High Times Greats: Frank Zappa

When Frank Zappa talked, people listened—from fans to Senate Hearing Committees.
High Times Greats: Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa by Lynne Goldsmith

In December, 1989, High Times published Elin Wilder’s interview with the incomparable Frank Zappa (1940-1993). In honor of Frank’s birthday on December 21, we’re republishing it below—complete with remarkably prescient musings on Donald Trump and the failure of the US education system.

Frank Zappa has played on every major stage in the world—including a September 1985 command performance before a Senate Hearing Committee to discuss the Parent’s Music Resource Center’s proposal to put warning stickers on rock albums with “questionable” content. Needless to say, FZ was not amused. He is influenced as much by what happens in the world around him as he is by his powerful musical vision. Frank spoke with High Times about what [was] on his mind [in 1989].

HT: Do you think censorship is an issue in everybody’s life?

FZ: It should be a big issue in everybody’s life because the thing that makes your life beautiful is the fact that you get to express yourself as an individual. There are people who willingly give up their right to be an individual and trade it for some imagined security. But I think that if people would just reflect on it, the most valuable thing you have is your personal freedom. Censoring what you say is one of the ways in which people who are not nice can take away your personal freedom. You shouldn’t be willing to give up a scrap of it. You have a Constitutional guarantee to it. The way I look at it, that’s a contract between me and a bunch of guys whose salaries I pay through taxes. We ought to take full advantage of the fact that we have this contract with our government. We should make the government stand and deliver on it.

HT: How do you inspire people to get aware, to read the Constitution, to get involved?

FZ: That’s a tough question. You have a right to be literate. The school system that is costing so much is not delivering the goods. I think one of the reasons it doesn’t deliver the goods is that it’s ideologically more appealing to the right-wing elements in this country to create a nation of stupid people who are dumb enough to swallow their rhetoric so those right-wing elements can run an election campaign which is not based on facts and figures, but on bunting and sound bites that don’t really tell you anything. You need a docile, stupid electorate in order for a person to be elected. And how do you keep them that way? You starve the educational system so that it doesn’t really work. You control the content of the school books which are used in the educational system. You rewrite history to suit your ideology.

In The Real Frank Zappa Book, I talk about the myth of liberal media bias; I think it’s important that this myth be dispelled once and for all. No liberal owns a broadcast license. No liberal owns a major publishing house which creates textbooks for US schools. Everybody in the media in the United States is one of those “other” people, with another agenda which doesn’t always phase up with the rights that are guaranteed in the US Constitution. They like to bend the rules and engage in situational ethics, and as long as people are stupid and docile, they won’t fight it. Maybe it sounds like a conspiracy theory to say that the US schools have been purposely watered down or made ineffectual, but it looks that way to me. There’s no reason to keep graduating people who shouldn’t be graduating at all. They should still be in school learning how to be functional. They should be able to do their own bank balance. They should be able to spell at least, say, 2000 words of the English language, and be able to read them, if for no other purpose than to avoid problems in traffic.

HT: Where do you think this myth of liberal media bias came from?

FZ: The way the racket works is this: A right-wing guy who owns the license creates the myth of liberal media bias—with no proof that such a bias actually exists—then demands in the name of fairness that more balance be added into a news story. That buys him the chance to add even more right-wing ideological content into every news story and everything that goes on the air—as if there wasn’t enough already. So in the name of fairness and balance, news stories must always contain an extra helping of right-wing agenda. And that’s the reason for this whole myth about liberal media bias. It was just a promotion started during the Reagan administration. A very clever manipulation.

HT: Why was labeling records such a big deal?

FZ: Well, my theory is that it was the ground floor of Albert Gore’s presidential campaign. I’m sure there were other aspects to it, too, because there was a link between what the PMRC did and the fundamentalist right that helped launch this crusade. There’s some hanky-panky going on there.

HT: Then what would you suggest to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps to do something different musically and still maintain some sort of integrity, given the restraints that are on them by the music industry and what’s going on in the country in general?

FZ: I don’t know whether there’s one simple formula that you could give to anybody who wanted to try and do something original in the music business or even fight against the mediocrity that is poured into your body every day from every media outlet. One possible way is get enough people to refuse to buy records, refuse to watch television, refuse to listen to the radio, and make the demand that things change. Because as long as you don’t complain, you’re going to keep getting more of the same.

You know, the fundamentalists have known for a long time that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And you’ve got a lot of squeaky wheels out there, and because they squeak so much it makes it look like there are more of them than there actually are. A normal person who might think, “What is all this?” will just stay at home. They won’t ever open their mouths because they’re afraid or they’re lazy.

