20 years after his death, Frank Zappa has gone from cult figure to a giant of modern music. We review his career and find out how the hell that happened
Many years ago, when I was no more than a slip of a lad and the internet was powered by teams of draught horses wired in parallel, I used to spend a lot of time on a newsgroup called alt.angst. (I was very young.) It was populated largely by people older than me who had attained seriously WTF levels of formal education, typically in a combination of humanities and hard science. One of them maintained the group's reading list, which consisted of a list of books, movies and albums that you were encouraged to read, watch or listen to if you wanted to feel more 'angsty'.
Although I liked a lot of stuff on the list, I couldn't grasp the point of drawing it up. I was no more than normally pissed-off with things, but some of the people on alt.angst were struggling with severe depression – one of the most charismatic members would spend weeks at a time away from the group, recovering from her latest suicide attempt – and what I couldn't understand was why anyone would want to read, see or listen to anything as part of a conscious attempt to make worse how they felt about the world. I had this wacky idea that the purpose of art was not to depress you further, but in some way to lift you up and, perhaps by means of unflinchingly staring down the crapness of life, to make you feel, on some level or another, better. However, when I made the mistake of voicing my opinion that the list was a bit stupid, I was myself accused of being stupid, because – or so my accuser said – by criticising the purpose of the list, I was merely demonstrating that I didn't understand the art. You don't get it, man, my accuser told me: you obviously haven't suffered enough to understand what real angst is.
Frank Zappa, who died 20 years ago last month, had a name for the kind of behaviour that this particular individual was displaying. Zappa called it 'featuring your hurt', and he associated it with the rise of daytime talk shows in which people extravagantly broadcast their own suffering for the purposes of low-grade entertainment. Zappa regarded the bulk of popular music as just another way of featuring your hurt, which is why he had very little time for it. Why he thought so is tied up with the basic contention of this article, which is this: of a generation of American musicians working in popular music that came of age during the 60s, Zappa was by a very long way the smartest, the most imaginative, the most gifted and the most worth listening to.
That's a big claim for a man whose catalogue includes such titles as 'He's So Gay', 'The Illinois Enema Bandit' and, a personal favourite of mine, a shimmering etude for rock brand and brass instruments called 'I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth'. Even Nigel Tufnel might have blue-pencilled that one. How can such a claim be supported?
First, a qualification. I'm not sure who you think of when you think of 'Zappa's generation', but typical candidates might be Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop, The Doors, even Neil Young (Canadian, but still) and other such quirky icons of Classic Rock, the ones whose careers are endlessly rehashed in magazines that keep middle-aged dads occupied on medium-haul flights. I'd argue that, fine as these musicians are, they aren't quite the real guys. The real guys were mostly black musicians: Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and, bestriding several genres like a soft-spoken Colossus, Jimi Hendrix. If you feel like including jazz-rock, then Miles Davis is up there too. And so is Zappa.
He'd probably have hated this article. His dislike of rock journalism is well-documented and he had good reasons for it; almost all the press that he got during his lifetime was less than wholly enthusiastic. The writer Janet Malcolm, in her classic work The Journalist and the Murderer, described how all journalists, whether they realise it or not, want to tell a specific story, and the truth of the finished work depends a good deal on the extent to which the story they want to tell corresponds on some level with the actual facts of the case. In the case of Zappa, the journalists who dealt with him usually had their own stories to tell and were angered when they realised that he knew it, and wasn't interested in playing along.
There are legends about him, almost all untrue. His sort-of autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book dealt with them, including the lurid tale that he'd once eaten shit on stage. Zappa commented that the closest he'd ever come to eating shit was in the buffet of a Holiday Inn in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The usual procedure of your typical star is to turn the self into an enticing screen upon which the audience is invited to project its fantasies, but although Zappa understood this well enough, and in the case of his onetime protégé Alice Cooper he even encouraged it, he didn't want it to happen to him. He liked to depict himself as, in Iain Banks' phrase, a kind of eminence grease, a conscious manipulator of events who stood back to observe and record the results, never someone at the mercy of fate. It helped that for much of his career, his restricted vocal range meant that he wasn't even his own lead singer.
