Frank Zappa

by Sylvie Simmons
MOJO (2004) 

“People have been known to fuck each other with my albums on, but I suppose they are special types of people who like special types of things. Hardier sorts. It’s probably a bit more difficult to experience some sort of glandular glee while listening to one of my albums than it would be to have Barry Manilow crooning in the background. Most people don’t put my records on and talk over them. It’s too hard, so they usually pay a bit more attention. I don’t think other artists get that same kind of attention to what they are doing.”

It was a dull Sunday afternoon in 1982 and the orange-brown smog that usually hugs the Hollywood Hills was a sad shade of shit. In his house up in the Canyon, Frank Zappa was sitting where he pretty much sat for the last ten years of his life, in a battered, grey armchair in front of a recording desk in his home studio. I had wondered aloud what he envisaged his audience doing while they listened to his records – I was just listening to one of his through the studio speakers, *There’s A Ship Arriving Too Late To Save The Drowning Witch* – and his answer, like Zappa himself, was funny, scathing, egotistical and smutty. Or as he might have said, realistic. Artistic and cultural taste in the U.S. he once said in an address to the American Society of University Composers, was dictated by a 13-year-old named Debbie from a God-fearing, Government-trusting family of white folk from the suburbs, and any artist serious about their work might as well pass around a jug of cyanide-spiked Kool Aid, like they did in Jonestown, and kiss their art goodbye.

Zappa, of course, was deadly serious about his. After long, bitter battles in and out of court with his record label Warners on the one hand and bootleggers (“I’ve got a shotgun I’d like to use on them”) on the other , he had formed his own label Barking Pumpkin (named after his wife Gail and her Marlboro habit) to release his prodigious output. But being a record company chief wasn’t something he enjoyed (“I literally do most of the work myself and it takes a lot of time and I hate office-type crap”) so much as a necessity for artistic survival. Same went for the studio. “You come off tour and find Fleetwood Mac or some famous group has got all the good places booked for 13 months, and you have to wait until they’ve stopped piddling around or use a second-rate studio”, he said, “so I built this, and I haven’t worked any place else since” . Only it’s clear that Zappa found this set-up far more to his liking.

“I get up at six o’clock in the morning, then I go in the kitchen and I get a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and smoke a couple of cigarettes and then come right down here and go to work”, he reeled off his schedule. “Sometimes I’ll take a shower. The whole rev-up period takes no more than 45 minutes, then I’m on the case. If I’m taking it easy I’ll do a 14 hour day. I have two engineers who work in double shifts – one guy comes in for eight hours and the next guy comes in and relieves him and I work both shifts. It’s serious, the usage that’s made of this room.”

Several projects were underway simultaneously. One was the reason for this interview, Zappa’s new record – ” I have no desire to go around spending five hours running my mouth off, it’s something I have to do to compensate for lack of airplay. f I don’t do this I don’t talk at all; I go home and shut my mouth and drink a lot of coffee”. As it played, Frank’s son Dweezil quietly slipped into the studio to fetch something. “Prior to this”, said Zappa, when he left, of his offspring’s entry into the rock ‘n’ roll business, “his main love in life was baseball, then he switched to the guitar. Either way he’ll get a blow job, no problem. I don’t know how long the band will last, but Dweezil is totally serious about the guitar.”

When, simply because I knew I’d enjoy the reply, I asked him if he ever came down from the hills and went to any Hollywood rock parties, he spat, “”The last thing in the world that I would do is go to a Hollywood party. Because they’re fucking detestable, that’s why, a bunch of the most disgusting people in the world getting together to exhibit the most deranged body language exemplifying the most twisted desires and the most worthless value systems, and all snorting cocaine.” Zappa famously despised drugs. And, married to Gail (his second wife, and mother of their four children) since 1969, he was similarly unmoved by rock’s sexual opportunities, despite his fondness for talking dirty and his championing of Hollywood groupie girl group The G.T.Os.

“I didn’t write a rock ‘n roll song until I was about 23”, Zappa said. “I started writing chamber music when I was 14, then when I was 18 years old I started writing orchestral pieces.” The classical orchestra, he felt, was the “ultimate instrument”, because, like a machine and unlike rock musicians, they did what they were told. When I asked how he found, and why he lost, musicians he answered, “It’s very hard to get anyone to play this music because it’s so hard… I have open auditions and you have to know what to look for in terms of raw material, because very seldom is a guy totally prepared for this job when he walks into the audition. You have to use your imagination to see what the guy can do with a bit of training. When some guy decides to leave, we have a file of résumés and cassettes people send in all the time.

“Why do they leave? Sometimes because they have this image of their career ready to burst forth upon the cosmos at large, and I encourage them to do that. If they feel that they can do any better outside of my band, then it is definitely the time for them to leave. Anybody who doesn’t realise what they’ve got in terms of opportunities, of exposure, of musical education as a member of my band, if they don’t appreciate that then they shouldn’t be there, because there’s too many other people that want their jobs.”

Alone, he had been working too on some musical experiments. “Music, broken down in terms of sound frequencies, is going to affect various parts of your body, depending on how loud it’s played and what the frequencies are. There’s a frequency that affects you right here”, he swiped a finger along the bridge of his famous nose “and gives you a headache. There’s another frequency that will make your bowels move. Another one that will get you off and others that will make you pee – you just experiment on yourself and see what part of your body seems to be receiving that information. There’s a frequency that will stop your heart”. He smiled. “Just molecules of air moving at a certain rate are going to interact with the molecules of your body and make things happen. Now, how do you administer this? Through a discotheque where there’s a nice PA system to get it across…?”

It wasn’t anything he ever released on record – “I suppose if you had limitless funds you could have limitless amusing things to do” – just one of the many things that he felt, as a professional composer, he should know about. Ignorance was high on Zappa’s odium list – along with music business lawyers and accountants, rock critics, bootleggers, the U.S government, the English, censors, time-wasters (“that will almost drive me to murder”) and fools. That last group seemed to be occupied by almost everyone but a few close friends, his wife and children. If and when he did leave the studio, he said, “if I’m between sets or something, I’ll go upstairs, hug my wife, tickle the kids, do that kind of stuff”. But generally they left him to it. Zappa was working here, in this room, tirelessly right up till the end – one of the chief architects of 20th century American music and the man driving the crane with the wrecking ball.

Leave a Reply