Music to My Ears

Giraffes and Whipped Cream Return: Frank Zappa

Issue 122

This article originally appeared in Issue 18. We decided to run it again, in edited and updated form, as a prelude to WL’s upcoming review of the new movie, ZAPPA, to be released in theaters and on demand on November 27. And because WL and I are huge Zappa fans. – Ed.

Two of my kids have a cat with decidedly un-cat-like characteristics. Having known a few cats in my time, the strangest thing about Jeter is that the kids can take him to anyone’s house and he’s as cool as an iceman’s handshake. Very weird. Because the kids are at our place a lot, our home is a second one to the little guy. So we naturally keep a cat bowl and food, and a litter box downstairs in front of the furnace.

A few weeks ago Diane called to get the furnace cleaned. She took the guy down to the furnace. Dwayne scoped the job and told Di she has to keep the cat away for a while.

My wife: “We don’t have a cat.”

Pause, then Dwayne says, ”OK…then keep your husband away for a while.”

Confusion and cat pee drove Frank Zappa to some of the most barbequed nebulae and tire shredding blarps since Edgard Varese went to a Barbie reunion with Spike Jones. If you started listening to Zappa when you were still living with your parents, you waited until they weren’t home, closed the door, and prayed yer Mom didn’t come up the stairs while you were listening to Crew Slut. If she listened enough and got the drift they’d send you to West Point. If she heard this they’d put you in a home.

 

“What the hell was that?!”

“It’s a song from Burnt Weeny Sandwich.”

Pack yer bags, Johnny. We’re going for a ride.

Dad complained early on that the music I was listening to, like Hendrix, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, was nothing but worthless noise. When I started listening to Zappa, he was flummoxed, had no word for it. He’d gone to the superlative with “worthless noise” and had nowhere to go. That was worth the price of an album right there.

Zappa fell in love with Edgard Varèse at an early age, early enough that for his 15th birthday his mom let him call Varèse’s home on the opposite coast as a present. Edgard wasn’t home. That’ll crap on your day. Point is that Frank at an age like 13 or 14 was not just listening to guys like Varèse but was hungry for it. You can’t talk about Frank Zappa without Edgard Varèse, an early 20th century composer who pioneered and composed music with a focus that led in a host of directions. He took concepts of music in space, the floating of notes, the organized noise of music that fed spatial frames and waited for something to come back. That appeals to a very interesting group.

Varèse did have nominal success in his lifetime. One of his successes, albeit without knowing it, was a teenage Zappa going into a Sam Goody music store in California and purchasing Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume 1. This was the end of a yearlong search for Varèse’s music. He had read an article in LOOK magazine that described the percussion sequences on Varese’s Ionisation as “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds.” He had to have it.

A young Zappa found a mentor and new purpose to his music. The fact that his mom allowed him a long distance phone call to Varèse for his 15th birthday places a bookmark on his development and an insight into just how early Zappa was working with really avant-garde ideas. When I was 15 I had just started dating my future wife and she was all I could think about. Frank was dating guys like Varèse, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

So consider this notion as you read on: FZ had no formal training. He did take theory classes in high school and some short-lived junior college classes, but for all intents was self-taught using training books and an amazing ear. He was composing in high school and had a few teachers who allowed him to conduct in band, but even at that early age, found trouble finding kids who could play his music and teachers who could fathom what he was up to. By the time Zappa graduated from high school he was composing and conducting avant-garde pieces with the school orchestra. His primary instrument was drums, and with indulgence of his mom was playing in R&B bands in the San Diego area. Later, he switched to guitar.

In 1963 he incongruously got onto The Steve Allen Show. I haven’t found a good explanation for this; Zappa was 22 and unknown. Probably he’d gotten the attention of one of Allen’s minions and was put on the show as a foil for Allen, and in fact Allen treated Zappa like a backwards relative. After all, Allen was a classically-trained musician, and Zappa came on the show to play a bicycle. Yep. Check it out. The sounds created here are incredibly prescient of later works.

 

By the early 1960s FZ was performing with bands around San Diego and LA. He was the guitar player for a trio called the Muthers, and in 1965 they got the attention of Tom Wilson, a well-known producer, who was able to get them a record contract with Verve. Verve insisted they change the name to the Mothers of Invention. Here we go. They released their debut album Freak Out! in 1966. This was only the second rock double album after Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and being a debut album that was amazing enough, but on top of that the album was an eclectic collection of rock, doo-wop, and musical giraffes.

The album had an 11-minute closing track called “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.” Session musicians brought in for the album (a small studio orchestra was also used) were shocked to discover that Zappa had the stuff all on sheet music and the musicians were expected to be able to sight read. The release of the album established FZ as an important artist in the freak subculture. Good on ya Verve.

