Rock music innovator Frank Zappa dies

December 06, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Baltimore-born rock musician Frank Zappa, who rode to fame in the late 1960s as leader of the eccentric Mothers of Invention, died Saturday evening at his Los Angeles home from the complications of prostate cancer he had been battling for years. He was 52.

A family friend, Jim Nagle, said he was buried yesterday in a private ceremony in Los Angeles.

The prolific guitarist was one of rock's premier iconoclasts. In an era of increasing commercialism, he never tired of composing, strumming, singing and philosophizing to the beat of a wildly different drummer.

Mr. Zappa's music was a frothy stew of '50s doo-wop, rhythm 'n' blues, experimental jazz and avant-garde classical strains -- heaped high with perverse, often scatological, lyrics.

In albums with such far-out titles as "Freak Out!," "Lumpy Gravy" and "Weasels Ripped My Flesh," Mr. Zappa served as a Spike Jones for the counterculture. Or, some might say, a musical counterpart to Mad Magazine.

"People think of me as some kind of deranged comedian," Mr. Zappa once said in a magazine interview.

Yet his anarchic demeanor, and occasionally juvenile antics, were counterbalanced by an increasingly strong sense of social commitment.

Mr. Zappa may have joked in his songs about raising dental floss in Montana and about the dangers of eating yellow snow. But by the mid-1980s, his long, stringy hair and floppy mustache had been manicured and he emerged as a leading voice for registering young people to vote.

Mr. Zappa also appeared in a business suit at a 1985 Senate subcommittee hearing to rail against the censorship of rock lyrics. (He followed up with a caustic recording called "Porn Wars," incorporating legislators' comments with an electronic music pastiche.)

He was responsible as well for introducing mainstream America to one of the major cultural phenomenon of the early 1980s -- the vernacular and social habits of the "gag me with a spoon" crowd, in the hit song "Valley Girl," recorded with his teen-age daughter, Moon Unit.

Over the years, Mr. Zappa, whose albums were never huge sellers, sustained a cult following that ensured the marketability of a seemingly endless stream of eclectic recordings.

He was viewed by influential critics as rock's leading sociologist, and a nonpareil, if idiosyncratic, synthesizer of musical styles.

But he also had his share of detractors, who regarded him as a self-promoting crank, who rarely, if ever, wrote a memorable tune.

Mr. Zappa himself once said that whatever people thought of his work, he always enjoyed doing it.

"I write because I am personally amused by what I do, and if other people are amused by it, then it's fine. If they're not, then that's also fine," he said in a 1983 interview. "Even if I wasn't releasing records I would still do it."

Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore to Sicilian immigrant parents.

Mr. Zappa's father, a meteorologist, worked at a Maryland military installation, studying the effects of weather on poison gases and explosives. His mother was a librarian.

The oldest of four children, Mr. Zappa was frequently ill as a youngster, and his family moved several times to warmer locales to cope with his respiratory problems.

Following stints in Florida and then various cities in California, the Zappas settled in the California desert community of Lancaster, where young Frank attended Antelope Valley High School.

A loner, Mr. Zappa taught himself to play electric guitar and drums. He also spent prodigious amounts of time playing the hi-fi, carefully studying the recordings of such Chicago blues greats as Muddy Waters, and such leading avant-garde classical composers as Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky.

Mr. Zappa's first live music jobs were as a drummer -- in high school garage bands and in the high school marching band. He was thrown out of the latter, after the bandmaster caught him smoking in uniform.

"For that, I will be eternally grateful," he later wrote.

Mr. Zappa, however, continued playing rock, eventually forming the Black-Outs, which he described as "the only R&B band in the entire Mojave Desert."

After failures in filmmaking, college and a first marriage, Mr. Zappa moved to Los Angeles. There, he became the guitarist for a group called the Soul Giants, which eventually transmogrified into the Mothers of Invention.

The time was the mid-1960s, an era of rich experimentation in rock music.

San Francisco had the psychedelic movement. England had the increasingly eclectic Beatles. And Los Angeles had, among others, Mr. Zappa and the Mothers, a group whose satirical, theatrical musical montages were unlike anything else to have ever hit the airwaves.

Their first recording, "Freak Out!," was later described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as "rock's first experimental music masterpiece, influenced mainly by such modern composers as Edgar Varese, but with an anarchist aggression that is far more defiantly celebratory than arty."

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