20th-century popular music's philosopher-king (or its Harvey Kurtzman)
   has inspired independence movements in Eastern Europe and lampooned
   stupidity in the west. Now he faces his most serious challenge.
   It's April, and Los Angeles is nervously awaiting the outcome of the
   second Rodney King beating trial. A car heads toward Frank Zappa's
   Laurel Canyon home blaring the song "Trouble Every Day" from the first
   Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out! Written by Zappa in '65, while
   the Watts riots were escalating out of control, the song is eerily
   appropriate nearly 30 years later, when the city is once again bracing
   for the worst. With wailing harmonica and turmoiled bass in the
   background, the lyrics ominously and prophetically tumble out,
     "It's the same across the nation
     Black and white discrimination
     ...and all that mass stupidity
     that seems to grow more every day
     each time you hear some nitwit say
     He wants to go and do you in
     'Cause the color of your skin
     Just don't appeal to him
     No matter if it's black or white
     Because he's out for blood tonight."
   Why is the song still so poignantly relevant? The irascible and
   iconoclastic 52-year-old Frank Zappa, who has outdistanced most of his
   peers in the business by his unflagging commitment to both social
   critique and adventurous music, fields the question with aplomb.
   "Nothing has changed. We have the same racial hatred, the same
   unwillingness to face the causes of racial unrest. We've had years to
   examine the causes of the Watts riots, but no one has done anything
   about it. There were studies and reports and conclusions then, just
   like there were studies and reports and conclusions reached after last
   year's riots. There's a certain type of American adolescent behavior
   that hasn't gotten any better since the 60's. Scientists believe that
   the universe is made of hydrogen because they claim it's the most
   plentiful ingredient. I claim that the most plentiful ingredient is
   So opens a 90-minute conversation on politics and music in the
   legendary and controversial rock/doo-wop/jazz/pop/ avant
   garde/contemporary classical artist's dark, but comfortable
   video-viewing room with a television screen and rows and rows of video
   tapes lining an entire wall. Zappa, casually dressed in blue sweats,
   turquoise T-shirt and a loose-fitting grey sweater, is animated,
   fervently enjoying the conversation as he effortlessly interweaves
   musical matters with politics. During the rest of the afternoon, there
   are times when Zappa, his dark hair streaked with gray and tied in a
   tight ponytail, seems absolutely exhausted, a consequence of his
   ongoing and widely publicized bout with prostate cancer. But then the
   conversation takes off into another area of music and/or politics
   where he has strong opinions, and he is rejuvenated.
   "I never had any intention of writing rock music," says Zappa. "I
   always wanted to compose more serious music and have it be performed
   in concert halls, but I knew no one would play it. So I figured that
   if anyone was ever going to hear anything I composed, I'd have to get
   a band together and play rock music. That's how I got started."
   If ever a long-term plan paid off, it has to have been Zappa's--his
   list of official accolades and honors seems limitless: Renowned
   conductor Kent Nagano calls him a genius. Zappa won a Grammy in 1987
   for his Synclavier-driven Jazz From Hell album, and he was chosen to
   play John Cage's controversial and perhaps most famous piece 4'33" for
   the upcoming various-artists Cage tribute album, A Chance Operation.
   His works have been performed by a number of esteemed 20th century
   ensembles; Pierre Boulez commissioned him to score a symphonic work
   which resulted in The Perfect Stranger: Boulez Conducts Zappa album;
   the European contemporary music group Ensemble Modern commissioned him
   to put together a concert's worth of his orchestral works for the
   Frankfurt Festival last year; and in February, the prestigious Lincoln
   Center in New York City presented an evening of Zappa's serious music
   in its Great Performers series. Even The Simpsons' creator Matt
   Groening is on record as saying, "Frank is my Elvis."
