Frank Zappa, Musician, February 1994
Interviews by Scott Isler, Jim Macnie, Pristine McKenna, Mark Rowland, Roy Trakin and Josef Woodard.
Musician, February 1994
Felled by prostate cancer December 4, 1993 at age 52, he didn't die a rock 'n' roll death, and he didn't live a rock 'n' roll life. His idiosyncrasies were the making and undoing of his career, catapulting him into notoriety and confining him there. He achieved a peculiar status: famous, but not necessarily well-known.
The shopping-mall masses remember "Valley Girl" and "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." More dedicated fans took the (often puerile and scatological) humor as the icing on Zappa's musical cake, which was as rich and deep as one cared, or dared, to go. With the Mothers of Invention, and later under his own name, Zappa played "rock" in instrumentation only; as his band members attest below, the music's complexity equaled that of any more academic genre.
But Zappa's talent knew no boundaries. A demon electric guitarist, he also wrote for orchestral forces – sometimes huge ones. Pierre Boulez commissioned and performed Zappa's "The Perfect Stranger" in 1984. More recently Joel Thome has taken up the cause of Zappa the composer.
Second only to music in Zappa's life was his passion for political activism. He promoted voter registration and made a memorable 1985 appearance in front of a Senate committee investigating song lyrics. Vice President Albert Gore Jr., then a senator, gushed to Zappa: "I respect you as a true original and a tremendously talented musician." At least he said it to his face. Following Zappa's death neither Gore nor his wife Tipper – who, as a member of the Parents Music Resource Center, weathered Zappa's withering wit – would comment.
Zappa wouldn't have been surprised. Cynicism was the reverse side of his faith in people to improve government. In his business dealings he was increasingly individualist, eventually setting up his own record and video companies to handle an amazingly prolific output. If he belongs to any musical tradition, it is that of the American original, from Scott Joplin to Charles Ives to Duke Ellington. Consciously or not, he picked his epitaph when he proudly emblazoned his earliest albums with a quote from his hero, composer Edgard Varèse: "The present-day composer refuses to die!"
Mark Volman, vocalist
Our friendship goes back to 1965. In those days in Hollywood it was easy to find them anytime on the Sunset Strip. The Turtles would be at the Whisky, the Doors at Gazzari's and the Mothers at Bito Lido's, this little dump near Vine Street. Later I remember the "Absolutely Free" show in New York at the Garrick Theater. The show ran about a year. Basically the Mothers played six nights a week, and everything went on from blowing up giraffes to Marines getting on the stage. I saw that show at least a dozen times.
Obviously we worked in two separate entities then, but I knew him as a friend. The Mothers were 180 degrees different from the Turtles, and six years later we were there. For 200 Motels Frank asked us to come to the house. We sang, played the saxophone. He said he was going to Europe for a week, and could we come? We ended up staying three years.
In that band I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The lows started with the Montreux festival. We played an afternoon concert and some kid shot off a flare gun and the casino burned to the ground. We had a band meeting and Frank wanted to come back to the U.S. He felt that the fire and losing all our equipment was an ominous sign. But we had 10 dates ahead, all sold out, including four shows in London. The band felt we needed to make the money, and it was Christmas time. So Frank went along with it. And then, the very first show at the Rainbow Theatre in London, Frank got thrown into the pit. I remember looking down at him from the top of the pit and his leg was bent underneath him like a Barbie doll; his eyes were open but there was no life in them. Two or three of us were cradling him in the pit and the blood was running from his head to his knees We weren't sure if he would live through the night.
Later at the hotel we got word he would live, and a few days later we got to see him in the hospital, just one or two at a time. We went in and there was Frank, on his back, arm in a sling, one leg in a cast on sling in the air. His head was bandaged like a mummy. You couldn' see his hair or his moustache – just his lips where they had cut a hole in the bandages, and his eyes, which followed us to the foot of the bed.
And then he said, "Peaches En Regalia' – one, two three ..." – you know, the way we opened the show. We died laughing. It was the sorriest of jokes. But it was his way of saying, "It's okay."
Pamela Des Barres, author/ex-GTO's/ex-Zappa governess
I first met Frank at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles for a big '60s freak-out scene with the Mothers and all these other bands. I was just mesmerized. Frank wore these bellbottoms with flowers all over them. He was always poking fun at whatever was happening, and he continued to do that right to the end. He was wandering around after the show and I made a point of slamming into him on the dance floor.
