Frank Zappa’s ‘last word’

Times Staff Writer

Whoever devised the slipknot contract clause “into perpetuity” hadn’t conceived a Gail Zappa. She’s made it her job to parse the music industry’s dense legalese, close contractual loopholes and, most significantly, end what she sees as its iron grip on an artist’s past, present and future.

“Let me say it in the simplest way,” she lays it out, her full hand on the table, “My job is to make sure that Frank Zappa has the last word in terms of anybody’s idea of who he is. And his actual last word is his music.”

To that end, Gail Zappa has become a vocal advocate for artists’ rights. The wife of the late musician-composer Frank Zappa, she has been keeping watch over not just her husband’s image and brand but his legacy. Despite what people might think, her dogged efforts are not about erecting razor-wire around all things Zappa but protecting his memory.


Yes, she knows all about the finger-pointing and the grousing, the battles with the record labels about who owns what; the fury and frustration of fans who are unable to download the most famous and seminal works of the Zappa canon. The Zappa Family Trust is in the middle of a dust-up with Rykodisc; Gail Zappa is suing Rykodisc over “copyright infringements including digital rights.”

It’s not the first time the Zappas have been in a legal dance: In 1977, Frank Zappa filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. Records and his former manager citing artistic grievances and questioning certain “creative accounting practices,” Gail says. After an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1982, the rights to his master recordings reverted to him, a lucrative boon.

December marks the 15th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s passing, but interest in him and the work continues only to grow. “No two of Frank’s shows were ever the same, which is one of the reasons he was one of the most heavily bootlegged artists,” Gail explains.

Tapping into that interest, in the last few years, the Zappa Family Trust has begun to release rarities from the Zappa vault. Frank was an obsessive chronicler, recording both audio and video (in every conceivable format) of his process. Gail has established two labels -- reconstituting Zappa and launching Vaulternative -- to showcase that material, which includes band rehearsals from the ‘60s and live footage selected by Gail with the assist of Vaultmeister Joe Travers. This summer, they’ve issued on DVD the concert film “The Torture Never Stops” in Frank Zappa’s original edit and “One Shot Deal,” a previously unreleased compilation of guitar-focused music. Reissues of Zappa’s first solo album, 1967’s “Lumpy Gravy,” and the following year’s “We’re Only In It for the Money” are in the offing. Coinciding with all of this is the very first staging of his 1979 rock opera, “Joe’s Garage,” at Hollywood’s that, loosely speaking, chronicles the travails of an imaginary guitarist named Joe. Gail gave the first-time greenlight.

“I’m the front-of-house mixer,” Gail Zappa says, settling into a soft chair near Travers, just to the right of an old console setup in what was most recently Frank’s editing room in their Laurel Canyon home. Gail usually makes herself available only for the nuts-and-bolts sound bite related to a release, “but it’s not often that I can get into the grommets and widgets and explain what’s behind all of this.”

Her position hasn’t always made her popular -- she’s butted heads at times with everyone from record execs and label lawyers to fan boards and tribute bands. “I can’t go out and be the rebuttal witness every minute because I just end up looking like the screaming shrew that I’m getting the reputation for being.”


But she has her reasons, and they’re rooted in a promise: “My job is to make sure that everything is as clean as you can get it. . . . I don’t want anybody standing between the audience and what Frank’s intention as a composer was and still is. [W]hat I’ve discovered in the process . . . comes down to one simple thing. Because everybody wants to remake his image. And they can . . . Well, they can all pound salt!”

Fifteen years gone, and Frank Zappa still casts a long shadow. Gail, like Travers, often speaks of him in present tense. And though, on this late-summer afternoon, no one occupies Frank’s old console chair, there are all sorts of winking reminders salted about everywhere. Gold records and old album covers. A “Nixon for Governor” poster hangs on a far door. Scores of “Zappa” license plates, gifts from fans from across the country, frame the old console, and photographs, tucked into unexpected places, have a fun-house effect: the eyes seem to follow you. It’s not a spirit that hovers but an ethos; standards to be upheld. Gail Zappa is not custodian of a ghost but of a force that still has power to prod and provoke.

Keeping watch keeps her busy. There are the cover bands to police, and there is even the historical narrative of Frank’s band The Mothers to keep close tabs on. It can be all over the map -- tribute bands asserting that they are “embodying the spirit of Frank Zappa,” an old band member claiming collaborator status. “Do you remember ‘Police Woman’? Pepper?” Gail Zappa asks. “That’s me. The ultimate Sgt. Pepper.”

One of the front-burner issues has been the digital music rights for the work that makes up Frank Zappa’s primary catalog. Many recording artists have expressed their distaste for digital sound, arguing that when their work is compressed into MP3 files, it can seem flat and thin. What the public might not know, Gail says, “is that it was Frank’s concept to limit [the sale] to a format so that it was accurately represented, that being 16-bit technology -- CDs. He didn’t want it compressed. So we’re currently in a lawsuit over this issue.”

What’s at stake here is intent: “iTunes has been from the get-go massively compressed. That’s fine perhaps if you’re Britney Spears . . . but it’s not fine for Frank Zappa’s music, and he was interested in protecting that.” A spokesperson for Rykodisc parent Warner Music had no comment.

Peering into genius

TO LABEL Frank Zappa an iconoclast would only be rounding the corner of the neighborhood where he and his imagination reside. There’s so much stirring at every turn and busy intersection: glances of doo-wop, blues, faux-psychedelia. His music couldn’t be fenced-in in terms of genre. In fact, much of it is an amalgam of styles -- embracing, say, heavy artillery guitar-rock with nods to composers Igor Stravinsky or Edgard Varese -- that reflected his citizen-of-the world sensibilities.


