So You Think Frank Zappa Is A Weirdo
By Larry Samson
Frank Zappa is not an island.
He is a solitary tower, twisting above a naked desert that stretches beyond the horizon. He's iconoclastic, irreverent, demented, uncategorizable, controversial, and just plain weird. And he's nobody's handmaiden.
Like the mad genius he is, Zappa is a loner who squirms like a kid in a new suit if anyone tries to shove him neatly within some constricting category or cause.
Because of that – and his delight in sarcastically savaging anything he can wrap his twisted mind around – he's routinely misunderstood and regularly discounted before his work is fairly assessed. That's too bad because his music is always unique if nothing else and often innovative and rhythmically pioneering.
But then the public's misconception of this lonely loon has gone on ever since he first appeared at mid-'60s freakouts in
With his political satire, mixed-media presentations, weird looks, and weirder music, Zappa was quickly adopted by the
The misconceptions continue to Zappa's music, which has been described as everything from jazz-rock fusion to avant-garde porn.
He's played and written everything from '50s rock and boogie to authentic blues and baroque works. He's an accomplished master at abusing traditional tonalities and molesting time signatures and rhythmic patterns.
His first musical love was classical music, and he's been hooked on contemporary composer Edgard Varèse since high school.
But he also has produced such divergent groups as the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously), Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, and Captain Beefheart.
He's played with Jean-Luc Ponty, Zubin Mehta and the
So what does the creator call his music?
"Optional entertainment ... for the discriminating individual," he said over the phone from his home in
The man just doesn't like labels.
"People have a tendency to get lost" when it comes to his music, Zappa said. "That's because they like to have everything in a little box.
"Anything that disturbs that equilibrium is dangerous. So therefore," he said, his music becomes "optional."
To some, Zappa is schizophrenic, producing mad satire songs like Don't Eat the Yellow Snow and then releasing records of classical, theoretically intricate works. You sometimes get the idea the one side is produced for fun and profit and the other for satisfaction, but again, Mr. Public, you're dead wrong.
"I never started doing this to have fans in the first place. This is the only work I know how to do," Zappa said. "If somebody likes it, fine. If they don't, fine.
"I do everything for fun. I have fun doing it all," he said.
"At least a person knows when they buy one of my records that what I put in it is something I believe in and not some crap that an accountant told me to do."
Don't call me jazz, Zappa insists.
Taking on the rock press, he maintained "if it's anything they can't understand, its jazz. And that's how we got the jazz label. But it was never conceived as jazz and not executed as jazz."
And don't look for any jazz fans at his concerts either.
"I don't think we're received at all by the jazz community. They're more interested in dressing up in the punk scene. They have their own narrow-minded set."
A classically self-trained musician who "started off writing chamber music at 14," Zappa said he "wasn't a rock and roll fan until I was 22."
But while he's done his musical homework, he doesn't care for music schools and school-trained musicians.
"I had the best training in the world. I listened to music and went to the library," he said. "I did not go to the conservatory so I did not wind up a dumbbell"
Zappa said the only reason he attended
"If you go to any trade school," Zappa said, "you learn how to work a drill press. If you go to a conservatory, you should be able to read whatever (music) is printed. Well, that's not true.
The thing that people get taught in a conservatory is how to get a job in an orchestra. Most of what they do there is old music. So when you get your job in the orchestra what you're doing is literally replaying the tunes you learned in the conservatory.
You play all the Mozart and Beethoven you learned," he said. "A dead person's wares.
"Consequently, many musicians never learn anything about rhythm," Zappa said. "So it is difficult for them to play my charts ... and count."
To be sure, some orchestras play a modern 12-tone-scale repertoire, he said, "but that doesn't mean they play it right. I'm talking about a very pervasive thing – orchestras just can't count."
When classically trained musicians first see some of his musical charts, Zappa said, their reaction is "a lot of small puddles on the floor under their chairs."
Having spent the last two years "working in the world of serious music," he said he's worked "with some of the most impressive people in my life." But he's also learned "that's really not a very nice world" because it's "filled with hopelessness."
