In 1955, a 15-year-old Frank Zappa happened upon a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse in a hi-fi shop in La Mesa, California. The cover showed a man with frizzy gray hair and a furrowed brow, and Zappa recalled thinking he was “glad a mad scientist had made a record.” It cost $5.95 and Frank only had $3.80, but the store’s owner let him have it—he’d used the record to demonstrate hi-fi equipment, but it frightened the customers. Zappa took it home and put it on the family phonograph. The first track, “Ionisation,” was a piece for thirteen percussion instruments and sirens. It horrified his parents even more than the Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Lightnin’ Slim rhythm and blues records he usually listened to. The potent mash-up of R&B and Varèse turned Zappa into a composer, and eventually, a recording studio whiz, performer, and occasional public intellectual.
Thorsten Schütte’s documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (now playing at Film Forum) offers a mesmerizing portrait of Zappa’s art and life. Working entirely with archival footage, without a voiceover or talking heads, Schütte’s film is a fluid mosaic of concert footage, TV appearances, and interview clips, much of them never seen before: Zappa on the Steven Allen show in 1963 “playing” the bicycle; hunched over staff paper notating music in his Laurel Canyon studio in the ’70s; stalking through airports with a Mephistophelian leer; leading staggeringly well rehearsed bands in Europe and the US (“I don’t like to get on stage and slop around,” he says at one point); talking to whoever will listen about the numbing homogeneity of American consumerism. When he shows up in a suit and tie debating Robert Novak on Crossfire, his usual long black hair cropped short, the effect is less the ’60s freak who became a normal adult than an uncompromising individual voice channeled into a different format. Zappa’s anti-drug stance made him an oddity in the rock world, defying the idea, foisted on him by journalists and TV commentators, that someone of such profligate imagination must be on drugs. “They write about me like I’m a maniac,” he says at one point. “I’m not . . . I’m forty years old, I’ve got four kids, a house, and a mortgage.”
Sometime shortly after the Varèse epiphany, Zappa discovered Walter Piston’s Harmony—a standard textbook on music theory—in the local public library: “I went through some of the exercises in there, and I was wondering why a person would really want to devote a lifetime to doing this, because after you complete it you’ll sound like everybody else who used the same rules.” This ad hoc autodidacticism—both a talent for sustained immersion in solitary study and a sense of when to switch gears when something ceases to excite—is behind all of Zappa’s work and made his music impossible to pin down. Over three decades of almost constant composing and recording, he would amass over sixty LPs, running the gamut from early records with his band the Mothers of Invention that helped to create the milieu we think of as the Sixties, to caustic send-ups of that same counterculture, doo-wop pastiche, tape cut-ups, film scores, gonzo cabaret, big-band charts, way out prog, show tunes, music composed entirely on and for the Synclavier digital sampler, full-score orchestral music, and thousands of scabrous, exploratory guitar solos.
Already in early songs like “Who Are the Brain Police? (1966) and “Plastic People” (1968), Zappa was attuned to the little daily coercions that urged one to conform—a sensitivity perhaps instilled in him from growing up in a household of devoutly Catholic Italian immigrants. At their worst, such pressures could petrify into forms of thought control. Zappa’s concern with censorship came to a head in 1985, when the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group of Washington senators’ wives led by Tipper Gore, sought to add labels to albums they deemed “porn rock.” (Prince’s song “Darling Nikki,” from Purple Rain, whose eponymous protagonist is “masturbating with a magazine” in the first verse, was the PMRC’s most notorious target.) Eat That Question includes wonderful footage of Zappa—fearless, funny, razor-sharp—testifying before the Senate committee hearing.1 “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense,” he says, “which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, [and] opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs.”
Shortly after, he released Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985), a record that came with its own warning/guarantee label informing the buyer that the album “contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your first amendment rights by attempting to censor rock and roll albums. We feel this is un-Constitutional and un-American.” On the album’s closing track—a menacing twelve-minute Synclavier collage called “Porn Wars”—Zappa pulled audio excerpts of the hearings and added ominous sound effects, speeding up and slowing down the senators’ voices as they read aloud lyrics they felt had “no redeeming social value.”
Despite his disgust with the censorious PMRC, Zappa had always been keenly aware of what was puerile and formulaic about commercial rock music. He wanted no part of hippie groupthink, sneering “Flower Power sucks!” on We’re Only in It for the Money, an album recorded at the height of the Summer of Love. (The cover art featured a monstrous parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s cover; MGM said no and moved it to the inner sleeve.) Zappa never missed a chance to mock the bloated absurdities of ’70s rock, from the sexual exploits of band members and groupies (a tradition in which Zappa nevertheless partook) to the dopey fist pumping of heavy metal and the cheap opportunism of punk at its trendiest. And he coined a great bon mot about rock journalism: “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
A more obvious target were the corporate philistines who ran the record business. Their compulsion to monetize everything—the antithesis of Zappa’s aesthetic idealism—led him to build a state-of-the-art recording studio in his home (a move almost unheard of at the time) and release all his music himself on Barking Pumpkin Records, the independent label he started with his wife, Gail. Another side of the DIY ethos was his way of treating the economic realities of getting work rehearsed, performed, and recorded as just another form of composition. When he used the money he made touring with rock bands to hire the London Symphony Orchestra to record his orchestral pieces, there was “no foundation grant, no government assistance, no corporation, no committee, just a crazy guy who spent the money to hire English musicians to do a concert at the Barbican, and make a record.”2
Even in this totally DIY setup there were some brushes with the pop charts. The 1982 hit “Valley Girl,” co-written with his fourteen-year-old daughter Moon, featured her spot-on impressions of San Fernando Valley idioms like “grody to the max,” “bag your face,” and “gag me with a spoon.” A lurid tale of sexual dishevelment, “Bobby Brown Goes Down” couldn’t get within a hundred miles of US radio but was, Zappa points out with some amusement, “the song to slow dance to in Norwegian discos.” He weirdly won a Grammy in 1986 for one of his more hermetic computer music pieces, “Jazz From Hell.” Zappa said he got the award “for a song which I am convinced nobody has ever heard,” and that it was “living proof that the whole process is a fraud, like this little plastic joke, the Grammy itself.”
Unsurprisingly, Zappa’s politics were as difficult to pigeonhole as his music. He was disgusted by Reagan’s alliance with the evangelical right (the video he made for “You Are What You Is” featured a Reagan lookalike strapped to an electric chair; MTV refused to air it), but he was just as wary of far-left dogma. Asked about an incident in Berlin, when students showed up to a Mothers gig chanting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” and tried—unsuccessfully—to get the band to lead an anti-American action, Zappa said “there is definitively a fascistic element, not only in the left wing in Germany, but in the United States, too.” His most influential fan was Vaclav Havel, the writer, dissident, and moderate Czech president, who named Zappa Czechoslovakia’s Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. In Eat That Question, we see Zappa congratulating a group of Czechoslovakian Zappa-heads on their “brand new country.”
The film ends with a moving piece of archival footage taken from a rehearsal session with the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt. Sick from the prostate cancer that would kill him in 1993 at the age of 52, Zappa conducts a performance of Varèse’s “Ionisation,” the very piece he had cued up on the family phonograph in 1955. The footage makes vivid the story at the heart of Eat That Question: a brave, irreverent person who stayed the course and saw to realization a new kind of American music, built equally from the vernacular attack of rock and roll and the outer reaches of the avant-garde.
Zappa’s records have been remastered, and the MP3s are bundled with PDF booklets reproducing the often very elaborate artwork of the original vinyl releases. All of them include in their liner notes a quotation taken from Varèse: “The present-day composer refuses to die.”