He's Only 38 and He Knows How to Nasty
By Clark Peterson
From Relix magazine, Vol. 6 No. 5, Nov. 1979
There's no better celebrity contestant for TV's "Make Me Laugh" than Frank Zappa, who taped an appearance on the show that aired in September. Zappa didn't crack the barest hint of a smile during the taping, nor, for that matter, during our interview recently at his Hollywood Hills home. If his eyes could have shot daggers, I would have been shishkebobbed faster than you can say, "Suzy Creamcheese." Zappa holds journalists in about the same regard as most people do washroom attendants.
If you consider that Zappa is embroiled in a lawsuit against his former manager, Herb Cohen, and former record company, Warner Brothers, you can understand his no-smile expression. But his latest album, Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa Records), and the single, "Dancin' Fool," are extremely popular, and he has another album, Joe's Garage , due. He also has to look forward to a new recording studio being built next door to his pink and blue house. And recently, a fourth child joined his three other kids: Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Ahmet Rodan.
When I arrived for the interview, Zappa, 38, had just decided to cancel his proposed tour for the fall, pleading exhaustion. He had just let his wife, Gail, cut his hair short "because I woke up one day and felt like cutting it." After the interview was over and we got into the car so I could be dropped off at Schwab's drug store, Zappa explained the haircut in more detail. "I cut it so people would stop asking me stupid questions about the '60s!" he thundered, punctuating this remark with a slammed door. But as I got out of the car five minutes later, he managed a "Have a nice trip." I guess it was just my imagination that I heard the word "asshole" over the whine of his tires.
I'm interested in your album from 1968, We're Only In It For The Money, with the Mothers of Invention. Bill Graham says that musicians have always been in it for the money but it's only recently that they've admitted it. Do you think musicians have always been in it for the money and just tried to disguise it?"
I wouldn't say that was true, because I make a distinction between different types of music.
But back in the '60s, there was an attitude of 'We're for the people, man, and people like Bill Graham are only in it for the money.'
I think what you're trying to do is suit the answer to fit the point you're trying to make as a person. The real answer is, if a person decides he wants to play a harp, I don't think he does that because he wants to make money. If a person decides he wants to play an oboe, he doesn't do that because he wants to make money. Believe it or not, there are some guitar players who pick up the instrument because they want to make music and not money. But you, being a person from the rock and roll journalistic profession, tend to view things in a bit different way. You tend to lump all musicians together as these people who just want to make money. I'm here to tell you that there are many of them who really do only want to make money, but I don't think of them as musicians.
Are you suing the Anti-Defamation League for their protest to the FCC over "Jewish Princess," the song you wrote which they consider anti-Semitic?
There's no suit. The ADL is a noisemaking organization that tries to apply pressure on people in order to manufacture a stereotype image of Jews that suits their idea of a good time. They go around claiming that other people are saying things that produce stereotype images of Jews. What they're really about is manufacturing a freeze-dried, totally perfect image of a Jew. It's an organization paid for by Jewish people. Their job is to make sure that everybody who is not a Jew will always perceive Jews in just this one special, perfect way. This is wrong. It's as wrong as your assuming that all musicians are the same. There's all different kinds of Jews, too.
Did you have your lawyer call them for an apology?
I told them, yeah. I called them up and demanded an apology. I knew I wasn't going to get it, but I'm not going to take any bull from them. I don't believe in anybody who tries to control PR that way. I think it's as dangerous as the things the Nazis did and just as fake.
Do you expect a similar uproar with your forthcoming song about oral sex, "Catholic Girls?"
No, but I didn't expect one with "Jewish Princess" either. You see, when you have an organization like that, their first duty is to prove to themselves that they need to exist. If it hadn't been me, it would have been somebody else they would have been talking about in the newspapers. I just came along and was their meat for that month.
I saw your Him A Token Of My Extreme [Sic] on the Mike Douglas Show once. I hope it comes out some day; people would love it.
People would love it, but the networks weren't interested in it. I tried for almost two years to get some American TV network interested in it. It's never been shown in the U.S. in its entirety. Little clips have been shown in other places – just a few seconds here and there – but the whole show is an hour long. It's been shown in its entirety in France, Germany and Switzerland.
