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Frank Zappa was so left, he was right

A documentary profile of the avant-garage musician reveals his political conservatism.

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I'm a conservative," Frank Zappa told Washington Times columnist John Lofton when they debated each other on the CNN program Crossfire in 1986. "You might not like that, but I am." Lofton didn't like it, and some of Zappa's fans may not have either. But Zappa would surely have told them—as he told Lofton on that same broadcast—to kiss his ass. Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words includes some performance clips, but German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte concentrates on a cornucopia of Zappa interview footage he's collected over the years, and his documentary paints a vivid and often surprising portrait of the iconoclastic rocker and classical composer. Despite Zappa's reputation as a wigged-out wild man, he was primarily a small businessman trying to support a wife and four children. In the movie, this aspect of his life begins to resonate when he clashes publicly with the Parents Music Resource Center, a self-appointed committee of Washington wives who decided to clean up the pop music industry during the Reagan era.

The interviews in Eat That Question are wonderfully various. In a black-and-white clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1963, a clean-cut Frank enlists Allen in performing an experimental piece by banging on upended bicycles, their clanging backed by taped electronic music and free-form improvisation by the studio band. (Allen commends Zappa for his "foresightedness" and concludes, "As for your music, don't ever do it around here again!") Thirty years later, in 1993, Zappa speaks candidly about his battle with prostate cancer, admitting he has more bad days than good, in a valedictory chat with a reporter from The Today Show. (He died later that year.) But the dramatic centerpiece of the movie is, quite naturally, the "Zappa Goes to Washington" spectacle of the soberly clad, neatly barbered musician appearing in September 1985 before the Senate committee for Science, Commerce, and Transportation to denounce the PMRC's call for government-sanctioned warning labels on records with graphic lyrics as "an ill-conceived piece of nonsense."

Zappa speaks eloquently of the free-speech issues involved, but he was also coming at the PMRC as an entrepreneur who owned an independent label and managed a large touring band. Big retail chains had promised not to sell LPs with warning labels, which would have severely reduced the clientele for Zappa's brand of ribald comedy. He couldn't stomach the PMRC, a nonprofit with no actual membership but the politically connected bluenoses who'd founded it (Tipper Gore, whose husband, Al, sat on the committee; Susan Baker, whose husband, James, was Reagan's treasury secretary). In public statements at the time, Zappa charged that the PMRC wives—in an attempt to extort an agreement from the major record companies on warning labels—were getting their husbands to hold up passage of a cassette-tape tax that would discourage music piracy. Further, in his 1989 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa observed that the campaign focused on rock records and paid little attention to country music, whose Nashville epicenter was important in the Gores' home state.

The "porn wars," as Zappa liked to call them, were particularly revealing in that they touched on his own parenting. Eat That Question includes footage from the Senate hearing in which Florida senator Paula Hawkins scolds Zappa for letting his wife buy the children's toys and Zappa invites her over to the house to take a look at them, to the laughter of the audience. In his book, Zappa gently twits himself as the put-upon dad, watching groceries pour into his house and get eaten up by the kids before he can get to them. He describes himself as a laissez-faire parent with a deep suspicion of American education: "We do all the regular stuff, like trying to keep [the kids] away from danger and out of trouble, but after that, we have the responsibility of providing them with the basic data they're never going to get in school." Zappa urged his kids to take the California high school equivalency test as soon as possible. In Eat That Question, when he's asked about his relationship with his children, he replies simply, "They like me."

Schütte has really covered the waterfront with these clips, and one of the more fascinating is Zappa's sit-down with a trooper (and professed Zappa fan) from the Pennsylvania state police in 1981. Zappa favored drug legalization, but he also insisted that his band members leave all drugs behind when they went on tour. In the interview he defends the policy as a business necessity: "Aside from the chemical damage, there's the legal risk that somebody's gonna take their freedom away, and I'm gonna be sitting there going, 'Where's the drummer?' " When the cop asks Zappa if he resents his fans perpetuating the myth of his own drug excess, Zappa blames not the fans but the press. "It's another way that the media keeps me from getting my point of view across. The more abstract and weird they make me look, the less access that I have to a normal channel of communication with the people who might benefit from what I have to say."

What Zappa had to say was always unpredictable. Politically he was a libertarian who wanted the government out of his life, philosophically a secular humanist who wanted the church out of his government. The Real Frank Zappa Book contains a long chapter, "Practical Conservatism," that lays out his wacky political ideas, from a national sales tax on all goods and services to arming every family in America with a bazooka and box of grenades in case of a terrorist attack. His opposition to the drug war is founded on the conviction that "people own themselves" and that "in a democracy, government exists because (and only so long as) individual citizens give it a 'temporary license to exist'—in exchange for a promise that it will behave itself." Today Zappa might be less a Bernie Sanders man than a Rand Paul (or at least a Ron Paul) conservative, though he would never have thrown in with any party. As Eat That Question illustrates, Zappa was, in every sense, a frontier spirit.  v

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