We all have our musical heroes, and usually they are exactly the kind of people we'd like them to be. Unfortunately, some of them are, well, bastards. Bastard is used here as a term of endearment, as someone who does not compromise and can not understand why the world finds them difficult. We should learn to love the musical bastard, because sometimes a bastard is needed to make the music we love. And maybe, just maybe, they can help us love the bastard in ourselves.
This month: Frank Zappa
"Without music to decorate it, time is merely a series of dates on the calendar by which bills must be paid."
Frank Zappa is a name known to millions who have never heard his music. Those who have almost unanimously agree on his genius. He ran the gamut from rock to blues to jazz to funk to classical and back again. His music is made even more notable by the fact that he was one of the first musical giants to rise to stardom on the power of losers. Almost his entire musical oeuvre elevates to folk hero status the plight of the 'freak' in America. With his first ensemble of smelly, hairy monsters, the Mothers of Invention, he hit the road in 1965 with no less intention than to "cause trouble." He endured an endless series of legal hassles and de facto black listing because he would not stay silent on issues that were important to him, especially the 1980's trend of censorship disguised as child protection. His insane work ethic insisted that he work on his music up until his death bed, and when he died in 1993 of prostate cancer, the world lost a creative mind the likes of which we are not likely to see again.
And through it all he was a bastard.
In his rural California school in the late 50's, Frank Zappa was the definition of outcast. In a Wonder Bread community where being Italian was only one slight step higher than being Black in most people's minds, he made it worse on himself by hanging with Blacks and Hispanics. It was no deliberate move on his part to try to integrate - he just dug their music a lot better. "You know the standard dress for rappers nowadays? The hooded parka and thick black sunglasses? That's what I wore to school every day," Zappa recalled in an interview on The Today Show just prior to his death. He would torture any classmates that dared to come over to his house by making them listen to Edgard Varese, his favorite composer, whose horrifically dissonant and percussive pieces must have seemed like Hell to the denizens of Lawndale High. He drummed for the marching band but was drummed out for smoking in uniform. He told the head cheerleader to "fuck off" at a huge school pep rally. Eventually he managed leave. "I didn't have enough credits to graduate," he later recalled "They just didn't want to have me back, and I didn't want to go."
One can assume from these adolescent incidents that Zappa learned one thing: being a bastard got results, or at the very least it got you noticed. After suffering through hideous bar gigs for a few years, he filled in on guitar for an R & B cover band called the Soul Giants. Within a month, he had changed their name and gotten them to start playing his obscenely bizarre compositions and improvisations. With the help of the Mothers of Invention, Zappa was determined to fuck with the structure of the recording industry. In their first television gig, he gave home audiences a little slice of Dada by having each Mother perform a nonsensical repeated action while lip syncing their latest 'hit.' Their stage shows were typically unpredictable, as the band was expected to follow Zappa's preordained set of hand signals, and the act could change at any given second. "You were given a lot of freedom, in terms of what you could play," recalled Mothers percussionist Ruth Underwood, "But you had to keep your eye on him at all times, because at any second the whole thing could turn on a dime." In later years, Zappa would engage in plenty of stage antics and shenanigans, though always with plenty of bitchin' music to back it up. And any bull shit from the audience was not tolerated. On Zappa In New York, when some random fan yells "Fuck you!" for no apparent reason, Zappa completely stops a song and responds, "Fuck you too buddy, you know what I mean? Fuck you very much!" And when fans in Geneva in 1982 ignored his pleas to stop throwing cigarettes on stage, he stormed off the stage and ended the concert as promised.
Zappa was determined to dominate his music, and therefore his band. He saw what had been done to other artists who let some sleazy manager handle everything, and he was determined not to let that happen to him. While there was room for improvisation, it was always at Zappa's behest. And so were his band members. "You got your bands, and you got your armies," recalled Mothers bassist Jeff Simmons, "This [band] is what happens if you combine the two." His insane work ethic was applied to everyone - eight hour practices seven days a week, and extra work for new members waiting back at Zappa's house. He shunned drugs and booze as "temporary licenses to be an asshole," and fired more than one band member for partaking of said substances a bit too zestfully.
