Friday, February 21, 2014

Frank Zappa: Avant-Garde Musician

Great art is all about taking chances. Some art fails, some art succeeds, but those who take big chances are to be applauded. Avant-garde artists are experimental or innovative, pushing the boundaries of the status quo. Few musical artists have taken chances like Frank Zappa. His music is hard to categorize: jazz, rock, classical, blues, psychedelic, fusion, with a healthy dose of satire and humor thrown in. He only lived for 52 years, from 1940 to 1993, dying from prostate cancer complications. But, during those years he released 62 albums and 35 were released after his death. His first release was "Freak Out!" in 1966. He had 2 gold records in the US during his life, "Over-Nite Sensation" (1973) and "Apostrophe" (1974). His best known singles include "Valley Girl", "Peaches En Regalia" and "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow". He has no formal training in music and attended community college briefly but dropped out. He liked music of all genres, not confining him to narrow choices. Zappa made music on his own terms, doing what pleased him, not looking for mass appeal. Paul McCartney said that Zappa influenced him to make "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band". Countless musicians were influenced by Zappa's seemingly endless creativity. Rolling Stone magazine named Zappa as the 71st best artist of all time. The same magazine voted him as the 22nd best guitarist of all time. Guitar Player magazine devoted an issue to him in 1992. Here's a quote from Rolling Stone's Illustrated History of Rock and Roll:

"Frank Zappa was one of the first to try tearing down the barriers between rock, jazz, and classical music. In the late Sixties his Mothers of Invention would slip from Stravinsky's "Petroushka" into The Dovells' "Bristol Stomp" before breaking down into saxophone squeals inspired by Albert Ayler."

In 1985, Zappa gained media attention for his testimony before the US Senate regarding the actions of the PMRC (Parent's Music Resource Center). The PRMC was against music which contained sexual or satanic content. Zappa saw this as the road to censorship, and claimed that musicians have the right to make whatever music they want. The following is an excerpt from Zappa's testimony:

"The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation ... The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"

In 1987, Zappa received a Grammy award for his album "Jazz from Hell". Like many unique artists, Zappa's work was more appreciated in Europe than in the United States. A bust of Zappa's likeness is in Lithuania as well as in Germany. Berlin named a street after him. He was truly a renaissance man, composing, producing, and performing music, directing films and music videos, and designing album covers. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a political figure, fighting for freedom and the abolition of censorship. Zappa's significant impact in the world of music will always be remembered.


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