How a Frank Zappa fixation fostered an appreciation for classical compositions

Categories: Commentary

Gateway Acts is an ongoing series on Backbeat in which we examine the music that served as an entry point for our burgeoning musical obsessions, a gateway drug that tuned us in and turned us on. Today, A.H. Goldstein reflects on his Frank Zappa fixation.


Some of my earliest musical memories revolve around the tape deck in my father's car. Led Zeppelin II, the Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks compilation, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac -- these cassettes provided the daily soundtrack for drives to and from elementary school, along with complementary hand drum solos on the dashboard courtesy of my dad. Occasionally, he'd pop in a copy of Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti. That record was a stark departure from the rest of the classic rock fare, with its long-form guitar solos, frenzied xylophone work and bizarre lyrics about Jewish princesses and baby snakes. It wasn't until years later, after I bought my own copy of the album on CD as a freshman in high school, that the true brilliance of the album and its creator began to sink in.

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I bought that record in 1994, a year after Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer at the age of 52. A profound transformation followed. I'd been reared on classic rock, and I was a dutiful fan of quintessential '90s acts the Pixies, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dinosaur Jr. But stumbling into the music of Frank Zappa pushed me in a radically different direction. In the next three years, I bought every title in Zappa's official discography, a massive body of work that comprised more than seventy releases at the time of his death.

In high school and beyond, my Zappa obsession became an in-joke among friends, an accepted if little-understood part of my personality. I had a hard time explaining why Zappa's work meant so much to me, how it had reformed my basic ideas about what music, art and creative integrity could mean. More than twenty years later, I'm still struggling to put it into words.

Starting with Freak Out!, the first Mothers of Invention album released in 1966, Frank Zappa defied categorization. At a time when the Beatles were still sporting mop-tops and singing songs like "Drive My Car," Zappa and his scraggly band of misfits were experimenting with concept albums and tributes to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Tunes like "Trouble Every Day" tackled the taboo topic of the Watts Riots, with Frank boldly proclaiming, "I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white." The band produced bizarre, challenging music, and Zappa fought to keep that kind of music coming on major label releases.

Such boldness followed in album after album over the following decades. Zappa didn't let the breakup of the original Mothers of Invention in 1969 slow his creative pace. He continued his role as bandleader, composer, guitarist and creator doggedly. He toured and recording with different bands that featured a revolving string of virtuosic players. George Duke, Captain Beefheart, Flo and Eddie from the Turtles, Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai -- all of these musicians shone in Zappa's ensembles, partly because he knew how to draw on their particular skills in making his own inimitable brand of music.

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Brilliantly and eloquently put. For those of us who have discovered him, Zappa is a life-long love affair and nothing else comes close. Here's to spreading the word about the singular genius of this great American composer. 

Jay Fox
Jay Fox

That music is supposed to be fun. FZ was the best at this.

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