Saint Zappa, Halloween Idyll
By Charles Frick
From "The Aquarian" Issue no.795, Oct.25 - Nov. 1. 1995
"I don't want to spend my life explaining myself. You either get it or you don't."
There used to be a time when you could count on three things for sure: death, taxes and Frank Zappa playing New York City on Oct. 31st. Halloween has clear connections with primitive and sometimes savage rites of the priestly druids in the pre-Roman, Celtic communities of Northwestern Europe. Mystical ceremonies were performed in honor of the great Sun God, and the Celts believed on that day, the Lord of the Dead assembled the souls of all those persons who died. The spirits of the departed were believed to allowed a brief visit with their relatives in search of warmth and comfort against the approaching Winter. It was the time when the invisible world of the spirits was closer than any other point in the year. Pope Gregory IV. in an attempt to the de-mystify the holiday, placed All Saints Day into the church's calendar to honor numerous martyrs and eventually saints on a common day.
Time will tell if Frank Zappa, was in fact, one of the most important, creative, ground breaking and influential musical and creative forces in the later half of the 20th Century. The space here doesn't permit more than a thumbnail sketch – a few of the high points of Frank's career: The Mothers of Invention first record, "Freak Out!", released in 1966 was the first concept album, the first double album and contained "Trouble Comin' Every Day", a spoken word piece over rhythmic guitar drone, commenting on the state of police repression, black and white race relations in the aftermath of the Watts riots. It arguably is the first rap song ever released. Another cut, "Help, I'm A Rock", a memorial for his musical hero Edgar Varèse, illuminated his flirtation with the mechanics and intricacy of a 12-tone, polyrhythmic form of contemporary classical composition. It presaged the underspinnings of his later, highly sophisticated orchestral work. Zubin Metha, conductor of the LA Philharmonic said to Frank "Why don't you write something that we can perform together," 200 Motels, with the London Symphony Orchestra, was born and remains perhaps the quintessential rock musical movie.
Zappa virtually invented the recording careers of his high school buddy, Captain Beefheart, as well as Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer, and the GTO's, the first glampunk girl band. There also was his flirtation with international intrigue and politics. His association with Václav Havel, the Czech dissident philosopher, playwright, troublemaker and political prisoner: when Havel was released from prison and elected president of Czechoslovakia, he met Frank and offered to make him the special ambassador to the West for trade, culture, and tourism. Rumors have it the Bush Administration pressured Frank to drop the idea. Zappa got the consolation prize and the last laugh, when an asteroid, discovered by a team of Czech astronomers was named "Zappafrank."
Nominated for seven Grammy's including Best Rock Vocal for "Dancin' Fool" and "Valley Girl" with daughter Moon, in 1987, it was his Synclavier-realized composition "Jazz From Hell" which finally copped the award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. His far reaching effect on the world of music and culture is being carried on by some of the young musicians who came trough his musical boot camp. Guitarists, Lowell George, who along with former Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, founded Little Feat, Adrian Belew, who went on to serve Bowie's side man and guitarist for King Crimson, and solo artist Steve Vai, late of Whitesnake, and David Lee Roth's band who spoke of his time with the axe master supreme. "In Frank I saw an artist of uncompromising approach and flawless integrity in his art. One hundred years from now when many popular bands will mean little more than funny names from the past, Frank will be revered and celebrated for the true genius that he is." Drummers included Aynsley Dunbar, late of John Mayall's Blues Breakers who would go on to play Journey, Whitesnake and Starship. Terry Bozzio later of Missing Persons, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Chad Wackerman. Keyboard ace George Duke, Jazz horn players The Brecker Brothers and The Fowler Brothers, all did time with Frank.
I asked Aynsley Dunbar, who joined Frank in 1970, what Frank's place in musical history would be. "I think he will always be remembered as being brilliant and completely ahead of his time. Frank never really got to the height of where he should have been 'cause he was always filing lawsuits against record companies , and they hate that. They actually black ball you as they call it over here. Once you do that (sue them) they don't want to know you, and all of the big companies sort of work together. If one decided that they don't want to deal with you, it gets down the line to the others. That's why he and his wife Gail started his own label."
"If Frank were to appear on Halloween for just one song, what do you think it would be?" I asked. "Maybe The Black Page or something like that, he had a sense of humor, he used to sort of look for things that were funny to him in a tongue in cheek way." In the mid-80's Tipper Gore and the PMRC challenged the right to freedom of expression with a repressive and restrictive attack on the music industry. Frank picked up the gauntlet and made several highly visible appearances. In February, 1986, in testimony before the Maryland State legislature which was trying to pass a bill modifying the pornography statutes to include records and tapes, he said, "It is my personal feeling that lyrics can not harm anyone. There is no sound that you can make with your mouth, or word that will come out of your mouth that is so powerful that it will make you go to hell."
