Rant ‘N’ Roll: Frank Zappa Is Back

I’m so Zapped. Awash in the squirrelly humor, the odd time signatures, the lunacy and carnivalesque—almost otherworldly—soundscape that was and is Frank Zappa (1940-1993), I’m agog at this artist’s audacity to push all the right buttons on mankind.

It took years but Frank Zappa’s music is back where it once belonged: in the hands of the Zappa Family Trust. Zappa was incredibly prolific. In 1979 and 1981, he put out five albums each year. The agreement signed in June with Universal Music Enterprises is to put out 12 Frank Zappa albums every month until all 60 albums are back out there staring at you from the bins of record stores (yes, there are still neighborhood record stores, a fact that is celebrated on the third Saturday of every April and called National Record Store Day) just like he’s staring out at you from this very column right now. Zappa can see you.

There’s a reason his son Dweezil Zappa has been so successful with his amazing Zappa Plays Zappa tours. This music sticks to the roof of your brain and doesn’t let go. Like a pit bull’s bite. You want esoteric jazz rock fusion? You got it. You want hilarious comedy skits? You got it. You want profane nasty-ass shock value on the side? You got it. You just want some left-of-center oddball rock ‘n’ roll? Man, do you ever got it! I dare say there has never been anybody like Frank Zappa before or since and may never be. How much you want to bet that Tom Waits and Randy Newman must have been fans of Frank Zappa?

On the live Bongo Fury (1975), “Debra Kadabra” combines Howling Wolf with Spike Jones. The former influenced a generation of British bluesmen and the latter, dead since ’65, was famous for satirical and whacky arrangements of popular songs. Zappa’s avant-garde theatrical approach persists in what must have been one hell of a surrealistic concert night involving beat poetry, blurting trumpets, hippie freakiness, prog rock, jazz and country music novelty.

The Grand Wazoo (1972) is stunning in its jazz rock fusion complexity. Zappa In New York Live (1978) is over-the-top fun (“Titties And Beer,” anyone?). Dale Bozzio, as the devil, plays with his pickle while Zappa cracks wise. In fact, Zappa seems to crack wise about everything. The ultimate hippie, Zappa makes fun of hippies. The ultimate serious musician, he makes fun of serious musicians. On Zoot Allures (1976), “Black Napkins” starts out as incredible blues rock but veers off into prog fusion. In “The Torture Never Stops,” Zappa sings, “Rats and snot and vomit on the floor/ A sinister midget with a bucket and a mop where the blood goes down the drain.” Don’t ask. But you do hear the screams.

Sleep Dirt (1979) is fusion. Apostrophe (1974) is simply uncategorizable.

Posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995, Frank Zappa wore many a hat: composer, musician, band leader, filmmaker, cultural icon, funny man and political guru to the Mad magazine generation. Let us not forget that when those ridiculous Washington D.C. wives had too much time on their hands in 1985 and formed the laughable Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to put warning stickers on albums and go after Prince, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna for corrupting the morals of our precious youth, it was Frank Zappa who testified before congress to stop the madness and say, “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”

I would vote for Frank Zappa.