Frank Zappa—The Landfill Chronicles—Final part of Chapter 3: The End and Beyond
Frank Zappa’s Last Interview — The Landfill Chronicles: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art — Chapter 3.5 — The End and Beyond
Conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
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Chapter 3: FRANK ZAPPA — Part 5: “The End and Beyond”
THE FINAL WORDS
At the agreed-upon interview length of one hour, I let Frank know that my allotted time has elapsed. He says he can take a few more questions.
I ask him about future projects. Frank says that his slate is full. He will continue to dig into his audio archives to issue old material. Case in point, his just-released Ahead of Their Time CD of a 1968 Mothers’ concert in London. Fourteen members of the BBC Symphony joined the group to provide the Frank-composed musical accompaniment to a play the band members acted out. Next year Frank promises another CD of unreleased studio cuts called Lost Episodes. Then there’s a CD of music for modern dance called Dance Me This that he’s working on. Frank is still in the negotiating stages with the Vienna Festival, which wants to do a stage version next May of Civilization: Phaze III. He describes it as an “opera/pantomime/dance/circus performance.”
But what Frank is most excited about are a couple of projects he has been discussing with Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, the business manager for Ensemble Modern, the European ensemble dedicated to promoting the music of modern composers.
They talked during a visit just a couple days earlier. “Andreas told me about an interview Edgard Varèse gave once where he said he envisioned a film to accompany his piece ‘Desért.’ I had never heard of that before,” Frank says. “Varèse said that the images didn’t need to relate to the music.”
The Ensemble is booked for a concert in Cologne, Germany next year on May 27, 1994. “Andreas thought of the extensive data bank of video images I’ve collected and got the idea to commission me to do a 22-minute film,” Frank says. “The other project we discussed was for May 1995 when the Ensemble would perform an evening dedicated to my theatrical works like ‘Billy the Mountain,’ ‘Gregory Peckory,’ ‘Penis Dimension’ and ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ arranged for classical ensemble. I think it will make for an entertaining evening and an entertaining CD.”
For my final query, I reflect on how Frank’s music over the span of nearly thirty years has remained fresh, relevant, challenging and on-the-fringe. I was curious to know to what he owed his career longevity.
So opinionated on so many subjects, Frank displays a rare moment of being both humble and at a loss for words. “I don’t know how it’s happened,” he says. “How have I survived? I guess by word of mouth, but I don’t know. I got lucky.”
Shortly after Frank Zappa’s death on December 4, 1993, nine months after I visited him, I faxed a note of condolences to Frank’s wife Gail. Their daughter Moon Unit was on the 818-PUMPKIN Zappa hotline informing mourners that in lieu of flowers they could send donations in her dad’s name to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association or to a favorite environmental cause. For those musicians and listeners financially restricted, Moon suggested, “Just play his music…That will be enough for him.”
Nothing could be more appropriate for the iconoclastic genius composer-performer who lost a lengthy battle against prostate cancer, two and a half weeks before his 53rd birthday. The outspoken political critic, sophomoric humorist and crass satirist died at his Laurel Canyon home in the Hollywood Hills on a Saturday evening. He was buried without fanfare in a private ceremony the next day.
A music workaholic, who in his healthier days employed two shifts of recording engineers to keep up with his insatiable energy, Frank was busy up to the end producing the album The Rage and the Fury — The Music of Edgard Varèse by the European avant-garde orchestra Ensemble Modern and putting the finishing touches on the double-CD Civilization Phaze III. His 63rd album and first studio album of new material since 1986, it was due out next year on Barking Pumpkin/Rhino. The latter is a collection of new Synclavier music, including the inspired treasure, “N-Lite: Negative Light/Venice Submerged/New World Order/The Lifestyle You Deserve/Creationism/He Is Risen,” combined with previously unreleased, oftentimes frivolous outtakes from 1967’s Lumpy Gravy.
In reflecting on this music, University of Washington theory chair Jonathan W. Bernard said that Civilization Phaze III is “heavily influenced by Zappa’s disenchantment with avant-garde composition and Zappa’s acute awareness of his own mortality.” He also noted that he believed the final recording was Frank’s “last, greatest attempt at being recognized as a composer of serious music.”
