Zappa vs. The Mothers Of Prevention
By Jesse Nash
Rockbill, May 1988
There are only a few of them around. Yeah, they make a lot of good music, but they also do a lot more. They care about the country they live in. They use their medium to deliver a message. Woody Guthrie sang his lungs out to call attention to the plight of the American laborer. Bob Dylan smelled something wrong with American society in the '60s and called attention to that scent that was clearly "Blowin' In The Wind."
Now, Frank Zappa has grabbed the horns of responsibility and trumpeted their message to a vast audience hinging on every note. He has nearly single-handedly defeated voter apathy in his youthful audience by registering thousands of fans at each of his concerts and urging them to make their voices heard in this presidential election year.
He has probably been most visible in recent years for his celebrated battles on behalf of First Amendment rights for musicians beleaguered by the radical right wing organization of political wives billing themselves as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).
He has testified before Congressional hearings and at music symposiums calling for non-censorship of free speech in records. He has battled members of the PMRC, including the wife of presidential candidate Al Gore of Tennessee, Tipper Gore, on numerous occasions in forums that have included national television news shows like Nightline.
He has put himself on the line for what he believes in. And, oh yeah, he continues to make great music. Still, his current music, focuses on his struggles with the PMRC and contains references to quotes from such politicians as Sen. Paula Hawkins of Florida, Sen. Paul Trible of Va. and Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina.
This year is an election year in the United States. Frank Zappa feels we all should take a part in it.
You have been accused of being cynical to the optimism of the '60s. The Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and you responsed with a mock version of We're Only In It For The Money, which denounced hippie conformism. Why did you take this stance?
I took that stance because I was right. Look at this society today with political groups like the PMRC. This would have been unheard of in the '60s. So many people have conformed. I just saw it happening before anyone else.
Now, you've been accused of promoting decadence through your lyrics ...
Nobody ever accused me of saying anything nasty. I've been left off every one of the lists of offensive musicians. However, John Denver is on the lists, as is Springsteen and Stevie Wonder.
Why would they bother with someone like Stevie Wonder and not you?
I have a feeling the fundamentalist groups wouldn't want to attack me. I think they are afraid of me. I think that out of all the people they had to choose from in the music business, I'm the one most likely to give them a hard time. That seems to be evident because 99 percent of the people listed kept their mouth shut.
This issue has been one that you have been pursuing for a long time now. Does it agitate you that so many in the music business have kept quiet while Frank Zappa stands up and speaks his mind?
No, because I do understand the reasons why most of the music industry has kept silent. For one thing, in order to argue with the moralists you have to do a little homework; which means taking the time to establish the right reasons to come up with the proper arguments. I think that the interests of the music business are not particularly in that direction. Management has instructed their artists to keep quiet. There seems to be the attitude that if you keep quiet, the problem will go away. But as you can see in most situations in life, problems do not just go away by themselves. You have to deal with the problem first.
Do you think management will look stupid for being so lame on this subject? Or do you think they might get away with their attitude, "Keep quiet and the problem will go away."
No, I think that the fundamentalists do not plan on slowing down their efforts. The PMRC will be in business for a long time. In an election year, all the politicians love the issue of pornography in one form or another, so they can appear in public like a knight in shining armor and announce to the world; "We will clean up this country!" It's 1988, but with guys like Gary Hart running for office claiming that his religion states we are all sinners, it is beginning to sound a little hypocritical.
Do you feel that Americans are becoming more conservative than in the past? We are in an era where sexual promiscuity is no longer tolerated due to the ever increasing perils of AIDS. Is it possible that the so-called porn rock opposition movement is a result of all this?
No. People who believe that the issue of rock lyrics is more important than problems with our nation's poverty or with the deficit are in the minority. The PMRC received over 10,000 letters before the hearings and thought that was a lot. I happen to feel that 10,000 letters is a minimal response, but Ann Landers ran a letter in her column by a woman demanding warning labels on rock albums that received a response of over 20,000 letters with the response 90-1 AGAINST labeling.
The censorship movement is an orchestrated piece of business not just about rock 'n' roll lyrics. In San Antonio, an ordinance was created stating that 13 was the minimum healthful age for a person to see a rock concert. This ordinance is a way to circumvent the First Amendment. There is a distinct possibility that because of the ruling in San Antonio that other small-minded communities might follow suit. They might use this ordinance as a model.
In 1964, you started a band called The Soul Giants which evolved into The Muthers, then The Mothers, finally settling in with The Mothers Of Invention. Why all the name changes?
First of all, The Soul Giants had nothing to do with The Mothers Of Invention. It was a separate band with different people. We went through so many changes because management felt no one would buy our records with the name being The Muthers with a U and what not. So we became The Mothers Of Invention.
I've read in certain tabloids that the late Lowell George was a brief member of The Mothers Of Invention. How did this come about and what was it like to work with him?
Lowell was a great friend of mine and one of the most talented people to ever grace the music industry. We became friends when Lowell joined the band. I was responsible for forming Little Feat. I introduced him to all the guys and I arranged his first record deal with Warner Bros. History was made.
Tell me about your current tour.
Well, that's a good question. I just came up with the perfect title for this tour. I call it, "Broadway The Hard Way." What makes this tour so interesting is that we are making available for all those who see my concerts the opportunity to register to vote. That's right! We should increase registration by as much as 250,000 to 300,000 voters. This is a very effective way of getting our younger generation to take part in the vote to elect our politicians. We have the option to vote for members of our government, we have fought for hundreds of years for this right, while other countries do not have any rights at all, we should be grateful and use this opportunity to express our popular opinion. On this tour I'm also bringing my recording studio. I have a mobile truck that goes on the road with me. We're going to record every concert and it looks as though there should be a live album called, Broadway The Hard Way, later this year.
Throughout your career you have tested the limits of rock and popular music, formerly with unconventional songs, and orchestrated music influenced by Varèse, such as your Jazz From Hell record, which received a Grammy award. Your music demands virtuosity by its interpreters. Your derisory attitudes towards society presaged the punk movement. Your awareness seems to be far greater than most musicians in this industry.
I don't feel that I am ahead of my time or more aware. I just speak my mind and express my feelings whether it be verbally or as an extension through my music. People have accused me of being weird or ahead of my time. I prefer to think of myself not so much ahead of my time, but more able to keep in pace with it.
As far as the Grammy Awards are concerned, this is not the first time that I have been nominated.
I will be around for a long, long time. As long as people care about the music they listen to, the government that we elect to office, etc., I will be here to inject my two cents. To quote one of my more commercial songs, "I may be totally wrong but I'm a Dancin' Fool!" It ain't easy being Frank Zappa!