Interview From Hell
By Bill Forman
BAM (Bay Area Music Magazine), January 16 1987 issue 249
In which composer/musician/Barking Pumpkin record mogul Frank Zappa considers the relationships between business, technology, and the evil forces of repression. Bill Formann interrogates. Exhibit "A" photos by Robert Matheu.
Since Frank Zappa has basically despised the introductions and "fantasies" that have accompanied articles on him in the past, he's offered the opportunity, at this interview's end, to describe, in his own words, his environment, his clothing and any involuntary facial movements.
"Okay," he obliges, "I'm wearing a yellow shirt, I'm wearing some baggy Japanese pants, I'm wearing Reebok black tennis shoes and argyle socks which are light blue, light yellow, light pink and lavender. I'm sitting in a grey chair in my recording studio. My dog – one of my dogs, Doggus [sic], is sleeping over in the corner. It's 11:07 at night, and I just finished a meeting with a lawyer and three people from Virgin Records. The crew has just left, and when I get finished talking with you, I'll get to work on the digital editing for a little while and then I got four more interviews that start at 4:00 in the morning."
And what, Mr. Zappa, were the most extreme expressions or gestures that you made during the course of this interview?
"I tapped my foot three times."
For the record, Frank Zappa is the longtime leader of the Mothers Of Invention who has recently been seen almost exclusively in the company of his Synclavier, the computerized synth on which he recorded most of his new album, Jazz From Hell (released on his own Barking Pumpkin label and distributed through Capitol). When not composing, recording, or fixing up earlier albums for CD release, he continues to be an outspoken opponent of the various Washington Wives and used car evangelists who are out to save the world from rock music and any other potentially subversive discourse. The following interview contains bad words.
There's an ongoing belief that creative people aren't supposed to be businessmen and vice versa. Though you now have your own label, was there ever a point when you believed that?
No ... Because I never wanted to have to take a part-time job in order to support my artistic habit. In other words, I like the idea of earning my living from doing what I do as art.
And in order to do that ...
And in order to do that you have to learn certain mundane business skills that every other business guy has to know. And you have to do those mundane things, because basically it.. is difficult, if not impossible, to trust other people in the business world. I've been to court often enough to cite yards of examples about that kind of stuff. I don't enjoy doing it. It's not much fun to do the business side of it. But if you don't keep an eye on it; then you just have to live with the results.
Would you suggest that business people are inherently less trustworthy than non-business people?
No, I think that the business climate in the United States is such that – if there is such a thing as moral decay in the United States, it really should be described as ethical decay. And it's not the fault of the kids, it's the fault of the parents. And the ethical decay is a matter of people willing to accept cheating, willing to accept lying as a necessity of civilization. And I can't buy that. I think that it's possible to be civilized, not have to lie, not have to cheat, and not have to steal. I think when you get to that, you can really call yourself civilized. But the whole idea of screwing the other guy in business is something that is so widespread in the United States – I'm sure it is in other places too, but I'm not that familiar with business practices in other countries – but just from what I've seen in all different types of businesses in the United States, it's common.
Have you ever succumbed to that type of behavior, even in a minor way? Screwing people?
What about lying?
That doesn't mean I got a halo, but I don't like to conduct my business that way. I don't have to. Because I'm not dealing in volume. I don't have the same motivations as the other people who are doing it.
But would you still describe yourself as a businessman?
Well, I always have. I even said it during the '60s when it was the worst thing in the world to say. But I think that I'm a pretty honest person, and when somebody asks me a question, whether you like the answer or not, it's gonna be the real deal. I don't beat around the bush. And there's no way not to call yourself a businessman if you're dealing with things like units sold and packaging and specifying typefaces and just mundane garbage. That doesn't make me any better or any worse than anybody else because I say I'm a businessman, that's just a statement of fact. I have to do things that are of the business world.
Whereas other people who are in the music business, including Paul McCartney, who I had a conversation with one time, they act like [adopts astonished Brit accent], "How can you do business? You should have someone doing those things for you!" And sometimes you do have to have people doing those things for you, but then you find out that they're not always too trustworthy. And that's why lawsuits occur.
