Universe of Frank Zappa
Gadfly May 1999
have two favorite American composers from this century:
Duke Ellington and Frank Zappa. By the end of centennial
celebrations this year, having only genre snobbery
and racism to overcome, Ellington will be on the way
to receiving his due. Frank Zappa is going to be a
much trickier case.
After you've been
listening to Frank Zappa—nothing else, just
Zappa—for days and days, the moment will come
when you get it. Or maybe you lose it. You catch
a fragment of conversation and await the descending
trill of Synclavier sound. Instead of sleeping,
you drive around all night listening to Thing-Fish
and Joe's Garage, and
not just because they're long and you want to get
to the end of the story, but also because the people
you live with refuse to allow any more Zappa in
the house. Friends stare as you proclaim the merits
of "The Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle
Meat" and "G-Spot Tornado." Some
try to be sympathetic and ask you to name a Zappa
song that they might know. "Dancin'
Fool," you say, hopefully. Nothing. "Valley
Girl." Blank stare. "Titties and Beer,"
"Montana," and, knowing that you're losing
them, you blurt out, "Watch out where the huskies
go/ an' don't you eat that yellow snow." Your
friends ask you not to discuss Frank Zappa with
them. Worst of all, you spend your now ever-increasing
spare time digging through technical manuals trying
to find out—just what is Telefunken U-47?
Welcome to Zappa's Universe.
What's New in
Zappa (1940-1993) is one of the handful of rock
icons to become a household name. His old nemesis,
Lou Reed, gave the speech inducting him into the
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and even Vice President
Al Gore is a fan. On Zappa's untimely death from
prostate cancer at fifty-two, the President of Czechoslovakia,
Václav Havel, described him in The New
Yorker as "one of the gods."
Now, six years after his death, there are at least
three Zappa tribute bands performing around the
country, an occasional orchestra attempts his difficult
scores and academic panels are beginning to study
Zappa's postmodern significance. Most gratifying
of all, Zappa's massive catalogue (eighty disks
as of this writing, and still growing) remains entirely
in print and easily available in remastered editions
approved by FZ himself, in the final year of his
life. Still, as a public figure Zappa has much more
in common with poets of the previous generation—such
as Ezra Pound (the traitor), Marianne Moore (the
baseball fan) and Robert Lowell (the conscientious
objector)—than he does with any of the other
celebrities who emerged from the popular culture
of the '60s. Like Pound, Moore and Lowell, Frank
Zappa's renown exists independent of any widespread
familiarity with his work.
The public Zappa
is remembered for the eccentric names he gave his
children (Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva), his
refusal to use drugs and his fearsome advocacy of
the First Amendment. There are also widespread myths,
like the story that Frank Zappa once shit on stage
or that he had a gross-out contest with Alice Cooper.
In truth, all of the available facts suggest that
little in Zappa's behavior resembled the rock and
roll lifestyle that he documented in his work. Interviews
with former bandmates reveal a workaholic and homebody
whose final triumph was a home studio that, when
he was not on one of his many tours, allowed him
to combine his passions for work and family. Zappa's
life was devoted to creating an environment for
his compositions. In The Real Frank Zappa Book,
his autobiography, Zappa recalls that when Dweezil
was born, he responded "musician" to the
request for a religion on the hospital admission
form. Close enough. The minimum of weirdness in
Zappa's life allowed him a full devotion to his
work, which managed to stay fresh and innovative
throughout his career. Or a better way to put it
is that the best way to understand Frank Zappa is
by listening, not by Freuding about. If Frank Zappa
had to come from somewhere, that somewhere, at first
anyway, was Baltimore. Now, back to those eighty
sequentially numbered discs.
Frank Zappa's catalogue—Rykodisc
catalogue number 10501 (Freak Out!)
through 10580 (Mystery Disc)—lined
up in a row presents by design (note the matching
spines) the clear message that Frank Zappa has generated
an official oeuvre. This is no accident, but the
result of Zappa's tenacious will, applied over a
lifetime and accompanied by the stomach to face
whatever litigation it took to retain the rights
to his work and control over his masters. (Sad to
say, this is almost impossible to do in the music
industry.) Zappa's exercise of this control was
frequently controversial, and sometimes even his
hardcore fans found his choices perverse. But the
payoff is that Frank Zappa's collected work (as
it is available on compact disc) is closer than
that of perhaps any other artist in the recording
era (jazz, classical or pop) to sounding exactly
as the writer intended. To gain the freedom to develop
his unique style of composition, Zappa built his
own studio (recording, arranging, producing and
frequently assembling his albums) and ran his own
label. In addition to his musical talents, Zappa
benefited from a prescient sense of trends in both
business and technology. He was so far ahead of
everyone else that we still haven't quite caught
up; for example, in The Real Frank Zappa Book
he recounts a plan (before even compact disks were
on the market) in which users would receive music
digitally through either their telephone or cable
line. Despite his talents and accomplishments, however,
Frank Zappa was no overnight sensation.
autobiography tells about his abortive start as
a drummer and how his first band, the Black-Outs,
outraged the community of Lancaster, California,
by daring to be integrated in 1957. He even played
the spokes of a bicycle on the Steve Allen show.
