People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Archive

Frank Zappa

Posted on

The teenager enters the room carrying an electric guitar. “Dad?” he begins.

“Yes, son?” the patriarch replies.

“Is it all right” the lad asks politely, “if I use the Snork and Jade’s Burp?”

“Sure, Dweez, go ahead.”

Meet the Zappas, who only sound like extraterrestrials. In fact, home for the six of them, one of Hollywood’s last intact nuclear families, is a sprawling, multilevel house on a mountain road high above Los Angeles. The spread includes a pool and the $2 million home-recording studio that ex-Mother and proud father Frank Zappa is learning to share with his kids—Moon Unit 21, Dweezil, 19, Ahmet Rodan, 14, and Diva, 10—as each attains noise-making maturity.

“Dweezil’s scoring a Pee-wee’s Playhouse on the Synclavier [a synthesizer-computer],” says Zappa by way of translating his son’s request. “We have certain proprietary noises programmed into the computer, and he’s asking permission to use two of mine. The Snork you make by inhaling to produce this ugly, grunting sound. Jade’s Burp is a sound produced by a nephew of ours who has the ability to emit grotesque burps so long he can burp the first line of the Gettysburg Address.”

Such odd noises have been part of Zappa’s unique musical vocabulary ever since 1966, when he freaked onto the rock-and-roll scene as leader of the Mothers—a name to which a nervous record exec would eventually add “… of Invention.” A true dissident who has been tried for both pornography and obscenity, the 48-year-old composer and social-satirist has spent three decades pushing back the boundaries of rock. On more than 50 records, he has displayed a mastery of musical forms from rock and jazz fusion to doo-wop and classical, as well as a biting, often R-rated sense of humor. Now Zappa has added “published author” to his curriculum vitae—his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, written with Peter Occhiogrosso, is due in stores May 31. It chronicles a restless, wide-ranging career that once prompted condugtor Zubin Mehta to call Zappa “one of the few rock musicians who knows my language”—even as young potheads were finding the true expression of their outlaw impulses in Zappa’s wicked lyrics.

But sitting in his favorite listening room, his head in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Zappa says he has lost faith in the power of rock and roll to change the world or even to trumpet its wrongs. “A long time ago, the music business was Dada—it used to be absurd,” says Zappa. “It used to be my kind of world. There were weird and crazy people. Even the business types were willing to take a chance on an off-the-wall guy like me. Now the music business is people who make endorsements for liquids with bubbles in them. Which changes the basic thrust of doing it. You wind up doing something suitable for video and adaptation to a commercial jingle.”

Zappa has no endorsement deals and no backing from a major record label. In the early ’80s he sued the two biggest labels, CBS and Warners and won back the publishing rights to his work. Capitol Records, which distributes his private label, Barking Pumpkin Records, budgets no promotional support, so he has decided to hang up his rock-and-roll shoes. Once one of rock’s nonpareil road warriors, Zappa says his 67-city 1988 world tour was his last. “I took a 12-piece band on the road for four months,” he says. “I was the capitalist investor who financed the tour. Most of the concerts were sold out and I still lost $400,000. This is an experience I don’t wish to repeat.”

This will come as a disappointment to a large and loyal cult of fans who share Zappa’s distaste for things cheesy, plastic, greasy or brown—biases made emphatic in Zappa’s literate and hilarious lyrics. Yet Zappa’s music has alienated as often as it has entertained. While some critics regard him as “rock’s eccentric genius,” others find him offensive. His 1979 LP, Sheik Yerbouti—which included a hit, “Dancin’ Fool,” and a miss, “Jewish Princess”—managed to slag both Arabs and Jews. Zappa dismisses complaints that he took the gross road to hitsville with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” in 1974 and “Valley Girl,” the 1982 smash in which guest vocalist Moon coined “gag me with a spoon.” “I don’t do anything for applause,” Zappa says. “Everything I do is for laughs.”