Do you think of yourself in terms of different divisions, say Zappa the guitarist vs. Zappa the synthesist vs. Zappa the bandleader ...
On yeah, it is very compartmentalized. And it has to be. The type of thought processes that you have to engage in in order to type on the Synclavier is a completely different story than talking on the telephone to do an interview or dealing with an art director to put a package together. I mean, you have to be a different person in order to do each of those types of jobs efficiently. Because I don't think that the art director that I'm gonna talk to wants to have a conversation with the guy who's typing on that Synclavier. He doesn't want to know that guy. And I have to be able to talk to him in a language that he can understand in order to get a job done.
Do you find that the different activities have different degrees of profitability, and that sometimes they're at odds with each other? For instance, you'd like to spend all your time composing, but you have to tour. Or you have to put out a record when you want to do something else. Is there ever a point where the needs of the business get in the way of the needs of the artist?
Well, the biggest problem that I have is that if I want to do something with film or with symphony orchestras or something like that – which are all high ticket items – in order to do anything in those realms, I'm completely self-financed. Money doesn't come from the sky for this shit. I get income from various projects that I do and then it's reinvested either into equipment, in salaries for the people who work here at the studio, and in resources to make the next object.
So you don't have any stockholders?
Nope. There's no funding support for what I do other than what the consumers pay for any of the objects that are released. And then a certain portion of that goes into household overhead and the rest of it goes into the next item.
What about grant money?
Who in the fuck is gonna give me grant money? You know what kind of people get grants ... Grants baffle me. I've never applied for a grant and I hope I never have to, because that means that a committee someplace has to agree among themselves that your life is worthwhile and that you should be encouraged to stay alive and encouraged to work. And I refuse to submit myself to that kind of scrutiny from those kinds of people.
When did that stop?
Oh, that stopped fight about the time of Wild Man Fisher. You spend three months of your life working on something like that, with the kind of problems that I had afterwards with Wild Man Fisher, it seems to be hardly worth the time. I don't even like producing other people's records, even though it pays great and it's really not that hard work, but I just can't enjoy it.
What were the problems with Wild Man Fisher?
Well, basically, the man is certifiably insane. He's been in mental institutions over and over. He was guaranteed a certain amount of money for making this record, and that amount of money was paid to him on a weekly basis out of our office. But Larry would get his money and walk out the door and be back two hours later and say he lost it. And when he couldn't get another pay check right then he would go ff on these rampages. So he wound up doing interviews with people saying that I was an asshole and that I was cheating him and doing all this shit, and there's no fucking way.
I spent three months working for him. Producing an album for him. Taking something that he, as an individual and as a street musician, did and making an object out of it that gave him a certain amount of national notoriety.
What made you decide to do it?
Because I'd met him I guess about a month before we cut our first album and I thought he was something that ought to be recorded. I tried to get Tom Wilson, the guy who produced Freak Out!, to sign him to a contract. I brought him into the studio and introduced him to Wilson. You know what I he did? He ran around like a maniac and started throwing microphones over the fucking room. And they threw him out. And Wilson looked at me like/was out of my mind. But I always thought that there was something there that should have been on record, and I'm glad I made the record, but I hope I never have to do another one.
Do you feel that you got what you want out of the album?
Sure, I think that it's a pretty good portrait of the kind of guy that he is, and a good example of the songs that he had made up. He's a unique guy, he needed to have a record made for him. It doesn't mean it has to sell as many copies as Michael Jackson, but' somebody would be interested in that. And somebody had to take the time and take the risk and put it together. I mean, I spent the money to make the record. Now who's crazy, him or me?
I assume Beefheart was easier to work with?
To a degree, yeah.
What were the problems there? What made you stop working together?
