"Talking with Frank" by Fabio Massari
Los Angeles/São Paulo,
It may not seem so, but it is easy to start talking about Frank Zappa.
Suffice to say that, almost thirty years after the launch of his debut album, Freak Out! (the first double concept album in rock history), everything has already been said about the life and works of this pungent critic of anything that smells fishy in the workings of the establishment be it social, political or musical.
From clown to iconoclast, from genius to madman, with every right to be dubbed a Stravinsky, Boulez or modernist, for the delight of critics whose digression ranges from the simply amateurish to the height of exegesis. More than fifty records paint the chaotic picture of a rock universe, from rhythm 'n' blues to the ramshackle pseudo opera with Hollywood overtones, not to mention the psychedelia with an abstemious beat, jazz-rock and (it is obvous) many of the best guitar interludes of which we are aware. As if this was not enough, one must add to all this the fact that, having no inclination whatsoever to curb his tongue, Zappa is one of the main verbal warehouses that music has ever known. For the pleasure of some and to the horror of others.
Frank Zappa keeps going on the fringe and not only in the United States, where in any case he is brazenly boycotted by musical institutions (shop chains, radio stations, television channels...) who have always sees the power of a potential enemy in his repertoire. What is most ironic is that the legislation which makes the boycotting of artists not connected to large corporations possible, guarantees complete freedom of expression to those who auto-institutionalize themselves in the independent sector.
In other words, they can boycott Zappa in certain areas, but someone who wants to meet him will.
In Brazil too it has always been a complicated business. Listening to Zappa down here is, even today, somewhat adventurous: information has to dug out like gold and in the shops, the national discography is zero, nothing.
These factors are to blame if probable fuel for the Zappa/fan relationship is a peaceful admiration, armed with respect, sincerity and pleasure... the pleasure that, according to Zappa himself, has been almost eliminated with the birth of corporate rock in the middle of the Seventies decade.
It was this pleasure that brought me to Zappa's home in Los Angeles for this brief conversation which took place in the now distant August of 1991. Perhaps what I might have asked him now would be different: afterwards his relationship with music changed and, by force of circumstances, with his work. But the statements he makes are never banal and remain important fragments of one of the most influencial figures of this century's music.
It was the first time that a Brazilian journalist had set foot on the sacred ground of Zappa's home, and this privilege was of a very special kind. The wait in the garden was not one of the worst: a quarter of an hour was enough to come the conclusion that Zappa's house has no clearcut shape.
It is only a series of passages, spiral staircases, turns and crossroads one following another set in a botanical garden.
When Mark Holden, one of the secretaries appeared and said "Frank is waiting", there was no going back. Great.
In the comfortable room, the Zappa memorabilia would even tempt the fan who is most against stealing; gold records on the walls, big-nosed puppets with a moustache, computers and the man himself, only a "Good, you've come, sit down".
- You've always been very interested in politics, and one of your principle targets was President Ronald Reagan.
"Everything bad in the U.S.A. now is Reagan's fault. Disastrous economic policy, all kinds of scandals that involve the administration, it's all his fault. He was an idiot but he knew how to tell a good joke. The people around him were devils, they enriched their friends and left the average American citizen with no hope for the future. Reagan was an imperialist president, with television and rest of the media in his pocket".
- You have said that you are going to leave the stage for good. Is there no hope of seeing you in Brazil, then?
"American musicians are very attached to money, the music's not that important to them, it's just another job. I've already had offers that you could consider at more than millionaire level, that means millions of dollars, but I don't feel like getting a band together and facing certain things any more. Where Brazil is concerned, it's a pity that I've never been invited to go anywhere in South America. Not even Mexico, where I have a very big following".
- We have heard reports more than once of your candidature for presidency in the United States. But, supposing you were elected, you would have been involved in matters that are foreign to an artist's experience. The drug problem for example...
"You have two options: either you keep your mouth shut and you put up with a corrupt administration, or you do anything you can. Certain things have to change, certain stupid mentalities have to go. As regards drugs, I think they ought to be put under control. In some states - Kansas, for example - alcohol can only be bought in retail points controlled by the government. The only way to bring to an end the profits made by the drug barons is to lower the price, making it possible for circulation to be watched over by the state.
It is always the consumer who gets punished, and we have the most packed prisons among the industrialized countries. Now, the problem is that these barons corrupt the government and it gives up making any effort whatsoever to change the laws. It's a dirty business, I know, and that's why it worries me".
- Wouldn't it be easier, mor appropiate, if you were to take up something connected with culture?
"Here a Ministry of Culture doesn't exist. And you know why? There is no culture. There are two words that can't be used here. To tell the truth there are seven not allowed on the radio: shit, piss, fuck, but two of them you can't use anywhere at all: culture and intellectual. If you mention support for so-called culture, the Right is on your back immediately. Here, however, an intellectual is a baldie the ugly guy who nevers gets sucked off by women, I can say I'm an intellectual, but the basic model the USA requires is that of the poor bastard. That's the way it is, otherwise the real America is the one with the fat guy who guzzles beer".
- You have always argued a lot against censorship. What is happening about the blacking-out business on records? Do you think a record liked Broadway The Hardway should have it, or not?
