At 48, Zappa isn't afraid to face the music

By Bo Emerson

The San Bernardino Sun, June 6, 1989

LOS ANGELES – On a recent sunny afternoon, Frank Zappa is at home listening to tapes of Soviet musicians, made during a recent trip to Russia, and thinking about bombs. Not the nuclear kind. The homemade variety.

"You see this?" says the smiling musician, holding up a film canister packed with severed match heads and ground-up crayons. "This is a little bomb. I found my son, Ahmet, 14 years old, trying to light this thing last night."

Ahmet Rodan Zappa is a chip off the old block. The senior Zappa, son of an engineer in the chemical weapons industry, spent his youth manufacturing gunpowder and blowing up things, including himself. Somehow escaping serious injury, young Frank longed for the day when he could afford a Gilbert chemistry set and make some serious noise.

It is poetic justice that Zappa, now 48, finds his Laurel Canyon home threatened by the next generation's experiments. Ever since he blew America's mind with his 1966 debut album, "Freak Out," Zappa has been rock 'n' roll's demolitions expert, destroying the boundaries of the acceptable and creating some dynamite music in the process.

Once known for scatological ditties such as 1974's " Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and the chatter of "Valley Girl" (1982), Zappa emerged in 1985 as a dapper, formidable opponent of the censorious Parents Music Resource Center in the ongoing debate over album labeling and obscenity in popular music.

Poseidon Press has just published "The Real Frank Zappa Book" ($19.95 hardcover), an autobiography written with Peter Occhiogrosso that is, like Zappa's music, sometimes profane, sometimes pedantic, frequently hilarious.

The book is less a retrospective of the artist's career than skillfully edited snips of home movies, with liberal doses of political commentary. "An autobiography is usually written by somebody who thinks his life is truly amazing," w rites Zappa, in his highly italicized style. "I do not think of my life as amazing in any sense however, the opportunity to say stuff in print about tangential subjects is appealing."

To those familiar with the 50-plus records in the Zappa catalog and with his legendary road shows, the book provides a wealth of interesting trivia. Those new to the work of the Grand Wazoo might be engaged by Zappa's whimsical tales of a childhood in the shadow of the nerve gas industry, in Maryland and Southern California. We learn that each member of the Zappa household had a personal gas mask, and Frank, the eldest, was treated for sinus trouble by having a pellet of radium stuffed up his nose.

(In the late 1960s, Zappa lived and composed in a small recording studio on Archibald Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga. He played music in now-forgotten bars in San Bernardino, Fontana and Ontario.) "The Real Frank Zappa" is the latest in literature from the entrepreneur of weirdness.

His Barfko-Swill mail-order house distributes the illustrated, unproduced Zappa screenplay "Them or Us" (1984) and a variety of concert and non-concert videotapes, including the bewildering movie "Uncle Meat," produced by Zappa's Honker Home Video outfit.

His record company, Barking Pumpkin Records, continues his tradition of musical prolixity, with at least two new releases in I he works, as well as a handsome boxed set of digitally remastered Zappa vinyl from the 1960s, such as "Freak Out," "Absolutely Free" and 'Lumpy Gravy." (Another label, Rykodisc, is also rereleasing some vintage recordings on compact disc, along with a 13-disc CD compilation of live recordings from throughout Zappa's career, called "You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore.")

His burst of merchandising comes at a time when Zappa claims he has hung up his traveling shoes. During his last outing the "Broadway the Hard Way" tour in 1988 he took a 12-man band on the road in Europe and .North America, sold out most venues and says he still lost money.

"Who's paying for these things?" asks a bestubbled Zappa, smoking a Winston in the den of his multilevel house-cum-studio. "In the past, it's been me, and I refuse to do it anymore."

In fact, Zappa has mothballed his guitar, and the only guitars visible in the Zappa studio, which also features a sunken, glassed-off drum room and a Boesendorfer concert grand, are 19-year-old son Dweezil's Kramers and gaudy customized Jacksons, including one midnight-blue ax bearing a silvery airbrushed portrait of Madonna.

On one day recently, Zappa has awakened at midafternoon and feasted on a bowl of Rice Krispies. His hair, once shoulder-length, is neatly trimmed, and his trademark "Viva Zapata" mustache and chin-duster beard are salted with gray, but those are the only signs of middle age. Wandering in and out of the house are the Zappa children: 21-year-old Moon Unit (the vocalist on "Valley Girl"), Dweezil, Ahmet and 9-year-old Diva.