Is there anyone who comes to mind whom you respect in the music business? Tom Waits, for instance?
I don't disrespect him, but I wouldn't say he's an idol or anything. I don't usually think about people in the music business.
Isn't there anyone with integrity and artistic merit?
The laws of averages indicate that the chances are there might be people like that, but I don't know any. I don't hang out with music business people; I don't hang out with people, period. I stay home. There may be people out there who are fantastic, but I don't know anything about 'em.
If you hadn't been a musician, would a career like Woody Allen's been a good thing to pursue?
If I hadn't been a musician, I would have been a chemist. That was the first thing I was interested in.
From reading some interviews you've done, it seems you don't respect writers.
It's not that I don't respect them; I treat them the way they treat me. The journalistic profession is a highly over-rated piece of fantasy. What I do respect is the fact that everyone is entitled to earn a living. The reason you're here is because this is your job, and the reason I'm here is because this is my job. Aside from that, the process of being interviewed is highly unnatural. I just told the interviewers who were here before you came, lit is probably more natural to perform sex with a sea urchin than to be interviewed,' because people don't ordinarily talk to each other this way. You get to dress up like an interviewer and I get to dress up like a guy sitting around the house answering questions. You have to act like a person asking questions, and I have to act like a person answering questions. It's totally fake. Then you've got to write it down.
It's not totally fake. I dress this way normally and ...
Well, I'm using that metaphorically. I'm not saying that that's an interviewer costume you've got on. The interviewer costume is probably slightly more flamboyant.
I'm here because I'm a fan, too. I don't interview people I hate, like Kiss.
I don't know whether to be flattered by that or not. The fact is, unless I've met them before or done an interview with them, every interviewer comes here basing their opinion of me and my work on things they've read by other people. Most of it is totally irrelevant to who and what I am. They walk in the door seeking a method by which they can reinforce conclusions they've already arrived at. That's usually what happens. I have to talk my way around things people already believe. The way human nature works, you're never going to be convinced of anything; nobody ever changes your mind. Everybody believes inside of themselves that they are right‹that they've got it wired. If you ever agree with someone, it's only because you already agreed with them before they opened their mouth ... So, bearing that in mind, much of the interviewing process is an exercise in futility.
Have you been misquoted?
Oh yeah. Totally misquoted. I don't think writers respect me because if they did, they'd write down exactly what I said. I talk really good and I know what I'm talking about. If I don't know what I'm talking about, I keep my mouth shut. When I say something, I mean it. I say it as clearly as I can. There's two kinds of interviews: there's the kind of guy who tapes it and transcribes it and it's question and answer, and the errors occur either because of bad transcription or misspelled words or things like that that change meanings; the other guy comes in and tapes it and listens to the tape, but what he really wants to do is (in a phony, AM disc jockey voice) Write an Article with a capital W and a capital A, so the interview itself is just an excuse for the guy to become a writer. Most of the people in this business aren't qualified to own or operate a typewriter, and certainly shouldn't be allowed to enforce their emotional freight on the poor people who have to read this stuff. They're using my name to draw attention to an article which tells you little or nothing about me, but tells you an awful lot about the hang-ups of the writer...
Switching the subject, do you vote?
No. During the elections, I had two good excuses for not voting: one was that I was usually on the road. November is in the middle of my touring season; the other is if I'm not given a choice, I don't see any reason to vote even if I was home. Choosing between the lesser of two evils or two nebbishes doesn't make any difference either way.
Can life ever get better if people don't vote?
It depends. Politics isn't the answer to everything. That's like the 1,000 clowns at the circus who get out of the tiny car, and you're supposed to be amazed. That's what politics is. They don't really stick their heads in the tiger's mouth. Politics is a bunch of show and blow for people who don't understand. The real decisions are not conducted at the polling place; they're conducted over a glass of Perrier in some luxurious resort where people with lots of bucks decide how they're going to chop up the world. We're witnessing the President in an extremely impotent position just because somebody thousands of miles away wants to raise the price of a few, basic raw materials that are necessary to U.S. industry. He can't please everybody. He can't please the Arabs and he can't make things any better for the U.S. industrial guys who are putting pressure on him. The people who voted him in are scratching their heads and going, "What's he going to do for us?" It's not just that Carter is a nerd. I don't think that anybody could be in that chair and do anything better right now. It makes it slightly worse that Carter is in there because he looks worse when he screws up.