Eventually, Zappa used money he earned composing
the score to a Western scripted by his high school
English teacher to open his own studio-for-hire,
Studio Z. It gave him the opportunity to create
and record music at whim. But this venture ended
quickly when an undercover police officer commissioned
a pornographic audio tape. As a result, many of
Zappa's Studio Z recordings were erased by the police
while others only surfaced years later (examples
can be heard on The Lost Episodes
and Mystery Disc).
for Zappa, he served ten days in jail that left
him ineligible for the draft. After the Studio Z
debacle, Zappa moved to Los Angeles to become the
guitarist of the local bar band Soul Giants. After
Zappa convinced them to start playing his songs,
they quickly transformed into the Mothers. Verve
signed the group, and, at the label's behest, the
name was changed to the less suggestive Mothers
sound of other California rock bands evolved alongside
the developing counterculture. But when the Mothers
of Invention released their debut, Freak Out!,
in 1966, Zappa's aesthetic and ambition were already
fully formed through years of listening to music,
playing in bands and experimenting in the studio.
Of course, it all began with that boy born back
in Baltimore in 1940.
Zappa's father was an immigrant from Sicily, and
his mother was a first-generation Italian-American.
Zappa's father worked as a chemist, meteorologist
and scientist. During World War II, he was frequently
involved in top-secret government research. As a
child, Frank's health was frail, and he suffered
from asthma. (It probably didn't help that among
the things that his father brought home from work
was a bag of a new invention, DDT, which was stored
in the closet.) From these early years Zappa retained
a fascination with mad scientists and laboratories
and a love of cheap horror films. The family eventually
settled in Northern California when Frank was ten,
hoping that the climate would be better suited to
his health. It was.
Village of the Sun
It was probably in California, though Zappa doesn't
say so, that he first encountered doo-wop music. Throughout
his life, this primarily vocal music remained close
to his heart and central to his sound. "Zappa
was totally enamored by the fifties R & B,"
Don Preston told me. "He grew up with that stuff.
When you're a teenager, these songs have very high
impact, and they did on him." Preston joined
the Mothers of Invention in 1967, a year before Cruising
with Ruben & The Jets, a doo-wop album
that baffled fans and critics on its release. "He
saw a weirdness about it [doo-wop] that he found very
funny. It was a weirdness that he wanted to incorporate,"
Preston says of the songs on Cruising with Ruben
& The Jets.
what Zappa found weird about doo-wop were the love
lyrics. To Zappa, love songs were stupid. Yet this
did not detract at all from his fascination with
doo-wop, and when Zappa plays a doo-wop song you
hear love of the music—not competing with
but enhanced by his ironic take on an insipid lyric.
Listen closely, for example, to Zappa's interjections
during his cover of the Channels' 1956 hit, "The
Closer You Are" (You Can't Do That on Stage
Anymore, Vol. 4):
closer you are
The brighter the stars in the sky
Zappa: "We'll do it straight."
That you're the one in my life.
Zappa: "It's going to be hard, though."
My heart skips a beat
Zappa: "See what I mean?"
in writing and from the stage, Zappa rarely missed
an opportunity to denounce sentimentality, and despite
writing hundreds of songs, boy meets girl and
they fall in love was never his theme.
musical influence Zappa acquired during childhood
was a devotion to the difficult modernist composer
Edgard Varése. The story goes that Zappa
read an article about record-store owner Sam Goody
that bragged about his ability to sell anything.
As evidence, the article claimed that Goody even
managed to sell a copy of Varése's Ionisation,
which the journalist described as some of the worst
music ever made. Zappa, of course, ran out and got
a copy. Varése's exploration of the possibilities
of noise and pure sound in composition stimulated
not only Zappa's imagination but his intellect.
Zappa began listening to other Modern composers,
like Anton von Webern and Igor Stravinsky. In his
autobiography, Zappa notes: "All through high
school, whenever people came over, I would force
them to listen to Varése—because I
thought it was the ultimate test of their intelligence."
For his fifteenth birthday, Zappa's parents allowed
him to make a long-distance call to the composer's
residence. Varése, unfortunately, wasn't
at home. It is tempting to see doo-wop as the music
of Zappa's heart and Varése the music of
his mind, but the key to understanding Zappa's work
is to realize that to him there was no distinction.
"To me it was all good music."
Another Band from L.A.
The only music Zappa had no interest in hearing
was the rock and roll his generation was producing.
This fact is too often obscured by Zappa's long-term
obsession with the culture of rock and roll. Bob
Dylan, the Beatles, the Who, the Doors and a host
of lesser bands like the Doobie Brothers, Vanilla
Fudge and Angel all appear in songs as targets of
Zappa's satire. Zappa, however, paid no serious
attention to their music.
played guitar and sang in Zappa's band for a decade
(about as long as any musician Zappa ever worked
with). I reached him, appropriately, in Florida,
where he was making a guest appearance at a performance
of Zappa's music. I asked Willis which of the musicians
from the '60s Zappa admired: "No. No, Frank
wasn't that kind of guy. When he was coming up,
he listened to people like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson
and old doo-wop stuff. In fact, the only person
that I knew Frank to refer to with honor was Jimi
Hendrix. Hendrix was his only contemporary that
he had a great deal of respect for and maybe for
John Lennon, too." Willis provided vocals on
"We're Turning Again" (from Frank Zappa
Meets the Mothers of Prevention), a song mocking
the '60s (in the face of the psychedelic revival
in the '80s) and taking particular slams at Keith
Moon, Mama Cass, Jim Morrison and, yes, Jimi Hendrix.
