BILLBOARD: Why is the democratization of Eastern Europe a big issue to you?
ZAPPA: I've always thought that democracy was a good idea. I've always thought that if you're going to have a political system, that's the one that's the most in phase with how people actually think and how they want to live their lives if government would leave them alone. And so I think that it's something that's worth supporting.
BILLBOARD: And you met with Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel. What did he say?
ZAPPA: He said that he likes my records, especially the one I made with Captain Beefheart.
BILLBOARD: Your records were never distributed in these countries.
ZAPPA: No, they've always been illegal. Also, the people that purchased them, or acquired them, or even possessed transcripts of the lyrics were beaten by the secret police. On one of the occasions, when we were doing kind of a question-and-answer thing in a club in Prague, there were two guys who said that they had been grabbed by the secret police and before they were beaten, the guy said "WE ARE NOW GOING TO BEAT THE ZAPPA MUSIC OUT OF YOU." And nobody in the audience seemed too surprised about it, because apparently it has happened to a lot of people. And then there was another statement that was made in Czech by one of the guys in the audience at that same time and I had it translated. And what it said was that when the secret police would arrest you, they would question you and the two biggest enemies of the state at that time—which apparently was in the '70s—were Jimmy Carter and Frank Zappa. And I'm going "WHAT THE FUCK AM I HEARING HERE?" And then NPR ran a little thing in the middle of the week—an interview with an East German guy who talked about how if you owned my records in East Germany your phone got tapped and they followed you around. So, let's ask ourselves this question: If I'm such a menace to THOSE kinds of systems, then why the fuck aren't they playing my records on the air in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? Could it be that there's not much difference between one authoritarian regime and another?
BILLBOARD: I thought we were supposed to be "kinder and gentler"?
ZAPPA: I think we're just more prudent and number.
BILLBOARD: How do you feel about the Bush administration's reaction to what's going on in Eastern Europe?
ZAPPA: It's totally unacceptable. I think that in the face of such major world events, to have a guy sitting there saying "Well, we must be prudent", and just making those mincing little motions with his hands and pursing his lips and kind of looking glum when the Berlin Wall comes down. All it shows me is they got no forward thinking, they got no real foreign policy, and this is something that shouldn't be in a country that has such a superiority complex. A superiority complex is OK if you really are superior and you can back it up with something, but I haven't seen any evidence that the big talk coming out of Washington is backed up by anything. Certainly not by logic.
BILLBOARD: Does your interest in Eastern Europe have anything to do with musical or business projects?
ZAPPA: Well, when I first went there it didn't, but I think it's turned into something that could probably be worthwhile. For one thing , I've made a record contract, I have made arrangements to have five titles distributed legally in Czechoslovakia for the first time. And the company that's doing it also has the right to distribute them in Hungary, Poland and East Germany. So, what remains of a secret police in each of those states is really gonna get a snootful.
The trip to the Soviet bloc was a high point in [Van] Carlson' relationship with Frank. "It's what I imagine it was like to have been in New York when the Beatles arrived," Van recalls. "In Czechoslovakia, as the airplane was pulling in to the gate, you could hear voices growing louder and louder shouting 'Zappa, Zappa!' And we looked out the window, and there were huge crowds of people holding up signs saying 'Welcome Frank.' Even the baggage handlers were standing on top of the airport waving. From the moment we stepped out of that plane, for the next four or five days, it was just nonstop fans."
Only Carlson and Dave Dondorf accompanied Zappa on the trip, and they both worried for Frank's well-being, since he was swept away by the crowds. As a guest of a member of the government, eventually Zappa was afforded some rudimentary security. [...] "Havel was very nervous about meeting Frank, because he was a fan," Van states. "I overheard him saying to Frank, 'Oh, you know, my most favorite record was Bongo Fury with Captain Beefheart.' It was one of those moments of 'Pinch me—what am I doing here!'"
