Wednesday, December 08, 2004


I've never really been a big Frank Zappa fan.

I've sort of admired his prodigious musicianship from afar, but his scatological fixations always weirded me out.

There is one Zappa record that I unreservedly slap on every now and then, We're Only In It For The Money. Made in the thick of the shiny happy sixties, it mercilessly sends up free love and hippie idealism, and is rock n' roll satire at its ripest.

In the mid-80's, I remember being flummoxed by his Jazz From Hell album, made entirely with a Synclavier electronic system, using no backup musicians. It's adventurous, jarring, near-atonal music, and it bears no resemblance to jazz whatsoever.

Camille Paglia reviewed Barry Miles's Frank Zappa biography a few weeks ago in the New York Times and had some fascinating things to recount about him.

A few excerpts:
Zappa was interested in sound for its own sake -- as in the cowbells and car horns of Spike Jones's recordings. A magazine article condemning a dissonant drum piece led him to Edgard Varèse's ''Ionisation,'' which changed his life. He was riveted by Varèse's mix of traditional and electronic instruments as well as recorded street sounds. After moving on to Stravinsky, Zappa dreamed of becoming a serious composer.

Zappa was a brilliant guitarist -- he called his solos ''air sculptures'' -- but he aspired to be taken seriously as a composer. His avant-garde work was characterized by complex time changes that were difficult to play. Many classical musicians attested to Zappa's ability to find their strengths and stretch them to the limit. The London Symphony Orchestra performed his music; in 1992, a comprehensive performance of his work by Ensemble Modern at a Frankfurt opera house received a 20-minute ovation.

Miles [his biographer] traces Zappa's credibility problem to his ''self-destructive'' habit of giving sexual or scatological titles to his serious pieces. Zappa was an incorrigible ''namer,'' he says, who called his daughter Moon Unit and named his son Dweezil, after one of his wife's toes. But Miles is too scolding about Zappa's absurdist sensibility. His titles were hilarious, from the album ''Burnt Weeny Sandwich'' to such songs as ''Help, I'm a Rock,'' ''Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,'' ''Don't Eat the Yellow Snow,'' ''Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?'' and ''The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.''

Addicted to black coffee and cigarettes (he was fiercely antidrugs), he slept during the day and saw little of his family. His second wife, Gail, said, ''Frank did not do love.'' When she was 13, Moon Unit slipped a note under the studio door to ''introduce'' herself and her ideas. The
result was the hit song ''Valley Girl,'' a phenomenon when it was released in 1982. Because he thought formal education a waste of time, Zappa took his children out of school at 15 and refused to pay for college.

Interviews were a testy art form for Zappa. He said, ''Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.'' As the record industry became corporatized, he aggressively maintained his artistic independence and released sometimes foolishly anticommercial work (such as a double album starring a psychotic street person).

So high was Zappa's European reputation that Vaclav Havel invited him to be a trade and culture representative for Czechoslovakia in 1990 -- an arrangement quickly terminated by the first Bush administration. A few months later, Zappa learned he had inoperable prostate cancer. He died in 1993 at 52. His children put his espresso machine and cayenne pepper into the coffin.