Behind the Curtain: The Unique Challenge of Interviewing Frank Zappa

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

The mythology of Frank Zappa has always loomed large and with his passing on December 4, 1993, that legacy expanded even more. Sporting an unforgettable look with his mustache and chin patch, Francis Vincent Zappa Jr. II was one smart dude. He was an avid fan of 1950s rhythm and blues and while still in his teens he was picking up on eccentric 20th century classical composers like Anton Webern, Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky. In high school he started composing original classical music at the same time he was playing drums in local R&B bands.

These were just some of the disparate elements that made up the Zappa mystique and made him a hard man to understand. In multiple interviews with him, I must confess I never really understood who he was. I found out when I met Frank Zappa on several different occasions that he was a man of many faces and dispositions, and following our conversations I oftentimes felt confused, disoriented and not sure if what I’d walked away with was a good interview or little more than filler.

Fans and sycophants loved everything he did and it was precisely this sense of “What is Frank going to come up with next?” that attracted them. His music was oftentimes dismissed as simply too strange to become part of the mainstream and consequently his career was based on touring and a hardcore collection of fans. Zappa was not a pop star in any sense of the word. He relegated himself to virtual anonymity and even relished the notion of being an unknown musician. He liked the idea. He didn’t want hit records—or so he said—and in his native America, his impact was minimal. However, his status in Europe and Asia bordered on the iconic and there again was that sort of Zappa duality.

Born on December 21, 1940, Zappa was a cipher, a secret code unto himself and an enigmatic presence in the world of music. He floated on and around the boundaries of rock and jazz and blues and classical.  He would forever occupy this space on the fringes of mainstream music. And this is precisely why his audience loved him: Frank dared to reside in the outer limits.

He was hard to pin down stylistically but no matter who or what he was addressing—his music audience, industry bigwigs, or later in life, Congress and the limits they were putting on free speech—the tone was tough and no nonsense. He didn’t suffer fools lightly and his conversations with critics and peers oft times turned ugly. I was on the other end of some of those mean-spirited dialogs and they still make me shiver to this day. He was a master of sarcasm and it ran in his veins. That became his weapon—both in conversation and composition—and more than once I would be battered by it.

The first time I came face-to-face with Frank was in the early ‘70s when I met him down on Sunset Boulevard at the headquarters of his manager, Herb Cohen. By then Frank and his Mothers had cranked out several albums including Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy [the all-instrumental record] and We’re Only In It For The Money. The title of that latter album alone was enough to give insight into the twisted and cynical manner in which he viewed the world.

On that day so many years ago, I was escorted into a rehearsal room and allowed to listen to the Mothers playing for 20 minutes. Frank was up at the front of the stage conducting and the musicians tracked his every movement with especial care and maybe even just a soupcon of fear. Frank was a fearless and fearsome band leader and anybody who made a mistake in concert would be the recipient of one hellacious stare.

I had spoken to several musicians who’d played with Frank—Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Don Preston—and to a man, they loved Frank. Revered him. Idolized him. Rightly so. Zappa was a renegade, a rebel, a one-off in a world of cookie cutter music making. But residing just below the surface of that respect was a sense of, “I better not f—k up in front of Frank.”

In a way, that’s exactly how I felt on that day many years ago. “Don’t mess up, Steve,” I kept chanting to myself, a mantra muttered sotto voce over and over. The Mothers’ session ended and I moved back into a conference room where I waited for the arrival of his famous moustache. I flashed back to the day when I actually bought the Freak Out! album and I smiled, thinking, “Who would have thought that years after buying the Mothers of Invention album, I’d actually be interviewing the main Mother himself?” That sweet daydream would soon turn sour and my smile would dissolve into a sneer.

Frank came into the room and we said hello and I began with what I thought was a pretty obvious and innocuous question:

Me: Your new music seems to embody some serious orchestral elements.  Would you agree with this?

Him:  This just winds up being a result of the last time somebody else tried to read up which was the result of somebody else trying to read up. It depends on what the intent of your article is and what sort of information you expect to pass on.  If you expect to pass on a point of view that’s a by-product of what you’ve gleaned from somebody else’s gleanings of other gleanings and other gleanings, and you come in and saw, what, half an hour or twenty minutes of us rehearse, the only thing you’re really qualified to write about unless you’ve watched the group for a long time and have seen with your own eyes something that has gone one, the only thing you can really write about is what you saw in there. Without reprocessing somebody else’s swill.  That’s the way I would do it if I was writing.