   Not bad for a guy who began his musical career as a drummer in a San
   Diego r&b group called the Ramblers in 1956 ("I played one or two
   gigs with them, but I wasn't very good so they fired me"), recorded
   parody and instrumental doo-wop tunes in Cucamonga, California and
   leased them to record companies like Original Sound in Los Angeles in
   the early '60s, and led the charge into the experimental and
   distinctly weird rock music of the late '60s with his seminal band of
   renegades and freaks, the inimitable Mothers of Invention. His
   formative years as a musician came during his high-school days at
   Antelope Valley High in Lancaster, a remote Mohave Desert town in
   California that he refers to as a cultural wasteland. A fan of r&b
   singles and composer Edgar Varese's innovative and dissonant
   early-20th-century classical music, Zappa was a drummer in the school
   band where he was even allowed to do a bit of composing and
   conducting. But that's also where he began to suspect that he was
   destined t o live a life deviating from the norms of Americana. "I had
   no outlet in music then to express my discontent. So my aggravation
   with the way things were festered throughout my high-school years. The
   only reason I got training as a musician was because the school needed
   a marching band at its football games. It was just another tool to
   support the sports program. I never did enjoy sports. So I looked at
   all that and thought that there certainly must be more worthwhile
   educational investments besides new helmets. That really got me
   thinking--how can you take any of this seriously?"
   Fortunately for Zappa, his tenure with the band didn't last long. "I
   was thrown out for smoking in uniform," he says while taking a drag
   from one of many Marlboros he would smoke that afternoon. "We had to
   sit in the freezing cold and wear these dorky maroon-and-grey uniforms
   and play every time our team scored a touchdown. So, during a break, I
   went under the bleachers for a smoke. I got caught and I was out of
   there. Not just for smoking, but for smoking in uniform."
   When did Zappa realize the potential for satire in his music? He
   recalls, "Even before I had this wonderful band called the Mothers
   [original MOI member] Ray Collins and I used to piddle around in
   Pomona doing gigs where the two of us would do parodies of folk songs.
   We sang 'Puff the Magic Dragon' as 'Joe the Puny Greaser,' and we
   played a perverted version of 'The Streets of Laredo' called 'The
   Streets of Fontana.' We weren't setting out to make any kind of impact
   on people. We were just doing it for a laugh, to have fun. If it
   amused someone else, good. If it didn't, who gives a fuck. Nothing
   I've ever written has been motivated by trying to impact or influence
   anybody."Little did Zappa realize how influential his music would
   become in shaping opinions both at home and abroad. Case in point: the
   first two Mothers of Invention albums, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free.
   The former, the first rock double-album and the collection which
   purportedly inspired Paul McCartney to begin work on Sgt. Pepper's
   Lonely Hearts Club Band, helped spawn an American subculture of
   long-haired, irreverent, authority questioning freaks. Behind the Iron
   Curtain, Absolutely Free proved to effect an even deeper and more
   profound response. The lead-off number of the album, "Plastic People,"
   became an underground hit and potent rallying cry for freedom in the
   now-divided republic of Czechoslovakia.
   Zappa is still surprised by it all. "I had no idea that song made the
   impact it did there. The album was smuggled into the country within a
   year of its 1967 release. I found out 10 years later how powerful the
   song had become. We were touring heavily in Europe at the time, and a
   few Czechs had come across the Austrian border to hear our concert in
   Vienna. I talked with them after the show, and they told me that
   'Plastic People' was responsible for a whole movement of dissidents
   within Czechoslovakia. It came as a shock to me to find out that there
   was a group called the Plastic People there and that a cult of
   followers had grown up around them. [That song's] especially relevant
   today in the United States," he says, in reference to a poster on the
   wall portraying a Hitler-like Ronald Reagan with the words, "He has
   the right to do anything they want" written underneath. Zappa then
   recites a few lines from the song:
   "Take a day and walk around Watch the Nazis run your town Then go home
   and check yourself You think we're singing 'bout someone else?
   He pauses to let the effect take hold, shakes his head slowly in
   disgust, then comments, "There's been an incredible rise in racist and
   fascist attitudes here, most of them being helped along by the
   Republican Party. That Republican National Party Convention last
   summer was just unbelievable. Even the set decor looked like a
   Nuremberg rally. Hatemongers like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson and
   the rest of the featured speakers were convinced they were going to
   win again.
