In a year that marks some significant pop culture 20th anniversaries—Wired magazine, Nirvana’s In Utero, The X-Files–one in particular may get somewhat less press. This coming December will be twenty years since Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer at age 52, after achieving infamy, notoriety, and finally, actual, run-of-the-mill fame. The latter he didn’t seem to cherish as much, and certainly not during his sickness. Nevertheless, Zappa sat for a Today Show interview, one of his last, and discussed his current work and failing health. A young chipper Katie Couric gives Zappa an ambivalent intro as the “bizarre performer with a penchant for lascivious lyrics.” “What few know,” she goes on to say, “is that he’s also a serious and respected classical composer.” Zappa’s bona fides as a “serious” artist seem to grant him a pass, at least for a bit, from interviewer Jamie Gangel, who begins asking about the successful performances of his work in Europe, where he “sells out concert halls.”
Zappa responds respectfully, but is obviously quite bored and in pain. He’s subdued, downbeat, guarded. Then the inevitable grilling begins. “How much do you think you did for the sound and how much for the humor?” asks Gangel. “Both,” answers Zappa, “The goal here is entertainment.” Zappa pronounces himself “totally unrepentant” for his life. In answer to the question “is there anything you’ve done that you felt sorry for?” he simply says, “No.”
And why should he confess on national television? There are many more interesting things to discuss, such as Zappa’s stand against Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) during the legendary 1985 Senate Hearings (along with Dee Snider and, of all people, John Denver). When the conversation turns to that history, Zappa learns a fun fact about Gore that genuinely catches him off-guard. The interview goes to some very sad places, and while Zappa hangs in there, it’s not particularly entertaining to see him staunchly refuse to view his condition through Gangel’s lenses. He clearly doesn’t see his illness as theater and won’t play penitent or victim.
A much more lively interview, by a much better informed interviewer, six months before Zappa’s death, is with Ben Watson for Mojo. In both of these moments, however, Zappa insists on the only label he ever applied to himself: he’s an entertainer, nothing more. Whether touted as a “classical composer” (a phrase he doesn’t use) or thought of as an artist, Zappa to the very end dodged any hint of serious moral intentions in his music, which perhaps makes him one of the most honest musicians in all of pop culture history. He saved the serious intentions for an arena much more in need of them. His PMRC hearing testimony contains an eloquent statement of his ethos: “Bad facts make bad laws. And people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous that songwriters who celebrate sexuality.”
A Young Frank Zappa Plays the Bicycle on The Steve Allen Show (1963)
Frank Zappa Debates Censorship on CNN’s Crossfire (1986)
Frank Zappa Reads NSFW Passage From William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1978)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
However he deemed himself, anyone who knows anything about music knows he was a genius.
Very true, Richard. Zappa’s music does not have to be for everyone’s tastes, but his technical skills demand respect.
I love his output. That’s all that matters.