Frank Zappa’s Last Interview — The Landfill Chronicles: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art — Chapter 3.4
Conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
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Chapter 3: FRANK ZAPPA — Part 4: “Cancer Can Bother You”
CANCER CAN BOTHER YOU
I tell Frank the concerns his fans have expressed about his health, then ask him what he thinks about a recent article that quoted a friend of his as saying, “[Frank’s] just not going to be bothered by something as stupid as cancer.” Frank 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 long.”
Frank’s prostate cancer was detected in 1990, some eight to ten years after it had first developed. Since the cancer 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.
I ask Frank if his music is a form of therapy. “I don’t do it for therapy. I do it because that’s what I’ve always done,” he says. “What’s your alternative? Stay in bed or work?”
Frank credits his studio staff for making life easier for him as he’s working out his musical ideas. “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,” he says.”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.”
Frank’s illness also aborted his short-lived, but very serious presidential campaign. It also curtailed his plans to develop an international licensing, consulting and social engineering enterprise called Why Not? set up to forge ties between Eastern Bloc and Western businesses. Frank has big plans. “Take Russia,” he says. “Until the Soviet Union folded, we spent fifty years of Cold War cash convincing Americans 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.”
Frank’s 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. “They could have been knee-deep in hard currency if their ideas and prototypes of ideas were linked to the West,” he says. “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.”
Another illness-related story is the letter Tipper Gore sent to him when she heard he had cancer. Gore was at the helm of the warning sticker controversy that Frank so vehemently opposed. Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center ended up “convincing” many labels to agree to the stickers which Zappa laments as having a “chilling impact” on artists’ First Amendment rights.
Throughout the debates on censorship, Frank was pitted as being Gore’s arch-rival. “The media likes to give the illusion that Tipper Gore and I are mortal enemies,” he says. “That’s not a fact. She sent me a sweet letter when she heard I was sick, and I appreciate that. I’ve said it before in interviews I’ve done, but somehow that never gets mentioned when they get published.”
Frank, who has himself come under attack for being racist and sexist in a number of songs deemed by his critics as being vulgar and crass, personally adopted his own satirical sticker for his homegrown Barking Pumpkin label that reads in part: “Warning/Guarantee: This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums. We feel this is un-Constitutional and un-American. As an alternative to these government-supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant), Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary.”
The issue of censorship prompts Frank to again reflect back on twelve years of Republican rule at the White House. “I have a large and devoted audience overseas, but a lot of people in this country don’t know that I still exist,” he says. “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. 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. I put together a one-hour show for an HBO special called Does Humor Belong in Music? It was a live concert from 1984, and no one would touch it in this country. What probably kept it off HBO was some remarks I made about Reagan in the middle of the show. All my video projects have aired in other countries, but not in the United States.”
THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM
So where does Frank stand on the political spectrum? Given his harsh critiques of a slew of governmental policies ranging from Pentagon expenditures to care for the homeless, does he consider himself an anarchist?
“If you’re referring to an absence of government, I can only see that coming about at that golden point in the development of the human species when we no longer require a government,” he says. “Although I resent government, 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 Frank could be a model figure for the rugged individualist of the American myth. For years, he’s called his own shots and heartily aired his controversial opinions. In the pre-Mothers’ days, he owned his own recording studio, Studio Z, which he bought from Paul Buff who had run the Cucamonga facility as Pal Recording which was where the surf hit “Wipe Out” was recorded.
In the late sixties, based on the commercial success of his first Mothers’ albums, he was given a long leash by Warner Bros. Records to sign alternative and avant-garde (read: weird) acts such as Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and Tom Waits to his own Bizarre/Straight label.
On the sleeve of the 1970 Bizarre/Straight sampler LP, Zapped, Frank and co-owner Herb Cohen wrote, “We make records that are a little different. We present musical and sociological material which the important record companies would probably not allow you to hear. Just what the world needs…another record company.”)
Much later in 1989, Frank agreed to have an authorized biography be written by Peter Occhiogrosso. However, Frank red-lighted the draft because he found Occhiogrosso’s style too flat and lacking Zappaesque flair. The tell-all project transformed into the compelling and hilarious autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book.
Today, Frank, who has released well over fifty albums over the course of his career, 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. It markets such video releases as his funny True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. He also has a CD rerelease deal set with Rykodisc and has thwarted the efforts of bootleggers by authorizing Rhino Records to release two series of Zappa-approved bootlegs. He even maintains his own hotline message, 818-PUMPKIN, to keep his fans up-to-date on the latest developments of his career.
But Frank downplays the rugged individualist tag. “Well, that’s pretty flattering, but it’s not completely true,” he says. “I have lots of people helping me to call the shots. My wife Gail runs the business end of things and not only does a great job, but likes to do it. I have great confidence in my attorneys, accountants and auditors, the people who do the mechanics of collecting the money. All of my staff are very competent and nice people that I get along with.”
However, Frank notes that one area of his business that he exercises strict control over is permission to perform his orchestral material. “You’d be surprised at how many orchestras and chamber groups all over the world play my music every year,” he says. “I get requests for scores all the time. But I won’t grant permission if I feel there’s not enough money budgeted for proper rehearsal time. I’d rather not have the music played than have it performed in a sloppy way.”
Frank laughs and says that he gets unusual requests all the time. The most recent came from the president’s own U.S. Marine Corps Band in Fairfax, Virginia. “They want to play ‘Dog Breath Variations,’” he says. “It seems a couple of gunnery sergeants in the ensemble are fans. So, we sent them the music. Then there’s Jamey Hampton, the choreographer for the dance troupe ISO in Connecticut. He wants permission to choreograph The Grand Wazoo album.”
Gail joins the conversation in the studio and reminds Frank about yet another strange request, this 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. Gail shows me the latest in a series of hilarious faxes the filmmaker has sent to Frank, who is amused by such comically self-deprecating lines in the letter as, “If you have read this far, it’s time for more groveling. Please, I long for your kind words of YES or NO. Please grant this feeble, meaningless cipher permission, and inspire me to build temples to you and send riches to you — although you are probably as modest as you are wise and would refuse my pathetic offerings.”
Upcoming: Chapter 3, part 5: Final Words, the End, the Legacy
Frank’s parting comments to me: “How have I survived? I guess by word of mouth, but I don’t know. I got lucky.”