The mention of the name Frank Zappa brings to mind an image, not so much of a man, but of sheer musical lunacy. At first listen, Zappa’s discography consists of a bizarre combination of toilet humor, ‘50’s doo-wop, free jazz and heavy metal guitar. But upon closer inspection, Zappa’s music isn’t even that easy to categorize.
“People like to pigeonhole Frank’s music and place it alongside someone like Weird Al Yankovic’s music,” says Dweezil Zappa, son of the legendary Frank Zappa, in a phone interview with Xpress. “But it was so much more than that. That may be four or five albums worth of material that he did, but he still has 67 other album’s worth of music.”
In fact, the elder Zappa released over 70 albums worth of music in his lifetime. But many — particularly those who knew his work only casually — remember Zappa the satirist, not Zappa the composer.
That’s where Zappa Plays Zappa comes in. Started just last year, the revival features Dweezil Zappa and ex-members of Frank Zappa’s various bands from years past. The tour aims to not only remind people why the word genius was thrown around so often to describe Frank Zappa’s music, but also to educate newer listeners to the madcap musical stew that is Frank Zappa’s catalogue. It’s a fitting tribute to the performer, who died in 1993.
“There’s no appreciation for musicianship anymore,” laments Dweezil Zappa. “Kids watch MTV, and they know nothing about the history of music. This tour is way to show people a small sampling of what Frank’s music was all about.”
An accomplished musician himself, Dweezil Zappa has released eight albums, both as a solo artist and as a member of the band Z. He’s also branched out from music, appearing in films such as Pretty in Pink and The Running Man. Again, he shows a little of his father’s leanings: Frank Zappa appeared on television shows such as Dance Fever and Saturday Night Live, often playing things straight and relying upon the audience to realize the subversive nature of his sense of humor.
“That’s something Frank did that was so wonderful,” notes Zappa. “If you put yourself out there in the mainstream, people are going to pay attention to you, and if you are unique, it can’t help but to be subversive.”
Subversive or not, Frank Zappa’s music was always something that caused listeners to think, and more often than not, to laugh. A performer who once titled a live album Does Humor Belong in Music?, Zappa’s forays into pseudo-comedy songs were popular amongst non-fans, but it’s something that Zappa Plays Zappa tends to shy away from.
“We aren’t doing many of those songs because Frank had such a unique voice that really guided those songs, and we felt like we couldn’t do those songs proper justice,” says Zappa.
Doing the songs justice is exactly what Zappa Plays Zappa seems to be all about.
“We’ve been rehearsing for a while, and we learned so many songs for this tour,” Zappa says. “Frank wrote all of his music out, and scored it. When the sheet music wasn’t available [to us], [the band] learned the songs from the original master tapes.”
Just learning the songs isn’t enough for Zappa Plays Zappa. Each night, the band is joined on stage by a special guest: Frank Zappa himself.
“We have a few songs that we perform where Frank plays with the band,” notes Zappa. “We have old concert footage of Frank playing the songs we’re playing, so it’s a unique way to present him and his music together.”
Although the concept brings to mind the duets that Natalie Cole performed with her famous father, Nat “King” Cole, Zappa Plays Zappa is anything but a hokey gimmick designed to tug heartstrings and impress audio engineers. Zappa’s postmortem performances with his son and ex-bandmates come across as tasteful and emotional without being contrived. They also show who the real star of the show is.
On a night where, musically speaking, anything goes, Dweezil Zappa likes to apply the simple lessons that his father and his music taught him years ago.
“Frank always said that anything was possible, even with music,” recalls Zappa. “Listen to his album Freak Out!. That album is 40 years old, and it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Can you imagine a world where everyone listened to Frank’s music?”
His smile seems apparent-even over the phone.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
Zappa Plays Zappa performs at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. $30/$38/$47. 251-5505 or www.ticketmaster.com