The Zen Of Zappa
For Dweezil, playing Frank’s works is a threefold mission.
By TIMOTHY FINN -
The Kansas City Star
Published in the Kansas City Star - October 19, 2006
To perform the slightest of moments in the three-hour “Zappa Plays Zappa” show, Dweezil Zappa spent more than six months in intensive training.
“There’s a passage in ‘Black Page,’ which is generally known as one of Frank’s more difficult pieces,” Zappa told The Star recently. “The melody is beautiful, but the rhythms are very challenging. This passage is incredibly fast; it goes by in less than a second. But a tremendous amount of notes happen and not just in straight time.
“For that one passage, I spent six to seven months learning to play it slowly then get up to tempo. I’d play like seven hours a day until I could play it on command. It’s the kind of thing that would drive most people insane.”
Instead Zappa has driven himself elsewhere: to a state of deep respect for the large body of work left behind by his father, Frank Zappa, who died of cancer in December 1993. His purpose in reviving “Frank’s compositions,” Zappa said, is threefold: to deliver them to longtime fans; to create new or younger fans; and to reconstitute his father’s reputation, which hasn’t always been given its just due.
“The misperceptions about him come from his popular songs,” Zappa said. “Those were the songs that had a sense of humor, like ‘Yellow Snow’ or ‘Valley Girl,’ ‘Bobby Brown’ and ‘Dancing Fool,’ stuff like that. So people with a tiny exposure to Frank through those songs think of him as a Weird Al Yankovic character.
“A lot of people think of him as a wacky guy with kids with wacky names who didn’t take things too seriously. That couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to his love for music and the dedication he had for it. The guy made over 75 albums in 40 years with the most incredible amount of diversity and variety and complexity.”
The “Zappa Plays Zappa” concept has been around for a while, Zappa said, but it wasn’t aired in public until this year, when he took the show to Europe. Before that, he had to re-enlist members of his father’s old band — Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock — train some younger musicians “from the ground up, like Frank did,” and learn some of his father’s extraordinary techniques.
To accomplish that last part, Zappa had to retrain himself — intensively.
“I took two years doing nothing but studying Frank’s music and changing my guitar style in order to play some very difficult things on guitar that weren’t meant to be played on guitar. They were written for keyboards and marimba,” he said. “It was kind of like training for the Olympics. At times it was like getting into the realm of stunt guitar.”
Authenticity was vital, he said, to dismiss any notion that this show was some nostalgia-novelty act.
“It started off with a lot of people being cynical about whether if it happened, it would probably suck,” he said. “A lot of people figured I’d put a band together with former band members of Frank’s, and I’d come in and pretend to be Frank and play a guitar solo here and there. That was very cynical and silly to imagine I’d do that. I dedicated a lot of time and effort into getting all the details right and in putting a band together.”
At venues that have the right equipment and systems, ZPZ plays along to old footage of Frank Zappa in performance. It doesn’t happen at every show, but when it does, Zappa said, the sight of Frank performing live has an unexpected effect on the crowd.
“The first time we did it, we expected people would erupt in a big cheer and get excited,” he said. “But it’s more of a chilly, emotional experience. People look at Frank all wide-eyed and quiet — it’s kind of bizarre. I guess most of them never saw Frank, and there he is, playing an improvised guitar solo, and we’re backing him up.”
If the image of Frank doesn’t appear, his son has done his best to make sure people in the crowd can close their eyes and imagine he’s there, right down to a certain split second of one particular song.