By Matt Groening
FRANK ZAPPA, who died last week, at the age of fifty-two, became my hero in 1966, when I was twelve: I plucked his first LP, the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!,” from a variety-store bin in my home town, Portland, Oregon. The album was snotty and disturbing, and its gleefully mocking rock and roll warmed my warped preteen heart. Zappa himself oozed sarcasm, with that droopy mustache and wedgy little goatee, and the liner notes to “Freak Out!” began, “I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, December 21, 1940, and grew up in California. I am a self-taught musician, composer, blah, blah, blah.” I was hooked.
Zappa provided the soundtrack to the antiwar-demonstrating and cruising-for-burgers teenagehood of me and all my friends. Each new record—from “Absolutely Free” (with its thrilling lyric “She’s only thirteen and she knows how to nasty”) to “The Yellow Shark”—has been an event, to be savored on headphones over hundreds of listenings for inside jokes and secret messages. I’ll never forget lying in the basement at 2 AM., directly beneath Homer and Marge’s bedroom, listening to “Sleeping in a Jar”: “It’s the middle of the night, and your mommy and daddy are sleeping... sleeping... sleeping in a jar... (the jar is under the bed).” It was quite spooky.
Two years ago, I met the whole Zappa clan: Zappa and his wife, Gail; their kids, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva; their pets, Doggus and a spiderlike Siamese cat called the Gweech. They are an affectionate and relaxed family, and all share the bemused, uncensored wit that was central to Frank’s personality. By then, the sad news that he had prostate cancer was quietly rumored. Zappa could be forthright about his health when he wanted to be, but mostly he seemed to dwell on the things that truly absorbed him: his work and his family. A typical visit with Zappa might start with an extended listening session to assorted works in progress, followed by a look at a Dweezil-and-Ahmet rock video; it usually ended up with a pizza chowdown in the kitchen. Musicians dropped by to have their instruments sampled for Zappa’s vast Synclavier sound library; neighbors popped in for Margaritas and conversation; and a steady stream of journalists pointed microphones at Frank and asked pesky questions. Zappa had none of the eager-to-please staginess of many celebrities, nor did he carry himself with the delusional arrogance of the rock-and-roll guitar hero. Recently, his remarks were characterized by a seriousness unusual even by his own cerebral standards. I’ll always miss his challenging presence.
Few moments in my life have been as electrifying as an evening last spring when I sat in Zappa’s dimly lit basement in Laurel Canyon listening for the first time to “N-Light,” a twenty-three-minute Synclavier masterpiece that he had been working on for something like five or ten years. (He couldn’t remember when he’d begun it.) “N-Light” is a powerhouse of Zappaesque musical ideas, thrown off one after the other in a relentless, complex rush, which sounds at times like several robot orchestras gone berserk, yet always conveys a sense of over-all compositional control. On another night, in Zappa’s studio, I watched him conduct the Ensemble Moderne, a contemporary-music group from Frankfurt, in an extended orchestral improvisation that featured the recitation of a letter to the editor of PFIQ, a fetishistic body-piercing magazine. All this went on while a didgeridoo—a long, tubelike instrument of the Aborigines—was blown into a coffeepot full of water, yielding insane blurpy sounds that caused Frank to clap his hand over his mouth in order to keep from cracking up. I asked him afterward about the watery didgeridoo. He said, “It’s one of my better ideas.”
There has probably been more nonsense—both gushy and whiny—written about Zappa than about any other popular contemporary composer. This must be because the scope of Zappa’s music is beyond most of his admirers—and because his ungroovy impertinence always confirmed the worst suspicions of his dismissive critics. (He once said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”) But Zappa’s personality was only one aspect of his prodigious output. At the time of his death, he had a number of albums in the can, including “Civilization: Phaze III,” which features “N-Light.”
What kept me and so many other people percolating to Zappa’s music for the past twenty-seven years was the thrill of hitching a ride with a critical mind that was always pushing into uncharted territories. Zappa’s work was jammed with inspirations and insults; he subverted mood after mood with nimble editing, sudden halts, unexpected tempo changes, and comic snorks. Often, when faced with a dilemma in my own work, I ask myself, What would Zappa do? It took Zappa to think up—and execute—a fusion of deeply felt R.&B. with the rhythmic and harmonic rigors of Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse. Who but Zappa could dig both Muddy Waters and Anton Webern, both Howlin’ Wolf and Conlon Nancarrow? His records and movies chart the progress of a funny and disgruntled composer tackling one musical problem after another—the ongoing education of a genius workaholic.
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