Inside a home recording studio known as the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, where the late Frank Zappa composed and recorded some of his most adventurous works, his youngest son, Ahmet, reflects on his father’s legacy.
It is a rich musical heritage from one of rock ’n’ roll’s most beloved figures, but one that has become entangled by a contentious family battle.
The Zappa Family Trust owns the rights to a massive trove of music and other creative output by the songwriter, filmmaker and producer — more than 60 albums were released during Zappa’s lifetime and 40 posthumously. Like the intellectual property of many rock stars, the Zappa archives controlled by the trust are potentially worth at least tens of millions of dollars, according to one music insider.
Since the October 2015 death of Zappa’s wife, Gail, however, their children have become embroiled in a feud over control of the trust, which is millions of dollars in debt, pitting one brother and sister against another brother and sister. At issue is not just a celebrated artistic legacy, but even which of the children can perform using the Zappa name and profit from it.
On this day, sitting beneath a portrait of his father in the recording studio, Ahmet, 42, is contemplative. “It’s emotional for my older sister and my older brother, and certainly my little sister,” Ahmet says. Thanks to a decision by their mother, he and his younger sister, Diva, 36, share control of the trust — to the dismay and anger of their two older siblings, Dweezil, 46, and Moon, 48, who got smaller portions of the trust than their younger siblings.
It was “the most hideous shock of my life,” Moon says in a separate interview of the day she learned of her mother’s division of the trust. “It’s comical, the level of betrayal. That’s all I can say.”
As beneficiaries only, the two eldest siblings won’t see any money from the trust until it is profitable.
Dweezil, who achieved fame in the 1980s as an MTV personality and for the last decade has served as a musical ambassador by performing his dad’s music in concert, received a cease-and-desist letter from the trust after he announced that he was being forced to perform his upcoming tour as “Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa” instead of using his longtime moniker, “Zappa Plays Zappa.” In response to the trust’s action, Dweezil last week renamed his performance series “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the ... He Wants — the Cease and Desist Tour.”
“You’ve only been told that you can’t keep using the name without agreeing to a fee of $1 per year,” Ahmet insisted in his open letter.
Speaking on the phone from London after a trip to Stonehenge for summer solstice, Diva says that the last year has been difficult on so many levels and that she and Ahmet are doing the best they can with a difficult situation. “We are grieving, and are being forced to put aside our grieving so that we can take care of everybody in the family, for the good of all, and to maintain the legacy and everything that my mother and my father put in place to protect us and take care of us for our lifetime.”
50 years of Zappa
This should be a prime moment for remembering Frank Zappa and introducing new generations to his music and ideas.
June marks the 50th anniversary of “Freak Out!,” the dada-esque debut double album from Zappa and his band, the Mothers of Invention. A recent deal negotiated by Ahmet with Universal Music has set in motion an extensive reissue campaign enabling a regular flow of Zappa reissues and unreleased recordings. And a new documentary, “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words,” opened Friday featuring televised interviews, appearances and performance footage from Frank’s life, including his work in the decade before his death as a free-speech advocate battling explicit music labeling.
“His legacy is full of misconceptions, and that's one of the reasons why we did the film,” says Thorsten Schutte, director of “Eat That Question.”
Often glossed over, for example, is Frank’s contemporary orchestral music. “This is how media works,” says Schutte, whose film premiered at Sundance. “You take certain cliches and then you perpetuate them and then you get this hairy freak that smokes pot and eats baby chickens on stage, which is very far from reality.”
Another planned documentary, “Who the ... Is Frank Zappa?,” recently made news when it broke a fundraising record in its category on Kickstarter with pledges for more than $1.1 million. The movie won’t see release for a few years, but director Alex Winter has been given full access to the trust’s archives and promises a deep dive. In fact, money from the Kickstarter is financing the digitization of the trust’s film and video archive.
One of the workers heading this initiative is Joe Travers, whose role for the last 20 years as the trust’s official “Vaultmeister” places him at the center of Frank’s oeuvre. A Zappa fanatic since he was a preteen, Travers is responsible for identifying and preparing many of the posthumous Zappa records that have been issued, as well as overseeing the remastering process for Frank’s studio albums.
