Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Frank Zappa

The Father Of Invention

Rock musician Frank Zappa is a one-man cottage industry who has produced countless albums in a myriad of styles. He talks of his battles against censorship and his vision of a new school of creativity. By Gary Steel.

NOW 50, American rock’n’roll iconoclast Frank Zappa has forged a totally uncompromising career which has criss-crossed into political debate and satire. His body of work has swung with an alarming dexterity through a complex hula-hoop of styles, from doo-wop to blues to rock to jazz to classical and beyond. He now wants to revive the Bauhaus movement. Where? Maybe Australia, maybe New Zealand.
Zappa’s definition of rock journalism has often been quoted: "People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read."
But fortunately, he is in generous spirits when approached at his Los Angeles company, International Absurdities. Laughing, he says, "I’ve just been in the studio trying to explain to my secretary what Sardinian vocal music sounds like." Of course. He then launches into his vision of an antipodean Bauhaus. He explains that the Bauhaus movement, which produced a whole range of superior art and products prior to being smashed by Nazi Germany, could be revived in Australasia, with him as its principal creative architect! Of course!
"There hasn’t been anything like the Bauhaus since then – in other words, a building that would act as a magnet for artists of all different disciplines to work together and share their ideas, to create a style and create products.
"I started talking to the Australian consul about whether or not it would be feasible to do something like that there. By the time he explained Australian unions to me I said ‘thank you very much’ and was outta there in the blink of an eye.
"I would be delighted to talk to anybody from the New Zealand consulate about this idea. The idea of putting something like this in your part of the world would be attractive to artists from the rest of the world, just because your part of the world seems to be much more carefree and less stressful than the places they’re looking at working now.
"If the facility itself is set up properly it acts as a tourist magnet and acts as a magnet for other land development in the vicinity. It’s a good business proposition for any country."
But what could we expect from developments in the New Zealand music scene with Zappa at the helm? He jokes: "You’ve gotta start dressing like sheep and walking around in a circle. You’ll be surprised what your music scene will turn into!"

ZAPPA was born in Baltimore, Maryland (home of Edgar Allan Poe, Spiro Agnew and John Waters), and lived his early years on Edgewood Arsenal, a US base for poisonous gases and germ warfare. Every member of the family had a gasmask in case of accident. As a boy, his head was irrevocably turned towards strange sounds when he heard the extreme noise terror of Varese’s Ionisation.
In the mid-60s, with his group the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa created an alternative universe for young outcasts disappointed with the dippy hippy vibes of the time. The first release was Freakout, in 1966. It hit out at American teen mores, middle-class values, and veered stylistically from cheesy, greasy pop through to frightening avant-garde collages. It was a huge influence on musicians attempting new expressions through rock, and seemed to say: there are no limits.
This is something Zappa has continued to live up to in a career which has seen in excess of 50 albums (many of them doubles and triples), three feature films, three videos, a swag of side projects, and a merchandising operation. Zappa is probably the only artist in America to have total control of what, in his case, is a burgeoning cottage industry.
But what does it all mean? Zappa’s music is a heck of a thing to comprehend; then there’s all this other stuff. "That’s the point, though. The problem is that very few people even have the nerve to say what you just said. It is a HECK of a thing to comprehend. It’s a miracle if somebody can follow all of it, because that would mean that they would either have had to have done a lot of research to find out what all those lyrics mean, and/or have listened to a wide variety of different ethnic music and classical music and different kinds of blues stuff that I’ve listened to throughout my life in order to understand how I could develop my style from those influences.
"What I do is derived from a wide range of traditions from other cultures and different periods of time. I didn’t think it up out of thin air. To some people it sounds like the weirdest shit they’ve ever heard in their life, but if you know anything about musicology, then it becomes even more entertaining, because you see how some of these traditions got mutated into what I do now. And that’s probably one of the reasons why there’s an appreciation outside of the US, because those listeners have been exposed to a wider range of musical expression. There’s so little variety in the US radio broadcasts, and there’s no music education in schools anymore. So how’s a kid who’s never heard an orchestra or a string quartet, an opera or a folk tune or a sea shanty to have the slightest comprehension of what’s going on?"
Zappa’s electric guitar skills – which he sees primarily as opportunities for instant composition – are widely admired for their expressive qualities. In fact, his guitar playing often seems the only overtly emotional aspect of his music.
"Maybe in your mind you think that emotionality is a value, that it’s the ultimate hallmark of successful composition. I think there are OTHER things you can achieve in a composition that have nothing to do with emotional content. You can always convince people that you’re more emotional by having more vibrato (on guitar). Vibrato is just wiggling your hand back and forth, and if you do it without somebody asking you to, does that mean you’re an emotional musician? No. This might mean that you have palsy."
Which brings us to one constant theme in his music: humour. All areas of the arts are rife with those intent on stamping out humour, and many refuse to accept that it IS possible to be funny and serious at the same time. Zappa, as usual, is fairly much alone in this regard. How many rock humourists have their compositions studied at the Juillard music academy, or have their chamber works performed by Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra?
Given Zappa’s obvious importance, it’s bizarre that so much rock literature denies it. "It’s all stupid. I haven’t seen or heard anything that really tells the way rhythm and blues developed into rock’n’roll and what really happened and how all the different people got screwed. And how eventually the whole thing turned into an industry which was designed to support certain types of products. Certain groups were designed just for the use of soft drink manufacturers, beer manufacturers, tennis shoe manufacturers. Everything turned into a corporate expression."

