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The company was absorbed by Warner Bros. in the late Seventies, and Zappa would continue to record for Warner into the mid-Eighties. More irony, more paradox, another signifier of complexity: this anti-establishment figure was in reality an astute businessman who knew when to buy and when to sell.
Zappa's sarcasm finally broke through to the mainstream through the voice of his daughter, Moon Unit. "Valley Girl" turned out to be Zappa's biggest hit, a benchmark of the spacy era when Reagan ruled a land rife with the materialism and vapid vanity represented by the teenage girls hanging out at the mall in the San Fernando Valley.
Aside from his music, Frank won me over with another passion -- challenging the censorship efforts of the far right. He believed America was doomed without its people being free to think and make their own decisions. To promote this cause, Zappa became a frequent spokesman, granting interviews to just about anyone who would permit him to speak his mind. Naturally I invited Zappa to be a frequent guest on my radio talk shows during this period.
He vented his frustration and anger at the vacuous voices of fundamentalist Christian groups who wanted Congress to censor rock music and directly challenged the PMRC's premise that sex and rock and roll were bad for teenagers.
Zappa was a guest on my talk show just after he testified before a Congressional committee chaired by then Sen. Albert Gore in October 1985. Zappa was astonished that Tipper Gore and her Washington wives were able to manipulate the nation's legislative agenda and have their pet cause addressed so quickly. "It's like insider trading with the stock market," Zappa noted.
Upon concluding his testimony, Zappa called me to describe what the mood was really like at the hearing. He went on the air and blasted the hearings as a contrived publicity stunt and reiterated that the Senate was being tied up with the business of censorship. He speculated about how Tipper would be "rocking and rolling" Al that evening: "I'm sure the senator from Tennessee won't have to think about masturbating tonight."
Zappa never seemed to care about who he might be offending with his comments. He was always brutally honest. Of one of his favorite targets, right-wing fundamentalist Christians, he said, "There's a part in the Bible [where] Lot winds up in a cave with his two daughters. They get him drunk and seduce him. Now, we're talking incest here. My theory is that the people who populate this right-wing movement are the direct lineal descendants of that liaison. We're talking about cross-eyed geeks that tawk lyk theis."
Zappa on teenage sex: "The idea that parents have to protect children from hearing about sex is preposterous. Their premise is wrong. Their premise is that sex is dangerous and somehow foul, and that it's their job to protect people from it."
Even in the age of AIDS, when many searched for sexual bogeymen, Zappa was all for sexual freedom -- including, but not limited to, the freedom to have sex with oneself. "This country needs more masturbation," he suggested. "The idea that you'll grow hair on your hand or go blind is insane." He loved to tell the story of a debate he once had with a fundamentalist who bemoaned the growing teenage birth rate. "See," Zappa said. "That's why we need more masturbation."
All this from a man who stayed married to his wife, Gail, for 26 years, had four children, all of whom were at his side when he died of prostate cancer, just two weeks short of his 53rd birthday. He never thought "family values" and freedom of thought and expression were separate entities.
Social evolution will eventually catch up with us. And much of the ignorance, stupidity, and intolerance that so troubled Frank Zappa will disappear. But the sheer genius of his music, whether it's the structure of his compositions or the white-hot fire of his guitar solos, will live on through his recordings -- even if radio stations still won't play them. Just as Igor Stravinsky is recognized as a genius of the first half of the Twentieth Century, I believe Zappa will be recognized as a genius of the latter half.
I have most of his recordings and the tapes of my interviews with him, but as I reflect on my friend of 25 years, one memory keeps coming back. In January 1989 I was waiting to introduce him on my radio show. He wanted me to fill two and a half minutes without him. Why? He told my producer, "I have to take a shit in the worst way. If John can just fill this time, I'll talk to him until midnight." No niceties. No "I have to go check on something." Just "I've got to take a shit." That's how Frank Zappa was.
This story was co-written by Alan Kravitz.