EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words takes its title from a song found on the composer’s 1972 fusion album The Grand Wazoo, and there may be no better preparation for the Frank Zappa revealed in director Thorston Schutte’s extraordinary documentary than this command to consume, and then presumably digest and defecate out, the sort of journalistic queries Zappa routinely endured, with patience, smarts and inescapable sarcasm, throughout his career. “Being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody,” Zappa explains during a TV interview to a reporter whose expression, an uneasy mixture of intimidation and confusion, remains constant throughout their encounter.
The composer’s testy relationship with the media is one of the threads that unites Schutte’s somewhat unusual approach—there are none of the usual associates, scholars and friends on hand to tell you secondhand (at best) what a genius Zappa was, nor the typical glut of chyrons and identifiers meant to orient you as to where and when you are or to who it is other than Zappa who occasionally speaks, or even the names of the songs you’re occasionally hearing. Instead, the movie’s deft editing style conjures Zappa’s history through an assemblage of observational details—quality of film stock, fashion, the greying of hair— creating a focus which makes the most room possible for Zappa to express his own musical and political philosophy, minus the usual overt and covert cultural filtering. “I feel very strongly about my point of view,” Zappa explains at one point. “I think there are other people who might agree with it if they heard it, and I’ll do whatever I can to say my point of view wherever it can be said.” In creating a film that posthumously allows Zappa to do precisely that (the musician died in 1993 from the effects of prostate cancer), Schutte has crafted a tribute that might have gained approval even from the notoriously exacting musician himself.
(Presumably the surviving members of Zappa’s family are similarly satisfied with the results—the film was produced in conjunction with the Zappa Family Trust—even if those family members are currently at odds with each other regarding the musical and financial legacy of their father.)
Eat That Question is a gift to Zappa’s diehard fans (I count myself among their number), who will be well familiar with some of the places that Schutte’s film takes them. But even if the film proves to be more revelatory to those whose familiarity and understanding of Zappa’s music and his modus operandi registers below the line of fanaticism, it remains fascinating not only as a document of FZ’s testy relationship with the press, but also of the press’s evolving relationship with their insistently irreverent subject.
We see the fledgling avant-garde composer’s early appearance, at age 22, on The Steve Allen Show, performing “Concerto for Two Bicycles”—using two bicycles, naturally—under the comically condescending guidance of the host. In a lesser film, this clip would be framed by talking heads prompting us with perfect 20/20 hindsight to observe what an asshole Steve Allen was for not noticing or encouraging his guest’s creative impulses. But Schutte lets the archival footage speak for itself; we see not only Allen’s good-natured disregard, but also the young Zappa’s sincerity as it mixes up with his desire to play along with, and gently poke at his host’s befuddlement. (Anyone who has ever taken pride in appreciating something which causes their parents some measure of confusion or distress will recognize this impulse.)
It didn’t take long, however before that sort of give-and-take playfulness disappeared almost entirely. Interviews from around the Mothers of Invention period reveal that the musician had developed a healthy disregard of his own as his music became more and more challenging, and that disregard was now more often returned by the guardians of TV culture. At one point, after having resurrected accusations of Zappa having betraying the hippie movement—an accusation that pointedly does not inspire in Zappa the sort of defensive outrage that was intended– the unidentified interviewer– Mr. Obvious– suggests, with no small portion of pity in his delivery, that “there is a deep cynicism in you.” Without hesitation, Zappa responds: “Yeah, and I wish more people would catch some of it!”
The beauty of Schutte’s movie is that it reveals a confidence borne from an absolute conviction in the ability of its hyper-articulate, yet never hyperbolic subject to hold the room, even at his most sarcastic, employing a dead-eyed stare that could and did wilt unprepared journalists unfortunate enough to step into its focus. Zappa often responded to serious inquiry, however, with cool thoughtfulness—on the subject of whether or not his songs were largely improvised, he replied, “The structure of the songs allows for the possibility of improvisation, but they are pretty thoroughly rehearsed… I don’t like to go out on stage and slop around”.