("Your haze was so purple it caused your axis
to be bold as love... Jimi come back... you can
feedback the fuzztone from your wawa while you bend
down and set yourself on fire.") Later I spoke
with Adrian Belew, who played with Zappa and then
went on to join Robert Fripp—one of the few
guitarists to spend as much time hanging out at
the top of critics' polls as Zappa—in King
Crimson. I asked Belew what Zappa thought of King
Crimson. "I don't think Frank ever heard King
Crimson," Belew said, adding, "I don't
think Frank had a lot of recreational time for listening,
because he was always in the studio working on something.
I was around him a lot—spending every weekend
at his house—and he never put on other people's
music. He never had time for that." Of course,
Zappa was never too busy to play his favorite music.
"He did play a few records for me at one point
that had made an impression on him. But they were
things like Varése and Stravinsky. They weren't
pop music." (Perhaps Zappa still enjoyed testing
the intelligence of the people around him.)
never seemed to share a common musical vocabulary
with rock musicians. How else to explain the answer
given to an interviewer who asked Zappa whether
he ever traded guitar ideas with Eric Clapton. "No,"
Zappa responded, "he wasn't that kind of musician,
as far as I could tell; he wasn't the jamming type."
Eric Clapton not the jamming type? I wonder if Zappa
winked when he said it. Clapton, of course, has
played with almost everyone, and among his guest
appearances on countless albums (the Beatles, Santana,
the Rolling Stones) there is the Mothers of Invention's
We're Only in It for the Money. As for Zappa,
except for the occasional job as a producer, he
rarely worked with musicians he didn't employ. Even
rock nobility, like actors in Woody Allen films,
had to play by Zappa's terms in order to jam with
the master. This usually meant joining Zappa's band
with the omnipresent tape running. As a result,
Zappa's official catalogue is filled with credited
and uncredited guest appearances by, among others,
Ike Turner, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, John
Lennon and Sting. Other performances still haven't
been released, such as Van Morrison's original vocal
on "Dead Girls of London" or a show in
which Joni Mitchell allegedly joined the Mothers
on stage and improvised the lyric, "Penelope
wants to fuck the sea." Even Bob Dylan came
calling one winter night (wearing no coat, with
his shirt wide open) with demo tapes (for what became
Infidels), looking for Zappa to produce.
Zappa didn't recognize Dylan by sight or voice and
sent a bodyguard to confirm that it wasn't Charles
was taken with Zappa. After the Velvet Underground
played with the Mothers, Lou Reed slammed Zappa
as "the single most untalented person I've
heard in my life. He's a two-bit pretentious academic,
and he can't play rock and roll because he's a loser.
And that's why he dresses up funny. He's not happy
with himself and I think he's right." The author
of "Rock & Roll" underestimated Zappa's
talent; but in a crucial way, Reed was right to
smell a fraud. Most of Zappa's generation—for
a while, anyway—shared a belief that rock's
simple chords could create lasting art. Even as
Dylan reinvented the words that go into a song,
his melodies kept a firm root in the past. Lou Reed
has bragged in interviews that anyone can learn
to play his songs in five minutes. Zappa, on the
other hand, joined up as a pragmatist: only the
'60s rock world offered the broad tolerance and
income he needed to discover how to create music
his way. Few noticed, at first, but over time, as
Zappa's relationship to the rock world became strained,
he wound up in the ironic position of being chastised
for abandoning '60s values—values he never
shared—because he'd led one of the era's most
extreme bands. Looking back, it seems much clearer
that, regardless of the diversity of his output,
Zappa's approach to music and business remained
consistent throughout his career.
the main reason the Mothers sounded so extreme to
early listeners was that the counterculture never
understood where Frank Zappa's music came from.
Freak Out! freely mixed Zappa's affection
for doo-wop with more modernist fare, such as a
track featuring twelve minutes of "freaks"
banging away on rented percussion equipment. "It
simply seemed confounding when the album was released,"
Rolling Stone noted two years ago,
when they listed Freak Out! among
the best two hundred albums ever made. Also clear
from the outset was Zappa's refusal to obey the
rules the music industry set down for pop stars;
without consulting his label, Zappa recorded Freak
Out! as rock's first studio double album.
Zappa also managed to play footsy with his Verve
contract by conducting and composing (but not performing)
his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy,
toured as a rock band, culminating in the summer
of 1967 with their legendary shows at the Garrick
Theater in New York. These concerts became famous
for theatrical devices, enforced audience participation
and generally odd things going on. "Nothing
was set," Don Preston remembers. "When
we got on stage, we hadn't a clue what we were going
to play. In fact, Zappa would jump in the air and
when he landed we were all supposed to start playing
a song. None of us knew which song it was, but we
were all supposed to start playing it."
audiences saw the Mothers as a group, the members
were actually employees of Frank Zappa, and he was
a demanding boss. The Mothers were not allowed to
use drugs while working (this was the '60s for the
rest of the country), and Zappa insisted on hours
of daily rehearsals. Preston, who joined the Mothers
for the recording of their second album, Absolutely
Free, describes working for Zappa as
"very difficult." "The thing about
Zappa," Preston says, "is that he already
knew what he wanted to do, and very few people could
say a thing to him about it." Some of Zappa's
writing was already so difficult that even with
rehearsals the Mothers couldn't play it to his satisfaction.
