Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Death
April 26, 2000
In late 1969, when I was a musically-inclined anarchist at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, I sent Frank Zappa a demo tape of songs I had written and performed. I had been a fan of Zappa's music since I was eleven, when his album Freak Out! was released, and I was convinced that he would understand my musical point of view. A couple of months later, Zappa wrote me and asked if we could meet to discuss my tape. I made the pilgrimage to the office of Bizarre Records, his independent label, where I finally encountered my role model and was hit with a barrage of Zen thunderbolts. Zappa liked the tape, but didn't want to produce it until I did more work on it; he thought I might be a good guitar player someday, if I learned to play "honestly"; and by the way, he thought I was "basically horny." I wound up auditioning for him on guitar a year and a half later, and touring with him for three months in 1971. My presence on the tour was complicated by band politics and the difficulties of my relationship with Frank, which had, inevitably, become intimate. I left the tour in New York at the end of the year. For the next four years, Frank Zappa was a constant in my life. He taught me about 20th-century orchestral repertory, let me stay in his basement workroom when I was homeless, taught me how to brew a mean cup of double espresso, and did his valiant best to steer me in the direction of objective reality as he envisioned it. Our relationship reached critical mass in 1975, and we stopped communicating after a horrible argument in which I dimly realized that I wasn't a teenager anymore, and Frank Zappa was no longer my high school hero. In December, 1993, when he died of prostate cancer, I hadn't thought about him in many years, but his death opened the floodgates of memory, and I began writing BEING FRANK: My Time With Frank Zappa (California Classics Books), from which this excerpt is taken. In August, 1972, my parents finally reached the end of their respective ropes with me. One night my father came home from work and sat down in his easy chair with a grim look on his face. He and my mother had obviously been conferring. I didn't wait for the verdict; I went upstairs, packed all of my clothes in an old suitcase and some brown paper bags, then went down and stuck the stuff in the trunk of my 1962 Ford Fairlane. Finally I came back into the house, went into the den, and told my parents goodbye. My mother turned away without speaking. My father looked as if there was something on his mind, but if there was, he didn't say it. I walked out, feeling like the world was ending but not caring if it did because it was such a shitty place. I spent the night at a friend's, and the next day dragged into Frank's rehearsal hall feeling disembodied and unreal. Frank kept a watchful eye on me during the rehearsal, and at the end, I told him I'd been kicked out of my folks' house. He grimaced and shook his head as if he was trying to clear out a few unpleasant memories of his own. "Well," he said, adopting the motherly/fatherly stance he had always used when lecturing me on the facts o' life, "maybe we can find you a cubbyhole." Puzzled, I asked him where. He said that if I'd give him my solemn promise to leave him alone when he was working, I could stay at his place until I found permanent lodgings elsewhere. There was a specific deadline: the band was heading for a short tour of Europe in less than a month, and I'd have to be out of there by then. Frank slept by day and worked by night, and since the windows were covered with heavy shutters, I never was sure what time it was out in the "real" world. Sometimes musicians came and rehearsed, and once a very sweet young German fellow arrived to interview Frank for some existential Euro-journal, but mostly it was just Frank, the dog, and me. I noticed that the basement hadn't changed much, if at all, since my audition there a year earlier. It was still so dim that I stumbled whenever I came in from the daylight. There was all the same gear, in essentially the same locations -- Frank's Scully four-track tape deck, a mixing board, mikes, amps, an arsenal of guitars, endless shelves full of tapes, Frank's intimidating record collection (which ran to about 10,000 items and was duly filed, headed, sub-headed, cross-referenced, and alphabetized), the Coffee Works right next to Frank's work area, and the Bosendorfer eight-foot concert grand. I initially had a problem with Frank's proclivity for working when I would have ordinarily been asleep. I didn't want to complain, so the first couple of nights I tried curling up on the sofa in my sleeping bag with wads of tissues in my ears, but my sleep was fractured by disturbing dreams, especially when he was playing the same piece of tape over and over. Starting about the third night, I found other occupations (working through his copy of Piston's Harmony, relieved now and then with a dip into the racier parts of Boccaccio's Decameron) when Frank was toiling, and finally fell asleep in the morning. If I had a care in the world during this time, it wasn't that there were rapists, Republicans, and songs like the Joy of Cooking's version of "Goin' to Brownsville" in the World Outside -- it was that one of these days somebody from the World Upstairs was going to come downstairs, find me huddled under the piano, and throw me out on my ear. The workroom seemed to be off limits to everybody but Frank; there was a door at the top of the stairs which connected the basement to the rest of the house, but I never