August 2, 2021

Zappa, the avant-garde musician who laughed at the counterculture

VALENCIA. There are many reasons why Frank Zappa (1940, Baltimore – 1993, Los Angeles) awakens mixed feelings. He was an admirable figure for his insatiable hunger for innovation; for his inveterate commitment to his own ideas (even if they put him against the rest of the world); for his radical commitment to art. At the same time, at times one feels a certain resentment for a character who, in words and deeds, was often extremely vehement and lacking in empathy. He was not an easy person, nor did he pretend.

His life and his career is fascinating because, as his “unofficial” biographer points out Manuel de la Fuente, “Is a character who explains very well the history of 20th century popular culture. He participated in all the ideological, social and cultural battles of his time, from the early sixties, with the Californian freak scene, until the nineties ”.

Musically, Zappa broke down many barriers and slammed open many windows. He was not orthodox, neither as a rock musician nor as a contemporary composer. Practically self-taught and still possessing a very advanced knowledge of music theory and the interiorities of the music of other cultures, he dared to mix everything -blues, jazz, rock, contemporary, electronic, country, doo-wop- and to pass the pure genres and the distinctions between high and low culture by the Arc de Triomphe. He always moved according to his own rules. All his music was clothed in sarcastic humor, and no one was safe from his stings.

Manuel de la Fuente, professor of Audiovisual Communication at the University of Valencia, has spent twenty years analyzing the figure of the North American musician, producer, film director and businessman, to which we must add the tagline of “cultural and political agitator”. “Zappa did not express his feelings, but his opinions Manuel de la Fuente tells us. Studying his music and his interviews (he granted many) is a means of explaining the history of censorship, conflicts with the music industry or the political drift of his country at different times in history ”.

In addition to the biography Music refuses to die: Frank Zappa (Alianza Editorial, 2021), this expert was responsible for translating Frank Zappa’s autobiography into Spanish and the one later written by his secretary Pauline Butcher. In addition to organizing conferences and lectures, he is the author of the essay Frank Zappa in hell. Rock as a mobilization for political dissent (2006). With all this Zappa literature behind him, what does this biography bring up again? “Until now there were only partial approximations to his figure,” he explains. Without any intention of criticizing them, I think they lacked context. In addition, I provide some unpublished data, quotes and new approaches that will be of interest to those who already know Zappa in depth ”.

The book has an informative style and tells many interesting anecdotes for those who are introduced to the figure of the musician for the first time. For example, their disagreements with the Velvet Underground, with whom they shared a seal (a story that confirms the little understanding that existed between the musical scenes of the East and West Coast in the late sixties and early seventies). Their multiple vendettas in the form of a song, like the one he “gave” to Bowie when he wanted to steal guitarist Adrian Belew. It is easy to detect the retrograde mannerism of “Be in my video”, where he mocks songs by the British musician such as “Let’s Dance”. It’s also interesting to learn more about Zappa’s highs and lows relationship with his teenage friend, Don Glen Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, to whom he produced such wonderful records as Trout Mask Replica (1969). Or about how he was the only one who believed in Alice Cooper, whose theatrical rock proposal had a clear antecedent in his mentor.

Zappa’s ideology

Zappa was a game changer, but not in the way you’d expect from a typical rock musician. He was very critical of hippism and thought it was naive and hypocritical to pretend that street demonstrations could change things. “He said how could there be a counterculture in a country that has no culture,” points out Manuel de la Fuente. Was a staunch individualist, and that is why it escapes all labels. He laughed at countercultural phenomena and identified himself as a pragmatic conservative. It was not an anti-system. He criticized the management of politicians in the United States, but said that it was the best country to live in. He said that neoliberal policies had to be watched because they impoverished the educational system and made the population stupider. For him, demolishing the system was silly; what people had to do was study, work, raise their cultural level and exercise the right to vote. He defended low taxes and the existence of a little interventionist state. And he fought the communists as much as he fought Reagan. He had a very articulate speech of his own. He was not a member of any specific party, he was rather a signaller of stupidity and a defender of common sense.. His objective was to flee from all dogmas and defend the critical spirit ”.

If you get high, you’re out

Besides, Zappa was probably the only inhabitant of the Laurel Canyon hills who never took drugs. “His stance against drugs was sustained throughout his life, already in the midst of the hippie movement in California in the sixties. At that moment, he says that hippies are daddy’s children who go to communes to have sex, get high, and when the money runs out, they go home. He claimed that the CIA used them by facilitating access to drugs so that young people would not fight the system. The same thing that was said before about heroin in the Basque Country. He defended the legalization of drugs and consumption in the private sphere, so that at least it would be obligatory to pay taxes. But at the time of creating, I thought that being high would nullify you. He required his musicians to stay focused. In fact, he fired several of them when he saw that they were not performing 100%. This stance against drugs was very striking at the time and is the reason why, in his opinion, he never became truly famous. Another reason was his mockery of the Beatles ”. (His album We’re only in it for the money It was a very cheeky parody of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the Liverpool quartet).

