Frank Zappa
 
Contemporary Musicians
November 1996 , Volume: 17
by Kevin Hillstrom


 
Occupation: Guitarist, composer, songwriter
 
Personal Information

Born Frank Vincent Zappa, Jr., December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, MD;
Died of prostate cancer, December 4, 1993; married Kay Sherman (divorced);
married Adelaide Gail Sloatman, 1969; children: (with Sloatman) Dweezil, Moon Unit,
Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, Diva.
 
Education
Attended Antelope Valley High School, Antelope Valley Junior College, and
Chaffey Junior College, all in California.
 
Career
Formed first band, the Black-Outs, in high school; recorded soundtrack for The
World's Greatest Sinner, 1960; founded the Soul Giants, 1964, which soon
evolved into the Mothers of Invention (original members included Elliott Ingber,
Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, and Ray Collins); signed with Verve/MGM
and released first album, Freak Out!, 1966; formed Bizarre Records, 1968,
with manager Herb Cohen; produced film 200 Motels, 1971; 1970s European tour ended after band equipment was destroyed in fire and Zappa was attacked on stage; "Don't Eat That Yellow Snow" made Billboard's Top 100 singles
chart, 1974; testified before Congress on censorship issues, 1985.
 
Awards: Grammy Award, 1988, for Jazz from Hell; posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1995.
 
"I don't want to spend my life explaining myself," Frank Zappa once said. "You either get it or you don't." Indeed, Zappa's fiery social commentary and fiercely uncompromising brand of music--which ran the gamut from rock to classical compositions--made him a figure who garnered large measures of both praise and criticism. Many Americans learned of him only after he emerged as a highly visible and articulate defender of freedom-of-speech issues during the mid-1980s. But to followers of his career, Zappa's outspoken testimony before Congress came as no surprise, for he had often directed outrageous and perceptive volleys at American institutions and their imperfections in his records.
 
In 1993 Zappa died at the age of 52 from prostate cancer. His death silenced one of the music world's most unique artists. Zappa left behind a vast catalog of recordings, however, as noted by Entertainment Weekly contributor Tom Sinclair: "Esoteric, genre defying, pornographic, scathingly satirical, and often downright bizarre, the late composer-guitarist Zappa's oeuvre will be pondered by musicologists and sociologists alike for years to come."
 
Frank Vincent Zappa, Jr., the oldest of four children, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940. When he was nine years old, Zappa's family moved to Monterey, California. Once there, Zappa made his first tentative explorations of the world of music. "Around the age of twelve I started getting interested in the drums," Zappa recalled in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. "I guess a lot of young boys think the drums are exciting, but it wasn't my idea to be a rock and roll drummer or anything like that, because rock and roll hadn't been invented yet. I was just interested in the sounds of
things a person could beat on." By 1956 Zappa was playing in a high school rhythm and blues band called the Ramblers. He discovered the guitar around this time as well and subsequently formed his first band, the Black-Outs.
 
Even during high school, Zappa's strong sense of individualism was on garish display. He admitted that his classmates found him to be a pretty strange guy. "I would refuse to salute the flag; I would wear weird things to school; I would get in trouble all the time, and get thrown out of school. I did things that were pretty notorious," he told Musician writer Dan Forte. "They threw me out of the marching band because they caught me smoking under the bleachers with my maroon uniform on."
 
Shortly after graduating from Antelope Valley High School, Zappa met Kay Sherman. "I had gone to Antelope Valley Junior College in Lancaster and Chaffey Junior College in Alta Loma for the express purpose of meeting girls. I had no interest in higher education, but after finishing high school it occurred to me that if I wasn't in school, I wasn't going to meet any--so I 'reenlisted,'" Zappa explained in The Real Frank Zappa Book. He met Sherman at Chaffey, and the couple promptly dropped out of college and got married. (They divorced a few years later.) Zappa then embarked on a series of unlikely jobs
that culminated with a grim stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, work which he later described as "truly wretched."  


By the early 1960s Zappa had immersed himself in music, playing at cocktail lounges, scoring music for B movies, and recording Don Van Vliet's first Captain Beefheart album. In 1964 he scraped together enough money to buy a five-track recording studio in Cucamonga, California, while at the same time shaping a band that came to be known as the Mothers of Invention (originally known simply as the Mothers).
 
In 1966 noted producer Tom Wilson signed the band to Verve/MGM and the Mothers of Invention released their first album, Freak Out! The first double album in rock history, Freak Out! was a feverish fusion of pop satire, social commentary, and diverse musical styles; the album and accompanying concert tour immediately established the band as one of the most outrageous of this (or any) era. As Zappa indicated in his autobiography: "The very first Mothers of Invention tour took place in 1966, at a time when hardly anybody outside of L.A. and San Francisco had long hair. We were all ugly guys with weird clothes and long hair: just what the entertainment world needed." It was around this time that Zappa met Adelaide Gail Sloatman, whom he described in his autobiography as a "fascinating little vixen." Gail would eventually become his
second wife.

