Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Sidebar 2: The Obituary

SIDEBAR: FRANK ZAPPA: 1940-1993

From Stereophile Vol.17 No.2, Februry 1994

Frank Zappa was a unique figure in the worlds of American popular music, international contemporary music, pop culture, politics, civil libertarianism, and, toward the end of his life, international politics and business as well. When he died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, he was mourned not only by musicians and fans, but by such luminaries as NPR's Daniel Schorr and the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who remembered him as "one of the gods of the Czech underground during the 1970s and '80s."

I first heard Zappa's music in the fall of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the birth of the media hippie. A budding 17-year-old hippie myself, I was shocked and delighted by his just-released album We're Only In It for the Money, probably his most pointed essay in cultural criticism. That was a clearly polarized time---the unexamined truisms from both sides of the generational fence were spouted with a single-minded sincerity and a naivete that seem almost touching today. Zappa's voice, on the other hand, was one of clarifying irony and sarcasm, the voice of an experienced, mature adult who took no one's word for anything.

Money's album cover was a black satire of the cover of Sgt. Pepper itself---something that verged on sacrilege at that time of LSD-drenched Beatleolatry. But We're Only In It for the Money was not only a critique of the vague fatuities of the hippie subculture; it also roasted an establishment that found itself terrified by that subculture and attempted to suppress it by increasingly violent means. The cycle climaxed three years later at Kent State University in shootings eerily foretold by Zappa on this very record.

We were weary even then of the dire pronouncements of our parents and authority figures about the dark side of the strange and contradictory melange of leftist politics, free love, communal living, psychedelics, alternative healing techniques, political theater, Native American lore, exotic diets, and the various occult and spiritual disciplines in which many of us dabbled and which a few of us even studied. Zappa was just as critical, but his was criticism from the inside, from "one of us." When I first heard him shout "Flower power sucks!"---this was in 1967, remember---my spine stiffened in shock and recognition. The whole gestalt---everything that went with the phrase "flower power"---had never been questioned by anyone my teenaged psyche trusted or respected, and certainly by no one with hair as long as Zappa's. His derisive shout made me question everything I had refused to question, and permanently derailed my hitherto blithe and paisley train of thought.

Zappa's call to question authority---no matter how hip---was a constant of his work from the very beginning. He played both political ends against a cultural middle he held in withering contempt, and vice versa. Beginning in 1965 by pillorying (on Freak Out!) greaser and doo-wop music (both of which he loved), along with warning us to "Watch the Nazis run your town," asking the rhetorical question "Who are the Brain Police?," and singing the first rock song I know of to attack the media ("Trouble Every Day," about the Watts Riots), his list of targets eventually grew to include psychedelic music, disco, punk, white blues, Democrats, Republicans, the Christian Right, the extremes of both gays and homophobes, and most important, anything and anyone anywhere who threatened free speech and the Bill of Rights. During his last two tours he set up voter-registration booths in the lobbies and managed to encourage tens of thousands of concert-goers to register. (At least one group of community powers-that-were prohibited him from doing so, grumbling that "we already have enough voters.") He was about to make a serious bid for the presidency when his long-misdiagnosed cancer finally caught up with him.

Ever a gadfly to the establishment and to his own constituency---the young, the hip, the disaffected---Zappa knew that there's no one so conservative or conformist as a teenager, regardless of that teenager's dress or political beliefs. One of the strangest and most revealing moments on any Zappa album comes at the end of the live section of "Little House I Used To Live In" on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa announces to the crowd that "Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don't you forget it." What sounds like every single person in the room then bursts into delirious applause.

Why? Zappa had just accused every one of them of being programmed robots marching in a lockstep media army of long hair, drug abuse (contrary to popular belief, Zappa himself never took drugs other than caffeine and nicotine), and a borrowed hip argot. But no one, evidently, was offended. Perhaps all the acclaim was embarrassment, the shock of recognition immediately recycled into laughter at oneself.

I don't think so. Having been part of other such moments at other Zappa concerts, I think he included these few seconds on his record to make a far more disturbing point: That in a culture in which free speech is taken for granted as a birthright instead of being valued as a precious privilege earned, it loses that value. Anything that anyone might say or write becomes just another glittering fragment in a vast and hypnotizing kaleidoscope of entertainment. With increasing bitterness as the years went on, Zappa made a point of referring to everything he did as "just entertainment"---a way of ensuring that he never took himself too seriously, but also an indicator of his cynicism. I can't think of any other American rock musician of whose work the word "entertainment" is less descriptive.

But Zappa would've been little more than another shrill voice in the vast wasteland had all this exhortation not been supported by a uniquely powerful musical voice. Zappa scavenged the pop music of America and the avant-garde of Europe to create a music of non-sequitur, a shotgun cubist marriage of doo-wop, serialism, fusion, crudely effective Brechtian agit-prop, Varesian electronics, and good ol' rock'n'roll. He reveled in the jarring juxtaposition, the transition without segue, the 90-degree curve. He shared with Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern an abhorrence of sentiment and a commitment to what he called "statistical density": ie, a maximum amount of aesthetic information in a minimum amount of time.

Zappa's orchestral and chamber music could thus sound most chaotic to the majority of his rock fans when it was actually at its most rigorously disciplined. But then, at its best, his rock music could sound similarly incomprehensible to the ear attuned only to the sounds of the conservatory and the recital hall. Zappa was virtually unique in creating not only some of the most rhythmically thorny orchestral scores ever written---as such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, and Peter Rundel have attested---but also some of the most challenging rock music ever composed and performed. In fact, among serious rock instrumentalists it became the ultimate badge of honor to have played in one of Zappa's bands. Like Miles Davis, Zappa had an uncanny ability to demand from a player that player's best---and get it every time.

As if fighting against time---he was---Zappa released recordings at a furious pace in his last few years: over 30 CDs' worth of previously unreleased material, much of it his best work. His last album, The Yellow Shark, a collection of works for chamber orchestra recorded in concert by the Ensemble Modern and released just weeks before his death, is probably the best thing he ever did---JA and I would've picked it for this issue's "Recording of the Month" whether or not Zappa had died.

The loss of Frank Zappa is a true one. There is no one even remotely close to being able to take his place, whether as an unlikely collection of talents and insights, or as a uniquely intelligent American voice worthy of attention and trust. It saddens me that I will now never see his name on the national ballot. I cast my vote here.

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