Episode 31: On Frank Zappa

On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Nausicaa Renner and Dan Piepenbring sit down with Paul Grimstad to talk about his essay “Never a Hippie, Always a Freak,” on the life of musician Frank Zappa and the new biographical documentary Eat That Question.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Frank Zappa

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, subscribe via RSS, or download the episode (99.8 MB).

Episode Transcript


Malcolm Donaldson: Today on the n+1 podcast, associate editor Nausicaa Renner and Dan Piepenbring, editor of The Paris Review Daily, sit down with Paul Grimstad to talk about the life of musician Frank Zappa and his new biographical documentary Eat That Question. Paul’s writing has appeared in print and online in Bookforum, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review Daily. His essay about Frank Zappa, “Never a Hippie, Always a Freak,” appeared recently in n+1.

SEGMENT: Paul Grimstad, Dan Piepenbring, and Nausicaa Renner

Nausicaa Renner: I think it’s worth pointing out that there are two sides to Zappa’s music career. There is the pop side, with the most famous songs being “Plastic People” and “Valley Girl”—

Paul Grimstad: —which he co-wrote with Moon. It’s really her tune, in many ways.

Dan Piepenbring: Yeah, and “Bobby Brown (Goes Down).”

NR: Right. And that’s the side that people know—his lyrical creativity.

PG: Which you described as his disdain for the pop-song form—which, by the way, let’s talk about that. I’m not sure I agree. I do think those songs are dripping with sarcasm, or something like sarcasm, and maybe that is what leads you to think that—“Oh, he clearly hates this medium.” But I’m not sure. I think there’s actually a deep investment in the pop song form as a constraint, and a formal musical commitment to that form. “Hey, what can you do in something as constrained as verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus?”

NR: Although in the documentary, he does say that he’s really only doing this side of it in order to fund the other side of it, which is his composing.

DP: Which I took issue with. It seemed to me that if his only goal in writing pop music was to fund his more abstruse compositions, couldn’t he have written pop music for other groups, for other acts? He insisted on being the front man in this band for decades, through a bunch of different lineups, and in rehearsing them really hard, and in taking that show on the road, and in framing himself as an entertainer—while at the same time, trying to pose as someone who didn’t really care about that, and who’s just in it for the money. I find it hard to draw the line, when you’re thinking about how much he did or didn’t care about this whole career he had, which is how most people know him.

NR: I felt the same way about his politics, not to move too quickly. That he disavowed the political side, he said that he didn’t really want to be seen as a political figure, and yet besides defending the use of obscenity in rock music, even beyond that, he was going to Prague and becoming the new Czechoslovakian—

PG: Minister of Culture and Trade! Which I think has a lot to do with Vaclav Havel’s deep love for the Mothers of Invention, which went back to his dissident youth. And the Velvets and the Mothers were bands that stood for a certain kind of radicalism. There’s an interesting distortion in translation there, but Zappa was happy to be paid the compliment of that recognition.

DP: It was one of the few instances in that whole documentary where he seemed truly happy. There was an honest acceptance and exuberance that you could see in his face, that in those other interviews was usually—

PG: Sour?

NR: He arrived in Prague and tearfully, joyfully said, “I want to congratulate you on your new country!” It was a very sweet moment. What do you guys make of this ambivalence between the pop side and the composing side, and the politics and the not-politics? Where is he in there?

PG: Let me make one point about music. There’s an interview from 1983, at the Barbican—I think it’s in the film. It’s when he’s in the midst of recording the LSO for some of his more abstruse pieces, his orchestral pieces—which are, by the way, deeply, deeply, influenced in ways that are almost borderline stealing by American modernist composers like Elliott Carter and Edgar Varèse and Conlon Nancarrow, whom he knew quite well and admired a lot.

