December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, it’s been 17 years since Frank Zappa passed away.
Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to the Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike the Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now.
Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ‘70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ‘70s.
Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro”, and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he understood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music; he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.
Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or committing an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks are one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”) as a sort of preemptive strike, his sense of humor—which enabled him to “keep it real”—was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado”).
One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax, and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.
Here are two personal favorites that amply demonstrate that wonder and joy:
“Peaches En Regalia”:
“Watermelon in Easter Hay”: