When Frank Zappa first appeared on national TV in 1963, he was running a violin bow across a bicycle wheel. He was the front man of the band Mothers of Invention, and their music was, well, weird. He combined several genres, complex instruments, and absurd lyrics (listen to the song Montana, with lyrics about a man raising crops of dental floss).
For some reason, Zappa isn’t one of the musicians that many people talk about these days. He passed away in 1993 (from cancer), days before his 53rd birthday. But in that (relatively) short lifespan, he released more than 60 albums, wrote experimental classical music, and made a surrealist film with a rock star puppet… to name a few. Zappa was prolific, eccentric, fearless, and truly one of a kind. And it might have a little something to do with the fact that he was raised in a biohazardous environment, in which his toys were mercury and gas masks.
That’s exactly why he deserves a spotlight…
Between the ‘60s and early ‘90s, with over 60 albums to his credit, Zappa earned a reputation of being an amusing wordsmith, a vulgar nonconformist, and defender of free speech. Heck, he almost became a Czech diplomat. But, like most creative geniuses, behind Zappa’s wit and artistic brilliance was a life of illness, disorder, and dysfunction.
But let’s begin with a little guided imagery, shall we? Imagine for a moment that you’re in Los Angeles. It’s the fall of 1969, and you’ve been invited to the almost mythical yet very real Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. All around you are trees, green lawns, and eccentric-looking homes. You walk up a wooden walkway and head into a dark studio bunker…
The walls of the bunker are covered with self-taken photos of adventurous adult poses and the band, The Mothers of Invention (who had recently just disbanded). And then you see, through a haze of smoke, a scrawny man with no shirt on, his hair in a ponytail, adjusting the dials on his recording equipment – the final tuning to an album that’s nearly finished, called Hot Rats.
The neighborhood he lives in is filled with rock stars – both fresh and seasoned – and parties are a frequent occurrence. In fact, the shirtless man’s neighbors include Jim Morrison, Buffalo Springfield, and Joni Mitchell. But at his place, people know not to smoke grass and fall into pools.
He did occasionally throw the odd shindig or two at house, which came to be known as the famous Log Cabin in Laurel Canyon. But he wasn’t like the rest, the hippies whom he believed had infested the area. No, he didn’t conform to the norm of alcohol and drugs. He was easily bored and tended to boss people around.
He would say things like, “Okay, you guys go over there and write a song about The Roxy.” So, while his rowdy neighbors were partying it up across the street, he was in his basement at four a.m. That’s when and where he would realize that if he played his latest track (Peaches En Regalia) at half-speed, he could overdub some percussion and bass guitar, which, if then speeded back up, gave the tune a cartoon-like finish.
As you can see, Frank Zappa was not like those around him. He wasn’t like most people. The man was almost maniacal in his drive and was truly unique. He could very well have been mad. And his upbringing might have had something to do with it.
You see, he grew up in the Mojave Desert, where his father worked as a chemical warfare specialist at a military facility. He handled poisonous gas during World War II. Little Zappa might as well have spent his childhood in a hazmat suit (he didn’t though). The young child would play games, however, in gas masks, thinking they were space helmets.
As detailed in Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, his father Francis regularly gave him lab equipment, like beakers, flasks, and petri dishes, full of mercury. While “normal” kids were playing with trucks and Barbies, little Zappa toys were harsh elements and gas masks.
To their credit, Zappa’s parents apparently couldn’t afford the standard toys. Zappa once told The Washington Post that his “only toy” was a gas mask. One time, he dissected his “toy” with a can opener. As a result of his environment, he grew up dealing with asthma, frequent earaches, and sinus trouble.
Sure, it can’t be proven as a fact, but I think it’s safe to say that all that exposure to hazardous substances had a detrimental effect on his health. Perhaps his parents weren’t aware, but inhaling mercury can cause respiratory problems, among many other health issues. And, according to Zappa, he “lived in mercury.”
He would pour the stuff on his bedroom floor and smash it with a hammer for fun. Attempts were made to cure the child from his ailments, but the methods were misguided to say the least. Sicilian tradition led his parents to pour hot olive oil in his ears to improve his frequent earaches. In Zappa’s own words, it “hurt like a motherf*****r.”
