The Frank Zappa Column?
By Debbi Smith
STROBE, November 1969
Editors Note: Everything had been arranged with Frank Zappa's representatives. We wanted a Frank Zappa column that would not be ghost-written. So, the idea was that Frank would rap into a tape recorder and the resulting words, his words, would be the column. But somehow no one told Frank about the column part, and Debbi wasn't prepared to do an interview. The result was a type of disorientation very close to what sociologists call anomie. It isn't what one wanted to publish. It isn't what Debbi expected to write. But, it happened a certain way and we have to print it the way it happened.
It was one of those great days in Beverly Hills, the smog creeping under doorframes, up into people's heads. Immediately upon arrival at Bizarre Records, our tape recorder stopped working. Fortunately Herb Cohen, Zappa's manager, lent us one. Zappa came in, frowned, "Hiya" and bestowed an affectionate, if rib cracking, bear hug on this reporter. Perhaps it'd not be such a bad day after all.
We'd met Frank Zappa two years ago, as London correspondent for an American rock paper. He was a delight to talk with, was enchanted with London, and surprisingly gentle with the British Press. You even felt a tiny pang of sympathy for this gifted man, for there is loneliness here. It must be hard being as intelligent as Frank Zappa, but there in London he let down a few defenses. The Mothers gave a highly successful concert at the Albert Hall, displaying both their typical acidic humor and often shattering musical prowess.
Now we were meeting again, this time for the purpose of writing a Frank Zappa column for STROBE. That is, he was talking and STROBE was making it a column, or so we thought. We thought he had agreed to do a column. Frank, whose publicity people had not informed him, expected an interview.
Flustered at having to instantly assemble some questions worthy of the great Z – hardly the way to prepare for an interview – we felt that rather than pack up and go home, we'd see what developed. Perhaps we should have gone home. What did develop was growing impatience between a cranky musician and an embarrassed reporter. Zappa was, understandably, upset at finding he wasn't doing an interview; this reporter was hurt by Frank's handling of the situation.
Zappa: (Testing mike) Bop bop.
Strobe: Well, you're writing the column...
Zappa: I'm writing the column? I didn't know I was going to do one of those numbers. I'd prefer not to do one of these things, because if I write something, if something goes out with my name on it, I want to make sure I actually wrote it. That is, took the time to work it up on the typewriter because the way I talk is different from the way I write. I don't want to have a transcription of my speech patterns go out in lieu of something I actually wrote, because it doesn't come off right.
Strobe: Ah, well, how do you feel about getting your actual speech patterns put into a prose style, hopefully something like your "Life" article?
Zappa: Well, that "Life" thing was three weeks of hard labor over a typewriter, trying to put that together and that's nothing I could have dictated to somebody. I've never been too thrilled about having things ghost written.
Strobe: Why don't you just chat to me? And whatever happens, we'll figure something out later.
Zappa: Hi there, Debbi, I'm chatting to you.
Strobe: One thing I was rather interested in was the philosophy behind naming your kids what you did. I couldn't figure that out.
Zappa: My kids? Well, I've only one of them so far...
Strobe: I thought you had Moon Unit and Nylon Argosy.
Zappa: Well, that's a variable because the other one hasn't been born yet. I'm waiting to find out whether it's going to be a boy or a girl. If it's a boy we're thinking of Nylon Argosy. But that's always subject to last minute changes, because I didn't pick Moon's name till the day before I went on the road last ...
Strobe: Why name a boy Nylon?
Zappa: Why not?
Strobe: Not really a classical, enduring name, is it?
Zappa: It's probably not going to be a classical, enduring kid, either. I don't think it's going to be a John or Mary type baby. And if Nylon doesn't like his name by the time he gets to be four or five and he's in school, we'll just change it. That, you know, costs you five dollars, you go down and ...
Strobe: What if Hermann Hesse had been named Nylon Argosy?