It's all beyond his control and any other President's control?
Put it this way: How much money do you think it takes to become President? Nixon's campaign was what? $25 million? That didn't come out of his bank account, and it didn't come from $1 donations from rank-and-file Republicans either. Anybody who gets into that office does so owing a lot of important people a lot of favors because they helped get you there ... So if he goes in there and hoses off everybody who gave him the money which got him in, the chances are they will do something naughty to his body.
Why don't you lend your name to any causes? Aren't there any worth it?
I haven't seen one. The biggest thing wrong with causes is the people at the head of them. They're like writers because they're not involved with the cause itself but to make themselves more grand. Student leaders used to get up in the '60s and rant and rave. It was pathetic. These people weren't prepared to lead or make wise decisions if they had achieved their goals. If they had been able to take over, the world would have been a lot worse. They're totally incompetent.
If you have whales going extinct, let's say, you can either join the cause or not. What's the alternative?
There are other ways. Joining the cause doesn't mean the objective will be achieved. Who's to say that the methods of the people in that movement are the most efficient to achieve those results? Even if you agree with the premise of saving whales, do you believe that by merely sending a few dollars to the cause or marching in a parade or something, the whales are going to be saved? The world doesn't work that way. It's based on economics; when it's profitable for someone not to kill whales, then they won't be killed.
If you believed in a cause, how would you further those ends?
I would try to find something that was efficient in achieving the result desired, and something more suited to the abilities I have as a person. I'm not a rank-and-file guy. I don't go to a meeting and say, 'Yeah!" when a guy makes an inflammatory statement during a speech. I don't carry placards around in the street, and I don't send two bucks in to get a sticker for my car. It doesn't do anything. People are being sucked into this stuff. They're assuaging their consciences by sending in a few dollars. Every time someone says, "Whales," they get a tear in their eye. This is stupid. Meanwhile, money is going to the cause, and who knows where it goes? Give me an example of any cause in the last twelve years that achieved its ends using the methods that causes use.
You could say the anti-war movement got us out of Vietnam?
You really believe that? We didn't get out of there because some jerk was walking around the street with a peace sign. It was not economically feasible to continue it... It's got nothing to do with how many people hate the war. But if it converts into money, then the people who really operate things will take that into consideration.
If there was a cause you believed in, would you write a song about it? I assume that's what you're best designed for.
No. I'm designed to write music and not to put it in the employment of political action.
If there were no assholes left in the world, would you be out of a job? Would you have any more satire to write?
That's a rather rambunctious statement. That's presuming that the only thing I write about is assholes.
(coaxing) Come on. You brought it up; now follow it out. You're going to wind up with an ice cream cone on your forehead on this one. Are you being cute with me or what? The only thing I write about is assholes‹is that what you're trying to tell me? What do you think?
You'd find something else to write about. What would it be?
That's very good. If the day comes when there are no assholes left in the world, you can believe I will come up with something else to talk about. But I don't think that day will come because God, in his infinite wisdom, has provided us with an endless supply of assholes. They're here to stay. The asshole is a natural phenomenon. All the epoxy in the world won't seal these assholes.
Do you think that critics are right when they say there is filler on Sheik Yerbouti, especially the long instrumentals?
You mean guitar solos. There are definitely people who don't like the way I play guitar. They can go screw themselves. There are also reviews of the album saying that those are the best things on it. If you base your life on what reviewers say about your work, then you're going to be in a sad state of affairs. I understand the motivation for writing the reviews‹usually economic. There are all kinds of possibilities, but the fact remains that what they write is their business and what I do is mine. The fact that they described an act that I have written or performed on a record in such a way does not alter the actual content or intent of the act. If you looked at a camera and told me it was an umbrella, you could be definitely convinced it was an umbrella but I might know different. You might be the guy who was writing it down and maybe a million people read your analysis of the umbrella and thought it was an umbrella because you said so, but it's not an umbrella.
You've signed L. Shankar to your label, Zappa Records. Will you lose money on him?
