A writer looks back at the masterful rock composer
As a youngster in the early ’70s, I often visited a neighbor’s house where I silently questioned the rationale of hanging a John Wayne photo in the living room. I could understand JFK, or even the sentimentality of velvet Elvis. But The Duke never struck a heroic chord. Even as a kid, he seemed like some sort of establishment tool.
Then, one day, I met a new kid in the neighborhood, an Air Force brat, whose dad had piloted Air Force One. Up on their mantle was an astronaut. That was a little better.
Anyway, I started poking through the record collection of this new friend’s older brother who was away at Berkeley and came across a bizarre-looking album called Weasels Ripped My Flesh by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention.
“What is this?” I thought to myself, pondering the album cover, which showed a man shaving with a sharp-toothed weasel.
Years later, I am still learning more and more about the greatness of Zappa. And I have come to the conclusion that not only was Zappa a cowboy in the truest sense, but that maybe he also should have been up on more living-room walls.
But, considering that one of the iconic posters of him at the time was a shot of him glumly taking a dump, the idea probably would not have flown.
In the mid-’60s, shortly after receiving a record-company rejection letter stating that his music had “absolutely no commercial potential,” young Zappa set out over the next 30 years to prove the executive correct. And that he did with more than 60 original albums that startled with collective improvisations, ribald humor and full audience participation.
Zappa was an extraordinary composer, guitarist and showman. His groups freed the talents of many musicians, including Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta and Chick Corea. His narratives brought to life such infamous characters as Bobby Brown, Punky Meadows and the Central Scrutinizer. He wrote songs that examined America’s strange relationship with sex and sexual frankness, with titles such as “I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth” and “Dinah Moe Hum.”
He was also a defender of the First Amendment and a critic of what he saw as the fascist theology emerging within the Reagan administration.
He famously took on Susan Baker, Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center during the mid-’80s. While testifying at a Senate Committee hearing, Zappa famously called them a “group of bored Washington housewives” who were “treating dandruff by decapitation.”
He was hailed as an inspiration for the anti-communist revolution in the Eastern Bloc. He was so endeared by Czech President Vaclav Havel, that he was offered the job of special ambassador to the West.
Ultimately, this idea was shot down by Secretary of State James Baker, another tool who fancied himself a cowboy. Baker had taken great offense to the way Zappa had ridiculed his wife during the now famous PMRC hearings. Having previously released an album called Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, that documented the PMRC saga, Zappa resented Baker’s interference, but continued composing brilliantly until his death from prostate cancer in 1993.
Zappa is remembered in many profound ways around the world. There are statues of him in faraway places as diverse as Lithuania and Baltimore. He is also remembered for his music, most notably in the group called Zappa Plays Zappa, headed by his son Dweezil, which plays again in Sacramento this Saturday night.
Featuring a group of accomplished young musicians, including members of Captain Beefheart, Zappa Plays Zappa celebrates the man’s legacy with amazing renditions of his classics in an ever-revolving set list. The group has been touring regularly since 2006, and it has not been uncommon for former Zappa players to drop in and jam.
So, if you or your neighbor still has John Wayne hanging in the living room, I offer a final anecdote: Zappa and Wayne once met at Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go Go. Zappa recounted in a Playboy interview in 1993: “He came to one show very drunk. He saw me and picked me up and said, ‘I saw you in Egypt and you were great … and then you blew me!’ Onstage I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Halloween and we were going to have some important guests here tonight—like George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party—but unfortunately all we could get was John Wayne.’ He got up and made some drunken speech, and his bodyguards told me I’d better cool it.”