Do you remember the first time you ever heard a Frank Zappa song? Okay, I know some of you are too young or in a parallel universe where Frank Zappa doesn’t exist, but what about the rest of you? When I was writing yesterday’s post about mass appeal vs. integrity, the phrase ‘no commercial potential’ popped into my head, and suddenly I remembered Frank. Even his name is humorous, Frank ZZZZappa!! What an interesting human being he was.
“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read. Forget I mentioned it. This song has no message. Rise for the flag salute.” (Liner notes for the album Freak Out! (27 June 1966))
When I was young, in high school in the mid-1970s, my friends and I were part of the crowd known as ‘the freaks.’ This meant that we hung out in the smoking area (ahh the good old days, when they still allowed smoking in high schools!), listened to the best rock and roll music, and yes, smoked both cigarettes and weed (which we called ‘pot’ back then, ha.) We thought we were the very coolest people in that large, cold, unfriendly suburban high school. We were utter snobs, too, turning up our noses at the jocks, the cheerleaders, and basically most everyone else, if we even bothered to think about those other, boring humans who also lurked around the halls. Smoky Hill High School was large, there were 500 kids in my graduating class. My own personal circle of friends were mostly older than me and my best friend, Melanie. Her sister Ellen, only a year ahead in school, was known as a ‘super freak,’ due to her long, dark hair, her exceedingly tight blue jeans, and her blatant sexuality. Though not a beauty, guys found her very sexy indeed. She was our ‘corrupter.’ She taught us about smoking pot and taught us how to use a bong. She introduced us to the ways of being a cool teenage girl, how to tease boys mercilessly, how to carry yourself like one hot chick. Ellen was our idol for a couple of years, and we both learned how to imitate her style, while developing our own. So by the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I became a full-fledged freak chick of my own, repleat with tight blue jeans, hair growing longer, now smoking Marlboro golds, listening to the best rock and roll, and learning a lot about how to attract cute guys. I grew up around Denver, Colorado. At that time, there were many hippies and freaks, long-hairs and otherwise alternative human beings living around there, and many of the luckiest ones ended up in Boulder, 25 miles northwest of Denver. (But that’s another story.)
Melanie and Ellen had two older brothers. The oldest was already at university, up there in hippie Boulder, but their other brother, Jeff, was a senior when Melanie and I were freshman. Jeff had the most incredible record collection I had ever seen. He basically owned almost every good record known to youth, and we were fortunate enough to be able to hang out in their basement, smoke weed, and listen. We listened to (just a quick list for starters,): Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles (of course), Blue Oyster Cult, Allman Brothers, Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then hundreds of others. Jeff and Ellen were in the hippest freak crowd in school, so by default so were Melanie and I. That first summer of high school I went to see The Rolling Stones playing at the football stadium in Denver. Amazing. We had a lot of fun during those years, to say the least. Then, a couple of years later, a couple of new guys came to our school. They were both New Yorkers, and as hip as hip could be. Dennis and Kerry were their names. Kerry was cute, in a New York jewish kind of way, but Dennis was gorgeous. He made quite an impression on most all the girls in my class, especially among our circle of freak girls. He had longish, brown, wavy hair, a brilliant smile, and was devastatingly handsome. His voice was deep, his jeans were tight, he wore a blue jeans jacket which fitted his sexy form perfectly. He exuded sexuality with every step. Once he established himself in that school, he became like the king of the forest. He could have had any girl he wanted, including me, but he only went for the blondes. First he liked a girl named Kelly, a slim blonde with a beautiful behind and a very stuck up attitude, whom we despised on principle. But he soon lost interest in her, and then got an unlikely choice for a girlfriend, or so we thought, Cindy Mathews. Cindy Mathews!? We said to ourselves, why would he go for her, we wondered. Yes she was cute, very petite and compact, and also a kind of ultimate hippie-freak girl, who wrote poetry and was actually not so bad, we found out later on. So much for the rest of us getting a chance with Dennis.