The stop in Moscow had its share of odd encounters as well. Carlson had visited there years before and expected the same strict monitoring of activity that characterized pre-perestroika Russia. "We were staying at a nasty hotel by the Kremlin," he recalls, "and St. Basil's was all lit up in the snow. So without any permission, we just stopped to get a hot of it at like two in the morning. It would have been impossible to do that in Washington, D.C.—to just drive, in a private car, up to the steps of the White House without having a security check. But there we were in Red Square, already rolling before a guard came over. Our driver said, 'Zappa.' The guard said, 'Fine.'"
DC: How did you make your first contact with President Vaclav Havel?
FZ: I called Michael Kocab, who is both a famous Czechoslovak rock-and-roll musician and—now here's progress—a member of Parliament. We had met in Los Angeles last year, and now all of a sudden he's in the middle of a democratic revolution. "Could I possibly have an interview with Havel?" I asked. No problem, he said. Thousands of fans greeted me when I arrived in Prague with my video crew. For twenty years, my albums have been smuggled into the country. After spending a day or so just looking about at life in Czechoslovakia, I went to Hradcany Castle to meet President Havel. The President told me he especially likes my early records with the Mothers of Invention and the Bongo Fury album I made with Captain Beefheart. He asked me to play at a concert honoring him during his state visit to the United States. He was hoping that the Rolling Stones and Joan Baez would also perform. [But the final result would be quite different. Instead, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie played at the New York concert for Havel.]
DC: But you were there to discuss business as well.
FZ: Right. I stated to talk to him on behalf of FNN. "What sort of foreign investment is Czechoslovakia looking for? Why should foreign investors put their money into Czechoslovakia?" These questions, Havel said, should be addressed to his financial ministers. Then at a small lunch with Havel, his wife, Olga, Richard Wagner, Vice Minister and adviser for economy and ecology, and Valtr Komarek, a deputy prime minister and leader of their new economic team, we discussed how the country could increase its income, and the conversation continued later that day at dinner in a villa near the castle. At my request, Milan Lukes, the Czech Minister of Culture, was present. Havel and his ministers know they need some Western investment, but they don't want all the ugliness that often invades a country with Western investment. The easiest way to keep the lid on that is to have someone involved whose primary concern is culture, who can reject or modify a project if it is going to have a negative impact on society. Hence my request for the involvement of the Minister of Culture. After dinner, Lukes went on television and announced that I would be representing Czechoslovakia on trade, tourism and cultural matters. The next morning I received a letter from Komarek, which began, "Dear Sir, may I entrust you [with] leading negotiations with foreign partners for preparation of preliminary projects, possibly drafts of trade agreements?"
In the case we have uncovered, [James] Baker diplomatically used his surrogates to ace an American rock 'n' roll icon out of a job as the trade representative from Czechoslovakia because the rocker had publicly insulted Baker's wife Susan.
This tale of international intrigue was told to our associate Dale Van Atta by sources in Prague and Washington. Incredible, but true, is the fact that Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel did offer the job of special ambassador to the West on trade, culture and tourism to Frank Zappa. [...] Havel, a playwright known for absurd satire, met Zappa in Prague in January 1990, and the two men hit it off immediately. Havel had long been a fan of Zappa's music genius and even credited his music as part of the inspiration for the anti-communist revolution. [...]
So Havel had plenty to thank Zappa for. He was so grateful, in fact, that he impetuously created the special ambassadorship for Zappa. The musician left town with Havel's praise in his ears and the adulation of hundreds of fans who treated him as a Czech national hero. He was even talking about applying for citizenship.
Two weeks later, Baker came to town carrying an old grudge. It dated from 1985, when Susan Baker and other well-connected Washington wives, including Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., formed Parents Music Resource Center. The group's objective was a music ratings system similar to the movie ratings, based on sex, obscenity and violence.
Zappa, the purveyor of all three in his lyrics, came to Washington for a showdown before the Senate Commerce Committee. He was unrelenting in his criticism of the ratings idea. He ridiculed Susan Baker and the others, calling them "a group of bored Washington housewives," and said they wanted to "housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few."
