By Pamela Des Barres
I consider myself so damned blessed to have spent some quality time with a person who, during his too-short time here on this planet, added a rare dimension to the proceedings. I met Frank Zappa at the long-defunct Cheetah Club, when I reached out from the crowd to touch his mass of black hair. We rolled all over the floor together, and I felt renewed, reborn into a hipness I didn't know existed. Later, I was fortunate enough to be among a bunch of wacky chicks who got to dance with his formidable band of merry maniacs, the Mothers Of Invention, at gigs all over town, tormenting uptight folks with outrageous teenage nakedness. When Frank formed his own record label, he suggested that we become a group, the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously) and cut our own record--making my headiest dream come true. I lived with the Zappa family off and on, as a groovy governess for their kids, Moon and Dweezil. Frank's wife, Gail, became my mentor, and we drank copious cups of tea deep into the night. She could always make me see the amusing truth behind the perpetual rock 'n' roll heart-blasting I put myself through. Meanwhile, Frank was always in the basement studio working, churning out acres and reams of music. He taped most of his live shows way before anybody else thought it might be a good idea. He never stopped. His prolific zeal and enormous musical output is still unsurpassed. Frank has been gone for almost 10 years now, but there is still so much music that hasn't been heard. As Frank wished, Gail sold his huge existing catalog to Rykodisc, but she isn't all that thrilled with the way the music has been handled since. So she's decided the time has come to mine the gold in them thar vaults, and get the music out to fans. Gail has become (and always has been, really) the Mama Lion Keeper-Of-The-Zappa-Flame. I want to find out about this divine undertaking, so I find myself, once again, in Frank's basement studio, drinking tea with Gail.
LAUNCH: Frank wanted you to sell his catalog so you could have a life, right?
GAIL: We went over all the details about what should be sold, and under what circumstances. He said, "I want you to sell the catalog and get a house in the mountains or at the beach, and get out of this business." I did get a house at the beach, which I rarely get a chance to visit, because underneath this house, there's a vault that has all this stuff in it.
LAUNCH: Has Rykodisc released everything you sold them?
GAIL: Oh, yeah. [sarcastically] They were so brilliant; they re-released everything immediately, covered all the artwork in this charming green plastic, and to add something really special for the fans out there, they made a compilation called The Best Of Frank Zappa. Now, if you bought 65 titles, do you think that would be a smart move? Well, they did.
LAUNCH: You had to just accept their decisions, right?
GAIL: For the fans that wonder, "What be gwine on here?"--yes. I said, "Hmmm, with ideas like that, perhaps I should stay as far away as possible."
LAUNCH: I know you were pretty angry about it.
GAIL: I don't want to say angry, but frustration comes to mind. I was really disappointed that they were in such a big hurry to extricate anything to do with the family. On the first releases, they took all of Frank's credits off, they dumped the fact that he was the producer of all the records. And of course, they took out any reference to the Zappa family. We always had a hotline so that if you ever wanted any other information, you could call. They took all those references off of every release. I thought we had a good understanding at the end of the long night we finalized the contracts.
LAUNCH: With all that behind you, you're now ready to dig into Frank's enormous vault...
GAIL: Yes. I've decided to launch another label that is specific to live concert material that is in the vault, and that is called Vaulternative Records. "I'm not holding this out to represent what Frank would've done. He would've probably done something completely beyond, because he was one of the few people in the universe that set the standards."
LAUNCH: Cool label name! How many hours of music do you think you have?
GAIL: Almost every show from 1972 to 1988 was documented, and that's not including all the scattered stuff from '64-'72. And those are just concerts. That's not studio work.
LAUNCH: Yikes! The mind boggles!
GAIL: This is the premiere launch, and they will all be live concerts--every once in awhile there will be a little nugget, or some other little gem. On the first release, we have something very special. The first record on Vaulternative will be a double-CD; it's a live concert from Australia.
LAUNCH: How do you think Frank would feel about these Vaulternative releases?
GAIL: There's never been a band that performed like this, so the idea of having live concerts out there, I don't think he would have minded. I'm certainly not holding this out to represent that we know what Frank would have done. If Frank were here, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. He would have probably done something completely beyond, because he was one of the few people in the universe that set the standards.
LAUNCH: He knew all this music should be saved.
GAIL: As we got into the library, the history, what began to be revealed, there are far more possibilities than we ever dreamed of. We were thinking maybe 20 great releases, but no, it's way beyond that. There are actually finished masters that we didn't know existed. It really is an archaeological delight.
