(The Satanic Rabbi in Mendocino in 1968:
"My God - he's right! We're all freaks! That's what we are!! Hungry Freaks, daddy!!!)
"I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird."
Frank Zappa (Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986)
Frank Vincent Zappa was the son of Italian/Arabic immigrant parents, born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was employed as a meteorologist at Edgewood Arsenal, which made poison gas during World War II. There were tanks of mustard gas within a mile of where they lived ("Mustard gas explodes the vessels in your lungs, causing you to drown in your own blood."*) Therefore the whole family had their own gas masks. The Young Zappa used to wear his "space helmet" in the backyard all the time. Little did he know that if the mustard gas was released the "space helmet" wouldn't have done him any good.
His first record as a kid was The Complete Works Of Edward Varese Volume 1, which he bought because Look magazine said it was "nothing but drums - it's dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world." After that record the young Zappa came in contact with the music of Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, and other modern classical composers. The music was strange and interesting to him and that's what he liked about it. What also excited him was the Doo-Wop and R&B he found in the used record bins far out of town. Zappa could not tell the difference between the genres -- to him it "was all good music."*
In high school (after a boring stint on the school band where he learned musical notation) he formed his own R&B group called the Black-Outs. It was the only integrated band anyone in Lancaster California (where he then lived) had ever heard of and stirred up a ruckus with the white kids -- getting him in fights all the way up to graduation. His post graduation years were ones of hardship, trying to make his way as a musician. He joined a bar band called The Soul Giants who got fairly decent gigs playing cover tunes like Louie Louie and Wooly Bully at local dives. Zappa suggested they play original material so they could land a record deal. The group went for his idea but Davy Coronado, the group's then-leader quit, because he said they would lose all their gigs if they played original songs.
L.A. Freak Scene
He was right so the band moved to LA and changed their name to The Mothers on Mothers Day, 1964. The L.A Freak scene was just starting out at this time. The Mothers played clubs like the Action, the Trip, and Whiskey-a-Go-Go and once got a gig opening for Lenny Bruce. (Zappa asked Bruce to sign his draft card but he wouldn't do it). In '66, on the verge of dying of starvation they lucked into a record deal with MGM. Some A&R guy with an "I don't know" attitude thought he was just signing a "really ugly rhythm and blues band."* Little did he know what directions Zappa was taking the group into. The Mothers (Of Invention) then recorded the first ever rock double-album Freak Out. Unlike pop albums at the time that had no "filler" tunes, every song filled a purpose to the thematic whole. Freak Out also featured protest lyrics as threatening as Bob Dylan's (most notably Trouble Every Day about the Watts riots -- which could easily be applied to the Rodney King riots).
You may have heard a few things about Zappa and are thinking: wasn't he really sexist? He didn't think so: "If you were to take all the lyrics I've ever written and analyze how many songs are about 'women in demeaning positions' as opposed to 'men in demeaning positions,' you will find that most of the songs are about stupid men. The songs I write about women are not gratuitous attacks on them, but statements of fact."* In fact Zappa did have many experiences with rock n' roll groupies (perhaps not the ideal example of womanhood) that he wanted to document in his music. He saw his songs as a "journalistic medium as well as a musical medium."
His Motherlode Of Work
Including their live records The Mothers put out thirteen albums before their break-up in 1971 -- each one innovative and original, and worthy of going into in detail if only space allowed. For the next twenty odd years Zappa, a drug-free (He smoked pot about ten times in the 60's but it made him sleepy and gave him a headache) workaholic put out a prolific body of work including a total of sixty albums, plus many albums of material still unreleased in the vaults. This ranged from the guitar driven hard rock (he is now an acknowledged guitar master) he became famous for in the 70's, a couple jazz albums, several pieces of classical music he composed on the Synclavier, and even a record of his work with the London Symphony Orchestra. Like all composers he had never ending hassles trying to get his work performed, costing him hundreds of thousands of his own dollars to achieve disappointing results -- if it wasn't the financiers backing out it was the brass section of the orchestra going out for drinks and coming back playing sloppy and out of tune.
