Bob Marshall: In your mini-manifesto on JOE'S GARAGE where you say "Information is not knowledge, Knowledge is not wisdom,... etc.", at the end you say "Music is THE BEST". What is Music?
Frank Zappa: Well, in the terms, I would use two different definitions for it, one in the clinical sense and one in the sense that applies to that little statement on the album. In the sense of the statement on the album, it would mean whatever you happen to think music is. That's a statement to other people and they would plug into that statement their concept of what music is. I'll recite it for you just for the people who don't have the albums:
Information is not knowledge,So, you get to figure out what your idea of music is and plug it into that.
Knowledge is not wisdom,
Wisdom is not truth,
Truth is not beauty,
Beauty is not love,
Love is not music
and Music is THE BEST
Bob Marshall: I find that little manifesto resonates so much with many points that you have said through the years in your interviews. For example, I don't know of it any earlier but in the Fall of '79, in Rolling Stone, was one of the first times that you talked about yourself as a "journalist". Am I wrong? Did you talk about it in earlier interviews I'm not aware of?
Frank Zappa: I don't know whether or not I talked about it in interviews earlier, but there's always been a journalistic aspect in my work even from the first album because if a person writes a song about a current event that's a journalistic technique. And I would say certainly a song about the Watts Riot, which was on the FREAK OUT! album, qualified as some for of journalism because a lot of people don't even remember what the Watts Riot was, and so, at the point where you make the song, the Watts Riot was a recent journalistic event, it was recently in the news, but over a period of years, people forget what the news was and now it just becomes folklore. The fact is Channel 5 in Los Angeles, which showed the pictures of the riot, did have a story about a woman sawed in half by 50-caliber machine gun bullets from the National Guard that was down there taking care of the riot. And that may be the only lasting monument to the woman who got sawed in half. There's a lot of things like that in songs that go from journalism into folklore with people and the events that they are involved in. The songs were news at the time that they happened but over a period of time, who cares about the news anymore and then it's just folklore.
Bob Marshall: I see that and that's the opening word - "Information". I relate that to your statement in Life magazine this summer that you "hum the news". There seems to be a metaphor that you're replaying here as music. Your work is journalistic yet you're turning the news as folklore into some kind of musical artform.
Frank Zappa: That's an interesting way of juggling this stuff around and there's a certain aspect of it, but I would say that the only part of the news that turns into the music is the lyrics. It's pretty hard to convert something like election statistics into something that you can hum, really.
Bob Marshall: So you mean the news lyrics is what you hum. But don't you include the news of musical trends? Where you do your satire of musical styles, isn't there a trendy newsy level there?
Frank Zappa: Usually by the time I'm making fun of it, it's no longer news because in order to make fun of something everybody has to know the ground rules for the joke to work, so it would be ridiculous to make fun of punk orchestration, everybody else had some idea of what punk sounded like so that you can make a parody of it. You can't be newsworthy like in a timely fashion, with a musical parody
Bob Marshall: But when it becomes an environment, a cliche.
Frank Zappa: Yeah, it's when it has saturated the cultural environment and everybody knows that people, with hair sticking up in a certain direction, with guitars totally out of tune, banging a couple of chords for one and a half minutes constitutes a musical form. Then you can make fun of it.
Bob Marshall: So when you say "I hum the news", you mean the lyrics.
Frank Zappa: Yeah I'm talking more about the lyrics rather than the notes.
Bob Marshall: Is there an ethical question there about humming the news? Are you satirizing people's involvement in the news? I mean, people would see that you're entertaining the news, putting it in an entertainment form. Some people might see it that way.
Frank Zappa: No, actually what I do with the news is I have the ability to watch news from all different kinds of sources and remember the details, and collate the details, and come up with a conclusion other than which the people who own the media want you to come away with. If you watch only one news service you're not getting the full picture. They try and tell you major world events in ten seconds, and you can't do that. So what you have to do is compare different outlets, compare their spins, compare that to print, and then draw your conclusions. And also reinforce that by first-hand conversations with people who might be there or might know something about it. I generally don't have access to those kinds of people when it's applied to U.S. politics, but in terms of things going on in other countries the information we receive here about what happens outside the U.S. is really quite thin. And since I do travel around it's easy for me to talk to people in the different countries and say what really happened. And to that extent I know more about foreign events than the average guy in the United States because I have some way to...
Bob Marshall: Direct access to the experiences.
