In 1986, Frank Zappa remained occupied – some would say preoccupied – with the activities of the American right wing and its efforts to censor rock and roll. In its liberal guises under Tipper Gore’s PMRC (Ms. Gore’s husband Al was Clinton’s Vice-President) or its more virulent religious and, as Zappa puts it, anti-democratic strains, headway was being made.
In the following interview, conducted on March 16, 1986, Frank Zappa talked about his recent appearance before the US Congress and his involvement in the fight against censorship.
Gerald Seligman: First of all, I’d like to say that, personally, I appreciate the work you’re doing against censorship, and that I’ve been following it quite carefully. I’ve read the text of your statement to Congress.
Frank Zappa: I hope you got a laugh out of that.
GS: Oh, more than one. [He laughs heartily]. In fact, yesterday I was reading it on the bus on the way to New Jersey, and I kept erupting like a trumpet.
FZ: I always thought it was a good piece of writing. One day when somebody looks it up in the Congressional record, I’m sure they’ll have a little piss running down their leg, too.
GS: Why do you feel that the political right has zeroed in on rock music?
FZ: If there weren’t rock videos, they wouldn’t be able to do it so easily. But there are people who are upset by images of guys with big dicks and leather pants on and studs all over their body and hair sticking out all over the place, with a guitar, girls, you know. It threatens some people. You see, the local news wouldn’t carry the story if they couldn’t make a great little bumper out of existing videos to set it up. It’s an entertainment issue, it’s something that plays on the evening news: you take a couple of shots out of this video, a couple of shots out of that one, and then they say, “Is this a problem?You decide. ”
Well, obviously it’s not a problem; nobody’s going to die from hearing a word, or even seeing the jerk with the leather clothes on. I mean, what’s it going to do to you? There’s no medical evidence to support any of the claims that they’ve made. Last year they were claiming that rock music causes suicide, it causes murder, it causes teenage pregnancies. It’s become the whipping boy for all this stuff.
GS: Is there a hidden agenda?
FZ: Of course there is. It’s the right-wing idea that America will work better as fascist theocracy. And it’s really very clever. I mean, there’s no way that you could not admire some of the manipulation that’s gone on. But at the same time, the sad part is that Americans are stupefied by whatever they’re sticking up their nose or in their veins or they’re drinking, or whatever, that they don’t put it all together and see it and get pissed off enough about it to fight it.
GS: If you had to briefly summarize why you’ve engaged yourself so fully in this fight, what would you say?
FZ: It’s something that matters to me, and I have the ability to, at least through my press agent, to say, okay, let’s go do an interview. And I can in some public forum, say what I have to say. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to agree with it, but there may be some people out there who feel the same way that I do and would love to howl about it. But they don’t get to, they can’t get on TV, they can’t get in the newspaper. At least I can. So, if you can do it and you don’t do it, then you’re part of the problem.
GS: I don’t notice too many other musicians doing the same. Am I just not aware of them?Are there other people working this way?
FZ: Not this way. Basically a guy who is in the rock and roll business is not there because he is an intellectual [laughs]. You know what I mean?So he’s not going to research it like I did, and also he’s probably on his way to a party or something, and he’s not going to want to sit around and do a bunch of interviews.
GS: Do you think the humour with which you filled your Congressional statement, and some of the others you’ve made since, in any way detracts from the seriousness with which your opponents may view what you’re saying? Does it work against you?
FZ: Well, look at it in its proper perspective, okay. How can you persuade to my point of view a person who believes in dirty words and/or the devil? That isn’t going to happen. And the people who already see my point of view probably have a sense of humour, so I would think I’m doing it the best way I know how. And I’ve done it in a lot of places where a person wouldn’t normally go to sell this idea.
Like I came to New York to do a show for the Lifeline Cable Network called “Mother’s Day,” which is like a parent’s show. They devoted quite a bit of the show to talking about this stuff, with a studio audience, and it turned out to be a good show. It’s the kind of a thing where you go, `Oh, my God, do I have to go and do a parent’s show?’But it turned out really good, so maybe when the thing goes on the air some parents will see it and say, `Well, at least he’s not so nauseating as people would lead us to believe. And maybe we should listen to him for a minute. ‘Even if they don’t agree right away, but you have to create a possibility that someone would listen to you first, and then let him think about what you’re saying.
GS: I guess the important point, and you make it, is that being against censorship doesn’t mean you support some of the things that bands likes these are doing or stand for.
FZ: The way I state it is this, I am 45 years old, I may play rock and roll music, but I certainly do not consume it. It is not my idea of a good time, nor is Country and Western, nor is Polka music, nor is Las Vegas music, you know. And I find some of these forms incredibly offensive, no matter what they’re wearing, or what the lyrics are. I find them aesthetically offensive, but I wouldn’t deny anybody the right to listen to them, and I also refute any claim that the lyrics to a song are going to induce anti-social behavior. As if lyrics had that much power.
Statistically, I think, that since the beginning of musical time there have been more hymns than there are heavy metal songs. And if the number of words written about Jesus or doing good had any effect, then we’d all be really terrific people, wouldn’t we?Or when they start talking about factors pertaining to suicide, the largest single instance of suicide in the last decade is Jonestown, and there was no Ozzie Ozborn or ACDC albums down there: there was only religious fanaticism. And as far as rape goes, that is not a sexual activity, that is a violent activity, and it’s a result of neurotic behavior. And the people who connect it with pornography think that they’ve really got it packaged. Okay, but it doesn’t work that way.
I am not a scientist, I’m an observer of human nature, and a rather cynical one, and I question the motives of people who want to throw those kinds of statistics around when they’re really not backed up with any kind of solid science. Anybody can sponsor a survey. Anybody can hire somebody to do a poll, and the guy who’s been doing the poll has been hired to prove a point. He’s never going to let the client down. So how can they sit there and expect a rational individual to believe that the hearing of an Ozzie Ozborn album is going to create this wave of suicide in the country. If kids kill themselves it’s because they think they have no future.
GS: What can people without media access do?
FZ: Well, for one thing, remember that a guy who is in politics lives by the vote and dies by the vote, and they also die by the phone call and the letter and the telegram. And if you think that all this stuff that is going on is nauseating, you have to fight it on the local level with your local people, because if you remind these assholes they won’t have a job next time around, you can get them to see things your way.
That’s one of the reasons why the fundamentalists have been so successful. If Pat Robertson goes on the air and says, `Now we want you people to call,’ 50,000 phone calls will go into a Senator’s office on a given piece of legislation. And he’s manipulating foreign policy all over the place from the pulpit on these shows. You ought to watch The 700 Club sometime. That’s what these guys are doing. And the only way that the guy in Washington or the guy in the State House is going to know how you feel about this shit is you have to speak up. It’s not just good enough to grumble on the job. You have to make the phone call, send the telegram and keep doing it.
GS: Especially since they do seem to be winning the battle from the ground up, instead of from the Federal down.
FZ: That’s right. And the other thing that you can do is, if you think the people who are in office right now are nauseating, run for something. It’s not just enough to vote them out. I don’t think that anybody’s ever considered the fact that even if you’re wearing leather and have a Mohawk six feet tall, go do it. How could you do it any worse than they’re doing it?
Frank Zappa on CNN’s Crossfire programme in 1986. Click on photo to watch the 21 minutes video on youtube.com