Zappa even mimicked Susan Baker's Southern accent. This was too much for Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who snapped at Zappa during the hearing, calling him "boorish, incredibly and insensibly insulting."
James Baker remembered the insult. When he arrived in Prague, on the heels of Zappa's appointment as trade representative, Baker had his surrogates convey his displeasure to Havel. It was delicately phrased as "advice," suggesting that "an American should not serve as a trade representative for Czechoslovakia." Baker's real objection was apparently twofold—he was still piqued over the insult to his wife, and he thought the appointment made Havel look amateurish.
So the Czechs, anxious to please the foreign minister of the world's biggest superpower, cooled on the Zappa appointment. They dragged their feet, explaining to Zappa that bureaucratic red tape was getting in the way. Several months later, Zappa was appointed unofficial cultural ambassador.
The successful conclusion of a duel is not something gentlemen boast about. So Baker was unavailable for comment and Havel declined to discuss it. Zappa, who is battling prostate cancer, was also unavailable for comment, but his confidantes report that he blames Baker.
Never mind the setback. Zappa is still a busy and successful musician, making videos under the label Honker Home Video (named after his nose), and selling memorabilia under a company he calls Barfko-Swill. And, he continues to fight the establishment. He hasn't driven since 1969 because he refuses to stand in line for a license. He rails against big government and taxes. He even hired two political consultants to do a "feasibility study" on a Zappa bid for president. Then James Baker would be out of a job.
That was scuffled by James Baker. He was on his way to Moscow and took a side trip to Prague. I can't prove this, but two people have told me that they saw the meeting and they heard what he said. One of them almost did a television interview. From the day that the guy told me what had happened to the next day when I got the crew, somebody had gotten hold of him and he refused to talk when the camera crew was there. He absolutely verified that pressure was applied to the Czech government for them not to do business with me.
Q: Did Frank still like and respect Václav Havel despite the unfortunate results of Frank's dealings with the Czech government (thanks to James Baker III)? Did Frank still keep in contact with President Havel?
A: Love and Respect and it was mutual. FZ resigned his Czech appointment so as not to cause problems for President Havel. And yes, they did see each other again in the U.S.
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DS: We're really anxious to be able to pull into the fold, so to speak, these Eastern Europeans. We've been makin' a little bit of headway with some East Germans. There is this group called the East German Arf Society . . .
DS: and they have gotten together for a couple of annual meetings.
FZ: That's great!
DS: Actually, one of our friends took a trip to Europe, met with those people, went to one of their little meetings, and was really taken with the whole experience of it!
FZ: That's amazing!
RS: What about the project for Lyon, France, and the orchestra?
FZ: That's this June or July. They're gonna do it. They've got the scores.
RS: Are you gonna be there for it?
FZ: Yes, I'm supposed to go there to produce the recording, 'cause they're going to record 'Sinister Footwear'.
RS: Hmm. Great.
EB: Is there gonna be a public performance of it?
FZ: Yep, and the ballet will choreograph it, and then, the tapes will be used for this ballet company to tour with it. They'll dance to the tape.
Caller: Have you given up touring altogether?
FZ: Pretty much. Yeah.
Two years ago, following the departure of Zappa's long-time engineer Bob Stone, Spence was recruited, on the recommendation of Todd Yvega, to man Zappa's Neve console, where he now sits ten hours a day, five days a week.
In October 1990 I went to Los Angeles hoping to connect with Frank, since we hadn't heard from him in 2 years. I was in contact with a guy named Gerald Fialka, who worked at Barking Pumpkin. He said I could stay at his place if I planned to come over. So I did. I called Mike Keneally the day after my arrival and said hello. Mike called Frank and told him I was in town. Frank had said: "Great, take him over so we can listen to some tapes!"
