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It was in California where Frank developed his interest in explosives, as he already had learned how to make gunpowder at the age of six (24). While Frank was reloading a used firework tube between his legs with some of his "secret formula" (which consisted mainly of filed Ping-Pong ball dust and single-shot caps), he accidentally pressed down too hard on the single shot caps, and they ignited, nearly rendering him unable to have children, as well as making a small crater in the floor and blowing the doors open (26).
Frank did not learn from this, however. It would not be until he and some friends managed to fill some paper cups with solid rocket fuel and stink bomb powder, and started fires all throughout the school on open house night that would make him stop. This ingenious act got him expelled, and brought an end to Frank’s "scientific career" (27).
Aside from exploding things, Frank also had an interest in music, when at the age of twelve he began to get interested in the drums. In 1956 he was playing the drums for a rhythm-and-blues band called the Ramblers, but he was eventually fired because the other members of the band complained that he "played the cymbals too much" (29-30)
Another musical interest of his was Edgard Varèse, a man who, according to Frank, looked like a mad scientist. His music contained sirens, snare drums, bass drums, and even a lion’s roar. Frank absolutely loved it (31-32). Aside from Varèse, Frank also liked Stravinsky, for he had bought The Rite of Spring performed by "The World-Wide Symphony Orchestra," and he loved that almost as much as he loved Varèse.
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After completing high school, in 1959 Frank went to Chaffey College and he studied music theory there for six months (The Sixties 805). The real reason for him going to college, however, was not for an education. He went to college to meet girls, and that he did. He met a young woman named Kay Sherman, and they soon dropped out of school (Zappa 39). They started living together, and not long after, the two were married (40).
Only a couple years later the marriage fell apart and Frank filed for divorce and then moved into Studio Z, in a deal he made with a friend who was in financial trouble (43). He made fourteen dollars a week playing a gig on weekends in a town eighty miles from where he lived. The money made went towards the purchase of peanut butter, bread and cigarettes (44).
"In 1964, Zappa joined the Soul Giants, which, under his tutelage, would become the Muthers, then the Mothers, and, finally, the Mothers of Invention." Freak Out! was the group’s first album and was released in 1966. With songs such as "Go Cry on Someone Else’s Shoulder" and "Who Are the Brain Police?" it poked fun at pop songs and took a swing at politics. Although satirical and "musically impeccable," Freak Out! was not a commercial success. Three years after the release of Freak Out!, the Mothers of Invention released their second album, Absolutely Free. It contained a song called "Plastic People" "which illustrates Zappa’s philosophical perspective. Plasticity (or phoniness) applies to the establishment, counterculture, listeners, and even Zappa himself" (The Sixties 805).
Frank Zappa was a master of this kind of social satire, and no one was to be left out, for his "satire revolves through 360 degrees; there is no way to stay out of the line of fire" (Watson 81). Indeed, Frank Zappa’s music has probably offended many groups of people including men, women, gays, Jews, Catholics, televangelists, the list goes on and on. Although it can be disputed, his most offensive song is most likely "Bobby Brown Goes Down" from his 1979 album, Sheik Yerbouti on which he is dressed up as an Arabian Sheik on the front. "Bobby Brown" is a sexual satire poking fun at American men, jocks in particular. The song was never widely played in the United States due to the amount of censorship it would need, but it was a hit in Europe, even reaching number one in Norway. Zappa claimed that the worldwide success of Sheik Yerbouti was due to the cover art, but there’s no doubt that "Bobby Brown Goes Down" was a major factor in making Sheik Yerbouti Zappa's most commercially viable album selling 1.6 million units worldwide (Watson 349-350). Another factor in Sheik Yerbouti's success was the disco smash "Dancin' Fool," Zappa's highest charting hit at the time, later to be surpassed by his 1982 "Valley Girl" which reached the top 40 (Talevsky 341).
It was songs like Frank Zappa's that would stir up controversy in the realm of politics in the mid 1980's, even thought Frank himself was not actually one of the targets. It all started when Tipper Gore "bought her eight-year-old daughter a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince's Purple Rain–an R-rated film which had already generated considerable controversy for its sexual content." Mrs. Gore was taken aback when her young daughter "pointed out a reference to masturbation in a song called ‘Darling Nikki.’" Tipper got together with some of "her Washington housewife friends," and created the Parents’ Music Resource Center, more commonly known as the PMRC (Zappa 261).
Frank Zappa, along with John Denver, and Dee Snider, the lead singer of Twisted Sister, testified in a September 1985 Senate Commerce Committee hearing "scheduled on the deleterious effects of rock music on its listeners." After the hearing Frank started a campaign across America to alert people of the fact that the PMRC was trying to violate the music industry's First Amendment Right of free speech, which included appearances on TV, at college campuses and on radio talk shows (Ward 619). When talking about Tipper and her friends, Zappa once said, "These ladies want to get laws passed that will prohibit you from being able to buy whatever kind of music you like, especially if you have the bad luck to be a teenager." The Senate testimony and campaigning obviously worked, because the PMRC was only able to get the music industry to agree to put a "Parental Advisory" sticker on albums instead of a rating system, much like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system (620).