Well, basically, at the time that the Trout Mask Replica album was done – he had a bad habit, which was anytime somebody stuck a piece of paper in front of him, he signed his name on it. And he had sold himself to so many different people in so many different corners of the business, I was pretty well tangled up. And I took the chance, in spite of the fact that there might have been some question as to who actually was entitled to his services contractually, I do the Trout Mask Replica album. And then he went off and I think he got a contract with Warner Brothers and 1 did something for them. And he got into a bunch more problems, more legal entanglements. And at the time that we did Bongo Fury, he was flat broke. There was no way for him to record for anybody. He was stuck. So he did one tour with my band, and made that album, and then I haven't worked with him since that time.
Are you still in touch with him?
No. Last time I saw him, he dropped by one of the rehearsals about four or five, it must have been six years ago, and he stopped by to borrow something. But I haven't seen him. I haven't talked with him.
Does he not have a telephone?
I don't know.
So I guess you don't qualify as friends at this point.
Yeah, I would say that's probably an accurate way of describing it. But I wouldn't single him out in that regard, because I don't make social calls to anybody.
So you're pretty insular, just your family and the people you're working with at the time?
Yeah, basically there isn't any spare time. I mean, the amount of work that I do, and the amount of enjoyment I get out of doing the work, is pretty great. And I'm not tempted to leave the house to go out and party or do anything like that. I mean, it's like what do I need to do that shit for?
Did you do a share of that in your time?
Usually the only time I'm gonna go out to bars or discos or anything like that is if I'm on the road. And if you have to choose between a hotel room and some place where there's some people, I'd think you'd have to be a real maniac not to go but where there's a little life going on. But once I'm off the road, I'm just here in the studio.
Are you a workaholic?
I suppose that would be a suitable technical name for it, but, you know, it has negative connotations.
There's one production peak that we forgot, which was the Grand Funk Railroad album. Was that a magical experience for you?
Well, it was different. I mean, let's say that somebody calls you up out of nowhere and says, if you were me, how would you like to produce an album for Grand Funk Railroad. I would classify that in the same way that I felt when the phone call came in to be on What's My Line?. It's so absurd that you have to do it.
You were on What's My Line?
Sure. You know, I've been invited to do Hollywood Squares. I didn't do that. I was invited to do The Dating Game. I turned that one down. But I thought What's My Line would be pretty funny.
For The Dating Game, would you have been choosing between three bachelorettes, or would you have been one of the three guys?
I don't know what they had in mind. See, I don't watch those shows so I wasn't overly enthusiastic about doing it.
That could have been one of your great mistakes.
[Sneers] Yeah. I was on Make Me Laugh one time.
I don't remember that.
You ever see that show before? Where comedians come up to you and they try to make you laugh. And if you don't laugh, a person in the audience wins money.
You must have earned a lot of money that day for people.
Yeah, I did, I cleaned up. Or they cleaned up.
What's this I hear about you vying for a talk show on the Fox network?
Well, I've been working toward getting a television show for the last six months, talking with a lot of different people. And I got a call about three weeks ago from Stuart Cornfeld, who was the guy who produced The Fly. And he works over at Fox, and somebody there had spoken to him to see whether or not I was interested in doing a show to come on after Joan. And basically, they wanted me to co-host it with Howard Stern – he's the controversial East Coast radio talk show guy that offends people all over the place. And I told them that I wasn't interested in co-hosting it.
But if it was your own show ...
If it was my own show, sure. I also had an offer from Showtime to do a once a week show, 11 to midnight on Fridays. But the amount of money that they were offering was insufficient to do what I had in mind, so we made a counterproposal to them and I'm still waiting to hear what's gonna happen with that.
What would you like to do if you had one?
I want to be able to do live music that sounds good, which is always hard on television, and to do talk and commentary that's ... direct.
Was the Joan Rivers appearance a sort of trial run for that?
No, they'd called me before that show went on the air.
How much do you get paid for an appearance like that?
Well, it's after scale, I think it's like 300 dollars or 400 dollars.
Oh. Well, that's more than you get paid for this, I guess.
Yeah, but you didn't offend my children.
What did she say about your children?