In the midst of being interviewed about what was a rather arduous and torturous experience for him, getting the sounds that he wanted, he’s asked a question by a British journalist not unlike the one that you just asked, which is: What’s it like to switch gears from doing “Valley Girl” to doing a relentlessly difficult piece of modernist orchestral music? And he says that it’s all the same thing—that they’re just different kinds of musical problems. I take him at his word on that. I think he took a kind of almost childlike delight in working with different generic constraints, whether they were songs, whether it was “what can I do in a guitar solo for the next six minutes?” “Here’s the band vamping behind me in some city somewhere in Europe or the US—I’m going to walk out on stage and plug in my guitar with nothing pre-planned and see what I can come up with.“

DP: That said, why couldn’t he just write a 3:30-love song? That’s something he never did in his career, to my knowledge. Every way he approached the pop form was with this sardonic persona very much in place, and he used pop music primarily to satirize, to denigrate.

PG: First of all, I would question the view that by not writing a love song, that necessitates disdain for the pop-song form. There’s all sorts of things you can do with song form that aren’t love songs.

DP: In his autobiography, he comes down pretty hard on love songs. He says that American consumers and American listeners primarily—or solely—want these boy-girl love songs, and that serves as a constraint for any composer who’s trying to do interesting things with the pop form. Which I think is too hard on the form, and I think that’s excusing what’s to my ears an aversion to sentimentality in his work that—

PG: —oh for sure, I totally agree with that—

DP: —verges on pathological. I mean, why couldn’t he ever say that he loved someone? Even in the documentary, when his family comes up, he talks about his wife as, “She’s a good boss’s wife.” And then his kids come up, and all he can say is, “Yeah, they like me.” And that just seems so sad to me—that seems like it’s missing out on—

PG: I don’t disagree with you, although I think a critique of Zappa’s performance as a father and husband need not lead us to condemn his work as a songwriter.

DP: That’s true, except insofar as those failures are evident in certain absences in his body of lyrics. Which makes him a very abrasive figure to me, someone that it’s hard for a listener to form a bond with except as a—I hate to use the word comrade, given his anti-communist leanings—

PG: Oh, he’s definitely a comrade.

DP: Yeah, as someone that you could get together with, with whom you could throw spitballs at the teacher.

NR: What draws you to Zappa, given that it seems like you have a bit of distaste for the aesthetic?

DP: At the time it just seemed unlike anything else I’d ever heard. I mean, I was 14 years old. A joke about cunnilingus and rancid Budweiser was going to have me in stitches—why not? And now I just roll my eyes at that stuff. But it was always his technical showmanship and his abilities as a guitarist, and especially as a band leader, that really attracted me. And he could do things in a relatively short span of time in a pop song that I just had not heard other people do before. And rhythmically, the way he played with time signatures—there’s a song that I think you wanted to play tonight, “RNDZL”—

PG: I call it “Redunzel,” but I never quite know how to pronounce it. That thing is sick. The opening bars—it’s just astonishing.

DP: What’s crazy about it—I always got a laugh out of this as a kid—is that when he counts it off, he just goes, “One, one, one, one.”

PG: That’s the moment when the modernism, the Varèse side of things, bleeds into the rock song. And you’re getting rock songs that have timbral colors, that you’re hearing usually in orchestral music. That’s the bit that floors me to this day. It’s almost as if the more leering the sarcasm becomes, and the more condescending the tone of the novelty music or the pop music, the more experimental and formally adventurous the instrumental music becomes. In other words, it’s not like there’s a loss of interest in the purely aesthetic side—that never sets in.

In fact, the culminating event of his recorded career was the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt—the leading new music ensemble in Europe—doing The Yellow Shark, their handpicked medley of their favorite Zappa pieces, from the Mothers through the ’90s, and him there (sadly sick by this point) conducting and being involved in rehearsals. So again, if you can say that there’s something inspiring about the idealistic commitment to the work in Zappa, it’s that as an artist he never wavered. Ever. That’s where my sentimentality comes in about Zappa.

DP: I agree with all of that. I just think he could have done that without being such a little shit at the same time.

PG: Yeah, what was he so angry about?

