WINTER IN AMERICA

IT'S 1987 DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CULTURE IS?

Several months ago, it seemed a refreshing and deliciously ironic moment when Frank Zappa was spotted on television, testifying before a Senate committee. He was dressed in a jacket and tie, much as he was more than two decades ago for an appearance - in which he musically played a bicycle - on the Steve Allen Show. Before the committee, however, with the accumulated notoriety of the intervening years in evidence only as subtext, the talkative, knowledgeable and apparently incensed musician held forth as the most reasonable voice of the afternoon.

Considering the urgent problems you'll find on the front pages of even the lamest paper, the committee was holding hearings on the non-issue of applying ratings to rock records. Zappa had come to Washington to help nip this bit of protofascism in the bud. Instigated by the Parents' Music Resource Center, a well-connected group of Washington wives with kids in school and time on their hands, the committee was examining the possibility of a casual link between rock music and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, Satanism, concert violence and other things which no one could seem to recall having existed before 1956.

Asked how something as trivial as record-rating became the subject of a Senate inquiry, Zappa simply remarked, "A couple of blow-jobs here and there and Bingo! - you get a hearing." He added that Tipper Gore - wife of Senator Albert Gore and a key figure in the PMRC - had recently demanded that MTV president Tom Freston go to Washington to discuss the rating of music videos. While any legislation against the various music media doesn't seem likely at this point, Zappa notes that the current administration is doing what it can to further its own ideology, such as reviewing all documentaries being produced by both National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Zappa's interest in politics extends beyond those issues that are music related, though his perspective occasionally tends toward the bizarre ("For all those cowboys who think that Star Wars is gonna save us from alien attack: does it ever occur to you that Star Wars doesn't kill germs?"). He is a most vocal critic of the Reagan administration and its fundamentalist supporters. Referring to items ranging from government obfuscation to the bombing of abortion clinics, Zappa concludes, "We're seeing the same terrorist techniques in the U.S. as those used by Moslem fanatics in the Mideast - the difference is just a matter of costume." He points out that although the fundamentalist agitators may be a very small minority in the U.S., the Shiites of the Islamic middle east also comprise a small part of the Islamic community.

Going on about the Mideast (in a November 1986 conversation during the turmoil of arms shipments to Iran), Zappa continues, "Where was Bush during all this?" He refers to a recent trial of arms dealers involved in a private, clandestine attempt to direct arms to Iran: "They played a tape on CNN which went, `We just got the green light - Bush says it's okay but Schultz doesn't like it.'" Zappa's conclusion is that the cover-up is far more insidious than it looks, with one object being to protect Bush's presidential aspirations. "They're trying to make the frontrunner look good."

Though Zappa faults the press for allowing things to go on as they have been ("except for Sam Donaldson, the rest of the press has been napping for the last five years"), he says he's "optimistic." He feels the radical right is "on the run", and notes that their contributions have been dropping. But since the right wing agenda is still being pressed, Zappa vows, "So long as I can keep talking I'm gonna do what I can to stop 'em from getting their way." - ed.

This interview took place in early '86 in Frank Zappa's home studio, from 11 o'clock at night until sunrise the next morning. Zappa is a disarmingly thoughtful, lucid and witty individual, and rather warm in his own way. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.