“FZ’s Big Stereo”: Notes on the Situation of Frank Zappa’s Music As Played Live (part one)

A recent NPR piece provides a firm foundation for discussion of what has happened to the music of Frank Zappa since his death. His widow, Gail, took over responsibility for the future of his music, and to this point her stewardship has been contentious and controversial, to say the least. Instead of taking a Sue Mingus-style approach to the care and maintenance of a musical legacy, Gail has opted for haphazard releases of live material (Frank recorded virtually every performance since the early days of the Mothers; just imagine what still waits in the “vault” of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) and a plalanx of lawyers to protect what she sees as the vital interests of the Zappa Family Trust.

The problem for Gail is that her husband’s wishes were more complex.

Not long before his death, Frank told Ike Willis, “‘….if you have any travel plans in the near future, I suggest you com down and see me, things are getting close and I want to talk to you before it’s too late…..Go for the gusto, Ike, if you can keep it alive, go ahead and do it, ’cause I can’t do it anymore.'” (Qtd. in Miles, pp. 378-9) This exchange, held generally as truth despite Gail’s protestations to the contrary, for reasons to be discussed later, has significantly complicated her position. The Zappa Family Trust, established as much to further son Dweezil’s musical career as to promote Frank’s music, now exists in a state of war with Project/Object, a band fronted by Andre Cholmondeley and the aforementioned Ike Willis. The situation allows us to ask pertinent questions about what authenticity actually means, who finally has the right to go out and play this enormously challenging music, and the role played by race in this equation.

I’ve had numerous opportunities to hear both bands in performance. As a lifelong fan of Zappa’s music, to hear it played at all, by anyone, has always been special. It cannot be overstated how difficult it is to play; imagine, for example, a song in thirteen-four time (“Thirteen”), “subdivided 5/8 and 4/4.” Need I say more? But the point is this: There’s immense beauty as well. Just listen to “Watermelon in Easter Hay” for evidence.  If you find yourself wanting to cry, you aren’t alone. Dweezil has admitted he cannot listen to it without tears, and no one could blame him.

For all that, I’d like to comment on some of the marked differences between these two bands. Before we get into this, however, it’s important to pay attention to their lineups. Over the past several ZPZ shows, they were joined by alumni from Frank’s bands. I had the chance to see them with Napoleon Murphy Brock and again with Ray White, and in both cases they provided a literal “voice of authenticity” over arrangements that cleaved closely to Frank’s original scores. To my mind, here we find one of the difficulties ZPZ faces: those arrangements are “boilerplate” in nature; well-played as they are (and they are—no one with ears could ever doubt Dweezil’s ability to shred, and the band he fronts is composed of master musicians), I’ve sometimes felt as though I was listening to specific recordings made by his father.

That approach constricts what Frank used to such enormous effect—”local color,” the general sense of improvisation involving the town, venue, current politics, people in the news. Tight as each of Frank’s bands were, concertgoers could expect every show to include these ideas. Case in point: the final tour in 1988. At around the beginning of the tour, the dubious televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught in a dalliance with a Baton Rouge prostitute; Frank wasted no time announcing it to his audiences, and I was in the crowd at Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh when the band played a revised version of “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” amended to name and shame Swaggart (“I’m Lonesome Cowboy Jim/don’t you get the tip of him/’cause I’m caught in this place….Where’s my prostitute?”).  Everyone in that hall understood there was no band like Zappa’s.

One area which Zappa fearlessly dared to explore was race. Beginning with “Trouble Comin’ Every Day” (Freak Out), with that line, “I’m not black but there are a whole lotta times I wish I could say I’m not white[,]” he forced listeners and audiences to consider questions of race.  His bands were integrated early on, which by itself was a subversive notion even in the later nineteen-sixties since many in the counter-culture had their own troubles concerning race, gender, identity. He had no compunction whatsoever about using the biggest bombs in the English language; one tune, of course, is called “Nig Biz” for a reason, after all. And on that final tour, during “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk,” and the lines “What’s that hangin’ from the neighbor’s tree?/Well it looks like colored folks to me,” Ike Willis struck a pose indicating a hanged man. Even in 1988, that was bold.

This is also a direction ZPZ cannot take, for one reason: with the exception of keyboardist/sax player Sheila Gonzalez, a fine musician and singer (also the closest ZPZ comes to attempting humor), Dweezil’s band is monochromatically white. With their erstwhile guest vocalists, they could have gotten away with racially-oriented tunes; without them, perfoming those pieces would smack of racism. It seems odd to say the least how white ZPZ is.

Those same guest vocalists provided the only historical link to Frank’s bands. Without them, Dweezil himself becomes the only physical link to Frank himself. It would be understandable if listeners felt that was not enough. I use the past tense because as of this writing it seems clear Dweezil has squandered the chance at further collaborations. Neither Napoleon Murphy Brock or Ray White have any inducement, since both felt they were badly treated by Dweezil, and as for Ike Willis, Gail herself has made the situation quite personal and honestly nasty. None of this, of course, was necessary; it’s a product of ego and avarice, self-protection mutated into something deleterious for all involved, and especially for the music concerned.

(Part two forthcoming)

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About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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One Response to “FZ’s Big Stereo”: Notes on the Situation of Frank Zappa’s Music As Played Live (part one)

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