The Rock & Roll Disc Interview: Frank Zappa
By Tom Graves
December 1987/January 1988
Frank Zappa is nothing if not an American original. As American youth swarmed to record stores in search of Monkees and Archies records (it should be noted that Zappa actually appeared on a Monkees TV segment) in the 1960's, Frank Zappa was honing his skills as a satirist of brilliance and as a major force in studio experimentation. On such early albums as Freak Out, Lumpy Gravy, and We’re Only In It For the Money, Zappa singlehandedly expanded much of the language and direction of rock music by constantly testing studio and audience limits and boldly broaching new musical frontiers.
Never at a loss for an opinion or razor comment, Zappa made headlines in 1985 when he took on the Washington wives of the PMRC during the infamous Danforth hearings. Other targets of his poison jibes have included hippies, drugs, disco music, and television evangelists.
At 47, Frank Zappa is still in the forefront of rock innovation and remains as controversial as ever.
Rock & Roll Disc: For a number of years I had considered Freak Out one of my back closet relics until I dusted it off and played it about five years ago. I was surprised at how viable it still seemed to me. Why do you think Freak Out, which is now over 20 years old, has retained its bite, wit, and innovation for this length of time?
Frank Zappa: Because some things just don’t change. The things that the songs are critical of in American society are still there today. So that is one of the reasons why the wit still works. It tells you two things: One, that the targets of the songs are still alive and kicking; and two, it shows you roughly how much humor is worth in the larger scale of things. Obviously, since I have been talking about the same topics for over 20 years and nothing has happened, it kind of proves that nothing ever will get changed.
R&RD: Many critics consider Freak Out to be the first concept album in rock music. How did you arrive at some of the sophisticated studio techniques this early in your career? You had only done a couple of minor movie soundtracks prior to this.
Zappa: As a matter of fact I did have studio experience because I owned a recording studio in Cucamonga, California before we even made that album. It was one of the few places in the world at that time where it was possible to do multi-track overdubs. Because of a man named Paul Buff, who is living in Memphis now I believe. Paul learned his electronic skill in the Marine Corps, got out and decided he wanted to go into the record business. And he built this recording studio which I later purchased from him. He built a homemade five-track recorder which operated on half-inch tape.
You have to remember that in 1962 when I purchased this there was only one other multi-track recording situation, and that was Les Paul’s. He had an eight-track machine, which was a custom device. And all the rest of the studios in Los Angeles were either stereo or at the most four-track. What Paul did was he built his own heads for the machine. At that time it was believed it was impossible to put any more than four heads that close together on one piece of tape. And so he laughed at everybody and set out and did it.
He was also one of the pioneers of 24-track recording, because on a subsequent job he had for a man in Los Angeles named Art Laboe [who has compiled oldies collections for LP and CD – T.G.] Art helped Paul get his job there and financed some of his inventions. One of them was a 10-track recorder where he built all the electronics for the machine and modified an Ampex half-inch recorder and had a brand new 10-track head stack put on the thing. Without Paul Buff a lot of the things that exist in the recording business today would not be there. He invented the Kepex. Do you know what that is?
R&RD: No, I’m afraid I don’t.
Zappa: It’s a noise gate device. He also invented a compressor called a Gain Brain. Paul had built this rather unusual recording studio in a town called Cucamonga, California. Shortly after I met him he was in debt, and he owed various vendors money for different things. He also owed back rent to his landlord. So I made an agreement with him where I took over the studio and its debts lock, stock, and barrel for a small amount of money. So I virtually lived in this recording studio for a year before the Freak Out album was made. I learned all the tricks of the trade that I knew at that time from Paul Buff and from working with the equipment in that studio.
R&RD: You’ve been outspoken in your views of Sgt. Pepper. How did your earlier work portend the Beatles’ experimentations on Sgt. Pepper, and do you feel that you have gotten the proper credit for the innovations you pioneered on those first albums of the Mothers?
Zappa: Well, for one thing it was reported in a few interviews of the time that John Lennon had heard the early stuff that we had done, and probably because of that some of the things that the Beatles later went on to do, and actually at least one of the albums the Rolling Stones later did, was directly traceable to the kind of weirdness we were doing at that time.
