Discovering Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa Music

Photo: By Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as FRANK ZAPPA) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I first heard Frank Zappa’s music in 1973 when I was twelve years old. I was listening to a Long Island, New York radio station with the call letters, WBAB. The music I heard on the radio was the ten minute and fifty-three second suite known collectively as the “Yellow Snow suite,” from the Frank Zappa Apostrophe album. My ears and mind were instantly intrigued. The last time I heard a suite of remarkable music was side two of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. There was a similarity between the artists’ brilliance, except on the Zappa material, the musicianship required a highly skilled jazz and classical proficiency. The lyrical content sure wasn’t typical “pop” prose. It was comedic, absurd, and a bit risqué. I didn’t know what to make of it but I loved it instantly.

I waited a whole day for the radio station to play it again. When they did, I managed to tape it onto a cheap “EJ Korvettes” cassette with my cheesy little “Norelco” mono tape recorder. I continued to listen to that piece over and over again until I wore the cassette out.  Around the same time the radio station kept playing a commercial for a hair salon. Normally I would change the station than rather wait through a boring advert about hair, but this commercial was different. Underneath the announcer was a very funky song with a deep, resonate male vocal that sang, “She had that Camarillo Brillo flaming out along her head.”  It sounded cool even though I had no idea what it meant.  Little did I know in a few months I would be acquainted with that song from Zappa’s “Overnight Sensation” album.

At that point in 1973, all I had known of Zappa was from his group The Mothers playing with John and Yoko at the Fillmore East in 1971. The recording was on the Lennon / Ono album Sometime In New York City.  It featured a great “A minor” blues piece called “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go),” with John singing lead vocals and Yoko making painful screaming sounds. On the track, The Mothers were the backup band and Frank Zappa performed a wicked guitar solo. The disc also had a delightful track called “Scumbag,” where that particular word is repeated ad infinitum and eventually Zappa blurts out in a very authoritative voice, “Let’s hear it for the scumbag!” I laughed my butt off.  Who was this Zappa?  Apparently a perverted musician of some sort I reckoned. Huh? In passing, I had heard a rumor that he took a crap on stage and ate it. Was this true? Of course it wasn’t but it made for memorable press. I remember Zappa being mentioned in the song “Smoke on the Water,” so he must have been somewhat important. Nonetheless, all I knew was this Zappa guy used an xylophone in his music and I always loved that instrument since my first introduction to it in Carl Stalling scores for Bug Bunny cartoons.  He also talked about yellow snow and dog-do snow cones and that kind of low brow humor always appealed to me. In essence, the Zappa bug bit me hard.

I pestered my mom relentlessly to take me to the local record store (Symphonette Music in Smithtown, NY) which was about five miles from my home so I could buy the Apostrophe album. I remember sheepishly asking the guy behind the counter if he had any Zappa records. He pointed to the back of the room. “He’s under Z,” he said. Well, that made sense. I slowly sauntered my way to the desolate back bin and instantly recognized Zappa’s piercing eyes and trademark goatee. I studied the record cautiously. On the back cover it read: “This is an album of songs and stories set to music performed for your dining and dancing pleasure by FZ.” Ha!  My sweaty, little hands reached in both pants pockets and took out a few crumpled dollar bills. I happily paid the man at the cash register who looked at me a bit suspiciously as if I was buying a Playboy magazine or something only adults had been known to fetish.

Zappa looked like a regular Sicilian guy, but with long hair. He reminded me of a relative I may have seen at a wedding. A dangerous relative but a relative no less. I had a good feeling about this purchase. It smelled good. I could sense that all the music was worth listening to just by the confidence of Zappa’s striking face on the cover. Anyway, I took the record home and to my surprise this was not the filthy, perverted recording I had suspected from Zappa. In fact, it was filled with meticulously catchy, quirky melodies all expertly performed, sprinkled with bizarre, cynical lyrics and a bitchin’ guitar, bass and drums jam that kept me way too interested. Again, I was intrigued. Who was this guy with the deep voice and why was he not real famous like Elton John?