A composer without airplay in his homeland—”Radio won’t touch most of my stuff,” he complains—Zappa has finally tired of cult-hero status. “I’m not living my life to have a batch of No. 1 records,” he says. “But I do have the desire to feel useful.” To that end, the famed antiestablishmentarian is making a surprise move “into the realm of what I call he Marco Polo business—international-trading type stuff,” says Zappa. “For me, it’s much more fascinating. I can still go into my room and write a symphony, even if nobody else ever hears it. But imagination is virtually forbidden in American music today, and it’s welcomed in business. So I go where the action is.”

Zappa, the lifelong iconoclast, says he low wants to be a builder, not a mocker, To explain what he means by “Marco Poloing,” he offers an example. In February, fresh from a business trip to Moscow, where he dined on “a lot of pastry with pink, meatlike products inside,” Zappa met a fan on a flight to Spain who expressed interest in doing business with he Soviets. “I happened to look out the window, and it occurred to me that Spain doesn’t have any trees,” he says. “I said, Possibly you could ship the Soviets meat and produce and get paid in lumber, when sell toilet paper back to the Soviet Union because they don’t have much of hat either.’ ”

And what’s in it for him? “A 5 percent finder’s fee” for packaging such deals, says Zappa, who is already involved in five joint entertainment ventures in the U.S.S.R. But there’s more than money involved. A business deal, he says, “is just like developing a symphonic theme…only you can’t dance to it.”

For Frank Vincent Zappa, internationalism was bred in the bone. His father, Francis, was Greek, Arab and Sicilian, his mother, Rose Marie, French-Italian. Frank, one of four kids, was born in Baltimore, where his father worked as a meteorologist at a U.S. Army arsenal. To supplement his wages, Francis volunteered for tests used in the development of chemical weapons. At $10 a test, the elder Zappa would come home each week with three or four different skin patches. Today Frank, whose father died in his 60s, says with some anger, “I think the tests must have affected his health.”

Arsenal flotsam made for macabre toys. Young Frank played with gas masks and mercury blobs and became a walking munitions manual, conversant with the grisly effects achieved by DDT and mustard gas. (“It explodes the vessels in your lungs, causing you to drown in your own blood.”) Sickly as a boy, Zappa was subjected to some unusual folk-medical treatments. If he complained of an earache, his mother poured hot olive oil in his ear. When his sinuses acted up, a doctor stuffed a pellet of radium up his nose. Miraculously, he suffered no lasting adverse effects. Unfortunately, the treatments didn’t work either, so the elder Zappas, in search of a healthier clime, eventually settled in Lancaster, Calif.

There young Frank graduated from making explosives with his chemistry set to blowing the locals’ minds with his drum kit and electric guitar. He was a precocious fan of Igor Stravinsky as well as of avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, whom he discovered after reading in Look that Varèse made ” ‘the worst music in the world.’ Ahh! Yes!” Zappa writes, That’s for me.” He says the compositions struck him as “angular, dissonant, original and mysterious—I loved it as soon as I heard it.” But even as he relished cacophony, Zappa was also drawn to the sweet hooks of black doo-wop groups, to rhythm-and-blues greats like Guitar Slim and to the zany gimmicks of Spike Jones.

Dark and weird in high school, Zappa—who began to grow his hipster’s chin “duster” at 15—would later mock in song “pom-pom girls who looked down their noses at me.” His first brush with authority occurred when he was arrested for vagrancy in an attempt, he says, to prevent his band from playing a sock hop. “I was held in jail overnight,” he says, “all because there were actual Mexicans and black persons in the band.”

Zappa attended Chaffey College for only six months before dropping out to play music. In 1962 he was sentenced to 10 days in the county jail and had a studio full of recording equipment confiscated for making a “pornographic” tape. An undercover vice-squad detective—figuring no one who looked and acted like Frank could be on the up-and-up—asked him to make a “sex sound effects” tape for $100. Zappa and a female friend recorded it in a bathroom. “We were fully clothed. There was no sex. Just sound effects,” he says. The judge laughed when he heard the evidence but convicted Zappa anyway.