Later he released Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention on which he sampled the voices of many senators from the hearings, threw them into the Synclavier, and turned them into frighteningly comic reading of the proceedings. In an interview with Gail Eikenberry of KUSC, the radio station of the University of Southern California, he spoke about the real threat of censorship in our society. "When you see moves toward censorship, this would, in an ideal world, create a situation for someone who would like to have an authoritarian form of government, create a mechanism that would allow them to further control the release of information and further control any type of dissent that might upset their apple cart, and with Americans there is always that possibility. This is a very unpredictable nation, 'cause just when you think that everybody got their head in the sand, just when you think that it's all over, that they've been completely bamboozled, it's been proven before, they'll snap and they will wake up, and they will make demands. I think that the people in the enemy camp realize this is always a possibility, that something could wake the Americans up, and when the Americans wake up, they are dangerous, especially to people who have this fascistic kind of system that they want to install. "
"Anytime you see someone seeking to control the arts of commentary, you should get suspicious; history is full of examples of how other people have tried to do this and where it led. The sneaky part about censorship in America is not whether they will set up a board to go over lyrics on every record, the censorship IS already there at the broadcast level, at the MTV level, at the executive level in the record companies. Certain people don't get signed, if they do get signed they can't say certain things. If they take the chance and put certain things on the record, that record's not going on the air, it's not going on MTV, you've already been shut out."
"Considering the fact that I've been doing this for 25 years, I have many songs that are absolutely anti-drug, did they ever get programmed on a radio station? Never. "Few people know more about Frank Zappa's recorded material than Jill Christiansen, Drowning Witch, catalog development manager for Rykodisc Records. She is the crucial link between the fans and the mythical vaults in the Zappa Family Trust, where thousands of hours of Frank's tapes are stored. I posed the Halloween question to her, "If Frank were to magically materialize, where do you think his spirit would show up ?" "Probably back to work, back to the studio," she said. "I think he was happy on stage, but I can't imagine him being happier than sitting in a studio room, composing music." The magic that was a Frank Zappa Halloween concert in New York has been well documented on Rykodisc's massive live collection, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, Disc 1 of the set is a collection of songs dealing with the topic of sex including, from the Palladium 1977, "The Poodle Lecture", which segues seamlessly into "Dirty Love, Is That Guy Kidding Or What?," "Tryin' To Grow A Chin". From 1978, "Thirteen," "Lobster Girl", "I Have Been In You", "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance." From 1981, "Alien Orifice," and "Strictly Genteel". Volume #1, '81, from the TV/Westwood One live simulcast from The Palladium, "Dumb All Over," "Heavenly Bank Account," "Suicide Chump." Volume #3 , Palladium '77, "Hands With A Hammer" from the 'Baby Snakes' soundtrack, and Palladium '81, "Charlie's Enormous Mouth." Vol#4, '79, Palladium, "Little Rubber Girl" and "A Pound For A Brown On The Bus."
"What do you think stood in the way of Frank's greater commercial success while he was alive?" I asked "People are used to things being palatable for them. He didn't make it easy for society, certainly in the United States. Here, we have a lot of hang-ups, and Frank persisted in discussing all of those subjects that make people squirm-politics, sex, religion, whatever. He demanded that you think. There are so many paradoxical elements to him, I think it confuses people, and isn't that great, that it's hard to figure out?" The release this year of 56 albums in the Rykodisc reissue set and 'Strictly Commercial', The Best Of Frank Zappa disc, have rekindled the interest of older fans and brought many new younger fans into the fold. If you own no other Zappa record, 'Strictly Commercial', a collection of 19 essential single cuts is a must-have. All of the so-called hits like "Valley Girl," "Disco Boy," "Montana", Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," and "Joe's Garage are included, and a live version of the instrumental "Sexual Harassment In The Workplace," spotlighting Frank's blues guitar solo that'll rip your heart open. "the first thing scheduled for release in '96 is "The Lost Episodes" rarities, and unreleased tracks," said Christensen. "The number one request from the fans is to get 200 Motels out in CD. The situation is no one seems to know who owns the rights to it. There is a track list described as Frank's idea of a best collection. He called it, "Have I Offended Someone?" With numbers like, "Titties 'n Beer," "Bobby Brown Goes Down," you know, things that should piss off a lot of people. It's the so-called 'offensive' stuff. Not sexually offensive, of course, but the all-around politically incorrect stuff. I think it's fantastic that he did that. When I first saw the listing I thought, Why? Later, I've come to appreciate his relentless use of these topics and his use of words to make people react. That may come out in '97."