But it was he who introduced me to Frank Zappa. You see, Dennis was a dedicated follower of Frank and the Mothers of Invention from way back. Growing up in New York City in the 70’s was different from sleepy Denver. The cool kids there listened to New York music—and that meant Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Zappa. I remember standing by my locker one day, and Dennis and Kerry together serenading me by singing a long excerpt from Suzy Creamcheese, (from Freak Out!) by heart. Wow. I’ll never forget it, sexy Dennis in his blue jeans and hiking boots, singing at the top of his lungs, ‘It can’t happen here, it can’t happen here, I’m telling you my dear that it can’t happen here!!!’
“If you wind up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest or some guy on TV telling you how to do your shit, then YOU DESERVE IT.” -F. Zappa
Because of Dennis, I learned about Frank. Of course, the other, more sophisticated freak kids already knew all about him. I listened to his albums in the basement with Melanie and Ellen, and we laughed at his absurd lyrics. Years later, I even saw Frank in concert with an impressive orchestra, it was quite the event. I admit, I never became a dedicated follower, and my favorite album remained Freak Out!, even though my guitar-playing boyfriend Andy was wild with Zappa and his amazing guitar virtuosity. Lou Reed remained my favorite player during those years, guess the melancholy suited me better than Franks’ biting sarcasm. I feel grateful that I was in with a group of kids who knew so much about good music. About Frank Zappa. About the absurdity of life.
Frank Zappa died at 53, in 1993. He was an incredibly brilliant musician, composer, and had a biting, satirical wit which was evident throughout all his music. Wikipedia has this to say about him:
Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American composer, singer-songwriter, electric guitarist, record producer and film director. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa wrote rock, jazz, orchestral and musique concrète works. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. Zappa produced almost all of the more than 60 albums he released with the band The Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist.
He was a self-taught composer and performer, and his diverse musical influences led him to create music that was often impossible to categorize. His 1966 debut album with The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out! combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with collective improvisations and studio-generated sound collages. His later albums shared this eclectic and experimental approach, irrespective of whether the fundamental format was one of rock, jazz or classical. His lyrics—often humorously—reflected his iconoclastic view of established social and political processes, structures and movements. He was a strident critic of mainstream education and organized religion, and a forthright and passionate advocate for freedom of speech, self-education, political participation and the abolition of censorship.
Zappa was a highly productive and prolific artist and gained widespread critical acclaim. He had some commercial success, particularly in Europe, and for most of his career was able to work as an independent artist. He also remains a major influence on musicians and composers.
During the early 1960s, Zappa wrote and produced songs for other local artists, often working with singer-songwriter Ray Collins and producer Paul Buff. Buff owned the small Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga, which included a unique five-track tape recorder he had built. At that time, only a handful of the most sophisticated commercial studios had multi -track facilities; the industry standard for smaller studios was still mono or two-track. Although none of the recordings from the period achieved major commercial success, Zappa earned enough money to allow him to stage a concert of his orchestral music in 1963 and to broadcast and record it. With Captain Beefheart, Zappa recorded some songs under the name of The Soots. They were rejected by Dot Records for having “no commercial potential” a verdict Zappa subsequently quoted on the sleeve of Freak Out!
“These Mothers is crazy. You can tell by their clothes. One guy wears beads and they all smell bad. We were gonna get them for a dance after the basketball game but my best pal warned me you can never tell how many will show up…sometimes the guy in the fur coat doesn’t show up and sometimes he does show up only he brings a big bunch of crazy people with him and they dance all over the place. None of the kids at my school like these Mothers…specially since my teacher told us what the words to their songs meant.
Salt Lake City, Utah.
I think it’s really tragic when people get serious about stuff. It’s such an absurdity to take anything really seriously … I make an honest attempt not to take anything seriously: I worked that attitude out about the time I was eighteen, I mean, what does it all mean when you get right down to it, what’s the story here? Being alive is so weird. (As quoted in No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa (1972) by David Walley, p. 4)
Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best… (Lyrics to the song Packard Goose on the album Joe’s Garage: Act III (19 November 1979))
- Frank Zappa: Dumb All Over (uglicoyote.wordpress.com)