It may be becoming clear, at this point, that Zappa was not like his peers. Only on sufferance did Lou Reed put up with Nico singing his songs; Captain Beefheart, who'd been a teenage pal of Zappa's, essentially was his own voice and not much else, if we're to believe the testimony of his bandmembers that he used psychological and physical bullying to get them to turn his extremely vague musical ideas into playable music. Iggy Pop, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Madonna, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Tweedy, Cat Power and Lady Gaga are, in their different ways, minor variations on the theme of the singer-songwriter, in whose physical presence charisma is located.
Zappa was not a singer-songwriter, although he wrote his own songs and sometimes sang them. He belonged to the bandleader tradition, of which the most famous example is 20th century America's greatest composer, Duke Ellington. Zappa didn't need his musicians to turn his vague musical ideas into playable songs, because his musical ideas weren't vague.
He was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940, the son of a defence contractor. Young Frank suffered from respiratory problems, very likely as a result of his father's work with chemical weapons, and the family moved to the edge of the Californian desert. Zappa's earliest musical training consisted of high school band drumming. He taught himself to read and write music and glommed as much as he could from his high school music teachers, to the point that by his late teens he was composing in the then-academically-fashionable style of serialism. A brief spell designing greeting cards for an advertising agency taught him much about the psychology of marketing but by his early 20s he was a jobbing guitarist, writing and recording songs for a small label and becoming an expert in editing and production, and had scored a couple of B-movies, Run Home Slow and The World's Greatest Sinner. Two weeks in San Bernardino County Jail on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to make pornography left him with a lifelong distrust of authority. By the time he joined The Soul Giants, he was the man to transform them from a 'pretty good bar band' into a jaw-dropping dadaist musical theatre ensemble.
He told them that if they'd stop doing covers and do his songs, they'd get famous. They all said yes except for the sax player, who promptly quit. The sax player had a point. They were an odd-looking bunch, many of them well into their 30s and some older; balding, craggy-faced and otherwise unglamorous. Instead of trying to make them look cool, Zappa emphasised their strangeness by dressing them up in the weirdest gear available. He renamed them The Mothers, after the jazz practice of referring to a really good musician as a 'motherfucker'. They signed to Verve Records, home of the Velvet Underground, and for one of the very few times in his life, Zappa bowed to label pressure and re-renamed the band the marginally more family-friendly The Mothers of Invention.
No sooner did The Mothers have a contract than Zappa's fearful level of productivity became apparent; 1966's double album Freak Out! was followed the following year by the less sprawling but far more explosive Absolutely Free, featuring Zappa's first truly great song, 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It', a deconstruction of the white-collar 60s American male as a would-be incestuous paedophile.
'Brown Shoes' is the first song that gives the lie to the notion that Zappa was just a satirist. It doesn't stand outside its protagonist and mock him; instead, like Lolita, it gets inside him and makes you experience all his sweaty, furtive secrets for yourself. Zappa did this by treating popular music the same way that the young Jean-Luc Godard treated cinema, not as a religious order which demanded obedience to a set of rules, but as a playground in which you could pick up and drop styles depending on the point you wanted to make. 'Brown Shoes' is composed in discrete sections, each in a different style, and the style is used both to tell you about the subject and to make the subject reflect on the style. The opening bit of pulsing rock is like a warning to the listener of what's coming; the second section, 'TV dinner by the pool / Watch your brother grow a beard', has a plodding, anthem-like quality, suiting the timid conformism of the 'you' character. But as the song makes clear just how the system has conspired to make our man into a conformist dweeb, the line 'Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care' is sung over a huge, arching, operatic melody, the song's first burst of real emotion. As it goes on, it wades through ever-sleazier scenes and musical backdrops until the climax: the anti-hero revels in a bizarre sexual fantasy involving a teenage girl and a bottle of chocolate syrup, all set to a rollicking, drunken lounge band backdrop, before the rewards and trials of capitalism close over his head in another moment of ironic, operatic triumph: 'Life is such a ball / I run the world from City Hall …' 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' demonstrates Zappa's mastery of the basic styles of pre-1970 American popular music, and also lays bare how they work on us; after we've listened to him, there are musics we can never listen to the same way again.
