Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zappa for President: Frank Zappa’s Political Legacy


Now that the 2016 American election is over, pending a recount in Wisconsin, we turn our thoughts to the political pundits of days gone by. Mark Twain often advised potential candidates running for public office, “You should always tell the truth because it’s easier to remember.” Essayist Gore Vidal also commented on the poor slate of candidates for President when he quipped that “the United States was founded by the brightest people in the country  and we haven’t seen them since.” And it comes as no surprise that Frank Zappa’s comment, “When God created Republicans, he gave up on everything else” (to Alan Thicke, in a 1984 appearance on the short-lived Thicke of the Night), is an equally appropriate remark in 2016.

One might not immediately think of Frank Zappa as even having a political legacy, but it’s easy to find. The first stop is his debut record Freak Out!, which was released in 1966 by Verve. The key track: “Trouble Every Day,” about the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Frank takes a stand and is bold enough to admit that he, as a white guy, bore some of the responsibility. As he states in the middle of the song:
Hey, you know something, people?
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lots a times
I wish I could say I’m not white
It was a bold thing to say fifty years ago that still has relevance today. Zappa was putting himself on record (literally) regarding his politics. It was his sense of the changing political and cultural scene that fueled his ideas. Freak Out! was more than just another rock ‘n’ roll album. Zappa gave himself permission to express his political views, which was pretty common during the Vietnam War, and while Zappa wasn’t going to march in the streets for peace, he certainly wasn’t going to sit back and ignore the violent changes around him.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, February, 1968. (Photo: Ron Galella)

Frank Zappa and the Interested Party

In the December 30, 1966 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, aka FREEP, Zappa outlines his idea to Liza Williams for creating a third major political party: “I would like to propose the Interested Party. Posters, pins, and a platform that was a little more logical than two chickens in every pot – these might draw some kind of popular support from people who are interested. A platform that stood for re-evaluation of everything in the light of, in terms of, the Constitution as it stands, not as it has been diluted. Temper that, with certain advancements in modern technology and certain advancements in sociological fields, take into consideration where we’re really at in terms of the sexual revolution and just look at everything the way it actually is today and set it up all over again. That’s your only chance to make it work.” He believed in a participatory democracy, especially for American youth, and during these years it became a regular theme in Zappa’s concert tours.

In 1988, Zappa launched the “Broadway the Hard Way” world tour that would be his last. During the U.S. leg of the tour, he encouraged every member of the audience to register to vote and, for their convenience, he encouraged local organizations to set up tables in the lobby of every concert hall to facilitate it. According to him, no more than 20 percent of the audience had registered to vote in the ’88 election. To this day every CD in the Zappa reissue series carries the phrase “Participate in Democracy. Register & vote.” The ‘88 tour produced a live album, which I consider one of his most political charged ones, named after the tour and first released in 1989 on Ryko.

The record features a slew of songs critical of the Religious Right and, according to Zappa, their infiltration of the Republican Party. One song stands out for its critical and astute observations of the trend. Zappa’s “When The Lie’s So Big” not only warns against Pat Robertson's notion that “every American not 'born again' could be punished in cruel and unusual ways,” but it also points out, of the Republican Party, “When the lie gets so big and the fog gets so thick and the facts disappear, the Republican trick can be played out again. People, please tell me when we’ll be rid of these men?” One could easily substitute current campaign of one Donald J. Trump and ask the same question.

But Zappa also criticized the Democratic Party on the same album  only he poked fun at the party’s so-called affiliation with the downtrodden. On his song “Hot-Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel,” Zappa sings, “Republicans is fine, if you’re a multi-millionaire. / Democrats is fair, if all you own is what your wear; / Neither of them is really right, ‘cause neither of them care / . . . 'cause they ain’t been there.”

Frank Zappa, in a scene from Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words (2016).

Zappa for President

In 1991, Frank Zappa took the bold step of announcing his candidacy for President of the United States. In the July issue of Spin Magazine from that same year, Zappa outlined some of his platform and said that he would run as an independent candidate. He told Bob Guccione, Jr. that he had actually hired some experts to look at what he had to do in order to run and whether his candidacy was feasible. Zappa understood what he was up against under the rules  that is, he would have to spend a lot of money on legal fees just to get on the ballot in all fifty states. But he was really prepared to make that commitment. As he told Guccione, “All I have to do is say, I’m gonna volunteer to run, I’m willing to do this. I’m willing to give up music for four years. I like this country enough that I’ll give up something that I love for four years to do this job that nobody is doing right here.”

Perhaps he was fed up with the way the system wasn’t functioning. As he said to Playboy Magazine in 1993, “I like things that work. If something doesn’t, the first question you have to ask is, why? If it’s not working and you know why, then you have to ask, ‘Why isn't somebody doing something about it?’ The government, for starters. [And m]ost institutions.” Zappa did get a sizeable response from the public, hungry for some progressive leadership. Volunteers stepped up to work on his campaign, which was inspiring. His poor health stopped him from pursuing the job, but he was able to use the opportunity to discuss some of his ideas, including the dismantling of the federal system when it was, in his mind, inefficient. As he concludes in the Playboy interview, “America has to be completely restructured. We have to question every institution in terms of efficiency. I’m serious about abandoning the federal system.” So what would that look like? “In the Beltway and places that have large federal payrolls, the idea wouldn’t be too popular, but in other places people would think it’s great. One strong selling point is that you could do away with federal income taxes, or at least reduce them to a point that people would have something left at the end of the week.”

But perhaps Zappa’s most astute and prophetic comment, when we think about this month's election, comes from the 1991 Spin interview: “Let me point out something about democracy. Does anybody remember how Hitler took over Germany? He was voted in. People said, yeah, he’s got the right message for us. Now when you have a democracy, there’s always the possibility that the guy who could turn out to be the biggest menace to the planet could just get voted in. And the place where it’s most likely to happen is here, because of the media saturation, the illiteracy rate of the population, the social desperation of the population. Hitler came to power because things weren’t so good.” That was Zappa’s opinion. Unfortunately, he may be right.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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