Saturday, September 22, 2012

It's Frank Zappa Day

September 19th is officially designated as Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore, the city where Frank grew up, before his family moved to the west coast of the US and he eventually settled in Los Angeles.  Two years ago, I happened to be in Baltimore on business and as usual I checked to see what was on while I was there. The announcement of a statue unveiling grabbed my attention straight away:

"FREE Outdoor Festival and Tribute Concert Featuring DWEEZIL ZAPPA AND ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA.
On September 19th, the city of Baltimore will dedicate a monument to the memory and cultural impact of the legendary Frank Zappa".

To me, Frank Zappa is a complete one-off; a man whose unique musical vision was formed by early exposure to obscure and, to most ears, impenetrable sounds at the extremes of classical and jazz - with a garnish of doo-wop.  I'm pretty sure that from an early age he would have been seen, and seen himself, as an outsider. His family lived in a series of small towns and this sense of cultural isolation contributed to his singular vision. He remained a maverick throughout his life, which is why I think he deserves greater recognition, not just for the enormous catalogue of music he created, but for the purity of his vision. He was driven to create and although he understood the 'business' of music very well, his music was unaffected by commercial considerations. He did what he did and some of it was successful, artistically and commercially. Some of it was only successful artistically and, yes, some of it was artistically and politically questionable. But musically, the proof of his worth as a composer and his skills as a band leader are the sheer number of virtuoso musicians who have come through his ranks. Only Miles Davis could beat him in that regard.

Percussionist Ruth Underwood
said of Frank, "there was always more music..". He never stopped working and writing out manuscripts for the band to work on. If you are a musician and you want a fuller appreciation of Frank's oeuvre, it is essential to read 'The Real Frank Zappa Book', his autobiography. In it, he details the unusual inspiration he found in the music of Varese and Stravinsky and of his early musical efforts in cahoots with schoolfriend Donny Vliet (Captain Beefheart).  Frank also writes about how the Mothers of Invention evolved their act, via a 6-month residency at a club in New York. The book provides the cointext and a greater understanding of how Frank came to create those early Mothers records - the arrangements, the little filligree passages, the tape looping, the orchestral interludes. There is so much in there.

Here is Ruth explaining the richness of her relationship with Frank:

So anyway, on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, I grabbed a cab out to the Highlandtown suburb. My driver was a lovely Nigerian guy who played Fela Kuti and explained the stories behind each of the songs.  Highlandtown is an ordinary featureless suburb, but for this day at least it got a spruce-up. The sidewalk bushes had been fitted with larger than life dental floss containers. Pictures of FZ were hanging from all the lamp-posts, and best of all, the main street running through the town had been renamed 'Frank Zappa Way'.
The official bit was mercifully short. Gail Zappa, Frank's wife, made a speech reminding everyone that Frank had stated ‘if you want to get laid, go to college, but if you want an education, go to the library’. So it was fitting that his bust would be unveiled outside the community library in the place of his birth.

Gail, Ahmet, Dweezil, Diva - and Frank
Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made the official proclamation, then invited Gail to unveil the statue topped by a bust of FZ. Curiously, the bronze bust was donated by artists from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where apparently Zappa was a beacon of freedom of expression during the Soviet occupation.
Over by the denil floss bush

The other members of the Zappa clan included daughter Diva and son Ahmet. All were openly moved by the honour and respect being shown to Frank. Then Dweezil and the band paid their own respects with a two hour set that ran as follows:

Stinkfoot / Florentine Pogen / Broken Hearts Are For Assholes / Easy Meat / Keep It Greasy / City Of Tiny Lights / Echidna's Arf For You / Don't Eat The Yellow Snow / Blessed Relief / Big Swifty / Apostrophe / RDNZL / I'm The Slime / Dinah Moe Humm

You want some more? Well here's some more.....The following clip starts with the unveiling of the statue and continues with highlights from the set by Zappa Plays Zappa

Spooky - Frank's ghost appears front centre

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