1967 also saw Zappa's first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, a disorienting collage of paranoid conversations about pigs and ponies, bursts of musique concrète and fugitive snatches of haunting orchestral music and cheesy surf-rock. It baffled reviewers, but it remained one of Zappa's favourites and he'd continue to use its collage techniques for the rest of his life. (His last completed album, 1994's posthumous masterpiece Civilization Phaze III, is a sequel of sorts.)
The Watts Riots of 1965 had been a sign that the mid-60s USA was simmering with civil unrest, but in 1968 the tension finally exploded, with rioting in Washington DC and Chicago. Zappa's song about the Watts riots, a raucous and Dylan-inflected clang called 'Trouble Every Day', had been the song that had got The Mothers a record contract; now it seemed prescient, with Zappa's sardonic statement 'You know something, people? I'm not black, but there's a whole lots of times I wish I could say I ain't white.' And yet by 1968, with the Chicago police baton-charging white teenagers at the Democratic National Convention, it was no longer possible to pretend that the trouble in the country was only about race. Zappa ramped up his output: 1968 saw We're Only In It For The Money, often described as a parody of Sgt Pepper, although the only direct parody is the cover photo, which features the band wearing cheap dime-store dresses with their name spelled out in vegetables. Money is more like the anti-Pepper; a song like 'Mom and Dad', which depicts the government shooting hippies, struck his 1968 contemporaries as creepy and paranoid, but now it sounds like a prediction of the Jackson State and Kent State shootings of 1971.
And then, just as people started to look to Zappa for leadership, he stepped away from direct political engagement. 1969's Uncle Meat was a dreamlike double album of naggingly hummable tunes, exhilarating improvisation, songs about burgers and snatches of recorded conversation. One track consists of drummer Jimmy Carl Black complaining at length during a band meeting that they aren't getting paid enough.
At the time, friends accused Zappa of backing down from the political confrontation that everyone else was gunning for. With hindsight, the dream of late 60s rock musicians that their music had the power to change the world looks like hubris. Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention and on 1970's Weasels Ripped My Flesh, he directly addressed the unrealisable hopes of the generation in 'Oh No', one of the finest examples of his way of couching difficult truths in a soaring melody: 'Oh no, I can't believe it / You say that you think you know the meaning of love? Do you really think it can be told? / You say love is all we need / You say, with your love you can change / All of the fools, all of the hate? / I think you're probably out to lunch.'
When a true genius appears in this world, said Jonathan Swift, you can know him by this sign, that all the dunces are in confederacy against him. One of the dunces caught up with Zappa at a 1971 concert in London, clambering onto the stage and knocking the bandleader into the orchestra pit. Zappa was seriously injured, the most visible permanent effect being a crushed larynx that lowered the pitch of his never very flexible voice. He recorded several albums from a wheelchair and didn't tour again until 1974.
Ah, the 70s. There was something about its combination of unrestrained hedonism and subterranean terror which inspired Zappa. His lyrics poke fun at the decade's excesses while the music releases all its contained repression with a combination of elegance, intricate detail and exhilarating power. Still, this was when Zappa's bad press really kicked in; the dumber journalists were disappointed that he'd failed to become an entertaining burn-out, while the more idealistic ones, traumatised by the end of their dream of revolution, were understandably irritated by somebody who hadn't been deceived in the first place. One of the reasons for Zappa's clear-sightedness was his lack of interest in illegal drugs. He wasn't exactly straightedge, appreciating a margarita at the end of a long day, but his drugs of choice were overwhelmingly caffeine, nicotine and newspapers. Other rock stars relaxed after gigs by getting wasted, but when some Scandinavian fans told Zappa after a show that their little brother had been too young to come along, Zappa accompanied them back to their house, woke the kid up to say hi, and sat up late talking politics with their parents.