The stock that drives that demand is housed in the Vault, the Zappa home’s multiroom, climate-controlled space crammed floor to ceiling with boxes of tape reels. The volume is overwhelming, the collected recordings of music and film from a man who from an early age was obsessed with not only music but the documentation of it. Aisles of tapes are lined in rows, master recordings of each of Zappa’s official releases and outtakes, experiments, live shows and tape mixes. Film canisters line one wall. Stacked like cartoon pancakes, they contain unseen footage of Zappa from throughout his career, including early gigs on the Sunset Strip in its heyday.
Travers’ encyclopedic knowledge becomes apparent as he offers a tour. Moving from shelf to shelf, he identifies master tapes from Zappa classics including “Hot Rats,” “Lumpy Gravy,” “We’re Only in It for the Money” and dozens of others.
“When you look at the audio reels that are in the Vault,” Travers says, “it’s basically a history of recorded technology. He started in the late ’50s and was utilizing every single new adventure that was coming to audio throughout time. For instance, ‘Hot Rats’ was recorded on the first prototype 16-track recorder. He was always trying to keep ahead of the game.”
Until recently, the home that Ahmet described as Gail’s “super groovy artistic space” also contained a few lifetimes’ worth of astounding art, musical instruments, recording gear, artifacts and memorabilia. But now that the house has been put on the market, most of that has been packed and loaded into trucks, some to the auction house Julien’s for an upcoming auction, the rest to an off-site cold-storage facility and offices.
“It’s a rediscovery, for me, of Frank, because I lost him so young,” Ahmet says. “As we go through things in the vault I look forward to seeing what’s in there. We don’t know. We have an idea of something written on the box” but that’s not always accurate.
For Dweezil, the contents of the Vault contain more than notes and melodies. He grew up surrounded only by what Frank was working on or listening to. “I didn’t hear the radio that I can even remember until I was about 11 or 12. I only ever heard Frank’s music, what he was working on at home or listening to at home.”
Dweezil recalls Frank listening to rhythm & blues records, classical music and Bulgarian folk music. “So I heard all of this music, and all of it had different arrangements and different instruments and different time signatures.”
As trustee of the Zappa Family Trust, Ahmet is responsible for turning these tapes into money. Before she died, Gail gave him a crash-course in running the business. As she weakened, he assumed more responsibility. Eventually, said Ahmet, “We had a family meeting and my mother explained to the rest of the kids that I was taking over.”
He says his resume makes him uniquely suited to run the trust. After a stab in the ‘90s at acting and cracking the music charts with Dweezil as the band ‘Z’ (the Vault’s Travers was their drummer), Ahmet moved into story-telling and producing.
In his professional career, he’s run a division of Disney called “Kingdom Comics” and written the story for the 2012 feature film “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” He and his wife, Shana Muldoon Zappa, created the Disney-owned brand “Star Darlings,” which is aimed at empowering tween girls and occupies shelf-space at Wal-Mart and Target.
Gail made the Ahmet assignment official in her will when she divided the kids’ share of the trust. Ahmet and Diva each received 30% and Moon and Dweezil got 20% each.
To say Moon and Dweezil were surprised by the imbalance is an understatement.
Moon, the eldest child, says she and Gail had a rocky relationship, but in her mother’s final year and a half after the cancer diagnosis, Moon tended to Gail’s needs, driving her to oncologist appointments and bringing her meals.
“I was showing up because that’s what you do,” she says. "I still loved her, and I still didn’t want to see somebody sick suffer."
For Moon, the most painful part was that as her mom’s health deteriorated, she thought she and Gail had fully made amends. In hindsight, Moon believes Gail was asking forgiveness with the knowledge that her eldest child would be devastated by the slight to come.
“It’s complicated enough to be grieving the loss of a mean mom,” Moon says, “and then to find out she was meaner than I could have possibly comprehended.”