R&RD: Which Stones album, Their Satanic Majesties Request?
Zappa: Yeah, their psychedelic, quote, unquote, album.
R&RD: When I first became aware of the Mothers and Freak Out you had the wildest image of anyone in rock at that time. Everything about you seemed outrageous. How did you cultivate this image and what kind of trouble did it get you in?
Zappa: The funny thing was in order for you to get a job in Los Angeles during that period of time, just to work in a bar for example, you couldn’t walk in the door and even get an audition in that bar unless you had long hair or some kind of physical deformity. Because the bar owners were only booking bands that looked strange. I remember going to this one place in a suburb of Los Angeles in one of my nightly visits trying to find bars and clubs I could get our band to audition for. I walked in during the last set of this one group, and they had hair all the way down to the middle of their backs. And I went, “This is not possible.” These guys really looked tremendous, you know. The secret was when they walked off the stage they all pulled these wigs off, and they were like blond-haired surfers underneath it.
R&RD: Some of the guys in the Mothers weren’t really accustomed to long hair were they? Weren’t some of them really doo-woppers who wore pompadours?
Zappa: Well, a couple of the guys – Jimmy Black and Roy Estrada – lived in Orange County, which is another suburb of Los Angeles. It is a very right wing kind of an area, with a big John Birch presence down there…
R&RD: Richard Nixon lived there, right?
Zappa: Right, you got the aroma. So every time they would drive home to Orange County they had to hide their long hair. The way they would do it was they would stick it inside their collar and stuff it down their shirt and ride around with their shoulders hunched up so nobody looking in through the window would think they had long hair.
R&RD: What was the public’s reaction to your image at this time, on the streets and going into the grocery for example?
Zappa: I managed to raise a few eyebrows, but as far as the audiences went for the concerts, I think it didn’t make any difference to them what we looked like. They came there for whatever it was we were doing at the time, and we never advertised ourselves as fashion plates.
R&RD: What was it like in those early days playing for tourists at the Whisky A-Go-Go who had come to see Johnny Rivers?
Zappa: Well, that’s pretty funny. You have to understand that the Whisky A-Go-Go at that time was one of the primary places in the United States where a group could play to achieve major attraction. The guy who was the resident entertainer at the Whisky-A-Go-Go at that time was Johnny Rivers. They had a sign outside the place that had never been changed because he had worked over a year at this place. Just about the time we came along Johnny decided he wanted to go on the road. He had booked a tour that was going to take him out for five weeks and they needed somebody to replace him at the Whisky A-Go-Go.
If you don’t remember what Johnny Rivers sounded like, let me make it very clear that we didn’t sound anything like Johnny Rivers. Our audience was hardly Johnny’s audience. But somehow or another we wound up being his replacement for the five weeks at the Whisky A-Go-Go. But what they did was they left his sign up outside. So, they never changed the sign to put ours up because they didn’t want to let anybody know that he wasn’t there. People walking in there were in for a big shock when we started playing for them.
R&RD: How do you think digital technology could have improved the studio experimentations in We’re Only In It For the Money and Lumpy Gravy?
Zappa: In the case of Lumpy Gravy it would have been a real blessing. Lumpy Gravy is edited together out of hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny pieces of tape which took a long time to collect. First of all you have to find just the right little noise and things that are going to go in there, and then you have to manually cut these pieces of tape together with a razor blade. Anybody who has ever edited tape knows how boring that can be. Digital editing with the system I have now would have been a breeze with Lumpy Gravy, and all the edits would have been seamless. You could match levels from cut to cut even with the smallest segment and everything could have been done real slick. That would have made that one a lot easier to do.
R&RD: What about with We're Only In It For the Money? Could digital sound have added a lot of nuance, for example to the whispers and speeded-up voices in it?