The mid-to-late 70s contain many of Zappa's most dazzling heaps of junk, from the brassy strut of One Size Fits All and Zappa in New York to the guitar-heavy, punk-infused Sheik Yerbouti. The pinnacle is 1979's Joe's Garage, a deliberately ramshackle rock opera about a hapless garage band musician and his equally hapless girlfriend, and how the two of them get literally as well as metaphorically f***ed over by the nexus of religion, business and politics. The tale is narrated by Zappa himself in the role of the Central Scrutinizer, a government official who talks through a cheap plastic megaphone and who presents Joe's story as a cautionary tale about the evils of music. All Joe wants to do is play his guitar, but everything gets in the way; his girlfriend, conditioned by both her father and her priest to think of herself as someone who has to trade sexual favours to get what she wants ('Catholic Girls'), is seduced by the groupie lifestyle ('Crew Slut'). Then music itself is outlawed and Joe, after giving all his money to a religion dreamed up by a third-rate science fiction writer ('A Token of my Extreme'), falls into a sexual relationship with a robot ('Sy Borg') and is thrown into prison with a group of depraved record company executives who 'plook' him to within an inch of his life ('Keep It Greasey'). Driven insane by the trauma conga line he's been put through, Joe is reduced to playing 'imaginary guitar solos' until he has a vision of Mary, in which she tenderly tells him what's what, in one of Zappa's wisest formations: 'Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST.' (Typical of Zappa, Mary goes on to undermine this gnomic statement: 'Beauty is a French phonetic corruption of a short cloth neck ornament currently in resurgence …') Joe plays one more scaldingly beautiful solo ('Watermelon in Easter Hay') before he's released. Recovering his sanity, he gets a job decorating muffins at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, which not coincidentally was the name of the home studio Zappa happened to be building at the time. In the end the Central Scrutinizer abandons his megaphone and the whole album winds up with a very silly but curiously uplifting communal singalong ('A Little Green Rosetta'), featuring more or less everybody who'd worked on the album.
Although Joe's Garage can hardly be said to have a tight narrative structure – the whole sex-with-an-appliance thing is just weird – it works. It achieves unity by the repetition of skilfully-placed motifs, such as the cheesy eleven-note guitar lick that Joe likes to play, and the ever more menacing claim 'You'll love it! It's a way of life!' It also has to do with Ike Willis' soulful performance as Joe and Dale Bozzio's charmingly guileless turn as Mary; then there's the fact that it contains some of the sharpest and fiercest playing on any Zappa album. He was at the height of his powers as a guitarist, and his drummer at this period was the great Vinnie Colaiuta, a player of lightning reflexes and enormous sensitivity.
The 80s saw the resurgence of family-friendly pop and the spirit-deadening dominance of earnest stadium rock. Zappa seemed isolated, and his music from 1980-83 is generally regarded as among his least attractive. Nevertheless, in 1982 he had a minor hit single with 'Valley Girl', featuring his teenage daughter Moon Unit's impersonation of the wealthy kids she went to school with. Moon promoted the single with her dad and, like him back in the day, she was disgruntled to realise that journalists tended to assume that she was just like the character she'd been playing. Zappa was under no illusions, pointing out in interviews that people bought the song because they liked Moon's voice. The album it was culled from, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, contains some of Zappa's most abstract and punishing music.
Then the Reagan administration really kicked in, with its signature combination of folksy amiability, Christian fundamentalism and enthusiastic support for brutally repressive regimes the world over, and Zappa seemed to be galvanised. The improved functionality of his mojo was first evident on 1984's staggeringly offensive Thing-Fish, a grotesque but hilarious attack on Broadway musicals. Zappa cut his hair short, put on a suit, spoke eloquently at Senate subcommittee hearings on the labelling of albums for explicit lyrics (he was against it) and, characteristically, took the official audio recording, including a section of barely coherent personal abuse from a Republican senator, and turned it into a piece of music ('Porn Wars'). When the Warsaw Pact broke down he reached out to Eastern European fans such as Vaclav Havel, who suggested that Zappa become a trade delegate; this was scuppered by US Secretary of State James Baker, who was still miffed about rude remarks Zappa had made about Baker's wife during the Senate hearings. In 1988 he hit the road for what would be the last time. What exactly happened during the 1988 tour is still a matter of debate, but after the first leg of the tour the band mutinied, not against Zappa but against one particular bandmember. Rather than fire the musician, Zappa cancelled the remaining dates. With anybody else, a tour cancelled halfway through would be a disaster. Zappa pulled two fantastic live albums out of it, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Make A Jazz Noise Here.