"Certainly it should, it's a lot more offensive than most of the things that get released. But they can't do a thing because I own my label, and my nose. They can only refuse to stock the records in the shop, like Block Buster, which is a chain controlled by one of these fake Christians. The problem with censorship here goes beyond all this, people censor themselves, they're afraid of going against the majority. My work has been concealed many times but I keep insisting".
- How many Zappa records are available in the shops? And on the subject of records, vinyl no longer exists in the USA. You have always defended the CD, don't you think that a little of that poetic pleasure of handling the sleeve, the inside, is lost with them?
"In the last 25 years I have made something like sixty records, but I'm not sure how many of them are in the shops. If you are someone who buys a records for the music, you have to stay with the CD. The sound is unquestionably better. I don't make little books, I do records for the music in them. In the past existed all this magic of sleeve appreciation, the thing worked in a harmonious way, but it's a trend that has died out".
- How has your series of official bootlegs, Beat the Boots, gone?
"I have never heard these records: they were selected by a specialist. I hate bootlegs and you ought to know it. The production is shitty, I spend all my money in buying equipment, in order to make good records, with quality that gets better every time. And some prick with a little tape recorder appears, tapes my concert, puts my name on it and makes money. It makes me mad".
- There are some artists who have moved in and released official bootlegs...
"Only not one of them has done what I have. No-one got the bootleggers by the throat. No-one has used the bootlegged recording, with the bootleg's sleeve, and with the lower price. It's just another official record made by opportunists".
- I have an excellent bootleg of a concert of yours that I went to London, in 1984... (Note: before I finish, Zappa remembers this single English venue of that year, when he did two concerts on the same evening) and I remember that in the middle of the introduction a guy came running from the back of the theatre shouting a lot of nonsense. I could see a strange light in your eyes. Were you scared?
"After a year in a wheelchair, what do you think? After a lunatic attacked me at the Rainbow, I started going around with a bodyguard, which is not the most appealing thing in the world".
- Any other English reminiscence of this kind?
"The most typically English episode happened at the Royal Albert Hall. We had this concert planned, with an English orchestra and my band. And there was this peculiar law, typical, that said there could only be rehearsals for live concerts and not for recordings. The problem was that we wanted to record a record live...
The woman in charge of the theatre said that in order to make the thing work I would have to pay more for rehearsals. And on top of that: a trumpet player came to me saying that he wanted to leave, because at a particular moment he was to shout "penis!", and this was offensive. Conclusion: the tickets were sold out, the audience was on the way, the band and the rest of the orchestra was waiting, the woman closed the theatre. I took her to court for breach of contract and she took me for pornography. The nonsense that came from the court itself was more pornographic...".
- Does a more difficult or an easier audience exist for an artist with a career spanning over twenty years?
"Certainly, audiences are very different. The worst place in the world to play is here in Los Angeles. The audience has that Guns n 'Roses mentality, they don't pay much attention to the music .... they just want to mess around. The best place here in the USA is New York. In Europe I've always been given a warm welcome. Germany, France, sometimes Italy too...".
- Has this "sometimes" anything to do with the Palermo episode, immortalized in volume three of the live series You Can't Do That...? What happened?
"Even today I still don't quite know what happened there. We were playing in the local football stadium, which belong to the Mafia. Most of the security men also belonged to the Mafia, only there were policemen and army people too. And there is no need to add that no love is lost between them. For a moment, I could see a soldier kneeling in front of the stage who is shooting some tear gas at the audience. And then the confusion started. Every man for himself, shooting at each other, because they were all well armed. No-one was undestanding anyone else and we couldn't stop playing, otherwise the thing could have got for worse. We were closed in the stadium for hours. The sleeve of A Man From Utopia with the inscription "Fuck Off" is a homage to this tour, which, if this wasn't enough, coincided with the Italian football victory in the World Cup....".
- How is your son Dweezil getting on?
"Fine, the only thing I don't want him to do is spend 25 years on the road like I did. In my time, rock was interesting. The next twenty five years will only be decline. On the contrary, it is a while that the decline has already begun. It's only business. All this began about 1975, when the businees man discovered that rock was the perfect tool for selling his product. >From there to an agreement with the record companies was a small step.... and rock began to sell beer and trainers".
- Could you choose one of your records for each decade? Something that sums up your work in each of these periods?
"Freak Out! was a great album for the Sixties and it stays up-to-date even today. It's idea was to show a different view of American culture. If you listen to it today, you see that not much has changed. The Sixties decade was a good one for me, I made good records like Joe's Garage. For the Eighties, I have no doubts about staying with Thing Fish, the weirdest one in my career".
- We can say that your relationship with music journalists has never been a relaxed one. After all these years, what do you make of today's critics?
"Today things are a little better. Twenty years ago the whole journalistic system was corrupted, you could buy them with drugs, holidays in the sun or things like that. Nowdays there seems to be a generation that is more prepared".
- I'd like you choose some great rock guitarists.
"In my opinion, the guitarist who has contributed most to rock, who is better now than he was before, is Jeff Beck".
- Is it of any importance to you at all that you have hardly ever been mentioned in lists of the best guitarists?
"Why should I have been there? I don't think I've contributed anything, at least not to rock. What is important in rock is how fast you are. And I don't like competitions, I have neither the age nor the energy for worrying about this kind of thing. I'm well-aware of my own limits...".