No, there'll probably be enough people who like him. I'm in the business of staying in business. I'm an endangered species, and I have to protect myself and make surer continue making music. I'm an endangered species because I'm the kind of guy who does what he thinks ought to be done and doesn't too much give a damn whether or not anyone else likes it.
How have you managed to put out so much music over the years? Most groups only put out one album a year.
I don't know how many albums I've got out now [well over 20] and that represents 2% of what I have on tape. Those other people you mentioned are probably merely inhaling their lifestyle.
Ever consider becoming a guru?
You could have something as legitimate as anything by Maharaji Ji.
I'd have something more legitimate. I'd have lots of followers and make lots of money and do 'em a lot of good. I could be tax exempt. I could deliver where they don't. You've convinced me; I think I'll do it.
What do you think of someone following Sri Chinmoy?
Obviously, a person would have a problem that leads him to seek advice of that nature, and he has other problems that lead him to accept that advice and live by it. If his problems go away, then being exposed to this stimulation was the right thing. If they don't go away, then he did the wrong thing and somebody else made a lot of bucks. Who knows? The problem that they try to get rid of is usually not the problem they talk about; it's usually something they won't even admit to themselves. They seek some acceptable physical manifestation of help. Today if you have a problem, it is more acceptable to go to some bogus quack with a robe on and some phony mental paraphernalia, than to say you're going to a psychiatrist or psychologist. At one time it was fashionable to go to a shrink, but who needs a shrink when you can join something exciting where some guy calls you an asshole for a couple hours? Or you can go to one of these expensive camps where you play children's games and touch each other. As far as I'm concerned, it's total nonsense. But if that's the way you want to live your life, go ahead. I'm not here to regulate anyone's behavior. By the same token, I have the right to feel about it the way I do. I find it somewhat humorous but mostly disgusting.
Does the answer come from within?
What answer? What question?
The answer to how to live your life.
Sure. Ultimately, it does.
Paul Kantner says he doesn't feel the need for fulfillment, just the search. Do you feel the same way?
(sarcastically) I'm not that metaphysical kind of a guy. I don't talk about fulfillment and searching and all that. That's for people from San Francisco. That's all they care about up there. They have so much brain damage from all the LSD tests the government did on them that they can't even talk English anymore. They're swimming around in pools of metaphors and cosmic debris.
Aren't you searching for fulfillment or anything?
Hell No! Do I look like Sherlock Holmes?
Could you elaborate on this theory of yours that San Francisco was used for LSD tests by the government in 1967?
I think it was used as a testing ground for chemical experiments just the same way that San Jose was used as a testing ground for germ warfare experiments. I saw a thing on TV where one guy's father died as a result of the germs that had been put in the San Jose area, and he was suing the government. I saw it once and never heard about it again.
It's like the G.I. who was given LSD and now has mental problems. "60 Minutes" did a segment on him.
Right. Where do you think it comes from? The sky? You think the dove of peace flies down with a tab of acid in its beak and suddenly the world is turned on. No. Guys with little white smocks in a laboratory working with huge budgets provided by somebody's government developed these chemicals, and they need to be tested. You can't test them all in prison or the Army. Sometimes you have to test them in a city, and a city with certain demographics. San Francisco was perfect, especially with those concentration camps (from World War II) nearby in case the thing screwed up.
What do you have against running?
It's stupid to run. I think it's stupid to wear jogging clothes and it's stupid to become part of a movement. Anything that makes you conform to a popular phenomenon at the time it's going on is stupid behavior and cowardly behavior. There are exceptions in nature. You may be the one person on Earth who's running because he really loves to run. There are freaks like this, you know‹a two-headed call at the carnival. But in general when a movement or fad comes along, it gets large numbers of people to perform the cowardly act of ganging up with other similarly afraid people, hovering together in these little clusters and hoping because there's so many of them doing the same thing that the real world will go away. This is stupid.
Isn't it important to exercise?
You're asking me as a physician? From a medical point of view, it probably is wonderful. I don't know if it's the right thing to do and whether the body can survive without running.
You couldn't just lie around all day It wouldn't be healthy.
You could if you were King Farouk! I don't see any medical evidence that people die from lying around. There probably is some but this isn't my realm of expertise. For my taste, the best exercise you can get is sex. It's also a lot more elevating than chemical experiences.