The highly entertaining autobiographical tract The Real Frank Zappa Book came out in 1989, but then it was announced that he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He kept working, most notably with the European chamber orchestra Ensemble Modern, which wanted to play a series of concerts of his instrumental music. These led to the last album Zappa saw released, The Yellow Shark, a blistering set of live recordings of a top-notch contemporary music ensemble at the top of its game. Zappa wasn't well enough to conduct every piece in the concerts, but The Yellow Shark is the first album to play to any classical music fan who wants to know what the fuss is about.
And then, in December 1993, he died, aged only 52. In 1997 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Lou Reed, who said during his speech 'I admired Frank and I know he admired me.' Given that Reed had once described Zappa as 'probably the single most untalented person I've heard in my life', it's possible that Lou was withholding.
Zappa is often pigeonholed as a 'satirist', but it fails to encompass his art. Satirists magnify the flaws in their targets so that their grotesqueness becomes funny in itself, but the trouble with satire is that it only rises above its target by being smarter; it can't offer anything positive because it's too cool to affirm anything. Real comedy affirms a vision of the world, and Zappa's vision was firmly his own.
Unlike nearly all rock musicians, Zappa was not a romantic but a comic realist. 'Duke of Prunes' (Absolutely Free) is a love song with the self-doubt left in: 'And I know, I think, the love I have for you will never die … well, maybe.' 'Bobby Brown Goes Down' (Sheik Yerbouti) is a pocket-sized study of a heartless jock: 'My car is fast, my teeth are shiny / I tell all the girls they can kiss my heinie'. In the course of the song, Bobby gets the wrong side of the wrong girl and is forcibly castrated, but he's irrepressible; after only a brief chorus of self-pity, he decides that he's not into girls anymore and soon he and a friend 'sorta drifted along into S&M'. What redeems the song is the classic simplicity of the melody and the lush warmth of the performance, just as 'Be In My Video' (Them or Us) would be only an amusing spoof of mid-80s David Bowie videos ('Wear a leather collar / And a dagger in your ear / I will make you smell the glove / And try to look sincere') if it weren't hoiked onto an entirely higher level by some of the most intricately ridiculous backing vocals ever recorded.
Zappa is terrible background music. His composerly fondness for putting in as much and as varied musical material as possible means that there is constantly some event happening which you feel you're missing out on, unless you sit down and pay attention – or unless you hear it live, which is by far the best way to hear it. This seems less radical than it really is. 40-odd years ago, Brian Eno invented ambient music after drawing on experiments by people like Satie and Cage, and at the time, the idea of serious music that didn't need to be paid attention to was extraordinary, even groundbreaking. Of course, the idea was in some ways as old as Muzak, which dates from the 30s, but Eno made it intellectually respectable. Nowadays, however, we're used to hearing music every-bloody-where, and we're used to the expectation that we won't really be listening to it. We're used to it being as blandly appealing as Eno's early experiments. We can even make punk sound like background music, if we only make it predictable enough.
Zappa would have none of it. He wanted his music to wake people up, and his special secret sauce was rhythm: always new information, unpredictable shifts in ambience, sudden snatches of inexplicable conversation, a high rate of rhythmic change which frequently involved fitting five or seven beats into the space of two or four. Listening to some ambient techno is like floating in a cloud. Listening to Zappa, especially in concert, is like flying in a powerful aeroplane during a storm.
Zappa was a master of the ways music can be structured over time. The drums were his first instrument, and he didn't start playing the guitar seriously until he was 19. On the earliest Mothers of Invention recordings, he sounds like a talented, blues-inflected garage rocker but ten years of almost non-stop playing turned him into a sonic wizard. Although he drew freely on scales from gypsy and Arabic music that most rock musicians are barely aware of, what makes his solos great is the way he constantly pulls and pushes against the underlying rhythm. He never plays boring, regular up-and-down lines, and claimed not to be able to. Timbre, or tone, is the other thing Zappa mastered; his son Dweezil has drawn attention to Zappa Sr's uncanny ability to make himself sound great in the most acoustically unforgiving space. If you don't like guitar solos you'll miss a lot of why Zappa was great, because as he said himself, 'the disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar – now, that's my idea of a good time.'