When it came to “solving” his sinus problems, his parents had a doctor insert radium (the highly toxic chemical) into his sinus cavities with a long wire. The poor kid had to suffer for years at the hands of those who were honestly only trying to help him.
Aside from all the ailments and the hazardous chemicals, Zappa didn’t have a stable home to grow up in. since his father worked for the Department of Defense, the family was constantly moving around, from Maryland to Florida to California. Zappa went to six different high schools by the time he was 15.
Anyone who knows what it’s like to move around a lot knows that getting uprooted like that as often as Zappa was isn’t conducive to lasting friendships. Zappa told The Washington Post, “I didn’t have any friends. I developed an affinity to creeps, and I’ve surrounded myself with them ever since.”
He also had an affinity for classical music. In 1958, when he was 17, Zappa found an unlistenable album by the avant garde composer Edgard Varèse. To Zappa, it was like a soundtrack to his own personality. He fell in love with the composer’s music – pieces that were said to be “the ugliest music in the world.”
He used Varese’s album as an “intelligence test.” When he would play the music for people, and if they liked it (such as his classmate Don Van Vliet, the future Captain Beefheart), then they would be allowed to enter his social circle. But if they didn’t, they were forbidden.
It’s not surprising that Zappa had a liking for chemistry, too. But that doesn’t mean that he would read science books and conduct safe, little experiments. He preferred to blow stuff up. Maybe he was trying to be the Edgard Varese of explosives, but his experiments yielded some pretty ugly results…
In his autobiography, Zappa described the times when he tried to make his own fireworks using powdered ping-pong balls and all kinds of items that children should never be playing with. Technically, this little experiment didn’t blow up in his face. Rather, it exploded next to his groin.
Zappa’s inflammable antics came to a halt when he almost got expelled for starting fires in his San Diego high school with a makeshift mixture that contained rocket fuel. After that colorful incident, he stuck to experimenting with music.
Zappa and school wasn’t a good mix. After high school, he enrolled in two junior colleges. “I had no interest in higher education,” he later wrote. What he knew, though, was that college was where the girls were. He was interested in girls and just didn’t know where else to meet them.
He was into girls and music and became a self-taught musician. He began composing music as a senior in high school and even conducted his school’s orchestra. During his only semester at Chaffey Junior College, he took a course on harmony and wowed the director of the music department.
It was actually in the early ‘50s that Zappa started expressing a passion for music – percussion in particular. After a few lessons, he mastered the basic principles of drumming. He also drifted towards the guitar, finally buying his own at the age of 18.
He wasn’t able to play chords, so he explored the melodic aspects of the instrument instead. It would later become a key element of his music. In his music, the melody always came first. Zappa had his own methods when it came to composing, and that involved how he learned it as well.
He once said, “Want to be a composer? You don’t even have to be able to write it down. If you can think design, you can execute design.” For Zappa, traditional music lessons were an insult to his creativity. What he did, instead, was study and copy the orchestral scores of classic composers by hand.
He copied Stravinsky, Varèse, Webern, and Schoenberg and composed his own chamber music. In 1984, he declared to the members of the ASUC (American Society of University Composers): “I do not belong to your organization. I know nothing about it. I’m not even interested in it.”
Zappa studied advanced music books and read musical scores independently. Soon enough, college proved useless to him, which was especially noticeable once he met and fell in love with a woman named Kay Sherman. The two lovebirds quit school, moved in together, and got married.
Now a married man, Zappa found a string of mundane jobs that sucked the joy out of him. He worked for a greeting card company and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. The weekends were a little better, as he played with a lounge band. Still, they were forced to play boring classics like the Happy Birthday song.
Sooner than later, he quit. He started writing musical scores for low-budget films. Unfortunately for his wife, that wasn’t the only type of scoring he was doing. Zappa was getting a little too friendly with “a buxom redhead named Lorraine Belcher,” as described in the book Tropic of Capricorn.
Sherman had enough, and she divorced him. Around the same time, when he was 23 years old, Zappa decided that the only way to make a dime off his eccentric blues, soul, and doo-wop recordings was doing what Elvis Presley did: get on TV.
