http://m.utsandiego.com/news/2013/jan/2 ... ng-legacy/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
The San Diego Union Tribune wrote: Zappa's revolutionary legacy endures
Unlike The Beatles, Frank Zappa never had a hit single called “Revolution.” But this erstwhile San Diego music visionary and cultural provocateur did help inspire a nonviolent revolution that, in 1989, brought down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
“Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground. He was one of the men who shaped the life of the generation which I belong to,” former Czech President Vaclav Havel said after Zappa’s death from cancer in late 1993.
Havel, who died 10 years later, also hailed Zappa as “a friend of our fledgling democracy and one of the first foreign visitors to come here after (the revolution). I thought of him as a friend. Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the presidency, I think of him.”
As innovative as he was prolific, Zappa may have inspired several revolutions. Credit for this goes to his expansive body of work, both as a solo artist and -- in the 1960s and early '70s -- as the leader of the Mothers of Invention, which impacted music, politics, social satire and contemporary culture in general.
A tireless and remarkably eclectic band leader and solo artist, Zappa made his national TV debut in 1963 on "The Steve Allen Show," on which he discussed his use of a bicycle as a musical instrument and then performed on one, using a violin bow. Before that decade ended, Zappa achieved an international prominence that he would sustain throughout his lifetime, and beyond.
The catalyst for his fame was Zappa's work as a songwriter and band leader. He deftly drew from rock, blues, jazz, funk, doo-wop, country, reggae and more, all with unusual skill and elan, although his greatest love was the classical music that he tirelessly composed for much of his life. His landmark albums include “We’re Only in It for the Money,” “Hot Rats,” “Broadway the Hard Way,” “Freak Out!” and Havel’s favorite, “Bongo Fury.”
From September through last month, no fewer than 65 Zappa albums were reissued by Universal Music, one of the world’s largest record companies. This is the second time his voluminous catalog — well, most of it — has been posthumously re-released,, both times under the careful supervision of his estate, which is headed by his widow, Gail.
‘Frank was our Elvis’
Today, 20 years after his death at the age of 52, Zappa’s impact is still being felt in a variety of ways. Then again, he is the only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose intensely complex classical compositions are performed by symphony orchestras around the world.
Or, as Matt Groening, the creator of the hit animated TV series “The Simpsons,” told an interviewer in 1992: “Frank was our Elvis. … There’s a whole generation of people who do funny or weird things who grew up on Zappa’s music.”
People like San Diego guitar great Mike Keneally, who credits Zappa — a San Diego resident in the mid-1950s — as an inspirational role model “who practically saved my life at times when I was a teenager.” (Zappa's first-person reminiscences about living in San Diego appear on the final page of this article.)
Keneally was 25 when he joined Zappa’s final touring band in 1987 and has since become a notable band leader in his own right. Like Havel and Groening, he regards Zappa as a singular creative force, who — by always marching to the uniquely intricate beat of his own drummer — inspired others to follow suit.
“Frank routinely took people in his bands and got them to excel and do things that, previously, they never thought they could do,” Keneally said from a recent tour stop in Chicago.
“So, for someone like Havel — whose every moment was dedicated to figuring out: ‘How do I improve my circumstances, and my country’s circumstances, and move beyond them?’ — Frank’s music hammered away at the fact that the status quo was not ideal, and that you could do better in your everyday life.”
The first statue of Zappa was unveiled in 1995. It is displayed in a major city square in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, another former communist country where Zappa’s freedom-celebrating work struck a major chord.
“He was unique,” said Rimas Morkumas, a professor of film at the Academy of Arts in Vilnius.
“No other rock star came to Moscow on a bus with a full recording studio, during Gorbachev’s time, and invited anybody who wanted to come and be recorded. We bought Zappa’s albums on the black market, because they were banned (by the Soviets). He was revolutionary, and he helped break down the wall (of the Iron Curtain).”
In 2010, the city of Baltimore — where Zappa was born — also put up a statue of him, on a street now known as Frank Zappa Way. The statue was donated by the same Lithuanian sculptor who created the bust of Zappa displayed in Vilnius.
Defender of free speech
Such honors probably would mean little to Zappa, who was driven by his passion for music and free speech, not a desire to create a legacy.
“He was a staunch defender of the First Amendment,” said Gail Zappa, his widow and the mother of his two sons, Dweezil and Ahmet, and two daughters, Diva and Moon Unit. “I’d like people to remember that, because Frank liked to say: ‘Democracy used to be our greatest export.’ ”
A proud nonconformist from an early age, Frank Zappa enjoyed tweaking the mores of straight-laced society in general and authority figures (especially politicians) specifically. He abhorred drug use, except for the nicotine and coffee that fueled him as he spent up to 20 hours a day composing and recording in the basement recording studio of the Zappa family home in the Hollywood Hills.
