In 1964, he found a way via an Los Angeles area bar band called the Soul Giants, whose sax player quit after Zappa persuaded the other members – Ray Collins, the vocalist, drummer Jimmy Carl Black and bassist Roy Estrada – to ditch the cheesy Top 40 covers and play his own lyrically contentious, mutant-groove originals. The Soul Giants renamed themselves the Mothers (of Invention came later, thanks to a skittish MGM Records) and became the dance-floor terrorists on the L.A. club scene. Their epochal debut, Freak Out!, appeared in 1966, the first studio double album of the modern rock era and still a potent broadside of post-adolescent mutiny and apocalyptic foreboding ("The way you lied/And all the corny tricks you tried/Will not forestall the rising tide/Of hungry freaks, daddy").
Over the next few years, Zappa and the Mothers hit an extraordinary creative stride with records and shows that tested the avant boundaries of the new rock and equally satirized, to devastating effect, the political establishment and the counterculture. The first three Mothers albums – Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and 1968's We're Only in It for the Money – were a provocative triptych of canny musical collage and inspired theatrical lunacy documenting the generational upheaval of the '60s (and the hypocrisies at work on both sides) with a rapier directness that did not always go down well with Love-Bead America.
"The people who were hippies didn't like what we were doing," Zappa recalled years later. "They thought we were comedy shit. We were too hard to listen to."
So, who was listening? "I knew pretty accurately, based on what the mail was," he claimed. "Ninety percent of it was males between the ages of 16 and 20, from middle class, mainly Jewish suburban homes. We were saying something that those particular kids wanted to hear."
Other highly regarded albums of the period included Zappa's orchestral debut, Lumpy Gravy (dosed with improvised dialogue recorded inside a piano), and the Mothers' Uncle Meat and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. But in 1969, Zappa disbanded the group, citing the road grind, financial stress and what he considered blinkered critical assessments of his work. "I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons," he told Rolling Stone at the time.
It was only the end of the beginning. By 1971, he was back on the road with a revamped Mothers, fronted by the off-color shtick and helium harmonies of ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, a k a Flo and Eddie. He was signing acts as diverse as Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer and the Persuasions to his Bizarre and Straight labels. Zappa's film mockumentary about rock & roll road life, 200 Motels, was released in 1971; the previous year, he performed excerpts from the score live with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
In the mid-'70s, Zappa received his first gold record, for the solo albumApostrophe ('). Early fans and critics, lamenting the absence of locker-room sting in his lyrics and the passing of the old Mothers, often dismissed Zappa as a spent force, but in 1979 he made it into the Top 30 with Sheik Yerbouti.
"The stereotype of what I do goes something like this," Zappa once told me, in a tone of voice that suggested he was long tired of explaining the obvious. "A lot of the people I do interviews with, they think I made three good records – the first three albums. And after that, it was downhill. The kids that come to these shows don't even know these records. The first album they heard was Apostrophe ('). And some of them haven't even heard that.
"I'm not saying I'm a man for all seasons," he grinned, "but I'm doing something right."
As the nation swung hard to the right politically in the '80s, and his own music was marginalized by the music industry, Zappa took full control of the making and marketing of his work (under the Barking Pumpkin imprint) and became a staunch opponent – on record, in print interviews and on TV – of the PMRC-driven movement for music censorship. One of his most memorable public performances of the decade was his 1985 testimony before a Senate subcommittee investigating pop-music lyrics. Sound bites from those hearings later appeared on the brilliantly titled album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.
In recent years, Zappa's cottage industry, managed by his wife, Gail, ran at peak speed. He oversaw a comprehensive CD reissue of his catalog, undertook an acclaimed 1988 world tour and continued composing and recording new classical works. Even after his illness was made public in 1991, in a short statement by his daughter Moon and son Dweezil on the eve of a Zappa tribute concert in New York City, his sense of mission never faltered. Last year, he finally completed Civilization: Phaze III, a two-CD sequel to Lumpy Gravy – performed by Zappa entirely on the Synclavier digital synthesizer – that he had been working on since 1968. (It is scheduled for release in April.)
He also devoted great energy to repaying his debt of inspiration to the pioneering 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse. Zappa first discovered Varèse's music as a teenager, and it was from Varèse that Zappa borrowed the epigram that became his own calling card: "The present-day composer refuses to die." Last summer, in return, Zappa recorded a new album of Varèse's seminal works with the Ensemble Modern, tentatively titled The Rage and the Fury: The Music of Edgard Varèse.
"Frank didn't want to call it a tribute," says Spencer Chrislu, Zappa's mix engineer for the past two years. "He felt Varèse is completely misunderstood, and he didn't think the music had ever been performed properly." Chrislu recalls that at one point, Zappa told the Ensemble Modern: "'You're all wonderful, technical musicians. But now it's time to put some eyebrows on it.' He wanted them to be able to feel the music and get in touch with the emotions waiting to come out of it."
Zappa worked right up until the end. "He was used to 12-hour days," says Chrislu. "And when he could only work eight hours, he felt he wasn't getting enough done. Even when he couldn't get out of bed much, I would go up to see him, and he would want a full report of what was being done in the studio. He definitely wanted to be a part of it."
Zappa didn't know how to work any other way. As he explained it to me in 1978, "You have to grapple with the problems face to face and say, 'Is it worth the trouble to make this music available?' And if you say yes, you put up with the lawsuits, the stupidity, the unkind remarks in the articles and the rest of it. You keep on doing it, because the ultimate result is worthwhile – and it's the correct, aesthetic way to go."
Frank Zappa, dead at 52, did it his way, all the way.
The Zappa family has asked that anyone wishing to commemorate Zappa can make a donation in his name either to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (50 East Huron, Chicago, IL 60611) or to the Cousteau Society, Greenpeace or any other favorite environmental cause. For those fans who are "financially restricted, just play his music if you are musicians, and otherwise play his music anyway. That will be enough for him."
This is a story from the January 27th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.
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