20th-century popular music's philosopher-king (or its Harvey Kurtzman) has inspired independence movements in Eastern Europe and lampooned stupidity in the west. Now he faces his most serious challenge.
It's April, and Los Angeles is nervously awaiting the outcome of the second Rodney King beating trial. A car heads toward Frank Zappa's Laurel Canyon home blaring the song "Trouble Every Day" from the first Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out! Written by Zappa in '65, while the Watts riots were escalating out of control, the song is eerily appropriate nearly 30 years later, when the city is once again bracing for the worst. With wailing harmonica and turmoiled bass in the background, the lyrics ominously and prophetically tumble out,
"It's the same across the nation
Black and white discrimination
... and all that mass stupidity
that seems to grow more every day
each time you hear some nitwit say
He wants to go and do you in
'Cause the color of your skin
Just don't appeal to him
No matter if it's black or white
Because he's out for blood tonight."
Why is the song still so poignantly relevant? The irascible and iconoclastic 52-year-old Frank Zappa, who has outdistanced most of his peers in the business by his unflagging commitment to both social critique and adventurous music, fields the question with aplomb. "Nothing has changed. We have the same racial hatred, the same unwillingness to face the causes of racial unrest. We've had years to examine the causes of the Watts riots, but no one has done anything about it. There were studies and reports and conclusions then, just like there were studies and reports and conclusions reached after last year's riots. There's a certain type of American adolescent behavior that hasn't gotten any better since the 60's. Scientists believe that the universe is made of hydrogen because they claim it's the most plentiful ingredient. I claim that the most plentiful ingredient is stupidity."
So opens a 90-minute conversation on politics and music in the legendary and controversial rock/doo-wop/jazz/pop/ avant garde/contemporary classical artist's dark, but comfortable video-viewing room with a television screen and rows and rows of video tapes lining an entire wall. Zappa, casually dressed in blue sweats, turquoise T-shirt and a loose-fitting grey sweater, is animated, fervently enjoying the conversation as he effortlessly interweaves musical matters with politics. During the rest of the afternoon, there are times when Zappa, his dark hair streaked with gray and tied in a tight ponytail, seems absolutely exhausted, a consequence of his ongoing and widely publicized bout with prostate cancer. But then the conversation takes off into another area of music and/or politics where he has strong opinions, and he is rejuvenated.
"I never had any intention of writing rock music," says Zappa. "I always wanted to compose more serious music and have it be performed in concert halls, but I knew no one would play it. So I figured that if anyone was ever going to hear anything I composed, I'd have to get a band together and play rock music. That's how I got started."
If ever a long-term plan paid off, it has to have been Zappa's – his list of official accolades and honors seems limitless: Renowned conductor Kent Nagano calls him a genius. Zappa won a Grammy in 1987 for his Synclavier-driven Jazz From Hell album, and he was chosen to play John Cage's controversial and perhaps most famous piece 4'33" for the upcoming various-artists Cage tribute album, A Chance Operation. His works have been performed by a number of esteemed 20th century ensembles; Pierre Boulez commissioned him to score a symphonic work which resulted in Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger album; the European contemporary music group Ensemble Modern commissioned him to put together a concert's worth of his orchestral works for the Frankfurt Festival last year; and in February, the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York City presented an evening of Zappa's serious music in its Great Performers series. Even The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening is on record as saying, "Frank is my Elvis."
Not bad for a guy who began his musical career as a drummer in a San Diego r&b group called the Ramblers in 1956 ("I played one or two gigs with them, but I wasn't very good so they fired me"), recorded parody and instrumental doo-wop tunes in Cucamonga, California and leased them to record companies like Original Sound in Los Angeles in the early '60s, and led the charge into the experimental and distinctly weird rock music of the late '60s with his seminal band of renegades and freaks, the inimitable Mothers of Invention. His formative years as a musician came during his high-school days at Antelope Valley High in Lancaster, a remote Mohave Desert town in California that he refers to as a cultural wasteland. A fan of r&b singles and composer Edgar Varèse's innovative and dissonant early-20th-century classical music, Zappa was a drummer in the school band where he was even allowed to do a bit of composing and conducting. But that's also where he began to suspect that he was destined t o live a life deviating from the norms of Americana. "I had no outlet in music then to express my discontent. So my aggravation with the way things were festered throughout my high-school years. The only reason I got training as a musician was because the school needed a marching band at its football games. It was just another tool to support the sports program. I never did enjoy sports. So I looked at all that and thought that there certainly must be more worthwhile educational investments besides new helmets. That really got me thinking – how can you take any of this seriously?"