"On 'Brown Shoes' we went into the studio and
did thirty-five takes of eight bars at a time,"
Preston remembers. Zappa later edited together a
full performance. As Zappa's songs became increasingly
complicated and abstract, the Mothers' albums (Weasels
Ripped My Flesh, Uncle Meat)
came to depend more on artful splicing than on any
real-time performances. By the time the decade rolled
over, rock audiences with attention spans regulated
by FM radio simply stopped listening to the Mothers.
Zappa was no longer the latest or weirdest, and,
worst of all, he didn't write any singles.
attacked. He hired two members of the Turtles (Mark
Volman and Howard Kaylan) into the Mothers and wrote
a brutal exposé of the gap between rock's
aspirations and the groupie, drug-abusing, trend-chasing
reality of the rock and roll lifestyle. Ambiguously
poised between creation and documentary, The
Mothers Fillmore East—June 1971 erased
the line between on stage and backstage. At one
point, the former Turtles act out performing their
hit "Happy Together" (a paean to true
love) for groupies who want proof of a hit record
before agreeing to sex. The new members, according
to Don Preston, brought other changes to the band
as well. "Mark and Howard wanted everything
to be very set. They had to have a set list. They
had to know exactly what was going to happen, and
they didn't want any surprises." An obsessive
taper, Zappa recorded fragments of conversation
and interviews with band members or anyone else
he came across and spliced the voices into his music
as if they were just another sound. As late as
Playground Psychotics, in 1992, Zappa
was still using tapes from this period to "move
beyond mere Rock & Roll into the dangerous realm
of social anthropology."
version of the Mothers were on a tour of Europe
near the end of 1971 when a fire started while they
were on stage at the Montreux casino. No one was
killed, but all their equipment was destroyed. (It
probably wasn't much of a consolation that Deep
Purple's classic "Smoke on the Water"
was inspired by the incident.) A week later, the
Mothers were trying to finish the tour with rented
instruments when a fan attacked Zappa on stage.
Don Preston still remembers the night vividly. "We
played the concert, and at the end of the concert
the lights all go down and the people are applauding.
I was facing the back of the stage and didn't see
anything at all until I heard this big noise from
the audience. I turned around, and Zappa wasn't
there." Zappa had been knocked into the orchestra
pit. The injuries he suffered kept him laid up for
the next year, and, as a result of his larynx being
crushed in the fall, Zappa returned with a changed
voice: his distinctive baritone. In his autobiography,
Zappa dryly notes that his assailant received only
a short jail sentence. Perhaps Zappa was unconscious
when Don Preston saw another punishment being meted
out: "The audience grabbed him [Zappa's attacker]
and brought him back, and Herb [Zappa's manager]
beat the shit out of him behind the curtain."
Frank Zappa never made the same mistake twice, and
for the rest of his life he employed a bodyguard.
As for the Mothers, Preston says, "He never
did call anybody to tell them that there was no
band anymore. He just got a new band. I wasn't surprised
by it. I just accepted it, because that was the
way Zappa was."
had other reasons for wanting to abandon the Mothers.
"Music comes from composers—Not Musicians,"
Zappa insists in his autobiography. This issue became
muddled in the original Mothers, because Zappa's
skills were not yet equal to the music he was conceiving.
Preston claims that when he first joined the Mothers,
"Zappa was a mediocre guitar player. He used
to hire other guitar players to play lead guitar
because he couldn't. He also couldn't read music
at all." Nonetheless, in Zappa's view, he was
directing instrumentalists whose abilities he knew
in order to create an original composition. Sometimes,
however, this seemed to his employees as if Zappa
were claiming to have written their improvised solos.
Don Preston cites his mini-moog solo on The Mothers
Fillmore East—June 1971 as one example
of Zappa's claiming credit unfairly. To many fans
and critics, Zappa's hired hands over the years
were never as compatible with his vision as the
original Mothers. "He never had that kind of
band again," Preston says, "where everybody
was really in tune with everybody." But Zappa
didn't need peers anymore. Instead, Zappa's increasingly
difficult songwriting required musicians skilled
enough to execute the music to his exact specifications,
and for the humility and dedication this required,
Zappa began to use younger musicians.
Don Preston, who before joining Zappa played in
a band with Elvin Jones and once gave musical advice
to John Coltrane, the musicians Zappa employed in
the 1970s never saw their boss as an equal. As a
result, they were much more sympathetic to Zappa's
compositional method. In Electric Don Quixote
(Omnibus Press, 1997), Neil Slaven
calls attention to comments Ruth Underwood, the
vibe player and percussionist on many of Zappa's
'70s recordings, made to Musician:
"I was ready to dedicate myself completely
to Frank's music. He really knew what buttons to
push emotionally and musically. He was a remarkable
referee. He knew how to synthesize people's personalities
and talents. That's a very rare gift. He wasn't
just a conductor standing there waving his arms;
he was playing us as people! I became a perfectionist,
I suppose I had to be." Whatever name appeared
on the record—Zappa wouldn't officially retire
the Mothers' name until 1976—henceforth there
was no confusion about who deserved the credit.
When Don Preston joined up again for a tour in 1974,
he noticed the change. "Zappa was very aloof.
