Frank Zappa would have been 75 on Monday. Jonathan deBurca Butler pays tribute to the man who mixed mad antics and great music with a large dollop of cleverness
SHORTLY after his death from prostate cancer in 1993, the musician and sometime film director Frank Zappa was honoured by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre which named an asteroid after him.
The citation announcing the naming of 3834 Zappafrank appeared in the Minor Planet Circular and noted that “Zappa was an eclectic, self-trained artist and composer with incredible energy and a biting wit”.
The eulogy may have made him wince a little but giving his name to something so potentially earth-shattering would surely have made him smile.
“His music is very humorous but it’s also highly cerebral and he had that double edge,” says journalist Joe Jackson. “He was just the same in conversation. He was a dynamic force.”
Jackson interviewed Zappa in 1993 while he was covering The Chieftains at the Grammy awards. Zappa, who was a fan of the trad group, had invited them to record in his studio. He was only months from death and Jackson recalls that although the room was warm, Zappa was “wrapped in a heavy blanket”.
“What I noticed about him, and this was before I interviewed him really, was that whenever the music caught his spirit he was utterly alive,” he says. “On one occasion, I remember The Chieftains were in a room recording with Tom Jones on vocals and Zappa, who was overseeing the whole thing. There was one moment when they just couldn’t get a particular melodic line and Zappa, not imposing himself, just walked over to the piano and did it and you could see that his connection to music and its spirit was very powerful.
“He was the same in conversation. He was an intellectually astute guy and he was engaged, so when you were talking to him you forgot that he was sick.”
Zappa was born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940, to parents of Italian heritage — he would be celebrating his 75th birthday this week.
He was a sickly child who once suffered the indignation of having radium pellets shoved up his nose by a doctor treating him from sinusitis; his nose featured prominently both on his face and in his lyrics. Zappa’s path to music started early.
In high school he was a drummer in his first band but gradually he moved on to guitar. It was one of several instruments he would go on to master. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 22 in their all-time top 100 guitarists.
Zappa was a self-taught musician who took his inspiration not just from the rock’n’roll that was so prevalent around him growing up but also from jazz and classical music.
During the recording of his 1966 debut album Freak Out!, session musicians were expected to read the notes on sheet music from charts on a wall while Zappa conducted them.
This eclecticism has meant that Zappa, although prolific — he produced some 60 albums — has not always been the most accessible.
“He was one of those artists that was yin to everyone else’s yang,” says Dan Hegarty of 2FM.
“Zappa’s music was very much its own thing — hilarious, intelligent, and inventive. It certainly splits an audience. Any time I play him on my show, I get a divide of hugely positive feedback, and an equal amount saying ‘What the hell is that?’”
Zappa considered himself an anti-establishment figure. Some biographers suggest that a police sting which saw him jailed on trumped-up charges of producing pornography was a catalyst but the truth is probably more complex than that.
“He played it by his own rules,” says Stuart Clark of Hot Press. “He was definitely a man of his time who said what he wanted to say. So many bands are now so media trained but he really didn’t care.”
Having the freedom to say it as he saw it was something Zappa was almost militant about. In 1985, he gave testimony in front of a US Senate committee attacking the Parents Music Resource Center; a group, led by Tipper Gore, which sought to censor lyrics of a sexual and satanic nature.
Zappa had warned of a United States that was on its way to becoming a “fascist theocracy” and in his closing statement he painted a grim picture of a censored future: “What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow J on all material written or performed by Jews in order to save helpless children from concealed Zionist doctrine?”
One wonders what he would have to say about his country today.
The Joe Jackson Tapes Revisited, broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 over Christmas, will contain archive interviews with Michael D Higgins, Gabriel Byrne and Bono
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