None of This Would Be Happening If Frank Zappa Had Been President

New ZAPPA documentary trailer reminds us of a time when music mattered and Frank Zappa knew the score.

Frank Zappa
Photo: Roelof Kiers, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The election is days away. No one knows if there will be an orderly turnover or the disorderly donut hole of malevolent maneuverings. The nation is divided and civil unrest is in the air. This follows a summer which was prophetically and perennially summed up in “Trouble Every Day,” a song from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut album Freak Out!

“Wednesday I watched the riot,” Zappa sings on the song he wrote after seeing the Watts Uprising of 1965. “I seen the cops out on the street. Watched ’em throwin’ rocks and stuff, and chokin’ in the heat. … Watched while everybody on his street would take a turn to stomp n’ smash n’ bash n’ crash n’ slash n’ bust n’ burn.” 

These and similar scenes were repeated during the global George Floyd protests in 2020, along with charges of accompanying police brutality. 

Long before the #BlackLivesMatter movement highlighted white privileged compliance, Zappa sang “I’m not black but there’s a whole lots a times I wish I could say I’m not white.” Even in an era of major victories in the Civil Rights battle, Frank’s voice was progressive, independent, and ahead of the curve.

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Zappa consistently ridiculed both sides of the two-party political landscape. He had been approached by the Libertarian Party for a presidential run in 1987, according to a February 1988 interview with Buzz magazine. But after finding much of their platform “either wrong or stupid,” he told them “Well, I’m not your bot. Thanks a lot. Goodbye.” The trailer for director Alex Winter’s upcoming documentary ZAPPA teases a sadly lost opportunity. Frank Zappa tossed his name into a hat for the presidential race in 1991, and told The San Diego Tribune he was considering H. Ross Perot as his vice-presidential pick.

To use the language of the trailer, Zappa’s campaign might have been as “loud, coarse, and strange” as his career, but it would never be “sleazy.” Zappa encouraged voter registration on every album cover since 1971, when the law allowing 18-year-olds to vote was passed. He set up voter registration tables at his 1988 live shows, ultimately registering about 11,000 people. He also shot voter registration ad spots which ran on MTV. 

In 1989, Zappa was named Czechoslovakia’s “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism.” Personally chosen by Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, Zappa took the appointment seriously, and was making inroads in the media as a businessman, rather than a rock star. 

“My main qualifications are that I don’t play golf, I don’t take vacations and I do think the U.S. constitution is one hell of a document and that this country would work better if people adhered to it more closely,” we hear Zappa say in archival footage of the film ZAPPA, which comes out Nov. 27.

Zappa told Melody Maker in 1974 “Most of my songs are not political, they are sociological.” But in the years leading up to his proposed run, Zappa strongly voiced his belief that fundamentalist Christians had too much political power, televangelism bought too much influence, and church and state came together to maintain control over a mindless population. Zappa was 50 when it came out that he was exploring the feasibility of an independent, non-partisan bid for the presidency. The incumbent George H.W. Bush had more balloons but unsolicited campaign contributions began trickling into Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin offices after word got out.

“The idea is that this is a zero-balloon campaign,” Zappa told Bob Guccione Jr. in a July 1991 interview with Spin magazine “You want balloons then blow your own balloons. And the goal is to run the cheapest campaign in political history. I can sit at home and do talk shows all over the country on radio and answer questions directly to people who might want to vote. And it would cost what? Nothing. I don’t believe that you really have to spend $50 million or apply for matching funds from the federal government and then be forced to abide by all those rules in order to do it. Because if you’re a nonpartisan candidate then what the fuck?”

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Zappa would go on to mention former Harvard University professor and constitutional law expert Alan Dershowitz as his pick for attorney general. The platform centered on “getting the government out of people’s faces.” He proposed eliminating federal income tax because it was established as “an emergency tax and was supposed to have an end to it.” He said the job was better done by raising sales taxes on non-essentials. “If you gotta pay a tax, pay a tax when you buy something, not because you worked,” he reasoned.

Zappa told Spin he would “exempt necessary foodstuffs, because that’s where the poor get hurt. And I don’t think that many Colombian drug dealers are buying that many cartons of milk and eggs and stuff. And so you’re not really going to cripple the nation’s economy by exempting that sort of thing.” Zappa also planned to redefine the military so it was used for “protecting the country, not bad foreign policy.”

Zappa said he would put his music career on hiatus during the campaign. The guitarist-composer said he was “a reluctant candidate” who was “volunteering” to run, and not just to make a statement. “If I did run I would do a real run,” Zappa told Spin. “The problems about doing it are that in order to do a credible run you have to be on the ballot in every state. That’s about a million dollars in legal fees and organization and bullshit just to get on the ballot. That’s before you even buy an ad.”

Based on the interview, local news stations prematurely identified him as a presidential candidate, but TV stations conducted their own polls and found a Zappa run would have been feasible. Zappa cited a C-Span TV symposium moderated by Leslie Stahl as the inspiration for his presidential aspirations. Zappa got a resume from a GOP policy writer looking for a paid position, though Zappa said it would be better to hear that people resigned from the party they belong to because neither of the two major parties “delivered the goods in tangible ways.”

The self-taught rock and orchestral composer even spoke with Raymond Strother about a run until the veteran Democratic consultant started working as a publicist for future vice president and presidential candidate Albert Gore. Zappa had already come up against another Gore, Al’s wife Tipper, when he testified against the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 in Washington, D.C. The Washington wives’ group was intent on censoring rock music, ultimately leading to the warning labels on albums which we still see today.

Zappa mimicked Treasury Secretary James Baker’s wife Susan’s Southern accent at the hearings. As Secretary of State under President Reagan, ZAPPA tells how the vindictive Baker had a low-level U.S. State Department representative tell the Czech Republic they can get American aid or do business with Frank Zappa.

While Zappa never officially contacted Perot, he might have given the late Texas billionaire the idea to run as an independent candidate in 1992. Perot pulled in 19 percent of the popular vote. Republicans blamed him for putting Bill Clinton in the White House. He ran again in 1996.

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But Zappa’s decades old message resonates more frighteningly now. “Let me point out something about democracy,” he told Spin. “Does anybody remember how Hitler took over Germany? He was voted in. People said, yeah, he’s got the right message for us. Now when you have a democracy, there’s always the possibility that the guy who could turn out to be the biggest menace to the planet could just get voted in. And the place where it’s most likely to happen is here, because of the media saturation, the illiteracy rate of the population, the social desperation of the population. Hitler came to power because things weren’t so good.”

Zappa, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1990 and died in late 1993 at the age of 52, ultimately decided none of the mitigating factors were “enough to convince me to go through the bullshit of a campaign,” and never got on the ballot. His family did release Frank Zappa for President in July 2016. While it would have been the first time the country was ruled by a posthumous leader, it was a good idea then, and a good idea now.

Magnolia Pictures’ ZAPPA release date is Nov. 27.