Reconsidering Frank Zappa
In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.
I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.
He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.
But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”
Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.