At first I thought he was joking around—I was hoping he was joking around—and when I realized he was serious, I gasped. I tried to understand what he had just muttered. He said something about gleaning and somebody else’s swill and what the hell was he talking about? I tried to compose myself and looked at my notes and took a deep breath and tried another approach.

Me: Could we start at the beginning?

Him: Of what?

Me: Just the earliest incarnation of the Mothers and what brought you to this point?

Him: Who is this for?

Me: Sounds, an English paper.

Him: Are you sure they really want to have this again?

Me:  Again? They don’t have it at all.

And they didn’t. I was an American correspondent for Sounds, one of the weekly English newspapers along with Melody Maker and NME. Zappa was big news in the UK and when I told Billy Walker, the editor there I’d snagged an interview with Zappa, he was delirious. Sounds have never interviewed Frank Zappa before. But by then, I didn’t know what I was doing. Not only was he unwilling to dive into any of the areas I knew the magazine wanted covered but he had taken on a pretty angry demeanor. He was confrontational and rude.

I swallowed what was left of my pride and carried on.

Me: Can you please talk a bit about your earlier bands?

Him: Are you absolutely sure they really want to have all of this again?

Me: Yeah, they don’t know about Frank Zappa.  I’d like to prepare them for when you go over there for your upcoming tour [he was scheduled for a UK tour in coming weeks].

Him: Are you sure [these three words are laced with incredulity, disgust and exasperation]? I’m pretty sure we’ve been written up in that magazine a number of times.

Me: Not in the last two years.

Him: OK, here it is.

There was an exhalation of Zappa’s breath signifying boredom and disdain. Every word out of his mouth dripped with sarcasm. Frank had made it clear from these little physical actions—blowing out air and his body language—that he regarded the person sitting across from him as a complete idiot without an original thought in his head. He stared at me like I was an alien.

In an accelerated manner of speaking, he raced through an overview of his earlier days. He regurgitated the words in a robotic monotone fashion and didn’t offer a single new insight into his music or his own personality. It was a complete waste of time.

That was my first encounter. I remembered that after the first couple of questions it had been pointless in trying to guide Frank into any kind of meaningful dialog. I probably went through the motions of bringing up a few more points—all of which he would have knocked down like King Kong swatting at airplanes—and then just packed up my tape player and scurried out of there as quickly as my legs would carry me.

Several years later in late 1976 Guitar Player assigned me to interview Frank for a cover story. I didn’t know what to do—my hands were still shaking from the first conversation—but turning down such a prestigious assignment would have been journalistic suicide and an acknowledgement that Frank had beaten me. Besides I needed the money so I relented.

However, this time I found myself chatting with the affable Zappa and not the awful one.  Dr. Jekyll was gone and had been replaced by Mr. Hyde; the sunny yang was there and not the shadowy yin. Every guitarist in the world wanted to be in Guitar Player and making the cover was a six-stringer’s dream highly coveted by anyone who ever held a guitar pick.

By then I’d already written several covers including pieces on Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin and Joe Walsh. Zappa may or may not have known that but what he did know was that I was the dude who was going to put him on the cover of GP and that was enough.

When we met for the second time, Frank was on his best behavior. I’m sure I would have reminded him about how he treated me some years earlier but I wouldn’t have made a big deal over it because I didn’t want to ruin the vibe.

The two hours we spent together were remarkable. Nothing was out of bounds and he talked extensively about his formative years, his guitar playing, his studio techniques, and much more. In fact, the interview went so well that the issue carrying his cover—January 1977—became one of Guitar Player’s biggest-selling issues ever.

I was blown away by his willingness to communicate, his humor and the complete dearth of cynicism and sarcasm. I was thinking, “Maybe I misinterpreted who Frank was. Maybe I walked into that first interview with a preconceived notion of who he was and never gave him a chance.”

So when I had the opportunity to meet up with him for a third time in the early ‘80s, I figured, “Why not? He’ll most certainly remember me as the guy who put him on the cover of GP.”

I drove to his house up on Woodrow Wilson Drive, a lane situated right at the top of Laurel Canyon and only five minutes from my own guest cottage in the Hollywood Hills.