She just made some corny comment on the opening of the show. The audience didn't even laugh, it was really a dorky comment about Dweezil's name or something like that. Her writers should know better than that, because that was tried once before on Johnny Carson when some young brat pack actor – I can't remember who it was – went on there and started making fun of Dweezil's name and got a real negative reaction from the audience. Some people might think that that's really funny. But Dweezil ain't no joke, not his name or his person.
You have the Jazz From Hell album copyrighted against sampling as well as reproduction. If a sound of yours showed up on a Beastie Boys record, would you sue?
It would depend. The chances are very good though that I would, yeah.
Do you know people who've been ripped off in that way?
Oh sure, people take samples off CDs and records all the time. I don't do it. All the samples that I have were either supplied by the Synclavier company as part of the purchase of the equipment or were actually made here in my studio.
It's obvious from your last two albums that you're impressed with the capabilities of the Synclavier. Are there faults that you find with it?
The biggest fault is the cost, because in order for the machine to do everything that I want it to do, I simply can't afford a unit that has that amount of memory and extra gizmos connected to it. It really is an expensive piece of machinery.
You can get up to about a half million dollars on it, can't you?
In a blink of an eye.
How high have you gotten?
I'm up to about 265 right now.
You must have a high credit limit on your VISA.
No, it's cash.
Do you control it with a keyboard?
There's different ways to enter the data. You can put it in with the octapad, you know, the drum pad, play it in on the keyboard, type it in in computer language called Script, type it in while looking at the music printing, or type it in on the G-page. The only method that I don't use is the computer language Script. I use all the other techniques.
Typing it in would seem like a really strange way to make music. Did it take a while to adjust to it?
Well, only if you've never written musk by hand. And if you've done that, then you know that it's faster to do it this way.
Have you used guitar as a way of inputting data?
You have to use a special Synclavier guitar or another type of MIDI output guitar in order to enter data that way. And although I have strummed around on the Synclavier digital guitar, and have actually recorded some data that way, I don't own the device because, ultimately, it didn't suit my playing style. It felt clumsy to me. And so I didn't buy that device.
What's (engineer] Bob Rice's role in the process?
Basically he trims samples, keeps track of the catalogs, and types in the XBL, the computer language data. For example, recently he typed in from the handwritten music, the clarinet solo from "Mo's Vacation," the original lead sheet of "Inca Roads," things like that that have been sitting around. He knows how to type Script and XBL and I don't.
Why are you putting that stuff on computer?
Because it's never been played exactly perfect by a human being. And if you've written something, it's always nice to know what it really sounds like.
Is it really a significant improvement for you to hear it done through a computer perfectly?
But there's something to be said for the way a musician plays.
Well, it depends on the style of music that you're dealing with. For example, I don't think that computers are all that great for playing shuffles or blues. You know, there are certain things that people still excel at. But if you're writing technical music that has mathematical stuff going on in it, where it's difficult, if not impossible, for a human being to execute, then why not avail yourself of the technology to make it happen correctly? It's there, why not use it?
Even with your early work, did you get complaints from musicians that it was too difficult to play?
Well, when you write music for a musician, you have to write for his assets and for his liabilities, and so no one band that I've ever had could play 100 percent of the book that another band had played. For better or for worse. For example, the band with Mark and Howard – Flo & Eddie – the type of things that that band could do well in that vaudeville vein have never been duplicated by any other band that I've had, no matter how technical the band was. And by the same token, you could never get that band to play "The Black Page" or something like that, it just wasn't the particular style or forte of that group of musicians.
I've been, for a couple of decades now, in the business of writing for the specific needs of certain groups of musicians who happen to be working with me at the time. And you can't ask a person to perform stuff that is physically impossible for him to perform. So whatever an album sounds like is not only what I happen to be interested in at that particular period of time, but it also happens to be what those musicians who are available to me, and using that equipment that was available to me, what could be produced with those things. So you have to scale it to reality. Now I've been able to escape that type of reality with the Synclavier. Because whatever theoretical music I can come up with, so long as I can enter the data into the machine, it will play it back exactly as per the instruction.
If this technology had been available when you started out, do you think you would have been a more solitary musician aver the years?
