JUKE bugged Zappa’s pr guys, his son, Dweezil, and finally, his notoriously fierce widow, Gail, until we got our wish. JUKE spent an unforgettable day with Gail Zappa in Frank Zappa’s iconic Laurel Canyon estate: home to untold, heyday stories of straight-edge rock ‘n roll craziness and the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, the studio where one perfectionist loon changed music forever, from the inside out.
The house sits in the Hollywood Hills, home to people like Jack Nicholson and David Lynch. I’m here to meet someone perhaps less well known, but no less important. Gail Zappa is Frank Zappa’s widow. That enough would be reason to schlep up the hills. But she’s more than that, of course. She’s also the curator of his estate, a property considerably more valuable than its insurance coverage, and a fierce defender of his legacy.
The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, the place where some of Frank Zappa’s most important records were recorded, sits inside this house. It’s more modest than you might expect from the outside. Much of the space is taken up by a sprawling garden, beautiful stone staircases and, of course, Zappa’s considerable archives. I toured the archives while Diva – Frank and Gails’ youngest daughter – made me a cup of coffee. The basement archive plays host to a labyrinthine collection of Zappa masters, some dating back to the late 1950s.
Zappa’s presence is felt in the house nearly two full decades after his passing from pancreatic cancer, an illness that went unchecked for a decade. An archivist relates his tale of an early faux pas working for the family: He brought beer to a party. Zappa, of course, hated all drugs except coffee and cigarettes; two things he said weren’t drugs but food. “I don’t recommend the diet,” says Gail Zappa, with a sort of dark, mournful humour to her voice. Frank’s diet, which explicitly excluded what he called “chemical refreshment,” isn’t the only influence he maintains on the house. The entire estate could easily be converted into a Zappa museum one day, with not just artefacts and knick-knacks from the patriarch sitting around, but also remembrances of Dweezil’s early guitar days and appearances on cult TV series Duckman.
Gail, a friendly and maternal woman is the head of the Zappa Family Trust, the copyright holder for just about everything related to Frank Zappa. Her sunny exterior sits atop an intense personality. But don’t mistake her affability for weakness. Gail is a mama bear to the core: try starting a Zappa tribute band or using his moustache in your advertising and you’ll know about it, something Gail is unapologetic about. “Copyright laws were started to make sure that people get paid for what they do.” Indeed, in an age when music is traded on the Internet like baseball cards on a playground, the Zappa Family Trust has kept a tight leash on his music.
Still, casual fans might be surprised to hear that Zappa wasn’t a total nazi about controlling his music. In the area of bootlegs in particular, Zappa was a bit of a pioneer, selling official copies of bootlegs. “People are selling it anyway. He was doing the work and someone else was getting paid.” Not only this, but it allowed hardcore fans to hear performance after performance of Zappa live.
It’s not just getting the family’s due that has Gail defending her late husband’s legacy like a pit bull. More than anything, it’s his music. Gail intends to see that every note of Frank’s music is played the way that he intended it and the way that he envisioned it; not the way that someone interprets it. In this sense, she’s asserting Zappa’s position as a composer, rather than a rock musician or guitarist. Frank was always interested in the avant-garde of modern classical music and the last years of his life were largely spent composing classical music.
“We pay strict attention to cover songs to ensure that they’re not diminished.” This goes beyond just merely playing the right notes, in the right order, at the right time. “They have to play the right notes, but they also have to have the same intent.” The question of intent applies not just to the person playing a cover song, but also using Frank’s music in films. “We say ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes’,” she says, continuing to say that his music is “not for commercials or horrid YouTube videos.”
So why is Gail so protective about her late husband’s music? Isn’t it par for the course for musicians – especially dead ones – to sell their music on for everything from car commercials to teen sex comedies? “We want Frank to have the last word about his music and we want people to hear how he intended his music to be heard, not how it’s interpreted by another.” This further underpins Zappa’s status as a composer, as opposed to a mere musician – rock, or otherwise.
Zappa’s compositional skills are apparent as early as Freak Out! While often filed under the “prog” or “fusion” nomenclature, it’s Zappa’s commitment to composition that keeps him from fitting neatly into either camp. Prog concentrated more on showcasing virtuoso musicianship than with creating compositions the likes of classical composers. Fusion’s mannerisms were far too imprecise for Zappa, who created an elaborate system of hand gestures to communicate his musical needs to his musicians.
Nor can Zappa properly be considered a “rock” musician, as such. He was a guitar player, composer and bandleader who often worked in the rock idiom. But Zappa required far more from his musicians than was required in nearly any other rock band. “Frank used to say very clearly: This is not a democracy. You work for me and I work for the audience.” This commitment to a consistent standard of excellence is perhaps best exemplified by Zappa’s famous insistence that all members of his band abstain from drug and alcohol use. “If you were doing drugs, he only had one question for you: Do you want an aisle seat or a window seat?” Gail says, continuing, “It’s very hard to perform consistently well, while on drugs.”