Zappa: Well it could have enhanced it more if all those things were recorded on multi-track tape and you could have gone in and dubbed them out at a later date or changed the track balances. But some of those things were not. They were recorded direct to two-track and then some things were eight-track mixed down and some things were recorded direct. There's no question that if all this technology had been available then better things could have been done, but that's pretty much the story of my career. Right from the beginning I knew certain things were technically possible but the gear wasn't available at the time to do it. And finally years later when the gear comes on line and it's available, what happens? The big groups get it for free and I gotta go out and scrounge and find ways to buy this stuff, and it's ungodly expensive.
R&RD: You have your own digital studio now, right?
Zappa: That's right.
R&RD: And you have had it for how long, four or five years?
Zappa: The studio itself was operational in 1980. We got the digital gear in there by about 1982. That's when I first bought the digital multi-track machines.
R&RD: How do you like it?
Zappa: Well if that's a yes or no question then the answer is yes, it's great. It makes things a lot easier.
R&RD: Do you think there has been a turning away from experimentation in rock music towards the basics like Springsteen and Bryan Adams seem to have done? If so do you think rock music is missing out by adhering so strongly to these roots? Is it preventing artistic growth?
Zappa: One of the things that ought to be debated right here and now is whether or not -- when you say "back to basics" whether the basics you are describing is something that ought to be admired. As far as I'm concerned the real essence of American culture, the basics of being American is being an experimenter, being a pioneer. You can't be a pioneer if you stick your head in the sand and continue to rehash old stuff. I would point out to you that the beginning of the dark ages of rock and roll pretty much took effect when Reagan went into office. One thing that you ought to look at is the linkage in all the different art forms. Like, for example in motion pictures where the reliance on remakes and rehashed old titles has been characteristic over the last seven years.
R&RD: You mean this whole craving for nostalgia.
Zappa: Well nostalgia is one thing. But the idea of not taking a chance, which is what you do when you make Jaws 4, Jaws 5, Rocky 9, and everything over and over and over again. When you are forced into that position and tell yourself that you are prudent because you are doing it, you're just kind of giving it all up. You've kind of reduced the whole concept of making entertainment to something really mundane. But on the other hand you can also look at that and say what the arts have done is to reflect the reality of life under Reagan.
R&RD: What about the disco era of the 70's prior to Reagan? Many people look at that as the dark ages of rock and roll.
Zappa: I would disagree with that simply because of this: Disco was a functional type of music. We may be using the term music loosely here. Disco was designed for a specific function. It was wallpaper to be used in the background of the lifestyle of the people who inhabited those disco places. And those places were basically meatracks. The function of this music was to provide this rhythmic dance texture while people went to the meatrack. If you are going to have a meatrack why would you have anything more intelligent than disco? It seems to me to be perfectly designed for its usage.
R&RD: Does it bother you at all that your music is very demanding of the listener?
Zappa: It bothers me that listeners find it demanding. I don't try to figure out how I'm going to be demanding in the music. What I write is natural to me, and if people have difficulty with it, it is not my fault. It is their fault.
R&RD: Do you think there are times when you have carried experimentation too far?
Zappa: No. You can experiment and you can fail. But then even the failure is a success in itself. Because you took that direction, you got the answer, and there's the answer. You've presented the answer as a documentation. At least somebody took the step and found out what happens if you put this with this, that with that, and try it.
R&RD: Can you tell us a little about the litigation involved in obtaining your early recordings? They were gone from the shelves for a long time, and the collectibility of albums such as Freak Out climbed and remain quite high.
Zappa: There have been at least three law suits, maybe four law suits, between me and record companies leading to the point that I'm at now where I own those masters. I had to sue MGM Records, I've sued Warner Brothers, and I've sued CBS. In fact I've sued Warner Brothers twice. The amount of time I've spent in court -- with MGM it was eight years and another eight years for the Warner Brothers case. So think about it. The bulk of the time I have been in the recording industry I've had ongoing legal battles with the companies that have released this material.
R&RD: Isn't that mentally exhausting for you to be tangled up in legal matters for that long?
