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Frank Zappa and the Mothers
By Michael Dalton
One of my favorite moments in the U2 video “Window in the Skies” is a young Frank Zappa—guitar in hand— conducting his band with his free hand while keeping time with the music. At the last second he points to someone, giving them their cue. That may not be unusual for the conductor of a symphony, but it’s not so common for the leader of a rock band. But that was Frank: conductor, musician, composer, producer, filmmaker and even a political spokesperson at the end of his life as he fought against censorship in music.
Zappa was clearly in control of every aspect of his music, however complex, unconventional and even vulgar that it may have been at times. Being a perfectionist, he demanded a lot from the musicians that had to rise to excellence under his leadership. He became a great guitarist, frequently engaged in pointed satire, and his music was original and innovative, encompassing rock, jazz, pop and even classical.
My first exposure to his songs may have been Hot Rats, his first solo effort released on October 10, 1969. Years before I remembering seeing a picture in a music magazine that showed a less than flattering portrait of a group called the Mothers of Invention, originally just the Mothers. Zappa’s record company thought it would be too scandalous to release an album by a band called the Mothers.
Being a solo effort, Hot Rats was a departure from the music of his band. It was instrumental but for one song, “Willie the Pimp,” sung in a seedy-voice—seemingly made for the song—by his friend Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart. The recording featured long extended jams between Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty and Ian Underwood. An Amazon editorial review notes that it was a “slickly-produced album—one of the first 16 track recordings made.” It showed Zappa as a serious artist, composer, and producer.
One of the impressive things about “Willie the Pimp” is how the well the sound and vocals convey the sense of sleaze conjured-up by the subject matter. The percussion includes the chattering of something wooden, and Jean-Luc Ponty’s violin fits the melody like a glove. Zappa punctuates the verses with guitar-playing that sounds like bursts of fire from a machine gun. When Beefheart finishes his last wild-man rasps, Zappa launches-out on a long extended solo that keeps building in intensity.
This was probably the song that led me to explore his early work. Being in Junior High, I couldn’t fully appreciate what I was discovering. The innovation, humor and the novelty intrigued me, but I wasn’t mature enough to care about the social commentary.
Some of his early work must have been a response to his frustration and disdain with society’s values. I imagine, that like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, he saw that all was vanity, a chasing after the wind. There had to be more to life than getting a job, raising a family, having a pool and watching TV at night. Frank must have seen the hollowness of pursuing material things, even if he couldn’t escape it himself, or offer a better alternative.
It didn’t take long for the Mothers to become a favorite with my friends and I, and my parents recognized it. One day my dad came home from work and said something like, “Guess who is coming to town?” I couldn’t believe it when he told me that Frank Zappa and the Mothers were coming to the Municipal Auditorium right here in Eureka, CA. I was ready to ascribe him with god-like powers. It may have been my first concert.
I sat in the balcony at the “Muni” with my friends, Michael and Roger. Frank came out in gold pants and a short-sleeve shirt. His band included two former Turtles on vocals, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who became known as “The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie" (later shortened to "Flo and Eddie").
My friends and I had latched on to one of those early rebel-against-the-establishment songs called, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.” We liked its craziness both lyrically and musically. We hatched a plot to shout the name of the song during a pause, in hopes of getting it played, though we knew that the chances of that were slim. It was an old song. Nevertheless, on the count of three we shouted it out, which got a laugh from the crowd … and maybe even Frank.
In addition to hearing humorous songs like “Mud Shark” and a blistering instrumental version of “Willie the Pimp,” the band launched into the old Turtles hit “Happy Together.” It shows me that Frank could appreciate a good song, even if it was something as disposal as pop music.
I appreciated my parents letting me go to an event that I considered so important. I was glad that they indulged my taste for Zappa’s music. I still remember being sick at home and my dad walking into my room and handing me Zappa’s latest, Chunga’s Revenge. Another time, I can remember the delight of finding Uncle Meat hidden away in the closet—a future present.
Uncle Meat had one of my favorite songs. “The Air” had a speeded-up lead vocal—an early Zappa trick—a doo wap sound, and funny lyrics. The last part is sung in a funny accent. The fact that it’s all done so seriously just adds to the humor. It’s a shame that humor seems to be so scarce in music today. We need it more than ever.
Zappa’s humor went beyond his music. My dad used to bring his friends into my room and show them a large poster that I had of Frank seated on a toilet, looking up at the camera, with the words PHI ZAPPA KRAPPA displayed across the top. Since he, and some of his friends, were former fraternity members, it was a tourist attraction that was almost sure to get a laugh. I think he got more of a kick out of that poster than I did.
Though his outlook might have been dark and twisted at times, colored by the ugly realities of life, Zappa succeeded in sharing his own artistic vision. He wasn’t afraid to express what he saw. It reminds me of what F. W. Boreham wrote in the book I Forgot to Say.
“Let each painter, each preacher, each person whose duty it is to write a newspaper article or lead a Christian assembly to the Throne of Grace, realize that his view of God and of Humanity and of the Universe is essentially an individualistic view. He sees as nobody else sees. He must therefore paint or preach or pray or write as nobody else does. He must be himself: must see with his own eyes and utter that vision in the terms of his own personality. He must, as Rudyard Kipling would have said, paint the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are. And, expressing his naked and transparent soul by means of his palette, his pulpit or his pen, he will find sooner or later—sooner rather than later—that truth, like wisdom, is justified of all her children.”
Zappa once said, “Being honest is very out of fashion.” He had no tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption. He believed that people were basically bad, and had become good at killing each other. He thought that if there was a God, he messed-up in a big way when he created people.
As a Christian, I too should have little tolerance for hypocrisy, especially in my own life. John, the aged apostle of Jesus, said near the end of his life, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4 ESV). In my better moments, I realize that it’s not enough for me just to agree with the truth, I must embody it, just like Jesus did when he walked the earth. It’s tremendously satisfying when we are able to express the truth through our individuality.
Steve Taylor once satirically sang, “I want to be a clone.” Thankfully, that’s not what God is after. God is glorified in and delights in our uniqueness. Maybe like Steve Taylor, Frank was showing us that we don’t have to fit into the world’s concepts of what we should be. How much better it is to fill the original mold that God has designed for each one of us. That comes through walking in relationship with Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.
I wonder if Frank might have thought differently about God, if he met someone who like Jesus, was a genuine model of truth and grace. In one of the last videos of Frank, he mentions how impressed he was with a man who was visiting him at that moment. Frank saw a wholeness or maturity that he liked.
If Frank had met the historical Jesus, he would have seen the most fully developed person to walk this earth. Jesus had no guile or deceit. There was no hypocrisy. Yet he was willing to give up his unsullied wholeness—which could either attract or repel others—to take our sins upon Himself. I would hope that Frank would have been attracted by what he saw in Jesus.
Jesus died on the cross so
that we could find a measure of freedom in this life—and complete freedom
in the life to come—from the built-in futility and corruption of this world.
What a difference it might have made, if Frank could have experienced that
freedom. Instead of just seeing a twisted and sordid world, he could have
seen the face of Christ and reflected it in a way that only he could.
That’s the challenge for us who seek to follow in Christ’s steps.