But his outrage was perhaps more thoroughly documented. Zappa relates that attempts at censorship in his career went as far back as “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” a song on the We’re Only in It For the Money album which was surreptitiously edited by record executives who misinterpreted a lyric about a waitress at a restaurant (“I still remember Mama/With her apron and her pad/Feeding all the boys at Ed’s Café”) as a reference to a sanitary napkin. And it’s a thrill of a very precise sort to revisit footage of Zappa taking a cool-headed stand in the early ‘80s, in Congress and on CNN’s Crossfire program, against the almost comic paranoia of Parent Music Resource Center and their crusade against rock music filth. (His parrying with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins on the subject will put a smile on the face of every young Zappa aficionado who grew up to warp the minds of their very own children.)
It wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers of Eat That Question took away a dominant picture of Zappa as an angry maverick tilting at the multitudinous windmills of plasticized and processed American culture, because in many ways that’s what he was. But the movie also makes room for the sort of peculiar joy that characterized his experience too. He actively resisted being conscripted as a performing front man. (“We’ve been offered three or four times to play for the big communist party picnic in France… Fuck the communists. I don’t like those people. I do my music for people who like music.”) Yet he embraced, with some measure of shock and surprise, the expression of appreciation directed toward him by President Vaclav Havel and the dissident peoples of Czechoslovakia, and after visiting the country in 1990 he accepted Havel’s appointment as Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism. For Zappa, who had spent 30 years battling record companies and social institutions and governmental interference over the expression of his own musical creativity and political conviction in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it was a bittersweet moment of validation. Schutte’s film, in laying the foundation for the case for Frank Zappa as something considerably more than a freak, registers the importance of the moment and how it resonates with our own current, somewhat freakish global political climate.
And Zappa himself took an especially mordant glee in relating how “Bobby Brown,” the viciously satirical first-person portrayal of a sociopathic, sexually opportunistic disco-era predator from Zappa’s unusually popular 1979 Sheik Yerbouti album, was embraced by Europeans and made into a #1 hit in several countries, even though he suspected that most who loved it had no idea what the song was actually about. The image of a Norwegian disco full of young people slow-dancing to a ballad sung by a self-described “American dream” who brags about being able to “take about an hour on the tower of power, as long as I gets a little golden shower” is one of the movie’s funniest moments. What’s more, the movie inadvertently highlights the surgery done by Zappa on the song’s entitled, brutally casual protagonist (“Here I am at a famous school/I’m dressin’ sharp and I’m actin’ cool/I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper/Let her do all the work and maybe later I’ll rape her”), which has a psychological resonance that is welcome, and unfortunately just as necessary in the aftermath of Brock Turner, as it was when it debuted during the age of polyester slacks and dangling coke spoons.
Eat That Question is, of course, a forum for Zappa’s documented verbiage to take center stage, and it does so, at times gloriously. So it’s curious, from of a movie so focused on words and ideas, that two specific images should have carried so much weight for me. The first is the simple sight of the ear-to-ear grin on Zappa’s face as he stands marveling at the musical invention and sheer dexterity of Ruth Underwood, his superb vibraphonist from 1966 through 1977, as she rips through one of his typically intimidating charts. Anyone who hangs on to the notion that FZ was all work and no play needs to see that grin.
The second comes at the end, our last sight of Zappa in the film, at age 52 and close to death. It’s a simple shot, part of a news program dedicated to the performance of his late-period classical music, of Zappa, bearded, gray, obviously weak, waving the baton with focus and conviction as the orchestra brings forth that signature atonal, rhythmically complex sound and fury. There’s a serenity on Zappa’s face, as if his shortened life were being fulfilled right in this moment, which is inescapably powerful.
