I'm just a guy who watches life go by and sometimes writes songs about it.
-- Frank Zappa, 1985
A simple statement from a complicated man. I first met Frank Zappa in March 1968, backstage at Thee Image, a Sunny Isles bowling alley converted into a "psychedelic dungeon," to borrow a phrase from Zappa's third Mothers of Invention album, We're Only in It for the Money. Psychedelic dungeon perfectly describes clubs like Thee Image, where hippies would gather to hear the Turtles or the Lovin' Spoonful. We would breathe in the incense smoke, munch foot-long hot dogs, freak out in the surreal atmosphere of pulsating strobes and cosmically glowing iridescent black lights.
I paid my five dollars at the door -- to hear Frank Zappa and his Mothers play for three hours. There were no chairs. Me and more than 2000 others jammed on a concrete floor. The air-conditioning wasn't working very well, the air was thick with smoke, and I don't mean the cigarette kind.
This was Zappa's first South Florida concert, and many of his fans were disappointed. They came to hear "Suzy Creamcheese" and "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" from Zappa's debut album, Freak Out, a collection of sexually clever and socially relevant lyrics ("Suzy Creamcheese, oh baby/Now, what's got into you?" or "Mr. America, walk on by/Your schools that do not teach/Mr. America, walk on by/The minds that won't be reached").
Instead Zappa gave them two 90-minute sets of experimental jazz in the finest John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy tradition. The show included extensive improvisations by saxophonist Bunk Gardner, keyboard player Don Preston, and bassist Roy Estrada. At one point Zappa closed his eyes, wiped the sweat off his forehead, loosened his ponytail, turned his back on the audience, and launched into a 25-minute guitar solo that would have made Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page blush.
The nearest attempt at theatrics came when Zappa and vocalist Ray Collins ripped the clothes off a Barbie doll and a Ken doll. Following the culmination of the sex act between our now-satisfied Ken and Barbie, the members of the band donned gas masks as Zappa led them into a heart-rending, highly emotional interpretation of the Angels's "My Boyfriend's Back." That turned out to be the only recognizable song of the evening.
Not many performers possess the arrogance to leave out their better-known material, but Frank Zappa was the embodiment of arrogance. You had to come up to his level. That night at Thee Image, I began my climb.
I was a local guitarist and that gave me access to the backstage area, where I was one of several South Florida musicians granted an opportunity to talk with Zappa and the other Mothers about music, sound equipment, life. He seemed bored, but he was polite when the owner of the club introduced us. Zappa raised his eyebrows, glanced over at bassist Roy Estrada, and said, "Hey, Roy, look! Miami hippies!" We became friends that night. It was a friendship that lasted until Zappa's death two and a half weeks ago, on December 4.
Francis Vincent Zappa was born December 21, 1940, in Baltimore. Like the man himself, Zappa's music was constantly changing and completely unpredictable. Just when we got used to the politically pointed lyrics of Freak Out, he gave us the sexual satire of his first solo album, Hot Rats. And just when he was getting irreverent enough for groups like the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (which had some problems with his "Jewish Princess") to tell him to shut up, he did. His way. Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar was just one of several forays into progressive instrumentals. This approach would lead to Zappa being recognized by his "peers" with a Grammy in 1988 -- twenty years too late -- for Jazz from Hell.
The Grammy was just another irony in Zappa's life. For much of his career, Zappa's music was rarely played on radio. I came to learn that this frustrated him. He felt that he was blacklisted because of his word choices and political views. Rick Shaw -- the legendary South Florida DJ who dominated the rock market while at WQAM-AM in the Sixties -- agrees that Zappa's iconoclasm prevented his achieving the commercial success reached by many of his contemporaries. "Zappa was always out there making social and anti-war comments," Shaw recalls. "That's probably why his music never really got off the ground as far as airplay is concerned. There never really was much demand for his music on radio. How could you play Frank Zappa back-to-back with 'Sugar, Sugar'?"
Zappa's noncommercial, unconventional approach -- not to mention his pariah status in the halls of the money-grubbing -- led him to create his own record label, aptly dubbed Bizarre, in 1969 to facilitate the composing and recording of his music without some industry exec telling him yea or nay. He also used the label to record and promote other less-than-Top-40-palatable acts such as Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, and the GTOs. The last, Girls Together Outrageously, included members of the Plaster Casters, famed for their molds of rock stars' penises (but not Zappa's). "Creatively, Bizarre was a wonderful experience. Bookkeeping and financially, it was a real pain in the ass," Frank told me in 1990.
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."
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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.