The Satirist Is Silenced
By Dan Ouellette
Shortly after Frank Zappa's death, his daughter Moon Unit was on the 818-PUMPKIN Zappa hotline informing mourners that in lieu of flowers they could send donations in her dad's name to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association or to a favorite environmental cause. For those musicians and listeners financially restricted. Moon suggested. "Just play his music. . . . That will be enough for him."
Nothing could he more appropriate for the iconoclastic genius composer/performer, who lost a lengthy battle against prostate cancer on December 4, two-and-a-half weeks before his 53rd birthday. Zappa – who in his more than 30-year musical career was also known as an outspoken political critic, sophomoric humorist, and crass satirist – died at his Laurel Canyon home in the North Hollywood Hills on a Saturday evening. He was buried without fanfare in a private ceremony the next day.
A music workaholic, Zappa was busy up to the end producing the album The Rage And The fury – The Music Of Edgard Varèse by the European 26-piece avant-garde orchestra Ensemble Modern (due out later this year) and putting the finishing touches on the double-CD Civiliztion, Phaze III (due out in April on Barking Pumpkin/Rhino).
In his healthier days, Zappa employed two shifts of recording engineers to keep up with his insatiable energy. But, as he said last April in one of his last formal interviews, he was forced by his illness to cut back. “I used to be a night owl, but now I'm in bed by six or seven in the evening. It's hard for me to work a real long day anymore. If I can put in a 12-hour shift, then I feel I'm really doing something.”
With more than 60 albums to his credit, Zappa adventurously covered a universe of musical terrain ranging from '50s doo-wop to 20th-century classical music by Stravinsky and Bartók. He punched out heady rock on his mean guitar and served up “jazz from hell” experiments on his computerized Synclavier DMS keyboard. With a lifelong flair for creating genre-jumping, postmodernist music, Zappa – beginning with the debut Mothers of Invention record Freak Out! in 1966 – released albums that folded into several different styles of music, cross-referencing such seemingly disparate domains as classical with reggae and melodic r&b with dissonant avant-garde musings. He fused it all into a sometimes-brilliant, frequently madcap, always-spin-on-a-dime concoction of distinct and inimitable Zappaesque music.
The Yellow Shark, the album released shortly before his death, is a masterpiece of dissonant, whimsical, and haunting contemporary orchestral music. Arranged by Zappa and performed in concert by Ensemble Modern, it's a suite-like collection of some of his classic works, “Dog Breath Variations,” “Be-Bop Tango," and “G-Spot Tornado," and such newly commissioned pieces as “Get Whitey" and “None Of The Above."
The album was recorded in the summer of 1992 at concert halls in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna. Zappa, who noted that he'd never heard such accurate performances of his works, attended two of the shows in Frankfurt. He even conducted the whirlwind “G-Spot Tornado” before being forced to return home because of his worsening condition. “The audiences loved it. If I hadn't been so sick, the experience would have been exhilarating. Unfortunately, it was excruciatingly [painful]. It was hard to walk, to
just get up onto the stage, to sit, to stand up. You can't enjoy yourself when you're sick, no matter how enthusiastic the audience."
Toward the end Zappa spent his time cloistered in his house, composing on his Synclavier and recording in his state-of-the-art home studio called the Utility Mufﬁn Research Kitchen. He also exercised strict creative and business control over all aspects of his career, including maintaining his own song publishing rights, recording for his own Barking Pumpkin label, running a mail-order and merchandising company called Barfko-Swill, operating the Honker Home Video arm of his empire, fielding requests from orchestras and chamber groups seeking to perform his serious orchestral works, and ﬁnally, trademarking his name.
A control freak who ultimately trusted only his inner circle of colleagues, friends and family, the irascible Zappa at times found himself at odds (that sometimes led to irreconcilable rifts) with some of the musicians who worked for him. Yet, for former band members like drummers Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman and trombonist Bruce Fowler, working with Zappa was not only the
most challenging musical experience they've encountered, but also the most inspiring.
Bozzio, who in 1975 out finessed 50 other auditioning drummers, speculates that some former group members may not have seen eye-to-eye with Zappa because he was such a genius. “I think some guys were jealous of Frank being the kingpin. But he was Mt. Olympus, and we were mere mortals." Bozzio, currently touring as an ostinato-oriented, solo-drum show, cites Zappa as a role model: “We’d all love to be just like him in our own way. He's an archetype. He put on the red shoes. He did it 18 hours a day every day. He rode that wave. Frank was a strong, uncompromising guy who believed in his artistic principles. He was convinced and lucky enough to have those convictions about himself early enough in his life to follow through on them."
