During his lifetime, Frank Zappa was called many things by his admirers and critics alike; a musical genius, a brilliant satirist, a fearless iconoclast, a tireless innovator, a workaholic, a control freak, a puerile humorist, a dictatorial band leader. His recordings and stage performances – both as a solo artist and with his various groups, most infamously the late '60s lineups of the Mothers of Invention – covered the waterfront of contemporary American music, from the greasiest '50s doo-wop, meaty, early R&B and blustery big-band jazz to pummeling hard rock, brainy electric fusion and vigorously complex orchestral works. He wrote and recorded conceptual suites, film soundtracks, witty teen-beat fluff, at least one intended-for-Broadway musical (1984's darkly surreal Thing-Fish) and piquant – and often sexually graphic – social and political spoofs. Zappa could also jam his ass off on guitar. One of my personal, all-time favorite Zappa tracks remains the galloping out-twang excursion "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin," on 1967's Absolutely Free.
But for a man of such apparent contradictions, catholic interests and comprehensive ambition, Frank Zappa – who died Dec. 4 at the age of 52 at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with prostate cancer – was an artist of singular conviction and focused energy. In the otherwise voluminous booklet annotating the recent two-CD John Cage tribute, A Chance Operation – to which Zappa contributed a rendition of Cage's notorious "silent" piece 4'33" – the biography that Zappa sent in consisted of just two words: American Composer.
He remained true to that pursuit from his teenage years (one familiar Mothers tune, "A Pound for a Brown on the Bus," originated as a string-quartet piece written around the time Zappa graduated from high school) to the very end of his life. Only a month before his death, Zappa issued a new album of orchestral and chamber music, The Yellow Shark, recorded live by the Ensemble Modern in Germany and Austria in September 1992. Despite his illness, Zappa emceed two shows in Frankfurt, Germany, and conducted three pieces.
Throughout his career, many Zappa observers, and even some of his fans, tended to file his serious music under "avant-garde marginalia" – unlike the hits ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Dancin' Fool" and his 1982 duet with daughter Moon Unit, "Valley Girl"), which were ghettoized as novelty wax. But it was all part of Zappa's broader canvas. In his 1989 autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa pointed out that Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, his impeccably rendered 1968 parody-valentine to '50s R&B, was "conceived along the lines of [Igor] Stravinsky's neoclassical period. If he could take the forms and clichés of the classical era and pervert them, why not do the same with the rules and regulations that applied to doo-wop in the '50s?"
When it came to music, Zappa believed in no limits, no categories and, above all, no bullshit. After two years of warring with high-level straitjackets at MGM Records over in-house censure of the Mothers' early releases, Zappa established the first of his own record labels, Bizarre, in 1968. He was as outspoken about jive talking (and accounting) in the music business as he was about cultural and political issues, and he was not shy about resorting to litigation in order to protect his art and copyrights.
Yet Zappa had a wide-open ear for prodigious talent; musicians who passed through his bands and on to bigger things included Little Feat's Lowell George, drummer Terry Bozzio and guitarists Adrian Belew and Steve Vai. Zappa also had no trouble finding common ground with artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart (Zappa produced his milestone album Trout Mask Replica), the French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (he played on Zappa's instrumental-science classic Hot Rats) and the great jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk (they jammed together in 1968). And Zappa was completely devoted to the audiences that listened to and supported his music. One of my most vivid personal memories of Frank Zappa was sitting next to him in a hotel in 1978, waiting to begin an interview as he patiently went over a set of written transcriptions of his music with two excited (and knowledgeable) player-fans.
Zappa would be amused that the impact and recognition of his work, largely taken for granted during the late '70s and '80s, will no doubt grow in the wake of his passing. He influenced, directly and indirectly, much of the progressive and experimental rock-related music of the past two decades, including the brainy end of British art rock, George Clinton's deep art-funk research and the cut-and-paste jazz-core of John Zorn and the New York City downtown noise mob. We still have our homework cut out for us, too; Zappa left behind over 60 officially released albums.
But the rigorous consistency of his vision still astonishes. That Zappa should have spoken out so strongly against right-wing music censorship in the '80s was no surprise. He was nailing the mind vigilantes in song with "Who Are the Brain Police?" back in 1966.
As for music itself, he always lampooned with love. One of the great japes on Zappa's final concert tour, in 1988, was a surprisingly straight reading of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" overturned at the last minute by the brass section, which played the original guitar climax, note for note, with five-part Ellingtonian luster. For Zappa, music was not just art. It was a passion and, at its best, a hell of a lot of fun.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born Dec. 21, 1940, in Baltimore, the eldest of four children. His father, a Sicilian-born immigrant of Greek-Arab descent who worked for the military, moved the family to California in the early 1950s, eventually settling in Lancaster in the Mojave Desert (where the young Zappa first met Don Van Vliet, the future Captain Beefheart). Zappa started playing the drums when he was 12 and by his mid-teens was pursuing parallel interests in orchestral music and rhythm & blues, writing original classical pieces while playing locally with his first band, a racially integrated combo called the Black-Outs.
"There was no underground scene," Zappa told Rolling Stone in 1968 of rock & roll life in the prefreak years. "There were just bunches of older people who were maybe nastier than your folks." He found out just how nasty in the early '60s; Zappa, then running his own recording studio in Cucamonga, Calif., was busted by the local vice squad after an undercover cop ordered some "blue" party tapes. The tapes consisted of nothing more than faked sighs and grunts, but Zappa was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography. He ended up being sentenced to six months in jail, serving 10 days (with the balance suspended).
Zappa first appeared on record on a handful of obscure singles, including the Penguins' "Memories of El Monte" (co-written by Zappa and future Mother Ray Collins) and the Hollywood Persuaders' "Grunion Run," an instrumental featuring Zappa on lead guitar. At the same time, he was getting a cold no thanks from music companies in Los Angeles for his early demos of songs like "Any Way the Wind Blows" and "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," both later cut by the Mothers. A copy of a 1963 rejection letter from Dot Records was featured in one of Zappa's 1970s press kits.
"I didn't care whether the record companies were ready for [my music]," he told me in a 1978 interview. "I knew there were people who wanted to hear it and who would love it if they heard it. Just because there was a bimbo at a record company who didn't understand it, that was no reason not to try and push it through."
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