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.”
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.