One thing that makes a difference between then and now is this thing called FM radio. In the early ’60s, when FM radio was a new industry, they played different types of music and tried experimental things. You at least had some media voice, some media possibility. Now FM radio is just like AM radio, which is just like television, which is just like everything else. It’s all the same. And there is no media outlet for an alternative point of view. Perhaps the last thing that’s left is the book. And now that people can’t read, nobody reads books. The only other media outlet is the phonograph record or the compact disc. You can still say things in this medium, but if you can’t get your record into a store, or if you can’t get it played on the radio, that’s another way of eliminating an opposing point of view…. To me, this is one possible subtext to the PMRC jumping all over lyrics. It gives them an excuse to set up a board of censorship which would then, in the wrong political hands, let’s say, decide to go over other lyrics now that we’re done with sex. We’ve stamped out sex because we’ve made it a life-threatening endeavor by spreading these germs around out of a laboratory. Now we’ll go after freedom of speech by saying certain words shouldn’t be there and we’ll just make everything totally safe and totally bland and we will exalt those who are the most bland. That’s what award shows are all about. Television award shows for rock and roll basically exalt two qualities: the ability to write a song which has no content and the ability to successfully promote a soft drink or a beer. The people who get the awards always have an endorsement with a major beverage company.

HT: I notice you’re not doing beverage commercials.

FZ: Well, there’s a very good reason for that. I don’t like beer and I don’t like brown soft drinks of any persuasion. I don’t think they like me, either.

Americans keep watching these award shows, but why? There is a trend in Europe right now towards US-packaged award shows being turned down by the national networks. I just heard that Spain was offered some big US musical award show. They said, “We don’t want it.”

HT: So what did you do with your Grammy award?

FZ: It’s sitting next to the television set in my basement so people can say, “What is that?” I tell them it’s a joke.

HT: The playlist, which limits what you can and cannot play on the radio, was supposed to solve the problem of payola, but it seems to have given more opportunity to radio stations to deny artists airtime.

FZ: Well, it worked like this. You had a bunch of entrepreneurs who were engaging in payola. An ethical question, perhaps. Not the world’s most earth-shaking crime. And they made a martyr out of Alan Freed and a few other people. It was actually cleaner when a guy would stick fifty or a hundred dollars inside the sleeve of a 45 rpm record and say, “Hey, Mr. Disc Jockey, play my hit,” than it is now, because it’s like drugs, sexual favors, weird deals. The whole business of setting up radio consultants to construct a playlist away from the radio station was designed to give the radio station another level of deniability: “We have no payola here. We’re paying this man to give us a playlist. He tells us what the hits are.” This centralizes the power in the hands of maybe five guys who are in the playlist business, and they control what goes on the air to a certain degree. Of course, the man who owns the broadcast license also has some control over the playlist, because he can decide that there’s something on that list that he doesn’t want on his station, and it won’t go on.

I think the lack of airplay that I’ve had in 25 years of doing music in the United States is amazing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the music that I make. I don’t think there is anything in it that would cause it to be undeserving of broadcast airtime, but for some reason it never gets on the air. That’s not true in Europe; I’ve had hit records over there. The largest selling single in CBS’s history in Scandinavia was a song called “Bobby Brown Goes Down.” The same song was a big hit in Germany. They don’t have problems over there with what I say and what I do. But for some reason, in this country, somebody has said, “We can’t let this man on the radio.” What could happen if you play my records on the radio? Something terrible?

HT: People get AIDS…

FZ: The second time I did a CNN show called Cross Fire, the debate topic was “Does Rock Music Cause AIDS?” I was debating Rev. Jeff Ling of the PMRC. Their logic was this: Rock music makes people want to have sex, and sex gives you AIDS. Pretty thin, huh? They set up the question and I just said, “No.” There was a big silence, then they had to figure out what to do with the other 29 minutes of the show. I haven’t been invited back since.

HT: Why do you think they’re not playing your records?

FZ: Somebody up there doesn’t like me.

HT: Which somebody?

FZ: Well, I don’t think it matters as long as there is such a thing as a somebody. We know that there is a somebody, and if he were elected, maybe we could do something about this somebody. But the problem is that the government of the United States is not exactly what really governs the United States. And this is true in other countries, too. I think that the life of the people is in the hands of those who own raw materials and those who own manufacturing. They make deals with elected representatives to carry out merchandising programs on their behalf. It’s almost like the politicians are a form of entertainment that allows people to get into pseudo-debates over pseudo-issues, while behind the scenes you have guys with billions and trillions of dollars moving weapons around, moving sugar around, moving cotton, soy beans, machinery, electronics, all this stuff. The world is a business. And the sooner we start looking at the world as a business, the easier it’s going to be for us to live in the world.

HT: How have you managed to keep your integrity while becoming a successful businessman?

FZ: It’s really easy. All you have to do is decide you don’t want to be one of those guys. You don’t make as much money, but you can certainly live well enough.

HT: It’s a bizarre thing—you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, or what they want to do, and their answer is, “I want to make money.” In a survey among high school students, more kids said Donald Trump was their hero than anybody else.

FZ: Yeah, but on the other hand, let’s deal with it as a fact of life in America. I think that’s a very good indicator of the failure of US education. Now if you add these two facts together, Donald Trump is the idol of American teens, and that teens can’t read, write, or do arithmetic, what do we have?

HT: What?

FZ: A failure to communicate.

HT: Your dad wasn’t very supportive of your career, was he?

FZ: That would be a very nice way of putting it. He wanted me to be an engineer or go into something real. I could have been a chemist, that would have been okay. An engineer would have been okay. Mostly he wanted me to be an engineer. So I became sort of an engineer. I became a social engineer.

HT: Did you finally resolve some of these issues with him before he passed away?

FZ: No. But I didn’t feel they needed to be resolved. The way I look at it, people are people. You can let the way they behave affect you, or you can look at it as an innocent bystander—I hereby observe your behavior. I think that it’s a little bit easier to get through life if you take that approach. If the behavior is appealing to you, you will participate in it. If it’s not, you will avoid it. If the behavior is threatening to you, you will defend yourself. But observe the behavior; stand back and make a decision, but don’t let it mutilate you.

HT: Let’s dispel the myth that you’ve been on drugs all this time and that’s the only way that you could possibly make your albums.

FZ: People presume that drugs actually give social benefit to them. I’ve said this for years; drugs are bad for you, don’t use them. You want to commit suicide? Go ahead. It’s your business. So long as you don’t interfere with my life, don’t drive your car into me, don’t come after me with a stick. As the planet gets more crowded I think we have to examine how far we will go to accommodate the way other people live and which personal freedoms we’re going to be willing to give up in order to control the way other people live. I think we have to make a serious analysis of this problem. I’m not a dope fiend. I do what I do because it comes out of my imagination. The human body is, in fact, a chemical factory. My behavior, and the way I think, is the result of the chemicals that go into my body. These chemicals include coffee, cigarette smoke, and peanut butter. Now, if you think I’m weird, and you want to be weird, too, then drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and eat peanut butter.

I encountered another variation of that on the Today Show, with Jane Pauley. I don’t know whether she intended to make it come out that way, but it was like, you play the guitar, how could you be a good father? As if the two concepts are mutually exclusive. And I reminded her I had just come from Spain, where you get respect if you play the guitar. In the United States, if you play a guitar you’re doing the work of the devil. Or you’re Public Enemy No. 1. Something’s wrong here. And to actually have it verbalized that way on network television! You know, “You play the guitar and still you have these nice children.” I had to jump up and down about that.

HT: What do you think about how drugs are integrating into society and where they’re coming from?

FZ: Think of it this way—you know where pot comes from, right? It comes from the ground. Did it ever occur to you that designer drugs are not things that just come springing out of the ground? They’re not natural. Some scientist had to build them. The construction of these designer drugs requires sophisticated equipment. Now the guy who’s growing marijuana, or the cocaine rancher in South America, he’s not a scientist. He’s a businessman-farmer combination. All these weird new chemicals come from professional places. It probably wasn’t just a little hobby that started in the laboratory because you don’t get to use the laboratory whenever you want. Somebody said, “Make me this. Make me XTC, make me PCP, make me LSD. Here is your contract, here is the money, hire the people, invent this drug. Deliver it to me on this date. If you can, we will then do experiments.” The experiments to find out what these chemicals will do to human beings can’t be conducted on goats and sheep. You have to do the experiments on people. Unfortunately, in America you have a society that contains a large number of people who are willing to take part in these experiments. They actually pay to take these chemicals that have been created for some unknown purpose. I think that before you stick a chemical in your body, you should think about where it came from and who’s really getting the benefit.

HT: In your book you came up with this great thing on AIDS and how it was probably missionaries sticking people with unsanitized needles….

FZ: That’s not my theory. I heard that from somebody else. The first I heard about AIDS was a news story which said that suddenly 700 people of a certain persuasion in a certain city had died in the month of November. Does that sound like any other epidemic you ever heard of before? An awful lot like Legionnaire’s Disease, huh? Suddenly, a certain group of people in a certain place come down with a certain disease. Since I had grown up in a household where I knew about poison gas and germ warfare, it immediately sounded like an experiment to me, using civilians for testing. It’s not farfetched to think of it that way because there have been plenty of other examples that have been reported in national media about when the government has used private citizens for testing against their will, including people who went into the Army, were given LSD, and not told that they were part of an experiment. In a hospital in Canada, some patients were used for testing by the CIA. It wasn’t widely reported in the US, but they certainly know about it in Canada. And the CIA got caught doing it.

Then there was the experiment that took place in Grand Central Station in New York City, where a gas was emitted to find out what kind of panic would take place. Let’s say you’re a US citizen. You have certain rights, okay? I don’t think you have the obligation to participate unwillingly in chemical and biological warfare experiments in your hometown. I don’t think that that’s part of your obligation as a US citizen. If you want to volunteer for it, terrific. If you want to take guys on Death Row and use them to test this stuff, even better. But to say, “Well, we’ll just go to the train station, we’ll turn on the gas, and we’ll see what happens…”, what is that? What kind of country does that stuff?

HT: But how do you get people aware of these things?

FZ: You keep talking about it and maybe one or two people who hear it are willing to talk about it to somebody else, and you hope it spreads that way. I don’t think you can expect more than that. There are no miracles here.

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