Eat That Question – Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Possibly the most contradictory, self-serving, plagiaristic musicians of the 20th century, Frank Zappa was initially renowned for having his picture taken while sitting on the toilet. His reputation as an eccentric, foul-mouthed, flagrant perfectionist hinged on the demands he placed on other musicians to play his complex though erratic compositions in seedy strip joints and sports arenas as The Mothers of Invention, originally a southern California doo-wop outfit founded by falsetto vocalist Ray Collins. Once Zappa joined the already established combo, he proceeded to pepper his songs with excerpts from classical composers such as Stravinsky, Bartok and Edgar Varese but with a propensity for Johnny “Guitar” Watson rhythm riffs while borrowing novelty expressions from Doodles Weaver, who would insert hiccups, sneezes and aside chatter. Deemed by critics as “anti” music, this sort of contamination led to Zappa being tagged as “controversial,” something he would later see as a blessing and a curse.
In the documentary Eat That Question – Frank Zappa in His Own Words, using archival TV footage including his appearance on The Steve Allen Show and I’ve Got a Secret (where an astute Soupy Sales knew who he was), the film follows rock star/businessman/social commentator Zappa from performances where he rejects political rallies, to his later years when his shows were strictly platforms opposing Republican office holders. He even claims to be a “conservative” on an episode of Crossfire before proceeding to trash talk both President Reagan and George H.W. Bush!
An inconsistent defamer, Zappa called out “the fascist left” for attempting to disrupt his concerts while he was demonized here at home for making “sexist” comments. And anti-gay comments. He actually admitted on The Dick Cavett Show to being a fan of Amos ‘n’ Andy. Remember, he’s “controversial.” Throughout this movie Zappa claims he could not get his music played on American radio, but I first heard The Mothers of Invention on an AM Top 40 station out of Hapeville, Georgia – WBAD – when “Big Leg Emma” was put in their rotation!
Zappa seemed to always be at odds with censorship, claiming his feature film 200 Motels was banned in numerous countries worldwide. (I attended the premiere at the Emory Cinema when a medical student stomped out, calling the rest of us who stayed “sickos”! It was during the song “Penis Dimension,” which kept the band from performing at The Royal Albert Hall, along with misinterpreted lyrics about “sanitary pads.” When “Penis Dimension” was played for the presiding judge, he responded, “Do I have to listen to this?”)
But what has always disturbed me is Zappa’s inconsistency. He says he saw himself as being a referee to decide a balance, but “not out to impose my will on anyone else.,” which is all well and good, if it were true. Seconds later he’s heard onscreen justifying his rigid NO DRUGS policy for band members, saying, “they represent my music delivered on time; missing band members pose a legal risk!”
As a profound chain smoker, Zappa admits during an interview after being diagnosed with prostate cancer that he’s only smoked ten joints in nine years and never dropped acid, “anything I put in my body besides peanut butter and coffee is prescription!” It should be pointed out that prescription drug abuse causes the largest percentage of deaths from drug overdosing in the US, responsible for more ODs (45%) than cocaine, heroin and amphetamines combined!
Having once spoken to the Fowler Brothers, who played on Zoot Allures and other Zappa albums, they pointed out how Frank would write wonderful orchestral pieces and then them “Dick Cheese Supreme” or some such, guaranteeing it would never be heard. That, and his mid-life crises, where he wore pants ten sizes too small to show off his privates, forced the Fowlers to go on the road with Beefheart instead.
As the sandwich board parody of political weakness, Zappa would proclaim “Fuck Communism!” saying “I don’t play for the Pope, communist picnics, unions” – he hated the musicians union! – “or political organizations.” Then he’d side with anti-American dissidents, saying “Products are not culture. Foreigners do not want our Levi’s! Maybe this country should not exist!” Umm, he seems to have completely forgotten that his movie and records weren’t banned here, but elsewhere! The truth of the matter is that it’s just the opposite, and tourists to Columbia and the old Soviet satellites report Levi’s being stolen more than anything other than money.
As the centerpiece opposing Tipper Gore’s PMRC attempt to put “parental warning” labels on records, Zappa condemned it as “nonsense,” yet several years later he appeared onstage with Tipper Gore, saying he’d hug her if it meant George Bush didn’t get a second term! Bad memory, or does he believe what he says he believes?
Still as judge, jury and executioner, Zappa left an indelible stain on psychedelia, ridiculing The Velvet Underground as east coast pretentious, until ultimately his bark buried his bite. When asked why he thought his music was considered bizarre, he said, “Because it isn’t made by committee. It’s made without government funding. And I do not accept grant money!” Commendable sentiments in light of today’s “artists” who see GoFundMe as a birthright!
But for every well thought out concept, there are times he just got it so wrong, like when he said computers “will eliminate the distraction of having to hire musicians.”
Inconsistent and unwilling to accept that his wit failed to hit the mark in his later days, he didn’t seem to believe that his songs such as “Valley Girl” did not carry the satirical punch that a song like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” had delivered. An innovator and master manipulator, punk rock reduced his relevancy, to where by the time he received his Grammy, he was a parody of his former glory.
Eat That Question provides ample insights into Frank Zappa’s views, his acidic cynicism and his eccentric fascination with introducing that generation of rock ‘n’ roll kids to the possibilities of music. Yet, I can’t help but ponder: The Velvet Underground inspired numerous garage bands and experimentation, while Zappa inspired Phish!