Frank was already one step ahead of the PMRC, though. In 1983, MCA agreed to distribute one of Frank's albums, Thing-Fish, on his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, but backed out of the deal because a woman in quality control heard it and became offended. As a response to this, in 1984 he made his own sticker:
This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress.
In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums. We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American.
As an alternative to these government-supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant), Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary.
The language and concepts herein are GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND THE POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.
This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ).
If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us. (Zappa 279)
Frank Zappa's musical interest did not lie solely in rock music. Although he is mostly noted for his skills as a rock musician, the only Grammy he ever won was for his 1986 album called Jazz from Hell (Talevsky 341). Alongside jazz, Mr. Zappa, with his influences of Varèse, Stravinsky and Webern, was also a composer of contemporary classical music. The classical music industry, however, was not very kind to him.
"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." This quote, off of the 1979 album Joe's Garage (Zappa 141) is one of Zappa's more famous, and for Frank, music was anything but love in the classical music arena. When he started out he "used to love putting little black dots on music paper." Nothing could wrench him from his chair besides the urge of hunger and the call of nature. The incentive to do so was lost, though, when he had to deal with symphony orchestras (142).
For Frank Zappa, being a composer was not cheap. It might not have cost him a whole lot to produce his music, but he would have to pay a significant amount of money to hire a copyist, a person who copied verbatim each instrument's score. A result of five years' work, a closet full of orchestral scores cost Frank around $300,000 in copyist fees (145). The only way the scores would ever be heard was if an orchestra was hired to play, which costs an even greater sum of money (146).
On numerous occasions Frank got the raw deal when it came to getting his music performed. The first of these occasions was when the promoters of his Austrian rock concerts thought it would be a good idea for him to have some of his work played by the Vienna Symphony. Austrian TV had pledged $300,000 for rehearsal and equipment, but they backed out of the deal, as it still was not a written contract because the money was pledged by mistake, and was needed for other TV projects (146). Frank's manager went all around Europe in an last-ditch attempt to rake together 300,000 bucks, but was to no avail, and after money Frank spent on his manager to travel as well as the copyist fees, he was down $125,000 (147). In another orchestral mishap, Frank lost another $250,000 after a cancellation of a concert in Amsterdam (150). Frank did not seem to learn his lesson, though, and he would eventually get to record the London Symphony Orchestra in a hall with such bad acoustics and players that the recording "was going to be the first multitrack digital recording of a symphony orchestra–ever" (152).
On reason for the music from the London Symphony was the fact that there was a bar for the exclusive use of the band members. This undoubtedly strengthened Frank's views against alcohol and drugs. To many people's surprise, he was anti-drug and only socially smoked marijuana on about ten occasions in the 1960's. Someone once asked him why he smoked cigarettes if he was so anti-drug, and he replied by saying, "to me, a cigarette is food." Frank was constantly asked about drug use because people would not believe that a person so weird was not on drugs (229).
Returning to the discussion of Frank's private life, Frank remarried in 1967 after the first tour with the Mothers of Invention. He married a "fascinating little vixen" named Adelaide Gail Sloatmen, who usually goes by her middle name Gail. Frank was due to go on tour in Europe a few days after the marriage, and had no time to get Gail a wedding ring, so he pinned a ball point pen on her wedding dress instead, because that's all he had at the time (81). Not long after the marriage, the couple's first daughter was born in New York, and her name was Moon Unit Zappa (244), more commonly called just simply "Moon" by Frank. Their next child, a son, Dweezil was named after a funny-shaped toe of Gail’s that was nicknamed a "Dweezil." The nurse in the delivery room did not approve of this name and did everything she could to persuade Mr. and Mrs. Zappa to choose a different name for the child, so to avoid complicating things, they did. Dweezil was actually born Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa. When he was five years old, Mr. Zappa hired an attorney to get Ian Donald Calvin Euclid's name legally changed to Dweezil.
Frank and Gail's next son was named Ahmet. He was premature and delivered by C-section. While the nurse was wheeling him out of the delivery room, Frank noticed that he was not breathing. Had it not been for his watchful eye, Ahmet would have died, as he had hyaline membrane disease, and one of his lungs had collapsed. His fourth and last child, and youngest daughter was named Diva, and "got her name because she was the loudest baby in the hospital" (246).
Life at the Zappa household was "like a dude ranch or something." Their house was occupied by Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva, as well as their friends, who collectively ate all the food before Frank got the chance to get to it. He was left eating peanut butter with a spoon, for the bread was devoured before he had a chance to get to it as well. Of course there was other food in the house, but it had to be cooked, and no one, especially Frank had the time, or in his case, the ability to cook it (253).
