Monday, July 11, 2016

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Frank Zappa and his wife Gail

The Zappa children -- from left, Diva, Ahmet, Moon and Dweezil

Ahmet Zappa, manager of the Zappa Family Trust

The entrance to Frank Zappa's recording studio

recording studio

A 1968 publicity photo shows the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa

EAT THAT QUESTION:  FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS             B                    
Germany  France  (93 mi)  2016  d:  Thorsten Schütte

I don’t think anybody has ever seen the real Frank Zappa, because being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody.  It’s just two steps removed from The Inquisition.     —Frank Zappa

One of America’s own, few figures from the psychedelic 60’s are more fascinating than Frank Zappa, an iconoclastic figure who had the audacity to challenge established views on the political left and right, as well as the counterculture movement that he was associated with, through the sheer weirdness of his music, as his musical gifts were legendary, but he existed on the outer extremities of a fringe movement that was almost invisible to mainstream society.  “More people know my face from a poster or a TV interview than have heard my music.”  Everyone knew who Frank Zappa was, as his image was plastered everywhere on album covers, comics and music magazines, but few ever saw him play in performance unless they happened to live in the Los Angeles vicinity where he was a regular.  While he was part of the rock music establishment, he railed against it with a single-minded veracity, as throughout his career he was victimized by an overcontrolling censorship, as his music never received airtime on the radio, as his profane lyrics had a kind of Lenny Bruce vividness to them, where he was not afraid to say exactly what he meant to say.  While hardly a potty-mouth, Zappa was more of a cantankerous counterculture intellectual whose premise was sarcastically extending the limits and use of the English language just as much as his music crossed unimaginable boundaries, where he stirred the waters of complacency and spit it out musically.  While it’s clear he dared to be different, writing lyrics that were challenging, amusingly racy and off-the-wall, Mothers of Invention albums were like the Three Stooges dropping acid together, yet what’s perhaps most unique about Zappa is how he doesn’t fit the counterculture stereotype, but is instead his own man.  Opinionated and sardonic, with an acid-tinged, quick wit, he probably more resembled a mad, disheveled Bohemian poet that spent his time endlessly searching for the right words and musical phrases to express his mind-racing thoughts, where he couldn’t put pen to paper fast enough to document his astonishing artistic output.  An oddball even in the world of the avant-garde, he surprised many by being so bluntly straight, where his ideas, especially in the social climate of feminism, Vietnam, and civil rights, were considered hard corps conservative without the paranoid fear of communism.  What was most important to Zappa was freedom of expression, something his own country refused to allow, thinking instead that he was a corrupting force and a negative moral influence on future generations that needed to be stopped, like a child molester on the loose, described by Time magazine as “a force of cultural darkness,” missing the point entirely, judging him simply by the outlandish way he looked, with his giant moustache and wild, unkempt hair, turning him into an American version of Rasputin.

If you’re looking for a definitive look at the life of Frank Zappa, in the manner of Asif Kapadia’s intimate and highly personalized Amy (2015), clearly this is not it, as there are no archival clips from childhood, no talking heads from friends or family, and little that even indicates what period of his life happens to be onscreen.  Instead, the film is a collection of recorded interviews where we hear Zappa respond to some of the more inane questions, where a clue to when they were said is indicated by the glaring fashion missteps.  While collectively it does create a portrait of the man, it feels more like a sketch, an incomplete work that never fills in the large gaps of his life, where it’s more of an indicator of the kind of man he was, eventually dying all too young from prostate cancer at the age of 52.  The film never delves into the subversive nature of Zappa’s work, a scathing indictment of the 30 years he spent battling record companies and government interference in the pursuit of his own musical creativity, as he believed school only trained kids to conform and follow rules, never encouraging them to creatively think for themselves, where his songs are Molotov cocktails of resistance, parodies of phoniness, like his only top 40 hit, 1982’s “Valley Girl” Moon Zappa Valley Girl - YouTube (3:54) sung by his 14-year old daughter Moon Zappa, where he’s satirizing the music industry itself and the very fans that buy his records, or his totally psychedelic 1966 hit “Who Are the Brain Police?” Frank Zappa - Who Are The Brain Police? - YouTube (3:43) from his debut Mothers of Invention album, where he’s mocking suburbia and the burgeoning hippie culture, while Brown Shoes Don't Make It - YouTube (7:29) from his next album in 1967 is a free-form, genre defying, stream-of-conscious pop explosion of experimental collage art that feels like random thoughts while watching strippers in a burlesque review before the place gets raided by the police, where throughout his career he continued skewering the vacuousness and intellectual shallowness of television, cultural fads, and diminishing American values, satirizing a nation of morally hypocritical religious zealots consumed with a conformist mentality to be like everyone else, where the sheep like, herd mentality would never allow anyone to be different, actually think for themselves, or pursue their own interests.  The film barely makes a dent in the extraordinary influence Zappa had in extending the realms of intellectual expression and musical relevance, where his work was so ahead of its time that it took decades to figure him out.  Zappa was a voice of the future, but was instead viewed with blinders on by the suffocatingly restrictive societal prisms of the past, where he was completely misunderstood by his own generation. 