   "Even if Clinton and his people just stood still for the next four
   years it would be better than what we had the four previous years
   under President Nero, which is what Dennis Miller calls Bush". But
   Zappa goes on to express an early dissatisfaction with the new
   President. "What's upset me the most since Clinton has taken office is
   this banning of smoking in the White House. What kind of symbolism is
   this? It's a social-engineering program by the Health Nazis in the
   White House against people who like tobacco. I with people would get
   off this I'm-gonna-live-forever kick and dispel the myth perpetrated
   by Reagan's evil Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who said that
   second-hand smoke is the most dangerous thing Americans confront in
   their everyday lives. This is from the same guy who told us that green
   monkeys gave us AIDS.
   "I was pleased to note recently that for the first time in the last
   dozen years, the number of smokers did not decrease last year. It's
   remained constant. Now if we can just proselytize people to get them
   to enjoy tobacco more. I like tobacco. I've always loved it. There is
   a place for tobacco in the human dining experience. It's like wine.
   It's an appropriate adjunct to food."
   Zappa's daughter Diva, in her early teens, bounces down the stairs,
   pokes her head into the viewing room where we're talking and announces
   herself with a bright, "Hi, Daddy." She's the youngest of Frank and
   his wife Gail's four children. (Eldest daughter Moon Unit collaborated
   with dad on the 1982 novelty tune "Valley Girl" from Zappa's Ship
   Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch; eldest son Dweezil has
   released a couple of solo records and currently plays with brother
   Ahmet in the band, Z-a debut is slated for August.)
   "How's little Squeech?" inquires papa Zappa."Squeech is fine, but I
   don't think that's the name of it. But you can nickname it whatever
   you want."Diva bounds back up the stairs while Zappa explains their
   exchange. "We have a new kitten. It's the runt of the litter. It's
   adorable. I've been calling it Squeech because that's the noise it
   makes. Diva wanted to call it Toaster, but I guess she's changed her
   Squeech. Toaster. Names that could pop right out of one of Zappa's
   zanier songs that celebrate such quirky characters as Suzy
   Creamcheese, Billy the Mountain, Big Leg Emma and the Duke of Prunes.
   So what is the creative process of Zappa the punster, the satirist,
   the humorist? He hearkens back to the old days when he was doing a lot
   of lyric writing: "I'd write lyrics when I was travelling. I was on a
   flight back from Germany when I came up with the idea for the song
   'Dumb All Over'. I scrawled out three pages' worth of ideas on the
   plane. I couldn't wait to get into the studio to record it. The
   reverse of that happened with 'Inca Roads.' I came up with the melody
   first. I took it as a challenge to find words to go with it. A lot of
   songs may start with one or two words. You hear a funny expression and
   away you go. Some lyrics were based on folklore from the band when we
   were touring. 'Punky's Whips' is an example of an absurd situation
   that happened to be a true story. All I had to do was find some
   musical way to dramatize it."Zappa's career catapulted in the mid '60s
   as a result of his wildly experimental and unpredictable band the
   Mothers of Invention. On Mother's Day, 1964, the name "the Mothers"
   was coined. The group had evolved from a bar band called the Soul
   Giants that had recruited Zappa as a substitute guitarist after their
   regular guitarist got into a fistfight with another band member. Soon
   after, Zappa pushed for playing original material, and the rest was
   outlandishly weird music history. Early Mothers-inspired "freak outs"
   in Los Angeles made the local authorities nervous, so Zappa and crew
   headed to New York in 1967. There they worked the Garrick Theater on
   Bleeker Street as an improv house band, performing experimental music
   with satirical and impromptu slapstick for several months with special
   sit-in guests, including Jimi Hendrix on one occasion.