It's a world, Zappa said, with "a bunch of accountants on committees going along for the ride," grabbing the glory and sleeping through the concerts. He said that is "pretty much the way it is in rock and roll, except in rock and roll you know it from the beginning."
Having lived mostly in laid-back
But then, what dad names his kids Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodan, and Diva?
Zappa said he doesn't have any "recreational listening time," but denied that he works too hard. "I just don't like sleeping, that's all."
Zappa's workload is reflected by the five albums he's about to release.
First, there's a rock double album titled Them or Us.
The record contains a blues song and "a couple humorous numbers," he said, such as Be in My Video, which is "a catalog of every cliché that's in every video you will ever see. In fact, it's so cliché-ish you don't have to make a video of it because you've already seen everything."
Then there's a backward-masked song that "sounds like German. If someone plays this record backwards what they're going to hear is Moon Unit doing a valley-girl exercise routine," Zappa said.
The album also contains a song co-written with his youngest son, Ahmet, titled Frogs with Dirty Little Lips. Zappa said the there are "a number of long guitar solos that I play" too.
The second upcoming release is a three-record box under the title Thing-Fish. It is an original Broadway show he wrote, but never got produced.
"It's about a guy with a head like a potato and the face of a duck," Zappa said. Is this Elephant Man Revisited?
"Well, actually it's worse than that. The way he (the protagonist) gets turned into that is because the evil prince has invented a disease hoping to get rid of all unwanted, highly rhythmic individuals heretofore," Zappa explained.
The prince is planning to spread the disease through a men's cologne, but decides to try it out on a few people first. The resulting specimens are "so ugly they can't get normal work so they wind up on Broadway."
The album, he admitted, is "weird (stuff)."
The third album is a single record containing the works of Francesco Zappa. The obscure composer allegedly was a contemporary of Mozart – his exact dates are unknown – whom the unrelated Zappa of today found by accident.
The works, Zappa said, were originally written for a string trio, but he has rescored them on a computer called a Synclavier II. The timbres have been changed "so it sounds like marimba, vibes, lutes, and all kinds of different instruments."
Fourthly, there's a release on the classically-oriented, prestigious Angel label titled The Perfect Stranger. That album contains works by
Zappa called it chamber music like no chamber music you've ever heard.
Last, Zappa will release the first of five seven-record boxes of original Mothers material, to be titled The Old Masters. He said he recently obtained the rights to all his old songs and recordings and will be re-releasing them with some previously unreleased material, digitally remixing the whole business.
Zappa said he was "not exactly enthusiastic about that old material, but there are a lot of people who are."
On the upcoming Them or Us album, all of Zappa's children except his youngest daughter, Diva, participate. but the composer quickly noted, "the sound of the album has nothing to do with anything that you could describe as family rock. I wouldn't characterize this as a family album."
Asked how he and his children relate, he said, "Well, they have a good time with me." But as far as musical tastes go, he added, Ahmet prefers Boy George and Broadway musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Dweezil "only likes heavy metal," and Moon Unit enjoys funk.
Does this parental image mean we have to discount all those great stories about how demented this guy is?
Denying the oft-quoted statement about groupies being one of his main motivations for touring, Zappa sounded that way at first.
"A person who would actually let themselves be called a groupie is in a pretty sad state of mental health," he said. "A person who actually perceives themselves that way is not someone you would want to wake up next to.
"But," he quickly added, "there, are other people out there who are not groupies who are fun to wake up to."
Geez, we almost lost another Zappa myth there.
As to what he'll play at Tuesday's concert, Zappa said the only unchanged song from his "real old material" will be Oh No I Don't Believe It from his 1970 Weasels Ripped My Flesh album.
"We're doing a couple of more early songs, but the arrangements are completely different," he said. The reason he doesn't play more of the earlier material is because "I've lived with it for 20 years now."
There also will be a selection from the Thing-Fish album.
The band lineup will include Zappa on vocals and guitar; Napoleon Brock, vocals and saxophone; Bobby Martin; vocals, keyboards, and sax; Scott Tunes, bass guitar and mini moog; Chad Wackerman, drums; Ray White, vocals and guitar; Ike Willis, vocals and guitar; and Allan Zavod, keyboards.
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