Zappa: If I had my choice between going to court or writing a song I think I'd rather write a song. There's a song on You Are What You Is called "Charlie's Enormous Mouth," and I actually wrote that song during a break in the depositions for the Warner Brothers trials. I was deposed for 40 days, and on one of these boring days the lawyers were arguing about something in the other room, and I just went into an office and wrote those lyrics on a pad. It helps keep your mind off some of these things. But the fact of the matter is most artists don't like their record companies. They wimp out when it gets down to the wire, and they don't sue often enough.
If there is anybody reading this who has got a career in the music business, if you don't already know, the saying in the business is like this: nobody ever audited a record company and found out that they were not owed something more than what the statement told you. That's why they have auditors. But the fact of the matter is, the cost of suing a record company, and the time element of suing a record company, and the emotional drain of fighting one of those kinds of battles is something that most artists don't want to put up with. But in my case, I've never been a multi-platinum selling artist, and they were screwing me! What do you think they are doing to the guys who are really selling multi-platinum? If they're doing it to me, then they're doing it to everybody.
R&RD: The Beatles I believe are now tied up in litigation because Capitol Records allegedly unloaded truckloads of their records off the books.
Zappa: That's an old story. They did the same thing to all the artists, as far as I could tell, at MGM. One of the things that was going on there was one of the most popular albums in the mid-60s was the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago. And they got caught shipping at least a quarter of a million of those things out the back door of the pressing plant in Terre Haupt, Indiana. Apparently the stuff was going into the back of somebody's truck and being traded for roomfuls of furniture in another state. Weird stuff like this.
They would do it by a process called pressing overruns. In other words the record company would send the masters over to the plant, say "print 10,000 of this title." Of course they would print 15,000 and the 5,000 extra would go out the back door and be traded for something of value, and the artist would find on his statement that only 10,000 had been pressed. That's simplifying it, but that's one of the ways they would screw you in those days.
R&RD: Allen Klein has made a career out of going in and auditing record company books hasn't he?
Zappa: Here's a good Allen Klein story. He used to handle the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones have a company called Nanker Phelge. If the group has jointly composed the song then the song goes into the Nanker Phelge company. So the story I heard was that Allen Klein had set up the deal with the record company for the Rolling Stones and had told the record company that the funds that are to be paid to Nanker Phelge should be sent to a bank account in New York City, when in fact it was his account in New York City. But the Nanker Phelge account that the Stones had was in London!
R&RD: Lumpy Gravy and Ruben and the Jets seem in retrospect to have been incredible artistic gambles in the 60s. Did they seem so to you at the time?
Zappa: It just seemed like that's what I was supposed to be doing. I don't look at things as being a gamble or not. My basic philosophy is this: If I'm interested in a certain type of musical style or a topic during that period of time I follow my own trail, finish the project, and present it to the public. And those people who have the same interests as me will like it, and the ones who don't won't. And I'll just take my chances. But it's not making a calculated gamble to change my direction. I work on whatever I'm interested in that week or that year or that month.
R&RD: The song "Trouble Every Day" on Freak Out was an angry indictment of the times. After looking back at the releases of the day it seems to be one of the first implicit social commentaries in rock. Was it considered inflammatory at the time?
Zappa: It was considered inflammatory at the time, but we're talking explicit not implicit. That song does spell it out. You have to remember what the Watts riots were. They were the first major race riots in contemporary history. People just didn't know how to deal with it. The television stations in Los Angeles were covering this thing like it was a real news spectacle...
R&RD: Like the Super Bowl of riots?
Zappa: Right. And the line [in the song] about the woman driver being machine-gunned from her seat, that really happened. It was a lady, and the news announced, "Yeah, this woman has been sawed in half by 50 caliber machine gun bullets by the National Guard." That's what the Watts riots were. It wasn't quaint, it wasn't cute, it was like "what in the world is going on here?" And it was only a few miles from where I lived.
R&RD: But was this song in fact a first of its kind? It was much longer than the average Top 40 hit and blistering in its outlook.
