Rock and Roll Entrepreneur: Frank Zappa's True Legacy

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Rock and Roll Entrepreneur: Frank Zappa's True Legacy


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


Was Frank Zappa, the memorably mustachioed musician who died in 1993 of prostate cancer, rock and roll's answer to Herman Melville? Maybe so, and not just because the Moby-Dick scribe sported some pretty odd facial hair.

Writing about Melville and other American Renaissance writers, Lionel Trilling argued in The Liberal Imagination that our culture is "dialectic" and that our most representative figures "contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions."

Trilling could have been talking about Zappa, who started his career in the mid-1960s as the leader of the Mothers of Invention, one of the first great hippie--or, in the argot of the psychedelic Los Angeles where they were based, freak--bands. Zappa's records never sold especially well, yet he was influential and visible as a cult act and, especially late in his career, as an advocate for free expression. In the mid-'80s, he delivered memorable congressional testimony attacking record labeling schemes proposed by the Parents Music Resource Center, the group founded by Tipper Gore and others interested in policing offensive lyrics in pop music.

In 1990 Vaclav Havel feted him in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia as a hero of freedom; a Zappa tune had given the Czech dissident band the Plastic People of the Universe its name. Not bad for a guy whose best-remembered tunes include "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl."

Zappa was born in Baltimore in 1940 but mostly grew up in Southern California. As he emerges in Barry Miles' new biography, Zappa (Grove Press), he was a mess of contradictions that illuminate tensions at the heart not simply of the counterculture but of the larger mainstream society it reflected. It's easy to see in Zappa the push and pull between the traditional and the new, the commercial and the aesthetic, the bourgeois and the bohemian, that suffused postwar America.

A devotee of the sexual revolution, he remained in many ways an unreconstructed, 1950s male chauvinist pig. Located at the center of drug culture in the '60s and '70s, he loathed drugs and had little respect for even casual users. Though a rock star, he found most rock music contemptible and really wanted to be a jazz and symphonic composer. A demanding bandleader who insisted on a high level of professionalism, he rarely missed an opportunity to screw mates out of touring money or royalties.

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