Frank Zappa: A Maverick Pied Piper

By Daniel Schorr

Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1993

Pop music: An unlikely meeting with a rock star reveals the musical genius with an activist goal for kids.


It was the unlikeliest of friendships – between the avant-garde of music and the old guard of journalism – and it started in the unlikeliest of ways.

Out of the blue Frank Zappa called me in August, 1986.

Now it can be revealed, I had never heard of him and asked him to spell his name. Unfazed, he said he wanted to come to Washington to talk to me about working with him to develop a late-night television show.

Over lunch at Duke Zeibert's and later at my National Public Radio office, setting heads swiveling and mouths dropping, Zappa explained his idea. In a program featuring his band, there would be a segment called "Night School," intended to appeal to rock fans turned off on the news. Cross-country I would respond to questions from his musicians about what was really going on in Washington.

A sort of continuing Watergate watch.

Why me – a senior citizen totally alien to the rock culture? Ah, because the "kids" didn't trust their contemporaries and saw in me an incorruptible maverick like him. The show never got off the ground. (Fox Broadcasting feared, accurately, that it would be "controversial.") But Zappa and I became friends. It took me a long time to realize that behind the angry dirty words about conspiratorial government and the mediocrity of the world around him was hidden a true musical genius who cared a lot about young people.

Like a Pied Piper, he wanted to use music to lead young people to an interest in politics. When he played Washington's Warner Theatre on an Eastern concert tour, he asked me to join him onstage to urge "the kids" to register and vote. (He also had me sing a Gershwin song with his band, to the mystified enthusiasm of the crowd.) The turn-out-the-vote drive was a less-known part of Frank Zappa. He wanted to foster a peaceful youth revolution to take over a government he saw as corrupt. His feud with Tipper Gore about dirty song lyrics was another manifestation of his desire to rock the Establishment from its comfortable perch.

But his mockery did not spare the youth culture. He would inveigh against hippies as "phony" and against drugs as "stupid." He could also mock himself and his success, as in his Mothers of Invention album "We're Only In It for the Money."

For Zappa, who died Saturday at the age of 52, self-deprecation was deceptive – especially when it came to music. He talked as though he was a self-taught dabbler, just fooling around with musical innovation. One had to know him a long time to perceive the deep grounding in classical music and his understanding of East European folk music, which he adapted to his style. Sometimes he talked a language of music above my head (I was once a music critic) about "harmonic climates" and marrying music with science. He loved the computer-based synthesizer, which could reproduce accurately what he heard in his head.

Frank also liked being contrary.

If you talked about his success, he said he was a failure. If you noted his popularity, he said he was lonely. Maybe he was. The world around him contained too much crassness, too much mediocrity, too much homogenization. It could not offer enough scope for his enormous creativity and individuality.

So he denounced it with dirty words.

But, I imagine that the quickest thing about Frank Zappa to fade from memory will be all the windmills at which he tilted. What will be remembered is his restless search for new forms, his open mind for new musical meanings.

And his dedication to "kids," his own and the world's.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)