There’s an irony in a film composed of Frank Zappa interviews, which he endured with grudging obligation and compared to the Inquisition. Though it’s not the form itself but the ignorance of the interviewers that clearly frustrated him. We get the sense that he repeats the same stock answers to the same insipid questions. This doesn’t mean that Eat That Question is an unworthy film. In fact, I suspect that he would be pleased with its resonating message – the world never really appreciated the genius of Frank Zappa.
Of course he was always funny and insightful even when fending off dullards. From the hippie intelligentsia to the plastic hosts of morning news to the real freaks who sit on high at Senate committee hearings – all seem to misunderstand, or rather assume an authority over Zappa they do not have. We see his first televised appearance as an almost unrecognizable young man on the Steve Allen Show, leading the stiff house band though avant garde improvisation while he plays the bicycle. The host – likely reflecting the audience – is amused but dismissive. As a fan you want to shout: “Hey folks, this isn’t a Gong Show act. This is a genius at work. Show some fucking respect.”
The Mothers were greeted with muted if misunderstood approval. The most pressing question seemed to be whether Zappa was a ‘real hippie’ or exactly how freaky his brand of freak rock really was. By the time the film captures an interview for their third album, he seems discouraged by the fact that no one is actually listening to the music. We need to connect the dots, imagine all the confrontations and insults he probably endured from the press – underground and mainstream alike. We only see a fraction of them in Eat That Question, and quite frankly it’s enough. Far too often he’s battling fools, on CNN news panels and before ridiculous rock censorship hearings. The best interview is probably the most absurd, with a state police officer for a local school board archive; to this sleepy cop with a southern accent, Zappa speaks with patient logic – he just wants his message and his music to be heard. Ultimately, it’s his offhand observations that carry the most philosophical weight. “People are just not accustomed to excellence,” he mutters before taking a drag from a cigarette.
I received the album We’re Only In It For The Money from my uncle when I was around eight or nine. I got the Beatles satire on the cover as I was already a Beatles fanatic by then. But I really loved the tunes, the wacky irreverence, the utterly perfect mess of song construction. I played it constantly, memorized every note and word, tried to draft the neighborhood kids into forming a Zappa tribute band on plastic guitars and a Muppets drum kit. I probably didn’t fully ‘dig’ all the lyrics just yet: “I’m hippy and I’m trippy I’m a gypsy on my own/I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home” – “The idiot bastard son/The father’s a nazi in congress today/The mother’s a hooker somewhere in LA” – “American way, how did it start?/Thousands of creeps killed in the park.” And on and on. I sang my little heart out to this album. My uncle was probably having a laugh about it, but he was also giving me a very valuable gift. He knew what you all should know – Zappa was no joke.
Zappa’s music has always been in my life, and the breadth of his work is such that there is an album or style to fit any mood. The early Mothers albums are hooky absurd avant pop genius, then the jammy jazz period, the wild virtuosity of the Roxy band era, the late 70s ambitiously goofy rock, the 80s nods to metal and electronic, the orchestral pieces. It’s probably fitting that the single album that encompasses every era was rejected by the record company – the 4LP Lather album which I consider to be his masterpiece. Every style is represented with some of his greatest compositions and the entire album is informed by his Project/Object theory of self-reference. That’s a topic best suited for its own article, but let’s just add that the album includes a Muzak version of Absolutely Free‘s “Duke Of Prunes” which plays in every grocery store in my perfect world. It was finally issued by the Zappa family label with a cover picture of a transmigrated Frank as a cow with a goatee. If you’re going to get only one Zappa album, don’t. Get lots of them. But get Lather first.
The highlight of Eat That Question is the footage of Zappa composing, cutting and pasting and inking away at his desk. Black dots on paper, lots of them, in strange and beautiful places – this is Frank Zappa’s rightful legacy. He was a composer in the most classic sense. The depth and complexity of his work shines in a fully orchestral recording – it’s goofy and strange and haunting all at once. The impression I always get upon close listens of his music is his total commitment to his craft. One can only imagine the incredible amount of work he must have invested to produce this dazzling, often impenetrable stuff. Zappa scholar Ben Watson compares him to James Joyce and it’s apt. His most far out compositions are Finnegans Wake in musical form – bizarre, challenging, unique. Exceptional.
The saddest moment of the film comes at the end, though it’s not the picture of his failing health so much as a final undignified national television interview. He’s been summoned at an early hour for a “Good Morning America” type show to once again endure the same questions from a clueless interviewer. She wants to get to know “the real Frank Zappa” so of course she repeats the same labels and rumors that haunted him his whole career. Then she shifts emotional gears for a suitably somber final question – “How do you want to be remembered?” He just shrugs – he doesn’t care how he’s remembered. Though this nicely deflates the fake sincerity of the moment (“and as we say goodbye to Frank Zappa let’s say hello to Al Roker with the weather…”), I don’t believe him. That interviewer – and that TV audience – perhaps didn’t deserve the truth for the way he was treated. He comes off glib and rightly so. Fuck ’em.
But his life’s work was immensely important to him, the later stages of his career were consumed with setting up his record label and preparing archival releases, he commissioned orchestral performances out of his own pocket. Project/Object is what it is – a life story told through art, like Kerouac or Proust. You can dive in anywhere and it takes some time to get used to but soon you’ll start seeing connections, references, humming the melodies, laughing at the in-jokes. Laughing at the world, seeing it through the eyes of a rare genius. Plastic people are a drag. Brown shoes don’t make it. When nobody else will accept you, you can always come home to The Mothers. Music is the best. Don’t eat the confinement loaf.
there’s a big difference between kneeling down and bending over…