Twenty years ago on this day â more or less â 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 doesnât 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.
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 âAlternative Music Clubâ  marquee, where a girl with pink hair and a pierced tongue performed her inculcatory spiel about the kind of music that âAlternative Music Clubâ members listened to. âYou know,â she said, âartists who donât receive much mainstream commercial radio airplay, like Morrissey, R.E.M., Sonic Youthâ¦â
âWhat about Frank Zappa?â I asked her.
âWho?â she said.
I guess you canât be much more alternative than that.
Very occasional radio play has meant that few people have heard Zappaâs 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 âway coolâ, and that âas soon as Bart Simpson is able to shave heâll have a little moustache and goatee just like Zappaâs.â) However, during a career that lasted almost thirty years, Zappa had officially released over sixty albums , and nearly ten times that number reached the market illegally as âbootlegsâ. 
While the epithet âpost modernâ 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: âthere 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. Constructionâ¦ began in late 1964. Work is still in progress.â
Musically, Zappaâs 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 âThe Mothers of Inventionâ or merely âThe Mothersâ) was able to execute the complex performances that Zappa conducted. âThere are cues used on stage like twirling my fingers as if Iâm piddling with a Rasta braid on the right side of my head - that means: âPlay reggaeââ¦ If I wanted something played âheavy metalâ, I put both hands on my crotch and do âBig Ballsââ¦ The band understands what the norms and âexpected mannerismsâ are for these different musical styles, and will instantly âtranslateâ a song into that musical âdialectâ.â As well as contemporary rock and jazz, Zappa wrote ad conducted orchestral music which similarly subverted and entertained.
Entertainment was Zappaâs 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 âcontemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is in booksâ. During the late 60s, hippies bore the brunt of Zappaâs saturnine wit. The 70s saw him pour scorn and derision upon decadent rock-star sexuality, sexuality sublimated into the âbetter, louder, fasterâ guitar solo and the constant pursuit of compliant groupies. Censorship, religious fundamentalism and sexual impropriety â or rather, hypocrisy with regard to the particular sexual impropriety of televangelists and Republicans â received Zappaâs 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 âglandularâ nature. His opinion to the end was that âsex looks sillyâ. âLetâs face it,â he said, âeven if it feels good, it looks sillyâ. Yet, as entertainment, he felt that all work could be reduced to this tenet: âIs it possible to laugh while fucking? I think yes.â
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 âthe pressâ 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 âreally badâ. 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 centuryâs most original and significant composers and the most alternative of musicians, is no more.