DP: What was he angry about? Why did he insist on putting down the average listener so much? He has this continuing derisive approach—

PG: —it’s condescension. I agree, that gets annoying—

DP: —to so many of the people who presumably paid to see his shows. As if he was only including this schlocky scatological humor to . . . It is cynical, but I think he clearly also just took too much pleasure in it, and used it, relied on it to such a point that it can’t have been just for the sake of an audience. He took pleasure in it. I mean, there’s a point in the documentary where he’s reviewing one of his scores, and he’s reveling in his use of the word “broth.” He seems to find it so amusing that he’s just repeating the word “broth.” And that kind of jejune mentality, it just makes—

PG: Although there might have just been textual delight in the phonetic sound of the word, in the way that Captain Beefheart repeats “fast and bulbous,” in a way where he’s just laughing to himself.

DP: I mean, that to me is a very charitable read.

NR: Yeah, I’m of the opinion that he probably just didn’t put as much thought into the lyrics as he did into the music.

DP: I earmarked a bit about lyrics in The Real Frank Zappa Book. In this paragraph, which I think we’ll probably agree has some artifice in it now, he says:

I don’t have any pretentions about being a poet. My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only, not to be taken internally. Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid, and a few of them are sort of funny. Apart from the snide political stuff, which I enjoy writing, the rest of the lyrics wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the fact that we live in a society where instrumental music is irrelevant. So if a guy expects to earn a living by providing musical entertainment for folks in the USA, he’d better figure out how to do something with the human voice plopped on it.

Given what we’ve discussed earlier, I think we can agree that he’s giving the lie here a little bit. Because that seems to undercut the quality of his good lyrics and the obvious mirth that animated his schlockier, coarser adventures.

PG: All the more confounding, given the title of this film, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. The film shows us a guy who’s nothing if not verbal. Quick-minded, articulate—putting it mildly—clearly as he takes a certain delight and mirth in laying out his positions and explaining his views on various things, and doing it in a simultaneously incisive and entertaining way. So there are words at the center of what this guy does, totally. It’s just that he’s being weirdly exceptional in the role of words in songs, and yet I think he doth protest too much in that paragraph that you read aloud. I actually think there’s a lot of art in the lyric writing. It’s just that he chooses to approach the task of writing lyrics with this chip on his shoulder, which is: “I’m going to mock the listener.”

NR: I also want to point out that even in some of the more compositional music—it’s not as though that is free from his goofing off. There’s a great moment where it’s the beginning of an instrumental track, and he’s incorporating these vocal barfing sounds.

PG: Yeah, he calls them “snorks.”

NR: It’s so visceral, and there are three or four singers all doing this barfing in unison, and there’s joking at the root of it.

DP: The fact that the apotheosis of his compositional career is called The Yellow Shark . . .

PG: The Ensemble Modern thing—it’s a mirror image of that pop condescension. The other side of it is that he can’t resist the impulse to mock the establishment, with the establishment being Carnegie Hall, or the Royal Albert Hall. That is, the musical establishment that would define itself against the lowbrow tastes of the rock ‘n’ roll consumers. Zappa has weirdly infiltrated that very stuffy world of academic establishment music, and he wants a part of that. It’s an interesting question to ask what he wants from that. The difficulty, the formalism, the high cerebral intricacy—but any chance he gets, he wants to make a barf sound in the middle of the piece to show that he wants no part of the pomp.

DP: In The Real Frank Zappa Book, he includes this keynote speech—god knows why they got him to do it—to the American Society of University Composers. In 1984, they had him give their keynote. Needless to say, he did not go easy on them.

PG: The stuff about minimalism is hilarious.

DP: Here he is just slamming the composers of the day:

Surely, “WE” must be punished for wasting everyone’s precious time with an art form so unrequired and trivial in the general scheme of things. Ask your banker—ask your loan officer at the bank, he’ll tell you, “WE” are scum. “WE” are the scum of the earth. “WE” are bad people. “WE” are useless bums. No matter how much tenure “WE” manage to weasel out of the universities where “WE” manufacture our baffling insipid packages of inconsequential poot, “WE” know deep down that “WE” are worthless.