In a public letter posted on Facebook, Moon opened with the heading, “Things my mother taught me,” and continued: “What’s yours is mine. What’s mine is mine. Your father is mine. What was his was mine. Who he was was mine.”
"She’s a mean little sucker,” said Frank with a tone of admiration from beyond the grave in the documentary “Eat That Question” when asked about Gail. “She's an excellent boss’ wife. Everybody knows that Gail is the boss’ wife.”
Ahmet doesn’t see Gail that way at all. “She demanded respect and got the respect, and that’s really unusual. She was the greatest,” he says before interjecting, “Well, it depends on who you ask. Anyone who has the opposite opinion must have done something.”
Asked later about the public argument, Ahmet says, “I think it’s embarrassing. I don’t like it and I feel it’s not accurate. But I want nothing but the best for my brother. The part that hurts my feelings is I have no reason to stand in the way of my brother’s success, my older sister’s success, my younger sister’s success as it relates to anything Zappa related. … I’m not doing anything other than having to do what’s in the trust.”
Neither Moon nor Dweezil agree with that interpretation. Citing a “prudent person clause” that gives Ahmet license to change the terms of the trust, Moon says, “I don’t care how many times Ahmet says it. He has a 100% ability to make any and all changes to the trust. So I have to laugh every time he says, ‘My hands are tied.’”
A mother’s wishes
At a rehearsal space in North Hollywood, in a room with a full stage and sound system, Dweezil and his band have just practiced a number of Frank songs that will land in the upcoming sets for the tour, including “Catholic Girls,” “Harry You’re a Beast” and “Keep It Greasy.” Dweezil’s a dynamic, dextrous guitarist and leads his band through Frank’s oft-gymnastic structures and time signatures with a confident sense of purpose.
Regardless of who holds the legal title, Moon says, Dweezil’s natural inheritance is a dedication to music. “He knows Frank in a way that none of us will ever know Frank, because he can play the music,” she says. “He can literally be in Frank’s fingers, touching those instruments.”
After the rehearsal, Dweezil expresses his frustration with his brother.
“He’s saying, ‘It’s this amazing one-dollar deal, bro.’ You’re not saying the part about how you’re taking 100% of the merch,” Dweezil says. “That's not a deal that anybody would accept.”
“I'm just moving along, doing what she requested,” says Ahmet of their mother’s wishes.
Diva remains steadfast in her commitment not only to Ahmet but to the entire family. “Our father is someone who meant so much to so many that we have an obligation to maintain his integrity and everything he stood for as best that we can,” she says. “Things have changed and it’s very hard. I think what’s getting lost in all of this is that we are a family that is grieving very differently, and everyone has different ways of grieving.”
Earlier in the week, Diva had traveled to Prague to attend “Musics by Frank Zappa: Orchestra En Regalia,” which featured the Czech National Symphony Orchestra premiering previously unheard works in collaboration with a team of expert Zappa players (including Vaultmeister Travers on drums).
Frank and Gail’s youngest child, holding back tears, describes an emotional performance. “There was so much love in the room. Both my parents were there, and it just felt like everybody was there. It was alive.” Adding that the “magical and beautiful” performances were compounded by energy in the room, she says that “it was just lovely to be in the room with people care so much about the music and performing it, and really wanting it to have the feeling of someone they miss so much.”
Ahmet says that he didn’t really see Gail clearly until the end of her life. “I really cherish the last year that I spent with her because I heard so many stories,” he says. “She was so much more open to talking about things and her experiences. She cared most about keeping the family together. She would literally do anything to have us all under the same roof.”
That the opposite has happened is hard for Moon to take. She says that when Gail passed away, Moon figured that the kids would commiserate and then move on as a unit. “I thought we would all breathe a sigh of relief and, like refugees that made it across the border, put the whole thing behind us. Hug — the four of us — and say, ‘We made it, guys.’ That is not what happened. And it’s heartbreaking.”
Follow the reporter @LilEdit.
Credits: Produced by Andrea Roberson.