Zappa’s Birthday, Solstice 2013

SOMERVILLE – Last time I did the math, about a minute ago, Frank Zappa ceased living on this plane 20 years ago. I was 36 years old at the time, and I felt it was extremely unjust that one of my heroes had been taken away from me too soon. I had hopes of meeting Frank one day; distant hopes to be sure, but at 36 I thought, “hey, you never know, it could happen.” Like I would have anything meaningful to say to Frank Zappa beyond “dig those shoes, man…”

I wrote a letter to him a few years before that, and not knowing where to send it, I sent it off to Barfko-Swill in Los Angeles and never got a reply. It was a humble note telling him that his music had inspired me to be a composer and that I felt in his debt for the example he set for me, for us, for the world. Something along those lines. Pretty usual stuff, and of course I didn’t expect a reply. I just felt it was important to let him know that there were young composers out there who considered his work critically essential to their own musical vocabulary and style.


James Kraus and I did our annual Zappa Tribute radio show on WZBC in Newton yesterday – you can hear the whole show here for a while until James takes the link down. I spoke with caller who challenged me to play some of the new live material that’s being released by the Zappa family, in particular the Road Tapes, Venue #2 CD that came out this last Hallowe’en, instead of “the same old stuff we’ve all heard a million times.” OK, true, we play from my collection every year, which is limited, and we tend to play the same old tracks we like, but in my defense, this only happens once a year, and unless you’re one of those people out there scouring the ‘net for new Zappa material, none of this stuff is getting played on the air at all, period. Better the good old stuff than no stuff at all; but I get your point, whoever you are, and I promise to take up the challenge to find some juicy tidbits for next year’s show. I’m glad you were listening, and I’d welcome further conversation with you.

You can imagine that, in this interconnected day and age, James and I were able to instantly (or as instantly as possible, given our advanced age and lack of iPhone chops) fact-check any assertions we or our audience made. As a result, I scanned dozens of articles and interviews yesterday, and one stuck in my craw a little and I’d like to address it here for a minute or two.

I play in and arrange for Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys, a local band led by myself and my kid, Johnny Blazes. Among my parental duties, I raised Johnny on Frank’s music, and to date our band has played covers of “Dirty Love” and “Goblin Girl”, the latter this last Hallowe’en of course. Every once in a while I wonder if Gail Zappa is going to come crashing down on us with a cease-and-desist letter, but we don’t play these songs often, so it’s not a big worry.

I do have a problem with the following quote attributed to Gail by NPR:

“Somebody goes out there, plays music — it’s not played very well; it doesn’t sound anything like what the composer intended,” she says. “And they are telling the audience that’s never heard it before that this is Frank Zappa’s music. It’s not. It’s some wretched version of it.”

(from “Frank Zappa: A ‘Lumpy’ Legacy by Joel Rose”, April 9, 2009)

I have a question. I want to know who’s out there stopping all the wretched versions of Bach and Mozart that are getting played by people without licences who certainly aren’t making noises anything like what the composer intended. After a certain point – I would argue the moment immediately after creation – the artist loses control of their work and it becomes a part of the world. Certainly, a composer can travel the world performing their work as intended until they die, in an effort to preserve the original sound and intention of their music; but history teaches us that works that survive the ages change with time. Think hard now: are there recordings of the Mozart Requiem that sound EXACTLY the way Mozart intended it to sound?

Didn’t think so.

Next question: in one hundred years, will people still be able to hear Frank Zappa’s music at all? If so, one what platform, using which technology – or dare I ask, which sense organs? Think carefully before answering.

I’m tempted to put together a Zappa Tribute band just to defy Gail’s assertion that we need a license to rock out on Frank’s music. Stay tuned.