A bunch of us used to dance at all the local rock shows. We called ourselves the Laurel Canyon Ballet Company. One of the girls who danced with us was Moon's governess, so she started inviting us up to Frank's house, which was very exciting. Frank was like the ruler of Laurel Canyon. He lived in Tom Mix's old house. People would just congregate up there and, in his words, freak out. And not only were you allowed to, but Frank would just pull that stuff out of people. He made them become their true, freaky selves. He didn't need drugs either. In fact, he'd get mad if anyone was using.
We started dancing onstage with the Mothers, our hair in pigtails, wearing these outrageous outfits, like diapers and bibs ... and nothing else! Eventually he asked us why we didn't become a band ourselves and cut a record. So we came up with 14 songs and when Frank came back from touring with the Mothers he put us in the studio. It was just the most thrilling thing for these teenage girls in 1968. I considered him and [wife] Gail my main mentors during that period.
Frank did everything in the studio, directing and producing. He would point to us with his baton like we were an orchestra. We'd watch his response and it would encourage us so much because he loved it. The more he slapped his knee and laughed, the more nuts we'd get. And he wanted that. He wanted everyone to experience their creativity as far out as they could get it.
I lived at his guest house in the back when I was governess for the kids. It wasn't what you'd call normal but it wasn't what people thought either. It was a very free-form household – loose, but very loving and warm. He was very much a family man.
Cal Schenkel, artist
For about three years in the late '60s I was essentially Frank's art department. When we were in New York my art studio was basically at Frank's house. Frank was either in the studio, onstage or asleep.
He wasn't the kind of guy where you would get together, go out and have a couple of drinks. He was always the person who was in control whenever you're around; everything revolved around what he was doing. But that was my relationship with him. He had vision and he knew how to create it. On the other hand, I think he did allow for a lot of other input. He was able to draw out people's talents, but he knew how to put it all together.
Pierre Boulez, composer/conductor
As a musician he was an exceptional figure because he was of two worlds: the pop world and the classical world. That's not a very easy position because you are regarded by both camps as a traitor. His musicianship was very extensive. He did not say much but he knew much more than one could have thought. Of course he had an envelope of humor and sarcasm sometimes. But deep in himself he was a very warm and friendly person.
I think his pop work will survive because it is very characteristic of a period. And I think the serious work will survive because it is serious, without a doubt.
Jimmy Hayes, The Persuasions
We were living in Brooklyn, and we'd made a tape. A record store in Jersey City was playing it over a speaker out into the street and someone heard it and called Frank. He was into it, and sent us some round-trip tickets to come and do a record on the West Coast. That's really how we broke into the business. We had our stuff together, but hadn't recorded anything till he asked. Frank gave us our first contract. I'd heard his name but didn't know anything about him at the time. I guess it was '67.
Soon after we did a show with the Mothers in Virginia Beach, and I'm from Virginia. During that time blacks weren't allowed in Virginia Beach. There was an imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean, you know. When we went down and opened the show for him, I was scared – had no idea what the scene would be. Would they let us perform or what? They didn't know who the Persuasions were, and it certainly could have been bad when these five black guys came walking in. But we went over great. And I said to myself, "God, I grew up here and it's the first time in my life I've ever been to Virginia Beach."
Frank knew exactly what he was doing. He was thinking it was time to start bringing things together. The security guard at the Dunes, where we played – I'll never forget this – he was a cracker, know what I mean? If I would have gone there myself, he would have hung me. But here he comes, walking up to us afterwards, we don't know if he's mad or what, and he says, "You know something? Y'all got a lot of balls, coming down here with no instruments and tearing the house to pieces. That was great." Maybe that's what attracted Zappa to us, because what he was doing was ballsy too – taking the status quo and saying, "It ain't supposed to be like this."
Ruth Underwood, percussionist
I went to college for seven years and did everything by the books until I met Frank. His "Absolutely Free" show at the Garrick Theater changed my life. I no longer wanted to be a tympanist at the New York Philharmonic, or a virtuoso marimba soloist. All I ever wanted from that point on was to play Frank's music.