Zappa was able to talk his way onto prime-time TV, on The Steve Allen Show, as a leading example of “cylcophone music.” That’s right, he created “music” by plucking and scraping bicycle spokes. Columbia Records didn’t expect that their snappy response to one of his early demos – “no commercial potential” – would be something Zappa would end up using as his mission statement.
Zappa was a zealot of free speech, refusing to call any word obscene. According to his longtime secretary Pauline Butcher, he made one exception: the word “policeman.” Zappa hated authority, especially cops, and especially since he had been arrested by one.
Butcher said, “Frank described it as the worst experience of his life.” In 1965, Zappa was 25, and he had moved into a recording studio in Cucamonga, California, after his divorce from his first wife. Penniless and living on peanut butter sandwiches, Zappa was in no position to turn down cash.
So, when some random guy offered him $100 to make a naughty audiotape, Zappa accepted the offer. He was promptly charged with breaking obscenity laws. As it turns out, the whole thing was a trap. Thanks to his long hair and questionable hygiene, the local authorities assumed he was up to no good and launched an undercover operation.
In court, the judge laughed at the adult audiotape, in which Zappa and a friend could be heard “huffing and puffing, snorting and sighing to evoke a passionate scene.” Still, Zappa was sent to 10 days behind bars. He found himself trapped with 40 other dudes in scorching heat. The whole ordeal left him jaded and “ready to flip the bird at the rest of the world.”
Less than a year later, he was back to focusing on music. In 1966, he formed the band The Mothers of Invention, a group so in tune with his compositional virtuosity that the drummer, Jimmy Carl Black, performed the entire double album, Freak Out!, without even understanding a single note he was playing.
The band’s first single was played on Britain’s Juke Box Jury and is considered to be “the worst record ever made.” But for Zappa, it was basically a compliment. His second wife, Gail Sloatman – whom he married in 1967 – remembers what he was like when she first met him.
“His appearance was very strange when I met him – raggedy T-shirts and wool tuxedo trousers held up by suspenders…and big, huge shoes, very pointy. His strangeness was magnified by his gait, the rhythmic way he moved with articulated joints, like a puppet as if suspended in the air. And he worked all night. I burnt the candle at the other end.”
This was the man who was adding those final touches to the Hot Rats album at 4 a.m. But one important ingredient was still missing: Zappa needed a hit. He’d entered the decade of ‘70s broke and had to change tack. The Mothers of Inventions’ music was so complex that the public simply couldn’t digest it.
It was also a nightmare to perform. According to the sax and reed player, Bunk Gardner, Zappa “was a workaholic.” Gardner explained how they would play 300 songs and had to memorize it all as Zappa wouldn’t let them use music sheets.
To give you a picture of what their live performances were like (and the kind of person Zappa really was), consider this snapshot. At one particular show called Sportzplatz in Berlin, a riot ensued afterward, and people threw eggs, pears, liters of paint, and metal.
Zappa later handed out medals to the band for surviving the incident. But he wasn’t as sympathetic as you may think. Eventually, the nine-member band was surviving on $250 a week between them. When Jimmy Carl Black called to complain about the wages, yelling “the band is starving!” Zappa taped the conversation and released it on the album Uncle Meat.
Zappa booked the Sunset Sound in Hollywood (the studio of Joni Mitchell, The Doors and The Beach Boys) to try a new experiment. He wanted to create an instrumental rock album by mainly jazz musicians. Musicians like Max Bennett, Jean-Luc Ponty, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, as well as the only member of his own band who hung around, his sidekick Ian Underwood.
Hot Rats came out as the ‘70s wrapped up. And it actually did well. It was inventive and seemed spontaneous but was, indeed, fiercely edited. It became a popular album and everyone was playing it. Finally, a jazz album people could digest.
Hot Rats was warmly received in the United States and made the Top Ten in Europe. It was the album that managed to alter Zappa’s image. He was no longer the threatening creep who hated the conventional world. Now, he was the sophisticated musical genius working at the edge of both rock and technology.
To capitalize on his newfound fame, Zappa embarked on a 97-date world tour with a new band. With him were Underwood, jazz keyboardist George Duke and vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles. When he found himself in Hollywood, he reused old Mothers of Invention material to make new records.