   Returning to Los Angeles the following year, Zappa and the Mothers
   formed the nucleus of a musical community that Pamela Des Barres of
   the Zappa-discovered GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously) recalled in
   the liner notes to Rhino's promotional Bizarre/Straight sampler,
   Zapped: "Somehow in some mysterious and mystical way, a little crack
   formed in the Americana prefab facade that allow true, far-fetched
   inspiration to peek, sneak, leak through for an infinitesimal period
   of time; a drop in the bucket that made a might splash. I am proud and
   honored to have been a part of the streaming baptism of lunacy that
   attempted to shake, rattle and roll the fictitious foundation of
   normalcy." Zappa gathered as many bizarre acts as he could find and
   formed his own record companies (Bizarre, Straight) with the help of
   his then-manager Herb Cohen. Among the Zappa proteges were Tim
   Buckley, Tom Waits, The GTO's (Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart performed
   without credit on their Zappa-produced debut), Alice Cooper (Zappa is
   said to have encouraged Cooper to dress in women's clothes) and
   Zappa's high school friend, Don Van Vliet, aka the great Captain
   Beefheart. Beefheart, who Zappa remembers in the early days as
   carrying his worldly possessions--his art, poetry books and a soprano
   sax--around in a shopping bag, recorded his dada-esque masterpiece
   Trout Mask Replica for Straight in 1969. Produced by Zappa as an
   anthropological field recording in Beefheart's house, the album was
   deemed the year's "most unusual and challenging musical experience" by
   rock writer Lester Bangs. After a few days of using a portable taping
   system that recorded the different instruments in various room sin the
   house, Zappa compiled with Van Vliet's paranoid demands that the rest
   of the sessions take place in a real studio, where all his vocals were
   captured.In addition to Beefheart, Zappa has worked with a wildly
   diverse crew of artists, ranging from L. Shankar and John Lennon and
   Yoko Ono.
   Of all the collaborations and bizarre tours he went on, which
   performances from his huge catalog is he most proud of? "I enjoy
   listening to some recordings more than I do others," he says. "I can't
   stand to hear some of my classic albums because I remember the
   horrible conditions under which they were recorded. It hurts to listen
   to them. But what I like the best doesn't depend so much on the
   quality of the composition as it does on the memories of how much fun
   they were to record. I'm especially thinking of some of the live shows
   with the 1984 band that were recorded in the You Can't Do That On
   Stage Anymore series. We had a lot of laughs. For example, one night
   in Seattle, in the middle of the show (guitarist) Ike Willis started
   to do an imitation of the Lone Ranger, blurting out, 'Hi, ho, Silver!"
   I still don't know why it happened, but I cracked up every time he did
   it. It must have been road fatigue. He'd keep yelling in the most
   inappropriate places. The whole show was riddled with bad Lone Ranger
   jokes and me not being able to sing the right words. I enjoyed that
   "Zappa continued touring until 1988, when his road band
   self-destructed before the tour reached most of the planned U.S.
   dates. The tour, captured on the excellent The Best Band You Never
   Heard in Your Life double CD, could have been the last time Zappa
   played guitar in concert. Nowadays, Zappa hardly plays his guitars (he
   cites lack of motivation), which is surprising given his prowess on
   the instrument and the fact that he released several impressive guitar
   albums, including the twin-CD Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. A guitar her
   who rarely if ever recorded a cliched riff, he learned to play as a
   kid by swiping blues licks from r&b greats like Guitar Slim, Johnny
   "Guitar" Watson (who worked with Zappa in the mid '70s) and Clarence
   "Gatemouth" Brown.
   But Zappa--who has been fascinated with and influenced by such
   classical composers as Igor Stravinsky, Varese, Boulez and John Cage,
   in addition to having his bands perform arrangements of pieces by
   Bartok, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky--hastens to note that these
   days he mostly writes orchestral compositions on his Synclavier 9600,
   the high-tech digital keyboard and sampling computer that's plugged
   into his home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. That's
   where Zappa's newest soon-to-be-released gem of an album of his
   dissonant, whimsical and haunting orchestral works, The Yellow Shark,
   was conceived.Performed in concert by the 25-member European
   contemporary classical music group Ensemble Modern, The Yellow Shark
   is a suite-like collection of new arrangements of such classic Zappa
   pieces as "Dog Breath Variations" and "Be-Bop Tango" and such new
   works commissioned for the project as "Get Whitey" and "None of the
   Above." EM and its conductor Peter Rundel spent two week s in 1991 in
   Los Angeles at Zappa's Joe's Garage studio rehearsing the difficult
   pieces and then spent another two weeks supervised by the
   perfectionist composer last summer in preparation for the series of
   eight concerts in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna. The album represents
   the best performances of each piece from the different concert venues.