One night my brother and I went to the Village Gate to hear Miles Davis. We were standing around waiting for show time and Frank was just walking down Bleecker Street. This was before bodyguards; he was just a guy on his way to work. My brother accosted him and said, "You should hear my sister play! She's a great marimbist!" I was totally embarrassed. Frank turned to me and said, "Fine. Bring your marimba backstage and we'll check ya out." The next thing I knew I was recording Uncle Meat at Apostolic Studios on East 10th Street.
I was really active with him in the '70s. It was the greatest experience of my life and the most difficult experience of my life. It was educational and enriching, and also backbreaking, grueling, lonely sometimes, terrifying – it was fucking unbelievable.
At that time the band wasn't grungy anymore. It was actually pretty refined and respectable. One incarnation of the band consisted almost totally of college grads – so we're not talking about bizarre-looking animals. Being the only woman was something I very rarely noticed because I didn't feel particularly womanly, I just felt like one of the guys, a musician. Where it did distinguish itself was I saw the road personas of guys in the band who had wives and kids. And the wives were my friends. That sometimes was uncomfortable. But most of the time it was great.
One of the things about Frank that I know drove a lot of people crazy was that he was very sure of what he wanted. That could be difficult if a musician wanted to do his own thing. I didn't. I was ready to dedicate myself completely to Frank's music. He really knew what buttons to push, emotionally and musically. He was a remarkable referee. He knew how to synthesize people's personalities and talents. That's a very rare gift. He wasn't just a conductor standing up there waving his arms; he was playing us as people!
He just devoured music; that was all he thought about. We listened to his music on the bus; we rehearsed it at sound checks; we played it that night; we analyzed it the next day. I've got some original sketches, pieces he composed for me sitting in an airport waiting to board! I always meant to ask Frank: What was this for? Everything was music.
I became a perfectionist, I suppose because I had to be. I still wince when I hear a clam in "Inca Roads," in a pattern of sevenths going by at the speed of light. It was live, the lights were inadequate, we had done two shows that night, I had 103° fever – these are the elements you're dealing with in live rock performances. I'm surprised Frank even let it out because he really hated wrong notes.
I loved watching him play the drums because he had a very unorthodox way of holding the sticks, sitting, flailing away – somehow everything came out great but he looked ridiculous. He came up with some remarkable percussion writing because of his insight, his experience, in addition to his ears.
Sal Marquez, trumpeter
It was a pleasure to work with Frank. He let things flow. I just sat back and wrote down his licks while he played them, which I suspect he was very impressed with. On the Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo albums I ended up writing and arranging all the horn parts and giving him ideas.. -and he was very accepting. We had a good chemistry, maybe because we shared the same birthday.
We were all crazed back then, smoking grass and stuff. Frank, of course, smoked just once or twice and he told me he had a bad experience. But we used to drink Courvoisier VSOP together all the time. He also smoked a great many cigarettes and drank massive amounts of coffee.
Frank knew how to reach people. We may have looked like freaks but everyone had the intellect to carry it through, musically and otherwise. I felt bad about leaving the group but we were broke. One day I called Frank and tried to get him to give us a per diem. And he got all upset, claiming he never paid his groups that way. "Not even $15?" And he said, "No, man, I've never done it and I'm not going to start. You can just hand in your music too." And that was it. I was shocked. I thought he liked me. Later on I heard he asked the other guys in the band if they knew any trumpet players. And that's how my brother Walter started playing with him.
Bruce Fowler, trombonist
I've always thought the work ethic was one great thing about him. He was completely tireless. In a sense, he never stopped. He was like Don Van Vliet in that way. Also, he was really open-minded. He wanted to learn. He was the kind of guy who didn't stop learning at the age of 25 like everyone else. His vocabulary did increase and he did keep getting aware of new musicians and new things. Plus he really kept an eye to CNN at all times. He wanted to know what was happening, and he was insightful to the point where he could see behind the story.
Adrian Belew, guitarist/vocalist
Frank was the guy who discovered me. I could have plodded on for the rest of the century working in clubs, fairly unknown. He gave me a position I could move from, and certainly gave me a lot of education. The first thing I did when I joined was learn about five hours of Zappa material, so there's a musical education right there. Immediately after we went out on a tour of the U.S. and Europe and made a film. I've never seen someone who worked so diligently and profoundly.
When I joined his band it became my entire existence, and I'm sure it's true about many of the players who worked with him. You live it day and night. We rehearsed five days a week in a large film studio, eight to 10 hours a day. Then, because I didn't read or write music, I had to go to his house and do more. He'd show me the upcoming week's stuff. Some of the more difficult pieces that were written out I didn't even participate in. In those instances I became a theatrical element, wore a dress or something.