I couldn’t find much info on Frank Zappa, but that didn’t stop me from listening to the record hundreds of times to the point where my mother was even reciting some parts of “The Yellow Snow.”  A few months later, as I was turning the dial on my cheap Radio Shack FM tuner, I heard a voice sing, “She’s just like a penguin in bondage boy.”  WTF? Who is this?  The DJ spoke in a serious tone, “That was something new from Frank Zappa and The Mothers from the Roxy & Elsewhere album.  Ahh!  I knew right there Zappa was not a one shot deal for me.  I quickly sprang into action and convinced my neighbors that they needed to give me money to cut their lawns. My enthusiasm paid off. In no time I made enough money to go out and buy the double Roxy record extravaganza, along with Overnight Sensation (with it’s amazingly detailed surreal cover). I was set. This was excellent food for my ears and a needed departure from all the great pop music I was used to listening to. As soon as I came home from middle school (seventh grade) I’d close my teenage bedroom door and crank some Frank Zappa. Somehow, his music kept me entertained and made me feel less alone.  It was an in joke between Frank Zappa and myself that I unfortunately had a hard time sharing with my peers. I ended up buying myself a T-shirt with a blue silhouette of Frank’s face on it and proudly went to school wearing it. No one knew who he was.  One teacher thought the shirt read ‘Zeppelin.’ I remember thinking to myself, “No, you ignorant fool, it’s Zappa!”  “How could you not know Zappa?” “This guy is a musical genius.”  I tried many times to get my school mates to check out his music but they were too occupied with Pink Floyd, Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, Kiss, Boston, Queen, Grand Funk and other mass marketed groups of the time. Admittedly, I did enjoy listening to some of those artists but I remained a loner and outcast. It seemed I was the kind of person Zappa was speaking to.

In late 1974, my grandmother became ill with pancreatic cancer. She was taken to a hospital very far from my home. My mother and father would go visit her every evening and leave my sister and I alone in the house for five hours at a clip. Naturally, without parental supervision, all volume limits were suspended as was also the iconic line, “turn it down.” I retreated downstairs to where we had a better playback system: a Pioneer amp, a weighted Garrard turntable and two big British “Wharfedale speakers.” The speakers sure did sound better than the cardboard five and dime ones I had assembled in my room. I selfishly blasted the music. The beautifully twisted strains of “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”, “I’m the Slime”, “Excentrifugal Forz”,  “Dinah Moe Hum”, “Father O’Blivion”, “Dirty Love”, Stink Foot” and the “The Bebop Tango” among others filled the house.  I was in heaven, playing drum beats on the black leather recliner we had.  The left arm rest was the hi-hat while the imaginary snare and toms were on the seat.  I didn’t worry much about the kick drum at that point. Anyway, my younger sister Laura was going through a bad time in elementary school and the last thing she wanted to hear when trying to do her homework was “This is Bebop – even if you think it doesn’t sound like that!” repeated over and over again.  To this day she is not sure if she even likes Frank Zappa’s music but was simply brainwashed to remember it. That

Christmas of ’74 I had asked for more Zappa records and my mother, bless her heart, went to Sam Goody’s and was swamped with nine or ten Zappa / Mothers Of Invention albums to choose from.  She bought me Uncle Meat, Absolutely Free, The Worst Of The Mothers, maybe a few others. I locked myself in the room and let my imagination go wild. Uncle Meat; even the title and the abstract cover with dental x-rays was killer.  Since I had always had teeth related problems this definitely struck a common chord in me, and of course I loved the music, the quick edits, the xylophone and the esoteric humor.

 

Without question, I was now an official Zappa fan. School dragged on. I just wrote Zappa lyrics from memory on the back of all my notebooks along with detailed doodles depicting his songs.  No one cared.  On Friday, April 18, 1975, I decided not to go to school (pretended to be sick) and coincidentally I just happened to catch a DJ on a Connecticut radio station (WPLR) say that he was going to have Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart up as guests.  This was smack dab in the sunny afternoon.  I frantically set up my Norelco Tape recorder, found a blank cassette and pushed record.  For two hours Frank Zappa played some of the most amazing music I had ever heard. Most of which was to come out in June on a disc called “One Size Fits All”.  He also played some tracks that would not be released for another five years i.e. the majestic trombone processional “Regyptian Strut” (which unbeknownst to me contained my favorite chord, “D/C” – I knew I loved it for some reason), and the unbelievably morphing twenty minute cartoon extravaganza “The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary”.  The latter was the original mix that has yet to see the light of day.  I still have dreams of that version being released in glorious stereo by the Zappa Family Trust.  Keep dreaming.

