Zapparap: For Real!
By Libby Purvis, Brian Hayes & Sybil Roscoe
T'Mershi Duween, #20, July 1991
While on his way back from gigs and festivities in the East, Uncle Frank stopped off in London for whatever reason. Strangely, it didn't seem to be to plug the 'Beat The Boots' set which was due for release shortly thereafter. However while he was here, he did do a blitz of radio interviews, as documented on the news pages. TD now presents for your delectation and delight a couple of those transcripts that you may have missed while you were at work. First up is FZ's appearance on Radio 4's Midweek, where FZ was co-guest of Libby [Purvis] and Brian Hayes (LP and BH respectively). Also guests were Caroline Hamilton who makes miniature dolls' houses, Philippe Daudy, a writer, and the Chieftains. Paddy Moloney (PM) appears in this transcript. I'd like to thank Andy Mabbett for ringing me up and telling me it was on (but what was he doing listening to it?), and for Jez South for sending over the full sixty minute tape. Take it away, Bob! Date for this first one is July 3, 1991.
LP: Frank Zappa, the rock composer and musician, is not British but he's also been associated with a bit of disorder and ambiguity. (This relates back to something said earlier, but don't worry about it. -Ed) His was the first record I ever had confiscated off me by the nuns at school (FZ laughs) because it had a rude title. A lot of them had rude titles, didn't they Frank, in those days?
FZ: I think that was necessary.
LP: But that didn't stop him becoming briefly a member of the Czech administration and a future American President. That's correct, isn't it?
LP: You are going to stand?
FZ: I haven't announced my candidacy yet but I'm doing what they call a feasibility study. And this may be a very important part of it because I never heard of a radio show like this in my life. I hope I can get a tape of this so I can play it to my friends in LA. They won't believe this.
LP: Would you like to make a little bit of history and announce your candidacy here and now?
FZ: The only thing I really need to finish my feasibility study is to ascertain what happens when a person stands as an anti-partisan candidate, and has to go through the process of the Electoral College. This is a legal question that has to be answered. You can win the popular vote in the US but not get elected. You have to have the electoral college and I don't know what the mechanics of that are if you refuse either of the parties.
BH: We'd probably take Frank as seriously as we took Ronald Reagan.
- (The Chieftains are introduced)
LP: Are you fans of Frank Zappa?
PM: Yeah, I'm gonna vote for him, by the way. That was a tremendous speech.
LP: What about the music?
FZ: A hush falls on the room. (laughter)
Another Chieftain: The thing I remember about Frank was the poster of him sitting on the loo that was very popular in bedsits all over Dublin.
LP: That sort of follows you around, doesn't it Frank? (laughter)
FZ: The good news is I can still do it. (more laughter)
(Interview with Caroline Hamilton)
LP: Let us tear ourselves away to the full-size Frank Zappa, singer, composer, businessman, politician and icon (!). If Caroline was creating a student bedsitter of the early '80s, she would have to get teeny-weeny LPs of 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' and 'Hot Rats' and a miniature of the famous poster.
FZ: Yeah, I think that would be pretty accurate.
LP: You did have a tremendous cult following in Britain, but it hasn't been an entirely happy relationship, has it? You actually got attacked.
FZ: Yeah, I spent a year in a wheelchair. I don't know who the guy was. I woke up and they thought my neck was broken. My head was lying over on the side of my shoulder. I actually have to thank the guy because my voice box was crushed at that point, and it lowered the pitch of my voice a minor third, so I became more of a baritone after the accident. My leg was broken and it refused to heal, so I stayed in a wheelchair. It broke a rib, put a hole in the back of my head, broke my nose. It actually gave me a whole new career. (laughs)
LP: Did it put you off Britain or performing live?
FZ: Oh no. Prior to that point, I had been on the road for five to six years and I never carried a bodyguard. I now carry one all the time. Wheelchairs are nice, but living in one is not really that terrific.
LP: Then you also had a row with the Albert Hall at one stage. They cancelled a performance of '200 Motels' on the grounds of obscenity.
FZ: Actually, I don't know why they cancelled the performance, but we sued them for breach of contract. We had a completely sold-out concert with my group and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, When we got there the day of the show, the doors were locked and they wouldn't let us in.
LP: I seem to remember a rather loopy court-case, including the judge trying to understand the lyrics.