He showed me how to master a record, how to pace the songs. People don't know that when I joined his band, I'd never been anything but a starving cover artist. I'd never played in odd time signatures. He said, "I don't very often play in 4/4, so you're going to have to learn other stuff, 7/8 and others." It was a new way of thinking. I crossed over to a new plateau.
When I passed the audition he shook my hand and said, "Here's what I pay, you're in." And that's what I liked. He was always very straightforward with you. No bullshit or head games. You would never have to guess anything with him, because he'd tell you flat out and do it in quite an articulate way.
Warren Cuccurullo, guitarist
It's through Frank that everything I've done has come into being, even being in Duran Duran. Working with Frank was my only schooling. I joined the band when I was 20. He introduced me to William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg as a guitar player. Ten days after that he asked me to be in his band. This was in December of '78. It was a complete shock.
I did most of the difficult passages and some of Frank's solos off the records: "Dirty Love" and "Andy." Also, he used to call on me to imitate different guitar players. He'd say, "Okay, now Carlos Santana..." That turned up on Tinsel Town Rebellion. On the end of "Peaches En Regalia" he said, "Let's hear it for another great Italian: Al DiMeola."
He was the most unique guitarist. A lot of great guitarists came out of that era: Hendrix, Beck, Jimmy Page and Frank. They all have a distinctive thing. With Frank, his whole musicality was so much deeper. He's written some of the prettiest guitar songs, too, like "Zoot Allures," "Twenty Small Cigars" – amazing stuff. Frank got known for things that really didn't have much to do with music. He became known for that poster of him sitting on the toilet and a lot of things and weird stories spread from that. Then there was the comedy aspect, or that he was crazy or a drug freak. A lot of people couldn't get past the way he looked.
You know that those people didn't speak to him, because if they did, they were in for a real shock. He was the sharpest guy. He did come out of the '60s. It would be hard in the '90s to come out with avant-garde, classical-tinged rock music. You'd wind up on some obscure little record label. You'd starve. But Frank made a little industry out of it. He was very smart, that's the main thing.
Don Rose, president, Rykodisc
This country doesn't value its artists until they either die or move to France. Unfortunately, I think Frank's legacy will loom larger from here on in than it did in his lifetime. It makes me angry. Once you get beyond the poodles and yellow snow, which is difficult for many people, there is so much richness and genius. He will be missed.
Chad Wackerman, drummer
I knew the reputation of how difficult Frank's music was to play and I wasn't disappointed when I saw the music. It was extremely intricate and detailed.
The working process really varied. Often you would learn a rock song by rote, without any paper, which didn't mean it was a simple thing to learn. Some of his material would be a rock song until you got to an interlude section, when he'd bring in a piece of paper.
You had to use your ears a lot, be able to memorize things quickly. When we went on the road, all this music we'd accumulated had to be memorized because it was a rock 'n' roll show, basically. You had rock 'n' roll lighting, and you couldn't have your face buried in any music.
Also, he tended to change things all the time. A piece we might have learned as a heavy-metal song, he'd give the cue and it might become a reggae song, just spontaneously. So every show was completely different. Some people would follow the band from show to show, not unlike the Grateful Dead's audience – except with Frank you would hear a different show every night. Even if you heard the same piece two nights in a row – which was rare – it might be ska one day and a Weather Report style the next.
Typically, for a tour, we'd rehearse for three months – five days a week, eight hours a day. By the time the band left we would know between 80 and 100 tunes, and they'd all be memorized and extremely tight.
He had a great sense of humor, and had all sorts of names for things. He named a certain kind of lick "Quaalude thunder," which basically meant very fast single-stroke rolls all over the tom-toms. He called Steve Vai "stunt guitarist," because Steve was playing most of the hard, written-out melody in unison.
Difficult as the drum parts were, he knew what was and wasn't possible, because he'd played the instrument. He was a drummer originally and later on played guitar. He also played a bit of marimba. So even though some of the stuff was unbelievably difficult to execute properly, you knew it was playable. It wasn't impossible, as previous drummers in the band had proven. A lot of the stuff that Vinnie Colaiuta and Terry Bozzio did was extremely intense.