Francis Vincent Zappa was born in 1940 in Baltimore where his Sicilian-born, Greek-Arab meteorologist father was employed by an arsenal that manufactured poison gas during World War II. The Zappa family eventually settled in Lancaster, California, a Mohave Desert town Frank called a cultural wasteland. Ironically, it was here, during his high school years, that Zappa’s interest in outlandish combinations of music bloomed. He formed an r&b group called the Blackouts, he bought Stravinsky and Varèse records, and he played drums in his high school band where he was introduced to twelve-tone music and even allowed to do a bit of composing and conducting.
His breakthrough group Mothers of Invention proved to be short-lived. The debut Mothers record Freak Out! was released in 1966. He disbanded the group in 1969. On his own, Frank went on to work on recording a massive catalog with a diverse and ever-changing crew of collaborators and band members including George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, L. Shankar, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
Frank adventurously covered a universe of musical terrain, ranging from ’50s doo-wop to 20th century classical music by Stravinsky and Bartók. With a lifelong flair for creating genre-jumping, post-modernist music, Frank released albums that folded in several different styles of music, cross-referencing such seemingly disparate domains as classical with reggae and melodic r&b with dissonant avant-garde. He fused it all into a sometimes brilliant, frequently madcap, always spin-on-a-dime concoction of distinct and inimitable Zappaesque music.
A control freak who ultimately trusted only his inner circle of colleagues, friends and family, the irascible Frank found himself at odds with some of the musicians who worked for him that sometimes led to irreconcilable rifts. Yet, for former band members like drummers Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman and trombonist Bruce Fowler, working with Frank was not only the most challenging musical experiences they’ve encountered, but also the most inspiring.
After gigging in San Francisco as a jazz drummer, in 1975 24-year-old Terry headed to Los Angeles and out-finessed 50 other auditioning drummers after Frank’s previous drummer Chester Thompson had left to join Weather Report. “It was a musical experience unlike any college,” says Terry, who put in a three-year stint with Frank. “His music was so challenging, and he brought out things I never knew I had in me. Plus, it was amazing just being exposed to his intellect, charisma and wit.”
Terry speculates that some former group members may not have seen eye-to-eye with Frank because he was such a genius. “I think some guys were jealous of Frank being the kingpin,” Terry says. He cites Frank as a role model: “We’d all love to be just like him in our own way. He’s an archetype. He put on the red shoes. He did it 18 hours a day every day. He rode that wave. Frank was a strong, uncompromising guy who believed in his artistic principles. He was convinced and lucky enough to have those convictions about himself early enough in his life to follow through on them.”
Chad Wackerman, who worked with Zappa from 1981 to 1988, also had to pass a grueling audition that consisted of reading intricate and complex classical notation, polyrhythmically playing in such odd time signatures as 21/16, and then following Frank’s guitar lead into Latin, Cajun, reggae and heavy metal grooves. “He pushed everyone who worked for him,” Chad recalls. “He’d ask me to play something incredibly complex. When I couldn’t do it, he’d get more specific and ask me to play something even more difficult. I couldn’t do that either, but as I would try, I’d come to realize I was playing what he had first asked me to play.”
Chad remembers his first Zappa tour. “At the airport while we were waiting for our plane, everybody except Frank would be reading or listening to tapes,” he says. “He’d have his score paper out and would be writing this incredibly complicated music. He had endless energy. There was no one else like him. Frank was a unique combination of brilliant 20th century composer and great rock guitarist.”
Bruce Fowler first joined Frank in 1973 for his Overnite Sensation touring band (with Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke and Ian Underwood) and played with him on and off for the next two decades. Bruce was well-versed in the complex rhythms Frank was compositionally fond of. Brothers Tom and Walt were also part of various Zappa ensembles. “He liked us because we were an orchestral tool for him,” Bruce says. “He was always thinking of ways to use us.”