Zappa: Nylon Argosy? Oh, I don't know he might have been a lot trippier.
Strobe: Oh, all right. What do you feel Timothy Leary is adding or subtracting from the California gubernatorial scene?
Strobe: Would you vote for Jesse Unruh?
Zappa: No, but I hate the idea of having to choose between a combination of evils, figure out which one is going to do you the least harm. The results from having somebody like Unruh or Reagan or whoever else is going to be in the game, that kind of people you know pretty much what to expect – the same type of bullshit over and over again. And I wouldn't know what to expect from Timothy Leary.
Strobe: Well, would you not vote, then?
Zappa: Probably not.
Strobe: Do you advocate not voting?
Zappa: No, but that's what I would do.
Strobe: No guilt about that?
Strobe: Are you going off the road?
Zappa: For a while, yeah.
Strobe: How long?
Zappa: I don't know yet, because I have this film thing that I've been working on and I need to spend a lot of time at home with a typewriter and also doing some business type things in order to make that happen. And as it's been, all the work I've been doing in terms of writing or music or anything else, I've been working out of motel rooms on the road, because I've been on the road so much this year and it's hard to work that way. By the time I get back and look at all the work I've done on the road I have to sit down and spend the rest of the time I have off correcting my mistakes.
Strobe: How come you got into film?
Zappa: I've always been interested in films.
Strobe: More than music?
Zappa: No, I think that it definitely adds another dimension to music. I'm interested in audio-visual presentations of complex ideas.
Strobe: What sort of ideas are your films going to convey?
Zappa: Part of the story line deals with the so called revolution and the means by which the establishment seeks to put the revolution down, and the injustices involved therein. How does that sound?
Strobe: That's alright. Are you doing the filming?
Zappa: You mean running the camera?
Strobe: Yeah, stuff like that.
Zappa: No, I won't be running the camera.
Strobe: Have you started doing that?
Zappa: Yeah, I've shot a lot of it already.
Strobe: Are you doing a score for it?
Strobe: Is it basically a humorous or rather a social comment movie?
Zappa: Well, somebody referred to it as open grave humor.
Strobe: What else are you going to be doing?
Zappa: Well, I know I'm going to be doing something but it's pretty hard to tell what it is. (A knock on the door) Come on in. Thank you. (Opens bag containing cheeseburger and something resembling a root beer float.)
Strobe: You've got no message to bring the readers of Strobe? I thought you of all people would have something you wanted to tell people!
Zappa: When I have something to tell people I'll tell them, but when I'm doing an interview I presume the person that's coming to interview me is going to ask me stimulating questions and I'm going to reply with witty answers and that's the way that works. I was prepared for that body function today.
Strobe: I see, I'm sorry because I was prepared ...
Zappa: I'm not about to crush you people at Strobe magazine.
Strobe: When we saw your concert at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago you got into some really beautiful things with your music. And in the middle of it you stopped it. I don't know how a lot of people felt, but to me it just hurts personally, you had created something beautiful and then you were smashing it and that is something about you I've never been able to understand.
Zappa: I think you're very perceptive, that's exactly what I did.
Zappa: Because that's part of the statement I make as an artist. Did you ever stop to question – if part of that music occurred to you as beautiful, did you ever stop to question why you liked it? No. Have you ever stopped to question whether or not it was actually being smashed and destroyed or whether or not that was just a logical extension of the construction of that piece? Did it ever occur to you that the ultimate end of the piece that was going up into beauty up here, winds up in a disaster down there and it's all the way it should be?
Strobe: Yeah, but when you're listening to something beautiful, say you're listening to Indian music or something like that, that can be spiritually uplifting. I can't understand why you haven't gone out and written something really shattering.