It's amazing – so many people don't know about Frank or don't know how deep he was. They just think that he was this rock 'n' roll star. To me, Frank was this amazing composer who happened to play great rock 'n' roll guitar. Some very different combinations of influences came out of that. To me, nobody's ever going to touch it or come close.
Yoko Ono, New York City resident
When John and I did a little thing with Frank Zappa in '71 at the Fillmore East I discovered he was actually a composer who came into the rock/pop world. Both John and I hit it off with him very well.
We stayed in touch with each other over the phone. The most recent time I spoke with him extensively was when he was making a stand about censorship. He asked me to support his cause. But at the time, after John's death, I was trying to keep a low profile. I blessed him but I wasn't going to go to Washington. I felt he could cover it all. He had that kind of mind, meticulous and intelligent, and he expressed himself very succinctly.
Sean was saying there are very few of them left – that kind of person. Sean's generation feeling that way is very interesting. That means his music is affecting them as well. I think he's going to be rediscovered many times from now on.
Mike Keneally, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist
I think every tour Frank undertook in the '80s lost money. His last one did, in particular, because it was such a huge band – 12 pieces. If we had continued touring we might have made some of it back, but he just couldn't deal with the personality conflicts anymore.
That had happened before, but apparently it had never escalated to such a peak that it was starting to affect performances, including Frank's. At that point it just ceased to be fun. As far as I could tell, that was part of Frank's primary motivation – to give himself a chuckle, to write something that amused him and then see it executed properly.
Just about every day during soundcheck his Synclavier was parked right there on the stage. He would frequently come up with something on the spot which would then be used as source material during the show. He would either alert the band to what the music would be, or sometimes stuff would start floating out and you'd just have to react to it.
What made me happy was that the four-piece rock band in Zappa's Universe rehearsed for a week in Los Angeles before we flew to New York to rehearse with the orchestra. Frank has a rehearsal facility in North Hollywood called Joe's Garage, where I work with Dweezil. Frank came over to watch us rehearse – just me and Scott Thunes and the two Swedish guys (Mats Öberg and Morgan Ågren). He stayed there for a few hours and really enjoyed himself. To have Frank watch us rehearse that stuff and then pick up a guitar and play "Inca Roads" with us when I hadn't seen him pick up a guitar for a couple of years, that was special. That's my fondest memory of Zappa's Universe, that early rehearsal stage where Frank was hanging out with us and having a good time.
It's infuriating that he's so misunderstood. To turn on CNN and have the last words of the story be "the man who introduced Val-Speak" as his big contribution ... It would be nice to think that now people would be able to get a grasp on what he was about.
But I do think that Frank is widely appreciated by a very wide cross-section of people. He was always fond of saying that his life was a series of failures. Every artist has a lot of projects that never quite get off the ground. But when you see what he did accomplish and how many people it reached, I'd say that his career was a massive success.
Joel Thome, composer/conductor, Orchestra Of Our Time
I remember working on Zappa's Universe, and mentioning to him what I wanted to do with "Oh No," which I heard as a full-blown orchestra piece. I said, "I'm going to set this in a Webernesque way," and after I explained more he said, "Sounds like Webern's chamber Symphony, opus 21." Believe me, few musicians would have known that. When I mentioned that I'd end it in a Mahleresque way, he loved that too.
His compositions became more articulate as the years went by; there were certain compositional problems he was solving. There was a period when he said, "I'm not going to write for human beings anymore" – the mid-'80s, maybe earlier. He couldn't stand the lack of rehearsal time, people coming in unprepared, and unsatisfying performances. I knew where the statement was coming from. Not from the fact that he didn't want humans to hear his music, but from the fact that his electronic work was becoming more and more in tune with what he heard in his head. It definitely precipitated the Synclavier stuff, largely because he could do things with instrumental sounds that he couldn't achieve with live instruments; technically they wouldn't have the range. I remember he called me late one night and played a passage on Synclavier that sounded like traditional instruments, but at a speed that never would have been humanly possible.
He spoke from the heart about the ways that he was robbed by the cancer. "I used to be able to work 22 hours a day, and now I'm only going to be able to work 18. Rats." He worked right till the end. His creative soul was always filled with music. The silence of Frank's voice is deafening; the sound of his music will live forever.
Daniel Schorr, Senior News Analyst, National Public Radio
In 1986 he called with this idea for a television program. Now I had, in my youth, been a part-time music critic for The New York Times. I like music but I'm very conservative about it, and actively dislike rock in general. In the course of our first talk I began asking him about music and what relationship he thinks his work has – as politely as I could put it – to the great tradition of music. As we got into talking about it, I realized this man knew an enormous lot about Bach, Mozart and the classic tradition. It wasn't like he had been born yesterday into the rock world, but had come to rock from a great background of music. We would talk about performances, musicians, violinists, not at all rock.
He was very explosive about almost everything except himself. I'd talk about his success and he'd say, "What success? Failure." He did not want to indicate that he took himself seriously, that he worked very hard at what he did. I thought he was a sincerely modest person.
Matt Groening, creator, "The Simpsons"
One evening last spring I was listening to the radio and heard these Tuvan throat singers who were in town to give a concert at Cal Tech. I called Frank and said let's go see these guys. He was too sick but he told me to invite them to his house after the show: "We're having a soiree." That became my mission. And indeed they did come over to the house, where Frank had organized an evening of "conducted improvisation." There were the Tuvans, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the Chieftains and L. Shankar – who Frank kept calling Larry – among others. Frank even picked up the guitar. Later he said he wished he could have controlled it a little more but it was quite an effort just for him to be present.
Pamela Des Barres
I didn't see Frank much, especially when he was ill. People go their own ways. He was always working anyway. Gail would bring him copious amounts of espresso. She was always right there with him. And the kids were too. She wasn't one of those wives content with taking a back seat. She ran the business end of things for years.
I've always believed he'll be revered like Beethoven as the years go by. I'm so angry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for not inducting him last year when he was still alive and eligible.
A couple of years ago, when I heard Frank was ill, I called him up. For 14 years we had had no contact at all. He invited me to the house and we enjoyed some really nice visits with each other. Last June he called and asked if he could sample some of my stuff. I was shocked because I hadn't touched a pair of mallets since March of '77. I ended up practicing for 14 hours, which was all the time I could get together in the context of my life now. I spent four days at Frank's house sampling. This really was a miracle for me – that I could be reunited with him and still have something to offer. He was dying. It was obvious. Yet, though he was exhausted, though his breathing wasn't so good, though he couldn't leap from one place to another the way he used to, he was still compelling and intimidating and sharp and exacting and wonderful – maybe even more than ever.
He was the first person to create a place for rock 'n' roll marimba as a viable solo and ensemble instrument. Frank really lived in a world of percussion. That made the pans he wrote for me so satisfying to play. Frank composed music for my hands. He composed music for my temperament, my neuroses, my humor – Frank custom-tailored those parts to me, as he custom-tailored parts, I'm sure, for Ed Mann and anyone else that was lucky enough to play his music. I'm not a composer but I felt like one when I played Frank's music. That's how intimate a relationship he had with his players. I have never met a player who worked with Frank for any length of time who has ever gotten over not playing for him. It's not just, "Oh yeah, it was a good gig." It was an experience unlike any other.
About five months ago The Los Angeles Times called me and said that he was seriously ill and would I write an appreciation of him to be published when he died. I thought it was a little bit ghoulish. I said, I'll do that, but my relationship with him is such that I wouldn't do it behind his back; I'll send it to him. I wrote this piece and I spoke to him and his wife Gail, explaining the circumstances. His attitude was, "That's fine, don't make so much fuss over me, I don't know when I'm going to die. I might still beat death yet." He would find anything he could do to frustrate people who were predicting him. I sent him the piece and then decided not to call him and ask what he thought about it. Gail called me the other night and said she wanted me to know she had read my appreciation to him. He sort of nodded and said nothing. But she said he liked it.
We talked about his illness at times. Of course all these people had "magical" remedies. But Frank was realistic. He understood that people cared, but it was tiring. When he decided not to continue with the treatments, he had found his place in which he wanted to live out his life – which was the same way he had lived the rest of his life. Not that he was giving in to the disease. But it would have to take him the way he lived his life, not some other way.
I'm really sorry for his family and especially his youngest daughter, Diva. To be 13 and lose your father has to be a tremendous loss. He was such a caring father, and with Gail – you have to include them both – they gave their kids room to be themselves and to speak their minds. And they are all very articulate and very generous about their love for their father. That's a salute to the man he was. Growing up, his own family was not perfect, and I think he vowed that his would be different.
