Dweezil Zappa had no idea he’d grow up to be a guitarist and band leader. But his famous father, the late Frank Zappa, certainly did.
“It seemed predestined to my dad because he wrote ‘musician’ on my birth certificate where it asked my religion,” Dweezil recalled with a laugh. “He really let me choose my own path and then answered the questions I had, as opposed to molding my direction as a musician.”
Alas, life is anything but a laughing matter these days for Dweezil, who is embroiled in a contentious dispute with two of his three siblings.
For the past 11 years, Dweezil has been paying tribute to his legendary dad as the leader of Zappa Plays Zappa.
The virtuoso band is devoted exclusively to performing the music of Frank Zappa. The former San Diegan made a staggering 62 albums between his debut as the leader of The Mothers of Invention — 1966’s “Freak Out!” — until his death from cancer in late 1993 at the age of 52.
The elder Zappa has been hailed by Matt Groening, the creator of TV’s “The Simpsons,” as “my Elvis … There’s a whole generation of people who do funny or weird things who grew up on Zappa’s music.”
Musicians as diverse as Yoko Ono, Primus bassist Les Claypool, Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas and Weird Al Yankovic have all cited Frank Zappa as a key source of inspiration. Yankovic’s nearly nine-minute-long 2003 song, “Genius in France,” is an especially heartfelt homage to Frank Zappa.
Since his death, the Zappa estate has posthumously released nearly 50 more albums by Frank Zappa, whose music ranged from rock, jazz and doo-wop to chamber works, symphonies and genre-blurring fusions.
But Zappa Plays Zappa is no longer Zappa Plays Zappa, at least not in name. And Dweezil is now worried the time may come when he won’t even be able to perform as Dweezil Zappa, just as Dweezil.
All this is due to a bitter ongoing legal battle over the rights to Frank Zappa’s music and legacy. It erupted following the death of his widow, Gail Zappa, in late 2015.
Rather than divide her late husband’s estate equally among their four adult children in her will, Gail gave 60 percent of the rights to the family trust to her son Ahmet, 42, and daughter Diva, 37. Dweezil, 47, and sister Moon, 49, have a minority share with a combined 40 percent.
That disparity has led to an intense family feud — and so much litigation, that the two pairs of Zappa siblings now only communicate with each other through their respective attorneys, according to Dweezil.
“The band started in 2006 as Zappa Plays Zappa,” he said. “Then, somehow or other in 2016, after my mom’s passing, Ahmet and Diva — who became the (principal) trustees of the Zappa family trust — decided they were going to send me a cease-and-desist letter that I couldn’t use the name ‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ anymore, and that they were going to continue to try to commandeer 100 percent of my (concert) tour merchandise (revenues).
“My mom did that and was supposed to pay me 40 percent (of the merchandise revenues), but she never did. I said to Ahmet and Diva: ‘We need to fix this.’ And they said: ‘Nope, we’ll keep taking 100 percent. And if you don’t give it to us, we won’t allow you to keep playing Frank’s music.’
“So I changed the name of this tour to ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa.’ In response, they sent another cease-and-desist letter claiming I couldn’t use the name ‘Frank Zappa’ in any way because the trust owns the name.”
Dweezil sighed loudly.
“Rather than pay more lawyers, I said: ‘OK, fine.’ And I changed the name of the tour to ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F—He Wants — the Cease-and-Desist Tour.’ It’s a statement against the treatment I’ve received. When we play in places where people don’t want ‘f—’ in the title, we change it to ‘Plays Whatever the Frank He Wants’.”
The dispute between the Zappa siblings doesn’t end there, according to Dweezil.
“There’s an attempt by the trust to put themselves in the position to potentially block me from using my own last name,” he said.
“They’ve filed for a federal trademark to have exclusive use of the last name ‘Zappa.’ And they’ve filed for it in places where — if they got the rights — they could potentially block me, for example, from making any personal appearances, recordings, or anything that had to do with Frank’s music. If they were to have exclusive rights, they could say: ‘Sorry, you can’t use your last name.’ So I have to oppose them on that.”
Ahmet Zappa has publicly disputed Dweezil’s charges, although the Zappa Family Trust did not respond to a request for comment from the Union-Tribune.
In an “open letter” last year, Ahmet wrote: “‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ isn’t a name that anyone of us ‘owns’ or has special claims to … we all have an equal right to that name.”
In a subsequent Los Angeles Times interview, Ahmet said: “I have no reason to stand in the way of my brother’s success. I’m not doing anything other than having to do with what’s in the trust.”
Is there anything besides the unequal division of the Zappa Family Trust that might account for this dispute between the four siblings, who once all were very close?
“That’s really what’s most confounding and confusing to people,” Dweezil said.
“Why wouldn’t the whole family be involved equally in the trust and work together to continue the legacy in the best way possible? Why would Gail Zappa not seek to find the most equitable way for that to take place, and have people who are professional at managing a trust, as well as a mutual legacy?”
