Rolling Stone Interview

This interview appeared in 1988 in Rolling Stone. It was conducted by Kurt Loder, and appears in his book Bat Chain Puller.


Frank Zappa is a very smart and funny man who could still make it as a stand-up monologist, should he ever so choose. But Zappa has instead chosen to pursue his musical inclinations into an area of compositional sophistication that pretty much eliminates any chance of scoring a Top Ten teen single any time in the near future. So does he give up, give in, reunite the Mothers of Invention for a twenty-fifth-anniversary reunion tour? No way. Zappa runs his own record label these days, catering to his hard-core audience. He also does business commentaries for the Financial News Network and has audiences with the president of Czechoslovakia -- a newly liberated land in which, as this is written, he's attempting to facilitate the installation of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream outlet. A self-taught musician and social theorist, Zappa made challenging records with the Mothers of Invention back in the Sixties (including the first "concept" album, Freak Out, which predated the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper opus by two years). Apart from his generational fondness for Fifties doo-wop and R&B music, he has little Interest in commercial teen pop, and if that precludes him from ever having a mega-massive multi-platinum monster chart hit . . . well, okay. He'll find other things to do -- such as lambasting the hapless ladies of the Parents' Music Resource Center (the rock-record rating group) and lecturing the feckless music industry itself on the importance of the First Amendment. The objects of his ire rarely find much to laugh about in such broadsides, but Zappa remains one of rock's sharpest wits.

Were you a comedian as a kid?

I tried to be. It was a little rough, because I had a mustache when I was eleven, big pimples, and I weighed about 180 pounds. I first found out that I could make people laugh when I was forced to give a little speech about ferns in a class in school. I don't know what made them laugh, but they laughed, so I thought, "All right, not bad." So I tried to develop it into a . . . I won't say a fern routine . . ."

What was it that first attracted you to music in the early Fifties?

The first music that I heard that I liked was Arab music. But I can't imagine where I heard it, because my parents didn't even have a record player until I was fifteen. Then, finally, they got a record player, and I think the first rhythm & blues record that I got was "Riot in Cell Block #9" by the Robins. And shortly thereafter, I read an article about Edgard Varese in Look magazine, and I found the Varese album, and so that's what I had. I had the Robins and Varese, and I think I got "Work with Me, Annie," by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, too.

Did you see any sort of dichotomy between the Varese and the ROB records?

No, not at all. I saw it as a totally unified field theory. What appealed to me in the Varese album was that the writing was so direct. It was like here's a guy who's writing dissonant music and he's not fucking around. And here's a group called the Robins, and they didn't seem like they were fucking around, either. They were havin' a good time. Certainly Hank Ballard and the Midnighters sounded like they were having a good time. And although harmonically, rhythmically and in many other superficial ways it was very different, the basic soul of the music seemed to me to be coming from the same universal source. You know: a guy who had the nerve to stand up and say, "This is my song, like it or lump it."

You taught yourself to read and compose music at an early age, but I gather you weren't otherwise a model student in high school.

I was getting thrown out all the time for various antisocial acts. My father was worried about keeping his security clearance.

One of your fellow students was Don Van Vliet whom you later recorded as Captain Beefheart. What was he like then?

He drove a light-blue Oldsmobile with a hand-sculpted werewolf head that replaced the Olds emblem in the center of the steering wheel. His father was a Helms bread-truck driver. Don didn't spend a lot of time in school; most of the time I saw him was at his house. We would listen to rhythm & blues records in the afternoon, and then at night the most exciting thing to do in Lancaster would be go to Denny's and have a cup of coffee. 'Cause there was nothin' -- I mean, places shut down at six o'clock. Really bad. So in order to afford this trip to Denny's, Don would have to acquire the finances by opening the back of his father's bread truck. See, the cab was locked, and the change maker was hanging in the front. He had to undo the back door, pull out this bread drawer which was about from here to the wall, put it in a driveway and force Laurie, his girlfriend, to crawl through this slot like a squid to get in there and steal change. Then he'd pull her out by the ankles, and that's how we would finance our entertainment.