Fortunately for Zappa, his tenure with the band didn't last long. "I was thrown out for smoking in uniform," he says while taking a drag from one of many Marlboros he would smoke that afternoon. "We had to sit in the freezing cold and wear these dorky maroon-and-grey uniforms and play every time our team scored a touchdown. So, during a break, I went under the bleachers for a smoke. I got caught and I was out of there. Not just for smoking, but for smoking in uniform."
When did Zappa realize the potential for satire in his music? He recalls, "Even before I had this wonderful band called the Mothers [original MOI member] Ray Collins and I used to piddle around in Pomona doing gigs where the two of us would do parodies of folk songs. We sang 'Puff the Magic Dragon' as 'Joe the Puny Greaser,' and we played a perverted version of 'The Streets of Laredo' called 'The Streets of Fontana.' We weren't setting out to make any kind of impact on people. We were just doing it for a laugh, to have fun. If it amused someone else, good. If it didn't, who gives a fuck. Nothing I've ever written has been motivated by trying to impact or influence anybody." Little did Zappa realize how influential his music would become in shaping opinions both at home and abroad. Case in point: the first two Mothers of Invention albums, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free. The former, the first rock double-album and the collection which purportedly inspired Paul McCartney to begin work on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, helped spawn an American subculture of long-haired, irreverent, authority questioning freaks. Behind the Iron Curtain, Absolutely Free proved to effect an even deeper and more profound response. The lead-off number of the album, "Plastic People," became an underground hit and potent rallying cry for freedom in the now-divided republic of Czechoslovakia.
Zappa is still surprised by it all. "I had no idea that song made the impact it did there. The album was smuggled into the country within a year of its 1967 release. I found out 10 years later how powerful the song had become. We were touring heavily in Europe at the time, and a few Czechs had come across the Austrian border to hear our concert in Vienna. I talked with them after the show, and they told me that 'Plastic People' was responsible for a whole movement of dissidents within Czechoslovakia. It came as a shock to me to find out that there was a group called the Plastic People there and that a cult of followers had grown up around them. [That song's] especially relevant today in the United States," he says, in reference to a poster on the wall portraying a Hitler-like Ronald Reagan with the words, "He has the right to do anything they want" written underneath. Zappa then recites a few lines from the song:
Take a day and walk around
Watch the Nazis run your town
Then go home and check yourself
You think we're singing 'bout someone else?
He pauses to let the effect take hold, shakes his head slowly in disgust, then comments, "There's been an incredible rise in racist and fascist attitudes here, most of them being helped along by the Republican Party. That Republican National Party Convention last summer was just unbelievable. Even the set decor looked like a Nuremberg rally. Hatemongers like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson and the rest of the featured speakers were convinced they were going to win again.
"Even if Clinton and his people just stood still for the next four years it would be better than what we had the four previous years under President Nero, which is what Dennis Miller calls Bush". But Zappa goes on to express an early dissatisfaction with the new President. "What's upset me the most since Clinton has taken office is this banning of smoking in the White House. What kind of symbolism is this? It's a social-engineering program by the Health Nazis in the White House against people who like tobacco. I'd wish people would get off this I'm-gonna-live-forever kick and dispel the myth perpetrated by Reagan's evil Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who said that second-hand smoke is the most dangerous thing Americans confront in their everyday lives. This is from the same guy who told us that green monkeys gave us AIDS.
"I was pleased to note recently that for the first time in the last dozen years, the number of smokers did not decrease last year. It's remained constant. Now if we can just proselytize people to get them to enjoy tobacco more. I like tobacco. I've always loved it. There is a place for tobacco in the human dining experience. It's like wine. It's an appropriate adjunct to food."
Zappa's daughter Diva, in her early teens, bounces down the stairs, pokes her head into the viewing room where we're talking and announces herself with a bright, "Hi, Daddy." She's the youngest of Frank and his wife Gail's four children. (Eldest daughter Moon Unit collaborated with dad on the 1982 novelty tune "Valley Girl" from Zappa's Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch; eldest son Dweezil has released a couple of solo records and currently plays with brother Ahmet in the band, Z – a debut is slated for August.)
"How's little Squeech?" inquires papa Zappa."Squeech is fine, but I don't think that's the name of it. But you can nickname it whatever you want."Diva bounds back up the stairs while Zappa explains their exchange. "We have a new kitten. It's the runt of the litter. It's adorable. I've been calling it Squeech because that's the noise it makes. Diva wanted to call it Toaster, but I guess she's changed her mind."
