5 December 1993
Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer on Saturday, a few weeks short of his 53rd birthday, spent his final years working as though his life depended on it. The missing link soldering modernism's controlled strangeness with style-shuffling postmodernism, Zappa was a guitar hero writ freaky, with more than 60 albums to his recently trademarked credit. An intensely productive subversion of the pop apparatus, Zappa and his Mothers of Invention inspired a subgeneration of young mutants, trapped between the orthodoxies of postwar Americana and hippie hype, to think for itself.
Zappa embodied a messy collection of paradoxes--he loved and integrated doo-wop, the blues, modern jazz, and rock into his music no less than the transformative properties of avant-gardists Webern, Varese, and Stockhausen. He was a control freak with a talent, like Ellington, for inspiring prodigious performances. My favorite FZ albums remain Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka , and The Grand Wazoo , an underrated, early-'70s cryptojazz trilogy. In addition to virtually inventing fusion with a capital "F", these records boasts tunes so far outside the pop mainstream as to have come from another planet; loose, virtuosic chops; yet another brilliant Cal Schenkel cover; and, perhaps most of all, the remarkable oddness of the composer's private artistic mythos.
Not to play into the tortured-artist syndrome, but Zappa's cultural import could easily take another half-century to appreciate. As far as a musical legacy goes, however, consider what a world without Zappa might not sound like. You'd have to think twice about George Clinton's Afroblack freak outs; but forget about the British art-rock scene, from Henry Cow to the Canterburys, and prog-rockers everywhere; forget about John Zorn and most of the rest of the late, great downtown scene; and maybe even forget about Captain Beefheart, Wild Man Fischer, Steve Vai, Zoogz Rift, a million fusioneers, and countless other oddballs.
Yeah, Zappa made a bunch of records even some longtime fans found crass ("Bobby Brown," Zappa once said, resurfaces as a homosatiric hit every couple of years in Scandinavia). He's also the closest our generation has to a Brecht/Weill, although his social commentary often missed its mark. Back in the real world, Zappa put up a memorable fight against the Parents Music Resource Coalition (as documented on Frank Zappa Versus the Mothers of Prevention ) attempted to assist Eastern Europe in getting on its capitalist feet (until Kissinger pulled the rug out from under him), and engineered one of the cleverest conceptual art pranks ever, by reissuing his most popular bootlegs verbatim at cut-rate prices.
More important to remember, however, is the diverse unity of his extensive personal vision. Zappa's immense catalog can be regarded as a single work of musical theater encompassing both the lowest and highest aspirations of contemporary culture. (If you haven't listened to Zappa in the past decade or two, pick up the four discs chronicling his final tour, The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life and, even better, Make a Jazz Noise Here.)
Thanks to a friend, I visited Zappa's Hollywood home/studio a couple of times this summer. Marlboroing continuously, Zappa held court in spite of his obvious discomfort, as outraged as ever by whatever outrageousness happened to be taking place on CSPAN (a nonreader, alas, he was an insatiable cable-news junky). One night he played a new composition for us over his remarkable six-track audio setup. A portion of the upcoming Civilization: Phase Three , "N-Light" was about half an hour of overlapping sonic galaxies seemingly subjected to the most rigorous permutations of postserial grandeur, each note individually shaped on his Synclavier. As mind-boggling as it was melancholy, it sounded as though written by a composer who needed to integrate everything at once into a single career-defining work.
At various times throughout the evening, we asked FZ if we should hit the road. He looked like he could use the rest. "No," he replied finally. "I'm an entertainer. It's my job to entertain you." We stayed for hours.