By the early Sixties, you'd moved to Cucamonga and started working in a small recording studio there. What kind of place was that?

It was built by a guy named Pall Buff. Paul is a genius, a great guy. Most places in those days were far-out if they had a three-track machine. Paul built his own five-track recording machine so he could do overdubs. He built this studio from scratch out of just garbage, using knowledge that he learned when he was in the Marines. And it was a great place. "Wipeout" was recorded in that studio, in one session. A little-known fact. I was brought over there by Ronnie Williams, a musician I'd been jamming with in local bars. During that period of time, which was roughly '61, '62, there were these things called novelty records, you know? Like "Please, Mr. Custer." Radio still had a slight sense of humor. So if you could do a novelty record, the chances were you could lease it to a record company. I wrote one, and Paul and I leased the master to Capitol for the unheard-of sum of a $700 advance. I mean, that was a whopper. And the reason was because this record looked like it was gonna be unbelievably hot. You know why? It was called "The Big Surfer," and what it was, it was a guy -- a San Bernardino disc jockey named Brian Lord -- who could do Kennedy's voice better than Kennedy. It was like a take-off on the First Family album, where Kennedy is judging a surf contest. And totally produced -- sound effects, the whole business, okay? The unfortunate part of the record was the punchline: the winner of the contest got an all-expense-paid trip as the first member of the Peace Corps to be sent to Alabama. Well, shortly after we signed the contract, Medgar Evers got killed, and Capitol refused to release the record.

You were expecting this to be your big breakthrough?

Yeah, well, it could've been. It was a cool record.

You also did the soundtrack for a movie called The World's Greatest Sinner at that Cucamonga Studio. What kind of movie was that?

It was a feature film produced, directed by and starring Timothy Carey.... I did the score and the rock & roll theme song for it. The premise of the film was: a man believes he's God, doubts himself, breaks into a church, steals the communion bread, sticks a pin in it to find out whether or not it will in fact bleed, it bleeds, and he realizes he's not God. How's that for a great plot?

You almost made your own movie in Cucamonga, with Don Van Vliet in the title role. But then came your "porno" bust. What exactly was that all about?

Well, there's aspects of it that I still really don't understand. I was trying to make a science-fiction movie in a store-front building in Cucamonga, okay? I had the recording studio, and I had enough space in the back to actually put up sets and shoot the thing. I had gone to an auction at a place in Hollywood called the F.K. Rocket Studios. They were going out of business, and for fifty dollars I got a flatbed truck full of scenery. So I was ready to make a movie. And the name of the movie was Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People. I had also got, as part of this blob of scenery, a sign that said TV PICTURES -- a nice red sign with gold lettering on it. Now, my little place was directly across the street from the holy roller church and half a block away from a grammar school. In a town where, if I had hair half as long as yours, I would be considered a menace to society, and the approved dress code for men was white short-sleeved shirts -- T-shirts were a mark of unusual behavior. That's Cucamonga. So here I am living in this studio, and living there with me were two white girls and a black baby.

How did they. . . ?

It's real complicated. They didn't have a place to stay, you know? I was helping them out. And in order for me to earn a living -- since there weren't surf bands beating down my door to record yet another "Wipeout" there I worked on weekends playing guitar at this barbecue joint in Sun Village, up near Lancaster, seventy-five miles away. I got seven dollars a weekend only job I could get. Anyway, while I'm up there doing my gig, apparently, these two girls had gone out in front of the studio and were playing on the street with the black baby -- which offended all parties concerned in this little village. So, the next thing I know, I got this guy knocking on my door saying he was a used-car salesman -- saw the sign, they're having this party and can I make an entertaining movie for him? He starts talking nickels and dimes. I said, "You don't understand. Making movies is expensive. Tell you what if you guys just want to have some laughs, let me make you a tape." So we agreed on the price of $100 to make this piece of entertainment material for used-car salesmen. I thought of this as a great entertainment challenge, myself. He was supposed to pick it up the following morning. I didn't realize that while he was in there, he was broadcasting our conversation by way of a wrist radio, out to a truck.

A wrist radio?

