Inside the Zappa Family Feud
It’s soundcheck time at the Capitol Theatre, just north of New York, and Dweezil Zappa is leading his band through the songs of his father, Frank. Dweezil, 46, has been regularly performing his dad’s music for a decade, but his current tour is stranger – and more tense – than any before it. Unplugging his guitar, Dweezil looks out at the empty hall. “Sometimes people in the crowd yell things out, so I talk about it onstage,” he says. “I feel like people are choosing sides.”
This should be a year for honoring the legacy of Frank Zappa, who died in 1993. A new, acclaimed Zappa documentary, Eat That Question, is in theaters, and a series of deluxe reissues and archival releases just hit shelves. Dweezil’s tour features songs from Frank’s landmark debut, Freak Out!, released 50 years ago this summer. But instead of celebrating, the four Zappa children are locked in a drama that has bitterly divided a once-close family and exposed its quirks. “I was hoping to keep the fact that we were a Grey Gardens family a secret,” says oldest daughter Moon, 48, an actress and novelist. “Oops!”
Last year, Gail Zappa – Frank’s widow, who had controlled his estate since his death – was dying of lung cancer, and began to say “weird things,” according to Moon. “She said, ‘Do you forgive me for what I’ve done?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ not knowing what she was referring to.” When Gail died in October, Moon learned what her mother may have meant. Dweezil and Moon found out that their two siblings – Ahmet, 42, who runs a film and TV production company and created Disney’s Star Darlings franchise, and Diva, 36, a clothing designer – had been put in charge of the family business.
According to Gail’s wishes, Ahmet and Diva each receive 30 percent of the estate; Dweezil and Moon each get 20 percent. “We’re like shareholders who have no say in anything,” says Dweezil. Adds Moon, “I was completely blindsided. For a whole year I was taking care of my mother – bringing her green juice and driving her to her doctor appointments. How do you look someone in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for the foot rub’ and be plotting against that human? It’s unconscionable.”
According to one insider, Gail’s decision had to do with her perceived roles of the children. “Moon and Dweezil really never had any interest in the business,” says Owen Sloane, the lawyer for the Zappa Family Trust, run by Ahmet and Diva, “whereas Ahmet is a businessperson and was involved in helping Gail make deals.”
One of the ugliest battles in the family feud has involved Dweezil’s live shows. For years Dweezil has been performing under the name Zappa Plays Zappa. Technically, he needs permission from the estate to play concerts that consist heavily of his father’s music and to sell Frank-related merchandise. He couldn’t come to terms with the estate on those matters, and negotiations ended with Dweezil declaring he would simply not carry any Frank merch on tour. (Dweezil also says he’s owed for past merch sales.)
“[Dweezil] is saying the estate is trying to stop him, which is 1 million percent false,” says Ahmet. “My brother’s like, ‘I’m not going to sell his merchandise.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ It directly helps the business and puts money in his pocket.” Sloane characterizes Dweezil’s actions as an attempt to “appropriate for his own use assets which should be shared by the whole family.”
In April, Dweezil received a letter from the trust saying he would be in violation of trademark laws if he used the name Zappa Plays Zappa. “There were cease-and-desist letters for so many bands that were trying to play Frank’s music,” says Dweezil. “And then I get one.” To avoid potential legal action, Dweezil decided to change the name of his tour to 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants – The Cease and Desist Tour. “I want to honor our commitments to promoters, fans, the people I employ,” he says, “so the only way to move forward was to change the name.”
The roots of the squabble lie in the children’s relationship with Gail – the tough matriarch who ran Zappa’s estate – and, on some level, a family dynamic that stretches back to Frank’s rise as a freak-rock pioneer. Frank and Gail met in 1966, when Gail was working in an L.A. club, and married the next year. Starting with the names of the children, life in the Zappa household was as unconventional as Frank’s music. Frank often worked vampire hours, and because he didn’t like to drive, Moon says Gail would wake the children in the middle of the night at their seven-bedroom home in Laurel Canyon to pick up Frank from a rehearsal.