Zappa: One of the things that it derives from is there has been a tradition in blues lyrics to tell social stories. A lot of people in the pop music world are unfamiliar with the world of folk music or the world of blues lyrics. I had grown up listening to blues records, so that kind of form wasn't unfamiliar [to me]. But the things that were being spoken about in the folk songs and the blues records were not generally major news stories. There was a guy named J.B. Lenoir who had a couple of songs, "The Eisenhower Blues" and "I Am In Korea." If you can ever find those records and listen to those things they were made in the early 50's. That would be some of the roots the Watts riots songs would come from. Maybe it was unique for a white person's rock and roll to stick something like that in it, but in other musical forms that kind of style had existed to a degree.
R&RD: On Uncle Meat you again took what is considered to be a radical departure towards jazz and jazz fusion. Why did you decide to risk working in this more musically complex and demanding setting?
Zappa: There are two reasons why the music I put out on a record at any given time will sound the way it does. Reason number one is whether or not that style is something I'm interested in during that period of time. And two, who's in the band. What are their assets, what are their liabilities. At that particular time of recording Uncle Meat we had Art Tripp, who is a conservatory-trained percussionist. We also had Ruth Underwood -- she wasn't in the band but she was working on the sessions. We had Ian Underwood who was a conservatory-trained guy. And we had Bunk Gardner, who I don't know if he was conservatory-trained, but he was like a schooled musician. They were in the same band with guys like Motorhead Sherwood, Billy Mundi, Jimmy Carl Black, and Roy Estrada. It was a real strange mix of guys who could read and had been to school and guys who were just regular guys. Suppose you were me and you had these human resources to deal with, what would you make out of it?
R&RD: Not something nearly as interesting as Uncle Meat I can assure you.
Zappa: You know you take your chances with the material that is available to you at the time. The other thing that will determine what an album sounds like is how much money there is to make the album. That money translates into studio time, it translates into rehearsal time, things like that. All of the early Mothers albums were done on really low budgets. There wasn't enough studio time to go in and perfect anything. It wasn't until I got my own studio that I could take as much time to work on an album as I really needed. So the bulk of my career has been done under duress.
R&RD: What is the latest on the Tipper Gore, PMRC front?
Zappa: I just debated Albert Gore's campaign manager on a radio station in Los Angeles. I don't know whether it's been reported here, but they came to Los Angeles to have a closed door meeting with big shots of the entertainment industry to kind of allay their anxieties that Mr. and Mrs. Gore really weren't interested in censorship. That was the supposed theme of this meeting. Now I was not invited to the meeting. I read about it in the papers after it had happened. But generally speaking, the newspaper commentary on the thing was not favorable and most of the people in show business were not all that impressed with what the Gores had to say. They were kind of apologetic about the hearings that they had held in Washington in '85. They were trying to give the impression that they had gotten a bum rap about all this censorship business, that they in fact could be trusted if Albert did get elected and he wouldn't harm the show business world. Now you decide. Is anybody buying this or what?
R&RD: Do you think the PMRC may be losing steam at this point?
Zappa: They just released their first video you know. It was reported in Billboard last week. The PMRC through a Christian distributing company has released a full-length video about rock and roll lyrics which features four-letter words and frontal nudity. I figure this is a major step forward for a Christian distribution company. That's what Tipper and the girls are into now.
R&RD: What do you think of the Gores' admissions to smoking dope? And especially Tipper's where she smoked dope just once?
Zappa: Well let me put it to you this way: To me that is the best reason for people not to smoke marijuana. You see she smoked it just once and look what happened to her. He smoked it, how many times?, and look what happened to him.
R&RD: My God, he's wanting to run for President!
Zappa: That's right (laughter).
R&RD: Did you meet with Tipper and Albert Jr. for a drink after the Danforth Committee hearings? What was that like?
Zappa: It was kind of interesting. I must say I don't dislike them as people. I think basically they are probably nice people. I haven't spent enough time with them to give you a complete character analysis or anything. We met in a kind of bar/restaurant in Washington, D.C. called the Monocle at about six o'cock in the evening. It was like happy hour in the bar and it was jam-packed with all these senators and all these people who do that nasty business in Washington, D.C., and we were at a table in the back.