LAUNCH: How many albums are possible?
GAIL: A friend of mine had a dream that there were 100 releases from the vault, and I said, "Guess what? I think it's true!" And I'm not going to stop until I get them all out! I'm hoping that Vaulternative will have four to five releases a year.
LAUNCH: Why did you decide to do this now?
GAIL: Basically, just the frustration of not being able to have the kind of working relationship I would liked to have had with Rykodisc. And the fact that it's going to be 10 years since Frank died. It's time.
LAUNCH: You have a mama-lion reputation. People say, "Whoa, I don't want to f--k with Gail Zappa!" I think Frank would have liked that.
GAIL: I think that's one of the things Frank liked about me.
LAUNCH: People respect that.
GAIL: I don't care if they respect it or not, as long as it works. Get the f--k out! My job is to protect the intent of the composer. I'm glad people like Frank's music, and he was a brilliant guitar player. Without him, rock 'n' roll wouldn't have been what it is, but I was married first and foremost to a composer.
LAUNCH: I always say that in 100 years, he will be revered like Beethoven or Mozart.
GAIL: Except for one thing. They were the "commercial" composers, they were like people who write movie scores now. How did they survive? The king gave them the money.
LAUNCH: Frank has always gone out on various limbs. He was involved in that Tipper Gore/PMRC record-labeling nightmare, sticking up for the freedom of artists, as usual. How did you think he was depicted in the VH1 movie, Parental Advisory?
GAIL: It was a big lie.
LAUNCH: How did they get it wrong?
GAIL: Intentionally. It was really laughable, it was so pathetic. I think there was really an intent to glorify the RIAA. There was definitely an intent to convince the public that the RIAA gives a f--k about artists' rights, which is a joke. I didn't see anything in that entire piece that resembled Frank Zappa in any way. Frank stood up for individual rights, for the First Amendment, for artistic freedom...and more importantly, every single one of his albums since 1971 says, "Register to vote" on them, ever since the 18-year-old vote was passed.
LAUNCH: So you think it sent the wrong message?
GAIL: This film is an insult to the Constitution of the United States, an insult to the Congress. It's an insult not only to Frank but to the people who, for whatever reason, formed the PMRC. It's not representative of Tipper Gore or Al Gore, or most of the senators, or even the way a hearing is conducted. They wanted the record companies to bend over, which they did, to get the blank-tape tax passed. The whole thing was just preposterous. The idea that Frank would be gunning for anyone, making threatening phone calls! When you're taking what actually happened and fantasizing it and massagingit to suit your own needs, everyone should question, "What is VH1's relationship to the RIAA? Do they own them?" I think they do.
LAUNCH: Yikes! Didn't you have any legal recourse?
GAIL: The answer is yes. I'm seeking a legal redress of my grievances. I do understand that they represented that Frank supposedly ate sh-t onstage, and I want to thank them very much for that, but if they think that the rest of the family is going to eat sh-t as served up by them, they can think again! [laughter] This is exactly the proof of what Frank said was going to happen if they started labeling in the first place. You've got a music channel telling you what is their version of the truth, as presented on behalf of VH1, the RIAA, on behalf of all the labels, Now they've gone so far as to represent the senate of the United States of America! I don't think anyone had a reason to be in that film except Dee Snider.
LAUNCH: He played himself.
GAIL: I think he played with himself.
LAUNCH: Back to the vault releases. Is Dweezil excited to be producing these rare gems?
GAIL: Yes, his role is to make sure that it's true on a musical level to the intent of the composer. I really rely on him and his ear and his sensibility, because he is a guitar player, in case anyone has forgotten that Frank was a guitar player. It was hardly mentioned during his career when he was alive. The genetic code is there. [Dweezil is] an invaluable resource. Dweezil's always going to say, "Get the guitar record out!"
LAUNCH: It's exciting that a lot of people will be inspired by all of this previously unheard Zappa music!
GAIL: Frank has been an inspiration to a lot people, a lot of musicians, because he was so prolific, and being so intense and intentional--being intentional was the key. You'd give Frank a piece of information and that thing comes out transmogrified in a way that you never imagined, and it belongs to him. He f--king owns it in a way that no one else ever could. For those of us that believe in reincarnation, the good news is that I think Frank is gonna come back, hear his music, and write more.