ZAPPA’s co-authored autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (Picador, $18.95), helps make sense of one of rock’s most complex figures.
Typically, Zappa pulls no punches in his dissertations on music, parenting, schools and the Church, while his detailed chapter on censorship blasts the would-be guardians of American morality. Given his own tendency towards explicit lyrical content, it made sense that Zappa stood up to be counted in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Centre (collectively dubbed the ‘Washington Wives’) got together to force the censorship issue on rock music. When it reached Senate hearings, Zappa made a statement to Congress on the subject and defended the right to freedom of speech in a heavy round of television interviews. Ironically, Prince, whose lyrics to Darling Nikki had sparked off the whole affair, was absent from the defence.
The ultimate stupidity of labeling records for explicit content was revealed when Zappa’s 1986 Grammy award-winning Jazz From Hell carried a sticker warning against offensive lyrics. It’s an instrumental album.
Zappa has continued to monitor the censorship battle, and contends that it’s getting worse: "Little Red Riding Hood was removed from the public library in California, because a Christian group complained that Grandma drank wine and enjoyed it!"
Besides political battles, Zappa remains an incredibly prolific musician. Latest plans include putting together a 20-piece band for a world music festival in Japan and releasing the final three volumes of his 12-disc archival live set, You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore. How does he fit it all in? "I have an unbelievable wife, a really wonderful family, my kids don’t get into trouble, and we all get along fine. Besides that, nobody around here uses any drugs, nobody’s an alcoholic. It’s not party-time.
"This is a very special form of entertainment," he says, "because there are layers and layers and layers of it and depending on how much leisure time you have to dig into it, you can be pretty thoroughly entertained on all levels.
"The average music listener today, what are they looking for? Dance beats, some words that are pretty fuckin’ easy to understand and maybe three notes that you can hum. And then of course a real good hairdo and some real nice clothes to look at, and maybe a dance step you can pick up.
"I flunk in every one of those categories."

* This piece was originally published in the NZ Listener, April 22, 1991.


Every time I write something on Frank Zappa, the torture never stops, and this was the worst, because I had all these great quotes and a chance to tell the world (or at least the three million denizens of NZ) about Fabulous Frank. The problem is that there’s just SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT FRANK, and a story like this has a set word limit. On top of that, The Listener has a set readership, which had to be thought about. The end result was a story which I wasn’t particularly happy with, but which does, nevertheless, have some fairly unique Zappa quotes.
Subsequently, author Ben Watson used some of my interview extracts for his monumental FZ tome, The Dialectics Of Poodle Play.
The interview came about because Picador were releasing The Real Frank Zappa Book. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet the man in person, but got to talk on the phone for about an hour-and-a-half. I was as nervous as hell: Zappa is my all-time music hero, and I had read and seen him interviewed enough times to know that he could be a right cunt when faced with stupidity of any kind. Fortunately, he was a generous and forthcoming interviewee, and was keen to discuss subjects outside of the specific agenda.
When I have more time, and less tired fingers, I might bash out some of the interview transcript not included in the above piece, which includes his enthusiastic description of Sardinian vocal music.
In retrospect it’s an interview I feel very odd about, due to the fact that Zappa knew he was dying of cancer, but had not yet announced the fact. During the interview, he alluded to ill-health, but it didn’t seem right to quiz him on the details.


At March 1, 2006 at 6:11:00 PM PST, Blogger John Ivey said...

What a great article on a great man and what a lucky author to have interviewed him! In my humble opinion, you have captured a remarkably accurate portrait of a man who dares to be defined. Much kudos to your talent.

This is the first article I've read by you and eagerly anticipate reading more. I have yet to explore your Lumpy Gravy blogs. I myself am a Zappa aficionado and speak of him briefly in my post, Music, on my Meanderings and Memoirs blog. Would it be possible to quote your article and/or link to it from my blog? It is truly great material.

John Ivey

At November 6, 2011 at 11:55:00 PM PST, Blogger Pauline Butcher said...

As someone who lived and worked with Frank Zappa in his early days and detailed in my book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, this was a rivetting piece to read being as it reveals the man in his final days. Despite the onset of ill health, Frank's formidable intellectural force comes through loud and strong in resonse to Gary Steel's questions. Who else in rock'n'roll would talk about Sardinian music, or the wish to revive the Bauhause Movement before the Nazis took over in Germany to modern-day New Zealand, or would refuse to equate emotion with the value of music, and would fight politcal battles about the right to free speech? No one. Gary Steel demonstrates in his article the uniqueness of Frank Zappa in the music world. It deserves to be re-read by any Zappa fan.


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