Frank Zappa’s animated opinion-filled 1971 interview with legendary Village Voice “Scenes” columnist Howard Smith

By on June 7, 2016

Blank on Blank/PBS Digital Studios have just released their latest flash-animated cartoon, this one excerpted from a taped conversation — recorded 45 years ago, on June 6th, 1971 — between legendary Village Voice writer Howard Smith and Frank Zappa, during which the opinionated rock composer offered up his controversial thoughts on a variety of topics, including women, saying “in most instances I find out that they’re just stupid people who just happen to wear dresses.”

Zappa even calls the women’s lib movement of the early 70s a “fad” at one point: “A fad provides you with a temporary occupation for your imagination. It doesn’t have any real culture. It doesn’t have any real art. It doesn’t have any real anything. It’s just got fads, and a gross national product, and a lot of inflation.”

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The entire interview — which you can purchase here — took place at 1 Fifth, the hotel-apartment block on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street in New York City, where rock bands often stayed.

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Howard Smith

Smith — who in 1972 would also produce and direct the Oscar winning feature-length documentary Marjoe, about evangelist Marjoe Gortner — was at the time writing a column called “Scenes” during the formative years of the Village Voice, as well as freelancing for Playboy, the New York Times and other publications.

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During their conversation, Zappa and Smith talked about his dislike of the audiences at the Fillmore East, where Zappa and his band were going to play the second of a two-night set that very evening (recordings from both show were released, in August ’71, as Fillmore East: June 1971).

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Zappa also said he found living in NYC “depressing,” telling Smith “I served my time in New York.”

Zappa: “I didn’t like it much when I was here and I like California a lot better. It was so depressing during the time I was here, I really hate to come back… I got a place with a buncha trees around it and some space. I don’t have to shuffle around the street and walk over the people who’s pissed all oveer themselves and are lying down there in the gutter and policemen coming along beating ‘em on the legs screaming at ‘em to get up and dogs shitting all over the place. It’s just a little different in Los Angeles.”

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At the time, Zappa was on tour with a new assemblage of his band, the Mothers — now featuring Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) — and promoting his latest album, Chunga’s Revenge, and his upcoming film, 200 Motels. He’d already released eleven albums by this point.

What Zappa didn’t know was that Smith had also brought along two guests who had wanted to meet Zappa, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were also planning on attending Zappa and the Mothers’ show at the Fillmore East that night.

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Lennon had recently moved to New York and Smith was one of his friends who was showing him the sights, and when he learned that he was interviewing Zappa, Lennon asked if he and Yoko could tag along, telling Smith he really, really admired Zappa and had always wanted to meet him. “He’s at least trying to do something different with the form,” Lennon told Smith. “It’s incredible how he has his band as tight as a real orchestra. I’m very impressed by the kind of discipline he can bring to rock that nobody else can seem to bring to it.”

Although they’re not heard in the excerpt provided here, John and Yoko apparently sat together quietly, listening to the interview (along with members of Zappa’s band) until the very end, when they chime in with opinions of their own.

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John and Yoko with Howard Smith in 1971

Later, Lennon — talking with Smith on his radio show nationally-syndicated weekend show for WPLJ-FM, the innovative NYC-based progressive rock station — said he and Yoko had half-expected Zappa to be “a sort of grubby maniac with naked women all over the place, you know – sitting on the toilet. The first thing I said was, ‘Wow, you look so different. You look great!’ And he said, ‘You look clean too’ – he was expecting a couple of nude freaks.”

Here’s an animated PBS Digital/Blank on Blank interview between Smith and John & Yoko:

That night — actually, it was into the wee hours of Sunday morning — they joined Zappa & the Mothers onstage for four songs during their third encore, which were released on Lennon’s 1972 album Some Time in New York City and later on Zappa’s 1992 live LP Playground Psychotics.

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John and Yoko onstage with Frank Zappa and the Mothers, June 6, 1971, at the Fillmore East

1971 would end badly for Zappa and the Mothers, unfortunately. On December 4th, a Zappa fan with a flare gun decided to shoot it off during their show at the Montreux Casino at Lake Geneva in Switzerland, leaving several fans injured, the band’s equipment destroyed and the venue burned down to the ground. Deep Purple’s legendary “Smoke on the Water” would reference the tragedy in that band’s mega-hit (Coincidentally, Dangerous Minds had a recent post about this).

Then, just six days later, on December 10, 1971, Trevor Charles Howard, a disgruntled fan, pushed Frank Zappa off the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre, who fell in the orchestra pit below. He suffered multiple injuries which left him wheelchair-bound for the next year.

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George Harrison with Howard Smith, May 1, 1970 (Photo: Tim Boxer)

Smith’s intimate conversations with well-known musicians and notable cultural figures between 1969 and 1972 — with people like George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, Norman Mailer and many more — were recently released as The Smith Tapes, beginning with Collection #1-Fillmore East, featuring his interviews with Zappa, John and Yoko Ono, Bill Graham and more.

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Howard Smith died of cancer on May 1, 2014, in Manhattan, aged 77.

Be sure to check out our other posts from PBS Digital Studios’s wonderful Blank on Blank series, including our previous animated shorts on Rod Serling, Cher, Martin Scorsese, Nina Simone, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Bill Murray, Tom Waits, and Hunter S. Thompson.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • shayneo

    In slight defence of Zappas apparently misogynistic comment “stupid people who happen to wear dresses”. Zappa thought almost everybody was stupid. I suspect the key part of that sentence was MEANT to be “who happen to wear dresses”. Regardless, this was in 71, later down the track he worked extensively with Ruth underwood, and other female musicians, so I suspect he revised some of those assumptions about the suitability of women for his band (And Zappa, was constantly revising his opinions as new information came along, a sign of a flexible thinker)