Would you have formed bands at all?
No, not at all. In fact the only reason that I formed a band to begin with is – I started writing chamber music when I was 14, I didn't write a rock and roll song until I was in my twenties. And although I liked to listen to rock and roll music, I never even considered writing it. And all the time that I was writing the chamber music, I couldn't get it played anywhere. So if you're a composer, the only reason why you write music is because you wanna hear it. And if you can't get a chamber group to play it, and if rock and roll musicians are available, then you'll go in that direction, which is what I did. So if there was a Synclavier available when I was 14, and if I could have afforded the thing when I was 14 and I could have gone right to work on that, I doubt if I would have ever even gone on the road.
Do you think that you're happier for the experience?
Of what, going on the road? Well, I got more stories to tell. The only stories you got to tell about the Synclavier is about the time that it crashed when you were working on a sequence at 4:00 in the morning and it was really terrific and now nobody will ever hear it because it's gone forever. Those are the kind of stories that you get to tell about the Synclavier.
Those are pretty exciting stories.
But every computer operator has stories like that, about the program that they were working on and then there was a power failure or you pushed the wrong button and the memory dumped or whatever. That comes with the territory.
Working with a computerized synthesizer, do you find that vinyl is no longer the most desirable way to present your music? Will you be releasing CD-only recordings?
Well, vinyl never really was all that terrific a medium anyway. Some people cling to the belief that vinyl sounds better. I don't know. Not to my ear. I like it on digital tape myself.
There's supposed to be a warmth to vinyl.
Well, let's analyze what the word warmth is. Does warmth mean a lack of top end, or an extra bunch of frequency bulge at 300 cycles. What the fuck is warmth? How do you quantify that in audio terms?
Critics don't have to quantify in audio terms. We use words like warmth.
Yeah, well, you know, you can demonstrate pseudo-warmth in a technical way in the studio by using a broad-band equalizer and boosting things around 300 cycles, you know. It just gets pudgier. And you roll off the top end a little bit, and things start to sound, you know, warm! – if that's the kind of sound that you like. I don't particularly care for that sound.
What about shuffles and blues? How come you can't get computers to do that?
Well, you could attempt it, but it's so much extra work to make something sound convincingly shuffly or bluesy on the computer, when if you wanted to hear that kind of music, you'd just go out and do it. I like the idea of using the computer for the things that it does best, and not wasting my time with the other things that are easy for human beings to do.
I assume that reggae and funk would fit into those categories as well.
Yeah, the thing that the computers do that most people seem to like very much is generate perfect dance music. Because I don't think there's really been a live drummer heard on a record on the radio in the last six years.
But that's not something that you use it for though – perfect dance music.
No. We have a joke here at the studio. Bob Stone, the engineer, refers to some of my compositions as "near dance."
On the subject of censorship, is it true the RIAA fired the lobbyist who hired you to testify regarding the PMRC controversy?
The lobbyist that was hired by the RIAA was Bruce Bereano. He's a lawyer and a lobbyist, and he works for a whole bunch of different clients. He's a freelance guy. He makes about a half million dollars a year, has a real good reputation and he's an efficient operative in that field. And he was hired by the RIAA because, through the RIAA's own stupidity, in agreeing with the PMRC last November 1st, using the theory that if you give them an inch they'll take a mile, suddenly out of nowhere a piece of legislation appears in the state of Maryland, where somebody – taking their cue from the PMRC – decides to actually enact the law. The PMRC had always stated they didn't want legislation, but now somebody comes along and says they do want legislation, and furthermore, the same type of legislation was being examined in ten other states. This could have proved to be a real disaster for the record industry, because once laws like that get on the books, you've got endless grief at the retail level and in the courts. It could have been a real disaster.
So the RIAA decided they were going to fight it in Maryland, and they hired Bereano to fight it. And in the process of fighting it, because Bereano was so dose with all of the people in the Maryland state legislature, he was told by the head of the senate judiciary committee that – how did it go? – they weren't even going to have a hearing on the bill unless Bereano could get me to come there. And so Bereano called me, and I agreed to go there and testify. And when I did testify, I stated very dearly that I had nothing to do with the RIAA, even though Bereano was on their payroll.