They were the kind of records that only “Zappaphiles” took a keen interest in. Other people were reminded that he was still the same old weirdo. He made a record called Burnt Weeny Sandwich (named after his favorite lunch).
But not many people heard his second record, which was mainly live recordings and studio trickery. It was unheard of because the sleeve of the record was so repulsive that some record shops refused to stock it. 10 weeks later, a brand-new record appeared called Chunga’s Revenge, which was a collection of jazz-blues jams and stories of on-tour self-indulgence that he recorded with his traveling band.
Zappa and his second wife, Gail, had four kids and mostly ignored them since he buried himself in work. Gail confessed that the way they were able to preserve their marriage was to talk to each other “as little as possible.”
Zappa was basically allergic to normal people, and the last thing he wanted were normal children. The way he saw it, “The more boring a child is, the more the parents, when showing off the child, receive adulation for being good parents, because they have a tame child-creature in their house.” Zappa and his wife also gave their kids very unusual names, such as Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva. No, this is not a joke.
To make matters, um, worse, Ahmet – in an interview with the Guardian – said his first words were “f*** you.” The Zappa household was basically what every young kid wished their home was like. For instance, the Zappa kids were allowed to use curse words and address their parents by their first names. All the other kids envied their freedom.
But that doesn’t mean that living under the Zappa roof was easy. They still had to abide by his rules. Since the wild musician was nocturnal, “dinner might be pancakes, and breakfast might be beef stroganoff,” as Ahmet recalled. “It was all tailor-made for him.” There was even a point when their dad let a groupie move into their basement, and everyone had to accept it.
What Zappa wanted, Zappa got, more or less. Since he disliked driving, his wife had to pick him up from rehearsals, which would most often be in the dead of night. That also meant having to wake the kids to take them with her (why he didn’t take a cab is beyond me).
Essentially, everything took a backseat to his music, even his children. His daughter, the one named Moon Unit, grew so desperate to see her father that she wrote him a letter, suggesting they “get together professionally.” Since it involved music, he agreed.
Getting together professionally meant they recorded a track together, which ended up being the only Top 40 hit of Zappa’s career, 1982’s Valley Girl. But all his daughter really wanted to spend some time with her father (you hear that, dads?).
This was after Zappa produced his own very, very strange film. Around the turn of the decade, Zappa was busy drafting a movie script – a surrealist fantasy about a rock group’s shenanigans in the fictional town of Centerville. By no means was this a film that had any chance of succeeding.
Zappa, however, thought his film 200 Motels was great. What you should know (since you’re never going to see this film) is that some very big names in the industry were in it (so maybe you will try to find it on YouTube after all). Ringo Starr played “Larry the Dwarf” (who was dressed as Zappa), and Keith Moon was “the Hot Nun.”
The critics gave it the kicking it deserved for its “whimsically impenetrable plotline” and “absurdist sub-Monty Python humor.” As you may have expected, 200 Motels tanked. With the soundtrack’s lyrics all about sex with groupies, the promoter at London’s Albert Hall canceled Zappa’s three scheduled performances of its soundtrack, calling it “filth for filth’s sake.”
Zappa was enraged, calling the woman who runs the place “insane,” “very prude,” and “very sick.” Apparently, she gave him and his band a list of 12 words they couldn’t say on stage, “and one of them was brassiere!”
The mainstream market that had previously embraced his Hot Rats album was now confused by his art-rock movie. But the worst was yet to come. The incident that forever soured his relationship with Britain was about to happen. Zappa was about to experience two major setbacks not only in his career but his health.
Some of his live shows grew even more violent than the one he handed out medals for. On December 4, 1971, Zappa suffered the first of his two serious setbacks. While he and his band were performing at Casino de Montreux in Switzerland, their equipment was destroyed when an audience member started a fire.
It happened to burn down the entire casino. The event was then immortalized in Deep Purple’s song Smoke on the Water. After losing $50,000 worth of equipment that night and taking a week’s break, the band had to play at the Rainbow Theatre in London with rented gear.
During the encore performance that night, an audience member who was jealous because his girlfriend was infatuated with Zappa decided to push Zappa off the stage. He pushed him right into the concrete-floored orchestra pit.
