Frank Zappa, chapter 3, part 2 in the book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette

Frank Zappa’s Last Interview — The Landfill Chronicles: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art

Conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette

Free subscription for email updates on the next chapters of The Landfill Chronicles book-in-progress: https://danouellette.medium.com/subscribe

photo: Aldo Mauro

Chapter 3: FRANK ZAPPA — Part 2: “The Formative Years”

In the weeks prior to our meeting, I find evidence of Frank Zappa popping up in the strangest of places. In rush hour traffic, I notice old and smudged Zappa for President bumper stickers at the toll booth of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. At my neighborhood coffee shop, Royal, on the Oakland-Berkeley line, the crew is blasting Absolutely Free out over the sound system at 7:15 a.m.

Whenever I mention to friends and acquaintances that I’m going to interview the brilliant musician and satirist, everyone has a reaction. Nearly everyone refers to him informally as Frank, in a way that suggests an almost familial relationship, and all people wonder if — and hope that — he is winning his fight against prostate cancer.

Some people pass on highly valued old magazine articles and cassettes of interviews with him taped off the local listener-sponsored radio station (Berkeley’s KPFA-FM hosted by experimental electronic classical music composer Charles Amirkhanian). Some recount enchanted tales of catching Frank in concert. Others stress how much they appreciated him going to bat for artists everywhere in his well-publicized 1985 appearance before a Senate committee where he vehemently condemned warning stickers on albums proposed by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center.

An editor friend tells me a Frank story from her college days. When it came time for her calculus final, her young professor told his class not to cram for the exam. Don’t stress it, he said, and then recommended preparing for the test by doing the following: go home, get into your bedroom by yourself, play a Frank Zappa album and then go to sleep. My friend only followed half of her teacher’s advice. She studied first and then relaxed to Zappa music. She passed the test.

THE EARLY DAYS OF DEFYING THE NORM IN A CULTURAL WASTELAND

While Frank eventually became an artistic icon, his early days barely hinted at this future. During our conversation at his home after my weeks of prep, we start by tracing his first steps into the music world. He reflects back on his formative years 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 Edgard Varese’s innovative and dissonant early 20th century classical music, Frank 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 have strong suspicions that he was destined to live a life deviating from the norms of Americana.

He’s enjoying talking about those old days. “I had no outlet in music then to express my discontent,” he says. “I didn’t start writing rock ’n’ roll lyrics till I was in my twenties. So, my aggravation with the way things were festered throughout my high school years. I refused to buy into most of what was going on around me because it all seemed so idiotic.”

HOW CAN YOU TAKE ANY OF THIS SERIOUSLY

But Frank really gets fired up when he talks about the emphasis the education system of his hometown placed on sports and all their life-support privilege. “The only reason I got training as a musician was because the school needed a marching band at its football games,” he says, grimacing. “It was just another tool to support the sports program. I never did enjoy sports. I always thought they smelled bad, and you could rarely hold a conversation with people involved in them. So, I looked at all that and thought that there certainly must be more worthwhile educational investments than new helmets. That really got me thinking how can you take any of this seriously?”

Fortunately for Frank, his stint with the band didn’t last long. “I was thrown out for smoking in uniform,” he says, while taking a drag from one of the many Marlboros he would smoke that afternoon. “We had to sit in the freezing cold and wear these dorky maroon and gray uniforms and play every time our team scored a touchdown. The brass sounded and the drums rolled. Jesus, it was pathetic. We had to sit in the stands and play vaudeville accompaniment noises to the jocks on the field. So, during a break, I went under the bleachers for a smoke. I got caught and I was kicked out of there. Not just for smoking, but for smoking in uniform.”

Frank enjoys telling the story, expressing it like a joke with a burst of sarcasm. When did he realize the potential for satire in his music? “Even before I had this wonderful band called the Mothers, [original Mothers of Invention member] Ray Collins and I used to piddle around in Pomona doing gigs where the two of us did parodies of folk songs,” he says. “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.’”

Frank and Ray also recorded some goofy novelty tunes like “Ned ’N’ Nelda,” “The Big Surfer” and “Surf Along With Ned ’N’ Nelda.” They were influenced by Spike Jones, who specialized in spoof arrangements of popular music. “But our songs were less sophisticated and more stooge-like,” Frank says. “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.”

THE RISE OF THE MOTHERS

Little did Frank realize how highly influential his music would eventually become in shaping opinions both at home and abroad. Case in point: the first two Mothers of Invention albums, Freak Out! in 1966 and Absolutely Free in 1967. The former — the first rock double LP and the first recording fueled by an experimental concept approach — purportedly inspired Paul McCartney to begin work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Frank’s Mothers’ debut helped spawn an American subculture of long-haired, irreverent, authority-questioning freaks. Being a freak in Frank’s worldview became a badge of honor.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Absolutely Free proved to affect 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 Czechoslovakia.

Frank is still surprised by it all. “I had no idea that song made the impact it did there,” he says. “The album was smuggled into the country within a year of its release. I found out ten 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.” Frank talked with them after the show, and they told him that “Plastic People” was responsible for a whole movement of dissidents within Czechoslovakia. “It wasn’t just the song,” he says, “but the entire notion of railing against a plastic society was something that was picked up behind the Iron Curtain. 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.”

I remark that “Plastic People” is yet another of his compositions that has aged well in its social commentary. “That’s especially relevant today in the United States,” he says. In the room there’s a poster on the wall portraying a Hitler-like image of Ronald Reagan with the words “He has the right to do anything they want” written underneath.

Frank 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 Nuremburg rally. The amount of hate and spewage that came out of that convention was appalling. Hatemongers like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson and the rest of the featured speakers were convinced they were going to win again.”

THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY

Next topic: the new administration. After twelve years of Republican leadership, how does he feel about President Clinton? Frank says it’s still too early to be overly critical given that the administration has yet to fill all the staff positions in the executive branch, but adds: “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 Frank goes on to express an early dissatisfaction with the new president. What’s upset him the most since Clinton took office is banning of smoking in the White House. “That really disturbs me,” he says while taking another drag from a new cigarette. “Give me a fuckin’ break. 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 wish people would get off this I’m-gonna-live-forever kick and dispel the myth perpetrated by Reagan’s evil Surgeon General Dr. 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.”

When I say that it sounds like he’s on a crusade for smokers, Frank inhales and nods. “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,” he says. “It’s remained constant. Now we need to 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.”

PLEASE CLICK FOLLOW and CLAP AT END…THANKS

Coming up: Chapter 3, Part 3: “From Squeech the Kitten to Yellow Shark”

Free subscription for email updates on the next three chapters on Frank and several upcoming chapters of significant artists at The Landfill Chronicles book-in-progress: https://danouellette.medium.com/subscribe

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Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette has been writing about jazz and Americana music for 30 years for such publications as Billboard, DownBeat, Quincy Jones’s Paris-based QWEST_TV mag