In 1982 Frank and fourteen-year-old Moon Unit collaborated on the greatest hit that Frank ever released in the United States called "Valley Girl" from the album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. "Valley Girl" showcases Moon on vocals imitating the pattern of speech used by teenage girls in California's San Fernando Valley. Moon had picked up some of the "Val-speak" she had heard in malls, at school, parties, and bar mitzvahs. Frank took her into a recording studio, and she did all the Val-speak while Frank sang an "Okay fine, fer sure, fer sure" chorus. Newsweek magazine called the song "a word-perfect portrait of the ultimate Valley Girl." The song "introduced listeners to such Valley Girl words as ‘grody’ (disgusting, from grotesque) and ‘tubular’ (excellent, originally used to describe a great wave) and the typically verge-of-nausea expressions ‘gag me with a spoon’ and ‘barf me out’" (Stern 546).
Moon said she did the song for the purpose of the amusement of her family and friends, but they were not the only ones amused. "Valley Girls and the way they walked and talked became the pet fad of the summer of 1982," and by that fall, there was even a Valley Girl in a TV sitcom called "Square Pegs" (546-547).
Some of Frank's other songs were also influenced by the Californian way of life. The song "San Ber'dino" contains references to an occasion that he got thrown into jail when he was arrested for making an audio tape with a female acquaintance for an undercover detective disguised as a used car salesman looking for an erotic tape. The tape contained "bogus grunts and squeaky bedsprings," from which Frank spent all night editing out laughs. Regardless of the fact that everything on the tape was manufactured, and "there was no actual sex involved", Frank was charged with "conspiracy to commit pornography." For this crime, he was eligible for twenty years behind bars, but luckily he only spent ten days in a holding tank with only one shower for forty-four men (Zappa 56-60).
Frank Zappa met an untimely end when he died from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. He was fifty-two years old. Frank left behind a wife he very much adored, and four children who meant the world to him. Even Al and Tipper Gore gave the Zappa family their condolences. Alice Cooper, a protege of Frank said, "Everybody that was considered a genius, from the Beatles to Brian Wilson, looked to Zappa as the genius." At the time of his death, Frank had a catalog of around sixty albums. He even once "framed his own legacy" when he said, "I don't do anything for applause. Everything I do is for laughs" (People 125). In 1995 Frank would be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame located in Cleveland, Ohio (Talevsky 339).
Throughout his career as a musician and composer, Frank Zappa generated a considerable amount of criticism for his varied music styles, and in many cases raunchy lyrics. He was not afraid to go against mainstream society, and rebel against conformity. Frank Zappa was truly one of the great supporters of democracy of the twentieth century. To further prove this point, after the fall of communism in Europe, the Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel invited Frank to come to his country and speak on the subjects of politics and social issues (Talevsky 341). Not only was he an advocator of free speech and expression, he took the musical limits to the extremes by crossing musical boundaries and mixing musical styles, while at the same time questioning the ethics of the people involved in American politics, and American society as a whole (The Sixties 806).
Obviously, Frank Zappa would never be as influential a person such as the Greek Philosophers, nor would he have been as much of a step forward in democracy as our Founding Fathers. He would, however, become recognized as a man who pushed the envelope of democracy, simultaneously defending the Constitution of the United States of America against people's personal interests and ideas of how society should be. Frank Zappa held a mirror up to society and showed society how it really was.
December 21, 1941
Frank Vincent Zappa is born.
The Zappa family moves to California.
Frank plays drums for a band called the Ramblers.
Frank enters attends college for the express purpose of meeting girls.
Frank spends ten days in jail for "conspiring to commit pornography."
Frank joins a band called the Soul Giants which evolves into the Mothers of Invention.
The Mothers of Invention’s first album, Freak Out! is released.
Frank marries Adelaide Gail Sloatman.
The Mothers of Invention release Absolutely Free featuring the song "Plastic People."
Frank’s promoter of Austrian rock concerts talks about a concert with the Vienna Symphony ending up in financial loss for Mr. Zappa.
Sheik Yerbouti released featuring songs "Bobby Brown Goes Down" and "Dancin’ Fool."
Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch released featuring the highest charting Zappa song, Valley Girl, with his daughter Moon Unit on vocals.
Frank makes his own warning sticker for his album Thing-Fish.
Tipper Gore founds the Parents’ Music Research Center, Frank testifies in front of a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on the matter of offensive lyrics in rock albums.
December 4, 1993
Frank Zappa dies of prostate cancer.
Frank Zappa gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Sixties In America Vol. III. Pasadena: Salem Press. 1999. 805-806
Stern, Jane and Michael. Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. New York:
Talevski, Nick. Talevsky Encyclopedia of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. West Port: Greenwood Press, 1998.
"Tribute: Father of Invention" People 20 December 1993: 125
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker. Rock of Ages. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Watson, Ben. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialects of Poodle Play. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Zappa, Frank and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York: Poseidon Press, 1989.