Frank Zappa, Iconoclast of Rock, Dies at 52
Musician Frank Zappa, who rode to fame in the late 1960s as leader of the eccentric Mothers of Invention and kept on breaking the musical rules, has died from the complications of prostate cancer he had been battling for more than two years. He was 52.
“Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6 p.m. Saturday,” the family said in a brief statement Sunday night. Zappa died at his Laurel Canyon home with his wife, Gail, and four children, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva, at his side.
A family friend, Jim Nagle, said he was buried Sunday in a private ceremony in Los Angeles.
The prolific Zappa was one of rock’s premier and most versatile iconoclasts. In an era of increasing commercialism, he never tired of composing, singing and philosophizing to the beat of a wildly different drummer.
In later years, his different drummer led him to urge people to register to vote, to testify before Congress against censorship of rock lyrics--and even to broker business ventures in Eastern Europe. On one such trip to Czechoslovakia, he met with one of his old fans--President Vaclav Havel.
He won a Grammy in 1986 for his “Jazz From Hell” album, but his music made the charts only rarely and reluctantly, usually with parodies such as 1982’s “Valley Girl,” mocking the “infantile” phenomenon.
His work was a frothy stew of ‘50s doo-wop, rhythm ‘n’ blues, serious experimental jazz and avant-garde classical strains--often heaped high with perverse, often scatological, lyrics.
In albums with such far-out titles as “Freak Out,” “Lumpy Gravy,” “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” and “Sheik Yerbouti,” Zappa served as a Spike Jones of the counterculture. Or, some might say, a musical counterpart to Mad magazine.
“People think of me as some kind of deranged comedian,” Zappa once mused in a magazine interview. Some of his work embraced a Dada-esque, John Cage-like confrontational style. His eclecticism once led him to take his band on a 1969 jazz tour of the East Coast, playing on the same bill as Duke Ellington.
A year later, the group performed at UCLA with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His orchestral work has been recorded and performed by the London Symphony. Conductor Zubin Mehta once called Zappa “one of the few rock musicians who knows my language.”
Yet his anarchic demeanor, and occasionally juvenile antics, were counterbalanced by an increasingly strong sense of social commitment.
Zappa may have joked in his songs about raising dental floss in Montana and the dangers of eating yellow snow. But by the mid-1980s, his long stringy hair and floppy mustache had been manicured, and he emerged as a leading voice for registering young people to vote.
Zappa also appeared in a business suit at a 1985 Senate subcommittee hearing to rail against the censorship of rock lyrics. (He followed up with a caustic recording called “Porn Wars,” incorporating legislators’ comments with an electronic music pastiche).
He was also responsible for introducing mainstream America to one of the major cultural phenomena of the early 1980s--the vernacular and social habits of the “gag me with a spoon” crowd, in the hit song “Valley Girl,” recorded with his teen-age daughter, Moon.
Over the years, Zappa, whose albums were never huge sellers, sustained a cult following that ensured the marketability of a seemingly endless stream of eclectic recordings.
He was viewed by influential critics as rock’s leading sociologist, and a nonpareil, if idiosyncratic, synthesizer of musical styles. He spent much of 1992 sequestered in his home studio, writing new works for the Ensemble, 25 classically trained international musicians specializing in modern music. Zappa joined in the European performances of the work until his illness forced him to leave the tour. A recently completed classical work, “Civilization, Phase III and IV” is scheduled for release in the spring.
But he also had his share of detractors, who regarded him as a self-promoting crank, who rarely, if ever, wrote a memorable tune.
Zappa himself once said that whatever people thought of his work, he always enjoyed doing it.
“I write because I am personally amused by what I do, and if other people are amused by it, then it’s fine. If they’re not, then that’s also fine,” he declared in a 1983 interview. “Even if I wasn’t releasing records I would still do it.”
Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore to Sicilian immigrants.
