Viva Zappa! 1940-1993

By Richard Gehr

Spin, March, 1994

The summer between eighth and ninth grades – the same mystical season I smoked pot, read V, and almost had sex with someone else for the first time – my friends and I were introduced to Frank Zappa's newly released Freak Out. We were exactly the sort of media-infected mutants Zappa and the Mothers spoke to through such lyrics as "What's the ugliest part of your body?" and "It's such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom and Dad"; in such Dada-influenced ditties as "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" and "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music", and on such hilarious and densely textured albums as Uncle Meat, Lumpy Gravy, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Mainstream rock already bored us. But not Zappa's frothing cauldron of doo-wop, modern jazz, opera, and R&B, which he combined with the transformative properties of such modern masters as Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and Anton von Webern. We took a cue and learned a revised Western Civ from the cryptic credits on Freak Out's inside cover. Think for yourself, he proclaimed. Create a universe as weird as you want.

It would be years before Zappa demonstrated his engagement in the real world. What an unexpected thrill to see Zappa nearly become a media star in 1990 when Vaclav Havel asked him to help put Czechoslovakia on its capitalist feet – until James Baker, Zappa claimed, pulled the rug out from under him. No other pop star seemed to have the guts to take on the Parents' Music Resource Center until Mr. Zappa went to Washington. Zappa's last tour even included a voter registration drive.

But it was on the fringes of both pop and serious music that Zappa thrived as our foremost musical maverick. One of Zappa's final performances is an especially fitting elegy. I'm talking about his messy version of John Cage's "'4'33"" on A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute. I'm certain both composers would find the conjunction wildly ironic – Cage's minimalist masterpiece being performed by American music's greatest maximalist – if they weren't, you know, dead. A Chance Operation's other contributors mostly took the opportunity to plug themselves in copious biographical notes. Zappa's, though, simply reads "American composer" on an otherwise blank page.

Zappa was an "American composer," as well as an inspired guitarist, bandleader, producer, cottage industrialist, sociologist, and satirist. As much a content as a control freak, his recording career lasted 27 years and generated about 60 albums. These ranged from the Mothers of Invention's still jaw-dropping Freak Out to last year's chillingly precise The Yellow Shark. Without Zappa, most of the music you read about in these pages would either simply not exist or sound radically different.

Some lines from Joe's Garage, a Zappa album I'd maybe listened to twice, make me realize what you have to believe in order to be not just an American composer, but the American composer: "Information is not knowledge / Knowledge is not wisdom / Wisdom is not truth / Truth is not beauty / Beauty is not love / Love is not music / Music is the best...