Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Zappa in Memorium

Frank Vincent Zappa, December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993

Because I did one of those "Album Challenges" on Facebook last week, where I visited musical influences from long ago, I feel the need to observe the anniversary of Frank Zappa's passing on Dec 4, 1993, at the age of 52.  Besides, it comes up every year on my iPhone's calendar.  

I often wonder how Zappa will be regarded in the future.  There have been other mysterious or hard-to-pigeonnhole composer/musicians of the past.  Renaissance motet composer Carlo Gesualdo wrote impossibly dissonant music for his time and is said to have murdered his wife.  What could they have thought of him in his time?  Erik Satie, who wrote piano pieces that are at first acquaintance imbecilic, are uniquely transcendent.  John Cage, told by Arnold Schoenberg that his poor instinct for harmony would be a barrier to success, devoted himself to bashing his head against and ultimately through that wall.

As much of a Frank fanboy I am, I don't have a prediction of the future's appreciation of him.  I can't claim to understand his catalogue, not the whole of it.  I saw Zappa perform live when I was barely 14.  (I reviewed it from recollection here.)  Later, at 20, It was hard for me to stomach when he dished out new kinds of gross-out humor, transparently juvenile to me, for the next crop of 14-year-olds.  I also didn't care for how his later writing increasingly incorporated 90's pop trends (at one point there was entirely too much reggae in everything), and his bands were less and less made up of oddball personalities and disparate geniuses from all corners of the musical universe, and more and more of technicians who memorized the notes and collected a paycheck.

But he could write amazing orchestra works with hints of Webern and Stravinsky (200 Motels), while still including the rude saxophone honk here or there and the punctuation of a broken cymbal crash at the end.  He used the occasion of a near-death concert accident in London...only 6 months after I saw him change directions from rock to composing, producing and playing from the wheelchair two fantastic jazz albums (Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo).  As early as 1967 he made electronic and tape-edited music (Lumpy Gravy) that today's computer-assisted electronica artists can only dream of creating.  His credentials as a rocker and guitarist are unquestioned, but his ability to create long-form rock-ensemble pieces like Little House I Used to Live In, Billy the Mountain, and the four-song medley from Apostrophe' (with the infamous Yellow Snow beginning) has no comparison with any other rocker.  He could keep you alternately surprised, smiling, or toe-tapping by hopping from dead-on imitations of broadway musicals to feel-good pop anthems, rock headbangers, abstruse jazz counterpoint or the theme from the Johnny Carson show with an ingenuity equalled only by Spike Jones in the 1940's.

Students at Pomona College once perfectly executed the sight gag of placing ZAPPA along side WAGNER, MOZART and BRAHMS on the frieze of stately and highfalutin' Bridges Auditorium.  While I hold Frank Zappa as dearly as the composers of Parsifal, the Rite of Spring and Concerto for Orchestra, I don't try to place him among them.  It's not a fit, and I don't need there to be one.  The conception of what Frank Zappa "was" is in a future we cannot yet fathom.