Music was Zappa's first and greatest love, but he also accepted that to draw people's attention to his music, he had to write words. The most often-repeated complaint about Zappa is that his songs are offensive, so let's look at that for a moment.
The 80s Irish band Microdisney – whose singer Cathal Coughlan went on to minor 90s notoriety with his band The Fatima Mansions – once released an album called We Hate You South African Bastards! Now there's a stupidly offensive title, insofar as it lumps together everybody in a nation without regard for skin colour, political ideology or personal behaviour and condemns them all, from Hendrik Verwoerd to Desmond Tutu. Presumably the only reason Microdisney didn't call it We Hate You White South African Bastards! was that that would have been racist. Zappa, however, was not motivated by blind inner rage. The most honest response to the accusation that Zappa's songs are offensive is this: yes, they are, and you say that like it's a bad thing.
Whether or not you find them offensive depends on how much you feel that they're aimed at you, or at people you care about. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith took offence at the 1979 song 'Jewish Princess' (Sheik Yerbouti): 'I want a nasty little Jewish princess / With long phony nails, and a hairdo that rinses / A horny little Jewish princess / With a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma.' Zappa responded with his usual spiel that there was such a thing as a Jewish princess, and he was merely documenting the phenomenon. As a non-defensive defence this convinced few people, but however much the song relies on cultural stereotypes, it's a hymn of praise; its subject is 'horny' and 'nasty' and that's why the singer wants her.
More problematic is 'The Illinois Enema Bandit' (Zappa in New York), based on the bizarre but true story of an armed robber named Michael Kenyon who had a habit of administering enemas to his female victims. Zappa's song isn't exactly in praise of Kenyon's activities, but it gets into dodgy territory when it depicts a farcical trial at which women onlookers plead for the Bandit to be let go. It then builds to a rousing crescendo as a chorus of voices echoes the Bandit's claim 'It must be something they all need'. Although the song is an obvious parody of the American outlaw ballad, from the Carter Family's 'John Hardy' to the Geto Boys' 'Trigga Happy Nigga', it's been pointed out (by Ben Watson, author of the mind-expanding tome Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play), that if Zappa himself had been likely to be raped, he probably wouldn't have sung this song. Zappa didn't intend it to be taken seriously and musically it's one of his most effective pieces, but he was no more immune than anyone else to privilege-blindness, and it doesn't help to point out that the band that recorded it featured Ruth Underwood, a virtuoso percussionist who played on most of Zappa's 70s albums and who contributed a shout of 'Let the man go free!' (That band was also, like all Zappa's bands, ethnically mixed, at a time when most rock ensembles consisted of wall-to-wall white men. In the 80s, Talking Heads preened themselves about having black and white and male and female musicians onstage, forgetting that Zappa had got there years earlier.)
Zappa's offensiveness can be overstated, but whenever he deliberately went there it wasn't because he didn't like who his targets were. It was because he didn't like what they did. One of the objects of his scorn was any kind of fashion-inspired behaviour: being a lifelong non-joiner, he couldn't fathom why anyone would want to do something simply because other people were doing it. Anecdotes about him testify to his extreme dislike of any kind of coercion (which makes a lapse like 'Enema Bandit' all the more unusual) and he was one of the only American rock stars to criticise the Gulf War, describing it to a gobsmacked British interviewer as 'shameful'. But if there's a category of people who could be characterised as Zappa's personal squad of butt monkeys, it's heterosexual white men, for doing the things that heterosexual white men historically like to do: preaching about god's love while condemning people to hell, preaching about sin while visiting hookers, getting drunk and feeling inanely sorry for themselves, chatting up women by pretending to be into astrology, hosting wet t-shirt contests, becoming cops, Republicans or record company executives, judging people by the length of their hair, or persecuting minorities, or doing anything else that infringes on other people's freedom. And, sure, he mocked women who willingly colluded with this misbehaviour. As the mutant hero of his musical Thing-Fish put it, 'Y'all's takin' too goddam long to grow up in Ermerica!'
