Frank Zappa

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The Times, December 7, 1993

Frank Zappa, rock musician and satirist, died from prostate cancer in Los Angeles on December 4 aged 52. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940.

AN OBSTREPEROUS and delightfully barking mad spirit, Frank Zappa was one of rock music’s innovatory forces. But, though a talented musician, his penchant for bizarre humour and his gift of waspish satire were a combined insurance policy against his taking either himself or the rock ethos too seriously. California’s Sixties’ counter-culture and its Flower Children were no more proof against his barbs than a conservative Eighties’ housewives’ pressure group which wanted cinema-style ratings for pop records to alert the public to their content. “The whole hippie scene is wishful thinking,” Zappa said in 1968. “They wish they could love but … it’s easier to make someone mad than to make somebody love.” The content of much Sixties’ music he felt was “pitiful”.

In this he displayed sharper critical acumen than was at that time to be had from much of an adoring press (even The Times’s music critic described the Beatles as “the greatest song-writers since Schubert”). Zappa took a different view of pop music’s icons. His 1967 album We’re Only in it for the Money, mercilessly parodied in both content and cover artwork the Beatles’ reverentially received Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The “Fab Four”, at that stage accustomed to plaudits for whatever they did, were not amused.

Zappa was too intelligent to be part of an ambience which accepted the half-baked and the second rate as “culture”. {So were a number of other rock musicians – but they were making far too much money to say so). He was familiar with classical music, particularly the works of 20h-century masters such as Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse. And he was one of the first rock musicians to inject elements of jazz and classical music into his work.

Zappa also had a refreshing lack of desire to be idolised by his fans. “Hello pigs,” he would snarl by way of greeting to his audiences, thus putting them neatly in the place of the police they themselves loved to hate. Allied lo his talent for verbal satire was a love of theatrical outrage, which he employed in a ceaseless search for new ways to cause offence to his fellow Americans.

At the Garrick Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1968, he incited a party of US marines in the audience to get up on stage and demonstrate their bayoneting skills on some baby dolls. Over the years his songs poked fun at Jews, Catholics, politicians, the police and homosexuals. He once described the trade of rock journalism as: “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”

Frank Vincent Zappa Jr was of Sicilian-Greek parentage. When he was nine the family moved to California, eventually settling in Lancaster, a small town in the Mojave desert. There, at Antelope Valley High School, he started a school band called the Blackouts. After high school Zappa began

playing with local groups. In 1959 he enrolled in Chaffee Junior College, where he studied harmony for a while before dropping out. In that year he married a girl called Kay. The marriage was dissolved in 1964.

For a time he scraped a living playing in cocktail bars and then, with the money earned from writing the soundtracks for a couple of B-movies, he set up a recording studio in Cucamonga, San Bernardino. Studio Z, as he named it, was dosed down in 1964, after Zappa made a pornographic recording, commissioned by a used car salesman who turned out to be a detective from the San Bernardino Vice Squad. Zappa was jailed for ten days for the offence.

He moved to Los Angeles where he joined the singer Ray Collins in a band called the Soul Giants. The Giants became the Mothers and were eventually sported by Bob Dylan’s producer Tom Wilson, playing at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go club. Wilson got them a contract with Verve records, a subsidiary of MGM intended primarily as an outlet for jazz and rhythm and blues.

The group, now called the Mothers Of Invention at the insistence of the record company, released its debut album, Freak Out, in 1966. This was followed in 1967 by Absolutely Free. It was We're Only in it for the Money which cemented the Mothers’ international reputation. A frenetic patchwork of styles from hard core rock to doo wop pastiche, it mocked everything held dear by the Flower Power generation. They lapped it up nevertheless.

Zappa disbanded the Mothers in 1969 proclaiming himself to be “tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons,” and embarked on a solo career. Later the same year he married Gail Sloatman; they had two sons, Dweezil and Ahmet and two daughters Moon Unit and Diva.

The commercial appeal of Zappa’s recordings was circumscribed by their unpredictability and their often outrageous content. America, in particular, tended to be rather squeamish about his lyrics. Either their scatological content as in: “Watch out where the huskies go/And don’t eat all that yellow snow” offended the American housewife, or the wildly politically incorrect “He's So Gay” and “Jewish Princess” had their respective pressure groups apoplectic with rage. Zappa did not much like England which he though of as a Third World country and its people as being in thrall to notions of regality and pecking order: “Until you change yourself from subjects to citizens you are going to be eating shit, aren't you?” But Britain liked him, and his most impressible album, Hot Rats (1969), was a success here though it barely registered on the other side of the Atlantic. His work was popular, too, in Germany and The Netherlands, where earthy, straight-speaking lyrics have never been a bar to success. ln samizdat recordings he was also popular in many Soviet bloc countries, notably Czechoslovakia.

His work continued to provoke controversy. In I97I he was forced to cancel a concert performance of 200 Motels with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra due to be held at London’s Royal Albert Hall, after the venue's representatives declared the libretto obscene. Later that same year, at a concert at London's Rainbow Theatre, Zappa was attacked and pushed off the stage by a fan’s jealous husband. Badly injured, he spent several weeks in hospital and most or the ensuing year in a wheelchair. For some time afterwards he tried to avoid England. Nevertheless he returned to this country in l988, bringing a breath-taking two-and-a-half hour show which mixed his latest work or tortuous musical intricacy with a leavening of the old favourites.

Besides music Zappa also spent time and energy opposing he Parents Music Resource Centre, a pressure group of Washington women dedicated to “cleaning up” rock lyrics through censorship if necessary. Zappa dismissed PMRC’s leaders – Vice-President Al Gore’s wife Tipper and former Secretary of State James Baker’s wife Susan – as “bored housewives” and, before a congressional panel, derided the notion that his lyrics could influence behaviour: “I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?”

Another activity was Why Not? – an international “licensing, consulting and social engineering company” which he founded in 1989. One of its first clients was the Czechoslovak government whose leader Václav Havel regarded Zappa as one of the great influences on his life. On their first meeting in 1990 Havel was so taken with Zappa that he appointed him his consultant for trade, culture and tourism. James Baker thereupon advised Havel that he could do business with either the US or Zappa, but not both.

Cancer of the prostate was eventually diagnosed in 1991, bur Zappa continued to work until physical strength failed him completely.

His wife Gail and the four children of what Zappa always called “marriage as a Dada concept” survive him.