He even stayed in different hotels; he didn't want
to be with the band."
others may have thought, Zappa showed no regret
about disbanding the Mothers of Invention. Of course,
Zappa knew that stored away were countless hours
of unrealized band tapes. On You Can't Do That
on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, he produced
and issued some of these performances, and his liner
notes reflect his mixed feelings about it: "...
selections of historical interest performed by the
original Mothers of Invention... have been included
for the amusement of those fetishists who still
believe the only 'good' material was performed by
that particular group. Hopefully, comparisons to
recordings by the later ensembles will put an end
to that particular misconception."
With Hot Rats (Zappa's second solo
album, released in 1970) his development into a
virtuoso guitar player was complete. Throughout
the '70s, Zappa fell into a cycle of releasing records
and touring. The albums—among them Over-nite
Roxy & Elsewhere, One Size
Fits All and Zoot Allures—made
his reputation as a guitar hero, and in the '70s
(even without much radio support) that guaranteed
him the ability to fill hockey rinks around the
country. To the new fans, Zappa was another guitar
giant like Ritchie Blackmore or Ted Nugent. His
band worked the circuit of twenty-thousand-seat
venues filled each night with kids just waiting
for the long guitar solo so they could furiously
flick their Bics.
was Zappa back in sync with the tastes of rock audiences,
jazz aficionados too were beginning to notice his
work. It probably helped that musicians from the
jazz world such as Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke
played in Zappa's band. Still, jazz critics have
been slow to recognize Zappa. Ted Gioia's The
History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1997)
is an exception; it cites Zappa's '70s albums as
some of the best fusion recorded. Among the albums
listed, however, Gioia mistakenly includes Jazz
from Hell, the collection of mostly Synclavier
compositions from 1986 that won Zappa his sole Grammy.
This nitpicking is meant to underline the fact that
even the few jazz critics who are sympathetic to
Zappa's music have not really paid it enough serious
attention. It will be some time before the impact
and influence of Frank Zappa on the jazz world is
fairly assessed. When that happens, in addition
to his fusion, Zappa should receive credit for the
studio editing techniques he developed and for his
work on the Synclavier. On Zappa's end, despite
obvious affinities, he viewed jazz as "the
music of unemployment," and he never showed
an inclination to moonlight in the jazz community
the way he did the classical music culture. Zappa
didn't think or write like a jazz musician. As for
his guitar playing, it ultimately owed little to
jazz or to rock.
sharpest critics—and he has many—usually
make an exception for his extraordinary guitar work.
As for his fans, "Probably the best music available
on CD," is how Bruce Watson in The Frank
Zappa Companion rates Guitar,
a double CD that brings together 132 minutes of
Zappa solos. Nonetheless, that Zappa should emerge
from the Mothers of Invention a guitar superstar
was hardly a forgone conclusion. Remember that Don
Preston noted how little skill Zappa had on the
instrument in the early days of the Mothers of Invention;
it was only a few years before recording Freak
Out! that he even got his first guitar.
Zappa never learned to sing and play at the same
time and had little patience for playing rhythm.
"I still have to look down at the neck to see
where my hand is when I'm playing," he confesses
in The Real Frank Zappa Book. His guitar
playing had one purpose: solos that allowed the
guitar to be a tool for creating compositions. It
was only through dedication, a singular work ethic
and awesome will power that Zappa was able to develop
the skill and dexterity to perform his compositions
let other guitar players show off their technique
by playing at lightning speeds. His solos were models
of careful development combined with incredible
melodic inventiveness. Zappa knew that there was
no audience for difficult experimental music and
only a slim audience for instrumental music. About
the only time audiences wanted music without vocals
was during concert guitar solos. So, while his records
from the '70s contain mostly rock songs, Zappa made
sure that they were flexible enough to sustain a
variety of rhythms. As he toured—the tape
running—Zappa perfected solos on songs like
"Stinkfoot" and "Inca Roads"
that could exist independent of the original. It
allowed him to thrill the stadium fans and record
instrumental compositions without renting expensive
studio time. Making the guitar the primary outlet
for his compositions was pragmatic: It allowed him
to compose music and pay the bills. In the early
1980s, when he began working with the Synclavier,
he had no problem setting the guitar aside for almost
may have found a way to make peace with rock fans,
but the music industry proved to be another matter.
In 1977, Zappa delivered a four-album set, Läther,
to Warner Brothers. It was a grand display of Zappa's
approaches to music; it contained live tracks, studio
recordings, experimental edits and instrumentals.
After the label refused to release it, Zappa went
on a radio show and encouraged listeners to get
a tape. He then played Läther
over the air. The experience left him determined
to work outside of label control in the future.
On the version of "Titties 'N' Beer" (a
song meant to premiere on Läther)
from Baby Snakes, Zappa announces
that Hell holds no fear, because "I was signed
to Warner Brothers for eight fucking years."
It wasn't until three years after Zappa's death
that Läther was officially released
with a bonus track that preserves Zappa's taunting
of label executives for posterity: "Warner
Brothers does not have the rights to this material
even though it was delivered to them." The
short-term result of the Läther
imbroglio was that instead of a single set, Warner
Brothers chose to release four albums ending, with
Orchestral Favorites in 1979. The
scattershot approach resulted in records that made
little sense and didn't reach the perfectionist
standards Zappa fans expected.
this time, though less visible to the public, Zappa's
interest in classical music was not dormant. By
the time Adrian Belew started playing for Zappa
at the end of the '70s, there was no question about
Zappa's ability to read music. "I could assure
you he knew how to read music because I used to
sit and watch him write it in airports or other
places where he had some time to kill. He would
pull out one of his manuscripts from a briefcase
and sit there putting dots of pen on paper."