By the time he formed the Mothers in 1966, Zappa had already worked out his personal credo, as explained on the group’s first album, Freak Out. “Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express [himself] CREATIVELY….” he wrote. The Mothers, who would go through numerous personnel changes in their 14-year history, proceeded to do just that. In only four years, Zappa put out 11 LPs—including We’re Only in It for the Money, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh—that crowned him a king of the psychedelic counterculture. But while his loyal subjects spaced out to Zappa’s aural kaleidoscopes, the king himself stayed straight. Urged “to go to Big Sur and drop acid,” Zappa says, he wouldn’t go with the flow. His “Flower Punk” lampooned weekend hippies and offended some fans. “By ’67, the merchandising had already started,” he says. “I think it was perfectly fair to make a comment about artificially induced flower-love horse——.”

What Zappa called “sonic mutilations” on those early albums predated by decades the electronic effects used in today’s rap, funk and techno-pop genres. “I adapted them from avant-garde classical music,” he says. “I just happened to know them because I hung out in record libraries.” Moreover, the mad master’s campy manipulation of pop-music clichés and slyly subversive lyrics inspired such postmodern rock satirists as They Might Be Giants and Was (Not Was). Was lyricist David Weiss says he and partner Don Fagenson were 13 when they turned on to Zappa. “He was the rock-and-roll equivalent of Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur, a kind of hipster’s compass,” Weiss says. “He had the only sense of humor out there. He was more radical, more naughty and nasty than anybody we ever heard before, and that had great appeal to a couple of teenage jazzbos like us.”

But Zappa appealed less to the mainstream. In a 1975 court case, a judge in London deemed 200 Motels unfit for performance in the Royal Albert Hall, though Zappa was acquitted of obscenity charges. During the bizarre trial bewigged barristers solemnly read into the court record such lyrics as “Would you go all the way for the U.S.O….. Lift up your dress, if the answer is ‘No.’ ”

Today Zappa, who has recorded solo since disbanding the Mothers in 1978, feels even farther removed from the mainstream, though he displays on his mantelpiece his only Grammy—won in 1987 for “Jazz from Hell,” a song he claims “nobody actually listened to.” He seldom leaves the house, except for business trips abroad, preferring to engineer deals on his home FAX machine, while Gail, his wife of 21 years, runs the family’s million-dollar-a-year mail-order business in records, videos and Zappa paraphernalia. “That’s all her baby,” he says.

Uninterested in the Hollywood scene—”I don’t even know where Spago is,” he says—Zappa couldn’t cruise for burgers if he wanted to. He hasn’t driven a car since his license expired in 1969. “I love to drive, but I refuse to stand in that line.” He doesn’t listen to the radio, and the only record album he has bought in the past 15 years is a two-volume set by a Bulgarian women’s choir—”It’s fabulous,” he says. Yet his kids do their best to keep him current. “You know that song by Guns N’ Roses? ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine?’ Ahmet was playing that around the house all last summer. I like that.”

Zappa’s twin obsessions are news and the inner workings of government. He stays up nights watching CNN and C-SPAN, and though his eyesight is “getting real bad,” he pores over newspapers and books. Occasionally, Zappa enters the public debate—as when he testified at the 1985 Senate hearings on rock-lyrics censorship—and he has thought about running for political office. “No speeches. No party. I’d just get on every ballot and say, ‘I’m available for the job,’ ” he says.

A doting dad, Zappa gives daughter Diva a kiss as she serves his afternoon meal—a glazed doughnut. A fervent nonbeliever in health foods and diet plans, he consumes it between gulps of espresso and puffs on a cigarette. By turns analytic and tenderhearted, Zappa comes close to tears when he describes the idealism and energy of young rockers he met in Russia. “This guy from a Siberian rhythm-and-blues band—no kidding—showed me a picture of his home,” he says. “He had pictures of me all over the wall and 35 of my albums. The guy almost died when I walked into the room.”

“These kids make their own guitars,” Zappa says haltingly. “It’s all very hopeful and very positive. It was so…charming. It was sad and it was naive because of their idealism. It was like 1960, you know? They still believed.”