[...] Me, Mike & Frank listened through tapes for a couple of hours including our guest performance from the Stockholm '88 show. Just before it was time to go home Frank asked me were I was staying, and this particular night I wasn't suppose to stay at Gerald's house cause he had a date and I was going to spend the night in a youth hostel. Frank said I shouldn't have to stay in a youth hostel, and picked up the phone and asked somebody upstairs if the guestroom was vacant. It was and I could stay.
[...] Just before going back to Sweden, Frank was asked to put a band together for an orchestral kind of project in Japan, were he wanted to involve me and Mats. But it was turned down due to financial reasons.
PZ: We know that you already have told the story about when you met Frank, but is there anything you can tell us that we haven't heard before?
Morgan: One thing I actually remember at this very moment, is a funny one! When I had stayed at Frank's house in 1990 and was about to leave for Sweden, I wanted to give Frank something. I used to paint T-shirts in those days and had made a couple at Gerald Fialka's house just a couple of days before, that I had in my luggage. So before I left Frank's house I told him 'Here is a couple of T-shirts that I have made myself, and I wanted him to pick one!' Frank looked at the T-shirts for a few seconds and took one, and then he said "Well, what do I know about art?" . . . That was actually what he said . . . (laughs!) I could not believe those worlds came from HIS mouth! . . . Frank put the T-shirt on and walked around in his kitchen looking for coffee or something . . . That was some sight! I actually gave a T-shirt to Moon as well, which had "Farbror Kött" written on it, which means Uncle Meat on Swedish, how krejsy of me huh? [...]
PZ: Was Frank recording any of your music when you were visiting his studio UMRK in LA?
Morgan: No recordings unfortunately. To me, being there was off course unreal, but it wouldn't have been more unreal to record something with him since I now was there. I was a little bit surprised he didn't get something on his mind worth doing. I mean it wouldn't have been unlike him . . . He was working with other stuff for sure, but we didn't record anything . . . I was there for 4-5 days.
The whole lawsuit thing had started in 1985 but it didn't go to arbitration until 1990. Originally, the lawsuit was a Class Action Suit for $150,000. As the years went by, people started to drop out. I can't remember exactly how many of us there were at the beginning but at the end there was myself, Don, Bunk, Art Tripp, Ray Collins and Jim Fielder.
[...] That's actually the last time that I saw Frank. [...] He was in there for four hours and we were sitting right across the table from him and he never looked at any of us one time. [...] The arbitration lasted for three days but Frank was only there for one.
[...] So the settlement was made there and then, in November of 1990.
RS: Can you tell us what happened with that, or would you rather not?
FZ: Uh I'd rather not. I just think that it was such a stupid thing to begin with, and even though it's all over, as far as I'm concerned, there's plenty of hard feelings on my side. I got a Christmas card from Jimmy Carl Black saying, "We'll always be friends," and all this kind of stuff, and I'm going, "What the fuck is this!?"
FZ: And I got a phone call from Ray Collins. He wanted to come over and visit me, and I said, "Well, wait a minute! Why should I spend any time talking with you, y'know? You sued me."
RS: Right. That doesn't make for good friends.
FZ: Y'know, why should I have any good feelings at all toward people who were involved in such a travesty of justice?
RS: So Frank, didja have a good birthday?
FZ: Yeah, it was nice.
RS: That's good. Get a lot of nice gifts?
FZ: Well, I got one nice gift. I got a brand new Synclavier.
DS: No shit?
RS: Oh, didja? A brand new one?
DS: What kind of capabilities is it gonna give you beyond the one that it's replacing?
FZ: It's twice as big, in terms of storage, and it also has a direct to disc system, so it can do a lot more than the old one.
DS: All right. When are we gonna get to hear somethin' from it?
FZ: Hopefully later this year. The other belated birthday present that I think I'm gonna be receiving is a new mixing console for the studio.
DS: All right.
FZ: Since that will make a big difference in the sound quality, I'm going to postpone the mixing on the Synclavier stuff until after we get the new console.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos