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It was (almost) twenty years ago… sniff

Twenty years ago on this day – more or less – American composer Frank Zappa died. Okay, it was December 4 in the US, but it wasn't announced until two days later. I had just been elected to the 1994 Editorial team of Honi Soit, the student paper of the University of Sydney. To follow is the obituary that I wrote for the first issue (and have blogged elsewhere). It barely touches the surface; it doesn’t do Frank Zappa the composer justice; I was a far less experienced writer, taking myself far too seriously. I have tweaked it slightly for grammar. But first, here's a recent caricature by one of my favourite artists, Nick O'Sullivan.

ZapMoresize

Frank Zappa
December 21 1940 to December 4 1993

During Orientation Week one year, on the lawn in front of the Main Quad where all of the University of Sydney's Clubs and Societies vie for new members from amongst the student body, I found myself at the ‘Alternative Music Club’ [1] marquee, where a girl with pink hair and a pierced tongue performed her inculcatory spiel about the kind of music that ‘Alternative Music Club’ members listened to. “You know,” she said, “artists who don’t receive much mainstream commercial radio airplay, like Morrissey, R.E.M., Sonic Youth…”

“What about Frank Zappa?” I asked her.

“Who?” she said.

I guess you can’t be much more alternative than that.

Very occasional radio play has meant that few people have heard Zappa’s music. For most, Frank Zappa was that weird American musician residing at the back of rock encyclopaedias; the guy frequently bearing an unkempt mane, and always, the funny facial hair. (Simpsons creator  Matt Groening insists that the facial hair is “way cool”, and that “as soon as Bart Simpson is able to shave he’ll have a little moustache and goatee just like Zappa’s.”) However, during a career that lasted almost thirty years, Zappa had officially released over sixty albums [2], and nearly ten times that number reached the market illegally as ‘bootlegs’. [3]

While the epithet ‘post modern’ has been used to label all sorts of artistic entities engendering slight obscurity and evading generic pigeon-holing, Frank Zappa was the musician to whom it best applied. His work was (and remains) a universe inhabited by recurring motifs frequently referring back, pre-empting forwards and implying sideways to other elements within that universe. The cross-referencing, Zappa insisted, was fully intentional from his career's inception. In 1974 he stated: “there is, and always has een a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance, and interview; the basic blueprints were executed in 1962-1963. Preliminary experimentation took place in early and mid 1964. Construction… began in late 1964. Work is still in progress.”

Musically, Zappa’s work embraced and transcended virtually every genre and form known, usually for the purpose of parody. Listener expectations were constantly thwarted. His tightly-rehearsed ensemble of musicians (known for most of its first decade as ‘The Mothers of Invention’ or merely ‘The Mothers’) was able to execute the complex performances that Zappa conducted. “There are cues used on stage like twirling my fingers as if I’m piddling with a Rasta braid on the right side of my head - that means: ‘Play reggae’… If I wanted something played ‘heavy metal’, I put both hands on my crotch and do ‘Big Balls’… The band understands what the norms and ‘expected mannerisms’ are for these different musical styles, and will instantly ‘translate’ a song into that musical ‘dialect’.” As well as contemporary rock and jazz, Zappa wrote ad conducted orchestral music which similarly subverted and entertained.

Entertainment was Zappa’s main task. This end was achieved through use of subject matter that basically lambasted dominant culture and counter-culture, very often as a form of social anthropology: what people did, how they did it and who they did it to. He insisted that  “contemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is in books”. During the late 60s, hippies bore the brunt of Zappa’s saturnine wit. The 70s saw him pour scorn and derision upon decadent rock-star sexuality, sexuality sublimated into the ‘better, louder, faster’ guitar solo and the constant pursuit of compliant groupies. Censorship, religious fundamentalism and sexual impropriety — or rather, hypocrisy with regard to the particular sexual impropriety of televangelists and Republicans — received Zappa’s attention during the 80s. He pursued his cause to the extent of registering voters at his concerts during his 1988 Broadway the Hard Way tour. Illness precluded his own presidential bid during the 1992 United States elections.

Often criticised was Zappa's vigour and zeal when dealing with topics of a “glandular” nature. His opinion to the end was that ‘sex looks silly’. “Let’s face it,” he said, “even if it feels good, it looks silly”. Yet, as entertainment, he felt that all work could be reduced to this tenet: “Is it possible to laugh while fucking? I think yes.”

Frank Zappa developed prostate cancer, and although detected some time during the early 90s, it was kept secret. The only official public reference made was the insistence that ‘the press’ had diagnosed him as a sufferer. Zappa himself claimed to be quite well most of the time. He continued to work up to sixteen hours a day in his home studio, composing, recording and remixing his music, only taking time off every so often when he felt ‘really bad’. However, an aversion to flying, owing to severe discomfort, and the more frequent press-leaks of the true severity of his condition seemed to make it apparent that the end was night. His latest album, The Yellow Shark, consisting of orchestral pieces performed by the Ensemble Modern, had been out barely a month before news was released that Zappa had died. On December 6 1993 it was announced that he had already been interred, having passed away two days earlier. Zappa is survived by wife and company administrator Gail, and by children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodon and Diva. His stunning oeuvre has been left in good order. Most of his back catalogue has been re-released on CD and new work is ready for imminent, posthumous release.

Human foible may now emit a collective sigh of relief. Its greatest detractor, one of this century’s most original and significant composers and the most alternative of musicians, is no more.

 

  1. This particular club no longer exists.
  2. Album number 93 – I think – was recently released: a collection of early live recordings called  Road Tapes: Venue 1.
  3. Zappa bootlegs outnumbering legitimate releases ten-to-one is most likely a conservative estimate.