B Y D A V E M C E L F R E S H
FRANK ZAPPA IS not really dead. That has become increasingly evident these past few months. Rykodisc is rereleasing 60 remastered recordings in the amazingly short span of 30 days, the long-awaited posthumous release of Civilization Phaze III on Barking Pumpkin has just become available via mail order, St. Martin's Press has published a 600-page bio and career critique by Ben Watson entitled Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, and Being Frank, the memoirs of previous Zappa associate Nigley Lennon, has just hit the bookstores. Zappa, whose monstrous fame has been almost entirely unreliant on radio hits or airplay, is at least as popular as he was prior to his death in December, 1993.
What keeps him alive is only partly the music. As importantly, Zappa always presented himself as the ultimate in freakishness--a defining characteristic of the previous decade's beat generation that Zappa almost single-handedly fused with the rock era, and an element particularly attractive to each young generation of fans who see in Frank the father figure they wish for themselves. Though the reputation of freakishness always served him well, the accuracy of the portrayal is sometimes questionable.
Not that Zappa was anything less than the ultimate character. No one better represents the cult of personality, in spite of his lifelong criticism of such billboarding. His emergence in the mid-'60s music scene resulted as much from rumor regarding his personal oddness as through his unquestionably unique musical contributions.
Zappa was more inclined toward producing the freakish (Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer) than truly acting as one. For proof, check out the video performances available: in person he always handed the duties of the choreographed bizarre antics over to his band or audience members coaxed onstage. Never would Zappa have subjected himself to the cartoonish play-acting he required of Don Preston or ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, preferring instead to narrate the antics with an air of detachment from a stageside position. Along with his propensity for adolescent toilet jokes and mid-tune belching, Frank gravitated toward an old-school humor style of the previous generation, insisting that Ike Willis narrate Thingfish in an Amos 'n' Andy voice and frequently milking the Vegas lounge act cliché for laughs.
His personal history suggests that his initiation to a reputation as a freak was in response to his insecurity and self-protectiveness. The composer/guitarist was always extremely sensitive to attack, as several incidents reveal. An arrest at age 23, the result of having made a bogus porno audiotape for undercover cops, planted in Zappa a permanent distrust of authority, his jail sentence referred to a dozen years later in "San Ber'dino" on One Size Fits All. Assault by a fan in Europe led him to employ a burly bodyguard who, with arms folded, wandered around the stage in all concerts from then on. With few exceptions, "The Torture Never Stops" being one, Zappa seldom sang without implementing a comic vocal style. The consistency of his preference for a goofy delivery takes on a protective air that, after dozens of songs, sounds as though he was fearful of failing as a serious singer--never mind that Dylan and Neil Young were doing fine flashing their questionable tonsils. Even Zappa's lifelong avoidance of alcohol and drugs was rooted in a fear of losing control, as his comments on the subject confirm. Combine them all and you have a rock star more adverse to authority than most, more distant from the audience than most, with values more at odds with his fans than could be said of most performers. No wonder Frank appeared freakish to his followers.
Zappa's defensive stance against authoritarians led him to willingly enter the political arena at a time when music needed a figure like himself: when the Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Tipper Gore, declared his recordings proof of a need for protection of the underaged from purchase, a noticeably nervous Zappa bravely defended his output by appearing at the committee hearings, later releasing recordings of the abrasive proceedings on Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention. That the PMRC's threats came to nothing empowered him. He was later invited to Czechoslovakia by the country's president and Zappa fan Vaclav Havel, who encouraged the guitarist to act as the official liaison for their stateside dealings. Ensuing interference by American political figures squelched the idea, but Zappa, who had been verbal with the press about his new political potential, responded with the ludicrous and evidently entirely serious proposition of running for president come the next American election. It was unintentionally the most freakish move of his career.
Nothing came of the plans and he continued to comment on the world in his undiluted, and, unless the subject was either rhythm and blues or avant garde composer Edgar Varese, usually negative responses on the state-of-whatever, sounding as bull-headed as a million other aging figures. To the end, Zappa was able to convey the freak image in spite of very unfreakish personal values envied by the average Joe: his lengthy marriage to Gail Zappa, the raising of three apparently mentally healthy children, an arduous daily work schedule never altered in spite of a painful cancer condition during his last year, and the establishment of an extremely successful home-run business in the form of Barking Pumpkin Records.
Zappa died in December 1993, with a reputation for outlandishness that, while only sometimes accurate, continues to present him to each younger generation as the ultimate rebel. No doubt Frank, were he still alive, would secretly be thrilled over the continuing attention while adamantly denying that he cared.
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