Frank Zappa: Yeah, to develop the picture a little bit. In fact, I got some extra information just last night on things that are happening in South America. It puts me in a situation where the political part of my brain is looking at the world and saying, "I see trends developing and they're really horrible", and the musician part of my brain says, "I would really like to be just sitting in that room in there working on the Synclavier because that's more fun than anything else". And I spend my day trying to put these two parts of my brain together, and usually what happens is that at the end of the work-period there will be a product that comes out that is a combination of those two parts of my brain: what I know about what's going on in the world, plus what I like to do with music
Bob Marshall: That's the process of resolving the dilemma of being a musical specialist in an information surround that makes you in touch with so many things.
Frank Zappa: Yeah.
Bob Marshall: And then you add your particular slant to it through your own sources.
Frank Zappa: Yeah.
Bob Marshall: That's what I was interested in, you as a journalist, and I was wondering which was more prominent: the political or the musical. But you're saying you're not sure, you work out where you...
Frank Zappa: At this point they seem to be about 50-50. It's not exactly like being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it's hard for me to go in there and just work on music and forget about what's really going on in the world. I can't do it. I can't take what I know and throw it away and say, "Well, I just won't care anymore because I can't do anything about it." First of all, I think I might be able to do something about it, and just because I might, I have to keep thinking about it. So, there's no easy way to dispose of it.
Bob Marshall: So your activity dealing with the PMRC, I guess from '85 to '87, was not a radical departure from your interests. It was how you manifested that dilemma for yourself. That was the most immediate concern that you could deal with. You had to go political at that point.
Frank Zappa: I wouldn't say that was even going political. That was a civic obligation because I saw...
Bob Marshall: Well, that's what I mean by "political". Do you mean something else? Do you mean propagandistic by "political"?
Frank Zappa: No, we have a little semantic problem here because usually the way I talk about politics is in one sense and I've said this many times in interviews: politics is the entertainment branch of industry. When I talk about my political thoughts, I'm not talking about being part of the entertainment branch of industry. I'm talking more about policy in action. In other words, somebody has to decide to do certain things or not do certain things, and hopefully the person makes that decision has made the decision based on accurate information. The problem with most of the decisions of the last eight years in the Reagan Administration is they're all ideologically based and very seldom have the policy decisions been based on practicality, or far long-range thinking. It's just been based on whether or not the rhetoric that appears in the news that day is in phase with conservative ideology, or appeasement to certain interest groups. It's not good politics in the true sense of the word. And another political act that you have to bear in mind is as long as people have the right to vote, the vote should be cast in a situation where the person with the ballot in his hand has access to enough information to make a practical decision. And that's where I come in. If I can provide an extra dimension of information which may, through this interview or through a record or some other way, get out to a person with a ballot in his hand, I'm doing a public service by providing compilations of data that the news won't give you. It's not that they can't give it to you, they won't give it to you. So, that's the way I think about politics the way I'm involved in it.
Bob Marshall: Taking a statement that you made to Warner Brothers in 1971 in a pamphlet called "Hey, Snazzy Execs": "We make a special art in an environment hostile to dreamers"...
Frank Zappa: That's right. The environment that is hostile to dreamers is always the environment that is run by right-wing administrations because in order for the right-wing administration to maintain its fiction, it has to be ideologically pure and that ideology does not admit for creativity. There is nothing creative about a right-wing administration. The whole goal of it is to freeze time and to move things backward. So, obviously the people who are most at risk, whenever there is a right-wing administration sitting in place, is anybody who is an intellectual dreamer or creative person in any field. They are at risk because they pose a threat to the administration.
Bob Marshall: But you were quite vocal about certain left-wing elements in the Sixties.
Frank Zappa: I don't think that the left wing is anything to invest in. I think that the left wing has probably done as much damage as any other kind of political force. I think common sense is the way to go. There's no ideology for common sense. It's easy to talk about politics in terms of right and left wing because that's the way the news portrays it. And so to a degree, if I talk about political things I have to use the common parlance so people understand it. But I think of myself as a person devoted to practical and commonsense solutions to things that are real problems, and they oftentimes sound weird if suggested simply because people are so attached to the ideological ramblings of the right or the ideological ramblings of the left. They think that you have to choose between these two extremes. On the left you've got Communism. Well, Communism doesn't work. It absolutely doesn't work, and on the right you have Fascism and that doesn't work either.
Bob Marshall: So both environments are hostile to dreamers. Both political ideologies...
Frank Zappa: No, because the difference here is that the left has often employed artists and creative people in order to further their goals. For the right-wing administration, the artists and dreamers are a threat to their way of life. And for the left-wing guys, the artists and dreamers are propaganda. So there's a danger coming from both directions. One side would like to snuff you out and the other side would like to co-opt you and usurp you in order to have you do stuff and promote their ideals. So, anybody who's got an imagination has to watch out for both sides. There's only one place where you're safe and that's in the middle.
