‘Fire, chains and other objectionable tools of gratification’
Frank Zappa, the Valley’s resident iconoclast of the rock music scene, came down from his home and studio in Laurel Canyon last week to deliver a strange lecture on the Cal State Northridge campus.
Zappa, who may be remembered as the shaggy man sitting on a toilet in a popular 1960s poster, was engaged by a campus organization called Student Productions and Campus Entertainment, or SPACE.
SPACE advertised the Wednesday night event as a lecture on the First Amendment and a performance of electronic music.
That wasn’t as cryptic as it might sound. Zappa has devoted a good deal of his musical career composing electronic music in the modern classical tradition. And, in the past year or two, he has gone on the lecture circuit to debate a Washington lobbying group called the Parents’ Resource Music Center, which wants some rock music labeled as pornographic.
More than 1,100 people lined up outside the Northridge Center auditorium to hear Zappa, an exceptional turnout for any evening event at the commuter campus. Most were students, though there was a healthy percentage of Zappa holdovers from an earlier generation.
Zappa, clean-shaven except for a large black mustache, walked on stage wearing a turquoise sweat shirt and gray trousers. He sat behind a table covered with white linen.
First he instructed a technician to play a tape of computer music to test the sound system.
“Those of you in front of the speakers can expect instant sterilization,” he said.
He lit a cigarette and stared blankly at the tablecloth as the sterilization began.
The piece consisted of a series of rapid-fire sounds that didn’t suggest any particular coherence to the uncultured ear.
When it ended there was polite applause. Then Zappa asked if anyone wanted to hear tapes of a couple of old rock ‘n’ roll songs.
A great scream went up.
So he played “Bamboozled by Love” and “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.” The crowd loved it.
His next song, “Buffalo Voices,” was played into a computer on acoustic guitar with the orchestration keyed in digitally, he said.
It sounded something like a harp and a xylophone and a steam engine falling down a flight of stairs, over and over again.
CSUN has an electronic music program that studies such sounds. Several students asked Zappa questions about how he made them and how much memory his synthesizer has.
But most of his crowd was growing restless.
Someone asked how he felt about debating with the PMRC.
“How do I feel debating the guys who are encouraging the rating and labeling of albums?” he asked. “It feels terrific because I think they really are a bunch of . . ..”
“You’re talking about a bunch of people who have a very narrow point of view who have claimed that rock music causes murder, suicide, rape and incest,” he said.
As his answer to the PMRC, Zappa played “Porn Wars” from his album “Frank Zappa vs. the Mothers of Prevention.”
About two minutes into it, a woman in a white suit walked onto stage and began to shout in Zappa’s ear.
He stopped the music. Then he raised his microphone to her lips.
“Instead of talking about the First Amendment, you’re playing tapes,” she screamed.
She demanded her money back for the $7 admission and an $8 Frank Zappa T-shirt.
The audience started to boo.
“I’ll tell you what,” Zappa said, pulling a bill from his wallet. “I’ll pay you back for the ticket but you’re going to have to eat the T-shirt.”
She said that wasn’t enough. She was with friends and they all wanted their money back.
“Here’s $20,” Zappa growled. “Go away.”
“Go, go, go,” the audience chanted.
Then Zappa called for a voice vote on what to play.
“You want ‘Porn Wars?’ ” he asked.
“Yes,” everyone shouted.
“Porn Wars” was a montage of electronic sounds and snippets of human voices that were locked into cascading repetitions of phrases such as “outrageous filth” and “fire and chains and other objectionable tools of gratification.”
For about 10 minutes in the middle, the voices were allowed to speak in their real context, the Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee hearing last year on pornography in rock music.
While it played, a student walked up to stage and presented a Frank Zappa poster for him to autograph.
Two more students followed. Then 20.
When “Porn Wars” was over, Zappa was surrounded.
“Look, I’ll sign all the stuff you want me to sign, but first let me take care of the business,” he said reproachfully.
They sat in a circle around Zappa and he told them about the blank tape tax.
His theory was that the record industry caved in to PMRC, which is run by the wives of several Administration officials and congressmen, in the hope that Congress would pass the blank tape tax and that, under cover of the tax, it could raise the price of its tapes.
Pretty heavy going.
“Now you ready for some more music?” he asked.
The evening ended with autographing and rock ‘n’ roll. It hadn’t been a total loss. Zappa got a hundreds of students to listen to 10 solid minutes of their government in action.