Frank was there waiting for me at his Woodrow Wilson home and at first it was difficult to tell which Zappa I’d find—the cruel one or the kind one. I figured I’d know as soon as we started conversing.

Me: How long have you had a studio at your house? Can you talk about the gear that’s here?

Him: About a year-and-a-half.  I’d rather not talk about what I have here. It’s a private studio and it’s not for rent to anyone else. It has a lot of top-secret equipment in it [in reality there was nothing out of the ordinary]. And that’s that.

Uh oh, it was the Zappa from our first contact—the biting, humorless, impatient, and monstrous Frank-enstein. We forged ahead and I realized he was just being protective of his studio secrets. We rambled on about a lot of subjects he rarely spoke about like his work with the GTOs, politics [“Ronald Reagan is the perfect president for this day and age because he’s a non-content president. He’s got no substance”], John Belushi, the infamous underpants quilt, and some tremendous memories about the 60s:

Him: The collective music expertise of the first Mothers band was nowhere near what the contemporary musician is capable of doing. Those weren’t skilled guys. We were doing things apart from the rest of what was going on. But L.A. was a real sick place then. You didn’t exist unless you played folk rock. That was it. If you didn’t look or act like the Byrds, then, good luck. Things were so weird that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band came to town, which was a good band—they could really stomp—and they couldn’t draw flies and people hated them. Donovan was big, real big. The Buffalo Springfield did okay but the two most successful and popular groups then were the Byrds and Love. The Doors were somewhat later than the Byrds and Canned Heat was much later. We got into the Whisky A Go Go only because Johnny Rivers wanted to take a vacation and go on a tour.  They left his sign outside. We worked there for five weeks and they didn’t have our name on the front of the building until maybe the last couple of days. And people kept coming in and that’s how it happened. We were doing material from the Freak Out! album, which was the first concept album.

Frank was terrific that day. He showed me around his studio—beautiful, ornate and a musician’s dream—that had been trashed with coffee mugs and cups. His caffeine intake was legendary as was his predilection for fast-food hot dogs and burgers. Withered and leathery-looking wieners sat on top of amps and on his recording console while empty junk food wrappers, bags, and napkins splattered with mustard littered the floor.

We spoke for a couple hours and when it was time to leave he ushered me out of the studio, down the walkway, and past a pen of dogs. They were newborn German Shepherds, exuberant, playful and barking the tiniest adolescent canine yips. At that moment, Frank asked me if I wanted a pup. Maybe he recalled treating me like a second-class citizen so many years earlier and wanted to make amends. Or maybe he just needed to find homes for the dogs. In either case, I was shocked and thrilled that he’d asked.  “Absolutely,” I exclaimed. I reached down into the litter and picked out this perfect little pup and told Frank I’d be back the next day to retrieve him. On the drive back home, I had already worked his name out in my head: Furrari—with a u. How very clever was I.

I woke up  early the following day, drove up Laurel Canyon, made the right on Mulholland and the sharp right on Woodrow Wilson and parked in front of his house. As walked into the yard, I noticed all the little barking dog babies were gone. Thinking they were probably in the house or in some other pen somewhere on the property,  I knocked on the door. Frank answered and I said hello and told him I was there to pick up my dog. With a blank expression on his face and totally devoid of emotion he said, “I gave it to someone else.” Again, and this goes back to my original comment in this story about not understanding who Frank was, I thought maybe he was joking around. I gave him a second to say, “Just kidding” and when that response was not forthcoming I said, “I don’t understand,” “You promised that puppy to me.” I had specifically pointed out the one I wanted and told him I’d be back the following day to pick him up.

Frank barely responded. He simply shrugged and the gesture infuriated me. I controlled my temper for about three seconds and then I exploded. I was mad. “Why would you do that?” I demanded. He didn’t say a word and shut the door in my face.

About 10 years later, on December 4, 1993, Frank succumbed to prostate cancer. He was only 53 years old. He had been sick for some time and I was sorry to hear that he passed. I was honored to have met him and amongst the hundreds of interviews I’ve done, my exchanges with Mr. Zappa elicit as much interest from readers as any I’ve ever done.

I just wish I could have ended this puppy’s tale by telling you I drove home that day with a Frank Zappa dog. I wish I could have told you how I raised him and how much he was loved and all of that. But I can’t because that’s not how this story ends. What I can tell you about is the first time I met Furrari and the last time I met Frank. I think about them both.


Related Posts