Zappa: As a matter of fact I have, but the problem is nobody wants to perform it. Because when you write something shattering, like for a symphony orchestra, you have to deal with the economics of the situation. Which amounts to this: Nobody wants to pay a bunch of musicians to sit down and learn how to play this smashing, difficult piece of music. So if they do a good performance of it and then actually go ahead and perform it. I still can't get anybody to record anything large like that. I can't get anybody to put up all the money to do it in live performance. So I do the best I can with the Mothers of Invention.
Strobe: This then is a source of incredible frustration for you.
Zappa: I suppose it would be a source of incredible frustration to anybody who wrote music. You know you write it, you want to hear it.
Strobe: Well, how about film scores? Getting into it gradually?
A press girl enters and tells Zappa that he has a long distance phone call. Zappa exits. The girl reminded me about Frank's great demand as a lecturer and suggested that I ask Frank about it. She also mentioned that a lot of people were afraid of Zappa's intelligence and couldn't communicate with him.
Strobe: (Enter Zappa) We've just had a discussion about the mix-up.
Zappa: Which one?
Strobe: The supposition – I came in thinking you were ready and willing to give a column and you thinking I was going to fire questions at you, for which I apologize, because I'm not prepared. Now, I'm not even sure they're going to want an interview thing. But since we're here why don't I just ask you some more stuff and if it's an interview, it's an interview.
Strobe: Again. Your music shows to me flashes of insight and spirituality and yet you seem very involved in media and things. Like Stan Freberg does his thing very well, but it's still an earthy thing that he's doing. I don't know quite how to say this – why are you, why are you still with the Mothers, why do you put things down and keep things on an earth level, when obviously you could really, what can I say, you could really be on a much more intellectual scene, more spiritual scene?
Zappa: What good would that do? Who am I going to communicate with? Three people in the world?
Strobe: Well, is that why you are on the level you are on? Because you can help people or ...
Zappa: I'm saying that the only way that you are going to communicate with large numbers of the audience is by giving them half a chance, bring it down to their level, so they get a chance to grab it. If the music by and large is not intellectual and it's not as spiritual as you would like to have it be and if from time to time, it contains spiritual flashes and intellectual flashes then that's probably the best way to reach a large number of unfortunate people.
Strobe: What I'm wondering is why you're not sitting alone in a room writing beautiful things just because you want to write beautiful things. Why do you want to reach the masses of the people? Why are the Mothers? Why do you go on lectures?
Zappa: First of all if I sit in a room by myself and write beautiful things that's where they'll stay, because nobody wants to play your music, unless you go out and beat them over the head. I can't get a performance of this music, can't you understand that you ... You just don't write it down and then hand it to somebody and they become overjoyed instantly that you have slaved away half your life in a little room to write beautiful music on a piece of paper. The first thing they are going to say is how much money will I make if I put up X number of dollars to play or record this music? That's exactly what the music scene is like today and I guess it always has been.
Strobe: Don't you feel that Bizarre, now that you've got your own company, could put out albums of what you really wanted to do?
Zappa: Theoretically that's possible, if we were really rich or if I wanted to spend all the financial resources of this company to record orchestral music of mine which I don't think would be the best way to have a successful record company, because a) the record would not sell very well and the return on that capital investment would be very small for this company. We're not in a position where we can afford to do that. There is no great interest on the part of this company to record Frank Zappa orchestral music.
Strobe: Then would you admit then that part of your whole trip is not only making music, but helping unfortunate people or turning people on?
Zappa: I certainly don't want to do them any harm, let's put it that way.
Strobe: Then you are very concerned with the way people are feeling and you try to influence their ideas!
Zappa: Yeah, I'd like to influence their ideas. I'd like to let them know a couple of things: One, that there is more to music than what's met their ears in the past. Two, the types and qualities of sound experiences that you are capable of enjoying are much more varied than what they have been into up to this time. Does that sound coherent?
Strobe: (Smiling) – More or less.
Zappa: In other words, a lot of things that they thought were noise all along, really weren't.
Strobe: Why then have you gone on enormous lecture tours and everything? Part of your turning kids on?
