Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words


I could probably come up with the names of several dozen artists who have hugely influenced popular music (which I define as anything outside of classical), going all the way back to Scott Joplin. But there are only a handful who have been flat-out experimental, and most of them were strictly in jazz, cats like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Other than those, the only ones who I identify with rock music are Annie Lennox, David Bowie, the Beatles post-Sgt. Pepper, and Frank Zappa. (There are probably others; I’m not an authority on pop music.) And of those, Zappa was far and away the most challenging.

I will admit that the outer limits of modern classical music (kind of a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?) left me behind years ago. Composers abandoned melody, harmony, rhythm, and finally even sound itself as the century wore on. John Cage’s 4:33 consists of someone sitting at a piano and not playing it for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. If you have a piano, you can play it yourself! Hell, I play the damn thing every time I sit down at the keyboard. After about 1950, the only classical composers I have really liked are Bernstein, Copland, and P.D.Q. Bach, though I have heard individual pieces that intrigued me.

I will also cheerfully cop to the fact that I don’t understand much of Zappa’s music. It doesn’t move me. I also admit that I have never even heard the great majority of his music. The man made 62 albums while he was alive, and there have been 46 pressed posthumously. I’ll wager only a real student of Zappa’s has heard them all. Love him, or hate him, you have to give him credit for the most outrageously titled music {{ever.} Albums like We’re Only in It for the Money, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Sheik Yerbouti, Have I Offended Someone … just reading the list makes me giggle.

So you can’t call me a fan. But my respect for him is enormous. He followed his own path, crossing over into jazz and modern classical when the impulse struck him. There was no one else on the pop scene who even came close to his stuff. He used dissonance, atonality, microtones and probably a lot of other things I’m not even aware of, stuff that very few people in pop music could even define. He was a true musical genius.

So this film consists of two things. There are bits from many interviews he did over the years. He was incredibly articulate, and quick. And there are bits from some of his performances, backed up by some of the best rock musicians and singers in the world. The performances go all the way back to the early sixties with a bit on the old Steve Allen Show. Frank and Steve were playing bicycles. Yeah, bicycles. You can make a lot of different sounds on a bicycle. He had also instructed the jazz band on the show to play at random, asking them to make sounds not usually associated with their instruments. To top it off, he had left a tape in the control room. The show’s director was told to inject these odd sounds at random. The result? Cacophony, incredibly silly, and a lot of fun. All the way back then, he was already exploring the outer fringes of music. Then came the Mothers of Invention …

Near the end of this film, he is sitting in a chair listening to the percussion section of the orchestra he has hired to perform a piece he wrote many years before. He is already quite ill with the prostate cancer that would soon kill him. He had never even heard this piece! This was the first time. The thing was incredibly hard, with no beat that my ear could find. His eyes were closed. And he was responding to every off-beat note by nodding his head. He had memorized a piece he had never heard. The professional musicians themselves were hard-pressed to play it. Would I like to hear that piece performed again? Not really. But I’m glad I heard it. And I’m very glad we had Frank Zappa, for all too short a time.