We just talked about this whole record rating business, and I asked them some questions about things I had come across that I had experienced in California and asked them to either substantiate or deny what these things were. And I asked for some background information on the hearings themselves. For example, I said "Why is Paula Hawkins...what was she doing there?" And Albert Gore said, "Well, basically Paula was a Republican in trouble." She was having trouble getting reelected in Florida, and she prevailed on Senator Danforth to let her make an appearance at the committee because she thought that it might be good. So the whole thing was a show trial from the word go. Danforth went along with the thing. It was just a waste of the taxpayers' money and was a bunch of nothingness.
R&RD: The hearing seems like a subversion of everything America is supposed to stand for.
Zappa: It is more than a subversion, it's an actual violation of Senate rules. My understanding is you don't have a hearing unless you are talking about legislation. And it was clear from that hearing that they were not talking about legislation. And in fact Senator Exon from Nebraska asked the question in the middle of the hearing, "If we are not talking about legislation why are we here?" And that didn't even get reported in the news. And when he said it it got a round of applause at the hearing. The other thing people have to remember is the committee that heard this matter had five members on it, five senators, who were married to women who belonged to the PMRC or signed the original PMRC complaint letter to the record industry. So it was a kangaroo court. If they were talking about legislation it would have been pretty unusual to have the husbands of the complainants sitting there judging the matter.
R&RD: What kind of hate mail do you get?
Zappa: Little or none. We get some amazing fan mail. Well, here's one example of hate mail. During that PMRC business in '85 I got a greeting card from a man, and he said he was an Italian, but that he was born again. He was incensed that as an Italian I would be out there fighting against this. That's about the extent of it. I think it is an erroneous conclusion that you would think that a person such as myself would get masses of hate mail. That is not true. Most of the people who write to me -- I'm talking about 99% of the people who write to me -- are absolutely delighted that I'm doing what I'm doing, that I continue to do what I've been doing for the last 20 years, and to urge me to keep doing it and do more of it. There it is.
R&RD: Could you give us a quick appraisal of the talk shows you've been on? You had a rather high profile on television during the PMRC hearings.
Zappa: First of all name the ones that I haven't done. I haven't done Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.
R&RD: Why, because the powers that be don't want you to have a forum for that long?
Zappa: (Laughs) Yeah, I know what you mean. I don't think I would enjoy Donahue just because of the style of the show, and I was actually invited to do Oprah Winfrey when she was still a regional show in Chicago, but I didn't make it. And the other one that I haven't done is Sonya Friedman, which I would not do because I don't like her show, and I don't like what it stands for. I kind of enjoy doing them if the interviewer can hold a good conversation, and that's not often the case. I thought Johnny Carson was a nice guy to talk with, and he surprised me when I went on the show because when I was brought on I was told that we were only going to talk about Miami Vice. He didn't want to talk about politics or anything else. He surprised everybody by talking about censorship, and he told me before the show that he had stayed up -- you know those Senate hearings when they were broadcast live, they didn't broadcast them completely. Just before I went on to testify they switched to the Senate floor. Consequently they reran the whole thing on Saturday and Sunday at two o'clock in the morning. Johnny Carson said that he stayed up and watched them. Which also surprised me, the idea that Johnny Carson sits around watching C-span on the weekends is pretty fascinating.
R&RD: Speaking for myself, I was extremely annoyed that Carson relegated you to the last five minutes of the show in that Phantom Zone where they put anyone with opinions.
Zappa: That’s true on every talk show.
R&RD: But they had some lady with an egg collection who went on and on and on. She took up nearly the whole show.
Zappa: Want to know the story about the egg lady?
Zappa: She had a vision that she was going to be on Johnny Carson and she called them. And it was so off the wall. She called them from some kind of phone booth in a shopping mall in New Jersey or something like that and they said, “Oh this has got to be great.” And they brought her out just because she got in contact with them. It was just off the wall, and it didn’t turn out to be quite as good as they thought it was going to be. And they devoted this major segment of the show to it.
R&RD: Which I thought was a big mistake.
Zappa: Well don’t tell me, tell them.
R&RD: What about the Joan Rivers show. That one seemed a little amiss.