Bob Marshall: You think you could work with a creatively sympathetic group like the leftists and keep them on their toes. You wouldn't be co-opted and it'd be better than a right-wing...
Frank Zappa: I'm not interested in working with any leftist organization I tell you the truth. I've said it many times...
Bob Marshall: No, I mean work in their environment.
Frank Zappa: No, fuck their environment because I refuse to be used by any of those people.
Bob Marshall: But you emphasized at the beginning that the right wing was more threatening for you.
Frank Zappa: The right would like to put you out of business and the left would like to hire you, and I'm not for hire. I don't think that anybody who has a truly individualistic way of evaluating the world of a creative urge to do unique stuff needs to be snuffed out or hired. You should be free to do what your abilities will allow you to do because it is only when you are free to do that, the benefits of what you can build will be distributed to those parts of the society who will find your work useful. Really creative people don't work good as employees.
Bob Marshall: But you're saying there is more of a threat in the right-wing environment.
Frank Zappa: Yeah, that's the threat of death.
Bob Marshall: You think of yourself as having common sense. Would you define the word "art" as a sensory training for common-sense perceptions or is that too dramatic?
Frank Zappa: I think the word "art" has been pretty much flogged into porridge. Today you hear the word "art" and you think of people who do paintings and have their work admired by rich people at cocktail parties, and it conjures up a world of phony stuff, and I don't participate in that world. I'm happy that it's there for the people who like it. It's a nice form of entertainment for them but to me that's not what it's all about. I don't think that training people to consume art in that sense makes them any more sensitive, or more highly developed or refined in any way. It doesn't make them a better person, it just makes them a dupe for a bogus way of life. That art world really is a way of abusing the people who made the art in the first place. The best example is the common Soho gallery split of 60-40: 60% for the gallery owner, 40% for the artist. I mean, in the worst rock and roll record contract you don't get that kind of a reaming. So, so much for the art world.
Bob Marshall: I think way back about 1970 in the New York Times you said that "my work is art". I think you meant "art" in a different way there.
Frank Zappa: Yeah. If I think of it as being a pure expression of who I am, what I do and what I think, that's fine and I'll call it "art", but I'll call it "art" privately. I mean, you've gotta understand, I'm not walking around with an art banner in my hand. The problem with communicating with anybody in the English language is that so much damage has been done to the language itself by advertisers, by political campaigns, that the words themselves have been mutated to the point where you have to choose them really carefully because even if in fact it is "art", you don't way to say it's "Art" because the negative connotations of calling it "art" puts a weird spin on what you're saying. So I generally try and avoid any connection with that word just because it impedes the process of trying to get your point across. If you're going to talk to somebody, you want to talk to them in a language they can understand using words that they're familiar with. That should be a goal for communication and "art" is one of the bad words these days.
Bob Marshall: In other words, you target an audience for the point you want to get across.
Frank Zappa: Yeah.
Bob Marshall: That's the traditional art of rhetoric in classical education. I don't know if you came across that. It's a rhetorical technique.
Frank Zappa: I didn't have a classical education so I don't know it from these things.
Bob Marshall: Alright. So, one would say that your emphasis is rhetorical, not in the modern propagandistic sense, but targeting an audience, not necessarily for the whole album, but particular songs, in a musical sense.
Frank Zappa: Well, "targeting" is the wrong word because that presumes that it's narrowcasting. It's not. What I have to do is make an assumption about the comprehension abilities of the people that would be the likely consumers for what I do. In other words, I have to conjure up in my brain an imaginary picture of who the guy is, how smart he is, how many references he might have that I can make through metaphorical references in a work. I have to have some sort of a plan, O.K. And then once I've made that model, I can then decide, as I'm writing the piece, if this is going to whiz over his head, going to whiz past him, or what it is. And if so, should it go in there anyway or should I change it and say it blunt?
Bob Marshall: That's part of your composing process?
Frank Zappa: Yeah, and in order to arrive at that imaginary model of the person who is listening to the stuff, it's not based on thin air. I mean, I actually talk to the people who are fans for what I do. I've met them, I've talked to them, I have some idea of what their desires are. I know what they like, what they don't like, and to the extent that I have personal contact with them, that's the data that went into building the model.
Bob Marshall: Although, you do say that all your music is an extension of you, but you also say that the audience is the employer in other quotes.
Frank Zappa: That's true, but the music is an extension of me but the "me" is an entity that knows certain things. Part of what I know is what the audience is interested in and so that doesn't seem incongruous at all. The audience employs me to entertain them. By purchasing an album, you have hired me to entertain you for forty minutes, or whatever it is that's in the album, and my goal is to do that in a way that is going to be useful to you.