FZ: I think the Judge was about eighty years old and at one point in the proceedings, one of the guys with the wigs on walked in and was presenting evidence which was an LP and the judge looked at it and said 'What is that?' And this other guy said 'Why, it's a phonograph record'. It was strange being in the Old Bailey, because I'd been in courts in the US before, and things move rather rapidly, but I guess here you have to write everything in longhand on very long pieces of paper and all the testimony is very carefully written down so you're obliged to speak slowly. It was a surreal situation... It ended up that the Albert Hall had decided to defend their position in this contract dispute by saying that my work was obscene. At the end of the court case, the Judge said 'No, it's not obscene, but because they're royal and they're British, you lose the case because you come from America, so just get your face out of here'. So I haven't been wildly enthusiastic about coming back to this...
LP: Well, we'll try to make up for it.
FZ: This show is certainly interesting. I didn't know anything like this existed.
LP: We're not royal, you see. This is the big advantage.
FZ: That helps, a lot.
LP: You've become a businessman on a considerable scale in different companies, Barking Pumpkin Records, Barfko-Swill, other unlikely but lucrative names. You were referred to once as a 'born-again capitalist', by somebody writing about you.
FZ: I've never used that expression. There's a long list of names that people have called me over the years, so I'm surprised that you picked that one. I've always said that I'm a biznisman, even in a time when it was unfashionable to do so, because I think biznis is good. If governments would observe the first rule of biznis, which is 'Never kill your customers', the world would be a better place to live in.
LP: This took you into a fascinating connection with Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia in particular. When did you first come into contact with Czechoslovakia?
FZ: I was visited at my house by a man who at that time was a famous Czech rock musician. His name was Michael Kocab and he invited me to Prague to have some of my orchestral music played. Then a few months later, there was a revolution and he was not only a rock musician but a Member of Parliament. I was on my way to Moscow to videotape some interviews for Financial News Network, and I wanted to route my trip back through Prague on the way back to LA. I contacted him and asked whether he could arrange for me to meet President Havel, to see some of what was going on in Prague. He did, and I spent four days there, and had very interesting results.
LP: Before that, your music had become quite seriously a symbol of freedom in the repression years, hadn't it?
FZ: Not just in Czechoslovakia. The same was also true in East Germany and in Hungary too. When I was in Prague in the January of 1990, we taped some interviews with some of the kids who were fans there. One of the stories they told was that the Secret Police liked to catch people who had my records and they would say that they were going to beat the Zappa music out of them. There were two guys who said they'd had that particular experience with the Stasi.
LP: A little bit like the nuns at my school. (No, don't write to me about that remark again, Andy! -Ed) They didn't actually beat us but they wanted to get the music out. Why do you think it was? Why did it become that sort of symbol?
FZ: I've no idea, but I'm glad that it cheered them up, because I can imagine how horrible it must have been to live in that way for all that time. I'm glad they have some freedom now.
LP: Would it be all the lawlessness? Your music has always been what people loosely called 'anarchic', and it was clever and witty, but you did have the shocking titles, the shocking treatment.
FZ: Let's assimilate that. We have 'clever anarchy' with 'shocking titles' and 'clever treatments'.
LP: I'm just trying to think what would appeal to young Czechs.
FZ: One of the things that I found from the audience in Europe generally is that a lot of people learned how to speak English from my records, because we would include the lyrics in the package. We would often use words that they wouldn't find in their English language textbooks, so I helped to mould the second language in a lot of countries.
LP: It's a fascinating fact that the new Czech administration is full of artists. A playwright in charge. There are jazz musicians, pop-stars, writers. Do you find that a hopeful thing?
FZ: It's only going to be hopeful if they succeed in handling the economic problems of the country. The thing that troubles me is they have an election coming up next June, and if their economy doesn't improve in the hands of these artists, I believe that the public might vote them out. I shudder to think what might replace them.
LP: What was the job you were doing for them?
FZ: That's a very long story and you have a lot of guests, but I will just say that I had no official title with the Czech government, and leave it at that. When I originally made the deal with them, I was supposed to represent them for trade, tourism and culture. I actually filed as an agent of a foreign power with the US government in order to do this. You're obliged to do that but there was some interference in the situation by the American government.
LP: How far is the music still completely central to your life? How much time do you still spend on it?
FZ: If I'm not travelling around, I work on it every day. The big project for next year is a new composition for the Frankfurt Festival. It gets in the premiere in the week of September 14 1992. I'm writing this piece for a group called the Ensemble Modern which is a twenty-five piece chamber orchestra. On July 10, they come to LA for two weeks and I start working with them directly to create the composition.
LP: Do you still like to perform in front of people or do you prefer the mixing and blending in your own studio?
FZ: Well, it depends. I just got finished playing a couple of concert appearances, one in Prague and another one in Budapest, just sitting in with local bands that were playing there, to play one song as part of the celebration to say goodbye to the Russian soldiers. I haven't touched the guitar since the end of the tour in 1988. I didn't have any reason to play it. When you have a good reason to play, it's always fun to do it, but other than that, I like to work in the studio.