“I happen to like orchestral music just as much as I like rock ’n’ roll and R&B, but you can’t earn a living making orchestral music,” Zappa told me in a 1984 U-T interview. “America won’t allow it. If there’s one thing that can be learned in the ’80s, it’s that if you’re a composer, you must be punished.”
In a recording career that stretched across four decades, he scored only one Top 40 hit, 1982’s “Valley Girl” (which made such phrases as “gag me with a spoon” and “grody to the max” part of the collective American vocabulary). His barbed sense of humor and penchant for scatological phrases did not obscure the depth of his “serious” music, or the fact that he always regarded art and entertainment as equals.
“People with casual exposure to Frank’s music think: ‘Oh, he’s the guy with the weird music and the kids with the funny names,’ or they might know his songs ‘Valley Girl’ and ‘(Don’t Eat the) Yellow Snow,’ ” said Dweezil Zappa, who since 2006 has saluted his father’s music in worldwide concerts as the leader of the band Zappa Plays Zappa.
“So I tend to de-emphasize the comedy, let the music speak for itself and focus on some of the iconic instrumental things he has done. That’s really been the message I’ve tried to put across. When we started doing this seven years ago, we mostly drew his core fans, which translated to people who were 50 or older and mostly male. Now we’re seeing a lot of young people at the shows, which is a great thing.”
Zappa's penchant for comedy was embodied in many of his songs, as well as by the titles of his 1968 album, "We're Only In it For The Money," and his 1986 album, "Does Humor Belong in Music?"
"Frank had a profound sense of humor and a deep appreciation of the absurd," Gail Zappa recalled. "I wish I could have bottled all the laughter from the (Zappa) house."
Irreverence and insight
The irreverence of some his lyrics may have been a necessary tool for someone whose instrumental music was often too complex for many mainstream rock fans.
True, Zappa was droll by nature and enjoyed poking fun at hippies in the 1960s as much as he did targeting lame hair-metal bands in the 1980s and politicians and authority figures in any decade. But his tongue-in-cheek delivery, while reflecting part of Zappa's persona, also helped make his music more palatable to audiences that may not have shared his penchant for complex contemporary classical music and challenging, mathematically dense time signatures.
"When I first started learning Zappa’s music, it was obvious that this was not any ordinary rock music, even that long ago," said former Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston, a classically trained pianist and composer. He now leads the Zappa tribute group Grandmothers of Invention, which features two other Zappa band alums.
"One of the first pieces by Zappa I learned was 'Oh No' which was in 7/4 time, and then 'Little House I Used To Live In,' in which the melody was in 12/8 and the bass and drums were playing in 11/8. So those elements really made the music interesting to me, in a way that I could enjoy myself and make a living."
Preston is especially pleased that so many of Zappa's more serious instrumental compositions have been embraced by the "serious" music world.
"One of the impacts I've seen in recent years," Preston noted, "is that there seems to be a lot of chamber-music groups playing Zappa’s music and that’s something that would have delighted him. I think it would have, because these chamber musicians are highly accomplished players who are always looking for new exciting music, and it's only natural they gravitate to Zappa's music because it's very complex."
But Zappa's impact, and aspirations, extended well beyond music — and beyond the fact that his 1967 song attacking conformity, "Plastic People," inspired the name (and a good deal of the revolutionary zeal) of Czech leader Havel's favorite homegrown Czech rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. (The constant harassment and subsequent jailing of that band by authorities helped spark the quest of Havel, a noted poet and playwright, and other dissident Czech artists to free their homeland from Soviet oppression.)
Soon after his election in 1989 as his country's president, Havel met Zappa in Prague for the first time. The two immediately hit it off and Havel subsequently named Zappa as Czechoslovakia's "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism."
A few weeks later, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker came to Prague himself. According to several news reports, he had lower ranking U.S. State Department representatives issue an ultimatum to Havel that, in effect, said: "You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa."
Havel reluctantly decided that his newly free and money-poor country did not want to jeopardize its foreign aid from the U.S. The Zappa appointment was quietly withdrawn.
Not surprisingly, there is a back story to this political brouhaha.
While speaking at a 1985 Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Zappa at one point mimicked the Southern accent of Baker's wife, Susan. It was a slight James Baker (who at the time was Secretary of the Treasury) did not forget. Zappa was the most prominent artist testifying against the Parents Music Resource Center and its proposed music ratings system. John Denver and Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider also appeared to voice their concerns about the PMRC.
