Legacy Of A Cultural Guerilla
By John Corbett
Political advocate and subversive satirist, comedian, scatologist, classical composer of works from chamber music to musique concrete, pan-time cynic, part-time optimist, pedagogue, bandleader, and bitchin' guitarist, the Grand Wazoo Frank Zappa enters the Down Beat Critics Hall of Fame in 1994. Joining fellow pick-smith Jimi Hendrix, Zappa is only the second rock musician ever to be voted into the hallowed Hall – perhaps partially a demonstration of the never-ending fascination and glorification of things-with-strings (guitar freaks are always hungry, daddy) and the added chances one has of being recognized for one's achievements when one kicks the bucket – but more likely a testament to the catholicism, enthusiasm, and ingeniousness of Zappa's truly awe-inspiring imagination.
“What's the ugliest part of your body?” he sang on We're Only In It For The Money. “I think it's your mind.” Frank Zappa's mind was full of ugly beauty, and being inducted into an exclusive cadre like this is exactly the kind of thing he would have loved to make fun of.
Born in 1940, raised in California, largely self-taught, Zappa began his recording career in 1966 with his band the Mothers of Invention, whose Freak Out! set the tenor for decades to come. Mixing parodical, satirical, sometimes idiotic and childish humor, an exclusively American brand of anti-Americanism, this album also show-cased a love for the unexpected and undirected, a taste for musical experimentation, and a clear respect for jazz. A (very long) list of influences on the inside gate of that debut record included everyone from Tiny Tim, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and Mauricio Kagel to Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, and Bill Evans. Jazz was one of the few unreservedly respected things in Zappa's world of send-ups, inside and outside jokes, and sarcastic putdowns. Speaking with Larry Kart in his first DB feature, “The Mother Of Us All,” in 1969, Zappa pessimistically assessed his post-hippy rock audience: “You're not selling to a bunch of jazz aesthetes in Europe. You’re selling to Americans, who really hate music and love entertainment, so the closer your product is to mindless entertainment material, escapist material, the better off you’re
going to be.”
Keep in mind, for the first few Mothers records Zappa was a Verve recording artist (move over Joe Henderson and J.J. Johnson). Over the 25 years of his career, in his many bands Zappa made use of a great number of jazz musicians. There were violinists Sugar Cane Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty, keyboardists Don Preston (who worked with Carla Bley and John Carter) and George Duke, drummers Paul Humphrey and Chad Wackerman. There was reedsman Ian Underwood, trumpeter Sal Marquez, trombonist Glenn Ferris. There were two sets of jazz brothers: the Gardner Brothers – Bunk and Buzz – and the Fowler Brothers – Bruce and Tom. And on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the Mothers played a killing Zappa tune called “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue.” Zappa was a rock star, no arguing, but he was the new breed of post-'60s ecumenicalist Robin Hoodz who stole from the rich (jazz, vanguard classical, dadaism) and gave to the poor (pop-rock).
In many ways, the kind of eclecticism that was Zappa’s modus operandi presaged the current wave of genre-surﬁng by John Zorn and others – listen to “The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet” on Freak Out!, the second side of We're Only In It For The Money, and “Toads Of The Short Forest” on Weasels (a brilliant free-blow stylistic pile-up, replete with a spoken explanation of the various simultaneous jazz time signatures from Frank) for ﬁne examples. In addition to his own music, for many (myself included) one of Franks major contributions to the world was his championing of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, whose seminal double-record Trout Mask Replica was on Zappa's own Straight record label.
Though he lost some of his more musically attentive listeners as his records turned increasingly into comedy routines
and political harangues, as they got more obvious and less absurd (hey, when I first got into Zappa I was in junior high, so “Dancin’ Fool” and ”The Illinois Enema Bandit” were a gas), Zappa never lost interest in writing and playing challenging sounds, right up to his major orchestral work The Yellow Shark, the release of which preceded his demise by only a bit. What other musician has collaborated with Pierre Boulez and written a hit song about Valley girls? And throughout Frank's wild years he had a thorough sense of the contradictions of his perceived persona, as evidenced by the mere title of the multiple-album blowing sessions Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar.
The pages of DB have sported Zappa consistently since his Mothers days. In '69, Kart accurately portrayed him as a “cultural guerilla”: “He sees that the popular arts are propagandistic in the broad sense – even when they masquerade as rebellion they lull us into fantasy and homogenize our responses. So he inﬁltrates the machine and attempts to make the popular forms defeat their traditional ends – his music doesn’t lull, it tries to make you think.” Over the decades of the '70s and '80s Zappa appeared in the magazine regularly, getting feature space about once every few years, and his recorded output was put to the critical test on an ongoing basis, receiving its share of nasty remarks but also often earning Zappa the musical assessment he deserved. As Alan Heineman (who called Zappa “the Katzenjammer Kid of contemporary music”) said in his 1970 review of Hot Rats: “The constant temptation is to say that Zappa is a genius (which he is) and consequently to rank highly all his offerings.” A full-length obit article by Dan Ouellette ran in March 1994, with material drawn from one of Zappa's last formal interviews.
Zappa succumbed to a long battle with prostate cancer in December 1993. His huge musical output (over 60 records, countless bootlegs, scores, unreleased tapes, movies, etc.) will doubtless keep him in the public ear for years to come, and his influence on musics of all sorts – from political rock to electric jazz – is indelible. On all but one of the Mothers of Invention albums, there was an inscription taken from composer Edgar Varèse: ”The present-day composer refuses
to die!” In his music and in the DB Critics Hall of Fame, the spirit of Uncle Meat lives on.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net