You still can’t do that onstage

A Zappa primer for the uninitiated

Nearly 14 years after his untimely death from prostate cancer Frank Zappa’s legacy of creative innovation continues to awe and inspire fellow artists and avid listeners around the world. Cited as one of the most influential bodies of work attributable to a modern artist Zappa’s 50-album oeuvre of recordings compositions and interviews is a vast and incalculably complex testament to the twisted genius behind the famous moustache.

The Freak Out ! began in the ’60s when straight out of college the restless iconoclast formed The Mothers of Invention. Zappa’s penchant for physical theatrics and musical improvisation made him a natural performer and the band soon hit their stride. With Absolutely Free and We’re Only in it for the Money they cultivated a small but fervent fan base over three short years. After his solo release Hot Rats Zappa intensified his artistic focus and reinvented The Mothers resulting in the über-bizarre groove-fest Chunga’s Revenge before once again disbanding them.

Things were looking dark and as Zappa himself put it he was “tired of playing for people who clapped for all the wrong reasons.” An equipment-destroying venue fire and an overzealous audience member put a damper on Zappa’s activities just as he was finding a mainstream audience during the tolerant ’70s. In one live performance a fan inexplicably pushed Frank from the stage resulting in a one-year stint in a wheelchair. Turning his infirmity into opportunity the digital pioneer took to the studio to record two more stunning releases Apostrophe and One Size Fits All .

As Zappa’s popularity blossomed he demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated command of different musical styles fusing together elements of classical jazz rock electronic and pop music like no other artist had before. His innate talent for delivering sarcastic and sometimes lewd lyrics combined with his acerbic wit and irreverent spirit put Zappa on the cutting edge of a relatively new medium in an increasingly visual world. His 1979 epic Joe’s Garage prophetically mused about what would happen if music were made illegal. Sure enough the ’80s saw an unapologetic Zappa drawn into politics in order to defend the creative freedoms he so valued. He fought censorship at the highest levels even testifying in front of the U.S. Senate and later described the episode as an encounter with “Mothers of Prevention.”

Despite the popularity of his disco-mocking ’79 hit “Dancin’ Fool” and the equally absurd “Valley Girl” featuring daughter Moon Unit (sibling to Dweezil Ahmet Rodan and Diva) yakking away with that gag-me-with-a-spoon mall-drawl it is Zappa’s lesser-known successes such as composing soundtracks for motion pictures and conducting a 52-piece orchestra that best represent the quality and character of his artistic mettle. Embraced as a classical composer in his later days Zappa demonstrated that he hadn’t lost his edge when he opened 1992’s Yellow Shark performed at the Frankfurt New Music Festival by the Ensemble Modern by instructing the high-brow attendees to “Please direct your underwear to the left side of the stage.”

Dually paying homage to his father’s legacy and showcasing his own musical aptitudes Zappa’s son Dweezil has assembled a host of accomplished players including Frank’s contemporaries Terry Bozzio and Napolean Murphy Brock to join him in a massive tribute tour that encapsulates some of the highlights of his father’s illustrious and often conflicted career. Spanning a massive set list the sextet takes audiences on a three-hour video-enhanced thrill ride into the extraordinary Zappaverse.

Just as Dweezil continues to carry the Zappa torch others who share his admiration for his father’s work have done their part to preserve Frank’s memory. There are no less than two asteroids named for the man: 3834 Zappafrank and 16745 Zappa. In addition versions of his moniker have been granted to a certain extinct mollusk a jellyfish a goby fish and a moustachioed spider. On a less glamourous note the so-called ZapA gene belongs to a microbe responsible for causing urinary tract infections — a fitting namesake for the man who penned the songs “Imaginary Diseases” “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” and the immortal “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow.”