So what is the creative process of Zappa the punster, the satirist, the humorist? He hearkens back to the old days when he was doing a lot of lyric writing: "I'd write lyrics when I was travelling. I was on a flight back from Germany when I came up with the idea for the song 'Dumb All Over'. I scrawled out three pages' worth of ideas on the plane. I couldn't wait to get into the studio to record it. The reverse of that happened with 'Inca Roads.' I came up with the melody first. I took it as a challenge to find words to go with it. A lot of songs may start with one or two words. You hear a funny expression and away you go. Some lyrics were based on folklore from the band when we were touring. 'Punky's Whips' is an example of an absurd situation that happened to be a true story. All I had to do was find some musical way to dramatize it."Zappa's career catapulted in the mid '60s as a result of his wildly experimental and unpredictable band the Mothers of Invention. On Mother's Day, 1964, the name "the Mothers" was coined. The group had evolved from a bar band called the Soul Giants that had recruited Zappa as a substitute guitarist after their regular guitarist got into a fistfight with another band member. Soon after, Zappa pushed for playing original material, and the rest was outlandishly weird music history. Early Mothers-inspired "freak outs" in Los Angeles made the local authorities nervous, so Zappa and crew headed to New York in 1967. There they worked the Garrick Theater on Bleeker Street as an improv house band, performing experimental music with satirical and impromptu slapstick for several months with special sit-in guests, including Jimi Hendrix on one occasion.
Returning to Los Angeles the following year, Zappa and the Mothers formed the nucleus of a musical community that Pamela Des Barres of the Zappa-discovered GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously) recalled in the liner notes to Rhino's promotional Bizarre/Straight sampler, Zapped: "Somehow in some mysterious and mystical way, a little crack formed in the Americana prefab facade that allow true, far-fetched inspiration to peek, sneak, leak through for an infinitesimal period of time; a drop in the bucket that made a might splash. I am proud and honored to have been a part of the streaming baptism of lunacy that attempted to shake, rattle and roll the fictitious foundation of normalcy." Zappa gathered as many bizarre acts as he could find and formed his own record companies (Bizarre, Straight) with the help of his then-manager Herb Cohen. Among the Zappa proteges were Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, The GTO's (Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart performed without credit on their Zappa-produced debut), Alice Cooper (Zappa is said to have encouraged Cooper to dress in women's clothes) and Zappa's high school friend, Don Van Vliet, aka the great Captain Beefheart. Beefheart, who Zappa remembers in the early days as carrying his worldly possessions – his art, poetry books and a soprano sax – around in a shopping bag, recorded his dada-esque masterpiece Trout Mask Replica for Straight in 1969. Produced by Zappa as an anthropological field recording in Beefheart's house, the album was deemed the year's "most unusual and challenging musical experience" by rock writer Lester Bangs. After a few days of using a portable taping system that recorded the different instruments in various room sin the house, Zappa compiled with Van Vliet's paranoid demands that the rest of the sessions take place in a real studio, where all his vocals were captured.In addition to Beefheart, Zappa has worked with a wildly diverse crew of artists, ranging from L. Shankar and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Of all the collaborations and bizarre tours he went on, which performances from his huge catalog is he most proud of? "I enjoy listening to some recordings more than I do others," he says. "I can't stand to hear some of my classic albums because I remember the horrible conditions under which they were recorded. It hurts to listen to them. But what I like the best doesn't depend so much on the quality of the composition as it does on the memories of how much fun they were to record. I'm especially thinking of some of the live shows with the 1984 band that were recorded in the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series. We had a lot of laughs. For example, one night in Seattle, in the middle of the show (guitarist) Ike Willis started to do an imitation of the Lone Ranger, blurting out, 'Hi, ho, Silver!" I still don't know why it happened, but I cracked up every time he did it. It must have been road fatigue. He'd keep yelling in the most inappropriate places. The whole show was riddled with bad Lone Ranger jokes and me not being able to sing the right words. I enjoyed that night.