   Zappa, who conducted the whirlwind "G-Spot Tornado" on opening night,
   is pleased with the results, but notes, "I was only able to attend the
   first and third performances in Frankfurt. I got sick and had to fly
   home. If I hadn't been sick, the experience would have been
   exhilarating. Unfortunately, I felt so excruciatingly shitty that it
   was hard to walk, to just get up onto the stage, to sit, to stand up.
   You can't enjoy yourself when you're sick, no matter how enthusiastic
   the audience."
   The public response to and concern about the composer's health
   problems have been overwhelming. Even PMRC head Tipper Gore, who was
   at the helm of the late-'80s warning-sticker movement that Zappa so
   vehemently opposed, contacted him when she hear he had cancer. Zappa
   says, "The media likes to give the illusion that Tipper Gore and I are
   mortal enemies. That's not a fact. She sent me a sweet letter when she
   heard I was sick, and I appreciate that."
   When asked what he thinks of a recent article that quoted a friend of
   his saying, "[Frank's] just not going to be bothered by something as
   stupid as cancer," he pauses, then soberly responds, "Well that's
   pretty fucking optimistic. Let me tell you. Cancer can bother you. It
   can just bother you to death. I'm fighting for my life. So far I'm
   winning." He laughs, then continues, "I've already beaten the odds.
   When the cancer was first diagnosed, the doctors didn't give me too
   long to go. But I've surprised everybody by sticking around this
   Zappa's prostate cancer was detected in 1990, some eight to 10 years
   after it had first developed. Since it was in an advanced stage, it
   was considered inoperable. He's been forced to undergo a bladder
   operation as well as radiation therapy. He's reticent to talk more
   about his illness beyond that he's "doing a whole bunch of other
   stuff" for therapy. Is working on his music a form of therapy? "I do
   it because that's what I've always done. What's your alternative? Stay
   in bed or work. If you have a studio and a good staff like I have, and
   you still have musical ideas, then you go to work and you work until
   you can't work anymore. (Later, Zappa oversees and, with an acute ear,
   monitors two of his trusted studio workers, mix engineer Spencer
   Chrislu and Synclavier operator Todd Yvega, while they painstakingly
   sample all the notes on Zappa's 97-key Bosendorfer Grand Imperial
   piano.) I used to be a night owl, but now I'm usually in bed by six or
   seven in the evening. It's hard for me to work a real long day
   anymore. I'm up at 6:30 in the morning. If I can do a 12-hour shift,
   then I feel I'm really doing something. The staff arrives at around
   9:30, so that gives me a little time to work by myself before I sit in
   the studio all day with them."
   Zappa's illness also aborted his short-lived, but very serious
   presidential campaign, as well as curtailed his plans to develop his
   Why Not? Inc., an international licensing, consulting and social
   engineering enterprise set up to forge ties between Eastern Bloc and
   Western businesses. "Until the Soviet Union folded, we spent 50 years
   of Cold War cash convincing American that we needed to fight against
   the Evil Empire. Hey, I traveled to Russia five times right when it
   was on the cusp of glasnost. The place was a fucking disaster area.
   These people couldn't even deliver milk. The CIA knew that, but why
   didn't they say the Cold War was for shit and Russia wasn't a threat
   to us? If we had been working with the Russians to develop what they
   knew, we all would have been better off. The Russians may not have the
   money, but they have the brains. My idea with Why Not? was to work
   with the co-ops of inventors, helping them to license their inventions
   of industrial processes and equipment design in the West. When I got
   sick, I had to shut down my plans. It's difficult enough for me to
   travel, but it's no vacation going to Russia. The conditions are grim
   there. It's hard to find something to eat, the transportation is a
   nightmare and since there's no Russian phone book, it's nearly
   impossible to get in touch with people unless they've given you their
   telephone number beforehand."
   But according to Zappa, his international endeavors have not always
   been appreciated by his own government. "I have a large and devoted
   audience overseas, but a lot of people in this country don't know that
   I still exist. I think that might have something to do with the
   Republicans, who have never been too thrilled about my existence. I
   get the feeling that I've been blacklisted in this country," Zappa
   says. "My music doesn't get played on the radio here. And the only
   time I'm on TV is when someone wants to get a funny comment out of me
   for the news."
