Frank was the Real Thing living in a Nightmare

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By Germaine Greer
The Guardian (UK)
Monday, December 13 1993

Frank Zappa is dead. The obituaries have been published. The ones I read were full of peculiar caveats and qualifications. Despite Zappa's this and despite Zappa's that, he was someone, well, relatively important, even quite, even very. A mass of contradictions, he was wise and he was foolish, conformist and outrageous, Italo-Armenio-Californian freak-businessman, condescended to by Cockneys, taken seriously by Czechs and the American State Department. I read, too, about cultists visiting the tomb of Jim Morrison in Pere Lachaise. I knew Jim Morrison slightly, saw a bit of him, not long before he blew a gasket getting into a hot bath. Most of the dead popstars courted their own deaths: Janis Joplin fallen down between her bed and the wall, stiffed by an overdose; Jimi Hendrix, supposedly suffocated by his vomit in narcotic swoon; Marc Bolan wrapped around a tree.

Frank Zappa's life had to be prised out of him piecemeal by secondary cancer of the bone. Frank knew none better that life is not fair; the savagery of his own death would not have surprised him. It only surprises me because I have some lingering hope that God does not reward good with evil. The Frank Zappa who has died was one of the best men I ever knew. Not zany, not weird, not difficult, at least not to me, perhaps because I am as zany, weird and difficult as he. I'd be delighted to think I was like him. I don't. Frank Zappa was saner, braver, more level headed, more constant and more loyal than I will ever be.

The story begins on a Sunday morning in Hernando's Hideaway, the ground-floor coffee-shop swept away now by the refurbishment of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It was in the days when I was struggling to get out of what accountants used to call a tax spiral. The worst part of the struggle was that I used to do lecture tours around the US. The worst part of the lecture tour was always California, because it was the furthest away from home, the worst time zone and the dead middle of the weeks of touring. Los Angeles seemed to me, and still seems to me, the antechamber of hell.

In my sumptuously fitted bathroom in the Beverly Wilshire, with the help of a huge magnifying mirror, I had made an appalling discovery: I had crabs in my eyebrows and goodness knew where else. I rang the boyfriend in Detroit who pretended to be furious with me, when it was actually my turn to be furious with him. I trudged downstairs morosely pondering my next move, and into Hernando's Hideaway. Frank and Gail Zappa were there, already immersed in coffee and the Sunday papers. I think they called out to me to join them. Somehow I ended up at their table. They told me about having been driven out of their house by the decorators and I told them about the crabs.

Zappa was tickled pink. Nobody knew more about crabs than he did, he reckoned. He would take care of it. The commissionaires brought his car, a black Bentley with smoked-glass windows, and we slid darkly, silently off along the boulevards to Schwab's, only the most famous drugstore in the entire world. In strode Frank shouting loudly for blue lotion. I nerved myself for some brazen rejoinder, but he took my infestation upon himself. By this time I already knew two important things about Frank Zappa, important and rare things: he was in love with his wife and she was in love with him. I don't know and I don't care, any more than Gail Zappa did or does, how much mileage the groupies got out of him. Gail and Frank made no display of togetherness – there was no handholding or canoodling, but they had the heightened physical and spiritual awareness of each other that comes with being in love. They were really good to be around.

The next time I was in LA I saw them at the house in Laurel Canyon, which I remember was an oasis of real life surrounded by a nightmare. Here were sensible kids, who could converse without yelling and display a polite interest in strangers, who wisecracked as they watched television and occasionally did homework. Frank's ever-expanding collection of motel keys hanging from the ceiling kept us all in mind of the real nature of his work. On good days, when he was at home, he worked away in his studio downstairs, just like a Mediterranean dad with his workshop on the ground floor and the family apartment upstairs. He never tired of the wife and kids, he never tired of the house, and above all he never tired of the work.

Gail would say it was their peasant common sense that kept them so constant, but it was more than that. Both Gail and Frank were fully aware of what was actually going on in LA. They looked on the most seductive, the most destructive culture in the world and they resisted it. They pulled off the crowning achievement; they had kids who genuinely liked them. I don't know how they did it. It is something to do with their combination of intelligence, high spirits and genuineness. Something like that.

Some might say that Frank Zappa was basically conventional and that his freakish exterior was a fraud. In LA it was, is and ever shall be conventional to be a promiscuous junky thrill-seeker. The Zappas paid a certain price for not conforming. In a supermarket one day, Frank, clad in nothing but a deep turquoise jump-suit that was unzipped to where his pubic hair began, attracted the attention of a bleached and bejewelled woman who kept dragging her Neanderthal escort around after him while she squealed asinine complaints about his appearance. Frank suddenly turned and bawled right into the woman's pop-eyed face, "Blow it out your arse!" The woman screamed ear-splittingly, her walker shaped up, and utter mayhem ensued. Frank just stood there, a clown figure, towered over by the muscleman, and steadily stared him down.

I lost my address book and I lost touch with the Zappas, but I never forgot the way they were. Most of the work that Frank did in his downstairs studio is known to very few people. I hope his real career as a twentieth-century composer rather than a rock star is about to begin, but if it isn't, no big deal. He was, unlike Jim Morrison, the real thing.