The PMRC was co-founded by Susan Baker and three other women, including Tipper Gore, whose husband, Al, later became vice president under Bill Clinton and then unsuccessfully ran for the White House against George Bush, in the highly contentious 2000 election.
Early on in his testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Zappa read the First Amendment "as a reference."
He then dismissed the PMRC proposal to label music recordings as "an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the 'interpretational' and 'enforcemental' problems inherent in the proposal’s design."
Zappa's White House bid
Zappa's lifelong interest in politics manifested itself in various ways beyond the social commentary found in his songs and interviews.
He timed the U.S. leg of his 1988 "Broadway the Hard Way" concert tour specifically so that voter registration booths could be set up in the lobby at each show. And, in 1991, he seriously considered launching an independent, nonpartisan run for the White House himself, after But a survey by a Los Angeles TV station indicated a surprisingly high number of viewers would support a Zappa candidacy as more than a lark by a long-outspoken critic of U.S. government policy and the status quo.
KCAL, Channel 9, aired an interview with Zappa on June 13, 1991, that prematurely
identified him as a presidential candidate. ("I'm not a candidate," he later stressed. "I'm just exploring the possibility.") The Disney-owned station followed the interview with a phone survey asking viewers if they would vote for Zappa for president. About 1,800 viewers responded, said KCAL spokeswoman Jennifer Barrett, and 86 percent indicated they would vote for Zappa were he to make an official White House bid.
Zappa's subsequent battle with the prostate cancer that would claim his life nipped his political aspirations in the bud. But in a 1991 U-T San Diego interview, the man Vaclav Havel so admired left no doubt he was open to serving.
"My main qualifications are that I don't play golf, I don't take vacations and I do think the U.S. constitution is one hell of a document and that this country would work better if people adhered to it more closely," Zappa said during a June, 1991, phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "But if a miracle were to occur — and it would take just that — and I really ran for office, you can believe that I'd be serious about the job."
Zappa's presidential platform would, he said, center on eliminating federal income
taxes, raising most state taxes except for those on staple food items, and "getting the government out of people's faces."
Asked how he would redefine the U.S. military's role, Zappa replied: "The only thing the military should be used for is protecting the country, not bad foreign policy."
Always ahead of the curve, Zappa said that if he ran he would like then-obscure Texas industrialist H. Ross Perot to be his vice presidential running mate. If elected, Harvard University professor and constitutional law expert Alan Dershowitz (in his pre-O.J. Simpson defense attorney era) would have been Zappa's pick for attorney general.
Zappa described himself as "a reluctant candidate" who was "volunteering" to run
for the presidency. "If there was anybody else who could walk in from outside and do this, I'd vote for them," he said. "But I don't see any other volunteers."
"Frank was the H.G. Wells of rock 'n' roll, because he did predict so much of what would happen in his future," Gail Zappa said. "Yes, he'd been thinking for years about running for president, from day one. And about the only thing that stopped him from running was getting cancer.
"He said that, at the end of the day, it's one long composition — it's one piece of work and not a bunch of different things — it's a lifetime of work and it's, ultimately, all one piece... He often said he made the music for the time he was in. But, then, you also have to consider hat he believed that all time happened simultaneously. "
Frank Zappa on San Diego
Frank Zappa lived in San Diego for just a few years in the mid-1950s, but it was a pivotal time in his creative evolution.
He played in his first band here, as the drummer in The Ramblers, with which he made his public performance debut at Uptown Hall in Hillcrest. He bought his first record player at Valley Music in El Cajon, hung out at downtown’s Arcade Records and was a band member at Grossmont and Mission Bay high schools. (He was suspended from Mission Bay after he and a friend set off a stink bomb in a biology class, because they felt the teacher “was cruel to little animals”).
Most pivotally, Zappa also experienced his first epiphany with contemporary classical music, after he went to the original location of Alan’s Music Center in La Mesa and bought the album “The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse, Volume I.” This set him on the path to becoming a noted contemporary classical music composer himself.
Zappa fondly recalled his time here during a 1984 U-T San Diego interview. Here are two excerpts from that conversation:
School days: “The music teacher at Grossmont (High School) was a guy named Benton Minor, who signed all his passes ‘B. Minor.’ Robert Kavelman was my music teacher at Mission Bay. They were my teachers in orchestra and marching band. I don’t know if they’re still there, but I’d like to tip my hat to them. Kavelman was the first to introduce me to 12-tone music.”
San Diego: “I loved San Diego. I really missed it when I moved away, but now it’s turned into something completely different. If kids going to school there now had any idea just what kind of a colorful and interesting musical life San Diego had back in the mid-’50s, they’d be extremely disappointed that it doesn’t exist there anymore. Each district in town had really hot bands, and it was very competitive.”