Far more people know Frank Zappa for his persona than his art. Both during his life and since his death, Zappa has always sparked greater recognition for his honking schnoz, Medusa-like hair, and flaming quotes than for the vast catalogue of music he created during his 52 years of life.
That imbalance will only increase with the release of Eat That Question, a documentary, out Friday, which consists almost entirely of Quotes From Chairman Zappa. Woven together by director Thorsten Schutte, the quotes came from the archives of vintage chat shows, European music programs and confrontational press conferences. In nearly every interview, Zappa uses his deadeye stare and withering tone to underscore lines meant to devour and excrete every question tossed his way.
For an added hook, the film arrives just three days before the 50th anniversary of Zappa’s debut album with The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out.
It’s telling that Eat received the Zappa family seal of approval, a rare distinction. Likely, they were drawn to the “in his own words” format, which puts little in the way of Zappa’s perspective. As a consequence, the film has less music than it might’ve otherwise. Man, could this guy blab. Fortunately, they’re words are worth hearing.
Zappa’s quotes, which date from the ’60s until shortly before his death from prostate cancer in 1993, are, by turns, brilliant and sophomoric, reductive and illuminating. Regardless, they collectively skewer any attempt to contain him as either a cartoon contrarian or a reflexive subversive.
Here are Zappa’s greatest blurts.
– On being interviewed:
“I don’t think anybody has ever seen the real Frank Zappa, because being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody. [It’s] just two steps removed from The Inquisition.”
– On that famous ‘60s photograph of Zappa taking a dump:
“Let’s face it, I sit on the toilet seat, and so do you. The only problem is, somebody took my picture when I was there.”
– On his job-description:
Interviewer: “If you had to define your job, how would you?”
Zappa: “I’m an entertainer. Pure and simple.”
– On his snobbiest fans:
“There are some people that only like the earliest albums and they think they are really true fans, but actually they are just fucked. They’re just these snotty little people who don’t really understand what’s going on.”
Interviewer: “Does that upset you?”
Zappa: “Obviously. I hate to see anybody with a closed mind on any topic. I just feel sorry that they are missing out on a lot of good stuff that is happening since 1967.”
– On his first forays into written music—and forgery:
“I always thought music looked nice on paper, and since I had a kind of interest in art when I was a kid, I could draw pretty good. I used to draw dollar bills and things like that.They were the wrong color, so I couldn’t pass them. I couldn’t get the green right.”
– On being a musician:
“In the U.S. especially, musicians are generally regarded as useless adjuncts to the society, unless they do something creative like write a Coca Cola jingle. Then they will be accepted. But they’re usually are regarded as the scum of the earth. So if you want to be a musician you just have to realize that nobody is gonna care.”
– On getting paid from the label:
“Record companies have a peculiar way of making sure that your expenses always exceed your profits.”
– On who purchases a Zappa record:
Interviewer: “You know who is buying the albums?”
Zappa: “I’ve examined my market rather thoroughly.”
Interviewer: “And who is buying it?”
Zappa: “That’s none of your business.”
– On his first musical role models:
“The compositional end of my musical experience started in high school when I heard an album by Edgard Varèse. I said, ‘boy, that sounds great, I have to write some of that.’ I also got a hold of an album called The Rite of Spring.
“It was a little cheaper label, a dollar 98 thing. And that excited me too. I thought, ‘boy, if anybody could make a missing link between Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, that would be pretty nifty.’ Then somebody turned me on to an album of music by Anton Webern. And I said, ‘wow, anybody who could get a missing link between Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Edgar Varèse, 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.”
– On “bad language”:
“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.”
– On what he’s known for:
“There might be a couple of people who think of me as a composer. An isolated minority perhaps. Some people think that I am some sort of a political rebel. Isn’t it strange the fantasies that people have?”
– On the near riot he and The Mothers caused in Germany in the ’60s:
“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.”
– On banning drugs in his band:
“What they do in their private lives is their business, but if they’re on the road, they’re representing my music and they’re representing the need for the audience to get entertainment on time. That means, you don’t go to jail while you’re on the road, O.K.? So I ask them not to use drugs. Aside from the chemical damage, there’s the legal risk that somebody is going to take their freedom away. And I’m going to be sitting there saying: ‘where’s the drummer?’ ”
– On his own drug use:
“I have never taken any acid. I have smoked about 10 joints over a period of nine years. They gave me a sore throat and made me sleepy. I’ve not had any cosmic revelations, I don’t feel any closer, or farther away, from the center of cosmic consciousness because of the use of drugs. Anything else I put in my body, aside from peanut butter and coffee, is by prescription. The closest I get to heavy drug use is when I am on the road and I take penicillin because I get the clap.
– On the lack of inspiration 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.”
– On the media’s portrayal of him:
“The more abstract and weird they make me look, the less access I have to a normal channel of communication with the people who might benefit from what I have to say.
“Which is one of the reasons I’m doing this (interview). I feel very strongly about my point of view, 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.
“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.”
– On why he won’t perform for any institution or ideology:
“I don’t do it for political leaders, I don’t do it for unions, I don’t do it for organizations, I do it for music. We’ve been offered three or four times to play for the big communist party picnic in France, which is the big social event that they have every summer, and they offer a lot of money. I don’t want to work for communists. Fuck the communists. I don’t like those people. I do my music for people who like music.”
– On America’s cultural inferiority:
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 trying 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.”
– On abortion:
“These right-winged people have this fetish about the right to life. What about the right to the life of an unborn idea?”
– On winning a Grammy:
Interviewer: “You got a Grammy for ‘Jazz from Hell.’ Does that mean anything extra to you?”
Zappa: “I think it’s a living proof that the whole process is a fraud, this little plastic joke, the grammy itself. I got it for a song called ‘Jazz from Hell’ which I’m convinced nobody has ever heard.”
– On his esthetic:
“The easiest way to sum up the aesthetic would be: Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.”
– On regrets:
Interviewer: “You have made a career out of making fun of everybody – gays, Jewish American princesses – and you have taken a lot of heat for, does that bother you?”
Zappa: “No, I’m totally unrepentant.”
Interviewer: “Is there anything you ever did that you were sorry for in music?”
Interviewer: “A lot of performers do things that are shocking, or might be considered obscenity or pornography. But you get singled out. Any idea why?”
Zappa: “Cause I’m ugly.”
– On his legacy—from an interview recorded when he was ill, shortly before his death:
“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!”