Yeah. It was total Dick Tracy. And while we're having this conversation, he is specifying in medical terms the activities that should be manifested on this tape. And, I mean, I'd never been near a policeman. I had no idea that this guy -- Detective Willis, I think his name was -- was an undercover anything. To me, it was a fuckin' joke, okay? I mean, the minute the man started talking about "oral copulation," I should've gone, "Huh?" But, no, I didn't. Because remember, I was making seven dollars a weekend up there in Sun Village. So he leaves and I set up the recording equipment, and me and one of the girls go into this place I was using for my bedroom. There was absolutely no sex involved in this tape. It was just squeaking bedsprings and grunt, grunt, ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh, ahh. So I got this master tape of grunts. I had to cut all the laughter out of it, it was so absurd. Then I superimposed some background music onto it, so it was, like, produced. It was no more bizarre than side four of the Freak Out! album. The guy comes in the next day, hands me fifty dollars. I said, "We agreed on $100. No deal." The tape never changed hands. Next thing I know, the door flies open -- flashbulbs, handcuffs. It was like Nazi Germany. They snatched everything out of the place -- reels of tape that had nothing to do with this films, projectors, everything. I didn't have any money, so I had to plead nolo contendere. A twenty-six-year-old junior district attorney from San Bernardino County refused to let me go on probation, so I was given six months with all but ten days suspended, plus three years' probation. And as I was sitting in the holding tank waiting for the San Bernardino jail bus to pick me up, I'm visited by this Detective Willis, who says, "If you'll allow us to determine which of your other tapes are obscene, I'll give you back all the rest, erased." And I said, "It is not within my power to convert you from a policeman to a judge."

Your luck began improving in 1964, when you hooked up With the Soul Giants, the band that became the first Mothers of Invention. What were they like when you came upon them?

They were pretty good. I already knew that Ray [Collins] was a good singer; we'd recorded before that. But the thing that impressed me about the Soul Giants, being a rhythm & blues buff, was Jimmy Carl Black -- the only drummer I'd ever seen who actually could sound like Jimmy Reed's drummer.

Really?

Yeah. Think about it: the absolute disregard for technique, know what I mean? The total dedication to going boom-bap, boom-bap. A rare talent.

So you convinced these guys you could make them rich?

No. I told 'em, "Let's learn more original songs and try and get a record contract." And the sax player, a guy named Davy Coronado -- it was his group -- he says, "You can't do that. The minute you start playing original music you'll get fired from these clubs." And he was right. We learned original music and we got fired . . . and fired and fired and fired.

You finally did land a record deal, though, and you've been at it ever since. Do you think the music business has changed at all since those days, for better or worse?

Oh, I can't imagine one instance in which the music business has changed for the better. Not one. Twenty-three years before the mast, me boy, and I can't think of one thing that is better about the business than when I started. The fact of the matter is, it's gotten to be more business and less music. Now, all the decisions about what is musical are made by accountants and fashion advisers. In the old days, they had these guys with cigars sticking out of the side of their mouths -- this was before they had nonsmoking areas in the office buildings. A new act would come in, and these guys with the cigars would shrug their shoulders and go, "I don't know!" And because the signing fee was so cheap . . . I mean, our fee with MGM to make Freak Out! was $2500 -- yeah, split between four guys. And we were lucky to get it. And the reason we did was because somebody went, "I don't know! Who knows what these kids are listening to?"

Apparently, Tom Wilson, the young staff producer who signed the Mothers to MGM, did know.

Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us. When we did that first album, he was definitely in a state of "I don't know!" by the time we did the second song. I remember the first thing that we recorded was "Any Way the Wind Blows," and that was okay. Then we did "Who Are the Brain Police?" and I saw him through the glass and he was on the phone immediately to New York going, "I don't know!" Trying to break it to 'em easy, I guess. Some things you just don't break easily, though.

What did MGM make of Freak Out! when it was done?

Well, they were violently opposed to it for several reasons. One, they were convinced that no radio station would ever play a record by a group called the Mothers -- and by God, they were right! But not for the reason they thought. Anyway, they demanded that we either change the name of our group or not be recording artists. So, out of necessity, we became the Mothers of Invention.

