It's all in self-defence
By Jonathan Green
Friends, 1969 November 22
Surrounded by The Business, eating through all the courses of a 'luncheon', gradually accumulating more and more different varieties of food and drink inside – it's hardly the ideal place for an interview. Especially if the interview is with iconoclast supreme – Frank Zappa.
Zappa has earned, or perhaps had foisted on him, the reputation as the King of Freaks. Yet his conversation, in marked contrast to his friend Captain Beefheart, is remarkably earth bound for one who the Captain has described as a Martian.
For a start, Zappa is an amazing businessman; he doesn't disdain the non-musical side of pop, in the way that many rock artists do. His current visit, with Beefheart, to England was for the sole purpose of concluding a deal between CBS and his label 'Straight'.
Unfortunately for our conversation, Zappa was beset by the hordes. In what was laughingly called 'The Clinic' he and the Captain were supposed to entertain the ranks of press, business and so on, who poured, apparently without a break, into the interview area.
We talked roughly from the steak to the brandy. And then it was too late to continue. Urgent hands and voices grabbed at the 'stars' and the show went on. What comes below is the Rolling Stone portion of the Clinic.
Dr. Z prescribes a mean script ...
There were this group of people from Paris who put the shit on this festival mainly because they were scared to death of having large numbers in that city. So these guys who wanted to put the festival on just refused to quit and they finally wound up choosing a cow pasture about two hours out of Brussels. A lot of fog and I guess it must have been twenty or thirty degrees out there, it was really miserable, a few tents and the people began to turn up from nowhere and they turned on the PA and that worked, and they turned on the lights and they worked, and the groups actually began to play and by God they had a pop festival. And then they looked at it and realised that they had to keep on for five days. I was asked to join the festival. They first of all asked for the Mothers to play but there weren't any Mothers at that time, so Pierre Lotez, who I had known for some time, asked me to co-host the festival, but when I arrived there I found that most of the people spoke French and they wouldn't know what the fuck I was talking about so it was useless for me to introduce the groups. So Pierre suggested that I might play with some of the groups. But I was at a great disadvantage because I didn't have my own guitar and I had to use other people's guitars and the amps that were around for everyone at the festival to use and they kept blowing up and fucking up and on top of that some of the groups found it a little difficult to relate to what I was playing. Cause, if you have a group that has certain arrangements and sets that they play every night it's difficult to stick in an alien element that isn't part of the set up. The audience and the reviewer forget about those variables-perhaps seeming a little anxious to prove that I was a crappy guitar player.
First of all there is a wider and larger void (void is exactly the word) between what I play on the guitar and what I write on paper. The intent is basically different. When I get a guitar in my hands what I want to express is what I'm thinking right at that moment, the chord progression that happens to be going by, and eighty per cent of the time I can manage to project what is happening. I'm a composer who plays the guitar, not a guitar player who is out there doing his reputation on the thing and my intent to what I'm trying to do on the instrument involve not just the individual notes but the overall sound of what I'm doing. So wide with so much inside and narrowing down so ... and it's like drawing pictures with it. I try to keep it as spontaneous as possible. I'm really limited when I'm handed a guitar with strings an inch off the finger board designed that way to suit another guitar player's hands. And being plugged into an amplifier that decided not to work the minute you turn your switch on. That gives you a bit of a problem. The rest of the music, the written stuff romantic, rhythmic, exploring not just weird time signatures but polyrhythmic combinations where you can take a bar of 3/4 and ordinarily in that bar of 3/4 you have six eighth notes and I jam things like five eighth notes in the space of four, and five sixteenth notes in the remaining part of the bar. That's for one instrument. For another instrument you have five eighth notes in the space of six eighth notes overlapping the whole thing. This causes some problems sometimes 'cos a lot of musicians don't play those fives convincingly. I found that even among some of the best studio players in LA they see a group of notes with a five over the top and they freak off. And they guess at where they fall and don't really count it out.
(The 'Classical Heads' concert ...)
How cute. The pop classical gap should definitely be bridged but it should be done honestly. Not like slapping a few stringed instruments behind an electric band and having them play a few unison riffs together and following that by some low grade rock and roll, bouncing the two back and forth, and calling it bridging the gap. He should be paying more attention to the works of the modern composers. I see my music as moving towards modern serious music. There were some things on the 'Freak Out!' album, primitive as that was, that were quite contemporary, could stand on their own ... Packaged in a way that would reach a young audience.
The most important part of the progression of the Mothers of Invention was the development of the technical skills of the members. The things we perform among even on our most recent albums were written years ago. And the only reason they weren't performed before is they had to wait till the musicians could actually perform them. The big trend today is toward instrumental music. Finding out all the players that all they were strumming out backing for vocalists can actually play something worthwhile on their instruments. Most of the new orchestra scores are written in pencil in planes, airports and holiday inns. I carry in my briefcase all the things I need to write. I haven't heard most of the music, and I really would like to hear what it sounds like and get on and write some more. Right now we are in the process of trying to figure out who will perform it. If it goes well our little plan would be to get an existing London orchestra to play it. If that doesn't work then I'd have to put together an orchestra of studio players which might not be as tight as an existing orchestra.
My business interests are self-defence. Nothing reprehensible about being paid for doing something you like. I don't like the idea of being a musician because you love music and then having to support yourself by working on a gas station in the day time. I would as soon be paid for the work I like to do. If I am conscientious enough about the work I like to do. I hope I don't have to go out and get a job. Refusal to deal with business is taking it awfully seriously. To say that I'm such an artist is stupid. The thing that pisses me off most about the public reception of the Mothers was the complete stupidity with which they viewed things that I thought were most obvious. The gags that we put on for the groups. People actually thought we were 'Only In It For The Money'. You see these guys on the cover of that album looking like a bunch of ragamuffins and the mere thought of that could possibly be trying to earn a living was an absurd joke. But everyone started to think – 'they' are not artistic they are only in it for the money'. I went 'Whaaat???' when I saw that reaction. I had a conversation on the phone with Paul McCartney about the time of that album and asked to do a parody of that cover. He was shocked and appalled that I would even talk business with him on the phone. 'We have these managers you mean you talk business'. The final outcome to the conversation was 'I can't say I'll ask the other members of the group' and blah and blah and after about six months holding it up it was finally settled with lawyers, their attorney eventually called MGM and said it.
I watch the politics in the States go by and gag over it once in a while. I get involved in it as much as I am an artist and I say what I like about the environment in which I produce my work. To get out in the street and wave a flag is a waste of time, definitely a non functional gesture. It doesn't alter any condition and if you want to be a hippy on the weekends and you want to be involved and don't have anything much to do – go to a demonstration. A lot of people misconstrued the early albums because they didn't see that I was criticising both sides of the fence. On one hand I have Bow Tie Daddy talking about this dude who drinks and goes home in his Lincoln, and then the discussion about the flower punks. And all that album did was alienate the flower punks. I haven't dropped the social stuff. Only the blatant stuff has gone. Political social stuff can exist on a non-vocal level. In a more subtle way. I don't want to carry on doing the same thing for ever.