Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. This is taken from his 1974 interview with Zappa.
Frank Zappa's early odes to teenage life combined a Theater of the Absurd sensibility with a sharp-edged satiric humor, and a hair-trigger threshold of outrage, set to a '50s backbeat. With his group, the Mothers of Invention, in the summer of 1967, he brought a wicked and spontaneous theatricality to the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village.
Since then he extended his vision further into the realms of classical music, arena rock, jazz, R&B and film scoring (200 Motels).
Known for his occasional hostility to reporters, Zappa was quite cordial in our meeting at the Golden Gate Motel in Brooklyn, overlooking scenic Sheepshead Bay.
"I didn't start listening to music until I was about 15 years old because my parents weren't too fond of it, and we didn't have a radio or a record player or anything," he said. "I heard a song called 'I' by the Velvets on the Red Robin label and 'Gee' and 'Sh-boom,' 'Riot in Cell Block #9,' and 'Annie Had a Baby.' By accident I heard those things and they knocked me out.
"I didn't start writing songs per se until I was about 20 years old, 21 maybe, because all my compositions prior to that time had been orchestral or chamber music. The very first tunes I wrote were '50s doo-wop, 'Memories of El Monte' and stuff like that. It's always been my contention that the music happening during the '50s has been one of the finest things that ever happened to American music and I loved it. But I think my writing is as influenced by country blues as it is by 1950s stuff. I've always been fond of Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Slim, Howling Wolf, and those guys.
"At the time, I was living in a part of town called Echo Park [Los Angeles] which was a Mexican, Japanese, Filipino, Black neighborhood. I lived in a grubby little two-room place on the side of a hill, 1919 Bellevue Avenue. In that house, I wrote 'Brain Police,' 'Oh No, I Don't Believe It,' 'Hungry Freaks,' 'Bowtie Daddy,' and five or six others. A lot of the songs off the first album [Freak Out] had already been written for two or three years before the album came out. And a lot of songs wouldn't come out until the third or fourth album."
Like Randy Newman, Zappa found inspiration just walking outside in '60s L.A. "About 50 percent of the songs were concerned with the events of 1965. In the kiddie community I was hanging out in, they were all getting into acid very heavily and you had people seeing God in colors and flaking out all over the place. And meanwhile there was all that racial tension building up in Watts. I was up to San Francisco once or twice, but I wasn't interested or influenced by the scene there. In L.A. you had people freaking out, making their own clothes, dressing however they wanted to dress, wearing their hair out, being as weird as they wanted to be in public and everybody going in separate directions. When I got to San Francisco I found everybody dressed up in 1890s garb, all pretty specific codified dress. It was like an extension of high school, where one type of shoe is the 'in' shoe, belt-in-the-back peggers, or something like that. It was in the same sort of vein, but it was the costume of the 1890s. It was cute, but it wasn't as evolved as what was going on in L.A."
In the magic summer of 1967, Zappa and the Mothers were the talk of New York. "There wasn't too much going on in Greenwich Village that winter," he recalled. "The people who came to see us at the Garrick mostly had short hair. They came from white, middle-class environments, mostly suburban. They came to see our show because we were something weird that was on that street and we were a sort of specialized recreational facility. The reason they were shocked in those days was that they hadn't seen or heard anything that came close to what we were doing."
Zappa likened working on a song to the construction of an airplane. "One week you're a riveter, or you're putting the wiring in," he said. "It's just a job you do and then you go onto the next step, which is learning how to perform it or teaching it to somebody else. All the material I've written, as far as my own appreciation of it, goes through a cycle where, especially if it's something I'm going to record, you work on it so much that by the time you finish it you can't stand it anymore. When I'm working on a song it takes weeks and weeks to finish and the orchestral stuff takes even longer than that. You just get saturated with it. When you get to hear it played right for the first couple of times, that's the get-off. After that I don't like it again until it's a few years old and it's been recorded and I'll pick up the record and I'll say: 'That's hip.'"