He was always outspoken politically, challenging the church, the state and any organization he viewed as hypocritical and restricting the rights of others. He was put on trial for obscenity once in England, and later presented his case against the PMRC to Congress. He was the most outspoken person against that "Senators Wives Club" and the media hoopla that went along with it, as they set out to censor "offensive" rock albums. He wasn't even on the original "to censor" list, yet Motley Crue and Prince, who were, were mysteriously absent from the proceedings.
Throughout his career Zappa tirelessly gave interviews to anyone who would ask, from Rolling Stone to a high school newspaper. The following are never before published interviews made possible courtesy of Evil Bob and his "Frank Zappa Way Cool Area" on the internet. In it, he discusses the hardest thing about him to explain: his music.
This is the transcription of a recorded interview with Frank Zappa conducted sometime in late 1972 -- by Martin Perlich.
Martin Perlich: I know you have a great deal of interest in classical music.
Frank Zappa: I do. It's what I listen to mostly, I don't listen to too much rock and roll.
Perlich: How come?
Zappa: I don't think that it gets me off as good as some contemporary classical pieces.
Perlich: Like what?
Zappa: My favorite composers to listen to are: Stravinsky, Webern, Varese, and Penderecki. I think I find more things of interest for my ear in those composers than I do in any number of pop groups that you could name.
Perlich: Do you think that there's a possible audience for let's say .... Webern or Penderecki?
Zappa: Of course there is.
Perlich: Where is it?
Zappa: Well, that's beside the point. The audience exists - it's perhaps not as large as the audience for Grand Funk Railroad but it's there nonetheless and is in need of servicing. There are some people who might be interested in hearing that music who have never heard it before and who might just like to go out and see what it does to their mind to get a little bit of it on 'em.
Perlich: In the past, political types have talked of the music of Post-Webern . . . Penderecki and his friends as being elitist music - music that is difficult for masses of people to listen to.
Zappa: Then I would assume from that line of reasoning that the ideal music of all time must be that of the crudest form of rock and roll. I don't think that that's elitist music by any stretch of the imagination.
Perlich: What do you think people come to music for?
Zappa: Well, in America, mostly for entertainment. I doubt that they're going to derive as much entertainment value out of watching, say, a Webern string quartet performed as some rock and roll band who has a guitar player who eats his guitar onstage. That would probably be more entertaining for them, but I don't think that's down to what the music is really about.
Perlich: Other than taking other people's work and using it for theme and variations as you do in the Invocation and Ritual Dance and various other places in your work, do you think that there is a link between what we call the classical world and your music?
Zappa: Yes, there is a link. It's rhythmic and it's harmonic.
Perlich: Do you think that you play harmony, or rhythm, or a combination of the two?
Zappa: My premise is that you can have harmony constructed out of rhythms. That's the way I look at it and without getting into a series of charts, graphs, diagrams and explaining technically how all that's done, that's one of the things that my listening to forms of music other than rock and roll has brought to the performance of The Mothers.
Perlich: It's clear that you're into what music does and how audiences address music; you're quite obviously unhappy that the lowest common denominator seems so often to rise to the top - at least at the economic pile in American music; you seem to think that Grand Funk Railroad is something less than ideal. What is ideal? What is the music experience about and what kinds of things do you bring to it?
Zappa: Well, first of all I do not wish to state that Grand Funk Railroad is less than ideal. Grand Funk Railroad IS ideal for people who like that kind of music and I don't want you to misconstrue what I say.
I happen to be interested in performing a type of music that perhaps is not as interesting to as large a number of people as the number of people that get off on that other kind of music, y'know. But I'm not interested in that other kind of music so I'm not bothered with it.