Zappa: First of all she opened the show by making fun of my children, which I’m not going to be too enthusiastic about no matter who’s saying it. You can only talk about what they want to talk about or what they’ll let you talk about. Because a talk show host, if he’s really afraid of his job, is always going to change the subject, or they can beep you or whatever. I did the Tom Snyder show years ago when he was on television, and I found that to be a really difficult interview. But I did his new radio show about a month ago and that was really good. It was his first broadcast of a new show. He had the ABC network executives outside the window watching what was going on, some of these middle management guys pacing back and forth. I happened to go on this tirade about Pat Robertson, calling him a fraud and saying the guy ought to be brought up for tax fraud and all the rest of this stuff, and they were pissing their pants out there in the hall. It is usually easier to get away with this stuff on radio than it is to get away with it on television. Television broadcasters are…to say that they were chickenshit would be absolutely too kind.
R&RD: What do you think about the Jim and Tammy Bakker episodes of late?
Zappa: I think it’s great that it happened. It’s unfortunate that it took so long to happen. You have to remember that the fundamentalist right in the United States is one of the main reasons why Reagan is in office. It is a little known fact that not only did Jim and Tammy attend the inauguration but Reagan gave them a humanitarian award in ’83. They are right in there together, you know. I think it’s great that Jim and Tammy were exposed. I just wish the exposure had been more thorough. I think that the media pussyfooted around the issue of whether or not Jim Bakker was having sex with a man. I think they could have been a little more assiduous in following that up and getting some conclusive evidence out.
I think the word has yet to be delivered on the financial wrongdoing of PTL. I think they’re not being as aggressive as they can with that. Let me give you one theory as to why the IRS has not been doing its job in terms of these television ministries. You have to understand that [television evangelists] make their money because they are tax exempt. And in order to keep the tax exemption they may not, according to the law, lobby for or against any political candidate or any legislation. They are supposed to be religions and not involved in politics. It gets into at the very least a grey area, and in my view it’s all completely black and white, that religion is religion and politics is politics. If you have a tax exemption and if you’re building empires with tax exempt money, then somebody should make you hold to the mark as to how you earn that money.
The IRS’s job is to enforce this law. The problem of enforcing it is that the people who are auditors for the IRS are usually not the cream of the auditing crop. For example, the starting salary for an IRS auditor is about $14,000 a year. The same guy in the private sector gets $23,000. So usually they don’t get the best talent at the IRS. The other thing is that auditing often takes place at regional offices. So if you are in the Bible Belt somewhere then an auditor for any of these pseudo-religious organizations is probably going to be a member of that community, who may even belong to that church. Do you think he’s really going to go in there and look at the fine print in the books? I don’t think so, and I think that’s another reason why these guys have been able to get away with murder all this time. The other thing is this current administration owing its butt as it does to the fundamentalist right certainly has not been too strong in pushing for compliance with the regulations that lets them be tax exempt. I don’t think there’s been any effort by the Reagan administration to say yeah, go out there and do what the law says to do. Check their books and see whether or not they’ve lived up to this exemption. The reason they won’t do that is when they violated their exemptions and got into politics, they got into Republican politics and actually helped to put Reagan in office. That’s why they have flourished.
R&RD: In the book out now on Saturday Night Live it reports that you and the Prime Time Players did not work out too well together. Would you care to give your side of the story?
Zappa: Well the guy [who was quoted about me in the book] happens to be a person that I spoke to only briefly during the time that I was there, and I did the show twice. He was not the major writer or one of the major writers on Saturday Night Live. I think you know the guy and the kind of material that he and his partner would put on the show, absolutely the weakest element in the Saturday Night Live show. Nobody ever turned that show on to see Al Franken and his partner.
Here’s what it was like at Saturday Night Live in those days: If I were from the DEA and I wanted to make my quota for the year all I would have had to do was walk onto the 15th floor of Rockefeller Center. There were more drugs on that floor than I have ever seen openly displayed anywhere. In fact in the office of the aforementioned [writer] we are talking about plastic bags of every known form of pill in every color. And in another office with one of the major talents of the show the office consisted of a desk, two bunk beds, and a haystack of marijuana on the desk. That’s all that was in the office. So that’s the atmosphere of the times. Now, I don’t exactly fit in with people who have that as a lifestyle. I don’t use drugs. If somebody else wants to use them fine, but I’m not a party guy. I came there to work. If there was any friction between me and the people who worked there, let’s just say it was an anthropological difference.
