By John Duncan Talbird.
Frank Zappa was a man of his time even while remaining an iconoclast and pushing back against whatever counted as “pop culture” at the moment. He was seen as a “freak” by mainstream America and revered in hippie culture in the sixties and seventies even as he (mostly) eschewed drugs – going so far as to fire musicians who used on tour with him. He rejected the popular psychedelic, hard rock, and jazz fushion genres of his contemporaries even while incorporating aspects of all these forms and more into his compositions. In the eighties, in addition to his day job of musician, performer, and producer, he came out as an activist speaking against government censorship, especially of music, in the Senate hearings on “porn rock” in 1985. (Zappa testified along such unlikely fellow travelers as soft-folk legend John Denver and heavy metal clown Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.) In the early 1990s (Zappa died of prostate cancer in ’93), amidst the birth of grunge, despite decades of recording and performing guitar-driven and noisy rock, he released several classical records and his compositions were performed live with full orchestra. The present tense of Zappa is very much a part of the new documentary on his public life, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, composed entirely of interviews and live performances. In one of his final interviews, visibly haggard from radiation, he expressed that commitment to the present in very clear terms when asked what he wanted to be remembered for: “Nothing. It’s not important to even be remembered. The people who are worried about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush [senior]. These people want to be remembered. And they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that that remembrance is just terrific.”
This is director Thorsten Schütte’s first non-TV documentary and it’s a rich treasure trove of archival footage presented in mostly chronological order. There is some early footage of Zappa and his backing band, the Mothers of Invention, doing a sound check and playing the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” substituting the words “plastic people” in the chorus. There is footage of a clean-cut Zappa on the Steve Allen show playing bicycles with drum sticks accompanied by the Allen band and the prerecorded electronic sounds that Zappa directs the sound technician to play randomly. There’s a segment on Crossfire, Zappa calmly defending free speech against Washington Times columnist John Lofton who practically froths at the mouth. There’s even an appearance on the TV game show What’s My Line? The picture that emerges of Zappa is one of a self-promoter, a musician, a composer, an innovator, a provocateur, an impresario, and a free-thinker. Despite these various labels, he’s also a fairly consistent person, one who is confident in his ideas and wants them out in the world, hence all the interview footage. In addition to being a prolific composer, recording artist, and performer, he was interviewed often, seemingly by anyone. Much of Eat That Question is composed of these interviews and we discover his preoccupations long before the “porn rock” hearings. He will argue again and again that there are “no dirty words.” He will make it clear that he is not a druggie. He will criticize the shallowness and narcissism of US culture. He will state his philosophy of music succinctly as “anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all.” It becomes clear that he is viewed as somewhat of a freak by mainstream culture. As my wife said as we were exiting the theater, “It’s ironic that the media tried to paint a picture of him as un-American since he was such an advocate of freedom.”
Zappa was also a man of contradictions. He released over sixty albums during his lifetime (another fifty-plus have come out posthumously), but he only once had a top-ten album and never a single (at least in the US – more on this later). During his life, he won one Grammy – for the minor category (“Best Rock Instrumental Performance”) – and went on to win a Life Achievement Award and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only after his death. He was sarcastic as hell and yet, there is a kindness you see in the interviews, a patience with even some of the most idiotic of questions. One of the most famous (collected in a sample on his Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention album (1985)) is at the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center)/”Porn Wars” hearing of 1985 in which Senator Paula Hawkins says, “I’d be interested to see whatever toys your kids had.” Whereas a lot of us might respond, “Well that’s a dumb thing to be interested in,” Zappa respects his interrogator enough to ask, “Why would you be interested in that?” She responds, “Just as a point of interest,” and so Zappa says, “Well, come over to house, I’ll show them to you.” Even after the audience breaks out laughing, he says, “No, really,” and you can’t help but imagine Zappa welcoming the Republican senator at the door, not surprised to find her on his stoop. Hawkins’ next question suggests that she believes his entire testimony is self-serving – he only cares about this issue of labeling rock albums because he profits off the sale of rock albums. In many ways, this scene is representative of how underappreciated and misunderstood Zappa was in his own country, a place where the majority of us don’t spend a lot of time worrying about free speech. This, of course, isn’t the case everywhere. One of the great segments in the film is footage from Zappa’s 1990 visit to Czechoslovakia just a year after the Velvet Revolution and the country’s exit from the Soviet Union. He’s greeted by thousands of people on the airport tarmac cheering and holding banners. He exclaims in wonder that he never got that reception anywhere in the US. He then meets with President Václav Havel and is made “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism.” Zappa asserts to an interviewer that this bureaucratic work is just another form of composition to him, no lesser than any of his rock music or classical pieces.
A fan of Zappa’s since my early twenties, I was excited to see this movie. And, as I watched it and listened to concert performances and excerpts of albums – like my favorite Zappa album of all time, We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) – I wondered why I so seldom listen to Zappa anymore. But by the end of the documentary I remembered why. The excess of Zappa can be exhausting – the albums, the massive number of interviews, his singing, his jokes, even the number of notes that can be crammed into any measure (Carl Stalling’s Warner Bros. cartoons come to mind sometimes). This is the only limitation to Eat that Question – it’s true to its subtitle, In His Own Words, to a fault. For someone like my wife who knows very little about Zappa, the documentary is interesting, but ultimately limiting because it only gives her 100% Zappa-approved produce (the film is executive produced by Zappa’s now-deceased wife and his son Ahmet). For me, a long-time Zappa fan, I feel like I already know him and so there’s very little new for me to learn (much of the footage is freely available on the internet if not in such crystalline sound and image). Also, one of the reasons I listen to him less often these days is because I became uncomfortable with some of his satire. Like a lot of satire, Zappa pushes boundaries revealing American attitudes about racism, homophobia, and sexism. And like some satire, the boundary between criticizing something like homophobia and actually being homophobic is not always clear. This is not to dismiss Zappa. I would put him in the same pantheon with other transgressive innovators (R. Crumb, William Burroughs, David Lynch, etc.) who have also made me feel uncomfortable at times. I would have just liked to hear from some non-Zappa voices. But, of course, that’s not the purview of this doc and there is much to be admired here. We’ll have to wait for Alex Winter’s upcoming Zappa doc scheduled for release next year to hopefully get a more nuanced portrait of this vital artist.
Eat That Question is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum, along with a 3K restoration of Blood Simple (which ends Thursday, 14 July) and the probing pseudo-documentary on life in North Korea, Under the Sun.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.