Some of us smoke a pipe. Others have tweed sport coats with leather patches on the elbows. Some of us have mad scientists’ eyebrows. Some of us engage in the shameless display of incredibly dramatic mufflers, dangling in the vicinity of a turtleneck sweater. These are only a few of the reasons why “WE” must be punished.

NR: One moment of the documentary that I really loved was near the end, where he’s suffering from cancer, and he’s hired an orchestra to perform his work, and the question is: Why are you doing this? And he says, “I’m not doing this to sell it, I’m not doing this because I think anybody wants to listen to it, I’m doing it so that I can take these records home, and I can listen to them.”

He just wants to take the records home so that he can enjoy them in the privacy of his own home. He is a performer, but on the other hand, I picked up in the documentary these funny anti-work things. You wonder if he’s thinking about this as work. He obviously doesn’t want to be performing music as work; he says, “I would rather not work at all.” And yet, he’s a total workaholic.

PG: Yes, and if anyone’s recorded output is an emblem of intense work and commitment, it’s his. It’s all about work. The bands are crazily rehearsed, the music is . . . there’s nothing lazy about it. Even the most tossed-off, novelty thing is thought through. It’s not anti-work in the broad sense, no way. The question is what is he doing it for—what is making a living, what is 9-to-5 existence?

NR: And in this passage you’ve picked out, he’s bringing exactly that to the floor.

DP: And it brings to light one of the chasms in his persona that I find hard to bridge, which is that he positions himself at once as this blue-collar truth-teller, someone who came up from the outside, someone who doesn’t belong in the mainstream, and who has these very high-minded ideals—and also as someone who could never be high-minded, because he’s just folks, a guy from Baltimore who wears a weird mustache and long hair. He’s a tortured artist on the one hand, but has terrible things to say about those who identify only as tortured artists on the other.

NR: Let’s talk about Zappa’s Senate hearing. He was fiercely opposed to the warning labels that were proposed by Tipper Gore, among others. There’s a scene in the documentary where he’s going head to head with a senator. Do you want to explain what happened?

PG: Let’s contextualize it a bit. He’s one of three people from the music world who showed up that day and spoke. The other two were Dee Snider, of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, and John Denver, the guy who sang “Rocky Mountain High” and “Country Roads,” and so on. A rather eclectic trio, and a rather excellent trio.

Zappa had his moment to say his piece, and he obviously was very opposed to the idea that the senators and their wives could involve themselves in the censoring of recorded music, out of some fear that the contents of some records—things like Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls”—

DP: —which Prince wrote.

PG: Is that right? I didn’t know that. There were a few more songs that were of the skeezy, hair-metal variety. I think genre became irrelevant to Zappa at that point. The idea that someone could come in and put warning labels on the front of records was deeply offensive to him. It stigmatized the artists who made the work; it infantilized the consumer. He didn’t think it brought any genuine benefits to children, who were ostensibly the people such labels were meant to protect. He found the whole thing to be wrongheaded, and said as much, and went on in a predictably direct and at times burlesque way. My sense is that no one in that room quite expected the irreverence. I think it’s the irreverence that’s interesting in that sequence.

DP: And in that context, it’s especially winsome. To have someone confronting authority with that chutzpah.

PG: It’s completely cavalier. He’s brave. It’s important to say this: it goes for the Senate hearings, the public persona, the composition. There’s an element of courage in everything he did that I find impressive.

DP: Be that as it may, I think that the senator does back him into a good rhetorical corner there. She’s trying to draw the distinction between censorship and something more like trigger warnings, really. Something that’s more of a disclaimer. And she says, “Would you oppose signs on toys, markers on toys, that say this toy is designed for children aged 2 to 8?” He has to concede that he would, which means he would probably even have to oppose something like a choking hazard on a toy, which seems—

PG: The point that he makes that would dissolve that analogy is that the maker of the toy does not depend on their reputation as the person whose name is on them, in the way that the person whose name is on the record depends on a certain public presentation of the content of the record, which represents who they are and what they do. The person that designs that toy that might lead a child to choke is not vulnerable in that way. I think Zappa makes that point—that the stigmatizing of artists is one of the most pernicious things about the labeling enterprise.

