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Zappa plays Zappa?

Taking on the music of Frank Zappa is a big ask, and even former members of his various line-ups have, in my humble opinion, fallen short of the mark when setting out to play together without Frank up front — but Frank Zappa did set the mark pretty high in the first place. Anyway, we are talking about Frank’s own sons, Dweezil and Ahmet, heading up the project.

I’ve heard Dweezil Zappa play guitar — not just his own music, but, as true Frank Zappa fans will also have heard him, on his dad’s records as well. Dweezil joined his dad on stage towards the end of Frank’s 1984 world tour. The live recording of ‘Sharleena’ appears on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 and it’s awesome (An equally awesome studio version appears on Them Or Us). If anyone could or should be playing Frank Zappa’s solos, it’s Dweezil. And as for Ahmet, well, according to discussions I’ve read on fan forums, while Dweezil has inherited his dad’s musical chops and the serious, disciplined approach to playing music, Ahmet has inherited his dad’s sense of humour. And of course, they work so well together in their own band, Z. So if they’re leading a band of musicians that include some of the talented people that featured in line-ups of Frank Zappa’s band, it’s gonna be something for a Zappa fan — even a hardcore fanatic — to see.

I became a Zappaholic in late adolescence. It must have been during the summer holidays before my final year of high school, as 1988 was turning into 1989. I was haunting one of my favourite second hand record shops, one of those suburban ‘half back’ book and record exchanges staffed by old ladies. They’d have shelves and shelves of Mills & Boon and other such ‘literature’. As a younger kid I used to go there for comics. By the time I was buying records, the comics shelf had given way to pornography, and nobody who could actually afford those shiny discs of digital sound would have been hawking them for cash just yet. At the time I would have actually been there for Beatles stuff, so it must have been a slow Beatles week; there was nothing Beatle related. What I did find were two Frank Zappa albums. At the time I had never heard a Frank Zappa album, but a canny guy who’d worked in a record shop with me had once advised me that if I ever see anything by Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart in a second hand record shop, I should grab it; that stuff was hard to find. So I figured, what the hey! and I bought both albums.

One was called Joe’s Garage, and had a photo of Zappa on the cover. Even though I’d never listened to him before, I knew what he looked like: he was the weird guy at the back of big, alphabetised, rock anthologies, who had weird facial hair and kids with strange names. On the cover of this record, Zappa was in black face, posing with a mop, like he was the lowly grease monkey who had to clean up after the mechanics at the garage featured in the album’s title. (Although the album ended up having nothing to do with that sort of garage; the garage, “over by the Dodge”, happens to be where Joe and his band rehearse.)

I put the record on and was greeted with a creepy, sinister voice calling itself ‘The Central Scrutinizer’. It was too weird. I had to take it off before anyone else in the house heard it, and try the other record.

The other record was called Studio Tan and featured particularly child-like cover artwork. Side one was one long track that went for twenty minutes. I dropped the needle on the vinyl and was greeted with something even weirder than the opening of Joe’s Garage. I took that off quick smart and returned to Joe’s Garage. Joe’s Garage was a bizarre concept album, like a musical, set around a conspiracy theory about - oh, it’s too involved to get into here. ‘The Adventures of Greggery Peccary’, which is side one of Studio Tan, was a bizarre fairy-tale set to music. But the song that grabbed me most was a throw-away pop ditty on side two called ‘Lemme Take You To The Beach’ which had lyrics like “You are dandy/Eat A Candy/May I kiss you?/Or maybe I’ll just hold your handy". Throughout both albums, Zappa seemed to like to mix between passionate solos with rapid passages of unusual time groupings playing against the beat and sheer silliness. It always threw you, as a listener.

To document my development as a fully-fledged Zappa fanatic would take more space and time than I have, certainly more than you want to dedicate to reading about it. However, for the rest of my schooling and my university degree, I managed to acquire pretty much the entire Zappa oeuvre on vinyl and, as it was being re-released, on CD as well.

Listening through the scurrilous lyrics, beyond the satire and vituperation, the musicianship was awesome, embodying the entire range of musical genre. As Zappa had undertaken a tour in 1988, I was holding out for another Aussie tour - but it was not to be. Frank Zappa passed away just after I completed my Arts degree (in a way he’ll always represent that a time of my youth that I’m virtually tranported back too every time I listen to an album). And so the idea of seeing Frank’s sons, Dweezil and Ahmet, leading a band that includes musicians who played with Frank Zappa, performing Frank Zappa songs, is a special kind of heaven.

In the year following Frank Zappa’s death, I was on the editorial team of Honi Soit, my uni's student paper. To follow is the obituary that I wrote for the first issue. It barely touches the surface; it doesn’t do Frank Zappa the composer justice; I was a far less experienced writer who took himself far too seriously. I have only tweaked it slightly for grammar.

Frank Zappa
December 21 1940 to December 3 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 74 was recently released: a surround-sound DVD-A entitled QuAUDIOPHILIAc.
  3. Zappa bootlegs outnumbering legitimate releases ten-to-one is most likely a conservative estimate.

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