As far as we in this country are concerned. Frank Zappa is probably the most deeply unfashionable musical figure imaginable. Deprived of radio play and press coverage. thus leaving word-of—mouth as the only means of attracting any new listeners under the age of 35. he must scratch his head over some ofthe misconceptions that surround his name. For instance:
1)He's the last ofthe hippies. A peculiar idea. considering that a more astute critic of hippiedom did not exist in 1968. let alone ridicule them in albums like We're Only in it
for the Money.
2)He's constantly stoned. The most heinous of all. Zappa is a renowned teetotaller. Anyclouds of marijuana-smoke at his gigs hang
over the audience. not the stage. 3)He's nothing more than a (his own words) ‘(lerangetl comedian '. Probably the most widespread assumption. and to a large extent it sticks. Ifyou don‘t think you can handle a mind that would overlay a meditative keyboard solo with a dialogue concerning oral sex with a rubberised gay robot. you'd best avoid this man like the plague. Ile nevertheless holds a commanding position. straddling both the rock and mode rn classical worlds and drilling his bands to a precision heard nowhere else. What‘s most overlooked is his talent as an original and instantly-recognisable guitarist who never got the recognition of a John McLaughlin or a Ilendrix.
4)H e is grossly self-indulgent. We‘ll get to that later.
5)He is of absolutely no further relevance. Well. . . the performer who still displays ‘Don't forget to register to vote' on his sleeves whenever election time comes around has been tirelesslly active in the US. campaigning before Congress and on TV against the censorship of rock albums proposed by a group ofwives ofprominent Senators. and generally trying to make the politically apathetic youth ofhis country aware of the kind of corruption that is considered a normal part ofgovernment.
When I call his him in Los Angeles his wife Gail is in the process of reading him an interview scheduled to appear in High Times magazine to decide if they should let them run it. It‘s on Zappa‘s favourite subject — ‘censorship and government and stuff‘ — but the editorial standpoint is not one that he‘s happy with. ‘Basically. it‘s a magazine for people who like to use drugs‘, but on balance he'll probably let it go through.
It is this urge. rather than any wish to rivet us with his life story. that has prompted The Real Frank Zappa Book. Had it been intended as autobiography. we might have heard more about the legendary exploits of Captain Beefheart, or other notable figures Zappa has known and worked with. Yet so eager is he to get to the ‘contemporary issues‘ at the back that he cuts short a fairly atypical account of growing up in the 40s and 50s. with a father who gave his kids mercury to play with. and
While his musical accomplishments are treated with general disdain by the arbiters oftaste in Britain, Frank Zappa has kept himself busy in his homeland by disseminating information and opinions on government. censorship and TV evangelism. Alastair Mabbott spoke to him about his first book.
newly-developed DDT was safe to eat that he brought a sack home; a doctor who was equally certain that inserting radium into the nostril was a sure-fire cure for sinus trouble: and his own preoccupation with combustible substances. climaxing in a chapter entitled ‘Ilow I Almost Blew My Nuts ()ff‘.
‘Yeah.’ he drawls. ‘I think that‘s all that‘s really entertaining about my life.‘ before going on to explain the significance of the socially relevant staff. ‘There is no other book that is going to a rock‘n‘roll audience that even touches those topics. I think that it performs a useful function that way.‘
Lately. now that the public seems
Wives. Zappa‘s been following the eventful case ofTV evangelist Jim Bakker. taking note ofa few stupidities in George Bush‘s drug policy. and goggling at the latest variant on Star Wars — Dan Quayle's baby. ‘Brilliant Pebbles‘. ‘Now they‘re trying to convince people that it‘s a smart thing to do to put 10.000100lb bombs in orbit. [H were in the Soviet Union and some other country launched 10.000 bombs and they were hovering over my country. I‘d think of it as an act of war. They even admit that it won‘t protect the United States from a nuclear attack.‘ And could anything protect Britain against Zappa‘s vindictive projectiles? Ever since he spent a
audience member pushed him into the orchestra pit ofthe Rainbow, he has held this country in particularly low esteem; a position exacerbated by union regulations. an Old Bailey court case in which he had to defend some typically risque lyrics. the trumpet section of the LSO. one particular PR agent who thought it would be a neat idea to take journalists to a brothel instead of the concert. and above all, the mentality ofthe press. The Real FZ Book abounds with weary comments on the British. Typically, the only bad review the band got in their 1988 world tour was for their London show.
‘It‘s theoretically possible that the music that I play and the personality that I have are not properly suited to the British mentality. and all the writer was doing was expressing the rage of the public that I should give over and quit wasting everybody’s time with what I do. Or another way to look at it is that as soon as they see me coming it’s a golden opportunity to sharpen their word skills.’
His own music aside, if there‘s anything being made that he could appreciate in the way he did Johnny Guitar Watson discs when he was growing up. he certainly hasn’t heard it. Most ofwhat he hears. in terms of rock’n'roll is ‘just product’, but he continues to live in LA, the hub of the selfsame mediocre output. He admits to living there for no reason other than business. and that his kids like it, before recalling that ‘Hollywood in 1964—65 was a different story from what it is today. I used to like it, as a matter of fact.‘ With Rolling Stone based in San Francisco and promoting nationwide the local groups that Zappa couldn‘t stand - ‘the psychedelic bullshit’ — he found himselfdefending LA rock groups all the time. ‘I took great offence every time they said how fab and groovy San Francisco groups were. I doubt whether I would be tempted to do that today.’
Then what of accusation 4)? Does
. he feel justified in indulging his own
satirical and scatological obsessions because there is so little music around that has any individuality to it?
‘Well. first ofall. let‘s take a look at the accusation. I“ stand accused, I’m usually being accused by journalists, and since the journalists you‘re referring to are probably from Britain, one must question the accusation. Then we need a definition ofthe word “indulgent”. as applying to a person who is just deciding to do his own music. Ifyou think it’s indulgent for a person to develop his own style and go in his own direction — if that is indulgent and it qualifies as a negative factor — I’m the worst person on earth. I really don’t have any interest other than doing my own stuff. I think obsessive would be a better word.‘
I think he might have heard that one before.
The Real Frank Zappa Book is out now front Picador at £12. 95. Zappa ’s entire back catalogue is gradually being re-issued on CD and new
was “wonvinccd that mC to have had its fill ofthe Washington yearin awheelchair after an English materialispending. 10 The List 15 — 28 September 1989 i. p l