While he waited for lawsuits with Warner Brothers
to play out, Zappa took the opportunity to indulge
his dream of hearing an orchestra play from these
time, Zappa looked for an orchestra as dedicated
to his music as the musicians in his band. Instead,
the classical world treated Zappa with pure cynicism:
a ticket to the big-money rock and roll gravy train.
They had no sympathy with his approach to music
and open hostility at being expected to practice
it. In The Real Frank Zappa, a humorous
spin is placed on the experience, but there is no
covering up the hurt and pain Zappa felt. "It's
probably difficult right now for the contemporary
orchestra to grab Frank's music," Adrian Belew
reasons. Belew holds out hope for the future, "I
think as orchestras advance and need more challenges—as
players sometimes do—they will catch on that
Frank's music is really there." Nonetheless,
when his orchestral sojourn was over, Zappa had
lost a great deal of money and had no satisfactory
recordings to show.
of punk at the end of the '70s left Frank Zappa
on the wrong side of rock history. Critics now craved
the simplicity of the Ramones and the aggressiveness
of the Clash. Zappa's desire to be seen as a composer
and his penchant for long instrumentals and concept
albums left him looking, to the punks, like all
the other bloated rock dinosaurs. "If Hot
Rats is any indication of where Zappa
is headed on his own, we are in for some fiendish
rides indeed," Lester Bangs wrote in a Rolling
Stone review back in 1970. Now, however,
Bangs saw Zappa as "a despicable wretch morons
actually call a 'composer' instead of a 'rip-off
artist.'" Zappa—no slouch in the insult
department—famously dismissed rock critics
as "people who can't write, doing interviews
with people who can't think, in order to prepare
articles for people who can't read." He also
wrote some searing denunciations of punk ("Mudd
Club" and "Tinseltown Rebellion").
None of this changed the fact that in the last dozen
years of his life Zappa's influence gradually vanished
from the rock world. When I recently asked Larry
Lalonde from Primus to name bands influenced by
Zappa, he laughed. "It's pretty rare that I
even meet any other musicians that
are into Zappa." At an earlier point, this
could have been a threat to his career. By now,
however, Zappa had earned a cult audience large
enough to support him, no matter what direction
his muse led. The result would be the most exciting,
experimental and brilliant music of his career.
Girls and Dancin' Fools
Because of the dexterity and precision required
to play it, Zappa's music became a litmus test for
a generation of suburban kids who spent the '70s
taking guitar lessons and reading magazines dedicated
to the latest gear and transcriptions. They, of
course, hung on every detail when Frank revealed
in a Guitar Player interview from
1977—reprinted in The Frank Zappa Companion
(Schirmer Books, 1997)—the minutiae of his
string preferences: "To give you an idea, I
use either an .008 or .009 on top [E], an .011 or.
012 on the B, a .016 or .017 on the G, a .024 on
the D, anywhere from a .032 to a .038 on the A and
anywhere from a .046 to a .52 on the low E. So,
it's medium on the bottom strings, and they're mainly
all Ernie Balls." As these players became adults,
the best of them wanted nothing more than to play
in Frank Zappa's band. One of these young players
was guitar wizard Steve Vai, who first impressed
with his ability to transcribe Zappa's solos. Zappa
proved a fantastic judge of talent, and over the
years alumni from Zappa's band went on to form Little
Feet, Missing Persons, Jazz Passengers and many
other groups. These are the musicians most grateful
to Zappa and eager to talk about his work.
with the difficult practices and Zappa's overwhelming
demands, every musician who played for Zappa has
a vivid story of their audition. Adrian Belew shared
his with me:
was a starving musician and I suddenly got a call
from Frank Zappa. He was very nice to me, and he
said, "Well, here is a list of songs."
He learned at that point that I didn't read music.
All the other musicians he was intending to hire
read music, but he still gave me a chance. He gave
me a list of songs. I worked feverishly twelve hours
a day to try and figure out these songs. Frank's
advice to me was simply figure out how to sing and
play these songs anyway you can. He then flew me
to his house in Hollywood Hills. It was very scary
for me, because first of all there was a lot of
confusion, a lot of things happening, people were
rolling equipment, and here is me standing in the
middle of a room with Frank Zappa sitting behind
a console smoking a cigarette. Frank would say,
"Okay, play this," and then I would try
to play it, and he would say, "Okay, try this
one." I didn't think it went very well. I stayed
there at his house for the rest of the day. I watched
him audition a lot of great players, including some
of the players that I ended up playing with, Tommy
Mars and Ed Mann. It was tremendously hard material
that everyone was being asked to play. The rest
of the people came in and sight read. It was interesting
to see these great musicians being put through their
paces by Frank. At the end of the day, after everyone
had left and I was still there, I said to Frank,
"Hey, you know, I don't feel like I did very
well, and that's because I really thought that you
and I could just sit down somewhere quietly and
I could show you that I can play and sing these
songs." He said, "Fine, let's do that,
then." So we went upstairs into his living
room. We sat on the couch together. I had a little
tiny practice amp face down on the couch so it wouldn't
be very loud and I did the second audition, at the
end of which he shook my hand and said, "You've
got the job."
