The son of the Baltimore-born rocker takes on a 'Tour de Frank' to keep his father's funny, bizarre, complex music alive
By JOHNATHAN PITTS
Published on Baltimoresun.com - August 05, 2007
ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. - The early returns say they've been pulling it off. "Of all the tribute bands appearing in rock venues these days," wrote critic Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Zappa Plays Zappa may be the most heartfelt - and the most necessary."
As the sun sets over this outdoor theater in suburban Detroit, Dweezil, in crisp white button-down shirt, guides an organized chaos of vibes and keyboards, belting out a signature Zappa line: "As we jammed in Joe's garage, his mama was screaming, 'Turn it down!'"
Baltimore music fans long ago claimed Frank Zappa as a native son, just as they have Billie Holiday, Ric Ocasek of the Cars and others who lived here for a time before moving on. Zappa was born here in 1940, the son of a Sicilian-born mathematician, Francis Zappa, who worked in chemical warfare research at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Before the family left for California when Frank was 10, images of germ warfare and gas masks - Zappa's dad kept some around the house - had already seeped into his consciousness, only to reappear in songs throughout his career.
If it all sounds like a grisly introduction to life, Dweezil says his father loved returning to his hometown. A longtime member of Frank's security crew also was born here, and the pair often swapped the latest news and inside jokes about Charm City.
Zappa didn't start composing here, but his imagery was often so warped that it wouldn't have been out of place in a John Waters film. His widow, Gail Zappa, says both are "so Baltimore" that someone should create a joint project. Her husband never tired of skewering convention - religious zealotry, fads, government - or of showing the verbal playfulness that gave rise to album titles such as Freak Out! (1966) and Bongo Fury (1975).
Dweezil has visited Baltimore only once, with Z, a band he played in with younger brother Ahmet - but this week he will perform "What's New in Baltimore?" in the show at Rams Head Live Thursday night.
What's more, Mayor Sheila Dixon has declared Aug. 9 Frank Zappa Day.
"What's new in Baltimore?" says Dweezil, quoting the song's lyrics. "I'll have to go back and find out."
Fans will be treated to some poignant moments, including the life-size screening of a video of Frank Zappa jamming to "Cosmik Debris." Father and son go note for note, the past swapping guitar licks with the present.
"That part is thrilling and surreal, but also melancholy," says Dweezil, who was 24 when his father died.
"It's something that's very cool to have in your show," his mother adds. "It's charming and lovely and emotionally difficult for all of us. ... I hear him playing from the soul of his being [in those moments], in the same way Frank did.
"Dweezil, like all of us, feels very connected to Frank. I see [the tour] as a love affair."
If the loss of his father is still painful, one senses Dweezil helps assuage it through immersion. Studying Frank's 16-track master tapes has been like a walk through his dad's creative process.
And that evokes happy memories of a childhood that was, Dweezil says, a lot more normal than some may believe. The Zappa offspring - daughter and eldest child Moon Unit, followed by Dweezil, Ahmet and daughter Diva - have avoided the trouble that celebrity families often face.
Taking after a dad who virulently opposed drug use, Dweezil says he has never been intoxicated or smoked a cigarette. Frank's fanatical work habits kept him in his home studio for long hours when he wasn't traveling, and Gail ran the Zappa business affairs out of the family home. "Our parents were always there," Dweezil says.
It made for memorable times. Once, the kids were playing "Sniglets," a game in which players make up words "that should exist, but don't." Dweezil tried to coin one that captured a person who can't leave the house unless he's wearing a rock-and-roll T-shirt.
"Insignoramus," Frank said without missing a beat.
"Always a fertile mind," says Dweezil.
Zappa all over
It's late in the three-hour show, and as psychedelic lights swirl behind them, Zappa Plays Zappa raises a new cyclone of a beat.
A guitarist, Jamie Kime, cranks up a solo and moves to face Dweezil, who matches him, adding to the evening's kaleidoscope of sound. "A TV dinner by the pool - I'm so glad I finished school," Dweezil sings, his voice echoing his dad's sarcasm, if not his baritone menace.
If the goal is to keep a legacy alive, it seems to be working.
The 10-year old girl down front is dancing. "Zappa lives!" cries a man nearby. Cheers roll down the hillside. The "Freak Out" lives on.