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Who He Was: The late Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was arguably one of the greatest composers of the second half of the 20th Century, and maybe well before and beyond his working career. He worked within the rock, jazz, pop, and classical idioms with equal success and ease, and he often managed to make his deeply complex and innovative music accessible to folks who would never normally pay attention to such fare by including funny, dirty, and/or funny-dirty lyrics atop his dense music, rightly recognizing that the mash-up of high-brow and low-brow fare has been a key to long-term cultural relevance, where punters and patrons are viewed by artists with equal respect and value. See also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on that front, along with many others found in your college music textbooks. Beyond his work as a composer and a band-leader/organizer of exquisite talent (the list of Zappa-alumni musicians is truly jaw-dropping), Frank Zappa was also a talented writer, film-maker, philosopher, and artist, and he was a fervent and effective champion of creative free speech, testifying against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in its offensive heyday, and also later serving as a Special Ambassador to the post-Soviet Czech government and people, who (smartly) recognized him as a titanic pioneer of transnational arts and culture, and a strong opponent of government’s roles in mediating and moderating the cultures of the people they rule. Zappa was tragically cut down by prostate cancer in what should have been the glory days of his long and convoluted career, and it’s hard to do him justice in a single paragraph. That said, I’m a big fan of and highly commend to you Alex Winter’s 2020 documentary about his life and work, Zappa, which in two hours does about as fine a job as I can imagine with capturing the various fascinating and inspirational aspects of his personal, political, and creative lives. Sample the songs below, then go watch that film. You will be a better human being for doing so.
When I First Heard Him: Mid-1970s, on the radio when I lived on Long Island, at Mitchel Field. I’m not sure exactly which song I would have heard first, but it was either “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” or “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” both of which were regularly played on WLIR (92.7 FM) at the time, again demonstrating how his incredibly complex and rich music could be served up to the general listening population (including teenage boys like me, who liked the “heh heh, heh, heh heh heh” marginal smuttiness of the songs) through that crucial merger of high-brow and low-brow material. Soon after my introduction to his work, Frank Zappa experienced his commercial high-water marks when the singles “Dancing Fool” and “Valley Girl” crossed over onto the pop music charts. I kept up with his work (as much as anybody could, given how prolific he was) in the years that followed. I distinctly remember the day he died, when I was working in Schenectady, New York for Naval Reactors, and used my lunch break after hearing the news to go to the local record store and pick up a couple of his CDs (a format which was still a novelty to me at that point, given my reluctance to adopt such new-fangled technologies), which I spun incessantly in the months ahead as a small act of memorial. During that time, for reasons I can’t quite explain, my then toddler daughter became fond of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” which became a family sing-along song accordingly. She’s pushing 30 years old at this point, and I’d wager that if I quizzed her today, she could still sing every word of that brilliant little work, expressing fond memories associated with doing so.
Why I Love Him: I’ll keep returning to the points made above: nobody did a better job than Frank Zappa at merging incredibly complex instrumental work with incredibly fun and goofy and (yeah) stoopit lyrics, that made his works, well, work on multiple planes, all of them appealing to me. Also as noted above, Zappa was extraordinarily prolific. I’ve heard a lot of his catalog, but certainly not all of it, and I’d frankly (heh heh, no pun intended) be skeptical of anyone who claimed to be fully aware of and fluent in everything that he issued over his three-decades-plus long working career. Personally, his catalog has three titanic tent-post albums for me, We’re Only in It for the Money (1968), One Size Fits All (1975), and the Joe’s Garage trilogy (1979); the lion’s share of my favorite cuts cited below come from those three vastly-different records, though I love many other points and things issued between them. Beyond his compositional skills, Zappa was also an incredible guitar player, and he had an insane talent for finding and engaging other musicians with the profound chops required to bring his music to life. Finally, as a person who deeply values creative freedom, I was and remain impressed by the ways in which Frank Zappa was willing to put himself forward, often at deep personal and professional risk, to defend the rights and privileges accorded to creative types by our Constitution, even as our elected officials (and their wives, in the case of the PMRC) wanted to strip them away from listeners and creators. At bottom line, Frank Zappa was a full package, real deal Artist (with a capital “A”), who left behind an incredible legacy of music, words, and deeds that could and should inspire generations and generations of artists in the decades, if not the centuries, ahead of us. What’s not to love, when you get right down to it? He was an elemental force, like the weather . . . if you don’t like what’s happening right now, give it a little bit of time, and things will eventually, inevitably change for the better, however you might choose to define that.
#10. “Montana” from Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
#9. “Help I’m A Rock” from Freak Out! (1966)
#8. “Room Service” from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 (The Helsinki Concert) (1974)
#7. “Trouble Every Day” from Freak Out! (1966)
#6. “Florentine Pogen” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#5. “Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage, Act I (1979)
#4. “Inca Roads” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#3. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” from We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)
#2. “Sofa, No. 2” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#1. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” from Joe’s Garage, Acts II and III (1979)