Why did they want you specifically?
I got a dipping, I didn't even know about this Hung until I got a clipping from the Maryland newspaper. They specifically requested me. The State Senator requested me.
Do you have big fans in the Maryland State Senate?
Well, I was born in Baltimore. And, as a matter of fact, I do have a few in the Maryland State Senate. So the testimony was prefaced that I speak only as a private citizen. These are my opinions and in no way represent the RIAA, nor would they want me to. And the main disagreement that I have with the RIAA is two points. One is the absurd tactic of agreeing with the PMRC on something which has absolutely no scientific substance, which is that rock and roll lyrics cause antisocial behavior. Number two is that by kissing the ass of these wives of all the people in government, that somehow they were gonna grease the chute for their legislation.
The home taping legislation.
Yeah, I mean, totally absurd concepts to live your life by, I think. And I don't believe that I'm alone in that opinion, even within the record industry. I was just talking with a guy here today with Virgin Records. He says it's totally implausible, that the record industry should think that by throwing a bone to the PMRC that all is going to go well for their legislation. It's not going to happen. And secondly, I disagree with the need for the blank tape tax legislation itself. Because I think that the record industry estimate, which is from a poll that they funded themselves, that states the record industry loses $650 million a year through home taping – I think they've even inflated the figure higher than that this year – I mink that that's really stretching the point. And to want to impose this extra surcharge under the guise of helping the artists who are being ripped off, is a complete fraud.
Given the situation, who do you have a lower opinion of, the senators and their wives, or the RIAA?
Definitely it goes to the senators and their wives. It's not that I hate the RIAA so much. It's just that I think it's really a cop-out to agree to putting warning labels on records. One, they are not necessary. Two, giving in to these women an inch, it's like doing business with a terrorist. Giving them this thing as a ransom encourages them to do even more. And, you see, they're back this year, asking to have all the loopholes closed up in the agreement. The agreement itself was between the RIAA and PMRC, okay? An agreement between a non-governmental agency with no authority and a lobbying organization which does not represent everybody who is in the record business. And the agreement itself was full of holes. It stated that any artist who had contractual control over his own packaging was free to ignore the understanding. So if you can control your album cover, there's no way in the world that this agreement makes you liable to put a sticker on it. And the judgment of what is to be deemed explicit is completely out of the hands of the women. It is still left up to the record companies. This is right off of the Associated Press wire copy, that I still got from last November.
I mean, the thing is virtually unenforceable. Now they come back this year and they wanna close the so-called loopholes in the agreement. And the reason that they wanna close them is that people are still putting out records that they don't like, but apparently they're being put out on independent labels, which is when most of them were coming from before. And the independent labels aren't party to this agreement. So how are you supposed to make these indies fall into line? The trick is that in many cases independents are distributed by majors, so they're hoping to apply pressure to everybody else. I mean, it really seems endless. Its a bunch of endless meddling by people who I do not believe are well intentioned. I don't think that the motives of the national PTA and the PMRC are all that holy.
One thing that's strange about their tactics is that by virtue of supposedly trying to suppress this kind of discourse, they end up perpetuating it further, either by reading it into congressional record, or making a group like WASP more famous, or by forcing it to be printed on the back of the covers.
Yeah, but you gotta get down to the basic thing. There's no proof that any word that you hear on a record is gonna turn you into a social liability or make you go to Hell. That premise is wrong. And starting from that wrong premise and working their way outward they have created something that last year was verging on hysteria.
Didn't you once have a film company and get busted ma sort of sting operation for pornography? Is that true?
No, what happened with that was I had a recording studio in Cucamonga, California. I went to an auction at a place called the FK Rocket Studios in Hollywood. This was 1962. And for $50, I bought a whole bunch of movie sets. They just wanted to get rid of this stuff, and so I trucked it out of there and brought it back to Cucamonga and decided – well, what the fuck? – I'll make an independent movie. So I set up and tried to shoot a movie out there and the name of the movie was Captain Beefheart Vs. The Grunt People.
