even type well. But gotta do something for a living.
Bourne: So presumably your next record will be a new thing.
Zappa: It's possible that we may try to release that four-group thing on tape. I think that stuff has been sitting around long enough. It should come out and amuse people.
Bourne: What about a new film? You were thinking of science fiction ...
Zappa: No, it's not exactly sci fi. It does have a monster though.
Bourne: The rock and roll version of The Mesa of Lost Women?
Zappa: Gee, I wish it was. What a great score. Great star, Jackie Coogan!
Bourne: What was that other film, with the electric metal Mexican monster?
Zappa: Kronos, the thing that had the legs that looked like linoleum rollers. And then there's The Killer Shrews, a pack of Irish setters that have some goop for your hair that makes them took matted, and they have false teeth with foam coming out of their mouths. It was great!
Bourne: How has this affected your philosophy of life?
Zappa: The cheaper the better!
Bourne: What is the special import of zircon-encrusted tweezers, your ever-prevalent metaphor?
Zappa: What'll you give me if I tell you?
Bourne: Five stars ...
Zappa: Five stars! Leonard Feather, ladies and gentlemen! Okay, you have to understand that the zircon is the ultimate symbol of cheapness, because it's the symbol of grandeur when applied to a small ad in a comic book. Did you ever see those zircon rings, fake diamonds? So whenever I see the word zircon, it just conjures up immense cheapness. Now, the tweezers -- a tweezer, as an object of sexual gratification, is the ultimate extension. If you have something hard to grab, the tweezer is handy. So the tweezer has many conceptual usages. And when you take any object and zircon-encrust it ... get the drift?
Bourne: Is there anything you fear?
Zappa: If I did, I wouldn't tell you.
Bourne: Do you consider yourself a genius?
Bourne: You just know it.
Bourne: You once said to me what you thought about your legacy to music or whatever, that you figured all that people will remember of you was the toilet poster. Has anything changed your opinion on that since then?
Bourne: That's a low self-image for a genius.
Zappa: You have to be realistic about these things. The toilet poster is durable. The concept of the zircon-encrusted tweezers is ephemeral. You understand?
Bourne: Isn't your music immortal?
Zappa: No, it's not. It has a half-life of approximately 300 years.