 
Subsequent releases such as Absolutely Free, We're Only in It for the Money, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, did nothing to diminish the band's eccentric reputation. While Zappa's lyrics and the group's outlandish appearance and performances attracted many fans, critics dismissed their songs as tasteless and vulgar. In typical Zappa fashion, the songwriter-guitarist shrugged off the barbs.
 
Internal strife and other factors, though, spurred the creation of countless variations of the Mothers of Invention. "No matter what the other guys did, and they abused the shit out of me, I wouldn't fire them," he told Creem contributor Ed Naha. "I kept on bringing in new people to make the musical end of things more proficient. But the band was always down on me because I was their employer. If I'm the guy who's paying the bills, how can I be a human being? I've had the problem with all of the bands. It's strange. Finally it got to the point where I just said 'Fuck it.'... I want musicians who ... have the same range of musical interest as I have. Those guys didn't want to do ANYTHING."
 
As the roster of musicians surrounding Zappa changed, he continued to explore different areas of music. His fledgling Bizarre Records and DiscReet labels produced several albums (including works by Tim Buckley and Alice Cooper) during the early 1970s, while his encyclopedic knowledge of music, from rock to classical, continued to grow. "He wanted to learn," recalled trombonist Bruce Fowler in Musician. "He was the kind of guy who didn't stop learning at the age of 25 like everybody else." One-time Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood agreed, remarking that Zappa "just devoured music; that was all he thought about. We listened to his music on the bus; we rehearsed it at sound checks; we played it that night; we analyzed it the next day. I've got some original sketches, pieces he composed for me sitting in an airport waiting to
board!... Everything was music."

 
By the late 1970s Zappa was weary of his incessant battles with controversy--averse record company executives who were forever up in arms over his scathing (and often obscene) lyrics. Determined to attain a level of autonomy, Zappa secured the rights to nearly all of his master recordings and decided to extricate himself from his troubled relationship with Warner Bros.,
his label at the time. (Zappa's decision to hang a huge banner reading "Warner Bros. Sucks" at his concerts made his view of the company fairly clear.)
 
Once free of Warner Bros., Zappa formed his own record company. (His various business enterprises--including albums, videos, T-shirts, and music publishing--were eventually folded into a company that Zappa called Barfko-Swill.) He continued to churn out records at a dizzying pace, and while few of the albums contained any hit singles--"Don't Eat That Yellow Snow,"
"Dancin' Fool," and "Valley Girl" were probably his biggest hits--Zappa fans snapped up his new releases as soon as they hit the record bins.  


Zappa's passion for classical music became more apparent in the early 1980s as well, and in 1982 he recorded six orchestral compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra. National Public Radio (NPR) news analyst Daniel Schorr recalled in Musician that when he first met Zappa, they conversed at some length about musical philosophies. Schorr disliked rock music, and he was initially skeptical of Zappa's musical knowledge. "I began asking him about music and what relationship he thinks his work has--as politely as I could put it--to the great tradition of music. As we got into talking about it, I realized this
man knew an enormous lot about ?German composer Johann Sebastian? Bach, ?Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus? Mozart, and the classic tradition."

 
In the mid-1980s Zappa's views on social issues--and his willingness to voice them in his usual blunt fashion--thrust him into the national limelight. In 1985 the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group founded by activist Tipper Gore and other parents concerned about the sexual and violent content of some album lyrics, began to lobby the recording industry and Congress. The PMRC called for the institution of a rating system for records, and as publicity over the issue mushroomed, civil liberties groups, industry executives, parents, educators, and politicians all argued over the issue.
 
For his part, Zappa was horrified at proposed PMRC solutions, and he made several highly visible appearances before national and state congressional committees to protest the efforts of the PMRC. "Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of 'toilet training program' to housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few," Zappa said in his congressional testimony. "Because of the subjective nature of the PMRC ratings, it is impossible to guarantee that some sort of 'despised concept' won't sneak
through, tucked away in new slang or the overstressed pronunciation of an otherwise innocent word.... The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on 'Things Certain Christians Don't Like.'" Later, in a radio interview with KUSC, the radio station of the University of Southern California, Zappa pointed to the basic fear he had of censorship in general: "Anytime you see someone seeking to control the arts or commentary, you should get suspicious; history is full of examples of how other people have tried to do this
and where it led."  


As the 1980s unfolded, Zappa continued to follow his musical muse, turning out classical, rock, and jazz albums with equal facility. (He won a Grammy Award for Jazz from Hell, an instrumental album in which he played all the parts on a Synclavier.) Looking at Zappa's vast and sprawling body of work, Harry Sumrall, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, called it "the oddest, weirdest, most idiosyncratic and eccentric body of music created in this or any other century. And one of the most inspired."
 