The band truly thought their frontman had just been killed. But he survived, just barely. He suffered serious fractures, head trauma as well as injuries to his back, leg, and neck. He also had a crushed larynx, which caused his voice to drop a third after it eventually healed. Oh, and it left him in a wheelchair for six months.
Zappa’s assailant was jailed for one year for causing “bodily harm.” Thanks to his crushed larynx, his voice got deeper. And one of his legs was now shorter than the other. When he finally returned to the stage in the fall of 1972, he was still wearing a leg brace and had a noticeable limp.
He also couldn’t stand for a long time on stage. As reported by The Telegraph, Zappa viewed humanity with hatred and thought of social interactions as “a waste of time.” When touring, Zappa stayed in separate, nicer hotels. He was said to have looked down on concertgoers since he didn’t think they even understood his music.
Moreover, he didn’t think most people understood most things. He told Rolling Stone once that “People are stupid. They never stop to question things.” It seemed as though he only enjoyed the groupies who slept with him, which he considered “a valuable service.”
He grew intolerable of people. He said his only friends were his family; everyone else simply worked for him. Paste Magazine revealed that at one show in 1978, Zappa ended his performance because one audience member didn’t follow his command to sing along.
It came to a point where the press was confused, even terrified, by Zappa. On the outside, he looked like just another long-haired hippie, but he was far from peace and love. He detested all drugs; his perspective was that it just gives people “a license to be an a**hole.”
Mainstream rock was shallow to him, and he hated love songs. Affection didn’t seem to exist in his life. And the things he said in interviews were borderline insane. For example, when asked about his music, he said, “You can’t write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.” (Have I been learning too much about him or did that statement kind of make sense?).
When asked if his songs were autobiographical, he shrugged and said, “I like recreation… I’m a human being. You go on the road, you strap on a bunch of girls. My wife grumbles every now and then but hey, she’s my wife!”
What did Gail have to say about the wild tales of shagging that appeared on his albums? “Well, if you’re in a rock and roll band and you’re ‘journaling’ your experience, what are you going to write about?” she noted. “But he didn’t write those songs to piss me off. He played them to me and asked me what I thought of them, and I tried to be encouraging.”
Zappa is remembered as much for his wacky, harsh, and odd life as for his exceptional music. Just as he started out with classical music, his life ended with classical music. In 1990, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He actually felt as though something had been wrong with him for years.
His doctors, however, repeatedly failed to spot a problem. When they discovered the tumor, it was already too late, as it couldn’t be operated on. “In order for me to survive, they had to poke a hole in my bladder,” Zappa stated. “I spent more than a year with a hose coming out of my bladder and a bag tied to my leg.”
Where does the classical music come in? Well, while his treatments initially shrank the tumor, it eventually became untreatable. And as he was starting to deteriorate, he still had the will to make more music. He devoted the final years of his life to classical works.
In 1993, he released his final album, The Yellow Shark, which was an orchestral album that musician Tom Waits called “a rich pageant of texture in color” and “the clarity of Zappa’s perfect madness.” Just a few weeks after his album came out, Zappa died. He was 52 years old.
Frank Zappa loved music, but let’s not forget that he considered the music industry to be a “cynical commercial exercise,” according to The Telegraph. Thus, it only makes sense that before he died, he instructed his wife to “sell everything and get out of this horrible business.”
However, Gail did the opposite. She became what Rolling Stone referred to as “the exacting, often litigious gatekeeper of the Zappa family business.” She chose to demand royalties from anyone who played her late husband’s music publicly. She sent cease-and-desist letters to several cover bands, claiming “identity theft.”
Gail even tried to sue a German tribute festival because they used a logo fashioned after Zappa’s facial hair. Whether people considered it overprotectiveness or plain greed, her husband’s legacy didn’t end with her.
Before she died of cancer in 2015, she arranged to divide Zappa’s estate unequally among their four children. She decided to base the amount on who she thought was the most capable of managing it. Ahmet and Diva inherited 30 percent each, while Dweezil and Moon’s Unit received only 20 percent each. It means that Dweezil and Moon need permission from both of their younger siblings to profit from their father’s music or likeness. (Just imagine the sibling fights).