DP: I was going to say, he is uniquely predisposed to this kind of thing, because earlier in his career he is legitimately censored in the fullest sense of the word, by MGM, who snipped parts of his record.

PG: We’re Only in It for the Money, yes. It’s not in the documentary, but when Zappa was 23 years old, he was busted in a sting operation in Cucamonga, California. He’d purchased a recording studio and decided that he was going to go out on his own and make a living as a film composer and audio technician and hire out his engineering skills and this studio space to do work for people who needed audio soundtracks for television, film, whatever. The local douchebag private detective disguised himself as a pornographer, and just because they’d targeted Zappa as being a shady character, he said, “Would you please create a half-hour audio of people having sex? I’ll pay you.” So he made this tape, and it was a sting operation. He was arrested and he was thrown in jail, and he spent ten days there. For, I guess, obscenity charges?

Some version of the story, I believe, is in Barry Miles’s biography, Zappa. Miles goes so far as to frame the entire formation of Zappa’s character around this defining incident with censorship, when he is thrown in jail in his early twenties for just trying to deliver product to a client. So, it goes deep. I say this in the piece briefly, and I don’t mean it to be anything other than an en passant suggestion, but the Catholicism of the household he grew up in also contributed to his distrust of people trying to control what you say and what you do.

DP: I also grew up Catholic, maybe that explains some of my—

PG: Does that suggestion make any sense at all?

DP: I think so, yeah.

PG: The catechism, and following the Latin Mass, and so on.

DP: If anything is going to give someone an anti-authoritarian bent later in life, it’s a Catholic upbringing.

PG: Just to contextualize, the Senate hearing was only the latest episode in what was a lifelong crusade against someone’s presumption that they could tell you what you could and could not say. He reads the First Amendment aloud—that’s not in the film—before he offers his personal remarks. I think he was almost something like a First Amendment fundamentalist.

NR: I’m going to ask a more abstract question now. The picture of Zappa that we’ve produced so far here is one of fighting against, and you brought this book with you, Paul, Ben Watson’s Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. There is something very negative about what Zappa is doing. He’s trying to chip away at the establishment, he’s irreverent, and his lyrics are intentionally base. Do you agree with that? So what is the positive content of his work? What does he add? Do you think he’s contributing to the musical canon?

PG: I’ll give a diffuse and abstract answer first. Anyone who sits down and says, “How am I going to spend the next four hours? I’m going to compose music” is contributing to something, doing something positive. They’re not negating anything. They’re making something. He spent his whole life doing that. That’s a pretty positive outlook in general. The footage that you get in the documentary of him—hunched over a stack of paper in his Laurel Canyon studio, in a very desultory way, talking to an interviewer, as he methodically puts notes down on paper—is a picture of someone who is adding, not subtracting.

The more concrete answer is, yeah, there was a lot of anger there. The anger of someone who had his eyes wide open and a really clear mind, and was looking at the world and seeing lots of aspects of it that he thought [were] disappointing. It stemmed from aspects of the culture, aspects of the socioeconomic and political things, and the structure of the family. The whole set of social constraints that everyone has to negotiate by popping into history and a certain moment. There was an element of we can do better, there. In that sense I would call him a progressive, because he thinks the traditional established normative structures suck, and that they need to be displaced.

NR: That’s true. I would like to question the idea that he does have a clear mind. He speaks so well and is so charismatic that it’s easy to think that he does, but he’s also so extremely focused—

DP: Almost monomaniacal at times.

NR: Yes, and very manic. I would disagree with what you said earlier about how we can really separate out the rest of his life from the focus on his work, because he was pretty sexist, at least from what I saw in the film. He does achieve such a level of clarity when he’s talking about his pet projects, but then there are moments when we edge up on topics that he doesn’t have such clarity about. That’s when the intense focus really became evident to me.

PG: I wouldn’t agree that intense focus is somehow evidence of confusion.

