As part of my abortive retirement programme, I’ve been copying some of my interviews from cassette to CD – and among the first that I transferred was one I did with Frank Zappa, who died 16 years ago today.
He would have been amused that I thought his utterances worthy of keeping for posterity. He was certain that the custodians of history had misunderstood him and would continue to do so. “Few people know or even care that I exist,” he assured me. “I don’t think that there’ll be anything of what I do that will survive beyond my lifespan” – but we both knew he was kidding. Beneath that superficial resignation, he hoped like hell that his contribution would one day be recognised by the grisly breed (he continues to hold them in the lowest esteem) who write about rock music.
I’d interviewed him before, on the steps of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, during the sound-check for his gig in June 1969 – and I’d seen the Mothers of Invention’s UK debut at the same venue in September 1967. My first attempt at professional writing was a review of this extraordinary concert, a highlight of which was Don Preston leaping up the balcony to play Louie Louie on the prestigious RAH organ, which had been installed at astronomical cost, and which made those famous riffs sound like armageddon or at least the beginning of a new full-of-promise and all-kinds-of-possibilities era. Needless to say, my effusive review was rejected by the paper I sent it to (unsolicited, I admit) – but it eventually reached print in Julian Colbeck’s Zappa biography.
During the late 80s and through most of the 1990s, I was working on documentaries for BBC Radio One with producer Kevin Howlett – and I was in his office the day that a CBS publicist came in and revealed that Zappa had prostate cancer and was dying. To our horror, we discovered that there was no Zappa interview in the Beeb library. The visionary Kevin, after no mean struggle, managed to persuade the bigwig suits that a Zappa documentary was essential and we organised to go and see him in Los Angeles.
He granted us two two-hour sessions, on consecutive days. I don’t usually get anxious before interviews but this was an exceptional situation. We knew he was dying, and he knew that we knew he was dying. As well as that, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly – so I had to familiarise myself with over 60 albums, which took some doing, I’m telling you.
He sat in an easy chair, drinking black coffee and chain smoking. Regular doses of caffeine and nicotine had become his staple diet. He had grown his beard, which was now full and grey, giving him a biblical aspect. His gaunt face and pony-tailed hair were also grey, adding to this unsettling monochrome, old movie look.
As Kev was setting up the recording equipment, I chatted with Zappa about the black vocal groups he heard on the radio when he was growing up in California – and he was surprised that someone from the BBC, which he seriously believed was a government-owned and controlled station, was familiar with them.
However, his friendliness seemed to dwindle when he was seated at the microphone and the tape began to roll. What he really wanted was confrontation, a good argument in which he could air some of his many prejudices – but, as ever, we were after the facts, the stories, the anecdotes, the memories which embroidered his work and set it in context, the material for a radio documentary.
On the first day, it was sometimes difficult to animate him. Not only was he weak and getting weaker, but he was exhausted and jaded by decades of being interviewed – and to compound matters, he had a highly developed loathing for England and all things English. In an effort to get him going, and knowing that smut was one of his favourite preoccupations, I asked him, using specific references, about the crude sexual descriptions that pepper his lyrics – and at that point, he warmed up and mellowed, suddenly became more considered and thoughtful, and from then on, he talked passionately about everything. We somehow got through it okay. He was great.
Since I got back into genealogical mode, I’ve been weaving large chunks of the interview into a new family tree covering his entire career.
One of my favourite Zappa moments comes about six minutes into Call Any Vegetable (on the Mothers’ album Just Another Band From LA), when he suddenly exclaims “It’s a great time to be alive, ladies and gentlemen . . . it is so fucking great to be alive.”
It’s very sad that poor Frank, so full of life, didn’t even make it to his 53rd birthday. Raise a glass to his memory this evening.