As always, you got a great read every time Mr. Zappa let himself be interviewed. A must-read for the afficiandos out there.
By Charles Shaar Murray
In the first of a 2-part interview, Frank Zappa talks of glandular epics, dental floss, and the Strange Case of the Wide-Angle Lens.
“ZAPPA’S IN TOWN,” they said. “Wanna go along and talk to him?” Oh sure, sez I, always glad to have a chat with Frank. So off we go, cassette machine at the ready, to see what the Boss Mother is up to these days. Last time I’d seen him was last September, when he was in Europe to mastermind the Grand Wazoo tour, and he was still in his leg-brace and really not digging it at all. These days, he’s looking a lot better. He’s moving under his own power, and, as he opens up his hotel room door to let us in, his open shirt reveals an extremely healthy-looking tan.
Well, the cassette machine wasn’t quite as ready as I thought it was, which was a source of profound embarrassment to me, as I’d had similar trouble the previous year in Berlin. Anyway, after the delicate fingertips of Reuben Sano had remedied the temporary malfunction, we decided to get our hands well and truly into the meat of things. What’s the story, Frank?
“Well, after the Grand Wazoo tour there was the ten-piece group, which consisted of five brass, and one guy who doubled oboe, baritone sax, contra-bass sousaphone, baritone oboe, soprano sax and clarinet, with two guitars, bass and drums, and then after that came this group, which I’ve brought over here now.”
Who’s involved, Frank?
“George Duke on keyboards, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, Ian Underwood on woodwinds, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Ralph Humphry on drums, Tom Fowler on bass, and me on guitar,” he reeled off at breakneck speed.
“Me and George.”
Ah. A semi-new development, because the last album that featured Zappa’s vocal chords with any prominence was “We’re Only In It For The Money”.
“GOT NEWS for you. There’s a new one that’s just coming out that’s got me all over it,” he replied with a certain dark relish (available by post from Fortnum and Mason). “I am back in the singing business again. For the kind of lyrics that I write, it’s hard to get somebody else to identify with them to the extent that they express ’em properly. There’s millions of people who can sing better than me, but there’s not many who understand the lyrics sufficiently to get them across. So I figured that I might as well do it myself. I have a pretty limited range — I can’t sing very high so there are certain things that have to be done by other people. Ninety percent of that album is me singing the lead vocals.”
To what extent has the Mothers’ influence percolated onto AM radio?
“I couldn’t say, because I don’t listen to AM. You’d be a far better judge of that than I am.” What about Zappa’s pioneering use of electronics? The use of synthesisers and other madcap contrivances has certainly become highly prevalent of late.
“That’s probably because the technology available to groups has improved and increased in quantity. There’s more gizmos available.”
Does he think that they’re being used constructively, or merely as sound effects?
“Little of both. There’s nothing wrong with a good sound effect if you stick it in the right place. Spike Jones made a living out of it. Really one of the greats.”
What are the topics that Zappa is writing about these days?
“Well, there’s a song in this album ahout dental floss. Dental floss is a type of flaxen string which is coated with wax and comes in a 500-yard spool in a little plastic box. You pull it out and tear a strip off and you pull it between your teeth to remove food particles.”
Wowie zowie! Does Frank think that dental floss is a subject that has been previously neglected by songwriters?
“I think it is, and that’s why I have decided to attempt to fill the gap. There are some anatomical areas that have been investigated on this album. There’s three hot ones on there, dealing with glandular subjects “Camarillo Brillo”, “Dirty Love”, and “Dinah-Moe Humm” are glandular epics. “Montana” is the dental floss song. “Zomby Woof” is a very strange sort of boy-girl situation, “I’m The Slime” is a song about television, and “Fifty-Fifty” features a lot of interesting instrumental work around the screaming vocal which whirls around the room in quad.
“THIS IS our first quad release. I think it’s a very excellently recorded album. It’s got a very clear production, and on two speakers it still gets the idea across. It even sounds good on cassette machine. One of the reasons that it moults down so well is that the quad replacement on the master tape, from which all the two-channel tapes are made, places the instruments in an interesting way in quad. Instead of sticking one instrument in each corner of the room, and trying to ping-pong it all out like that, I would do things like doubling-up the quantity of signal from certain instruments in — what do they call it? — but anyway, I usually stick the bass drum in the centre of the room which means that an equal amount of signal reaches all four corners, and makes it appear to come from the centre of the room. But,” he paused for effect, “I also do that with the bass and with the lead vocal. But when you take a quad tape and you moult it down to two channels, whatever you’ve placed at quad centre is four times louder than it would be normally in the mix.”
