GARY STEEL marks what would have been Frank Zappa’s 80th birthday with a little musing on death and records.
You know that blissful moment when you’re listening to a record you really like, and even though the performance it contains took place many years ago it still sounds freshly minted?
A few days ago I was listening to a Horace Silver album and it really came alive. It was as if the musicians were making it up in real-time in my listening room. Silver’s easy way with a piano melody and free-flowing horn lines belie the sophistication and discipline that went into its construction, creating a wonderful illusion that always gives me a lift.
And then I made the mistake of looking at the bios of each individual player on the record. They’re all dead.
This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given the fact that Silver was already in his 40s when in the 1980s I first heard his greatest record, Song For My Father (1964), the title tune of which featured a memorable piano chord that had been “sampled” by Steely Dan for their hit, ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’.
But the revelation that an entire generation of incredible musicians and all that skill and creativity and all those stories had vanished by stealth haunted me for days. The coronavirus claimed a long list of great musicians in 2020, but since the turn of the century, it feels like the vast majority of those whose music I grew up loving have left us.
And the weird thing is that really, these dear departed greats are the first to have left a recorded legacy in glorious hi-fi – expansive discographies of long-playing albums cut on excellent recording equipment so that their music can make it feel like they’re still with us.
Today would have been the 80th birthday of my favourite recording artist, Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993 just prior to what would have been his 53rd birthday on the 21st.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with death because a bunch of my favourite musicians had died young, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Tim Buckley. But something about Zappa seemed to laugh death in the face. He wore a sneer that was a mile wide, and while I’m not particularly a fan of sneerers in general, Zappa turned it into an art form and it was such an integral part of his persona and the body of work (including interviews) that comprised his oeuvre, that it provided a refreshing antidote to all the dumb shit people did and said.
Zappa was the one guy I hoped wouldn’t die young. And while 52 is middle-aged (at least) by most people’s assessments, it felt deeply wrong because he still had so much to do and say. Sometimes, it felt like he was the one sensible, intelligent critical voice in the entertainment spectrum, and when he was gone, for me there was a massive void. Zappa’s keen intellect and ability to cut through the bullshit expressed itself in the copious interviews he conducted and seeped its way through to his music and other projects. In reality, his whole musical/sociological project was a kind of societal critique. But it wasn’t a tidy, politically sensitive critique. It was one that ranged free and lashed out at hypocrisy of all kinds without any sensitivity to the hurt those words might imply. Because, as we all knew back then, sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.
As an overly sensitive teen whose natural sensibilities were more towards the “emotional” end of the musical spectrum, I could have easily taken umbrage at Zappa’s caustic attitude, but I learned to accept it for what it was.
Zappa was a flawed character and I would never pretend that I like all his music, in its vast range and content, although I love some of it with a great passion. But he was a great teacher. He taught me not to take myself too seriously, that heartbreak is pointless, that libraries are better than the education system for learning stuff, that most popular songs confuse lust with love, and that it’s not necessary to agree with everything someone says to appreciate them. He taught me to think critically, that slavish devotion to anyone or anything isn’t healthy. Including Zappa, or any other musician.
On some level, they’re all assholes. Even Zappa. And he knew it.
When Zappa was slowly dying and the cancer was eating away at his bones, instead of hiding away he partied and communed with like-minded friends including film director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and remained open to interview requests.
Very late in the piece he gave an audience to writer Ben Watson whose massive, eccentric tome on Zappa, The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play, he expressed an interest in releasing as an audio document.
During my interview with Zappa in 1990 – after his cancer diagnosis but before the public announcement – he was marvelling at the music of Serbian sheep farmers, and discussing the possibility of starting up a Bauhaus-based cross-disciplinary arts academy in New Zealand. While he was happy to talk about his art, there was little of the usual self-aggrandising stuff that musical celebrities usually feel the need to peddle.
In one of his last interviews he said that he didn’t care if he was remembered and had recommended that his wife, Gail, close the Zappa family business and get on with life. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Instead, there were endless releases of material from the famous Zappa vault, most of which were never intended for release.
I go through weeks, sometimes months, without thinking about Zappa or playing his records. But when I do, they come alive. What a privilege it is to “put a happy platter on the gramophone” and hear the music in all its stereophonic glory. With the accretion of recorded evidence of artistic lives, it’s hard to know whether this is ultimately a good thing. Until the advent of recording, folk traditions were passed down from generation to generation simply by in-person repetition. Notation made the work of the European composers repeatable by anyone who could read and play those little black dots. Recordings can actually capture the sense of things – the vibe in the room, the specific guitar tone of the composer, and so much more.
This can lead to an unhealthy obsession with the past, and of course, music just keeps happening. New generations arise to carry things forward, and music mutates to suit the sensibilities and peccadillos of each successive generation, and with it, the technology that transmits it.
Music itself isn’t dead, and I refuse to take on the old cliché that music was better in the days of my youth. But I love the sound of those albums recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s when recording technology was advancing at a stunning rate and there was a range of views about how a performance was best caught on recording tape.
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It does get harder to connect to the contemporary zeitgeist as one gets older, and that’s as it should be – the passing of the baton, and all that. There are worlds within worlds of exciting music being made in 2020, but for a serial musical magpie like me who likes skipping from genre to genre, it’s become much, much harder to identifying those must-hear items. There’s some solace, then, in the fact that I can easily reach my happy place by exploring nodes within the huge repository of already existant recorded music history. Even if they are all dead.
- Recommended Frank Zappa starter-kit: Absolutely Free (1967) A crazy, anarchic display that gets less press than other early Mothers albums but is the perfect place to start. Uncle Meat (1969) This strange and eclectic album takes ages to fully process but is worth keeping on the backburner, because when it ‘clicks’, it’s a revelation. Hot Rats (1969) An intricate jazz fusion classic. Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970) An ‘offcuts’ album of unreleased madness. The Grand Wazoo (1972) Incredible big band jazz-rock fusion album. One Size Fits All (1975) A densely packed and perfectly realised classic that contains the all-time brilliance of ‘Inca Roads’. Sheik Yerbouti (1979) An energised rock record with loads of vitality and some great guitar. Joe’s Garage (1979) Three discs containing a kind of rock opera about the death of music. Naughty fun. Jazz From Hell (1986) Almost all Synclavier sounds and one of the oddest entries (and lone Grammy winner) in FZ’s catalogue.