Perlich: I sat in an audience once and something didn't work; one of the amplifiers of the last of The Mothers bands, and people wanted you to play and were applauding. You came forward and lectured them on how they wouldn't know the difference anyhow but it made some difference to you. It's not done often in pop music.
Zappa: It should be done more often in pop music. It should be done in classical music too because if it's not done the audience is going to continue to come to a performance saying "Merely entertain me. Just go up there and you be a juke box only we can see you moving around."
Unless you do something to alter that image it'll just stay the same forever. People will just go down there and expect musicians to be robots spewing off some kind of little noise that they can identify with, and I don't think that's what music's all about.
Perlich: What then, is it all about? Are you interested in writing for some small segment of the population or are you interested in raising the standard of the audience listening habits?
Zappa: I'm not interested in doing either of the above. What I'm interested in doing is writing music that I want to hear, okay? And if there happen to be some people who have similar taste to me, then they would like to listen to that too. However the music is made available to anybody who wants to hear it; the concerts are open to the public; the records are on sale to anybody who wants to buy 'em; the radio stations are free to pick and choose what they want to play; it's sort of a low-pressure operation.
Perlich: For those of us who have known Frank Zappa only through his records and The Mothers records, particularly over the years and have come to love you and know you through that music, when they find that you're going on into areas which they maybe aren't prepared to go in, they are a little disappointed and they say "Why?"
Zappa: Well, the question I'm prepared to ask is "Why should somebody be disappointed?" What's disappointing about having somebody do some exploring for you? If I'm going into an area that you're not interested in going into, fine - you stay home. I'll tell you what happened when I get back.
Perlich: Where are you going, Frank?
Zappa: I'm going wherever I can, y'know.
Perlich: Going out into jazz and into Webern and all those places?
Zappa: I started off in Webern. I'm trying to get back. (laughs)
Perlich: Working your way home?
Zappa: Yeah, working my way back from Vienna.
Perlich: Are you really interested in that kind of music and atonal serial music - do you compose in tone rows and things like that or is it more American than that?
Zappa: No. I started off composing serial music. I was writing serial music when I was 18 and I never had a chance to get any of it performed because I was living in a little town where there weren't too many musicians around who could read or play well enough to count the rhythm and read all the elaborate dynamic markings that are usually connected with serial music. You know, you serialize your dynamics as well as your pitches. You can also serialize your rhythm. So I was doing that kind of stuff a long time ago.
Perlich: So now you're wreaking your vengeance?
Zappa: No. What happened was, I finally did get a chance to hear some of the serial material performed and, maybe it was because of the performance that I finally got out of it, or maybe it was just that I decided to do something else but I stopped writing serial music. I was writing all kinds of positive and negative canons and weird inverted this and retrograde that and getting as spaced-out mathematically as I could and I was going "Wait a minute (laughs), who cares about that stuff?" I had always liked rhythm and blues so here I was stuck between the slide rule and the gut bucket somewhere and I decided that I would opt for a third road someplace in between.
Perlich: Do you think that audiences are going to ultimately come to it even if they don't come to it, say the first or second time?
Zappa: Well, let's suppose I do it and they don't come to it. But let's suppose somebody that they like better does it because they heard us do it, and they do it - they'll go to it. If Grand Funk Railroad started playing serial music, they'd love it. Perlich: You couldn't dance to it.
Zappa: How do you know? All you got to do is keep a strong back beat to it, it doesn't make too much difference what the pitches are. As a matter of fact, you start defining terms like serial or atonal and things like that, well - feedback is atonal and Jimi Hendrix used to do that up the ass, so what's the difference? He had the right showmanship to present with that and going into a serial framework might be just another logical extension.
I wouldn't say that any audience in the Youth Segment is ready to bid heavily in the serial market right now because they're too much oriented to laying back and grooving behind some musical experience but, eventually they may want to explore that because it just gives you a different feeling. If you've listened to very much of Webern's music and listen to it in the spirit with which it was constructed, it'll take you someplace quite far away.
