Frank Zappa remembered

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Twenty years ago, on Dec. 4th, Frank Zappa finally succumbed to prostate cancer, dying in his home, surrounded by family. He was born in Baltimore on Dec. 21, 1940.

Another celebrity passing; sad news for his family, friends and fans, but not of much interest beyond that. His fans, even today, number in the millions. Many of those people came of age listening to FZ.

Frank_ZappaIn 1969, when I was 13, a friend introduced me to the Mothers of Invention album, We’re Only In It For The Money. That wasn’t like any rock music I had heard before — it wasn’t like any music I had heard.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned Zappa was influenced by artists as varied as Howlin’ Wolf, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. And totally off my musical charts: Edgard Varese, Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky.

Zappa’s father was a chemist and worked in the defense industry, so they moved quite a bit. One of the places they lived was here in San Diego, which, when I moved here 20 years ago, gave the city that much more charm.

Over the years, since the release of the first Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out, FZ influenced countless musicians, composers and other artists, from Alice Cooper to Phish.

In 1990, after the Iron Curtain crumbled, Zappa traveled to Czechoslovakia at the request of the new president, Václav Havel. The first democratically elected president of the country, Havel was a big fan of Zappa and wanted to meet the composer. They seemed to like each other a lot, so Havel asked Zappa to be a consultant for Czechoslovakia on trade, cultural matters and tourism.

Zappa accepted and began meeting with business people. The U.S. government wasn’t too keen on the idea and pressured Havel to replace Zappa with someone more to their liking. So Havel made Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché instead.

Such is the influence of Frank Zappa.

In the 1980s he testified in Congress against censorship, specifically the idea of putting warning stickers on music if the lyrics were deemed too naughty for young children.

That was Frank Zappa’s forte. From his earliest recordings with the Mothers and his solo projects, there were songs with sexually explicit content, or more distressingly, lyrics of a scatological nature. We had to protect our youth from that sort of thing.

  • Humorously enough, one of FZ’s all instrumental albums, Jazz From Hell, was saddled with that sticker.

Zappa of course objected, speaking for all musicians, whether he liked their music or not because he knew that when one person’s words and expression were censored, then no one’s art was safe from censorship.

Right around 1970 I started buying Zappa/Mothers albums. Once home I would put them on the family stereo and listen, with my dad just a few feet away, sitting in a chair reading a book. Mom was usually in the kitchen doing something; both could easily hear the music. Not once did they object.

But, not wanting to stretch luck too far I bought a set of headphones and started listening to Zappa privately.

Zappa even appeared on CNN’s Crossfire in 1986 to debate the issue of music censorship, pitted against John Lofton of the Washington Times. It’s one of the more popular videos on Youtube.

Recently I was digitally chatting with my grade school buddy Wozzy about Zappa and mentioned I had about 50 Zappa recordings on my iPod. Wozzy shot back, “I have about 70.”

Braggart. But even Wozzy doesn’t have them all The man was a prolific genius, so say those who are far more qualified than I to make that claim: rock critics Barry Miles and David Walley, Composers Pierre Boulez and Nicolas Slonimsky and conductor Kent Nagano.

And of course all of his fans.

For many people Frank Zappa was also one of the best, most inventive guitar players on the planet. Anyone familiar with his music can immediately identify a Frank Zappa recording, especially the guitar solos.

Frank_Zappa,_You_Can't_Do_That_On_Stage_Anymore_2He started as a percussionist in school and percussion has always been a strong presence in his music. In the dozen or more times I’ve seen him live I can’t recall ever seeing him without both a drummer and a percussionist.

In high school Zappa took up the guitar and the rest, as they say, is history. Probably his most famous guitar solo comes from the song, “Inca Roads,” which is about the land carvings found in Peru. The free-form nature of it, with all of its invention, makes it standout among an oeuvre of guitar solos spanning a quarter century.

It’s such a great solo it forms the theme of Zappa’s three guitar solo collection, Shut Up n’ Play Your Guitar, Shut Up n’ Play Your Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up n’ Play Your Guitar.

“Inca Roads” can be found on the albums One Size Fits All and You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 (possibly others as well). The latter is a live recording from Helsinki, Finland, in 1974 and Zappa considers the performances in those Helsinki concerts to be the best of his career.

A better guitar solo on that recording comes in the song “Pygmy Twylyte.” If you’re only going to buy one Frank Zappa recording, this would easily be a top contender, but really, with nearly 100 recordings, there are many great albums, including all that are mentioned already.

Joe's_GarageThere is Sheik Yer Bouti, Waka Jawaka/Hot Rats, Hot Rats, Over-Nite Sensation, Just Another Band From L.A., Zappa In New York — outstanding live album — Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan and Orchestral Favorites, although RykoDisc saw fit to add lyrics to some of the instrumentals on Sleep Dirt after Zappa passed.

Tinsel Town Rebellion, Joe’s Garage (Acts I-II-III), and the ever-popular Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. Never heard of that one? It’s the album that features the vocals of his daughter, Moon Unit — “Valley Girl.”

You’ve no doubt heard that song. It was a big hit in the early 1980’s. In it Moon Unit lampoons the “valley-speak” that was popular in the San Fernando Valley at the time.

Zappa even influenced a film. After the song “Valley Girl” was released Atlantic Releasing released the film Valley Girl in April 1983, featuring Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage in the lead roles. It’s actually a critically acclaimed movie with an 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unfortunately I never did get to meet FZ, although I once met his son Dweezil at a NAMM show one year. That’s the National Association of Music Merchants trade show, held twice a year. But, with over 50 of his recordings, I know a lot about him and his music. Having read The Real Frank Zappa Book, co-written by FZ and Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson, there was a lot more to learn.

The first FZ album, “Freak Out” by the Mothers of Invention.
The first FZ album, “Freak Out” by the Mothers of Invention.

You don’t need to read either book to realize Frank Zappa’s music is connected, forming life-long composition. Lyrical and musical themes pop up in albums that were released years apart; lyrically Zappa touched on all the same issues, whether he was deriding Republicans, Democrats, unions, organized religion, hippies or our hang-ups about sex and sexuality.

Once, probably out of sheer madness, I tried to listen to every Zappa recording, chronologically, with breaks only to sleep, eat and relieve myself. I never made it past Chunga’s Revenge.

That is the type of devotion and influence Zappa has on his fans. Even today his son Dweezil draws crowds whenever he tours with the Zappa Plays Zappa band.

In 2006 My Sister Elaine, brother Tony and I were lucky enough to see the final show of the first ZPZ tour at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. And again my friend John and I saw ZPZ here in San Diego in 2011 at Humphries By The Bay.

As good as all the musicians were, and they were all “Zappa Quality,” without Frank himself it wasn’t the same. The man had charisma. It’s worth the ticket price, if Dweezil does another tour and you would like to hear Frank’s music performed live. He often employs musicians that played with FZ back in the day.

Go ahead, watch the videos and buy some of his music even. You just might like it.

Frank Zappa is the single most important influence in my life. Below is an interview with one of his best backing musicians, percussionist Ruth Underwood and below that, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hallf of Fame.

All photos courtesy of Wiki Commons