Money, however, was a far bigger stumbling block. Zappa kept his band members on salary, whether they toured or not. While this arrangement kept them temporarily satisfied, it effectively locked them out of any profit sharing of concert revenues. Anyone who questioned this system, or attempted to customize it for their own purposes, were chastised or summarily dismissed. Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black can be heard on Uncle Meat begging for more gigs (and hence, more cash) with Zappa calmly but firmly explaining why this is impossible. Trumpeter Sal Marquez was fired for asking for a per diem. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuto was let go for trying to weasel out a higher salary than his band mates. Because he ran his own labels, Zappa was basically a small business owner, and felt he had to be mercenary just to survive. When asked if he felt his band members were his friends, Zappa replied, "I'm the boss. The guy who cuts the checks doesn't get to have friends. What do you have if you have a friend? Someone who thinks they can borrow money from you."
But the one thing Zappa couldn't stand more than anything was a loss of control. He loved road lore - what goes on when musicians leave the real world and enter the parallel universe of touring - and he loved to hear the stories his band members would have to tell while on the road. His band mates would later be surprised when the stories they told would resurface, almost verbatim, in songs, onstage banter, and occasionally movie dialogue. Zappa also had the nasty habit of recording his band mates when they weren't aware of it, and using it as he saw fit (enormous portions of this can be found on Playground Psychotics). Jeff Simmons quit the Mothers when he discovered himself reading back material that he had himself had said about Zappa to other band mates, unaware that Zappa had heard it all. Others attempted to get writing credit for 'special material,' the biggest faux pas of all. Zappa surrendered publishing rights to no one, and woe to those who asked for a slice of his meager pie.
The biggest and most senseless example of Zappa's need for complete and utter control was the self destruction of his 1988 tour, equipped with an enormous and talented band of 11. The tour hit the East Coast and Europe, and was set to hit the Midwest, West and South eventually. Because each tour stop proved to be a media frenzy, Zappa left daily practice and sound check duties to bassist Scott Thunes, his longest continuous band member. However, his bandmates grew to find Thunes an unconscionable asshole, and resented his condescending attitude towards them. They finally confronted Zappa and gave him an ultimatum: get rid of Thunes or we walk. The gambit backfired. Zappa perceived this move as a usurping of his authority, in the person of Thunes, and he was not going to stand for it. He fired everyone except Thunes and drummer Chad Wackerman, who abstained from the confrontation, and ended the tour immediately, with less than half its dates played. A tad bitter, Zappa would never tour again, and spent his remaining days mostly working with the Synclavier. It was an enormous digital composing system which could sample and reproduce nearly every instrument and thus removed his need for humans.
Zappa had a sense of moral outrage usually lacking in the average rock star. When the PMRC [Parents' Music Resource Center] reared his ugly head with their record labeling Trojan horses, he was one of only three artists to ask to testify before Congress. Portions of his testimonial, and the reactions from bewildered Congress-folk, as heard on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, are truly beautiful sounds to behold. Zappa appeared before the committee as "a private citizen" and a "middle-aged pissed off Italian guy." Dignified but no less angry than usual, he described the measures sought by the PMRC as "the legislative equivalent of treating dandruff with decapitation." Several legislators refused to talk to him, and those who did seemed perplexed as to what to ask; one Senator, in an effort to brand him a weirdo, asked him what toys his children had. "Come on over to the house - I'll show 'em to you," he answered with arched eyebrows. His statement before the Maryland State Legislature was even more over the top. Responding to a measure that would outlaw the displaying of the female breast "below a point immediately above the top of the areola" on album art, Zappa responded, "I like nipples. I think they look nice, and if you take off the nipple, which is the characterizing, determining factor, what you've got is a blob of fat there. I think that when you're a baby, one of the first things you get interested in is that nozzle there. You get to have it right up in your face. And then you grow up to live in the state of Maryland where they won't let you see that little brown nozzle anymore."
Frank Zappa had no desire to leave a legacy; only to do what he had to do and then check out. When asked how he wanted to be remembered on The Today Show, he replied, "It's not important to be remembered. People who want to be remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush…and they'll spend a lot of money and a lot of time making sure the memory is just perfect. Me? I don't care."
Now that's a bastard.
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