Ironically, while some of Zappa's music was among the most controversial issued in the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, his personal life was much more sedate. He and Gail, who had long since emerged as her husband's business partner, had four children-- Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva. Family friend and rock groupee Pamela Des Barres --once governess to two of the Zappa children--recalled in Musician that the Zappa household "wasn't what you'd call normal, but it wasn't what people thought either. It was a very free-form household--loose, but very loving and warm. He was very much a family man." Former Mothers bandmate Mark Volman, meanwhile, noted in Musician that Zappa was "such a caring father, and with Gail ... they gave their kids room to be themselves and to speak their minds. And they are all very
articulate and very generous about their love for their father." Volman further commented that Zappa's daily routine reflected the value he placed on his family. "He didn't care about going out and making the scene. A big night for Frank was a pot of espresso, a pack of cigarettes and a pizza--delivered. And to have his 24-track studio in the house and his family upstairs."
 
Addressing the issue of parenting, Zappa wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book: "As far as rearing children goes, the basic idea I try to keep in mind is that a child is a person. Just because they happen to be a little shorter than you doesn't mean they are dumber than you. A lot of people make that mistake, and forget how much value there is in raw intuition--and there's plenty of that in every child."
 
In January 1990 Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Still, he continued to pursue his musical, business, and political interests and later that year traveled to Europe, where he met Czechoslovakian President Vaclev Havel, a big Zappa fan. Once he returned to the United States, Zappa redoubled his efforts to complete the myriad unfinished projects on which he was working. But as Rip Rense wrote in LA Weekly, "time and energy were undependable, inadequate allies for Frank; he made do with them, ever stretching their limits through insomniac nights with the only drugs he ever abused: caffeine and nicotine. He would sit, often until dawn ... working with an urgency that became terrible and poignant as his health declined." Prior to his death, Zappa and his wife began negotiations with Rykodisc to sell his master recordings, and the label
subsequently rereleased nearly 30 years' worth of Zappa music on 70 CDs.
 
Zappa died on December 4, 1993, leaving behind a huge and provocative catalog of music. Numerous fans, friends, and fellow musicians weighed in to express their appreciation for the artist and the music he created. Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Tom Long wrote that "Zappa was an original, and originality is prized less and less these days. Still, if anyone believed in the undeniable force and passion of art, and its ability to overcome all obstacles, it was Frank Zappa." Guitarist Steve Vai, one of many musicians who worked with Zappa over the course of his career, commented in Aquarian Weekly: "In Frank I saw an artist of uncompromising approach and flawless integrity in his art. One hundred years from now when many popular bands will mean little more than funny names from the past, Frank will be revered and celebrated for the true
genius that he is." His daughter Moon Unit, meanwhile, simply called him "the truest person I have ever known."
 
In 1995 Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an ironic honor considering the recording industry's long history of ambivalence--and occasional hostility--toward the artist during his career.
 

Selected Discography

Freak Out! Verve, 1966.
Absolutely Free, Verve, 1967.
We're Only in It for the Money, Verve, 1967.
Lumpy Gravy, Verve, 1967.
Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Verve, 1967.
Uncle Meat, Bizarre, 1969.
Hot Rats, Bizarre, 1970.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Bizarre, 1970.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Bizarre, 1970.
Chunga's Revenge, Bizarre, 1970.
Fillmore East, June 1971, Bizarre, 1971.
Just Another Band from L.A., Bizarre, 1972.
Waka/Jawaka, Bizarre, 1972.
The Grand Wazoo, Reprise, 1973.
Over-nite Sensation, DiscReet, 1973.
Apostrophe, DiscReet, 1974.
Roxy & Elsewhere, DiscReet, 1974.
One Size Fits All, DiscReet, 1974.
Bongo Fury, DiscReet, 1975.
Zoot Allures, Warner Bros., 1976.
Zappa in New York, DiscReet, 1978.
Studio Tan, Warner Bros., 1978.
Sleep Dirt, Warner Bros., 1978.
Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa, 1979.
Orchestral Favorites, Warner Bros., 1979.
Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III, Zappa, 1980.
Tinsel Town Rebellion, Barking Pumpkin, 1981.
Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, Barking Pumpkin, 1981.
You Are What You Is, Barking Pumpkin, 1981.
Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, Barking Pumpkin, 1982.
Them or Us, Barking Pumpkin, 1986.
Thing-Fish, Barking Pumpkin, 1986.
Francesco Zappa, Barking Pumpkin, 1986.
Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, Barking Pumpkin, 1986.
Jazz from Hell, Barking Pumpkin, 1988.
Guitar, Barking Pumpkin, 1988.
Broadway the Hard Way, Barking Pumpkin, 1988.
You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore (6 vols.), Barking Pumpkin, 1988-92.
The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, Barking Pumpkin, 1991.
Make a Jazz Noise Here, Barking Pumpkin, 1991.
Playground Psychotics, Barking Pumpkin, 1992.
Ahead of Their Time, Barking Pumpkin, 1993.
The Yellow Shark, Barking Pumpkin, 1993.
Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa, Rykodisc, 1995.
The Lost Episodes, Rykodisc, 1996.
L_ther, Rykodisc, 1996.
Baby Snakes.
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, Barking Pumpkin.
London Symphony Orchestra, Vols. I and II, Barking Pumpkin.
The Man from Utopia, Barking Pumpkin.
 

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