The conversation proceeded, by various devious routes, to a famous occasion on which the Mothers got censored on TV. “What happened was that they wanted us to mime to our hit.” Their what? “Our hit. We never had one, but we were on this local TV show in New York, and we were supposed to mime to `Son Of Suzy Creemcheese’ from the `Absolutely Free’ album. All the guys in the band said, ‘Yeah, sure we’ll do it’, and I told them to just stand up there and say ‘Motherfucker’ throughout the whole thing, and not to make any attempt to match the words on the soundtrack. So we did. Unfortunately, they just turned the video of whenever it got to anybody who was on camera, so you’d see random shots of a drumbeat, a flashing light, close-up shots of the fingers on the guitars. The only times we run into big problems now is if we’re doing a networked television show – which we very seldom do — or if you’re working in a culturally deprived area and the promoter puts weird clauses into your contract. Virginia Beach is right up there — Louisville, Kentucky…”
Had there been any real change over the years in the way that Zappa’s material has been received?
“Only in quantity. Our audiences are generally larger than they’ve ever been before, but there’s no guarantee that the understanding has increased proportionately. Next year is our tenth anniversary.”
What’s the current progress on that fabled nine-album set?
“All I can say is that there’s a depression in the United States, folks. It’s very difficult to imagine putting our nine discs and having anybody afford to buy ’em.”
THE NEXT question was… let’s start again. Maybe it was the weather or something, or it could have been the extract of poodle’s pineal gland that I’d shot up twenty minutes before starting the interview. Anyway, the next thing I knew was that I heard my own voice emitting the following barbarous words: “Uh, Frank, what are you listening to these days.”
I could have sworn that the traffic outside stopped. The sky darkened. There was a crack of thunder, and the coffee-cups rattled ominously on the table. Joe Stevens’ moustache turned white. The room was filled with an awful stillness.
“Let me tell you something about this question that you’re asking me right now,” he began ominously. I quailed, and lit a cigarette with a trembling hand. “I’ve been asked this question in every interview that I have ever done. The answer has never been published once. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen my answer in print once. I tell ’em I listen to classical music. I’ve never seen anybody write in the article, ‘When Frank goes home, he turns on his record player and listens to Krzysztof Penerecki’.”
Well, Frank, if that’s how you feel about the Press, why do interviews?
“Here’s the thing. If you don’t get on the radio, you don’t get on television, how else is anybody gonna find out what you’re doing unless you do some interviews? So it’s functional from a business point of view to answer questions like ‘what sort of music do you listen to?’ It has merit. It’s just unfortunate that some of the people that you wind up doing interviews with are badly adjusted to the typewriter as a form of expression and have horrible feelings of guilt and inferiority and have feelings that they’re being abused by society in general and they wind up taking it out on you because you happen to be in the rock and roll business. I stopped reading interviews about two years ago. It’s been so long since I read one that even resembled what I said.
“Usually what happens is that the guy writes the thing and then it goes to” he impersonates a trumpet fanfare — “an editor, who modifies it to suit the editorial slant of the publication, and also to correct the grammar of the person who wrote it, and usually to insert things that will enhance the style. Then these things go into a file, after they’ve been published. And then some guy comes in and says — not to point the finger at you, because it’s happened a million times — ‘Oh, my cassette machine’s not working. Just tell me, I’ll remember.’ And he sure can’t write as fast as I talk. And then someone says to you, ‘What did you say in that interview?’ and the guy has just gone back to a file and dug up a bunch of stuff and just taken extracts from it.
“HE’S NOT going to tell his editor that his tape-recorder didn’t work. I remember one time that we played in Toronto. A reviewer came to the concert. He was so stoned that his girlfriend carried him out after we’d played three songs and the next day he wrote a review of the concert that was a rewording of an article in the ‘New York Times’, that some other famous rock writer had done. It was just unbelieveable.”
We began to breathe easier, but Frank hadn’t finished yet. “The interviews are one thing, but then there’s the pictures.” Joe Stevens’ camera twisted itself out of its master’s hands and got halfway to the door before we got a half-nelson on it and put it back to work. “I mean that’s really the bane of my existence. I’m surprised that anybody even recognises me from the pictures that I’ve had published. I would say that seventy-five per cent of the people who come at me with a camera say, ‘For this guy — the wide-angle lens’. They focus straight in on my nose, and then they say, ‘Smile!’ Have you any idea what that could do to a human face?
“There was one time when a guy took a picture of me for a newspaper article in the Sunday review section of a Maryland newspaper, a three or four-page article. The opening picture looked like something out of a carnival freak show, and it was so embarrassing that the editor had to insert an asterisk by the picture saying ‘Face distorted by wide-angle lens’. It was that far out. He knew that if they ran that picture, someone would read the article to find out how somebody who was that physically deformed could actually talk. I’m fully in favour of artistic expression as long as the editor dares to put an asterisk by the picture saying ‘Face distorted by wide-angle lens’.
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