December 4, 2007

December 4 | Frank Zappa

December 21, 1940 - December 4, 1993: Age 52

"If you wind up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest or some guy on TV telling you how to do your shit, then YOU DESERVE IT."

Frank Zappa was a composer, musician, and an artist in many other media as well. I remember as a child being shocked and a little frightened by things I learned about Frank Zappa: for example, there was a poster of him sitting on a toilet, half-naked, pants around his ankles, in almost every bedroom of a certain type of intellectual teenager (watch and hear his thoughts on this in a UK interview). His album covers were disturbing ("Weasels Ripped My Flesh" featured a cartoon of a smiling American guy holding a flesh-ripping weasel to his face). His song titles were disturbing. He gave his children weird names (Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva).

The thing that really bothered me the most was that he was ugly, or so it seemed to me at the time. He wasn't, actually, it was just that in not trying to cultivate a beautiful, acceptable image he (probably inadvertantly) created an image of deliberate personal ugliness. Or so it seemed to a middle-class small-town Canadian girl-child in the 1960s. This truly puzzled and frightened me. It carried, for me, the terrifying vibration of inner freedom.

Music was at the core of what his did, believed, thought, explored, and expressed. As a young man he discovered Edgard Varèse, a very avant-garde contemporary composer. He was so obsessed with Varèse that his mother gave him, as a fifteenth birthday present, permission to call the composer long distance at his home in New York. Unfortunately Varèse was away in Europe at the time but Zappa spoke to his wife, and later received a friendly letter from Varèse himself. He framed the letter and kept it on display for the rest of his life.

Zappa's music was disturbing, intricate, sometimes ugly, often beautiful, always at or near the edge of the current cultural climate. Naturally he insisted on producing his records himself and maintaining artistic control; this paid off in a large output of original, brilliant, and extremely influential musical explorations.

My friend Ken wrote to me last week "All idealism is an attempt to dismiss a specific suffering or struggle from one's experience". Zappa was an anti-idealist. He was brilliant at seeing things exactly as they are, and pointing it out to whomever was interested in hearing what he had to say. During the 1980s he was active in the fight against quasi-censorship of music through "ratings" labels on record albums. See this appearance on Crossfire to see Zappa's style.

It is impossible to "fit" Zappa into a tiny entry like this. My advice is: get on the net and explore. Also, check out what his kids are doing....great things, all four of them.

In 1991 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The prognosis was terminal (as it is for all of us, but his was more terminal than most). He continued to work, focusing on orchestral and synclavier (an early digital synthesizer) works. He died on December 4, 1993.

Finally, a quote from him relevant his current state of non-being: "Well, I believe that those energies and processes exist. I just don't think that they've been adequately described or adequately named yet, because people are too willing to make it all into something that supports a religious theory of one flavor or another. If you start defining these things in nuts-and-bolts scientific terms, people reject it because it's not fun, y'know. It takes some of the romance out of being dead ... because of people's desires to have eternal life and to extend their influence from beyond the grave ... all that Houdini type stuff ... but basically, I think when you're dead ... you're dead. It comes with the territory."

Source: Wikipedia, The Official Frank Zappa Website

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