There was a story Frank Zappa liked to tell about the time in the late '60s when he and the Mothers of Invention were booked, along with Woody Herman's big band, to play a dinner for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.Seeing as these were the same folks who gave out the Grammy Awards each year, it should have been a real prestige gig. But the Baltimore-born Zappa wasn't so flattered once he saw the programs: "Music by Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd. Entertainment by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention."
Sure, he wrote some funny stuff over the years -- songs like "Please Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and " Illinois Enema Bandit" and "Valley Girl." His music could be hysterically funny, even if it did sometimes transgress the bounds of good taste.
But even when he was being funny, Zappa was always totally serious about the music he made. And when he died Saturday, of prostate cancer at age 52, the legacy he left behind went well beyond a few funny songs.
He was born in Baltimore on Dec. 21, 1940, but grew up in California. His first instrument was the drums, but by age 12 he'd switched to guitar.
His wasn't the most auspicious of careers -- he got kicked out of his high school band for smoking -- but once he turned to rock and roll, there was no stopping him.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more versatile or dedicated musician than Frank Zappa. In the 27 years since "Freak Out!" introduced the Mothers of Invention, Zappa churned out some 70-odd titles. Most are still in print -- unlike most rock musicians, whose catalogs are controlled by mega-sized record companies, Zappa owned all of his albums and personally oversaw their conversion to compact disc -- and they still sell steadily despite the fact that he cracked the Top 40 only once in his career.
Sift through those albums and you'll hear nearly every pop style imaginable. Zappa's musical range spanned hard rock, soft rock, R&B, doo-wop, jazz, blues, disco and heavy metal. He also wrote quite a bit that fit no known category, such as the wondrously titled "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask" (take that, Claude Debussy!).
Some of what he wrote was classically simple, and some so difficult that only the most accomplished musicians could hope to handle it. As a result, his albums boasted an astonishing array of talent, including such luminaries as Jack Bruce, Captain Beefheart, Adrian Belew, George Duke, Flo and Eddie, the late Lowell George, Shelly Manne, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tommy Tedesco, Ernie Watts and Steve Vai.
Of course, what people tended to remember about Zappa wasn't the rigor or range of his music, but the wicked sarcasm that often accompanied it. Zappa was as irreverent as he was brilliant and peppered his albums with pointed political and cultural commentary.
Months after the Beatles unleashed their baroque vision of hippie beatitude with "Sgt. Pepper," Zappa and the Mothers responded with the mocking "We're Only In It for the Money." When disco threatened to reduce the whole of pop music into dance-beat drivel, Zappa responded with the acerbic "Sheik Yerbouti" ("shake yer booty," get it?).
Then there was "Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention," bitingly funny response to the "rock porn" hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1985. Who could forget "Porn Wars," in which Zappa used sampled excerpts from the hearings to make his critics seem even more foolish than they did originally? Certainly not Tipper Gore or Susan Baker, founders of the Parents Music Resource Center and frequent targets of Zappa's.
Zappa was a tireless crusader against censorship, and played an enormous role in the fight against rock-bashers and related reactionaries. "I would not be doing what I'm doing today if it wasn't for Frank," said music activist Phyllis Pollock. "This guy put himself on the line so many times. . . . Frank was a really rare person."
Just how rare a person he was became clear when writer Vaclav Havel took over the reins of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Havel personally invited Zappa to visit the newly democratic country, and was even rumored to have asked that the rocker be appointed U.S. ambassador. On Monday Havel expressed sorrow over Zappa's death. "Although he never became an ambassador for Czechoslovakia, he was a friend of our country," Havel said.
In addition to his rock work, Zappa also wrote for symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. This wasn't some "symphonic rock" fakery, either, for Zappa's orchestral writing was as complex and considered as any contemporary composer's. As a result, he had the respect of numerous "serious" musicians, including composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who recorded an album of Zappa's music entitled "The Perfect Stranger." (David Zinman will conduct the Baltimore Symphony in Zappa's "The Perfect Stranger" at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Dec. 16.)
Not bad for a guy who described himself, in the liner notes to "Freak Out!," as "a self-taught musician." But Frank Zappa made a life's work of defying convention and up-ending expectations. And if he did, indeed, teach himself how to play, write and think about music, in the end, he taught his listeners even more.
Prolific Zappa: Some highlights
Frank Zappa was amazingly prolific, releasing more than 75 albums in his 27-year recording career. Here's a look at 10 essential titles:
"Freak Out" (Ryko 40062) 1965. An audacious attack on pop culture, rock complacency and Great Society normality.
"Weasels Ripped My Flesh"(Ryko 10163) 1970. An astonishing agglomeration of styles, running the gamut from hard rock sarcasm to ultra-avant garde experiments.
"Chunga's Revenge" (Ryko 10164) 1970. Great, jazzy instrumentals and the funniest groupie songs ever recorded ("Road Ladies").
"Hot Rats" (Ryko 10066) 1970. Zappa may not have invented jazz rock, but he broadens it here.
"Fillmore East, June 1971" (Ryko 10167) 1971. Zappa's stage show was known for its racy humor and anarchic spirit, both evident here.
"Sheik Yerbouti" (Ryko 40162) 1979. Best-known for disco-bashing "Dancin' Fool," it also includes "Jewish Princess," which earned a rebuke from B'Nai B'rith.
"Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar" (Ryko 10029) 1981. Anyone who thinks guitar solos are boring will have reason to think again after wading through these.
"Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch" (Barking Pumpkin 74235) 1982. Sharp writing and dazzling instrumental work are highlighted, but what really makes this worth hearing is the mall-culture classic "Valley Girl."
"The Perfect Stranger: Boulez Conducts Zappa" (Barking Pumpkin 74242) 1984. As dense and complicated as Zappa's classical compositions can be, the seven chamber pieces here remain approachable.
"Yellow Shark" (Barking Pumpkin 71600) 1993. Even though they boast titles like "Dog Breath Variations" and "G-Spot Tornado," these orchestral compositions are serious pieces.