“In the US especially,” Zappa opines early on in the film, “musicians are generally regarded as useless adjuncts to the society, unless they do something creative like write a Coca-Cola jingle… So if you want to be a musician, you just have to realize that nobody is gonna care.” That’s an observation culled from a bitter realist, one made in the midst of a career marked by creative struggle and commercial indifference, and one which the movie honors. But Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words is, above all else, the empathetically realized story of Frank Zappa’s journey toward being taken seriously as a composer, and in its form and incidental testimony it reveals an appreciative truth that stretches beyond Zappa’s words. For at least 90 minutes that observation of cultural irrelevance is one that his critics, and maybe even the ghost of the great American iconoclast himself, will finally be made to dine on.
From the film, here’s Frank Zappa on…
Musical Role Models:
“I thought, ‘Boy, if anybody could make a missing like between Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky, that would be pretty nifty.’ Then somebody turned me on to an album of music by Anton Weburn and I said, ‘Wow, anybody who could get a missing link between Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Edgard Varese, that would be very spiffy.’ Then I heard what some of the stuff sounded like that I had been writing, and it was so ugly that I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again. Then people started telling me that my melodies were ugly.”
“There is no such thing as a dirty word. There is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire at the time when you hear it. ‘Dirty words’ is a fantasy manufactured by religious fanatics and government organizations to keep people stupid. Any word that gets the point across is a good word. If you wanna tell somebody to ‘get fucked,’ that’s the best way to tell him.”
A Riot Nearly Sparked by the Mothers in Germany in the Late ‘60s:
Zappa: “We had one very negative experience in Berlin. We arrived and we set up our equipment at the Sportpalast. Some students came over there and they said: ‘We would like to have you help us with a political action.’ They wanted to set fire to the Allied Command Center. And I said, ‘I don’t think that is good mental health.’ The minute we came on stage, about 200 students got up and they were waving red banners and they were shouting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” and they were blowing horns, and they were throwing things on the stage, and they were calling us the Mothers of Reaction and they tried to ruin the concert. A few hundred people were coming toward the stage.
“So I increased the volume of the music. And this noise was so loud and so ugly, that it was actually pushing them back. It was like a science-fiction story. Meanwhile, there’s all the other thousands of people who were sitting there, looking around. They thought it was something that we might do in the show.”
Interviewer: “There were reports that you called these students fascists”
Zappa: “I did, because I think that there is definitively a fascistic element, not only in the left wing in Germany, but in the United States too. Any sort of political ideology that doesn’t allow for the rights, and doesn’t take into consideration the differences that people have, is wrong.”
Deficiencies in American Education:
“People are just not accustomed to excellence. When you go to school, you’re not given the criteria by which to judge between quality this or quality that. All they do is teach you just enough to be some kind of a slug in a factory to do your job, so you can take home a paycheck and consume some other stuff that somebody else makes. There’s no emphasis in schools in the United States put on preparing people to live a life that has beautiful things in it. You know, things that might bring them aesthetic enrichment. That is not a major consideration.”
His Image in the Media:
““You don’t see me on normal television very often, you don’t hear the records on the radio very often. If you read about me in the papers, they write about me like I’m a maniac. I’m not. I’m 40 years old and I’m normal, I got four kids, a house and a mortgage. I’m an American citizen and happy to be that way.”
Presumed American Superiority:
“The thing that sets the Americans apart from the rest of the cultures in the world is we’re so fucking stupid. This country has been around for a couple of hundred years and we think we are hot shit, and they don’t even realize that other countries have thousands of years of history and culture and they are proud of it. And when we deal on an international level, with foreign policy and we’re going as this big American strong country, they must laugh up their sleeves at us because we are nothing.
“We are culturally nothing. We mean nothing, we are only interested in the bottom line. We have Levi’s, designer jeans, hamburgers, and Coca Cola. We have REO Speedwagon. We have Journey. (But) we also have the neutron bomb and poison gas, so maybe that makes up for it.”
The Zappa Aesthetic:
“The easiest way to sum up the aesthetic would be: Anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all.”
How He Wants to Be Remembered:
Zappa: “It’s not important to be remembered. The people who are worried about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush. These people want to be remembered. And they’ll spend a lot of money, and do a lot of work, to make sure that remembrance is just terrific!”
Interviewer: And for Frank Zappa?
Zappa: I don’t care!