How a Frank Zappa fixation fostered an appreciation for classical compositions
And that music was unique. It would be too simplistic to say that Zappa fused different styles. A song like "Inca Roads" from 1975 melds too many musical cues to count. The first section features George Duke's jazzy lead vocals before the tune moves on to Frank's soaring guitar solo. A dense, dizzying instrumental stretch that feels too complex to be played by humans follows to finish up the tune.
As percussionist Ruth Underwood would later recall, Zappa's stress on musical rigor (he likened being in his band to being in the Army) was always combined with an emphasis on improvisation. While other prog-rock bands would stick to predictable set lists for their live shows, Zappa's brand of "musical theater" would vary from night to night. And that band would play under some harsh rules concerning drugs. A fan of cigarettes and coffee, Zappa spoke out against drug use, and any musician found under the influence would be quickly booted from the band.
That alienated plenty of radio stations, record companies and rock consumers in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But then so did Zappa's taste for the bizarre and the salacious in his music -- he never veered away from off-color verses about sex, politics and the comical trappings of the rock-music lifestyle. He poked fun at the poppy, syrupy words of acts like Peter Frampton; he drew on his natural eloquence in his fight against Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center in the 1980s; and he sang a litany of offensive songs about France, disco, feminists and punk music.
But Frank Zappa found ways to keep putting out his music at a prolific pace. He battled with record companies, he started his own labels, he built his own cottage industry based on getting his music out. Even cancer couldn't stop his furious work habits -- in the final years of his life, Zappa put out a massive, twelve-CD live retrospective, a Grammy Award-winning album of electronic music and The Yellow Shark, an orchestral record that showed off his skills as a composer.
For me, Zappa's career came to define integrity. His music turned me on to jazz, and it helped me understand and appreciate the beauty of classical compositions. As a guitar player, his work was groundbreaking -- I still think his visceral picking style and innovative use of tone and feedback ranks him as one of the top guitarists of the past century. His humor, his eloquence and his commitment to his own artistic ideals remain unparalleled. Frank Zappa is one of the true musical originals of the 20th century.
I tried to convey all of this when I got the chance to interview Dweezil Zappa in December. I tried to tell him how much his dad's music meant to me, how I still feel like I'm in on some well-kept secret twenty years after I bought my copy of Sheik Yerbouti. He said he gets similar feedback from the hardcore fans who come to the Zappa Plays Zappa shows.
"The music really means something to them, and it changes their lives," he said. "It changes their perspective on music and what's possible in music, especially when you look at it in stark relief against what else is out there."