There was no time to worry if people "got it." The guy made 40 albums and was working on 40 more. And you never saw Frank read a review and go, "Gee, that son of a bitch!" He'd say, "What's for breakfast?" He created for his die-hard fans. He wasn't a rock 'n' roll musician, you know; he just looked like one. Frank was much bigger than rock.
When technology caught up with him and delivered the Synclavier, he was in heaven. He didn't have to relate his concepts to anybody. He stayed mostly at home, which was reflective of the type of person he was anyway. He didn't care about going out and making the scene. A big night for Frank was a pot of espresso, a pack of cigarettes and a pizza – delivered. And to have his 24-track studio in the house and his family upstairs. The kids grew up and they knew they could be there – or not. After they moved out, one by one they moved back. And the room was always there for them. These were people who found sanctuary in their home. Everybody was understood.
I'm sure there were the same types of things there that all families go through. But I'm 46 now, and when I joined the band at 22, Frank was a father figure to me. Now I'm grateful that I knew him, and that I made him laugh. Because I see as I get older that the loss of friends is the one tragedy in life that can never be repaired. That's why it's important not to let the little things get in the way. And as Frank would say, "Just keep going on."
The Zappa family requests that those wishing to send flowers or commemorate Frank in some way make a donation in his name to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association – a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization – at 50 E. Huron, Chicago, IL 60611; or make a donation in Frank's name to the Cousteau Society, Greenpeace or any favorite environmental cause.
Frank Zappa: Last Words
Frank Zappa spoke to Musician many times over the years. The following are excerpts from various interviews:
Why did you switch to guitar at age 18?
The saxophone was limited to a very few notes in a pretty common style, and that got old fast. But guitar solos were another story. It seems incomprehensible that a person could listen to "Three Hours Past Midnight" by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or the guitar solo on "Story of My Life" by Guitar Slim. I mean, that stuff used to make me violent.
Did you ever study any theory?
I had some theory. In high school I went over to the junior college for an hour a day to take this theory class. It was taught by a jazz trumpeter named Mr. Russell, and we were working out of the Walter Piston harmony book. The rest of it's all from the library.
When Freak Out! came out, the thing that seemed to jar everybody was its sense of humor.
Look, I'm an honest person, and I try to keep a certain type of integrity in the work that I do. If I have a sense of humor, I'm not going to subdue it in order to make myself more acceptable.
Do you view yourself as something other than a rock performer?
Basically what I am is a composer, but I earn my living performing rock 'n' roll.
Can you pick out any of your work that stands out?
I like "Greggery Peccary," Lumpy Gravy," "Redunzl," We're Only In It For The Money," "Watermelon In Easter Hay". "You Are What You Is" comes off. I like "The Blue Light."
Do you think about music in terms of its social purpose?
Well, when you play ugly music, it helps to have an elaborate philosophical system to rationalize its ugliness. This has been my experience with much of the avant-garde.
You said that even though Elmore James always played the same famous lick, you got the feeling that he meant it.
Well, he did. That stuff transcends music and gets into realms of language. It goes beyond good taste into religion.
One of the great rock 'n' roll myths of all time involves a gross-out contest which allegedly took place onstage between you and Captain Beefheart.
The first time I heard this rumor, this guy from the Flock – remember the Flock? – comes over to me and goes, "Hey, Frank, I heard about the gross-out contest and that's really fantastic the way you ate that shit!" I said, "Man, I never ate any shit onstage!" I'll tell you, the closest I ever came to eating shit was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville. North Carolina.
Is there a significance in the revival of Faces-era rock?
Well, the idea of setting yourself up as a derivative band is a road that leads nowhere.
Really arcane or avant-garde music kind of experiences the same thing.
What do you mean, arcane? If a guy creates something new and original, is that bad?
Not at all. I'm not using the word pejoratively, but more like something ...
It's something you never heard before.
Something that's frighteningly ...
I want the frighteningly original all the time.
Have there been parts of your life that you've neglected because you've been so absorbed in your music?
Well, what am I missing? Do I regret not going horseback riding, or learning how to water ski? Well, no. I don't want to climb mountains, I don't want to do bungie-jumping, I haven't missed any of these things. If you're absorbed by something, what's to miss?
From Musician interviews by James Riordan, Dan Forte, Tom Moon, Scott Isler, Josef Woodard, Alan di Perna and Matt Resnicoff.