He never pretended to be a lovely sensitive guy. He was in many ways a 50s man with all the chauvinist attitudes familiar to anyone who's ever watched Mad Men; a man who, as his secretary noted, expected absolute fidelity from his wife while he himself indulged in all the sexual freedoms available to a touring rock star. On the other hand, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, Frank Zappa was an Italian-American small businessman, but not all Italian-American small businessmen are Frank Zappa. His failure to be 'sensitive' should be weighed against the fact that he wasn't trying to be. If we want to make sense of Zappa, we need to consider him in the light of a tradition that goes right back to the classical era.
Diogenes of Sinope was the founder of classical cynicism, which as the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points out was a very different beast from today's model. Diogenes' cynicism was not like the modern variety, in which everything's pointless so why bother. It was based on a refusal to distinguish the soul from the body. Diogenes lived his own philosophy, scandalising Athenian society by his deliberate poverty, his tendency to defecate and masturbate in public, his lack of concern with social status and his irreverence towards the things that Athenians found sacred. Compare Zappa's fascination with the common animal aspects of human nature, his gleeful references to all kinds of bodily fluids and his profoundly un-bourgeois refusal to throw moral condemnation around, except in the direction of people who do so themselves. Sloterdijk characterised his preferred brand of cynicism as the philosophy of 'a satyr who knows how to think': you could hardly get a better description of Zappa. (Bonus points if you noticed that it also works for the late Bill Hicks.)
If we expect Zappa to tell us what to think, or how to behave, or to give us empty consolation, or to sound off with pompous outrage about how mean other people are, good luck with that. His response to being pushed offstage and almost killed was not to want revenge but to regret that the tape wasn't rolling at that point, which meant he couldn't put it on a live album. Compare Lou Reed, who (on the otherwise rather wonderful Reed/Cale album Songs for Drella) affirmed that if Andy Warhol's would-be assassin Valerie Solanas had been condemned to death, 'I believe I would have pulled the switch on her myself.' It's impossible to imagine the radically anti-authoritarian Zappa expressing his willingness to take part in a judicial execution.
In the end, the thing that's so naggingly unignorable about Zappa's music is also what's so ultimately liberating about it; his sense of play, his insistence on what he called AAAFNRAA, meaning Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, For No Reason At All. This is a threat to the usual rules of good behaviour in popular music, which exist to enforce repeatability, ritual, the guarantee of what the hapless yuppie theatregoer Harry in Thing-Fish calls 'good, solid, musical entertainment'. With most bands, live albums are things that only fans need listen to, but with Zappa, live albums are where the newcomer should begin, not just because there are so many of them but because they present Zappa's music in its ideal context. Zappa thrived on live performance for the same reason that most musicians don't, not because he knew exactly would happen, but because he was excited by what might happen. He rehearsed his bands for months, and was then delighted when something unexpected took place that could be displayed within the beautiful frame that he'd constructed. On one album, a tightly-rehearsed medley is reduced to hysterical incoherence by singer Ike Willis' increasingly absurd and inexplicable cries of 'Hi-yo Silverrrr!', while another features a chilling rendition of a song about the exploitation of 50s black doo-wop groups, performed during a stadium riot into a drifting cloud of teargas. On yet another, Zappa sabotages entire performances by improvising new lyrics about the evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart, who had been caught in the first of what would be a series of sex scandals.
Zappa's fascinated attention to what people actually sound like, his interest in the grain of individual voices and individual experiences, and his refusal to take seriously cheap answers, cheap poses and readymade attitudes, are unique in the popular music of the last 50-odd years. He encourages you to distrust the spectacle, to refuse to accept the options you're offered. He gives you more great music than you can possibly take in, making other musicians look stingy and plodding. He's still doing it; since his death, more posthumous albums have come out than some people release during their lifetimes, tribute bands are thriving (notably his son Dweezil's barnstorming Zappa Plays Zappa), and his instrumental music is taking its place in the contemporary classical repertoire. Don't be put off by the snarky persona; if you want to get a feel for Zappa's true range, his reckless artistic generosity, listen to the music, because in the end it's the music that establishes him as the outstanding figure of his generation. Nearly everyone in popular music eventually fizzles out; Zappa, like his first great composer-hero Edgard Varèse, refuses to die.