In an attempt to deflect his interests away from music toward science, chemical beakers were his toys and gas masks were common attire. In a family devoid of musical inclination, Frank Zappa learned how to make gunpowder at six before becoming fascinated by explosions at a later age. He admits to being inspired by Ernie Kovacs and Spike Jones in a lifelong pursuit of utilizing the ordinary for a unique musical approach after hearing the “ugliness” of contemporary somber composers such as Edgar Varese and Harry Partch. A self-taught musician, Zappa along with his high school pal Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, would listen to Elmore James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson well into the wee hours, learning rhythm & blues hooks in an atmosphere of total isolation from others their own age. Zappa did just about anything from designing and illustrating commercial greeting cards to scoring subpar low budget films such as Run Home Slow before ever considering joining a rock band in his twenties.
Under the name Soul Giants, what would become The Mothers of Invention were an established band centered around the falsetto of Ray Collins, a throwback to street corner doo-wop entertaining small-town crowds. Zappa introduced his push toward rancid and raunchy cynicism to a group of jazzbo beatniks, straddling an outdated sound to his dollops of discord disguised as ultimate chart flops. It was unlike anything heard before, or since.
Winding through maze-like corridors of shelving that hold the 24-track masters to Hot Rats and Uncle Meat, Frank’s personal vault serves as the gateway to enter ZAPPA, a kit ’n’ kaboodle documentary by filmmaker Alex Winter (Bill from the Bill & Ted movies) whose long-in-the-works movie has been approved by the Zappa estate, giving access to footage thought lost and interviews with actual participants close to Zappa including Gail, his wife, who as a secretary at The Whisky was set up on a date with Frank by Zappa’s roommate and fellow co-worker Pamela Zarubica, whose voice is present throughout the early Mothers catalog in snippets of conversation overheard (“I won’t do publicity balling for you anymore…”). Others including Bunk Gardner, Ruth Underwood, Pamela Des Barres and Scott Thunes focus on the various stages of Frank’s career from the Garrick Theatre run to his assault by a mental patient in Italy resulting in his incapacitation for nine months, to his collaboration with Zubin Mehta and an ill-fated skit on Saturday Night Live. Both his good and bad principles are applied to this balanced testimony of the artists for using musicians as tools to realize his compositions, inflexible beyond dismissal for their job well done. There’s even a Charles Manson moment as The Family moves into the hills behind his log cabin home in Laurel Canyon!
A walking contradiction, Zappa wrote all the time. He could talk himself into a baby snake pit condemning drug usage among his musicians while chain smoking. Though left out of this film, an irritant for me has always been his status as a civil libertarian defender of free speech, especially in his testimonials against PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) and Tipper Gore. Never directed against Zappa’s own recordings, Frank said that he’d willingly embrace Tipper if it meant George H.W. Bush would not be re-elected, thus removing himself from the role of free speech advocate, recast as a partisan sellout.
Known as a master of sarcasm, it’s interesting that the Joe Pyne Show footage is missing, probably due to copyrights. This was a defining moment for many of us who witnessed it happen on our TVs – Zappa on TV was in and of itself unheard of at the time, outside of his Monkees appearance. Joe Pyne, a WWII veteran who suffered a severed limb, says to Frank, “I guess your long hair makes you a woman,” to which Zappa responds immediately, “Yeah, I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.” Zappa was tossed off camera.
He released 62 albums which he claims was actually just an attempt to get a recording of everything he’d done. But he also says his motivation was to make music that annoyed people long enough to make them do something about it. His advice for young musicians: “If you want to be a composer in the US, then get a real estate license if you want to eat!”
His true genius, however, has been to tie it all together: exposing hippies as frauds as much as he exposed those of us caught up in ’60s music to the likes of sculptor Vito Paulekas, the animation of Bruce Bickford or Cal Schenkel and jazz artists like Archie Shepp, not to mention Essra Mohawk and the GTOs. Before Blue Öyster Cult or The Ramones, Frank Zappa introduced trash culture of fuzzy dice, sci-fi B-movies, ads in comic books and 45s by Burt Ward (“Boy Wonder, I Love You”) to gullible and impressionable teenagers spread out in unfathomable small towns. He recognized the world was going mad.
ZAPPA is available for viewing on selected streaming services or through thezappamovie.com beginning Nov. 27.
Photo by Roelof Kiers.