So much more than a moustache

Source: Yellow Advertiser / / By Mick Ferris /

Frank. Not just any composer – an important one

A few months before his death from cancer in 1993, Frank Zappa was asked in an interview how he would like to be remembered.

Frank. Not just any composer – an important one

“I don’t,” came the direct answer – a strange thing to say considering his prolific output (he released over 60 albums during his lifetime).

Bill and Ted star Alex Winter spent years trying to make a definitive documentary about a man who became a figurehead of the 60s counterculture yet made no secret of his disdain for hippies and drugs. A man who hated US politics yet encouraged his young audiences to register to vote and even seriously considered running for president himself – whose unwavering belief in the right to free speech pitted him against a committee of US senators’ wives intent on having an age classification system for albums and whose reputation in eastern Europe led to a short lived appointment as Czechoslovakia’s Minister for Culture and overseas business – a position he reluctantly stepped down from when the US Government made it clear to Czech President Vaclav Havel that they could either do business with Zappa or them.

Now finally, with cooperation from the Zappa Family Trust, including wife Gail before her own death in 2015, providing unparalleled access to the extensive vault of material, here is an attempt to discover Zappa the man.

The first mistake people make about Frank Zappa is that they think of him as a rock artist. He wasn’t. Zappa was a 20th century classical composer influenced by the work of musique concrete, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky and most notably the percission-led works of Edgard Varese.

He used rock instrumentation in the same way that he did orchestras or later the Synclavier.

His classical works are now performed by orchestras around the world.

It just so happens that he also loved classic 50s doo wop, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.

And, of course, lyrics without any filter. But even that was actually a stand against censorship.

Former band members including Bunk Gardner, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Steve Vai and Mike Keneally attempt to contribute some insight into life as one of Frank’s minions and how he considered musicians to be disposable commodities in the same way Kubrick treated his actors.

Yet despite some still harbouring decades old resentment about how they were discarded once they had outlived their usefulness, all readily admit that working with him was the creative high point of their careers.

Zappa is by no means definitive – it would need at least another 45 minutes running time for that, but Winter certainly reaches the parts other documentaries fail to.

However, that comes at the cost of glossing over some of his glorious 1970s output.

There’s little here that I didn’t know already, but there are revelatory moments such as percussionist Ruth Underwood playing The Black Page on piano and his final stage appearance in 1992 conducting the Ensemble Moderne through his work The Yellow Shark, in particular the orchestral version of G-Sport Tornado from the Grammy winning Synclavier album Jazz From Hell.

Those two instances alone should convince anyone of his classical chops.

There is maybe a little too much time given to his declining health, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss him drilling the Ensemble during rehearsals, even though he seemed on the verge of collapse.

Then there’s Gail’s ecstatic reaction in the audience at the Yellow Shark performance as they give her clearly ailing husband a 15-minute ovation – something he later dismisses with: “There’s no accounting for taste”.

What is clear from this documentary is that Frank could not have lived the life he did without Gail – he certainly couldn’t have launched and run his own label and entire career from the late 70s onwards – and even though he seemed incapable to the outside word of expressing tenderness, he had that with his four kids.

Frank’s final instructions to Gail before his death on December 4, 1993 was to sell it all, get out of the business and buy a beach house.

She didn’t, but that’s a whole other documentary if anyone has the appetite to make it.

The Vaclav Havel Center