Simultaneous to his prolific activity playing in a rock band, releasing 62 albums during his lifetime, and about 40 more after his death, Zappa also had a penchant for writing classical music, inspired by 20th century avant-garde composers Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, where he was introduced to what he called “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds,” becoming something of a musicologist, collecting musical sounds and phrases from all sources, where he even conducted some of his own pieces with his high school orchestra.  Theatrically incorporating a cacophony of sounds, drawing not only from classical but blues artists, soulful R & B, doo-wop groups, including local pachuco groups, as well as modern jazz, adding his own caustic lyrics to the mix, Zappa’s music was all over the map, a veritable cornucopia of musical ideas fused together, given added presence by their unique performance art style on stage, where they became a sprawling theatrical review, where each song was by itself a small theater piece.  It would not be inconceivable to see Zappa’s pop-oriented songs and edgy lyrics make it to a Broadway stage, as much of his carefully edited, highly satirical musical flourishes are really extended theater pieces, using changing musical styles with shifting time signatures, creating a musical collage of innovative art pieces.  He was quoted as saying “Sounds are for people to listen to,” which might get at the root of what he was after in the three decades of writing music.  Zappa’s music is not for everyone, as it tends to be dense, always challenging, incorporating plenty of ideas in short spaces, ultimately defying categorization, scoping out unexplored territory in the musical realms.  He reigned in much of the Mothers of Invention weirdness in his 1969 solo album Hot Rats, where 5 of the 6 songs are instrumental, creating highly appealing, jazz influenced compositions such as “Peaches en Regalia” Frank Zappa - Peaches En Regalia (HQ) - YouTube (3:39) that he described as “a movie for your ears.”  It’s surprising Zappa didn’t die of lung disease, as he was a prolific smoker throughout his life, even while performing onstage, where he had a habit of sticking his cigarette in the tuning peg wires of his guitar when performing extended solos, where the smoke could be seen rising from the end of his guitar.  Very little performance footage makes its way into the film, which only provides excerpts and brief clips throughout, so despite one’s familiarity with the man and his work, this film will not likely send droves of new fans to the record store seeking out his music.  Instead the film is centered around hearing the artist express himself during interviews, which is always cleverly amusing and highly informative, as he’s a remarkably self-aware artist, often ticked off by the insipid line of questioning, but the clarity of his ideas, even viewed from today, are always fresh and candidly insightful.     

There is no such thing as a dirty word.  There is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire at the time when you hear it.  ‘Dirty words’ is a fantasy manufactured by religious fanatics and government organizations to keep people stupid.  Any word that gets the point across is a good word.  If you wanna tell somebody to ‘get fucked,’ that’s the best way to tell him.

Ostensibly a series of Zappa quotations made up entirely from pre-existing interview footage and live performances, one easily senses an uncompromising nature to the man, where he clearly delineates the line between business and art, where he refuses to mix the two or write music as a business decision, hoping to get rich quick by selling plenty of records, turning his music into a commodity, like a television jingle for a commercial, claiming “We are culturally nothing, we are only interested in the bottom line,” where instead he was never one to worry about his popularity, or how he would be viewed in posterity.  That was simply not his concern, instead he was focused on maintaining his own originality, irrespective with how that played out with the public.  As a result, much like his fellow American jazz musicians, Zappa was decisively more popular in Europe than in America, where a 1967 cultural critique like “Plastic People” Frank Zappa Plastic People - YouTube (3:43) helped inspire a freedom and democratic movement in communist Czechoslovakia after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, when an underground rock band named Plastic People of the Universe was formed, whose music was subsequently banned by Czech authorities, believing Zappa’s American music promoted a subversive, anti-communist philosophy.  Zappa, however, was championed as a symbol of freedom of expression in Europe while at the same time fighting against the censorship efforts at home led by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a 1985 Tipper Gore-led coalition that wanted to place “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” labels on records featuring explicit lyrical content, which led to Senate hearings on the matter, where Zappa is seen testifying before the committee.  In a fascinating sequence of events, Zappa is hailed as a hero in Czechoslovakia after the 1989 Velvet Revolution toppled the communist authoritarian rule, where newly elected President Vaclav Havel publicly embraced the underground rock band and flew Zappa into Prague as a conquering hero, (How a Revolutionary Czech Rock Band Inspired Vaclav Havel ... James Sullivan from Rolling Stone magazine, December 19, 2011), turning him into an honorary cultural ambassador, having him sign releases which immediately allowed his music to be played there.  The irony of this event couldn’t have been lost on Zappa, as it emphasized the narrow-mindedness of American culture, the supposed land of the free, while those victims of communist rule sought out Frank Zappa to help them in their liberation struggle against mind control and totalitarianism.  It wasn’t all peaches and cream in Europe, however, as a scheduled concert, extracts from the musical score of his film 200 MOTELS (1971) with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled in 1971, despite the advance sale of 5000 tickets, due to objectionable lyrics which the Hall management described as obscene, despite the fact the musical score had already been performed in almost every country in Europe, including Liverpool and Manchester in England, as well as 30 American cities, even in the Chicago Opera House, without complaint.  While not in the film, the director worked for eight years on this project, made in association with the Zappa Family Trust, which essentially oversees his entire archive of published musical material, including title to all musical and artistic products, as well as Zappa’s commercial image, currently managed and presided over by Zappa’s youngest son Ahmet, named chief operator of the trust in July 2015, also named as one of the film’s executive producers, while the film is dedicated to Zappa’s widow Gail who died last year from lung cancer.  Since her death, the family has become embroiled in a public feud over management of the trust, pitting brother against sister, viewed as spoiled brats airing their dirty laundry in public, including an open letter written on Facebook about the dispute, An Open Letter to My Brother (by Ahmet Zappa) - Facebook.  When Gail died, she left the trust in the hands of the two youngest children, Ahmet and Diva, while older siblings Dweezil and Moon felt shortchanged and betrayed, as the stipulations of the trust provided less for the two oldest.  In response to the trust’s action, Dweezil renamed his long running Zappa Plays Zappa concert tour of playing his father’s music “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the ... He Wants — the Cease and Desist Tour.”

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