remained a difficult employer, but the musicians
he hired now expected it. "As a boss, I thought
he was demanding, but I liked it that way,"
Belew recalls. "He really wanted you to play
his music consistently and correctly without embellishment,
without change. He didn't allow you a lot of latitude
for creating your own spot in it, but he gave everyone
something to do of their own during the course of
received the call in his college dorm to come audition
for Zappa. A careful observer, Willis explained
to me how each musician's role in Zappa's band changed
over the years:
first two years in the band, I wasn't allowed to
do any solos or any ad libbing, simply because I
was a new member of the band. It was best for me
to actually learn Frank's techniques and how his
methods worked before trying to branch off and reinterpret
any of his arrangements or anything like that. I
thought it was a grand idea. After my first few
tours, after the first couple of years with the
band, then I was given more freedom to open up,
and that's why you can hear us laughing back and
forth, because it was more comfortable.
Willis of an interview with Zappa in which he said
Ike was the only musician allowed to offer advice,
because he knew better than to give any. The answer
Willis gave surprised me.
that's true. That's very true. He wasn't the kind
of guy that you would suggest things to, but at
the same time, he was pretty conducive to logical
extensions of what he was doing, if you know what
I am talking about. It basically was keeping within
the framework of whatever it was that we would be
working on musically. Basically, I would anticipate
him without actually taking it upon myself to say,
"Hey, well, check this out." That's basically
how it was; that is one reason we got along so well.
approach allowed musicians to contribute a "happy
accident" without violating Zappa's sense of
control. It is how Adrian Belew's famous Dylan imitation
wound up on "Flakes":
went home with Frank, and he was showing me an upcoming
song called "Flakes." Now, a little known
fact about Frank is that he really couldn't play
and sing at the same time. One of the reasons he
hired me, he told me, was because he liked the fact
that I sang and played together so well. On a lot
of the music, I would double what Frank was doing.
I'd double his vocals for him exactly, or I'd be
doubling his guitar parts so he could be free to
do either one. When he played "Flakes"
for me, he also had to sing it. It was kind of unusual.
It sounded so bad it sounded like him doing a Bob
Dylan impression to me. It sounded like a folk song,
which it was anything but. So jokingly I started
singing along with it in a Bob Dylan imitation,
and he said, "That's it, that's in the show,
you're gonna be doing that."
addition of singers like Belew and Willis, Zappa
returned to vocal music with a vengeance. He released
a double album of songs, Sheik Yerbouti,
in 1979. The next year, he released the rock opera
Joe's Garage (act one as a single
album, and then acts two and three combined as a
double). And the pace only quickened after Zappa
opened a home studio in 1981. That year, in addition
to releasing three albums of guitar solos, there
were two double albums of songs: Tinseltown Rebellion
and You Are What You Is. By the early '80s,
Zappa's lyrics began to draw even more fire from
critics than his music.
the least, Zappa never made great claims for himself
as a lyricist. "Some... are truly stupid,
some are probably less stupid, and a few of them
are sort of funny," is how Zappa describes
them in his autobiography. Even before Sheik
Yerbouti, Zappa's catalogue was one of
the most sexually explicit in rock history, and
few fans were surprised by Sheik Yerbouti
songs like "Bobby Brown Goes Down," about
a rapist football player who is transformed into
a gay masochist. But the song "Jewish Princess"
(a minor track by comparison) sparked a firestorm
of protest from Jewish groups who labeled it anti-Semitic.
Zappa—arguing that he was an equal opportunity
offender—responded by releasing "Catholic
Girls" on Joe's Garage.
that got Zappa radio play on Sheik Yerbouti,
however, was the anti-disco novelty track "Dancin'
Fool." It was a trick he'd first learned in
the '70s when a DJ clipped one of his songs, "Don't
Eat the Yellow Snow," to create the novelty
hit "Yellow Snow." Always pragmatic about
business, Zappa had the DJ's edit released as a
single, and it made Apostrophe his
best-selling album of the '70s. By recording novelty
songs, Zappa was able to get back on the radio—through
the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento show—and
reach a new generation. His biggest hit ever was
another novelty track, "Valley Girl,"
recorded with his daughter Moon in 1982.
too began to enter Zappa's work; he found himself
disgusted by almost every aspect of Ronald Reagan's
America. By You Are What You Is, the songs
became screeds against drugs, televangelists, unions
and anything else on his mind. The straightforward
aggression of Zappa's songs boiled to life when
a group of Congressional wives, led by Tipper Gore,
founded the Parents' Music Resource Authority to
push for warning labels on albums. Zappa testified
before Congress against labeling (the hilarious
transcript is included in The Real Frank Zappa
Book). When the punk label Alternative
Tentacles was attacked by the government for the
artwork included with a Dead Kennedys album, Zappa
put his money alongside his mouth. Despite his antipathy
for punk, Zappa made a sizeable donation to the
No More Censorship Defense Fund and called up label
owner and Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra. Biafra
recalls being advised to remember that he was the
victim and to keep his dignity. In all, they had
about seven or eight conversations, and Biafra was
invited over to Zappa's house. To this day the Frank
Zappa catalogue—containing some of the most
extreme lyrics to be found in a mainstream store—remains
defiantly unstickered. Before illness made it impossible,
Frank Zappa was seriously considering a run for
satire from this period is never subtle; he wants
to make a point. Blues, new wave, heavy metal, gospel,
country and punk, to name just a few, all get the
Zappa treatment on records from this period. But
Zappa's interest is never musical, it's lyric: He
mimics forms to ridicule things associated with
them. Thus the blues, meant for the sufferings of
love, is used in "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?,"
a song about a different kind of pain. Zappa wrote
a handful of country songs attacking rednecks ("I
Have Been in You," "Harder Than Your Husband").
