Frank in Full
Dweezil Zappa tours to garner his late father some more respect
By GENE ARMSTRONG
Published in Tucson Weekly - August 09, 2007
Dweezil Zappa hopes his second annual Zappa Plays Zappa concert tour will clear up some of the misconceptions the general public maintains about the music of his famous father, Frank.
Among those misconceptions: The elder Zappa was primarily a novelty act-cum-oddball celebrity; that his music was not challenging or artful; that the stream of stellar musicians who apprenticed in his band eclipsed the music.
Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer at 52 in 1993, was a pioneering musician, guitarist, composer and bandleader. His career included music from almost every genre: doo-wop, blues rock, jazz, R&B, orchestral music, avant-garde and seminal electronica and sampled music. He also directed feature films and music videos, and designed album covers.
Dweezil, 37, wants to provide a respectable venue for his father's music, he said in a recent interview. He called the Tucson Weekly from a stop on the tour that will bring him to the Fox Tucson Theatre next Thursday, Aug. 16.
"Part of the process for choosing the songs we're going to play has something to do with my overall mission of re-educating the audience for Frank's music," said Zappa the younger.
"Of course, the main-core audience base has always been there and doesn't need the reintroduction; they just need to hear the music performed again and performed well. But we if want to attract new audiences, younger audiences who will end up listening to Frank's music in the future, they are going to need the tools to understand the music properly."
For the most part, Frank Zappa's music has rarely been understood, or heard, by a mainstream audience, Dweezil said.
"The few songs that were hits on the radio were comedic, and a large part of the general audience, I think, considers him a comedy or a novelty artist, like Weird Al Yankovic or someone. They don't know that he composed and performed classical music or appreciate the wide-ranging nature of what he did. I mean, this is a guy who made some 70 albums of extremely sophisticated music. It wasn't all just 'Titties and Beer' or 'Dancing Fool' or 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow.'"
Frank also became well known in the 1980s and '90s for his political activism. Although he described himself as a "practical conservative" and espoused the virtues of capitalism and entrepreneurship, he rallied against mainstream education, organized religion, mass media and censorship, advocated for free speech and in general communicated a healthy skepticism for politics and institutions.
Dweezil acknowledges his father's outspoken nature, but said it is only a part of the man, and such an emphasis neglects the artist.
"I think that's the other side of the impression that's out there. If you mention the name Frank Zappa to some people, they know almost nothing about him except that he was a character in the media. They think along the lines of the same overused designation of iconoclast. Most people don't understand what they read about him, anyway."
Focusing on his father's music is the main purpose of the tour, said Dweezil, an accomplished guitarist who until recently played in a primarily hard-rock or heavy-metal style. He has seen the release of several albums under his own name during the last 20 years.
"This is not about me or how I play this music. It's about an opportunity to hear Frank's music live on stage. To see and hear it played makes a very different impression, especially when most people today don't bother to concentrate on music any more. They're doing 12 or 15 other things while it plays in the background. They need to have a visceral experience with the music."
Dweezil has spent more than three years carefully studying Frank's music and arrangements to create the ultimate Zappa experience. For the tour last year, he and his band prepared more than 40 tunes, and they learned 30 more for this year's jaunt. They'll draw from that well of material, changing the set list a little each night, he said.
"We're still learning new material. We play on average three hours a night. Last year, we were playing three or four hours. This year, we play just about three hours every night, and it's anywhere between 22 and 26 songs. The length of the show varies according to which songs we put on the set list, and how much improvising we do during the show."
Some longtime fans might be surprised to learn that the Zappa Plays Zappa band is hardly overpopulated with former members of Frank's band. Last year, the tour featured three "special guests" who played with Frank.
This year, FZ veteran guitarist and vocalist Ray White will sit in with Dweezil and a band built from musicians who never played with Frank.
"The whole purpose of this is not to provide a reunion for former members of Frank's bands. They actually just performed the music; they were there, but they didn't have anything to do with creating Frank's vision. History likes to write itself from the perspective of the surviving people.
"This is not about trying to impersonate Frank or to attempt to pull this off and substitute myself into his business. I think Frank's (music) still is very contemporary and appeals to contemporary tastes. ... The music speaks for itself. I invited alumni not because it makes it more authentic, but to please the longtime fans."
Also destined to please longtime fans will be the fact that Frank Zappa will appear on stage via video projected on a large screen. His image will play along with the band on several songs.
Asked about his first experience with his father's music, Dweezil remembered being a young child hearing Frank editing his recordings.
"This was back in the days before computers, when you would do the editing by hand with a tape machine and a razor. To find the right downbeat, you would have to rock the tape back and forth, making this 'worp worp' sound. That's probably my earliest memory of his music, that 'worp worp' sound coming from the basement.
"But the record I first remember is Apostrophe ('), which was released when I was about 5, and which still happens to be one of my favorites. It also had a song about pancakes ("St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast") on it, so you couldn't go wrong."