And how did the album do?

According to their books, Freak Out! sold maybe 30,000 units when it first came out. But I think it sold a lot more, because that was during the time when they were having these problems with . . . how do I describe this? . . . "loose security at the pressing plant." It was something called pressing overruns. The company would send in a pressing order for 15,000 albums; the plant would press 15,000, and then they would leave the presses running for another 15,000. And the second 15,000 would not be reported to your royalty account. They would go into the back of somebody's car and be shipped across the state line and be traded for rooms full of furniture or favors or whatever. And they did it to us, they did it to . . . the biggest loser was the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack -- I heard a quarter of a million units out the back door. Think of the publishing royalties on that for Maurice Jarre. MGM was a piquant company in those days. But people said, "I don't know!"

The Mothers became emblems of the L.A. "freak scene" -- which was what, exactly?

It was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, actually. Because by the time it made the papers, it was dead. It was a thriving anthropological success for about a year and a half before any notice ever went into Time magazine. By the time they ran that first photograph -- of a guy who used to be called Buffalo Bob; he had Prince Valiant hair, you know? -- the cops were already chasing the kids out of Cantor's and off the street. They closed down every place where a band could work.

So you decided to move the Mothers to New York.

I believed that all the opportunities for performing were right here, even though the scene, as such, hadn't happened. There was no long hair here, there was nothin'. That's where that line came from: "Oh, my hair's getting good in the back." You used to hear these kids coming in from Long Island, with little rags around their heads that's an actual quote from one of them.

And you perceived the of a scene erupting?

Yeah. I figured, look: If it could happen in Los Angeles, where nobody really walks around) what could happen in a place where they had neighborhoods? Think of it: endless potential. So we set up in the Garrick Theater, on Bleecker Street. Four-walled our own show in there. And pretty soon the Fugs were four-walling theirs around the corner, and there was a lot of stuff goin' on. It was neat.

How were the Mothers received in New York?

We opened during Easter vacation of 1967. Freezing cold. It was snowing. But we had lines around the block for two shows a night. We thought: Oh, this is it, this is the big one. We're in New York City, and there's lines around the block. As soon as school went back in, we had three, maybe five people a night. We played the shows anyway. When the place was empty, it gave us opportunities for a more personalized type of entertainment. Say there were three people in there. We'd go downstairs to the Cafe a Go-Go, put towels over our arms like waiters, come back up and serve them hot cider and stuff and sit and talk with them for the duration of the show. That was the show. Other times, there'd be five or six people come in, and we'd offer them our instruments -- we sat in the audience and let them play. We'd do anything. Anything qualified as entertainment then. It was all in the spirit of it.

You also recorded two albums during that stay in New York: We're Only in It for the Money and Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets -- the latter a tribute to the doo-wop and R&B music of your youth. How did the boys in the band respond to making that record ?

Well, some of them liked it and some of them didn't, you know? Every band I've ever had, there's been a few R&ampB buffs and a few guys that always scratched their heads because they couldn't understand why that was anything worth being excited about. Usually, the great musicians -- guys who really have technical chops -- don't know anything about rhythm & blues. That part of their musical life is completely missing. They have no comprehension of it. They were somewhere else when that took place.

I've always thought that Ruben and the Jets contained some of your sweetest, most emotional music. Why haven't you done more along that line?

Well, I don't know whether doing emotional music is a mark of excellence. That's been one of my downfalls with rock critics, 'cause they all seem to have this feeling that the more emotional it is, the better it is. And that's not my aesthetic at all. A little of each, you know? I like skill in music.

Is that why you've always been opposed to your musicians using drugs, and why you've been such an outspoken non-drug-user yourself ?

I've smoked ten marijuana cigarettes in my life, and probably the last time I had one near my face was twelve, fifteen years ago. And the reason I did was because, since I do smoke, people would say, "Here, smoke this, you'll get high." So I smoked it, and it gave me a sore throat and made me sleepy. And I must either presume that that's what high means, or something was wrong. But I've never had a positive result from smoking marijuana. It just wasn't my cup of tea. And I never used LSD, never used cocaine, never used heroin or any of that other stuff.