And about that time, I got a divorce and moved out of my house in Ontario and moved into the studio. I was living in a recording studio and I had a sign on the door that I had gotten from this auction that said TV PICTURES. And this guy comes to my door and introduces himself as a used car salesman and says that some of the boys are having a party next week and they wanted to have a movie for their party. And he gave me a list of everything that they wanted to have included in this film. And so, I said, well, I don't know whether I can accommodate you with what you're looking for, but if you just want to have some laughs at a used car salesman party, why don't you just use a tape instead. And so he agreed that he was going to pay $100 for a tape, and he specified all these events that he wanted to take place in the tape.
I said, sure, no problem, and pick it up tomorrow. And I made this tape which was no more offensive man side four of the Freak Out! album, and the guy shows up and hands me $50. And I said, well, you know the deal was for $100 so you do not have a sale. And as soon as I said that, the fucking door swings open, flashbulbs go off, handcuffs all over the place, it was, you know, a completely set-up ridiculous small town vice scam. And I had no idea that the guy was a vice officer. I had no idea that such things existed. I'd never even gotten a fucking parking ticket.
So do you see similarities between those people and the would-be regulators you're confronting now?
I think that the motivations may be similar, and the ignorance may be similar, but the tactics are slightly different.
How did that affect you after it happened?
Well, it certainly wakes you up to what the law is really about in the United States, because at the time that I was arrested, I was totally broke and my father had just had a heart attack and I didn't have any money for a lawyer. He had to go and get a loan from a bank in order to get a lawyer to defend me, and the lawyer didn't really want to fight the case, though they really had nothing on me at all. It was completely illegal entrapment. In fact, I went to the ACLU and asked them to take the case, they wouldn't touch it. So I haven't been all that enthralled with them since that period of time. The lawyer's best advice to me was to plead nolo contendre, which is no contest, and that would be done with it. But I was being prosecuted by this right-wing 26-year-old Assistant DA from San Bernardino County, who insisted that I must serve time for this heinous crime against nature. And you know, I actually went to jail for this.
For how long?
They gave me a six month sentence with all but ten days suspended. And three years probation. For doing nothing. And that certainly has given me a different slant on what the law is really about in the United States, especially people connected with that aspect of it.
What jail were you in?
San Bernardino County Jail.
Were you in your own cell?
Oh no, I was in there with three other guys. It's four guys to a cell, Tank C.
What were they in for?
One guy was awaiting extradition on a jaywalking ticket from Beverly Hills, if you can believe that. He'd been in jail for two weeks, waiting to be extradited from San Bernardino to Beverly Hills on a jaywalking ticket, swear to God.
America with a K. Who else?
Well there was a guy in there they called Slick, who was an enormous black guy who was in jail for stealing copper.
Yeah. Let me tell you how he was going to steal the copper. See, out in San Bernardino they have this place that is a used metal place, like they buy any kind of metal, they smelt it down. It's like a junk dealer. And what a lot of the hobos out there would do, is go to a box car with a screwdriver and they would unscrew the brake shoes from the box car, which happened to be pure copper, and they would go and sell copper brake shoes to this place and pick up a couple of bucks and go buy some wine.
So apparently the guy had already done that a couple of times. But he figures, well, what do they make wire out of? Why, it's copper! And where is the biggest wire that you can find? Why the phone company's got it – a whole big roll of this shit. And he and a guy had broken into this compound where they store those huge rolls of copper wire, and the idea was – there was a chain link fence around this place, and they were gonna put an axle through the roll, and tie-some rope to that, and pull it, and roll the roll over the chain link fence and roll it away, burn the insulation off the wire, and then sell the wire. That was the plan. The guy got over the fence and got caught by a dog and his buddy ran away. And so he was in there for stealing copper.
But what about those brake shoes? That means that the brakes don't work ...
Does that lead to trouble?
Um hmm, that leads to a major train wreck.
He doesn't know of any train wrecks that he personally caused?