Frank was known for his bizarre, offbeat sense of humour. When asked to describe it in a single word, Gail chooses ‘arcane’: “Some people are into double entendres. Frank was into sextuple entendres.” However far he could take a joke was as far as he was going to take it. His wordplay was a bit like layers of an onion, something that Gail refers to as “multiplicity of understanding.” At the same time, “Frank’s jokes could be about something as dumb as an ice cream cone to the forehead. It was sort of absurdism mixed with dada.”
While Frank had little regard for things like commercialism or organized religion, you’d be wrong if you thought him a snob or elitist. “He wanted more people in on the joke – and the joke is still relevant.” When I ask her what ‘the joke’ is, she smirks ironically and says, “You don’t know?”
The conversation turns to the subject of Frank’s relevance today. While a deeply influential figure – not just in music, but in popular culture, his influence isn’t immediately or superficially obvious. As with most Zappa-related things, you have to dig a little deeper below the surface to truly understand the depth of his contribution to music. While, say, Black Flag might be responsible for crafting the network of underground clubs that grew into alternative venues, Zappa is perhaps the person most responsible for forging the indie rock and DIY aesthetic.
After a long and public war with Warner Bros., Zappa went into business for himself, founding Zappa Records and recording in his own studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. This gave him an unprecedented amount of control over his music, from composition, to recording to packaging. The packaging is an important part of what Gail does today. Anyone who has ever seen a Mothers record knows how important the album art is to the total experience of the album. No longer was Zappa content to make music by committee, letting record producers and (even worse) record company executives determine what his music could and could not sound like. I’m slightly amused when I get home and notice that the copy of Greasy Love Songs Gail gave me comes up as “Indie Rock” when I load it into iTunes.
The Kitchen is still active today, making the Zappa house more than just a mere museum to the past. The archiving and restoration work is certainly nothing to be sneezed at: Zappa’s irreverence applied to his own work and he wasn’t afraid to alter his own masters, something that’s a cause of great frustration for the archivists. More than one UMRK employee uses the phrase “real jobs” when it comes to what they do there. But it’s not just about cataloguing, restoring and preserving Frank’s work. Musicians such as Macy Gray and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC have recorded there in the recent past. In this sense, one can easily see Frank looking down from wherever it is that the dead allegedly look down from – and smiling. His family has been able to continue to use the empire that he build to make something for the musicians of today who are more interested in making great art than they are selling songs for beer commercials.
The Zappa Family Trust is a cottage industry, according to Gail, overseeing all things Zappa. One of the employees of this cottage industry is Joe Travers who has been a Zappa fan since he was 11. It’s not uncommon, if my trip there is any indication, to meet people working for the Zappa family who have been fans most of their lives. In Weiss’s case, he actually got Frank to pose for a picture in 1988, after swindling his way into the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, the picture didn’t turn out, being the 25th shot on a roll of 24. However, the experience is on a video bootleg he found much later in life. Travers attended Berklee (Boston) for performance. The experience of touring and playing with a Zappa, however, he says, is a “school all of its own.” Indeed, Zappa’s high standards for his own musicians is legendary, calling to mind such demanding band leaders as James Brown or George Clinton [see p 126].
Now an archivist, he and Frank have at least one thing in common: A passionate love of music. His eyes light up as he rolls tape on “Stuff Up The Cracks,” a track played at my request off of my favourite Zappa album, Cruisin’ With Reuben and The Jets. We sit in silence as tape rolls, the awkwardness that accompanies such an event entirely absent. We’re not just listening to a Zappa track, we’re listening to it off the soundboards at the UMRK, with a sound system better than nearly anything I’ve ever heard. Forget about all the wacky jokes and fiercely protective attitude of the Zappa family toward its intellectual property: It’s really all about music here at the UMRK. We chat for a second as tape rolls, before the guitar solo kicks in. Weiss politely shushes everyone by pointing out that this is a great solo. And it is. I never would have put it together myself, but aside from being an example of Zappa’s virtuoso skills, it’s also an example of his ability to not just write, but compose. An ordinary guitar player merely use the wah-wah pedal to give his solo a little extra texture and dynamism. Zappa uses it to add the flavour of a man crying about his woman leaving him.
And this is what I take with me as I leave the Zappa mansion. There’s more to music than just the emotional shower you get from listening to something that fits your mood. The nuance and texture of truly great music is the other half of the story. While Zappa’s tastes ranged from the low brow to high culture; he was able to appreciate not only that he liked what he liked, but also why he liked it. His ability to take everything he loved about music, cut it apart and make it into something greater than the sum of its components is why he’ll likely be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come.
By Nicholas Pell for JUKE Vol.04
Photos <a href=”http://http://nathanaelturner.com/”>Nathanael Turner