Zappa: Yeah, it was during the time I was doing the lectures. I'm not going to do them any more.
Strobe: How come?
Zappa: Got to be too depressing.
Strobe: In meeting the kids?
Zappa: Well, yeah. It's very difficult to go home with a smile on your face after you see that much stupidity staring back from an audience in a place that is supposedly – most of the places I lectured were colleges, places of higher education, and it just made me feel too sad when I got home, you know. The kids were too messed up.
Strobe: Did you feel there was a barrier between you and them, that they couldn't understand what you were trying to say or that they didn't accept you?
Zappa: I kept it simple. They got it.
Strobe: How come they're not into it?
Zappa: It's a question of values. Although the kids today think that they are the new movement and the great hope for the world, most of them still reflect the same values their parents held. The difference between them and their parents is that their parents drink beer and whiskey and they smoke pot. Parents wear grey-flannel suits and they wear beads. You go beyond that and a lot of their ideas of, ah, their ethics and their concept of what the world is, are still very much the same as their parents. There are exceptions to this, but when you take the total of the youth population of the world and examine it, most of the young kids are just like their parents.
Strobe: Well, that's hardly surprising is it?
Zappa: Hmm. Hardly surprising.
Strobe: And yet you said that personally speaking you wouldn't want to vote in the California gubernatorial thing.
Zappa: Not unless somebody who really showed some promise appeared in the race.
Strobe: Yeah, right, and yet at the same time you're going out explaining to the kids that dropping out, although it is very comfortable, you've got to infiltrate the system, to turn it around to what you want it to do, you've got to get involved.
Zappa: That's right, what's that got to do with voting?
Strobe: Voting is being involved, working for a candidate ...
Zappa: No, it's not either. Working for a candidate, well, I'll tell you, I have no intentions of working for any of the candidates that are offered to the public this time around in California. I haven't been motivated to work for any candidate that's ever been offered to the public of the United States. Because I just don't think they've ever had a really good person I could choose from out of the rest of all the pigs that usually run. It's a game, it's a popularity contest.
What they're doing is they give you a name and a face, a certain smile, a certain collection of speeches and phrases that represent Mr. X who's going to be your next governor or whatever the fuck and that batch of smiles and bullshit over the next guy's batch of smiles and bullshit and when they get into office they don't do anything. It's still the business men and the military and all the rest of these assholes that run the country anyway. So that's why kids have to infiltrate those businesses and that's why they have to infiltrate the military and gotta get...
Strobe: So one guy infiltrates I.B.M., a computer programmer. How's he going to infiltrate?
Zappa: You get 1,000 people and...
Strobe: Isn't that what voting is? I think you know what I'm getting at ...
(Zappa snaps the "OFF" button on the tape recorder and gets up.)
We came away sad. We didn't want to bug you, Frank. It is disturbing to think that a man as gifted as Frank Zappa has to beg people to listen to his music. It speaks against public taste, and it speaks against the complex, expensive and often unnecessary promotional system required in the music industry to spread, the word of Zappa's works.
Certainly Frank Zappa has the ability to write an Also Sprach Zarathustra – if he wanted to. Perhaps he is really content with his semi-symphonies; obviously "turning on the kids" is a large part of his mission, and perhaps he will turn out to be one of the major propagators of sanity of our time. Frank seems to crave contact with the public at least as much as he craves sharing his music with them.
Without discounting the validity of his excuses, it seems to this reporter that if you're gonna write the thing, you're gonna do it. What distinguishes the Mothers of Invention from Holst's The Planets or Zarathustra isn't only a difference of environment. It's the ability to overcome the cynicism and negative life-styles of each period. It's the ache of the composer to transcend time and sorrow; it's belief, if you will. It is refusing to allow one's music to remain on the level of the hip, the apt, the technologically clever; well-done and poignant, but hardly the stuff that makes us tremble before the gods in wonder.