Zappa and the Mothers continued releasing albums in the late 1960s like Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It for the Money. FZ was experimenting heavily with taped sounds and strictly-produced live recordings. His live performances were so heavily structured in key, time and signature that he was able to use the live recordings as samples in the studio. His live performances became such studies in composition and strict timing that he had to employ the best musicians, even if the result sounded like dropping a drum kit down a well.

My brother Jim saw Zappa in Hartford in the 1970s. At one point during the performance Frank was conducting a particularly complex composition with a 20-piece band, when a fight broke out in the orchestra pit. Zappa stopped the band on a dime with his hand, and proceeded to tell these two clowns that they were disturbing people who had paid money to see them, and suggested they move their bullsh*t outside. Then he turned back to the band, and with a wave of his hand the band was perfectly back on the next note.

It was one of Zappa’s drummers, Terry Bozzio or maybe Aynsley Dunbar, who talked about Zappa’s printed-out drum music looking like a black sheet of paper. In fact, FZ was concerned enough with the possibility of walking into a studio with a composition that was impossible to play that he decided to exorcise that demon by writing a percussive piece called “The Black Page.” Originally played by Bozzio, it contained some of the most complex percussive passages ever written.

Yet Zappa had a superficial reputation for writing potty songs, and did have some famous sexual and plastic banana lyrics that led to songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Montana” and “Catholic Girls.” These were really a lot of fun. Many people loved the raunch that got FM airplay and were disappointed when they’d pick up an album like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Frank wasn’t above making money with the whack tunes but always used that money to fund his deepening journey into musical black holes. This was no Spike Jones. This was a genius, and as a genius he was certainly misunderstood and hounded by the censors his entire career.

But Zappa was no saint. He was a tyrant in life, in studio and on stage, and believed absolutely in his version of the world and music with high disdain for anyone who couldn’t see it. He in fact treated fans like dolts, especially if they tried to discuss his music. In 1967 the Mothers were doing an extended stint in New York at the Garrick Theater. During an Easter show he somehow convinced some US Marines from the audience onto the stage. Frank had put a large baby doll on stage, then asked the soldiers to attack the doll as if it were the enemy (this was during the Vietnam War). They dismembered the doll while Zappa played an antiwar composition. That was black, man. He thought of this as satire. With genius comes fear.

Zappa was infamous for looking down upon drug use and had no patience for this in his musicians, who were some of the heaviest drug users in the industry. We were always amazed by this because listening to his music you’d think these guys, including Zappa, were higher than Icarus. But to me, there was an obvious example of a period in FZ’s life where he had to be using something. He despised most of the rock that was going on, considered bands like the Beatles insignificant pop. But he loved the Monkees. A quote from one of FZ’s bios states, “Zappa had respect for what the Monkees were doing.” This really was odd because what all we thought they were doing was becoming the first boy band. Only Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork could play an instrument and the band was always backed by studio musicians. In fact, Tork was a better guitar player than Nesmith but was switched to bass because he looked goofy. Zappa appeared in two episodes of the TV show and even did a cameo in their first movie, Head. Zappa, incredibly, offered Micky Dolenz a job in the Mothers but RCA/Columbia/Colgems wouldn’t allow Dolenz out of his contract. We knew Frank was weird but this was truly a departure from reality and smacks of running into Castaneda out in the desert. I call this his LSD Period.

Zappa released more than 60 albums during his lifetime, including some of the most complex music ever written. What a nut. The discipline he needed and demanded required the best of the studio musicians of his day. The list is amazing. Ian Underwood, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dunbar and Bozzio, Flo and Eddie (aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles), Ruth Underwood, Stevie Vai, George Duke, Eddie Jobson, the Brecker Brothers, Patrick O’Hearn (bass!), Chester Thompson, Jean-Luc (I want a hyphen in my name) Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Zappa himself was featured in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Guitarists list at #22. And I think that ranking is too low.

Here’s a pic of Frank in concert in 1977. You can see the concentration on not only his instrument, but everything going on around him. OK, forget about the schnozz, I’m trying to make a point here. Geez, you guys are sick.

Oslo, Norway, 1977. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Helge Øverås.

Frank Zappa did a lot for us, but especially this. OK so he did it for himself. Zappa stated once his ambition was to replicate the sound of squeezing a giraffe filled with whipped cream. I don’t know if he ever felt he’d achieved that.  No one could know but Zappa himself.

Here’s a cut from 1979’s Sleep Dirt called The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution. My favorite song title. With Patrick O’Hearn on bass.

 

That Zappa. He organized our noise.

 

Header image: original LP fold-out cover for We’re Only In It for the Money, 1968.

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