Wackerman, who worked with Zappa from 1981 to 1988, also had to pass a grueling audition that consisted of reading intricate and complex classical notation, playing polyrhythmically in such odd time signatures as 21/16, and then following Zappa's guitar lead into Latin, Cajun, reggae, and heavy-metal grooves. “He pushed everyone who worked for him," Wackerman recalled. “He'd ask me to play something incredibly complex. When I couldn't do it, he'd get more specific and ask me to play something even more difficult. I couldn't do that, either; but as I would try, I'd come to realize I was playing what he had first asked me to play.”
Fowler ﬁrst joined Zappa in 1973 for his Overnite Sensation touring band (with Jean Luc Ponty, George Duke, and Ian Underwood) and played with him on and off for the next two decades. The son of longtime DB education columnist Dr. William L. Fowler, Bruce was well-versed in the complex rhythms Zappa was compositionally fond of. Brothers Tom and Walt were also part of various Zappa ensembles. “He liked us because we were an orchestral tool for him," said Fowler.
Fowler said that Zappa was a hard taskmaster, putting his bands through hours of practice. “But it was all fun when we did the actual gigs. Sometimes Frank wouldn’t give us the set list until right before the show. But we knew the material so well we could be spontaneous." Fowler noted that Zappa stretched his audiences as well. “He was real proud to bring music to the masses of people who wanted to get freaked out by him. He wanted to play Bartók for those guys."
Zappa's propensity to shock and even outrage people with his idiosyncratic music and his bold political views often made him an easy target of critics bent on dismissing his dissenting vote against the status quo. Did Zappa ever think that he would influence and help shape listeners’ opinions? “Nothing I've ever done has been motivated by the idea of trying to impact or influence anybody. We did the goofy songs for a laugh, to have fun. If the music amused someone else, that's really good. If it didn't, who gives a fuck?”
On the other hand, talking last spring, he voiced a quiet hurt over the fact that his music rarely gets airplay in the United States. “A lot of people in this country don't know I exist. It helps to have a large and devoted audience overseas. I mean something to people in other parts of the world."
While his biggest Stateside hit, “Valley Girl,” was a novelty tune, and a significant portion of his pop-oriented work falls far short of the genius plateau, Zappa’s importance as a composer and performer promises to be increasingly recognized in the years to come. In 1969, DB's Larry Kart concluded his article on Zappa by prophesying: “. . . there is still the music, and if any of us are around in 20 years, I think we'll be listening to it." Twenty-four years later, Terry Bozzio is even bolder in his predictions: “Frank will be the only guy mentioned 200 years from now when people are discussing the great music of our era.”
Zappa was pleased with the increase in recognition his works were receiving. Last year, he reported that the president's own U.S. Marine Corps Band in Fairfax, Virginia, requested the score of “Dog Breath Variations," and the Connecticut-based dance group Iso was granted permission to choreograph a performance based on The Grand Wazoo album. “You'd be surprised at how many orchestras and chamber groups all over the world play my music every year," Zappa said. “I get requests for scores all the time. But I won't grant permission if I feel there's not enough money budgeted for proper rehearsal time. I'd rather not have the music played than have it performed in a sloppy way."
Yet Zappa also voiced his disappointment that more of his works weren't getting performed. “I get a lot of requests for the same few pieces, such as ‘Dupree’s Paradise.’ But no one is willing to take on difficult pieces of my repertoire. Except in Europe, no one has performed my large orchestral works. I'd like to see pieces like ‘Sinister Footware’ -- which was only done once by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra -- be performed more often.”
In conversation with Zappa, he was visibly tired as he meandered through such subjects as his displeasure with the Clinton administration's “health Nazi” approach to banning cigarette smoking at the White House and his well-publicized bout over music censorship in 1985 with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. He was animated when talking about projects in the wings and the unexpected success of his song “Plastic People” (from the 1967 Absolutely Free album), a tune that not only helped spawn a countercultural generation of authority-questioning American youth, but also became an underground hit and cry for freedom in the then-Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia. “I had no idea that song made the impact it did there," said Zappa, who later developed a close friendship with Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel. “It came as a shock to me that there was even a group called the Plastic People."
He was moved to recite some of the song's lines: “Take a day and walk around/Watch the Nazis run your town/T hen go home and check yourself/You think we're singing 'bout somebody else." This led Zappa to comment on today's political landscape in America: "[That song's] relevant today in the United States. There's been an incredible rise in racist and fascist attitudes, most of them being helped along by the Republican Party. That Republican National Party Convention [in '92] was just unbelievable. Even the set decor looked like a Nuremberg rally. Hatemongers like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson and the rest of the featured speakers were convinced they were going to win again."
Speaking personally, when it came to his illness that had gone undetected by his doctors for nearly 10 years before finally being diagnosed in 1990, Zappa was subdued and reticent to say much more than, “I'm fighting for my life. I've surprised everybody by sticking around this long."
When asked if working on his music was therapeutic, Zappa grew agitated. “I don't do it for therapy. I do it because that's what I've always done. What's your alternative? Stay in bed or work? If you still have musical ideas, then you go to work until you can't work anymore."
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