Zappa’s father, a meteorologist, worked at the Maryland-based Army Chemical Center, studying the effects of weather on poison gases and explosives. His mother was a librarian.
The eldest of four children, Zappa was frequently ill as a youngster, and his family moved several times to warmer locales to cope with his respiratory problems.
After stints in Florida, Monterey, Pacific Grove and San Diego, the Zappas settled on the outer fringes of Los Angeles County--in the desert community of Lancaster, where young Frank attended Antelope Valley High School.
A loner, Zappa taught himself to play electric guitar and drums. He also spent prodigious amounts of time playing the hi-fi, carefully studying the recordings of such Chicago blues greats as Muddy Waters, and such leading avant-garde classical composers as Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky.
Zappa’s first live gigs were as a drummer--in garage bands and in the high school marching band. He was thrown out of the latter after the bandmaster caught him smoking in uniform.
“For that, I will be eternally grateful,” he later wrote. Zappa, however, continued playing rock, eventually forming the Blackouts, which he described as “the only R&B; band in the entire Mojave Desert.”
After failures in filmmaking, college and a first marriage, Zappa moved to Los Angeles. There, he became the guitarist for a group called the Soul Giants, which eventually transmogrified into the Mothers of Invention.
The time was the mid-1960s, an era of rich experimentation in rock music. San Francisco had the psychedelic movement. England had the increasingly eclectic Beatles. And Los Angeles had, among others, Zappa and the Mothers, whose satirical, theatrical musical montages were unlike anything else to have ever hit the airwaves.
Their first recording, “Freak Out,” was later described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as “rock’s first experimental music masterpiece, influenced mainly by such modern composers as Edgar Varese, but with an anarchist aggression that is far more defiantly celebratory than arty.”
In sales figures, the 1966 two-record set had moderate commercial success. As music, it had limited influence on mainstream tastes--although Paul McCartney was once said to have cited it as an inspiration for the Beatles’ seminal “Sgt. Pepper’s” album.
Yet as a cultural document, such songs as “Who Are the Brain Police?” and “Help, I’m a Rock” had a significant impact. In a time of social outrage, the Mothers were crowned the kings of outrageousness.
A common sight in lava lamp-lit college dorms of the era were posters of Zappa sitting naked on a toilet seat--titled Phi Zappa Krappa. And in concert swings around the United States and Europe, the Mothers exhibited a decidedly Dada streak--Zappa occasionally stopping the music in mid-song to relax, read a newspaper and taunt the audience.
But by 1970, the entire band had quit or been fired by Zappa, who viewed the Mothers as means to his ends more than as musical cohorts.
The prolific Zappa and the latest incarnations of his group continued to tour and record, as well as release a zany, free-form film, “200 Motels,” based on life on the road.
In 1974, Zappa had a minor AM radio hit with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” about relieving yourself in the Arctic. In 1979, he scored with a disco parody “Dancin’ Fool.” Three years later came “Valley Girl,” which reached No. 32 on the Billboard charts.
“It was a joke,” he told the Washington Post about his hit. “It just goes to show that the American public loves to celebrate the infantile. I mean I don’t want people to act like that. I think Valley Girls are disgusting.”
In truth, Zappa found much of American culture revolting. An articulate man of contrary tastes, Zappa detested love songs (characterizing them as “one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States”), drugs, hippies, corporate record companies, the public school system and fundamentalist Christianity.
By the late 1980s, the lanky musician seemed to spend as much time in a business suit as with a guitar strapped around his neck.
With the post-Cold War era, Zappa, who called himself “a devout capitalist,” also became a business consultant, brokering joint commercial ventures with the Soviet Union and in 1990 served briefly as guest host of an interview program on cable’s Financial News Network.
Zappa was a “relentlessly driven” worker, said longtime friend and free-lance writer Rip Rense, recording countless compositions and running his various business enterprises from the sprawling house where he lived with his family for more than two decades. In all, Zappa released more than 40 albums.