So here you have it – part two of this intriguing and nice conversation.
Penguins in bondage and other perversions
Charles Shaar Murray concludes his discourse with Frank Zappa
WHERE WERE WE? Oh yeah, Frank Zappa. Anyway, ol` Frank is sitting in his hotel room above Kensington, disccoursing on this and that and demonstrating his new battery-operated practice amp.
Such subjects as the new “Over-Nite Sensation” album and the vaguaries of various representatives of the journalistic profession have been suitably dealt with, and so our conversation gracefully turns to other topics.
Since Zappa is in the rockanroll business more sociologically than musically, does he find it a good place to be?
“The best of all possible worlds. Where else could a man whose face has been distorted by a wide-angle lens find refuge?” Oh well, back to the old wide-angle-lens-obsession routine. On with the show, and a few more of Frank’s observations drawn from his encounters wid da Press. “When most people come out and see me it’s just one segment of a varied day of the business that they’re in, which is operating some kind of writing device, or preparing a cassette for somebody else to operate a writing device, someone who wasn’t actually at the interview. Most interviewers don’t even transcribe their own cassettes, and then you hear the results of that. The guy says, ‘Sure you said it, I go it right here on the cassette, my secretary wrote it up.’ I’ve been misquoted so horribly from cassette recordings because my diction is so bad,” he slurred. “Besides you end up saying things on cassette recordings that the people who’re transcribing you can’t spell — like Krzyztof Penderecki!”
Like Mayall, Korner and Miles Davis, Zappa’s various bands have always provided an opportunity for musicians to make a name for themselves under his saturnine wing before embarking on their own projects. Or — have they?
“It has been in the past, and I’m not prepared to have it happen in the future. I’m tired of it. I do not intend to be providing that service in the future.”
What’s interesting is that people who’ve been through the Mothers have developed in very different ways since. Take, for example, Jim Guercio (now Chicago’s producer) and Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine…
“Not really, because you didn’t see the band at the time that they were there, and the band is always a reflection of the musical tastes and abilities of its members. I write around the musicians, so the repertoire that we were playing when Henry Vestine was in the group certainly took advantage of the things that he was able to do on the guitar. He’s a blues player, and so we were playing a lot of funky stuff at that time. You said that they went off into different areas, but all they did was follow the direction that they’s been going in with the Mothers. ‘King Kong’ started off as a piano exercise and was written in 1965. At the time, that was a hard lick to learn. As soon as they could play it, we recorded it.
The way we play it now, it’s ten times faster than on the record. When I listen to the record now, it seems like a dirge. It’s not really that hard. You ought to hear the stuff we’re playing now. It’s hot sheeeit! Lemme tell ya — this band is playing the hardest repertoire you ever heard. They got some unbelievable things to do from memory. With the Wazoo they were all playing off sheet music.”
How long did it take to assemble the Wazoo?
“About three or four months. It was very hard to get together, because they’re all studio players, and they were all busy. It came as a considerable surprise to them to learn that they were going on the road. They’d never experienced it before, and I’d never been out on the road with a group that large trying to perform electric music. It was a worthwhile experience. It only cost me $2,000. That’s how much I lost on the tour. The tour grossed $97,000, and the expenses exceeded that by $2,000.”
Let me digress at this point and tell you about my hamburger. Before the interview started I’d ordered one of these objects and during the conversation I’d been taking surreptitious bites at it, which ultimately resulted in my getting caught with my mouth full when I should have been asking another perspicacious, dynamic, vitally important teenage question. Zappa, as befits a Californian, was most tolerant of the shameful spectacle of man like myself effectively silenced with a large gag of meat, cheese and lawdknows what else.
“Go on, eat your burger. We people from Los Angeles understand about hamburgers. I had this terrible burger today. I had to give it back. They really haven’t mastered the art of the burger yet. The contents of this one were even more mysterious than what they put in the MacDonalds burger.”
“What’s wrong with a Macdonalds burger anyway?” interposed your fearless, relevant reporter.
“It contains no meat,” riposted Uncle Frank. “Or rather, it does contain meat, but we don’t know what kind. The thing is, due to some peculiarity in the labelling laws in the United States, you can say “100 per cent pure beef” on something, but it might contain 60 per cent chicken. That’s the law. The poultry farmers had a good lobby.”
Returning momentarily to the subject of that worthwhile $2,000 experience with the Wazoo, to what extent are the Mothers economically viable?
“Well, a group that size, earning that amount of money, carrying that much equipment, going to Europe, playing that few jobs in that amount of time cannot make money at all,” he replied with his best creepy leer. “It just does not work. You gotta four piece band? You’re gonna make money. You just get out there and play blues.
Why is it necessary to pose to play the blues? My man Albert King don’t do no posin’.
“Well, he’s very imposing. He has stature. If you don’t have any stature, then screw your face up and stick your leg out, and compensate that way. It’s always nice to see someone twitching around. There’s more spectacle. The larger the place you`re playing, the larger gesture you have to make to get to the point across. If you’re playing to fourteen thousand people in a hockey rink and you stand still on stage and play your best, it does not go over. But if you stand on stage in front of fourteen thousand people in that hockey rink and the lights are good and you twitch and you play one chord then you are sensational. The tactics of the show have to change if you’re going to get across to the guy’s who’s sitting at the back of the fourteen thousand seater hall. To him you’re just a speck, and if there’s not proper lighting he can’t even see you at all. So you turn on the coloured lights and if the speck is jumping around in time with the beat of the music, then it’s all right. The guy feels that the price he paid for this ticket was worth while. But if you’re just standing there playing, the chances are that he can’t even hear you anyway.”
Bearing in mind that Wembley is pretty goddam big, will Zappa’s upcoming show convince the guy at the back that he’s really seeing something?
Far out. Tell me more, Frank.
“There is choreography of the most absurd variety. We’re playing songs like “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue” now and it has choreography. We have a new song called “Don’t You Every Wash That Thing?” which has some very mysterious choreography — and several blues numbers with choreography. Blues choreography involving not only the legs but the arms performed by three people at the same time. This is the horn section doing their steps with arm movements. Some of the titles we are performing include “Penguin in Bondage” – a blues – and “Sluff My Throar”, which is also a blues. You start with the concept of “Dust My Broom” and stretch it a little and alter a few of the chords, but it’s still the blues — as long as the choreography is there. I have a black T-shirt. A black silk T-shirt that looks as if it’s torn at the sleeves, but in fact it’s not. It’s sewn that way to look like it’s torn. It’s really a groove. Of all the things you should wear to play the blues…”
How about scars and pimples?
“I have no scars, but I’ve got pimples. I’ll be so busy cavorting, grimacing, posing, singing and playing the blues that I will not – repeat, will not — have time to show any scars. The pimples may well show through because of the scantiness of the T-shirt. You’ll have to imagine the scars, and all the sheer hurt and anguish that went into “Penguin In Bondage”. There is degradation; there also perversion and hotness. Hot perversion. The “Penguin” song contains a bottle of ginger ale, and a hoop made out of two coathangers with some Kleenex wrapped around it, which is set on fire.”
Who jumps through it, I wondered with no small amount of trepidation?
“Why” answered Zappa tolerantly, “the penguin in bondage, of course.”
Of course. Sounds like fun.
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