   When Czech playwright/former president Vaclav Havel wanted to make
   Zappa Czechoslovakia's special ambassador to the West on trade,
   culture and tourism, the composer reluctantly yielded to Bush
   administration pressure to ditch the idea.
   "Although I resent government," Zappa says, "I can't imagine an
   effectively functioning society without some machinery to make it
   work, even if it's incompetent machinery--because the species hasn't
   evolved to the point where it can take care of itself. So I'm what I
   call a practical conservative, which means smaller government and
   lower taxes. What do you call a system that seeks a bigger government
   and more taxes? Insanity."In many ways Zappa could be a model figure
   for the rugged individualist of American myth. "...It's not completely
   true," says Zappa. "I have lots of people helping me to call the
   shots." Yet in his pre-Mothers' days, he owned his own recording
   studio, Studio Z, which was where the surf hit "Wipe Out" was
   recorded. In 1989, his biography, authorized to be written by Peter
   Occhiogrosso, was transformed into the compelling and hilarious
   autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book after the subject found
   Occhiogrosso's style flat and lacking Zappaesque flair. Today, Zap pa,
   who has released well over 50 albums, maintains his own publishing
   rights, records on his own Barking Pumpkin label, runs a mail order
   and merchandising company called Barfko-Swill and operates the Honker
   Home Video arm of the Zappa empire. He has a CD re-release deal with
   Rykodisc, as well as the six-volume series You Can't Do That on Stage
   Anymore (double CDs) for Ryko, and has thwarted the efforts of
   bootleggers by authorizing Rhino Records to release two series of
   Zappa-approved bootlegs. he maintains his own hotline message,
   818-PUMPKIN, to keep his fans up to date.
   Zappa also exercises strict control over performances of his
   orchestral material. "You'd be surprised at how many orchestras and
   chamber groups all over the world play my music every year. I get
   requests for scores all the time. But I won't granter permission if I
   feel there's not enough money budgeted for proper rehearsal time. I'd
   rather not have the music played that have it performed in a sloppy
   way." Any unusual requests? Zappa laughs and says it happens all the
   time. "The most recent was from the President's own US. Marine Corps
   Band in Fairfax, Virginia. They want to play 'Dog Breath Variations.'
   It seems a couple of gunnery sergeants in the ensemble are fans. So we
   sent them the music. Then there's one from a young filmmaker in
   upstate New York who wants to use "Elvis Has Just Left the Building"
   from the Broadway the Hard Way album to conclude a mock documentary
   he's making of current Elvis sightings.
   As for future projects, Zappa's slate is full. He continues to dig
   into his audio archives to issue old material. Just released as the
   Ahead of Their Time CD of a 1968 Mothers concert in London, where 14
   members of the BBC Symphony joined the group to provide the
   Zappa-composed musical accompaniment to a play the band members acted
   out. Next year Zappa promises another CD of unreleased studio cuts
   called Lost Episodes. Then there's a CD of music for modern dance
   called Dance Me This that he's working on.But what Zappa is most
   excited about are a couple of projects Andreas Molich-Zebhauser,
   business manager for Ensemble Modern, talked about during a visit just
   a couple of days earlier. "Andreas told me about an interview Edgar
   Varese gave once where he envisioned a film to accompany his piece
   'Desert.' I had never heard of that before. Varese said that the
   images didn't need to relate to the music. Well, the Ensemble is
   booked for a concert in Cologne, Germany on May 27, 1994. And reas
   thought of the extensive data bank of video images I've collected and
   got the idea to commission me to do a 22-minute film. The other
   project we discussed was for May 1995 when the Ensemble would perform
   an evening dedicated to my theatrical works like "Billy the Mountain"
   and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" arranged for classical ensemble. I
   think it will make for an entertaining evening and an entertaining
   CD."After talking for 90 minutes, Zappa answers a final question:
   Given that his music over the span of nearly 30 years has remained
   fresh, relevant, challenging and on-the-fringe, to what does he owe
   his career longevity? Opinionated on so many other subjects, Zappa
   displays a rare moment of humility. "I don't know how it's happened.
   How have I survived? I guess by word of mouth, but I don't know. I got