OK, well at this point, I figured something was up. I mean who could put out so much music, this brilliant and hardly get any recognition? Why was he relatively unknown?  Was he black listed?  It really frustrated me. Usually it would take an artist two or three years to release new material but with Frank a premier recording seemed to come out every couple of months!  It was hard to keep up. I was still trying to piece together his lengthy back catalog. Consequently, I continued to cut a lot of lawns and rake a lot of leaves for the neighbors. I was determined to buy everything he did.  In the meantime, I waited and dreamed for months for that phone call from the record store saying they finally got in “One Size Fits All”.

The release of One Size Fits All, came in late June just as school took a summer break. Perfect timing. I was not disappointed. Every track was awesome, not to mention the detailed Cal Shenkel cover that parodies the Greek/Roman labeling of the constellations. I would read the bizarre lyrics over and over trying to decipher them i.e.

“She was a daughter of a wealthy Florentine Pogen”. What was a “Pogen”? Or, “Andy Devine had thong rind / It was sublime but the wrong kind”.

Basically, it was hours of fun for the whole family always finding some new continuity clues or subtle jokes.  No other recording artist seemed to pay that much detail to their releases. Most albums were just “one offs” with a few “thank you’s” written on them.  Personal references to their past or future work – never alluded to.  Not with Zappa.  He was very self-referential; aware of where his art was and where it was going. I found it fascinating.

As Halloween of ’75 rolled in, another great Zappa album, Bongo Fury was released.  This one was mostly live and it featured Captain Beefheart growling, reciting beatnik type poetry and blowing some twisted harmonica solos. I ate it up.  I quickly went out and bought Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica which FZ produced and the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) disc for starters.  More brilliant, bizarre music from a relatively unknown genius. The Zappa world was really unfolding in front of me.  Then one day in December of 1975 I was listening to Zappa’s classic “Billy The Mountain,” from the record Just Another Band from L.A.when all of a sudden, I heard a voice waft into my head and it said very assuredly, “John, this what you will do with the rest of your life. Make music.” It was a profound moment and a life changing one at that. From then on I decided music would be my main focus somehow and what better recording artist to model myself after: Frank Zappa! Well, here I am forty-five years later still creating my own musical universe and enjoying every bit of it. No regrets, though I wish I had had a chance to sit down with FZ and thank him for all his inspirational music. I have so many questions I wanted to ask him about composition and recording and editing and factions thereof. Damn. He died of prostate cancer in 1993 on December, 4 at age 52, the day my father went in to have triple bypass surgery.

Now, I could go on about each Frank Zappa release and how the conceptual continuity Frank Zappa constructed makes his oeuvre the most intriguing in rock and roll.  But I will leave that up to the curious listener who is inclined to explore this musical maverick. You’ll either get it or you won’t. No point to try to convince anyone that it’s music you need to hear.  Lord knows I tried many times to no avail. I guess I happened to be at the right age, at the right place, at the right time with the right kind of sensibilities.  I got it and no one was there to stop me. Not even my dad who did not like Zappa at all.

Frank Zappa made me see how absurd but ultimately how connected life and a person’s art is.  From the music, to the lyrical ideas, to the art work and the interviews and video.  Life is art. He also exposed me to other musical giants that I may never have listened to i.e. Varèse, Stravinsky, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Johnny Guitar Watson, Conlon Nancarrow, Webern, Penderecki, Takemitsu to name a few.  He certainly was a life changer on so many levels and so quotable. One quote in particular always stuck with me. When asked about his approach to creating he said, “Anything, Anytime, Anyplace for No Reason At All”. That about sums up my philosophy as well.

Discovering Frank Zappa



Written by John Tabacco

www.johntabacco.net

https://johntabacco.bandcamp.com/

http://johntabacco1.wix.com/clam-radio

Photo Credit: By Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as FRANK ZAPPA) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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