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Democracy's Pitchman : Frank Zappa Urging Young People to Vote? : Has One of Rock's Most Iconoclastic Icons Gone Straight?

October 30, 1988|JOE MORGENSTERN | Morgenstern is a writer who divides his time between L.A. and New York.

WHEN YOU buy a cassette of "Video From Hell," a recent product of Frank Zappa's imagination, funny bone and bile, a gift comes with it: a pair of cardboard "No-D" glasses that you assemble by pushing little tabs through little slots. The instructions for this, and for attaching an ample cardboard nose modeled on Zappa's own, are set forth in elaborate, deadpan detail. One note at the bottom of the instruction sheet, though, has nothing to do with No-D and everything to do with Zappa's latest overmastering obsession:

"Register to vote and read the Constitution before it's void where prohibited by law."

Register to vote? Read the Constitution? What bourgeois fate has befallen the father of the Mothers of Invention, the longhaired rocker who lashed out so wildly and hilariously at the American middle class in "Freak Out!", his first album in 1966, and who gave us the ineffably raunchy "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow"? The Zappa of old would have told us to use his No-D glasses, which are opaque, for watching the current No-D election campaign.

But tuning people out of the political process is not what the resident muse and CEO of Barfko-Swill merchandising, Barking Pumpkin Records and Honker Home Video is up to these days. On the contrary, Zappa has been working tirelessly at turning the citizenry out to vote. His voter-registration spots, along with those featuring Stevie Wonder, John Cougar Mellencamp and others, were shown frequently on MTV. During a hugely popular, 27-city concert tour called "Broadway the Hard Way" earlier this year, Zappa took time during the first part of every show to urge his fans to register at their first opportunity. "If you don't register," he warned them, "you can't vote, and if you don't vote, democracy doesn't work." He also made sure their first opportunity came a few minutes later, at intermission, by setting up voter-registration desks in the theater lobbies.

This campaign, organized by Zappa with the help of local members of the League of Women Voters and other citizen action groups, resulted in about 11,000 sign-ups, most of them first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 25. It also produced a resurgence of interest in Zappa himself, one of pop culture's most intriguing--and enduring--icons. "60 Minutes" followed him on tour, then sent Morley Safer to do the obligatory sit-down interview. Life magazine treated his political activities with respect, although it also fell back on the familiar zaniness of his family life in a piece called "The Zappa Zoo." (He and his wife, Gail, have four children: Moon Unit, 21; Dweezil, 19; Ahmet, 14, and Diva, 9.)

Behind much of this new attention was sheer bafflement, or the bemused assumption that another '60s rebel had gone straight, like the turncoat yippie Jerry Rubin. For those who've followed the twists and turns of Zappa's career, however, his latest exertions on behalf of voter registration and the Constitution come as no great surprise.

Zappa has always been a freedom freak, with or without long hair and the trademark "stinger" sprouted neatly below his bottom lip. (The hair is shorter now, the stinger survives intact.) His style has always combined straight lines, technical elegance and funky facades: a sort of Sam Rodia of rock. He is the man who put on his best suit and testified eloquently before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1985 against a scheme advanced ardently by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.'s wife, Tipper, to impose ratings on rock lyrics, and who has made a point of abstaining from alcohol and drugs (although he smokes like an RTD bus). There has long been reason to suspect, then, that the private Zappa is an extremely solid citizen. To check this suspicion out, I drove to the Hollywood Hills one recent night, paid a visit to his large house (the exterior style is Tudor by way of Bavaria) and listened while he talked until dawn.

ZAPPA LIVES mostly by night when he isn't on the road. All his business ventures are run out of his house, which he's lived in since 1968, and night is the only time things are quiet enough for him to compose music--serious music, or at any rate music that's qualitatively different from the loose-limbed, joyous rock he plays on stage. Starting our conversation at 10 p.m. is a courtesy to him but also a convenience for me since there's no clutter on either of our scopes: no famous kids with funny names, no secretaries typing, no phones ringing, no techies editing tape or fixing equipment, nothing and no one but Frank Zappa, the phantom of his own baroque opera.

Still bleary-eyed from sleep, or lack of it, he greets me in a faded pink T-shirt, baggy gray Bermudas and Reeboks. "The one bad part about staying up alone at night is I'm not a cook," he says. "If I get hungry, it's peanut-butter time."

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