Thinking about Zappa...

Over the course of this sabbatical I've been thinking a lot about... Frank Zappa. Earlier this summer I watched two British documentaries on the man and his music - and I share the documentarians' sense that Zappa was a musical genius. Here is one that provides a vivid and satisfying overview of the influences that shaped the FZ oeuvre.

I have also been reading various biographies and background blogs about Zap: and while it is fair to say that he was an "odd" man as a father and husband (makes me grateful for the loving, broken dad I knew oh so well), he was simultaneously an astute satirist and business person. The second half of his life was split between low humor (not my favorite), incredible live guitar performances (always stunning) and serious contemporary classical compositions (not always easy listening, but truly fascinating.).With 100 albums released by his early death on December 4, 1993, he was a force of nature.

I came of age during phase one of Zappa's creativity - the Mothers of Invention era that spans Freak Out through Weasels Rip My Flesh - and I still love the biting humor, political/social analysis and musicality of this period better than all the rest. Last summer we checked out the Zappa Plays Zappa show - Dwezil Zappa showcasing his father's songs - and as I suspected, the gig was heavy on the second half of Zappa's career. Oh well, I used to listen to this one often as a young man and it would carry me into sleep.

Between 1966 and 1972, I probably saw the Mothers over 13 times:  from the "Absolutely Free" show in "the summer of love" at the Garrick Theatre in the Village to all those times we'd take the train in from CT to hit the Fillmore East and other venues. I always left with a sense that Zappa loved making creative music. He loved to laugh, too - and in the early years I felt a certain resonance with his humor. He was clearly an outsider and never tired of celebrating that fact. It gave him a unique ability to skewer so many of our cultural and political sacred cows 

At times this humor was cruel - like the way he ridiculed the naivete of the hippie culture and flower power. All too often it was all too easy to enlist all too many audience members in his pranks as they thirsted for their ten seconds of stardom. Zappa would exploit them often without their comprehension. I recall being highly uncomfortable with these parts of his show. And yet, his point became all too clear: living in a consumerist culture requires strength, grit and wisdom to withstand its ugly and soul-sapping conformity. Lord knows Zappa knew how to work the times he was born into even if it wasn't always pretty.

My favorite parts of his live performances involved both his musical satire and his extended improvisations. Once, at the Shaefer Summer Music Festival in Central Park, he did a send up of "96 Tears" that was not only wildly acerbic - Zappa disdained plebeian taste - but brilliantly executed. What's more, he had the band's horn section play the tune while slowly bending over backward in a parody of James Brown's highly choreographed shows. He could work an audience as well as any Vegas show person, but did so at the start with the vision of an iconoclast.

Here's a link to that August, 8, 1968 show albeit in the late show version that opens with his take on American urban, racial violence:  "Trouble Comin' Everyday" - and it rings as true in 2015 as it did back in the day.This also closes with one of those same "stupid human tricks" segments mentioned above where Zappa gets some clown from the audience to sing "Hang on Sloopy" while the Mothers play along. The guy is ecstatic and the maestro makes his point: it is so easy to be happy when your standards are so low. 

And then there is the man's ability on guitar.  Steve Vai, one of the best electric guitar players in the world who once toured with Zappa, speaks about his old boss with affection and awe. He also describes - and then showcases - both a beautiful tune Zappa wrote and then a screaming and wicked guitar solo. In my opinon, Zappa could rock out like the best including Hendrix and Clapton. Take the time to give a listen if you are in doubt.

At about the time cats like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin were "inventing" jazz fusion - rock/jazz/funk - Zappa had perfected it.  I am so grateful for the music he played, for the way he took on hypocritical politicians who wanted to censor creative music and for his audacity. With someone this outrageous it goes with the territory that he would sometimes go too far - and he could be vulgar, tasteless and cruel - but he was also sensitive, insightful, funny, challenging and brilliant, too. As it goes for all of us, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and FZ was no exception - but he was exceptional.


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