LP: Did that used to mean a lot to you, Frank, the creating of a party, the sense at a concert of people coming together and preferably not hitting you?
FZ: I think what we created onstage didn't resemble a party so much as an adventure, because a lot of times we would go on and not know exactly what we were going to do. We'd just start the show, and keep going for an hour or an hour and a half, and find out what happened at the end of the show.
LP: Mothers of Invention ... Just quickly, what are you going to be standing for in American politics? If you continue this political initiative of yours, what's your philosophy?
FZ: Well, first of all, I'm anti-partisan because I believe that neither of the major parties there have done a good job in domestic or foreign policy. All of the specifics of what my platform would be would be made available in a position paper on the day when I actually announce, but the two things that I'm most concerned about is getting rid of the American income tax.
LP: You would put the tax on sales and services?
FZ: Yeah, because I think that it penalises people. It dissuades them from being productive, because the more you earn, the more they take out of your pocket and it's psychologically bad. If you do it the other way, you have a better chance of capturing part of the underground economy.
LP: We shall watch the legalities of whether you can stand with interest.
- (Interview with the Chieftains, during which FZ asks:)
FZ: Of the other cultures that use bagpipes, some of the things, like the fast part in the tune you just played, remind me of some music that I've heard from Bulgarian instruments which also use some sort of bagpipe, but it's not an elbow pipe. Do you ever play any music from other cultures?
PM: Sure. We played in China recently where they've got over two hundred different folk instruments. We also do mix it, with Galician pipes. We play a lot of Galician and Breton music.
BH: But you've found links with tradition Irish music in the music of other countries, in India, for instance.
PM: I know one particular tune from India where the first eight bars are almost identical to an old style song from the West of Ireland. You can come across various little pieces and you hear it, and you think 'My god, that's a jig – I know that', a couple of little bars and you can match them. We have put together things like that.
BH: How do you explain that, tunes cropping up on opposite sides of the world, where there couldn't have been any cultural exchange?
FZ: (whispers) Sailors! (much laughter)
- And a bit later:
LP: I think we should break it to you that Frank has been known to sing 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'.
PM: Really? I'm very sorry for your troubles, Frank.
LP: We were going to invite him to do it with the Chieftains backing.
PM: Well, we'll have a go. It's early in the morning.
FZ: What we did with that particular song was that on St Patrick's Day in 1988, we were working in a town in the US and we had an Irish population and an Italian population, so during the soundcheck in the afternoon, we put together an arrangement that combined 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' and the theme from 'The Godfather'. (laughter)
LP: The perfect combination...
- (Paddy Moloney then extended an open invitation to FZ to appear at one of their forthcoming shows to perform 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'. I presume he didn't take them up on this ... Or did he?)
And if that wasn't bad enough, he then turned up on Radio 1's News 91 on July 12. This one introduced by Sybil Roscoe and transcribed by Darren Prosser.
FZ: We had kind of a chimpmaster turned President for eight years, and now we have a spymaster turned President. A guy who spent most of his life being creative and has a mechanism in his brain that allows for creative thinking often has a chance to use creative capabilities in terms of the society that he lives in. We've seen the results in the US of a world invented for us by a former used car salesman, and you can see the result of that. So, how can a person from the world of culture make it any worse than it already is?
SR: What sort of process are you going through before you make that sort of decision?
FZ: The first thing I had to do was see whether anybody would take it seriously and the way I've done that is a number of radio call-in shows, where I would just go on the air and announce the topic and field the calls and see what happened. The response in that test area has been overwhelmingly positive. The only people who said 'don't run' were the ones who said 'If you do run, they'll kill you'. Everybody else says 'Go do it'.
SR: What would be your attitude to drugs legislation?
FZ: I think that it should be decriminalised and deregulated, because if a guy wants to get wasted on his own time in his own house, so long as he's not driving a car or committing a crime, I believe that people have the right to their own destiny. For example, if you wish to commit suicide, I do not wish to stop you. You own your own body; go do it. A little bit more tolerance would make the world a better place to live in. Some of the worst behaviour I have seen in recent times in the US is due to the ingestion of dangerous ideas brought to you by television from Evangelists who are suggesting that certain things take place. There have been numerous occasions where people have been murdered in the name of Jesus. The guy who went out and started chopping people up on the Staten Island Ferry a few years ago with a sword, believed that he was doing so on the direct instruction of Jesus. You should do whatever you can to keep them off the air. They cheapen the whole idea of what religion is. I think that religion is important to people and that people should choose whatever faith they want and practise it until they're totally satisfied.