Dweezil was so accustomed to hearing only his father’s complex music that normal pop baffled him. “I heard the radio and thought to myself, ‘Where’s the rest of it?'” he says. “It didn’t have all these intricate arrangements or instrumentation.” “Frank was a very levelheaded, very considerate, affectionate person,” remembers Moon. “But he didn’t know how to cook. He would put a hot dog on a fork and roast it over the gas stove.”
Gail was fiercely loyal to Frank, and also had a strangely protective side. According to Moon, her mother was terrified her daughter would be kidnapped, so Moon would often lie in the back seat of the car, close her eyes and try to figure out where their car was going from the turns it made. “There was a lot of that kind of paranoid living,” she says.
At one point, according to Moon, one of Frank’s groupies – a woman from Australia – moved into the family basement. (On the bright side, says Moon, the groupie’s presence allowed young Moon and Dweezil to sleep in the same bed with their mother.) “There was the entire sexual revolution happening in our living room,” says Moon.
She recalls her mother ordering her to help pay for her father’s cancer treatment. “She said it had cost them $250,000 to raise me, so I had to sell my house,” she says. “Only recently was I thinking, ‘Wait a second – it cost $250,000 to raise me?’ What a weird sentence to say to your own child.”
Before his death, Frank told his wife to “sell everything and get out of this horrible business.” Instead, Gail, the daughter of a nuclear physicist who reportedly worked on the Manhattan Project, became the exacting, often litigious gatekeeper of the Zappa family business. (In 2008, she unsuccessfully sued a Zappa tribute festival in Germany after its organizers used a facial-hair logo that resembled Frank’s trademarked mustache.) “Something changed [when Frank died],” Dweezil says. “Gail just made things difficult. Maybe she felt powerless for a long time and maybe this was like, ‘All right – my turn.'”
Dweezil says he had been “very close” with his mother until Frank’s death; after that, there were tensions over things like merchandise payments and the fact that Gail took back guitars of Frank’s that had been given to Dweezil.
Ahmet admits his mother could be “particular”: “She was stubborn and she did things her own way. That doesn’t make her the person that they’re making her out to be.” He says his siblings’ issues are tied in with their grief over the loss of their mother. “They clearly must be in pain,” he adds. “But I’m not their mother. They have a lot of anger issues they’re projecting onto me. I didn’t raise them! I’m like, ‘Go get some therapy – try that!'”
Dweezil and Ahmet had infinitely better relations in the Nineties, when they toured the world with their band, Z, and even co-hosted a short-lived variety show on the USA Network. Now, the brothers communicate through lawyers and open letters.
Even the value of the Zappa estate is in dispute. Frank released more than 60 albums before his death (more than 40 have appeared since), and last year, the Zappa Family Trust entered into a new agreement with Universal for reissues and unreleased live material. But according to Dweezil, the estate is “beyond broke,” thanks partly to a drawn-out lawsuit that Gail launched against Frank’s record label over digital rights. Ahmet claims the estate will eventually be in good financial shape: “[Dweezil’s claim] is not accurate in the sense that, over time, that will be rectified.” The Zappa family home is currently in escrow, according to Sloane, after having been on the market for $5.5 million.
A second documentary, also sanctioned by Gail, is in the works, directed by Alex Winter. But even this has become another front in the family feud. Moon says that Winter – best known for playing Bill in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – “wouldn’t have been my first choice. He might not have been my hundredth choice.”
(“I went to Gail [for access],” says Winter. “I assumed the family would work out whatever disputes they had. It’s really sad.”)
The Zappa estate “has not decided” on any further legal action against Dweezil, says Sloane, and hopes to reach a “reasonable deal” with the musician, who begins a fall tour in September. “I’d love for people to experience Frank’s music,” says Dweezil. “I’m not a victim, but I did want to stand up for what feels right.”
Perhaps the only matter that unites the family is their mutual sadness at how this private drama has become public. “I thought they were much cooler than that,” Ahmet says of Dweezil and Moon. “We’re not the Kardashians.” Moon hopes that others can learn from her family’s turmoil. “So many people have reached out and said, ‘God, I’m going through a similar thing with my family,'” she says. “That gives me comfort.”