What I would like to say is this: The discussion of Webern in this conversation is almost blasphemous and I would like to suggest that if anybody's got an opportunity that they would go out and actually listen to Webern so that they know what this discussion is about. First of all, for those of you who don't know his first name is Anton, and he's dead, you understand? Go to a record store and ask for "The Collected Works of Anton Webern" and it's conducted by Robert Kraft - that's available in Columbia.
But go down and listen to some of this music and see whether or not it's too abstract for your mind. I don't think it will be, I think that if you get over the initial shock of hearing how much space there is between the notes, and hearing that the dynamics are not extremely loud and hearing that the texture of the music is something completely different than what you're normally accustomed to, I think that if you listen to it with a little sensitivity and appreciation it might even get you off. It doesn't have much of a beat but it is alright.
Perlich: The Mothers early music, which was largely a product of your head, had one great enemy: the American high school. Other than that, you have not really attacked some of the things that became fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s to attack. Do you have a political stance that you like to talk about?
Zappa: No, I don't have a political stance that I like to talk about because I don't wish to unduly influence anybody else's political stance. As far as attacking things, the early music of the MOI was not so much attacking as making some rather accurate comments about situations that existed, and it wasn't a question of picking some trendy thing to attack and then ATTACK IT, so that everybody who also agreed that that thing that you were talking about was crap could go "Yeah, they're right on" or something. The things that I talked about in those songs were things that meant something to me. And when it became fashionable for other groups to make sociopolitical commentary in their material, and when I saw the results of the work that they had done in that vein, and I saw how superficial it was, and I saw that it was turning into a trend, and I also saw that the audience that was buying records listened to that stuff and said "Yeah, that's really great.", I said "I don't need to tell them anything anymore, they don't need to hear that from me.
Perlich: Do you think that you'll come back to that kind of satirical content in your music after you've taken this road?
Zappa: Well, I think that satirical content in music does not necessarily have to lean on the verbal aspect. There are plenty of satirical things that you can do with a mere note or a mere inflection and never say a word and it's unfortunate that the audience that thought that the satirical aspect as described above had vanished from the MOI music was insensitive to those other aspects which remained in the music. In other words, they were so verbally oriented that by the time we had progressed into other forms of commentary, they didn't go along. You missed that road, boys and girls.
Perlich: What about the long tour which you based the movie 200 Motels on -- with your long musical riffs about being drunk, horny and on the road. Why are you performing it again?
Zappa: The reason we're performing that is because it was a true story, it actually happened to Howard Kaylan. It was just a process of commemorating a piece of folklore that was peculiar to the group and there was no reason why that shouldn't be saved and I think that other groups who ignore the folklore that happens to the members within the group are missing a good shot for preserving a little history. Because I also take the position that contemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is going to be within history books.
Judging from the quality of the rock and roll writers that are appearing in rock and roll publications I would say they're not doing quite as good as the people who are actually making the records. So therefore, in a hundred years if people want to find out what was going on during this period of time they'd be better off listening to the source rather than to read the thing in print. Therefore, if we are involved in things that occur on the road with groupies and assorted weird events of a sexual nature, it's better that we tell about it ourselves in a musical format and do it with the people that it occurred to than have somebody else say "And then in 1971 one time when they were out on the road at the Mudshark hotel...."
Unfortunately, some people have a peculiar attitude towards things of a glandular nature connected with things of a musical nature and they say "Well, music is so high - it's HERE, and glands are WAY DOWN THERE, and we can't really get 'em together." And then they're hypocritical because then they turn around and a group that comes in and doesn't sing overtly about those things but couches their language a little bit and then does it with a little choreography, they think that's great and that's real rock and roll and I maintain there's no difference. We were just honest enough to go out there and say "This is THIS, that's THAT, and here you are and respond to it." and the response to it was "Why, I'm hip, but of course I am offended."
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