He developed a musical vocabulary of pastiche, the
more clichéd the connection the better, to
underline his lyrics. So, for example, on "Jesus
Thinks You're a Jerk" (Broadway the Hard
Way), a song slamming televangelists,
he mixes gospel with circus music. All it required
(apart from Zappa's imagination) was a band well
rehearsed enough to accomplish it and enough studio
time to create it.
Utility Muffin Research Kitchen
Zappa had begun using his home studio, the Utility
Muffin Research Kitchen, on You Are What You
Is. Critics, irritated at the "heavy-handed"
(to quote Ben Watson) lyrics, missed the pleasure
of hearing Zappa running amok in his new studio
and creating a mix filled with layers on layers
of sound. The critics had a legitimate point; it
was a performance worthy of Brian Wilson, but given
in the service of tasteless jokes about fat women.
People weren't buying it, and the title he gave
his concurrent guitar album, Shut Up 'N Play
Yer Guitar, showed Zappa heard their
message. Zappa's wife, Gail, had already built a
cottage industry out of selling mail-order Zappa
T-shirts when they added the label Barking Pumpkin
to their business. Even though it was available
by mail order only, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar,
Barking Pumpkin's first release, was far more successful
than You Are What You Is, which was
handled by the mammoth company CBS. Zappa's fate
was finally out of the control of the music industry.
became less frequent; there was one in 1984 and
a final tour in 1988. Between the two of them he
barely touched his guitar because of his discovery
of the Synclavier (a complex computer/synthesizer).
The Synclavier allowed Zappa, for the first time,
to compose music as complicated as he could imagine
and have it played back without any mistakes. It
is the instrument on which he chose to compose his
final masterpiece, Civilization Phase III,
which sounds like no other music I've ever heard.
If Zappa had not died from cancer, who knows what
sorts of sounds the computers of today would allow
him to create.
studio time was also used to create some more dubious
projects. Francesco Zappa was nothing
more than Synclavier recordings of the compositions
of an eighteenth-century namesake. Then there was
Thing-Fish, a scripted parody of a
Broadway play—narrated in faux Amos &
Andy speak—that Zappa recorded over backing
tracks of mostly older music. Dale Bozzio (whose
vocal work for Zappa, starting on Joe's Garage,
led to a successful career in Missing Persons) and
her then-husband Terry (a longtime Zappa drummer)
wound up playing the characters of Rhonda and Harry.
She recalled working on the project for me, and
her answer gives insight into the degree of trust
and dedication Zappa received from his musicians:
and I were called by Frank, probably about four
o'clock in the morning. There was no time schedule
for Frank. He said, "Gee, I got this project
for you and Terry. It's perfect. Perfect."
It was Harry and Rhonda. So of course we said we
would be right over. We went into the studio and
he hands us the script. And he says, "Okay,
can you fuck a briefcase in that room over there
on that microphone?" Not literally, of course!
Now you have to understand that it had to be excellent
and perfect because we were doing it for Frank.
This is Frank. We performed for Frank. It wasn't
the world. It was Frank. That was life. And if you
could pass Frank's school of musicians it did something
in life. I took that script and I read it to the
character, to the best of my ability. We all took
it that way. We all did everything we did for Frank.
final years, Zappa also supervised a reissue program
with projects so numerous that they still continue
to come out. Once again, however, Zappa's method
was shockingly original. Not liking the bass or
drums on a couple of the old Mothers of Invention
albums, for example, Zappa simply redid them. In
addition to these official albums, Zappa also opened
his massive tape archive for the creation of the
dozen discs of You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore.
Along the way, Zappa found technology that allowed
him to mix performances by different bands seamlessly.
How excited Zappa must have been when he discovered
that even without touring he could still play bands
that had dispersed years earlier. On You Can't
Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 6, one track
splices together performances seventeen years apart
to unite his 1988 band with the original Mothers
of Invention. It is the essential statement about
how Frank Zappa music was made.
Zappa died on December 4, 1993, he was surrounded
by the only two things that mattered to him: his
family and his music. Dale Bozzio described her
final meeting with Zappa: "About two weeks
before he died, I said to Frank, 'You know, I don't
know what to say, but do you have any regrets?'
'No,' he said. 'I don't have any regrets.' Then
I knew that he was alright."
Beat the Reaper
To those who know his music, his fans and the musicians
who worked for him, there is little doubt about Zappa's
legacy. Adrian Belew says, "I was at the symphony
on Friday night with my wife, and after we listened
to some pieces by Brahms, I said fifty years from
now this orchestra will be playing Frank Zappa music.
I think he will be remembered as one of the great
composers of the twentieth century, maybe the best."
Still, it is hard to imagine the mainstream really
celebrating Frank Zappa. As Larry LaLonde of Primus
aptly put it, "He is always going to be one of
the most amazing composers of the twentieth century,
and I am sure most people will never understand."
That would probably be just fine with Frank Zappa.