Bruce says Frank was a hard task master, putting his bands through hours of practice. “But it was all fun when we did the actual gigs,” he says. “Sometimes Frank wouldn’t give us the set list until right before the show. But we knew the material so well we could be spontaneous.” Bruce notes that Frank stretched musical boundaries for his audiences as well. “He was real proud to bring music to the masses of people who wanted to get freaked out by him. He wanted to play Bartók for those guys.”
Frank’s propensity to shock and even outrage people with his idiosyncratic music and his bold political views often made him an easy target of critics bent on dismissing his dissenting vote against the status quo.
When we talked last spring, Frank voiced a quiet hurt over the fact that his music rarely gets airplay in the United States.
While his biggest Stateside hits, “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” were both novelty tunes and a significant portion of his pop-oriented work falls far short of the genius plateau, Frank’s importance as a composer and performer promises to be increasingly recognized. In 1969, Down Beat’s Larry Kart concluded his cover story article on Zappa by prophesying his future relevance: “…There is still the music, and if any of us are around in 20 years, I think we’ll be listening to it.”
Twenty-four years later, Terry is even bolder in his predictions: “Frank will be the only guy mentioned two hundred years from now when people are discussing the great music of our era.”
THE LEGACY PRESERVED
Before Frank died, he gave his spouse Gail specific instructions on what to do with his music. “I’m a professional wife, and I do what I’m told, almost without exception,” she explains in phone conversation. Gail, who can be as feisty and hard-nosed as her husband was, ran the business end of the FZ empire (including Frank’s own Barking Pumpkin record imprint and the Barfko Swill video distribution) for several years. “Frank was adamant that I sell the catalog because he wanted me to have my own life. I didn’t feel it was important at the time, but now I realize what a genius he was.”
Rykodisc, which had issued Zappa’s albums in CD format for the first time in the mid ’80s, was one of several record labels vying to own the masters of Zappa’s works. The family trust maintains the publishing rights as well as the full rights to all of his unreleased classical works, including Civilization Phaze III, which was issued on Barking Pumpkin. Gail finally chose Rykodisc in October 1994 based on the integrity of the label and the intention of Ryko president Don Rose to fully commit his company to not only preserve Zappa’s music, but also introduce it to new audiences.
While Frank was strong-willed about his career throughout his life, he was equally determined not to let his music be compromised after he died. “It was hard to negotiate with Ryko when I was asking for what Frank wanted,” Gail says. “I couldn’t change my mind. I didn’t have a choice. What was key for Frank was that the label not have the right to change or alter his music in any way. He didn’t want to have one of his songs getting remixed into a disco track.”
Gail says her husband was vehement about wanting to maintain control over three of his signature guitar tunes, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” “Zoot Allures” and “Black Napkins,” so that they wouldn’t end up being used someday for a running shoe or beer commercial. “Those were his favorite songs and I still control the masters. Ryko owns them, but I control their licensing. I couldn’t live hearing those tunes in any other way than how Frank wanted them to be heard.”
ADDENDUM — NOTES ON RYKO DEMISE
In March 2006, the Warner Music Group acquired the Ryko Corporation for $67.5 million. Six years later in 2012 the Zappa Family Trust parted ways with Ryko/Warner. The trust reacquired Frank’s music catalogue with Universal Musical Enterprises taking over the distribution of all of his recordings.
The Zappa Family Trust ended up running into financial troubles. In 2016, it was $6 million in debt and was forced to sell the house and studio. The buyer? Lady Gaga who paid $5.25 million.
Not quite the way Frank envisioned his legacy.
But his music continues to override everything. For those who knew him best, including drummer Terry Bozzio, this is no surprise. “Frank was Mt. Olympus,” Terry says, “and we were mere mortals.”
UPCOMING CHAPER 4
In Chapter 4 we follow Dee Dee Bridgewater as she records in Mali to find her African roots.
In her liner notes to Red Earth, Dee Dee writes, “This project is my ode to Mali and to Africa; it is the story of a lost child finding her way home. It is my reawakening…[The album] is, simply put, my journey home.”