Just Plain Folks
By Drew Wheeler
Billboard, May 1990
Although well known as a solo artist, Frank Zappa has been working with a partner for years. Gail Zappa (née Sloatman) was employed as a secretary at LA.'s Whisky a Go-Go in 1966 when she met Zappa on his return from a depressing MGM Records promo tour. It would have been easy to see what Frank saw in the blonde, mod-attired part-time model, but what did Gail see in Frank?
"I thought that he was probably one of the grubbiest creatures I'd ever seen," Gail recalls, "but he was compelling. He had a compelling glare. He had major magnetic charm, I would say."
From that moment, Frank and Gail were together. Soon after they met, they packed up and moved East when the Mothers were booked into an extended run at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village. New York proved to be no Fun City, and the Zappas were "Desperately poor," remembers Gail, "It was dreadful, we were living in a horrible hotel, sharing it with very large cockroaches. I remember, in the dead of winter, the milk cartons on the window ledge outside – no refrigerator of course. I think I lived off grapefruits and Frank lived off peanut butter.
"And coffee – we made coffee from the bathtub because the water that came into the bathtub was so hot you could really scorch yourself. You did not need to boil it. It was frightening. Instant coffee. Milk on the window ledge. Grapefruits from Gristede's. And peanut butter."
In New York, Gail gave birth to a daughter, Moon Unit. After moving back to Southern California for good, the Zappa family was further supplemented with the arrivals of sons Dweezil and Ahmet, and a daughter, Diva. (In response to those still incredulous at his children's names, Frank Zappa correctly insists that their last name is the name most likely to get them in trouble.)
The natural state of the Zappa household? "Oh, it's very lively, I would say," says Gail, "Lots of traffic, lots of projects, lots of music of all different kinds. Everybody's got music going. The house has different levels and there's always teenagers around. You can walk from one part of the house to the other and you can hear anything from, well, whatever Frank is doing to whatever Diva happens to be listening to – which is a lot less scary than what Ahmet listens to." The Zappa children are often joined by friends to work on the various projects involving music, writing, cooking and other pursuits. Dweezil is developing an informal sideline of re-making movies that, according to Gail, "really weren't made correctly the first time around. He's redone 'Mask' and 'The Last Temptation Of Christ ..' "(Gail adds with an amused maternal pride, "Personally, I feel his versions are much superior.")
"It was very interesting," says Moon Zappa of her home life. "I'm sure Dweezil probably told you that all of our friends wanted to come over here because we were allowed to say the f-word. We were free! We are an example of what you get when you are allowed to listen to heavy metal music ..."
"It was more stable than probably any other family in America," says Dweezil Zappa with a hint of irony. "I think we all turned out OK. Everybody in the family gets along well. We spend more time with family members than with any outside people, and none of us do drugs or drink or are in trouble with the law. I think we're pretty good." (When asked how he turned out, Ahmet Zappa replies "Medium well.")
Frank Zappa sees his children as one of his best arguments against the PMRC. "I think the question that ought to be asked, right away, is for all these women who claim that they're here to help children, let's take a look at their families," Zappa demands. "Let's take a look at their behavior. Let's examine, let's see who did a good job of raising kids. And after you take a look at that, see whether or not you really want to have help from these people.
"Does Rev. Wildmon have any children? Every one of these guys that's screeching and squealing, let's take a look at their kids and see how they behave. Whether any of them have drug problems or have attempted suicide or are a menace to society in one way or another."
Aside from the demands of raising un-rated kids in an X-rated society, Gail Zappa is also the driving force behind Barfko-Swill, the Zappa mail-order operation. Barfko-Swill offers the Zappa fan an assortment of t-shirts, videos, posters, sheet music and collectors' recordings such as the The Old Masters, Box I, which contain newly remastered versions of out-of-print MGM and Warner Bros. albums and more. The Barfko-Swill consumer hotline 818-PUMPKIN provides up-to-the-minute news of Zappa projects and activities. When asked what was the impetus to start Barfko-Swill, Gail replies, "Just piles and piles of fan mail sitting around unanswered or with no response. The first thing that we did was put a list together from the fan mail and made a Barking Pumpkin t-shirt available which we still have – same old shirt, same old logo, same old price – just to see what would happen. Everybody would write to us and ask us if there was something they could get besides records."
Like other Zappa ventures, freedom and independence were cornerstones of Barfko-Swill. "That was really the primary reason for getting into the business – for setting up Barfko-Swill – in those days was to be independent," Gail explains. "To not have to rely on a major record company's interest and ability to promote your product. And that was what the challenge was for me. I prefer the autonomy."
Throughout the years of vacillating critics and label changes, the Zappas appreciate their fans as a constant factor.
I think even the word 'fan' is to belittle them," Gail says, "Some of them are hard-core fans, but some of them, they can't do without the stuff in the same way that Frank can't live without doing it."
Another Gail Zappa project became Joe's Garage, a professional rehearsal facility. Run for the past year under the watchful eye of longtime Zappa monitor mixer Marque Coy, Joe's Garage has been used by Tom Petty, Ozzy Osbourne, Rod Stewart, Ratt, Jefferson Airplane and a host of other groups. "The place is booked solid," says Frank Zappa. "They're turning people away now."
Joe's Garage is also notable as a rehearsal hall that is strangely free from the ancient debris and aromas characteristic of such places. "It has very charming surroundings, which I think that people who work hard in this business deserve," says Gail, "because usually they get the sleaziest, most horrible situations to have to work in."
Gail Zappa's most recent venture is Momco, a management company she formed to guide the budding entertainment careers of Ahmet, her niece Lala and Dweezil (most recently starring with Moon in the CBS-TV sitcom "Normal Life"). For a cottage industry, Gail Zappa keeps a wide range of interests in play. "Yeah, a cottage. It's a tiny cottage," says Gail, adding reflectively, "Well, maybe it's not such a tiny cottage."