Zappa For President

By Dan Forte

Vintage Guitar, October 2020

Since Frank Zappa's death in '93, just shy of turning 53, a raft of releases has steadily come out with the blessing and involvement of the Zappa family. The new four-CD box, The Mothers 1970 (as in "Of Invention"), is no exception, produced by son Ahmet and "vaultmeister" Joe Travers. Stuffed with 70 tracks, both live and studio, it clocks in at four and a half hours, with nearly all material previously unreleased.

With the same lineup as the core septet on Chunga's Revenge, Disc 1 comes from Trident Studios in London with Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, the Cars, Free) manning the board. Right off the bat, Zappa gets into the rare Dallas Arbiter Add-A-Sound on "Red Tubular Lighter." Gnarly, fuzzed octave-up/octave-down blurts are followed by nice wah melodicism, and Frank even struts a bass solo.

More Dallas Arbiter is featured on an alternate take of "Wonderful Wino," with a full minute of octave-fuzz brutality. "Sharleena," the only cut that saw the light of day (on Chunga), reaches back to Zappa's love of doo-wop.

In my 1979 interview with Zappa, he described living in San Diego in his early teens: "There was a real definite division between the people who liked rhythm-and-blues and the people who liked jazz. You had the R&B guys, then you had the ones who went for Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars. The R&B guys used to find the ones who liked jazz and beat them up in the parking lot – I mean, it was that vivid a lifestyle difference between the jazz guys and the ones who liked the real music. To me, there wasn't that much emotional depth in listening to something like 'Martians Go Home' by Shorty Rogers; that kind of stuff didn't have any balls to it!"

Zappa was the last person I could've expected to hit it off with, but in all I interviewed him for four magazine articles, and he commissioned me to write the program for the New York City premiere of his concert film Baby Snakes. He was one of the funniest, most articulate, interesting musicians (or people) I ever met.

He talked about how he loved composing and would gladly go 12 or more hours with just coffee and notation paper, but added, "The guitar is a perfect vehicle for composition, as long as the accompaniment doesn't get in the way. I'm not interested in being the fastest guitar player in the world, or the cutest or the best dancer – or even the most sincere. I'm concerned with playing melodics as they come into my head – versus the harmonic climate, versus the rhythm section. It's an act of composition, not an act of guitar showmanship."

It's interesting to keep that in mind while listening to the live versions of "King Kong," with Zappa's jagged solos in 6/8 time, or "Igor's Boogie," influenced by Conlon Nancarrow, who composed via player-piano rolls, resulting in music that was humanly impossible to perform – definitely not boogie.

Zappa hired Mark Volman and Howard Kavlan when he found out they'd been screwed out of their well-known band name, the Turtles. With them onboard, there's a lot of vocal material, but with instrumentals like the aforementioned and others and Zappa's solos throughout, there's plenty to hold a guitarist's attention. With the exception of the Turtles' "Happy Together" and Stravinsky's "Agon," every selection was written by Zappa. I keep having to remind myself that he was only 29 during these performances.

He reaches back to the Mothers' Freak Out debut for "Trouble Every Day" – similar sentiment to "For What It's Worth" but more in-your-face and timely to this day. On his walnut ES-355TD-SV, Frank takes his bluesiest solo here, again reaching back to his roots. "The only part I used to really enjoy off the blues records was the guitar solos, because in those days the main instrument was the saxophone," he told me. "But guitar solos were another story. To me, it seems incomprehensible that a person could listen to 'Three Hours Past Midnight' by Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and not be moved to get violent. I mean, that's really saying something. Same with the guitar solo on 'Story Of My Life' by Guitar Slim. I mean, that stuff used to make me violent. I'd just want to get an ice pick and go out and work over the neighborhood! I loved that. To me, that was the real world. I couldn't play any of Guitar Slim's guitar solos or Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's guitar solos or Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown's – but I liked them all. And I think l was influenced by them because of comprehending their melodic approach to what to do with those notes in that situation."

He finished that initial three-hour interview with this – a fitting conclusion and words to live by. "I think it's reprehensible to take your music and put it in the service of a political party or some sort of cause. Because ultimately, music is worth more than any cause or any party. You know, to me, music is the ultimate suave-ness. Music is the best; it's just the best."