Metropolis Magazine
Issue #805 - Friday, Aug 28th, 2009
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310: Speech
309: Santana

By Dan Grunebaum

Zappa Plays Zappa
Dweezil Zappa sparks a reappraisal of his father’s zany but brilliant music 

© 2007 Michael Mesker/Zappa Family Trust

Wasn’t Dweezil Zappa—like myself a child of the ’70s—partial to potty-mouthed Frank Zappa songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” as a kid?

“Not really,” he answers drily on the phone from California. “I had more access to everything he was doing and a broader perspective. A goal of this project is to educate the audience beyond what they think they know, because a lot of people think of my father’s music just as comedy music, like Weird Al Yankovic. And it goes far beyond that.”

The “project” is Dweezil Zappa’s traveling tribute to one of the most incandescent and unusual careers in rock. In a life cut short by cancer in 1993 at age 52, Frank Zappa left an immense body of music that spans notorious outings of rock fusion satire like Joe’s Garage to ambitious classical compositions, and on to films, books—and a political legacy as one of the most outspoken defenders of freedom of speech in recent memory.

Dweezil created Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, and has since shepherded a team of crack musicians (veterans of his father’s band among them) around the world to much acclaim, including a date in Tokyo last year. The plaudits continued in February when Zappa Plays Zappa won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Why launch the project now? “I was thinking about it for a long time, but the question was how to begin,” he reflects. “You just say, ‘I’m going to sit down and learn this stuff.’ I spent two years learning it on my own before I put this band together. The point of that was to make sure it could be done the way I wanted to do it—with the utmost respect. If I couldn’t pull it off up to the standards I thought it required, I wasn’t going to do it at all.”

In addition to gratifying the desires of thousands of aging Zappa fanatics, another motive for the project was to reach a younger audience. “In the way of the world these days, there aren’t a lot of people actually buying the music—they find a way to steal it,” quips Dweezil. “At that point, your only alternative to get people to have respect for the music and understand its importance is to present the music in a live situation.”

Ironically, Frank Zappa foresaw what the digital revolution would do to music, and even tried to get ahead of the curve. “He had a lot to say about it in his Real Frank Zappa Book 20 some odd years ago,” Dweezil recalls. “He tried to register a patent for what ultimately is now iTunes. It could not be done at the time because of the slow data transmission rate. He wanted the highest resolution, not what became MP3s. He had a lot to say about it back in the day and was very much the Nostradamus of rock.”

Frank Zappa will be remembered forever in the mainstream for satirical outings like “Dancing Fool,” as well as his outrageous performances on Saturday Night Live. But, as his appearances in Congress to defend music from the imposition of a ratings system indicated, there was a serious intent behind much of his ribaldry.

“What’s amazing about it is that the songs sound as shocking today as they did at the time they came out,” Dweezil says. “There’s a lot of biting satire. The song ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ is 40 years old, but could be ripped from the headlines today,” he says about Zappa’s barbed missive against greed and conformity.

In addition to the satires on everything from disco to rednecks to hippies, there were also the complex, classically influenced compositions like “Peaches en Regalia,” which garnered Zappa Plays Zappa a Grammy last month. Growing up in Southern California’s sun-drenched suburbs, Frank still managed to come under the spell of experimental composers like Varese and Stockhausen, and improbably combined their influences with the pop culture of the day.

Dweezil’s mission is to represent not only the humor but also the highly challenging work his father created for guitar and symphony orchestra. “The problem is, as soon as you do something funny, they think you do comedy music and don’t take what you do seriously, which is what plagued my dad’s career,” he concludes. “People said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s the guy with the funny songs and the kids with the funny names.’ But they didn’t look beyond that.”

O-East, April 7-8. See concert listings (popular) for details.

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