When I heard the news last month that the former Adelaide Gail Sloatman had died, my first thought was, “She must have had an interesting adulthood!”
Known as Gail Zappa at the time of her Oct. 7 passing, she was the widow of Frank Zappa, married for 26 years to one of the truly unique artists to perform in the rock and roll genre. Her husband exited life a couple decades ago, in his early 50s, but his wife’s passing caused me to reflect again on a musician who at one time was one of my favorites — there are few artists/groups in my iTunes Artist list with more albums under their names than Zappa.
The founder of the Mothers of Invention was so unique, in fact, that you couldn’t call him a rock musician — I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked it, for one thing. A self-taught musical genius who strove to be a serious composer and instrumentalist, he recorded in the rock genre but also produced works that were less accessible than one would expect from what is, at the bottom line, popular music.
Doing some research online revealed plenty I didn’t know about Zappa, but some of those tidbits helped explain the man, his philosophies and his music. He played guitar on most of his recordings, but his first instrumental interest was percussion, which accounts for some of the unusual rhythms in his works. For instance, the piece on “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” during which each musician is playing in a different time signature, most of them of the seldom-used variety.
A doctor treated his youthful sinus/nasal problems by placing a radioactive pellet in his nostrils, perhaps explaining some of the imagery in his music and album covers. Attending several different high schools and getting in trouble for boredom-induced misbehavior no doubt help inspire an antipathy to formal education — he pulled his four children, Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet and Diva, out of school at age 15 — and growing up in musically-diverse southern California sparked an interest in many types of music.
A high school friendship with Don Vliet — later known as Captain Beefheart, and also a musical polymath — fed that interest, and no doubt influenced Zappa’s satirical bent. Zappa perhaps would have been anti-authoritarian and a free speech advocate regardless, but an arrest in a vice squad sting operation — he was offered money to make a pornographic film, but instead produced an audiotape simulating a sexual encounter — and brief stint in jail, probably confirmed those tendencies.
Zappa had played in a local band, the Blackouts, before graduating from high school in 1958. In 1965, he was invited to join a band that he soon renamed the Mothers (later the Mothers of Invention). But in between, he had begun composing orchestral music and made something of a living doing motion picture soundtracks. I may have seen him on TV during that period; he appeared on Steve Allen’s excellent late night TV show, which I watched regularly as a teenager, playing a bicycle as a musical instrument.
Other than that, I first encountered Zappa’s music in the late 1960s, probably exposed to it by Radio Free Madison, the FM station in Wisconsin’s capital city. I suppose the first cuts I heard were from “Freak Out,” the 1966 LP that was the first record album for Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and it’s follow-up, “Absolutely Free.” A small circle of friends who were Mothers fans shared those albums.
My first FZ album was “Lumpy Gravy,” an orchestral work that included bizarre narration and avant-garde studio editing techniques that followed “Absolutely,” and pushed the envelope even further. So did “We’re Only in It for the Money,” but then came “Cruising with Ruben & the Jets,” which harkened back to Zappa’s doo-wop influences.
The “Ruben & the Jets” album cover featured a cartoon of the band, with Zappa saying, “Is this the Mothers of Invention recording under a different name in a last ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?” That was a theme that recurred in the Mothers’ albums and their packaging, part of the mythological vocabulary Zappa created — the Mud Shark, Uncle Meat, the Grand Wazoo, etc. His album covers all seemed to bear a quote from 20th century serious music composer Edgar Varése.
The complaint about lack of airplay, whether sincere or facetious, proved true for a nearly a decade. Zappa sold a lot of albums, but none of them went gold until 1974’s “Apostrophe,” which included his first Top 100 single, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” He only had three Top 100 singles after that, the highest charting being “Valley Girl,” which featured his daughter, Moon.
By that time, Zappa had lost me. Those songs seemed like novelty music; his albums, while no doubt excellent in musicianship and recording technique, didn’t seem to have the edge of his earlier recordings. Not that they weren’t provocative, but “Camarillo Brillo” and “Dinah Moe Humm” seemed raunchy for raunchiness’ sake; “Cosmik Debris” and “Montana” just seemed silly.
My favorite FZ album is 1969’s “Hot Rats,” which was a solo Zappa venture, although one of the other musicians performing on it, Ian Underwood, was a member of the Mothers. The LP’s high point for me is “The Gumbo Variations,” with its catchy, driving theme that recurs in amazing solos by Zappa, violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Underwood on sax. But most of the rest of the cuts are intriguing compositions, all instrumentals except for “Willie the Pimp,” which features a vocal by Beefheart.
Most of my other Zappa albums are from that same period, and feature similarly interesting compositions, along with at least one callback to his doo-wop and rhythm and blues roots on each. Zappa recorded his concerts extensively, and those albums mostly include one or more live tracks that showcase his and the band’s musicianship. (I saw the Mothers live in the spring of 1971, when Flo and Eddie — former Turtles members Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan — were providing vocals and on-stage antic.)
One of those in my collection, “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” includes a quintessential Zappa moment, of the non-musical variety. Recorded during a Mothers’ concert, right before the encore, an audience member can be heard screaming at a security officer to “take off that uniform before it’s f—king too late.”
After a pregnant pause, Zappa intones, “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourselves!” The audience responds — with applause that starts as a smattering and ends up louder than that given the protestor.
Which kind of sums up the man: an iconoclast creating music for an audience that sometimes couldn’t comprehend what he was playing and saying.