His approach to lyric writing is even more unique, hampered by his feeling about words. "I've always hated poetry quite a bit," he said. "I really hate it. The whole idea of it just makes me gag. I don't like books either. I very seldom read. My wife and I have a joke because she likes to read. I say there's two things wrong with the world today, one of them is the writers and the other is the readers. The main thing wrong with writers is that they're dealing with something that is almost obsolete, but they don't know it yet – which is language. Language as a by-product of the technological growth of civilization has... well, think of what's happened to the English language as a result of advertising sloganism. The meanings of words have been corrupted to the point where how can you convey an accurate piece of information with this language?
"I'm not saying writers should be replaced. I feel sorry for them. They have a problem similar to people who write music. It's just as hard to write an accurate musical concept down on a piece of paper because of the new techniques on all instruments. The other problem is that I'm not much of a singer and most of the vocal stuff we put out I've had to give to other people to sing if I wanted to get a listenable performance out of it. Consequently, if they don't say the things with the right inflections, it changes the meaning. There's just bunches of problems in getting the true meaning across.
"I think, ideally, the way it should be is you could use words for amusement purposes only, because the spoken word, the sound of words... strikes me as funny, because of the differences in people's noise-producing mechanisms. But as far as the information communicated in the words, it would be better if people could communicate telepathically. Sometimes I show the lyrics to my wife, or after a while I'll get her to read them to me so I can see what the sounds are like, because part of the texts are put together phonetically. I change lyrics all the time. A lot of them get changed by accident. Somebody will read them wrong and it'll sound so funny I'll leave it wrong."
These feelings don't seem to affect Zappa's appreciation of his finished works. "I think by the time I put a lyric down on a piece of paper and go through all the drudgery of setting it to a musical format and rehearsing it and so forth, that they're all reasonably successful in saying what they were intended to say. There's plenty more that could be said, but there are mechanical obstacles in the way of getting that out to an audience. I think there are lots of things I'd love to be able to express to people, but being sort of a rational person I sit down and figure out, do those people really want to know? And is it worth the trouble to write it out, rehearse it, perform it night after night, record it, just to express my point of view on a subject when it's none of my business to inform somebody else about it in the first place?
"What people want to hear in a song is I love you, you love me; I'm OK you're OK; the leaves turn brown, they fell off the trees; the wind was blowing, it got cold, it rained, it stopped raining; you went away, my heart broke, you came back and my heart was okay. I think that is deep down what everybody wants to hear – it's been proven by numbers.
"So you start to think about the performer's role as an entertainer, and that the audience is paying money to come there and see you do something that will gratify them. And I have a conflict where I believe that people are entitled to get off as much as they can, and I think entertainers ought to do just that. However, I don't merely want to go out there and bullshit my way through a show. I want some substance too, so I have to mix it up a little bit and do some of the things that people wish to have done before their very eyes on stage, and at the same time keep myself from going crazy by writing down some of the things I want to hear."
And what he'd been wanting to hear, circa 1974, were songs like "Moving to Montana Soon" and "Penguin in Bondage," far from the political statements of 1965.
"I haven't become less conscious, it's just that I don't feel a driving need to write songs that are so obvious to everybody," he told me. "My experiences have changed, they're getting less specific in certain ways, more specific in others. It used to be that I would write specific things about obvious social phenomena that a large number of people could identify with because they had seen it in action. But that's less specific in terms of my own personal experience. These days such weird things have happened to me as a person that I'd rather put some of those down and do it that way."
Zappa obviously no longer felt it was the artist's responsibility to educate those who know less than he does. "It's hard for people to imagine that somebody else knows something they don't know," Zappa said. "And suppose you actually do know something that somebody else doesn't know and you want to tell them about it? Well, you've got a problem, because, first of all, they don't want to know. And if it's you saying: 'If you knew this you might be better off,' then you have to sit there and say to yourself, do I really want to tell them that, will it make them feel better, will it do them any good if they know?
I realistically look at it this way. It doesn't work. I think that it's quite possible that what I have to say is useful only to very few people and I should not bust my ass to make it available to a large number of people, because, first of all, they can't use it; second of all, they probably don't need it; and third of all, I know they don't want it. So, kiss it off... and boogie!"
April 1, 2019
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