Zappa used mockery as a distancing strategy. But the truth is he did not leave a puppet with a head. He messed with the Beatles in the sixties; with disco culture in the 70s; with Michael Jackson (“and his ridiculous little nose”) and the new wave scene in the 80s. He put a leg to everything that moved, be it Carlos Santana or Bowie. At times, the mockery as dissent seem rather similar tantrums to those of the insufferable “offended” of social networks, only in their case they gave artistic fruits of much more substance. Manuel de la Fuente disagrees: “He didn’t really mess with everyone. He respected the Rolling Stones. He parodied Bob Dylan a bit, but only at first. Let’s say he messed with movements that he believed were against the system for the wrong reasons, like the punk movement. He criticized those who claim to defend the general interest, but who steal and only serve their interests. For example, he messed with MTV for not looking after the interests of artists and for not giving them freedom ”.

His great “loves”: Varèse and Stravinski

His musical career, recorded in dozens of records, had many milestones. Since the creation of the first concept album in history (Freak Out!, 1966) to his collaborations with contemporary classical composers such as Boulez or Slonimsky. “He considered himself a contemporary composer, and in fact before rock he tried to dedicate himself to it. His greatest idols were Edgard Varèse and Stravinsky. He felt closer to the avant-garde composers of the early 20th century than to the rockers of his time. He started writing scores for orchestral at 14, while his first rock song was composed at 22. He realized that to reach a mass audience he had to switch to rock. That is why he did not have in his repertoire typical three-minute songs, but suites where the melody, the tempo and the rhythm changed all the time. Zappa erased all expressive boundaries. He understood that the distinction between rock and contemporary classical was pure marketing. He did not care about genres, but about musical expression ”.

This inclination for orchestral music did not prevent him from organizing some hooliganism before the stiff public of the classical music auditoriums. As the playback The betrayal he carried out in 1984 with the EAR Unit chamber orchestra – and which even the Los Angeles Times critic did not notice – to show “that no one finds out about shit at a contemporary music concert.” “The cult music scene is a joke,” he argued. It is a system that survives based on cadaverous music, performed by corpses for corpses “. Despite these kinds of statements, “Zappa is a respected musician in the classical music scene. Mehta and Boulez said he was the only rock musician who understood their language”.

Owner of his own music

Zappa fought from the beginning for ownership of the master of his records, which of course he produced. He set up his own labels and had no problem considering himself an entrepreneur as well as a composer. “He was the boss, the one who hired the musicians, closed the concerts and supervised the release dates or the designs of the album covers. He was the total artist. I wanted to control all the phases of the creative process ”. He refused to give in to record companies, which is why he had disputes with some of them, like Warner. “He was an employer of musicians, whom he chose by virtue of the needs he had at all times, like Miles Davis did. His works are not collaborative. It is the work of some kind of dictator”.

Consequently, his discipline was ironclad. “He didn’t do the typical thing to rehearse for two weeks and go on tour. Maybe it took four months of rehearsals. His musicians had to learn a repertoire of about a hundred songs, all complicated, and he never gave them the set list of each concert, which was different every night. I decided half an hour before the performance. I wanted each night to be a unique experience for the viewer. He was the first to perform with an audience; his concerts mixed surrealism, dadaism, vaudeville. Groups like The Residents first, and Mr. Bungle later, clearly took note of this approach.

Another peculiarity of Zappa had to do with his modus operandi for recording discs. The usual thing is to release an album and go on tour to promote it. He, however, wrote songs that later he premiered in concerts, which he always recorded. At the same time, he published albums in which he used songs from different live performances. Later he incorporated all kinds of sounds and excerpts from conversations with his musicians and interviews with the media. “In his discography there is no distinction between studio and live albums. Everything is combined. The underlying idea was always to break the listener’s expectations ”.

Zappa died of prostate cancer very young, at age 52. If he were still alive he would be 81 years old. What would it be like in 2021? Had their constant desire to produce, innovate and provoke found a limit? “He always adhered to technological innovations, and had a vision of the future,” points out Manuel de la Fuente. In the 80s he presented a project to a businessman to distribute songs through television and the telephone connection. The only thing against which he was very much against was piracy ”. In the 1990s, after the FBI ignored his complaints about the sale of bootlegs (illegal copies) of his records, he decided to fight back, publishing unofficial records himself without changing the cover. You don’t play with Zappa.

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