What did you think, back in the hippie days, when you saw all those people getting stoned and purporting to play far-out music.

Well, basically, I saw assholes in action.

You and the Mothers once shared a stage with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and wound up on their Some Time in New York City album. How did that gig come about?

It was 1971, and we were working at the Fillmore East, and we had a recording truck set up out there, because we were doing an album. And we'd played one night until about three in the morning, and I was sound asleep the next afternoon when I heard this knock. I opened the door and here's this guy from The Village Voice, with John Lennon standing next to him and this microphone aimed at my face, waiting to record my first gasp of whatever. I said, "Come on in." And the first thing John said to me was, "You're not as ugly as you look in your pictures." I thanked him very much and offered him a chair. I told him we were working at the Fillmore East and, you know, "How'd you like to come down and sit in?" I thought it'd be good for a few laughs. So he said yeah, and they did. Now the horrible part of the story. During our time onstage, a number of pieces were improvised, but a number of pieces that were played were absolutely written compositions that had already been on other albums -- namely, a song of mine called "King Kong." The deal that I made with John and Yoko was that we were both to have access to the tapes and could deploy them any way we wanted. They got a duplicate copy of the master, and they mixed it their way. I had a copy of the master, and I was gonna mix it and put it out as part of this Mothers album. They put out this record and took "King Kong" -- which obviously has a tune, and a rhythm, and chord changes -- and they called it "Jam Rag," and accredited the writing and publishing to themselves. Take a look at the album.

What did you do?

I talked to Yoko last year, and I said, "By the way, you remember that 'Jam Rag'?" She said, "Well, we have a problem with Capitol Records. We are suing them, you know." I can't imagine that album really sold a lot, anyway. It's the principle of the thing, you know? The other thing that was kind of sad was, there's a song on there called "Scumbag," but the way they mixed it, you can't hear what Mark and Howard are singing. There's a reason for that. They're singing, "Now Yoko's in the scumbag, we're putting Yoko in a scumbag."

Some critics would undoubtedly see that as part of your penchant for cheap smuttiness. Even today, you're still soliciting women's underwear from your audiences, and you keep a clothesline full of panties strung across your stage set. Do you have some sort of secret fetish for panties, or what?

Not on my part. But we used to have two guys in the band who were panty fetishists. It was a way to make them happy and to make the girls in the audience happy, too. I also think it's a good look for the stage. I think a stage with a clothesline full of women's underwear has a certain aroma to it. you know what I mean? We even have an underpants roadie -- the same guy who takes care of the Synclavier. It's true. As far as the smuttiness in the lyrics goes, a person can only be offended by smuttiness if they believe in smut as a concept and believe in the concept of dirty words -- which I don't. It's always seemed to be something that bothered rock writers more than anybody else. I mean, who the fuck are these rock writers, anyway?

You finally decided to retire the Mothers of Invention in 1977. Why ?

Well, for one thing, what the Mothers were famous for -- this wild and woolly weirdness of the Sixties -- had pretty much vanished from our stage show.

How come?

Because as you get musicians who can do certain musical things, you also find out that they sometimes lack a sense of humor. Or lack that particular aesthetic that makes it possible to take a toothbrush and a baby doll and a salami and a head of lettuce and a jar of mayonnaise and make entertainment out of it, you know? Not everyone can do that.

But you've soldiered on. Do you find that your audiences today come mainly to hear your new music -- or to see a living legend from the fabled Sixties?

Look, the people at these concerts are literally fanatic. There's kids that have tickets to nineteen shows. They've taken off from work, they're living in the park -- they're way into it. That's not living-legend time. I think the whole idea of a resurgence of interest in things from the Sixties is grossly over-estimated. There's a huge wishful-thinking factor attached to it on the part of Sixties-age people who wish that it were so. But younger kids don't give a rat's ass about the Sixties, and there's no reason why they should. I did an interview with a guy from a paper, and he said, "What do you think of today's music?" I said, "We are today's music. We are it, like it or lump it. What do you mean? Do you think that what I'm doing is something imaginary? We're out there today. We're doing it. It's alive."


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