Zappa occasionally steps into the next room, dubbed the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, to play back tapes of a Siberian heavy-metal band (he may produce some Soviet artists in the near future), "Broadway the Hard Way" performances and artifacts from his Mothers of Invention days. During these moments, he listens, transfixed, as if music were the most important thing in the world.

That's not far off the mark. Zappa spends his time at home with Gail, his wife of 21 years, and types music into his Synclavier, a computerized synthesizer responsible for most of the sounds on his Grammy-winning "Jazz From Hell."

"The goal is you don't stop playing," says Zappa, describing his concert style, and, in a way, his philosophy of life. "If you're out of tune, you tune up. You keep going."

He has continued playing and writing despite the fact that, after 24 years in the business, he's still confined to the margins of pop. His music is rarely heard on the radio 1982's "Valley Girl" is the exception, reaching No. 32 but Zappa prefers working "on the fringe," where there's more elbow room.

"Where is the most competition?" he asks. "On the fringe or in the core? The competition is in the core. If you go in there and you do more accessible music, get in line with the rest of the drones, bud."

The fringe has always been Zappa's natural habitat. In the mid-1960s, his "Freak Out" cheerfully whipped the tablecloth of reality out from under the dinnerware of American pop culture. Odd-meter rock 'n' roll, deranged barbershop atonality, orchestral fanfares and cretinish doo-wop were mixed with furious political commentary and Dada surrealism.

"Listeners at the time were convinced I was up to my eyeballs in chemical refreshment," Zappa writes. Not so. Cigarettes and coffee were and are his only stimulants, and, like most non-users, he is mildly contemptuous of people who "take substances which blot their brains out." But this didn't stop members of the stoned generation from saluting a supposedly kindred spirit.

The other Mothers rate scant attention in his book, perhaps because several, including drummers Jimmy Carl Black and Arthur Tripp HI, saxophonist Bunk Gardner, singer Ray Collins and keyboardist Don Preston, have joined together in a suit against Zappa over royalties from the Mothers' material, according to their attorney, Neville L. Johnson. Johnson says the suit, filed more than four years ago, should go to court within six months.

Though he is one of the great band-leaders in modern music, Zappa insists that he originally organized a group only to hear his compositions performed, and regards musicians as a necessary evil for composers.

And, despite his formidable guitar improvisations (he released a three-album set of nothing but guitar solos, "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar"), Zappa considers himself a composer first and foremost.

At age 14, he began writing music in the styles of Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, but it was years before he heard any of his work played. A self-taught composer, Zappa dropped out of junior college and learned his skills chiefly by listening to records.

The teenage guitarist also dogged used-record stores to find rhythm and blues records by black artists such as Lightnin' Slim, Guitar Slim, Gatemouth Brown and vocal groups such as the Jewels. He saw no natural division between the Varese and the doo-wop. "To me, it was all good music," Zappa recalls.

This background helps explain his unequaled ability to incorporate low and high art in a seamless hybrid. For example, in "Montana," from the album "Overnite Sensation" (1973), he casually fuses a 12-tone bridge to a pop song form, directing his intrepid vocalists through a workout of quintuplet clusters and jagged intervallic leaps in a song about dental floss.

His work can vary from unalloyed blues (in "Directly From My Heart to You" on "Weasels Ripped My Flesh," 1972) to highly arranged big band music ("The Grand Wazoo," 1972) to delicate chamber jazz ("Twenty Small Cigars" from "Chunga's Revenge," 1970) to raging guitar rock (much of "Sheik Yerbouti," 1979) to strictly orchestral timbres ("The London Symphony Orchestra: Zappa Volume I," 1983). But even when one style dominates, elements of the others are usually present.

Unfortunately, Zappa's scatological sense of humor has often eclipsed his reputation as a composer. Because of a certain Pittsburgh disc jockey, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" gained airplay as a novelty number and made the al bum "Apostrophe" Zappa's first gold record. "Jewish Princess" (from "Sheik Yerbouti") and "Catholic Girls" (from "Joe's Garage") attracted attention for different reasons, drawing the ire of Jewish and Catholic interest groups (respectively) because of their supposed stereotyping. The average music listener probably identifies Zappa with songs like these rather than, say, the wonderful "Dog Breath Variations" off the "Uncle Meat" album.

"Basically, what they see is the image of me that has been brought to them by the media machinery," Zappa says. " 'There's that buffoon guy again.' So, I don't care. If they want to come see the buffoon when he's live in concert, great, come on. Here ho comes. He'll play 'Louie Louie' for you."