Angular and antic, prescient and political and vamped-up in tricky time signatures, Zappa was of his time -- as a commentator and a critic -- and light years ahead of it. “Frank often said,” Gail says, “that his job was to go ‘out there’ and come back . . . and tell you what I found out.’”

Part of the idea behind opening the vaults was to chart those travels and to give audiences an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at the composer’s process. As Vaultmeister, Travers isn’t just cataloging the contents, but, he says “also investigating the possibilities.” Since 1995, Travers, the drummer for a band led by Frank’s son Dweezil, Zappa Plays Zappa, has been sifting through the assets; a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling audio/video and all-manner of miscellany magic library.

Though every silver film canister, tape box or VHS shell is marked in Frank Zappa’s own hand, “it doesn’t mean that you’ll find what you think in there,” says Travers, so there is a fair amount of mind-reading and extrapolating. There is basically every kind of format that music was archived on from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, and Travers has about 40% of it cataloged both on hard drive and CD.

Travers works closely with Gail, submitting ideas for releases. Ultimately, she has the final word. “I kind of look at the progression of the releases, like if we’ve released a record from a band in 1976, I don’t want to stay in that realm. I want to jump around and try to cover different areas. . . . I try to prioritize a lot of things that Frank didn’t,” Travers says. “There is an album. . . called ‘Wazzoo,’ which is a 20-piece band that Frank only did eight shows with but never released anything from. But we just did.”

The Zappa label is dedicated to work wholly produced by Frank Zappa, while Vaulternative highlights old sessions, rehearsals, sonic threads long stored away. The Zappa Family Trust has about 40 projects in the works, Gail says.

“We could easily put out five to eight projects a year and can do that for the next few years.” That would make Zappa almost as prolific as he was when he was living.


“Years ago my husband said, ‘Sell everything and get out of this horrible business.’ Did I listen? No. I tried. I really tried. But I realized early on that I have to defend his right to have been here in the first place,” Gail says.

So all of this, every choice, weighs heavy. “The best thing that I can hope is to . . . keep windows open to be able to discover the music. If [people] get to the original recordings, and even Zappa Plays Zappa and other groups that respect the intent of the composer then that music is going to be with them for the rest of their lives.

“It is not a causal relationship,” she says. “So that’s the reason, the whole motivation for what I do what I do. Because I owe it to Frank and what I feel about his music. When it’s said and done, I still work for that guy.”



Displaying his Frankophilia

Back IN the ‘70s, Pat Towne was one of those boys who was out there listening -- listening for something out of the ordinary, something with substance. “I was the kind of kid who didn’t dance in lock step to the disco beat, because it looked like everybody was marching in step and becoming mindless,” Towne says.

As a prog-rock guy into Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes, Towne was fascinated by Frank Zappa’s abstract expressionist musical canvas. But there was something else, an anti-conformist message, that he found intriguing: “His music attacked those kinds of people and that kind of thinking. It instantly appealed to me. As well as it being great music.”


He’d first connected with Zappa’s 1973 album “Over-Nite Sensation” in high school, but when a friend visited his dorm room with a copy of “Joe’s Garage” a few years later, Towne was hooked. It was a concept album that took on sweeping themes -- religion, overzealous government, sex, consumer culture and was “full of all these funny snippets and side remarks. When I saw that the album said ‘Act I,’ that stayed with me. I had images in my head of what scenes would look like. It existed in my head as a pipe dream.”

Towne finally is getting a chance to bring that dream to life on stage. This week, the Open Fist Theatre will present the world premiere of “Joe’s Garage,” Zappa’s three-act rock opera, adapted by Towne (who is directing) and the show’s producer, Michael Franco. It’s been an obstacle course of sorts to say the least -- from gaining Gail Zappa’s consent (“I did a PowerPoint presentation and acted out scenes in front of her!”) -- to evoking just the right mood. “I told the design team, ‘This is the palette, the album cover. Let this stimulate your conversation.’ ”

Chance put Towne in contact with the Zappas’ daughter, Moon (the voice of “Valley Girl”), in 2005. She played a part in a play that Towne had directed, and he worked up the nerve to ask her about approaching her mother to stage the piece.

“Gail said he’d actually meant to have it performed,” Towne says, but money and time were issues. “He could make a . . . lot more money doing rock ‘n’ roll.”

For a piece conceived nearly 30 years ago, it retains a topical immediacy and shock value, producer Franco says. And what did Zappa see? “Through satire [he] showed people what they really were: You know people right now who are making love to machines, Internet porn? We know people like this. That’s something that Frank Zappa wrote about in 1979.

“The idea of government eavesdropping and mandating the behavior of its citizenry? Really, really in play,” he says. “I think he feared that America would turn into a fascistic theocracy, and, lo and behold, we’re awfully close.”


While a couple of actors begged off early, saying that some of the content went “against their religious beliefs,” casting wasn’t the biggest hurdle. Getting the music down has been the top priority.

“There was no score,” Towne says. “We had to hire someone to listen to the album and transcribe the whole thing, first for voice and piano so the actors could rehearse.”

Now they are fine-tuning the seven-piece band and are considering adding a horn section. There are other splashes of verisimilitude: Franco has secured Carvin amps, the brand Zappa used, and, at press time, he was still trying to find a Stratocaster with a whammy bar. And still, there is Gail, and her ultimate approval.

“We’re trying to be as authentically Frank as possible,” Towne says. “But it’s complicated music with weird rhythms and odd harmonies. But it has to be absolutely right because it’s about the music. Even though I keep telling everyone that it’s the show of ‘Joe’s Garage,’ we’ll get a lot of feedback: I know we’ll have the Frankophiles.”

-- Lynell George