Frank Zappa impressed some as a genius; others called him an eccentric deviant. But one thing is certain: The musician-composer, who died Dec. 4 at age 52, after a two-year battle with prostate cancer, was the father of underground rock. Though one can quibble about whether he invented jazz-rock fusion, avant-classical rock opera, or any of the other unclassifiable styles on his 50-odd albums, that point is indisputable. Every punk rocker could sue him for paternity.
If it seems odd to link today’s grunge brigade with a guy who vigorously disdained drugs and who collaborated with such classical conductors as Pierre Boulez, bear in mind that in their heyday, Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the band he formed in 1965, were just about the only underground music America had.
Back when the Butthole Surfers were being toilet trained, the Baltimore-born, California-raised Zappa was leading the Mothers through anarchic, audience- baiting live performances, posing for photos sitting on a commode, retaliating against record-company commercialism, thumbing his nose at the star-making machinery of the day, and recruiting his fan base by advertising his albums in the back pages of comic books.
Critics might have called his music unlistenable (one likened it to ”the sounds of a zoo burning down”), but Zappa’s importance as a musical maverick and social satirist was never in question. In fact, one could argue that the 1966 release of the Mothers’ first album, Freak Out, marked the birth of alternative rock. Back then, when any rocker worth his salt was railing against ”the establishment,” Zappa was doing the unthinkable: regularly and mercilessly lampooning the counterculture. ”Flower Power sucks!” proclaimed a voice on the Mothers’ 1967 album We’re Only in It for the Money, which was recorded at the peak of the hippie movement and packaged in a gatefold sleeve that wickedly parodied the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Okay, so a lot of the magic vanished after he disbanded the original Mothers in 1969 and began recruiting a continually shifting roster of musicians to play his increasingly complicated and inaccessible music. And it’s true that his penchant for crude, sometimes juvenile, sexual humor and overly busy arrangements started to wear thin over time. Still, ’70s efforts like Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe stand up today as funny, musically engaging albums.
But Zappa’s influence extended way beyond his own music. He was the first indie-rock magnate, serving as a role model for such current punk moguls as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, who heads the successful Dischord label. Zappa ran three record companies out of his Hollywood Hills home (where he and wife Gail raised their four children — musicians Dweezil, 24, and Ahmet, 19, actress Moon Unit, 25, and Diva, 13). One of the singles he released independently on his Barking Pumpkin label was 1982’s ”Valley Girl,” his ”gag me with a spoon” hit duet with Moon Unit, which, ironically, is his most familiar record because it was the only one ever to reach the Top 40. (”Dancin’ Fool” and ”Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” charted in the top 100.)
Although his genre-bending music was never mainstream, Zappa’s acid wit and his ability to inspire controversy kept him in the news and relevant to the MTV generation. Dubbed the Rasputin of rock, he relished every opportunity to flout convention and expose hypocrisy. His 1985 campaign against Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s attempts to censor rock lyrics had him arguing effectively on radio and television and eventually testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee. Another crusade of his, cosponsored by MTV, resulted in 11,000 young people registering to vote in the 1988 presidential election.
Among his last completed works was the grandiose ”Dio Fa,” which will be released in the spring on the album Civilization Phaze III. In many ways, the song symbolizes Zappa’s career: his profound appreciation for every kind of music, coupled with the desire to shock, even offend (the Italian title translates as ”God is a liar”).
It was a final punk statement from a man dedicated to undermining the established order while maintaining total artistic freedom. Your Kurt Cobains and Eddie Vedders have nothing on Frank Zappa. For sheer punk attitude, he was king.
guitarist for Living Colour
”You can’t overestimate Zappa’s contribution to contemporary music. He was a serious 20th-century composer masquerading as a rock musician — or is that the other way around? He was a demanding, uncompromising outsider on all levels.”
recorded for Zappa’s Straight label
”Zappa never adapted to American culture or wavered from his complex music. You’d think his stuff was all improvised, but his sheet music included every little squeak, bump, howl, and yodel that was played. Unbelievable. Zappa was also the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. I saw him play one night at a club with Hendrix. Frank got up and did an imitation of him. I’m looking at Hendrix and his mouth was open.”
MTV news anchor
”Frank’s career was an unending struggle against the myopia, machinations, and general insincerity of the music business — and people like the allegedly knowledgeable voters of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who once again passed him over this year in favor of such hipsters as Rod Stewart.”
John S. Hall
singer for King Missile
”I heard one of his albums in the sixth grade, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so weird,’ and, ‘Wow, curses,’ and ‘Wow, this guy isn’t singing here,’ and ‘Wow, this guy is so noncommercial.’ The freedom I have as an artist comes from having heard stuff like that when I was growing up.”
— Quotes compiled by B.J. Sigesmund