Frank Zappa's Treasure House
Thursday April 14, 2005
I met Frank Zappa in 1973, I think it must have been, over breakfast in Hernando's Hideaway, the coffee shop of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he and his wife Gail were staying while their house in Laurel Canyon was redecorated. Their attention was drawn to me because of the staccato rustling of the rice-paper of my airmail copy of the Times, and the deep sighs I kept heaving. They asked me what was on my mind, that I sighed so often and so deeply. "My boyfriend in Detroit has just told me that he's got pubic lice. He thinks I gave them to him. I'm worried that the bastard has given them to me." "Not a problem," said Frank. His black Rolls-Royce with tinted windows was waiting in the hotel driveway; in no time we were at Schwob's drugstore, and Frank was yelling over the heads of the would-be Lana Turners twirling on the stools at the counter: "Blue lotion, please, blue lotion for the crabs." The words rang out like a triumphant fanfare.
Gail and Frank were like the only two sane people in that hideous town, which always seemed to me the antechamber of hell. They didn't do Rodeo Drive or the Polo Lounge. They were happy to hang out with each other and their kids. Their kids actually liked them, which, in that madhouse of chaotic kinship and serial divorce, was special to say the least. Frank spent as much time as possible, which wasn't enough, in his studio under the house, making electronic music. And once or twice he played stuff back for me, stuff that I absolutely did not understand. I said nothing intelligent about it, but nothing stupid either, I hope. Now I'm sorry that I didn't listen harder and ask more questions. Now I've got to play catchup and try to find more of Frank's "serious" music. It's not easy. I just paid a fortune to download the Rykodisc releases from the internet, but my operating system wasn't up to it, and all I got for my money was the titles of the files.
I came to rock'n'roll late, via rhythm and blues. I was never all that convinced by the posturings of the top earners with their lip service to the anti-war movement and the counter culture. I knew the Fugs long before I knew Zappa, and listened to his music in the same spirit, seeing it as an ironic, sometimes savagely satirical version of mass culture. I almost certainly imagined him to be a lot more radical than he was; I never doubted that he took drugs – which he didn't – and I thought he probably helped himself to the heaps of groupies that were lying around – he didn't. He loved his wife and the children he had with her too much for that. Where he was radical, and this I didn't get, was in his music. All the touring and recording was to finance his composing. What seemed to me to be satire was indeed disabused pastiche. He was doing it and doubting it at the same time.
I loved the way Frank looked, with his narrow, long head, his intelligent eyes, and the Dionysiac curve of his grin, emphasised by his jet black moustache and beard, and the surrounding cloud of floating blue-black ringlets. He was proud to look so exotic because it was a visible acknowledgment of his Italian and Sicilian forebears. What was more, it brought out the worst in people.
I had loads of his commercial albums, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Just Another Band From L.A., Ruben and the Jets, We're Only In It For The Money, Lumpy Gravy. They weren't really all that commercial. Frank was never in the really big money. I fancy all his spare cash went in expensive collaborations with orchestras, and in developing the studio where he laid down track after track, doodling on his Synclavier. I didn't know the half of it. Already in the late 1960s he was working with Jean-Luc Ponty on the King Kong music. I didn't know about his concerts in celebration of the work of Edgard Varèse; nor did I know that he has been a fan of Varése ever since he was a schoolboy. He conducted memorial concerts for Varése in New York and San Francisco; in 1993, four months before his death, Frank conducted the Ensemble Modern in a full programme of Varése. The Ensemble Modern also recorded an album of Zappa's compositions called The Yellow Shark. Four months later Frank was dead.
I've come back to Frank's music through being involved with the small but perfectly formed Britten Sinfonia, who occasionally include Zappa pieces in their repertoire. Modern classical music, which I thought was a dire cacophony 30 years ago, is now becoming legible to me, partly because for the first time I am hearing it properly played, so that the musical structures are at last standing free and clear. I'm at the point where I could really understand the Zappa project, even though music scholars are now using rather chilling rhetoric to describe his big-note theory and his maximal aesthetic. In Frank's world, every sound had a value, and every action was part of the universal diapason, a colossal vibration that made energy rather than reflecting it. I'm grown up enough now to get it, but the bulk of Frank's music is still unheard and likely to remain unhearable.
Gail Zappa is now in control of the treasure house that I glimpsed all those years ago. She is anxious that Frank's legacy not be adulterated or exploited in the wrong way, and so far access to his compositions has been strictly limited. She hopes to bring out as many as a hundred albums on a new record label, Vaulternative Records, produced by Dweezil Zappa. Master tapes finished by Frank already exist for many of them. Meantime we have to make do with small masterpieces that have somehow escaped from the vault, such as G-Spot Tornado, which I want played at my funeral. There are two versions extant, one by the Ensemble Modern at breakneck speed and one by the Britten Sinfonia at half the pace. The Britten Sinfonia performance is sexier and more ironic but Frank probably had more to do with the earlier performance. As things stand at the moment, Gail will probably veto any performance of the work done either way.
The piece reminds me how Frank could inject excitement into the most mundane occasion. Once at the supermarket, Frank was sauntering along behind as we two women pushed our trolleys and minded our own business. He was fetchingly clad in a violent turquoise coloured cat-suit which was unzipped to below the navel, showing a plentiful growth of silky black hair with no sign of underwear. A pair of shoppers became fascinated by this spectacle and began following him about, the woman tittering and making loud comments. Frank stood it as long as he could, and then turned to her and roared: "Eat! My! Shit!" She went white with shock. Her male companion, who weighed four times as much as Frank, threw a punch at him. Frank stepped back out of range, unfazed. He eventually talked his way out of trouble, but it took a while. Eccentricity amid conformity was the name of Frank's game; in Beverly Hills in the 1970s, eccentricity could be downright dangerous.