R&RD: While we are on the subject of drugs, it is well-known that you do not use drugs. Did you at any time ever experiment with them?
Zappa: For social purposes in the early 60’s I tried to smoke marijuana. And I say tried because every time I smoked it it made me sleepy and gave me a sore throat. I’ve never gotten high from it and I could never understand why people would smoke this stuff. But because I like tobacco I said, “well, why don’t I try this?” If I were to calculate there probably wouldn’t be over 10 marijuana cigarettes in my entire lifetime that were ever passed to me. Not that I sat there and really smoked 10 joints, but if you’re with a bunch of people and they hand you that…It’s not the world that I wanted to be in. As far as cocaine, never. LSD, never. Speed, never. Heroin, never. Anything with a needle attached to it, give me a break. Who needs it.
R&RD: For what it’s worth I’m in complete agreement. I’m one of the few music writers who totally abhors drugs.
Zappa: I find it unfortunate that drug use is so extensive in the United States, but let’s be philosophically clear: It is not my position to be somebody’s dad other than for my own children. If somebody wants to use drugs that is their right if they choose to harm themselves that way. The part that becomes a public concern is if that person under the influence of those chemical substances – I would include liquor in that – that person becomes a menace to other members of society then it’s bad. If you’re just sitting at home and you want to get yourself wrecked, or even if you want to commit suicide, I feel that you own your own body. You might as well do whatever you want with it. But you don’t have the right to harm other people because of what you do to yourself. The extent to which Americans are willing to hurt themselves and then hurt other people by proxy is what is the worst aspect of the drug situation in the U.S. Because it has gone beyond recreation.
R&RD: If there had not been any such thing as drugs how do you think rock music would have been different?
Zappa: I think it still would have been rock-like because a lot of it is based on alcohol. If you subtract the hard liquor from heavy metal then what have you got?
R&RD: Why is no one in rock music today willing to push the frontiers as you did in the 60’s?
Zappa: You couldn’t even get a record contract today, because of the people who run the record companies. They have made the decision that to be successful you have to be like Michael Jackson. Let’s face it, if you are experimental the chance that you will make millions of dollars is not good. Record companies only want things that make millions and millions of dollars. When we first got a record contract with MGM the advance we received for signing was $2,500 divided between five guys.
R&RD: I’ll bet that didn’t go very far.
Zappa: You ain’t kidding. Today if I had a group called the Mothers of Invention and I went out to get a contract I couldn’t get a contract anywhere. There’s not a company on the planet that would sign a group like that.
R&RD: Who out there today is doing something in music you find interesting?
Zappa: I’ve seen a couple of videos recently that I thought were not only interesting videos but good songs and good performances. One is “Living In A Box” by Living In A Box on the album Living In A Box. I wasn’t that impressed with their second video, but I think the guy is a good singer. I thought the track sounded great. The other is “Daddy’s Coming Home” by Walk the Moon. Especially the guitar was interesting in that.
R&RD: What about some of the critics’ favorites such as Bruce Springsteen?
Zappa: I met Bruce one time. I was brought backstage to one his shows when he was working at the Palladium in New York, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. But that is not my style of music.
R&RD: For someone who has accomplished as much as you have artistically, where do you go next? What can we expect from Frank Zappa in the future? Where will you be taking us?
Zappa: Well, you can expect a tour which begins February with a 12-piece band and a five-piece horn section in it. I’ve got a whole bunch more CD product coming out next year, and of course there’s all the Honker Home Video product of which the first two titles were released Oct. 28. The next two will be in February, then there’s two more that will be coming out around June next year. You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, a live compact disc series, will begin in February. One double-CD set will be released each month, February through August, making a total of 12 CDs. Nothing else like it.
R&RD: How do you think the public will react to such a monumental CD set?
Zappa: The people who like what I do will love it, and the people who don’t like what I do will find it inconsequential.