DP: This is a generalization, of course, but broadly speaking, his affect to me is just too spiteful. It’s too off-putting. And it’s ultimately, especially when you listen to a lot of his music in one run, it’s joyless. I turn to music now for joy, and I have no problem conceding that most of my listening has an element of escapism that I think he would fault me for. I don’t want to be faulted for that. I like a lot of what’s on Top 40. I listen mostly to pop music, some of it is more from more pop-auteur models, but some of it from these production teams who are really churning this shit out. I love it, it brings me much more peace and happiness than his songs ever did.

PG: It’s odd to think he would condemn you for your listening habits. You can listen to whatever you want—it’s not his fault.

DP: But he would lump me in with this gross proletariat, which is helping flush the culture down the toilet. That my tastes were simply too asinine to elevate music to the place where it could be. I do agree with you that he was very clear-eyed—and definitely ahead of his time—and that he was diagnosing certain societal ills. But his critique of them was often facile. Read issues of The National Lampoon from the ’70s and you would find a much more nuanced critique.

PG: I agree. I don’t go to Zappa for the best, most cutting-edge satire. We wouldn’t be talking about him were it not for the recorded music. It’s only because of the music that we’re holding him accountable for his political views.

NR: And yet, in the documentary he says, very rightly, that he’s famous, but nobody knows what he does. So we know the music, but the way the rest of the universe is holding him accountable . . .

DP: There is this tension in the way he speaks about his music where he seems to crave—and a number of artists have this, where they want a wide audience but they also worry that in seeking that, or in receiving it, that they would be selling out somehow, and that there’s no way to get a very broad listenership without pandering in some regard.

NR: It sounds like we’re going to have to wrap up in a minute. I hope we’ve inspired anyone who is not already a Zappa-head to go back and listen to some of the music. That was the main thrust of the documentary: go and listen to the music. Don’t just think about him as a political figure, because some of the music is really amazing.

DP: That is true, and I would never want to cast myself as believing otherwise, as hard as I’ve been on him, as a lapsed Zappa-head, which is the perfect phrase for what I am. I do think there are some compositions of his that are sui generis. There’s nothing like them.

PG: I think the recorded work will last into the 21st century in a way that lots of music from the ‘60s will not. I think it will be one of those bodies of work that, however niche and cultish, it will last, because of its idiosyncrasies and strangeness. I would say the same about Dylan, and actually Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. But that’s a different conversation. Zappa’s work as a composer and as a musician will certainly last.

DP: What you were saying about him earlier makes me want to draw a contrast between him and Prince, who did almost all of the same things—

PG: Definitely, I see deep connections between them.

DP: In his battle with the record studio community, the auteurship—he built his own studio.

PG: Deep connections.

DP: The idealism is all there. And “Darling Nikki” was one of the examples in the Senate hearing. I think that’s what got Tipper Gore off on the whole thing. He heard about Nikki masturbating in that magazine and he said, “Well, something must be done!” But to me, Prince has this access to his emotions. He’s almost an empath in a way—

PG: So much so that it becomes impersonal, and freakish.

DP: Well, that’s another argument for another day. But I would say that is what I find lacking in Zappa, is an emotional center. That coldness is what prevents me now from regarding his work with the same fervor that I once did. And I would like to apologize to my sister Julie, for all the times that I forced her to listen to You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol 2. I drove her to high school everyday and she just wanted to listen to Usher and I want to say today, I would rather listen to Usher, too.

NR: Thank you guys for joining me. My final word would be the very beginning of the Zappa documentary, in which he’s repeating after that reporter, and saying, “I’m Frank Zappa and I guess you guys had nothing better to do.”


MD: Thank you to our guests. Paul Grimstad is a songwriter, film composer and writer. He has contributed original scores to many films including Frownland, Heaven Knows What, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Hernia, and Albert Maysles’s Muhammad Ali documentary, Muhammad and Larry. Keep an eye out for a new box set of 50 of his songs forthcoming from the Brooklyn label Factory 25. Thank you to Nausicaa Renner, Dan Piepenbring, and Dayna Tortorici. The podcast is produced by Malcolm Donaldson, Aaron Braun, Eric Wen, and Emily Lyver.

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