saw it opened from the upstairs side by anyone but Frank in the nearly four weeks I was there. I wondered if I should say something to my host about my concerns -- "gee, Frank, did you ask your folks if I could stay here?" -- but a plangent little inner voice warned me that some muddy depths are distinctly better left unplumbed. Then, after I'd finally begun to be lulled into a sense of security by the comfortable if eccentric routine in the basement, one afternoon the murky currents upstairs were apparently disturbed, and the mud shark was roused at last. Dimly, I caught the muffled sound of an argument upstairs. It was only about 1:30 p.m., a little too early in the "morning" for Frank to be up, but I could distinctly make out the sound of his voice. I had everything bundled up and waiting a few minutes later, when the upstairs door slammed hard and Frank came bumping down the stairs. I shuddered, wondering if somebody might not come bumping down after him with a .357 Magnum in their hand, but he was alone, and no one followed him. He was wearing just his jeans, no shirt, no shoes, and his face was an absolute thunderstorm, with green lightning bolts shooting out of his smoldering, almost black, eyes. His anger was so violent that he couldn't speak, although it was plain he was on fire with resentment because his old hobgoblin had attacked: his liberty had been challenged. He sat down heavily in his work chair, unconsciously favoring his bad leg, and glared. I had worked up to telling him that I was going to leave, but when I got a close look at his face, my resolve evaporated. His resentment didn't seem to be directed at me, nor, curiously, toward his wife, but at the situation in general. Before I could say anything, he told me bluntly that I could stay on if I wanted to, that it was all right for me to be there regardless of what I might think. In a state of emotional turmoil, I sat down next to him. I cleared my throat. "Frank, I don't feel good about what just happened. I appreciate your letting me stay here, but I think I should leave." The next minute he took me completely by surprise, seizing my arm and pulling me down with him onto the floor. "Take 'em off," he said, putting his hand on the top button of my jeans. In essence, his message was something like, Look, I just stuck my neck out defending you; show me I did the right thing." Eventually, feeling emotionally drained and more than a little guilty that I'd had sex under those circumstances and enjoyed it, I fell asleep on the sofa. The last thing I remember before I drifted off was Frank leaning over me and gently pulling my blanket up over my cold bare feet. He squeezed my toes a little as he did it, a very sweet and affectionate little gesture. Then he went back to work. He's sure full of surprises , I mused, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Once, when I'd asked him what he dreamed when he was asleep, he'd answered simply, "I live in my dream." When I woke up around dawn, he was still hunched over his orchestra pad. One night Frank put on a record of Stravinsky. It was Les Noces, which I had never heard before. I began asking him questions about Stravinsky and was impressed by his comments on the man and his work. I mentioned L'Histoire du Soldat, my favorite Stravinsky piece, and it turned out to be his favorite too; in fact he had recently performed the narration for a performance by Lukas Foss at the Hollywood Bowl. Out came the well-worn disc from Frank's collection, and we went over it bar by bar. I had heard the music hundreds of times before, but never from this perspective. Without making too big a deal out of it, Frank started to play other records from time to time, works by Webern, Varese, Bartok, and other 20th-century composers he had an affinity with. He would sit beside the stereo in his work chair, sipping coffee and stopping ever so often to comment on something of interest in the music, waving his smoking cigarette like a pointer. The most moving moment in the Mad Maestro's Music Appreciation course came when he played me Bartok's Third Piano Concerto. "The first time I heard the main melody in the first movement of this thing, I almost (now don't laugh) cried," he said with a fierce shyness when he put on the record, just daring me to snicker. It was the farthest thing from my mind; when the theme in question came blasting out through the studio monitors, my throat and chest became so tight with tears -- not of grief, but of awe -- that I couldn't breathe. It seemed to me as if Bartok, in the first few minutes of that first movement, had personified humankind's highest and most exalted potentialities, thrown into noble relief against the shadow of modern horror and disillusionment. There aren't any words for that sort of thing; only music can describe it, and for me, the Third Piano Concerto still describes it more eloquently than anything else I've heard. Looking at Frank, I saw that the main theme -- a rapid, fluent cascade of notes in the Hungarian mode, first stated simply, then developed into awesome multi-dimensonality -- had entirely taken him over. There was none of the usual droll commentary this time. In a trance, his hand tapping out the rhythms on his knee, he leaned forward into the music, so intent on its every nuance that in the ashtray beside him his untouched cigarette slowly burned down to the filter. As the work progressed, he gradually disappeared into it, finally becoming one with Bartok's magnanimous universe, leaving behind the suffocating meanness and mediocrity both composers had struggled so much of their lives to escape.