Either way, Dweezil is the only Zappa sibling who is a professional musician, let alone the only one who has devoted himself to introducing his father’s music to new concert audiences.
Extending Frank Zappa’s legacy
His inspiration to launch Zappa Plays Zappa was two-fold.
He wanted to celebrate his father’s famously eclectic and demanding music on concert stages around the world. And he wanted that music to be heard and embraced by a younger audience.
“When I started the band in 2006, the younger generation didn’t know that much about my dad and his music,” Dweezil recalled.
“A majority of the fan base then was male and mostly in their late 50s to late 60s. Eleven years later, we don’t have people in their 70s and 80s as the continuing fan-base. Now it’s people in their 20s, 30s and up. We still have people in 50s and 60s, but it’s a younger fan base.”
Dweezil was not even a teenager when he began playing guitar. He didn’t have to look far to find a world-famous mentor, whose six-string skills were a matter of record.
“I remember always liking the sound of my dad’s guitar playing and the look of a (Gibson) SG guitar. I just knew what he was doing was so much more complicated and different, compared to other music,” Dweezil said.
“When I was 12, I got serious about wanting to play — and that gave me a chance to spend more time with Frank. And, really I’m the only one in the family who had that opportunity because nobody else played an instrument. From 12 on, I was intensely studying, practicing and asking questions whenever my dad was home (from touring).
“I had a great mentor. My dad produced the first album I made (1986’s ‘Havin’ a Bad Day’), so I got to work with him day in and day out. Now, with 11 years of touring with Zappa Plays Zappa and playing and learning his music, I still find myself asking so many questions about how he came up with the stuff he came up with. There is an endless source of creativity in his compositions.”
Frank Zappa was the subject of international attention from the late 1960s onward. But it took Dweezil some time to realize just how influential his father was.
“It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I can recall somebody seeing my dad, and saying: ‘Hey, that’s Frank Zappa!’ I knew he did music for a living, but it never impacted my access to him,” Dweezil recalled.
“My dad wasn’t very social and didn’t have a long list of friends. There weren’t a lot of celebrities clamoring to come be seen with him.”
Dweezil chuckled when asked if he ever considered rebelling against his notoriously unconventional father.
“That never happened for me; I never was feeling any sense of rebellion,” he replied. “For me to rebel, in my family, I would have had to become an accountant!”
Dweezil’s current tour features a repertoire that covers several decades of his dad’s music.
The selections range from songs featured on the Mothers of Invention’s groundbreaking 1966 debut album, the two-disc “Freak Out!” to 1988’s deviously intricate “Inca Roads.” Dweezil has also revived his father’s re-harmonized 1988 arrangement of his 1976 guitar feature, “Black Napkins.”
Dweezil approaches each selection with the clear-headed focus and attention to detail they require.
“When I was 11 or 12, I asked my dad: ‘Why are these people at your concerts acting all weird?’,” Dweezil recounted. “And he said: ‘They are either on drugs or had too much alcohol, and they think it gives them an excuse to be a——.’
“That was all the information I needed to know I would never do that, and I never did. I never had any interest in drugs or alcohol, and I never smoked cigarettes, based on that simple conversation I had with my dad.”
But didn’t Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993, smoke incessantly?
“He smoked cigarettes — and I hated that,” Dweezil replied.
“There are many things where I’ve followed in my dad’s footsteps. But there are also many things that I chose to do differently.”
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How diverse and far-reaching was the impact of Frank Zappa?
Here are some key examples:
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel — “Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground. He was one of the men who shaped the life of the generation which I belong to … He was a friend of our fledgling democracy and one of the first foreign visitors to come here after (the revolution). I thought of him as a friend.”
San Diego guitar star Mike Keneally (a former Frank Zappa band member) — “Frank routinely took people in his bands and got them to excel and do things that, previously, they never thought they could do. So, for someone like Havel — whose every moment was dedicated to figuring out: ‘How do I improve my circumstances, and my country’s circumstances, and move beyond them?’ — Frank’s music hammered away at the fact that the status quo was not ideal, and that you could do better in your everyday life.”
Lithuanian film professor Rimas Morkumas — “No other rock star came to Moscow on a bus with a full recording studio, during Gorbachev’s time, and invited anybody who wanted to come and be recorded. We bought Zappa’s albums on the black market because they were banned (by the Soviets). He was revolutionary, and he helped break down the wall (of the Iron Curtain).”
Drum star and percussion professor Kenny Aronoff — “Frank brought the complexities and technicalities of classical and jazz into a rock idiom “He was a contemporary composer who was our (generation’s) Lenny, our Leonard Bernstein. He was a big influence.”
Guitar star Steve Vai — “What I learned from Frank transcends anything I can put into words. Besides learning about music and great techniques, I learned a lot about the music business. I saw how Frank works with the utmost of respect and integrity for his musicians. He’s very fair with people, and I model myself after his fairness and integrity. I thought he was an incredible musician before I joined him. Afterward, I thought he was one of the most incredible composers of this century.”