"Zappa continued touring until 1988, when his road band self-destructed before the tour reached most of the planned U.S. dates. The tour, captured on the excellent The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life double CD, could have been the last time Zappa played guitar in concert. Nowadays, Zappa hardly plays his guitars (he cites lack of motivation), which is surprising given his prowess on the instrument and the fact that he released several impressive guitar albums, including the twin-CD Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. A guitar hero who rarely if ever recorded a cliched riff, he learned to play as a kid by swiping blues licks from r&b greats like Guitar Slim, Johnny "Guitar" Watson (who worked with Zappa in the mid '70s) and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
But Zappa – who has been fascinated with and influenced by such classical composers as Igor Stravinsky, Varèse, Boulez and John Cage, in addition to having his bands perform arrangements of pieces by Bartok, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky – hastens to note that these days he mostly writes orchestral compositions on his Synclavier 9600, the high-tech digital keyboard and sampling computer that's plugged into his home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. That's where Zappa's newest soon-to-be-released gem of an album of his dissonant, whimsical and haunting orchestral works, The Yellow Shark, was conceived. Performed in concert by the 25-member European contemporary classical music group Ensemble Modern, The Yellow Shark is a suite-like collection of new arrangements of such classic Zappa pieces as "Dog Breath Variations" and "Be-Bop Tango" and such new works commissioned for the project as "Get Whitey" and "None Of The Above." EM and its conductor Peter Rundel spent two week s in 1991 in Los Angeles at Zappa's Joe's Garage studio rehearsing the difficult pieces and then spent another two weeks supervised by the perfectionist composer last summer in preparation for the series of eight concerts in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna. The album represents the best performances of each piece from the different concert venues.
Zappa, who conducted the whirlwind "G-Spot Tornado" on opening night, is pleased with the results, but notes, "I was only able to attend the first and third performances in Frankfurt. I got sick and had to fly home. If I hadn't been sick, the experience would have been exhilarating. Unfortunately, I felt so excruciatingly shitty that it was hard to walk, to just get up onto the stage, to sit, to stand up. You can't enjoy yourself when you're sick, no matter how enthusiastic the audience."
The public response to and concern about the composer's health problems have been overwhelming. Even PMRC head Tipper Gore, who was at the helm of the late-'80s warning-sticker movement that Zappa so vehemently opposed, contacted him when she hear he had cancer. Zappa says, "The media likes to give the illusion that Tipper Gore and I are mortal enemies. That's not a fact. She sent me a sweet letter when she heard I was sick, and I appreciate that."
When asked what he thinks of a recent article that quoted a friend of his saying, "[Frank's] just not going to be bothered by something as stupid as cancer," he pauses, then soberly responds, "Well that's pretty fucking optimistic. Let me tell you. Cancer can bother you. It can just bother you to death. I'm fighting for my life. So far I'm winning." He laughs, then continues, "I've already beaten the odds. When the cancer was first diagnosed, the doctors didn't give me too long to go. But I've surprised everybody by sticking around this long."
Zappa's prostate cancer was detected in 1990, some eight to 10 years after it had first developed. Since it was in an advanced stage, it was considered inoperable. He's been forced to undergo a bladder operation as well as radiation therapy. He's reticent to talk more about his illness beyond that he's "doing a whole bunch of other stuff" for therapy. Is working on his music a form of therapy? "I do it because that's what I've always done. What's your alternative? Stay in bed or work. If you have a studio and a good staff like I have, and you still have musical ideas, then you go to work and you work until you can't work anymore. (Later, Zappa oversees and, with an acute ear, monitors two of his trusted studio workers, mix engineer Spencer Chrislu and Synclavier operator Todd Yvega, while they painstakingly sample all the notes on Zappa's 97-key Bösendorfer Grand Imperial piano.) I used to be a night owl, but now I'm usually in bed by six or seven in the evening. It's hard for me to work a real long day anymore. I'm up at 6:30 in the morning. If I can do a 12-hour shift, then I feel I'm really doing something. The staff arrives at around 9:30, so that gives me a little time to work by myself before I sit in the studio all day with them."
Zappa's illness also aborted his short-lived, but very serious presidential campaign, as well as curtailed his plans to develop his Why Not? Inc., an international licensing, consulting and social engineering enterprise set up to forge ties between Eastern Bloc and Western businesses. "Until the Soviet Union folded, we spent 50 years of Cold War cash convincing American that we needed to fight against the Evil Empire. Hey, I traveled to Russia five times right when it was on the cusp of glasnost. The place was a fucking disaster area. These people couldn't even deliver milk. The CIA knew that, but why didn't they say the Cold War was for shit and Russia wasn't a threat to us? If we had been working with the Russians to develop what they knew, we all would have been better off. The Russians may not have the money, but they have the brains. My idea with Why Not? was to work with the co-ops of inventors, helping them to license their inventions of industrial processes and equipment design in the West. When I got sick, I had to shut down my plans. It's difficult enough for me to travel, but it's no vacation going to Russia. The conditions are grim there. It's hard to find something to eat, the transportation is a nightmare and since there's no Russian phone book, it's nearly impossible to get in touch with people unless they've given you their telephone number beforehand."
But according to Zappa, his international endeavors have not always been appreciated by his own government. "I have a large and devoted audience overseas, but a lot of people in this country don't know that I still exist. I think that might have something to do with the Republicans, who have never been too thrilled about my existence. I get the feeling that I've been blacklisted in this country," Zappa says. "My music doesn't get played on the radio here. And the only time I'm on TV is when someone wants to get a funny comment out of me for the news."
When Czech playwright/former president Václav Havel wanted to make Zappa Czechoslovakia's special ambassador to the West on trade, culture and tourism, the composer reluctantly yielded to Bush administration pressure to ditch the idea.
"Although I resent government," Zappa says, "I can't imagine an effectively functioning society without some machinery to make it work, even if it's incompetent machinery – because the species hasn't evolved to the point where it can take care of itself. So I'm what I call a practical conservative, which means smaller government and lower taxes. What do you call a system that seeks a bigger government and more taxes? Insanity."In many ways Zappa could be a model figure for the rugged individualist of American myth. "... It's not completely true," says Zappa. "I have lots of people helping me to call the shots." Yet in his pre-Mothers' days, he owned his own recording studio, Studio Z, which was where the surf hit "Wipe Out" was recorded. In 1989, his biography, authorized to be written by Peter Occhiogrosso, was transformed into the compelling and hilarious autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book after the subject found Occhiogrosso's style flat and lacking Zappaesque flair. Today, Zappa, who has released well over 50 albums, maintains his own publishing rights, records on his own Barking Pumpkin label, runs a mail order and merchandising company called Barfko-Swill and operates the Honker Home Video arm of the Zappa empire. He has a CD re-release deal with Rykodisc, as well as the six-volume series You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore (double CDs) for Ryko, and has thwarted the efforts of bootleggers by authorizing Rhino Records to release two series of Zappa-approved bootlegs. he maintains his own hotline message, 818-PUMPKIN, to keep his fans up to date.
Zappa also exercises strict control over performances of his orchestral material. "You'd be surprised at how many orchestras and chamber groups all over the world play my music every year. I get requests for scores all the time. But I won't grant a permission if I feel there's not enough money budgeted for proper rehearsal time. I'd rather not have the music played that have it performed in a sloppy way." Any unusual requests? Zappa laughs and says it happens all the time. "The most recent was from the President's own US. Marine Corps Band in Fairfax, Virginia. They want to play 'Dog Breath Variations.' It seems a couple of gunnery sergeants in the ensemble are fans. So we sent them the music. Then there's one from a young filmmaker in upstate New York who wants to use "Elvis Has Just Left The Building" from the Broadway The Hard Way album to conclude a mock documentary he's making of current Elvis sightings.
As for future projects, Zappa's slate is full. He continues to dig into his audio archives to issue old material. Just released as the Ahead Of Their Time CD of a 1968 Mothers concert in London, where 14 members of the BBC Symphony joined the group to provide the Zappa-composed musical accompaniment to a play the band members acted out. Next year Zappa promises another CD of unreleased studio cuts called The Lost Episodes. Then there's a CD of music for modern dance called Dance Me This that he's working on. But what Zappa is most excited about are a couple of projects Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, business manager for Ensemble Modern, talked about during a visit just a couple of days earlier. "Andreas told me about an interview Edgar Varèse gave once where he envisioned a film to accompany his piece 'Desert.' I had never heard of that before. Varese said that the images didn't need to relate to the music. Well, the Ensemble is booked for a concert in Cologne, Germany on May 27, 1994. Andreas thought of the extensive data bank of video images I've collected and got the idea to commission me to do a 22-minute film. The other project we discussed was for May 1995 when the Ensemble would perform an evening dedicated to my theatrical works like "Billy The Mountain" and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" arranged for classical ensemble. I think it will make for an entertaining evening and an entertaining CD." After talking for 90 minutes, Zappa answers a final question: Given that his music over the span of nearly 30 years has remained fresh, relevant, challenging and on-the-fringe, to what does he owe his career longevity? Opinionated on so many other subjects, Zappa displays a rare moment of humility. "I don't know how it's happened. How have I survived? I guess by word of mouth, but I don't know. I got lucky."