Monday, September 27, 2010

Frank Zappa

photography by Crystal Visions Art
On September 19, 2010, Baltimore MD hosted a tremendous event to pay tribute to musical legend Frank Zappa. A monument was dedicated, a bust unveiled, Frank's widow Gail gave a talk, and son Dweezil brought the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute band, a top notch assembly of excellent young musicians, to play an incredible set of Zappa music. Several thousand people filled the streets of Highlandtown for a celebration of all things Frank.

Crystal and I were there; for a detailed account of our experience, including a bunch of her usual superb photography, visit her Painting Queen blog.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

It was uplifting and inspiring to see such a huge turnout. I feel like everyone knew that they were not just there to hear some cool music, or recall their favorite bawdy Zappa lyrics. Zappa's musical career was intertwined with a lifelong commitment to freedom of expression, not just for himself, but for all people. He was unflinching and uncompromising in his dedication to first amendment rights. Zappa's musical career was one of total integrity, to the very end. You can't enjoy his music and not get a glimmer of that.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

The serious fan of Zappa also knows that he had boundless creative energy and an astounding work ethic. His official discography lists a whopping 90 albums! This includes 62 albums released in his lifetime, plus a growing number of posthumous releases. This vast quantity also reflects his insatiable curiosity about the recording process itself. He became well known as someone who pushed  technology to the limits in pursuit of the highest quality sound and most innovative productions.

ApostropheOvernite Sensation
Frank left a vast archive of live and studio recordings. His son Dweezil has taken on the job of converting this wealth of material to digital form; here's a link to an excellent article about that. The point is, Frank wasn't just spouting platitudes and getting away with foul language. He was constantly developing and expanding his creative ideas, and manifesting them into the best possible recorded form as fast and as often as he possibly could.

And then there's the fact that he was most certainly a musical genius. How else can one explain the fact that by the time he graduated high school he had taught himself about contemporary avante-garde classical music and was composing, arranging and conducting pieces for his own high school's orchestra?
Here he is at age 22 on the Steve Allen show (the video is in four short parts; it is well worth it to watch the whole sequence):

Frank gained the respect and appreciation of musicians everywhere for the sophistication of his compositions and his amazing stylistic range. The music he wrote was so challenging it could only be played by highly trained, educated musicians with top notch technical skills. He was known for pushing them to their limits and beyond.

Here's Steve Vai telling what it was like to audition for Frank:

Frank was renowned as a guitar player with prodigious skills and an utterly unique style. Again, self-taught, he didn't even pick it up until he was 18, after he had already been a drummer and composer for four years. He approached guitar with the same attitude of pushing the limits of what he could do, and also of the sounds the guitar could make. Here's a link to a survey of Frank's guitars and the extensive modifications he made to them.

In the 1980's, Congress was considering legislation to put labels on records warning of possibly objectionable content. This of course pushed Frank's buttons because to him it was a clear cut infringement of free speech, and even worse, it was phony. It was a distraction, meant to divert people's attention from other legislation being pushed through that would benefit the big record companies. So Frank came and testified before Congress, fully armed with his usual wit, intelligence and blistering sarcasm. Here's a clip:

He also appeared on a number of talk shows to promote his views, and always showed great intelligence and consideration, as well as a clear disdain for those who would pretend virtuousness as they pursued their own self-serving agendas.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

For me, Zappa has always held a special place as as someone who could rock hard, groove deeply, jam intensely, create insanely complex musical structures, and be a funny sarcastic smart-ass, often all in the same song. It's hard to imagine that as normal, but there it was, displayed in song after song, album after album. Apostrophe, Overnite Sensation, One Size Fits All, Zoot Allures, Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage were big influences and all-time favorites.

Without doubt, Frank seemed to achieve three or four lifetime's worth of accomplishments in his 53 years. But now my thoughts turn with much appreciation to his son Dweezil. The Dweez has spent a considerable part of his life devoting himself to understanding and promoting Frank's work, to the extent of taking a year just to prepare to play guitar in the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute band. Dweezil is obviously a man with considerable intelligence, talent and will. Having seen him play live, I also think he has a lot of heart and soul. I am looking forward with great anticipation to discover what the future holds for him, beyond Frank.

Check out my other blog post about FZ, as I venture into my extensive magazine collection for a survey of articles about and by Frank:

And here's a few more references on FZ:
  • Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore - a very well written review of the Zappa Day festivities by veteran Baltimore journalist Rafael Alvarez.  
  • Classic Albums: Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation DVD - a great documentary about the making of these two essential Zappa albums, featuring insights from musicians who played on the albums, and Dweezil breaking down tracks from the original master tapes.
  • Wikipedia entry (quite extensive)
  • Interview from 1977 - favorite quote: “There’s no school in the U.S. that has a hall for amplified music. They’re all designed for tennis shoes, not rock and rollers. Everything for sports, f---  rock and roll.” 
  • Dub Room Special DVD review
  • Essay and interview: "The Evolution Of The Guitar's Use In Pop Music: Short Version" from Guitar Player Magazine, 1987. Favorite quote: "You see very few truly original guitarists and a whole bunch of people who wish they were Eddie Van Halen.  The aesthetic norm for guitar playing viewed as an ongoing trend seems to be: If Eddie can do it, why, I can certainly do it, and maybe if I practice, I can do it faster.  That seems to be the motivating aesthetic for most of the guitar players who get recorded today."
Last word goes to the man himself - 
rare live video of "I'm The Slime" on Saturday Night Live, 1976:

Frank Zappa - I`m The Slime - 1976 by gyrgyl25

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1 comment:

  1. That was a memorable day! I was totally impressed by 'Zappa Plays Zappa.' I hear it may be a annual wouldn't that be way cool!

    I learned a few new things about Frank from your blog. Thanks Mr. Sherman! ;-D