How a Frank Zappa fixation fostered an appreciation for classical compositions
Gateway Acts is an ongoing series on Backbeat in which we examine the music that served as an entry point for our burgeoning musical obsessions, a gateway drug that tuned us in and turned us on. Today, A.H. Goldstein reflects on his Frank Zappa fixation.
Some of my earliest musical memories revolve around the tape deck in my father's car. Led Zeppelin II, the Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks compilation, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac -- these cassettes provided the daily soundtrack for drives to and from elementary school, along with complementary hand drum solos on the dashboard courtesy of my dad. Occasionally, he'd pop in a copy of Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti. That record was a stark departure from the rest of the classic rock fare, with its long-form guitar solos, frenzied xylophone work and bizarre lyrics about Jewish princesses and baby snakes. It wasn't until years later, after I bought my own copy of the album on CD as a freshman in high school, that the true brilliance of the album and its creator began to sink in.
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I bought that record in 1994, a year after Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer at the age of 52. A profound transformation followed. I'd been reared on classic rock, and I was a dutiful fan of quintessential '90s acts the Pixies, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dinosaur Jr. But stumbling into the music of Frank Zappa pushed me in a radically different direction. In the next three years, I bought every title in Zappa's official discography, a massive body of work that comprised more than seventy releases at the time of his death.
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In high school and beyond, my Zappa obsession became an in-joke among friends, an accepted if little-understood part of my personality. I had a hard time explaining why Zappa's work meant so much to me, how it had reformed my basic ideas about what music, art and creative integrity could mean. More than twenty years later, I'm still struggling to put it into words.
Starting with Freak Out!, the first Mothers of Invention album released in 1966, Frank Zappa defied categorization. At a time when the Beatles were still sporting mop-tops and singing songs like "Drive My Car," Zappa and his scraggly band of misfits were experimenting with concept albums and tributes to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Tunes like "Trouble Every Day" tackled the taboo topic of the Watts Riots, with Frank boldly proclaiming, "I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white." The band produced bizarre, challenging music, and Zappa fought to keep that kind of music coming on major label releases.
Such boldness followed in album after album over the following decades. Zappa didn't let the breakup of the original Mothers of Invention in 1969 slow his creative pace. He continued his role as bandleader, composer, guitarist and creator doggedly. He toured and recording with different bands that featured a revolving string of virtuosic players. George Duke, Captain Beefheart, Flo and Eddie from the Turtles, Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai -- all of these musicians shone in Zappa's ensembles, partly because he knew how to draw on their particular skills in making his own inimitable brand of music.
And that music was unique. It would be too simplistic to say that Zappa fused different styles. A song like "Inca Roads" from 1975 melds too many musical cues to count. The first section features George Duke's jazzy lead vocals before the tune moves on to Frank's soaring guitar solo. A dense, dizzying instrumental stretch that feels too complex to be played by humans follows to finish up the tune.
As percussionist Ruth Underwood would later recall, Zappa's stress on musical rigor (he likened being in his band to being in the Army) was always combined with an emphasis on improvisation. While other prog-rock bands would stick to predictable set lists for their live shows, Zappa's brand of "musical theater" would vary from night to night. And that band would play under some harsh rules concerning drugs. A fan of cigarettes and coffee, Zappa spoke out against drug use, and any musician found under the influence would be quickly booted from the band.
That alienated plenty of radio stations, record companies and rock consumers in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But then so did Zappa's taste for the bizarre and the salacious in his music -- he never veered away from off-color verses about sex, politics and the comical trappings of the rock-music lifestyle. He poked fun at the poppy, syrupy words of acts like Peter Frampton; he drew on his natural eloquence in his fight against Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center in the 1980s; and he sang a litany of offensive songs about France, disco, feminists and punk music.
But Frank Zappa found ways to keep putting out his music at a prolific pace. He battled with record companies, he started his own labels, he built his own cottage industry based on getting his music out. Even cancer couldn't stop his furious work habits -- in the final years of his life, Zappa put out a massive, twelve-CD live retrospective, a Grammy Award-winning album of electronic music and The Yellow Shark, an orchestral record that showed off his skills as a composer.
For me, Zappa's career came to define integrity. His music turned me on to jazz, and it helped me understand and appreciate the beauty of classical compositions. As a guitar player, his work was groundbreaking -- I still think his visceral picking style and innovative use of tone and feedback ranks him as one of the top guitarists of the past century. His humor, his eloquence and his commitment to his own artistic ideals remain unparalleled. Frank Zappa is one of the true musical originals of the 20th century.
I tried to convey all of this when I got the chance to interview Dweezil Zappa in December. I tried to tell him how much his dad's music meant to me, how I still feel like I'm in on some well-kept secret twenty years after I bought my copy of Sheik Yerbouti. He said he gets similar feedback from the hardcore fans who come to the Zappa Plays Zappa shows.
"The music really means something to them, and it changes their lives," he said. "It changes their perspective on music and what's possible in music, especially when you look at it in stark relief against what else is out there."
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