"Are there any surprises in store for future releases?" I asked. "We had started to work on a limited edition of "We're Only In It For The Money" with extra information and other things in it. I've heard rumours from hardcore fans of obscure and secret material that exists. Originally there was supposed to be an entire second record from "Just Another Band From L.A." that was never released. I also hear that there is more material from the "Hot Rats" sessions. I can only speculate. We haven't even gotten into the vault yet. "
Ike Willis was Frank's frontman and comic foil for the last 10 years of the band's active touring. I asked him about the New York Halloween shows. "I joined the band in '78. My first Halloween at the Palladium was fantastic. Frank used to tell me there's a couple of serious traditions. Halloween in NYC and Mothers Day in Chicago. In NYC it was like 'The freaks come out at night.' They would come prepared with the costumes and all of the toys and all of the rest of the stuff. The last show in '84 was incredible, people came dressed as Dracula, as Frank, as me. New York was never just another night on the tour. Frank would put it to us like, "Okay, look we're heading into New York City and it's Halloween, act accordingly." We always tried to have something a little special for the New York crowd." "If a stroke of midnight on Halloween Frank were to mystically reappear, which track would you want to do again with him?" "Watermelon In Easter Hay", or "Outside Now", or "Black Napkins," something like that where he just shreds, 'cause he was underestimated and underrated as a guitar player. He was always one of the finest. we would do tunes like 'Easter Hay' or something like that and he would have the audience in tears. He was very laid back, soft spoken, clearly the most intelligent human being that I've ever met."
Willis has been the most visibly active of the former sideman in perpetuating Frank's pop music in a live context. In addition to The Ike Willis Band, he's been featured front man, touring and recording with the German group The Muffin Men (the Muffin Men are from Liverpool, England - E.N.), and the Band from Utopia, a 10-piece Zappa Alumni unit. Their new live album, "A Tribute To The Music Of Frank Zappa" was cut at the 1994 'Jazz Open Festival' in Stuttgart, Germany. Both groups, as well as former Mothers, Jimmy Carl Black's The Grandmothers, Tommy Mars' band 'Western Vacation' (actually Western Vacation feat. Tommy Mars - E.N.) and Arthur Barrow's solo project 'Eyebrow Razor' are released on the Muffin Records label.
"In the Fall of '93, when I talked to Frank on the phone, I knew that the cancer was inoperable and was terminal," said Willis. "He really started getting weak and very tired. He told me, "Ike if you have any travel plans in the near future, I suggest you come down and see me, things are getting close and I want to talk to you before it's too late."
"A week before Thanksgiving I went down to visit him and had a long talk. I've always had my own band, and Frank was always one of my biggest fans and supporters as far as doing my own material. He taught me how to be an effective producer, performer and had always given me permission to play some of his tunes. That last time I saw him, he basically said, "Ok, I still give you permission to play whatever you want, make sure it's okay with Gail (Zappa) first. Go Ye forth and Kick Ass. Go for the gusto Ike, if you can keep it alive, go ahead and do it, 'cause I can't do it anymore." Essentially that was the deal, the way it was said. It's not like Ike Willis is trying to be Frank Zappa, there's no way I can do it, all I can do is go out on stage, do the same thing that I had been doing with him before. He hired me to be his frontman, he wrote those tunes for me to sing and play. That's what I'm doing to keep it alive, to keep these things going. The day I got home, I get a call from Roddie Gilliard, the leader of The Muffin Men, asking if I would consider fronting on their European tour. They weren't just a bunch of guys trying to play Frank Zappa tunes, but were actually being faithful to the arrangements and were musically pulling it off. In the middle of the Muffin tour, Reinhard, a diehard Zappa fan who started Muffin Records in Stuttgart said to me "Look Ike, is there a way you could get hold of enough of the former band, to see if they would do a couple of European tribute gigs?" That's how Utopia came together. I called the guys, and it snowballed. The band was assembled. A couple of times we had to stop in the middle of rehearsals 'cause we were getting a bit misty-eyed. Remember, we recorded this stuff, the original versions and we were playing it just like we were supposed to play it. It was sounding the way it was supposed to sound and the only person missing was Frank. It really brought it home that he wasn't there. We were going, "Man he should be here, he should really hear this shit because it's just tremendous."
"It sounded so great and turned out so well, we all agreed it don't make any sense to do just a one-time thing, this should be a touring band. Once we got on the road, the crowds just went nuts. Our last official tour was '88 when Frank started getting sick. The crowd had been waiting for this, and the minute that we started playing, it was like, yeah! Yeah, we understand Frank isn't here but we are keeping it alive. That is the whole key right now, that's what they're loving." There is sadness and loss in Frank's passing: we will never know the heights to which his creative genius could have ascended. What magical music existed untransposed within his brain. Yeah, it was fun to see him and the bands up on stage, and it was great to have someone like him champion the causes of rationality and to wink and nod musically as if to say, "Yeah, the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes." In his death his music begun to transcend the norms and forms of rock and roll, jazz and contemporary classical composition. Long after the popular music of today is but a memory and the people who fought against Frank have been relegated to mere footnotes in history, there will perhaps, 100 years down the road, be a Halloween concert celebrating the music and magic of Frank Zappa. A bunch of tux-clad classically trained men and women with chops out to hear, who Frank would say could "put the eyebrows on it," will play the utterly flabbergasting complex scores of his later compositions, whipping that thing for all it's worth.
A quote from Edgar Varese that Frank held sacred since his earliest musical days seems hauntingly appropriate for this Halloween and the days beyond. "The present day composer refuses to die."