In One of his Final Interviews, Frank Zappa Pronounces Himself “Totally Unrepentant”

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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