Well, he certainly wasn't talking about 'em. There was a couple of other guys whose names I don't remember. But these guys would eat anything. And I'm telling you, you've gotta have a cast iron stomach to survive the food in the San Bernardino County Jail. When in jail, and when someone says tonight we're having chop suey, run the other way! That is some dangerous shit. And these guys would eat everyone's chop suey. I sat there and watched them. People would take their trays over and just pile – you only had a certain amount of time to eat this stuff – and they would just dump their trays in these guys' trays. They must have had tapeworm or something. And they would just wheel and deal on this chop suey.
One morning they gave me a bowl of Cream Of Wheat, and in handing it through the cell, the bowl dropped. It was like a little aluminum bowl and the Cream Of Wheat had hardened into the bowl and it flopped over. And I saw the bottom of the Cream Of Wheat, and there was a cockroach about as big as my thumb embedded in the Cream Of Wheat. So I pulled it out – I didn't eat the Cream Of Wheat – but I pulled it out and I wrote a letter and included the roach in it, you know, with a little review of the food in the jail. The jail censor caught the letter, and brought it back and threatened me with solitary confinement for the rest of my stay if I ever tried anything else like that. They just didn't want the rest of the world to know how good the cuisine was.
Did that whole experience have any effect on your decision to use "off color" material ...
I don't believe the material I write is off color, because I don't believe that language is a matter of obscenity. I just don't; that's my philosophy. And you can be offended by it and the guy next door can be offended by it, but I believe that I have the right to say what I have to say the way I feel is most efficient to say it.
And what compels you to use that sort of language, if you'll excuse the senate investigating committee line of questioning?
The thing that compels me to use it is that it's direct and it gets the point across faster than any other word in the English language. I try not to beat around the bush about stuff, which is something that everybody in government does. They earn their living by beating around the bush until there's no bush left. And then, you know, remember who paid for the bush. It was the guy who voted for the asshole. So anything that doesn't beat around the bush tends to threaten the lifestyle of people in politics. That's one of the reasons that they get upset about it. They can't stand direct questions and answers. They fucking can't stand it.
Are you surprised that the music industry has come under this kind of attack? Do you think it's really that radical? It seems to do its own share of censoring.
It's all about dollars. Any industry that's that large and, you know, a multimillion dollar business, certainly is not going to escape the purview of the United States government. Warner Brothers has their own personal lobbyist in Washington. The RIAA is moving their office to Washington. You know, it's a business, and in order to do huge business like that on an international level-and keep those billions rolling in, you need government cooperation. And whenever you need the government to do something for you, they're going to want to extract their pound of flesh. And it's no coincidence that the wife of the Secretary Of Treasury is a member of the PMRC.
Do you think that the record industry is more conservative now than it was when you were working for mainstream labels.
That would be a mild way of putting it. It's not conservative, it's chickenshit.
And it wasn't back then?
Back then, there were a few oddball guys working at different companies who would take a chance, and would take that chance because the chance was worth taking because it was fun to take it. And that's the big difference between then and now. I mean, who's taking a chance anymore? A chance on what? Why bother? You know? It's like it's all yuppied out.
What about either the hardcore punk or hardcore metal scenes?
I think it's good that it exists for the people who like to consume it. I'm not basically a consumer of any kind of pop music. I don't listen to it, but I wouldn't deny anybody the right to listen to any kind of music they want to hear. Go out mere and thrash it out.
You mentioned Warner Brothers having a lobbyist. Would you say that they're more conservative today than they were back then?
I haven't had anything to do with them for years, so I don't know what the conservative factor is now versus back then. I would say that my comments about the record industry are not just directed at them, but the whole business in general. The major exceptions are the independent labels – the rap record labels and punk labels and things like that that have always existed, they're always lurking around somewhere. But the mainstream companies have got a sales philosophy that has to deal in large volume. It's a volume business.
That's right. It's exactly like shoes. And so in order to do something in volume, it has to be the lowest common denominator, and that's the thing that's most irritating about it, because lowest common denominator is never the best possible music.