A Musician Who Went to Work Every Day

December 08, 1993|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

Frank Zappa's most vivid memory of his early childhood in the 4600 block of Park Heights Avenue was watching the knife grinder roll through the neighborhood.

''Down the alley used to come the knife-sharpener man, you know, a guy with the wheel,'' he reminisced in 1986. ''And everybody used to come down off their back porch to the alley to get their knives and scissors done.''

In a long conversation ambling along 20 years of a global musical career, Frank's story about the man who pushed a grinding wheel through the alleys of Baltimore stayed with me the longest.

One day, on the obituary page, I saw a notice for longtime knife grinder Pio Vidi and telephoned his survivors for an article about the art of laying a fine edge on blades of steel.

Old Pio, said his relatives, could make a meat cleaver sing. And Frank Zappa could make an electric guitar do anything he wanted. Frank joined Pio in death on Saturday, succumbing to prostate cancer nearly 53 years to the day after his birth in Baltimore's old Mercy Hospital.

In all of music -- from the do-wop he loved and parodied as a young turk to the orchestral complexities he composed in middle age -- there was no one like Frank Zappa. In an adolescent letter to his ''Aunt Mary'' Cimino in Baltimore from his parents' new residence in the Mojave Desert, Frank wrote: ''Could you find some space for me if I were to come and visit? I think I have invented something new in the way of music (probably not) which I would like to take to the conservatory back there for investigation.''

Something new?

It wasn't Beatlemania.

The sounds that came from Frank Zappa's guitar were often sacred, the lyrics that fell from his lips were more often profane, and the intellect behind both was world-class. ''I'll put my brains up against anybody,'' he said.

And often did, as Tipper Gore and the United States Senate found out in 1985 when Mr. Zappa testified against efforts to censor rock music or anything else guaranteed in a free society.

After my story on the Vidi family's 100-year-old knife-grinding dynasty appeared in The Sun, I called Frank up to tell him about it. It was early in 1991 and he was already fighting cancer, which had caused him to cancel a 50th-birthday concert in his honor.

We talked pleasantly for a while about old-time Baltimore -- even the fig tree behind his maternal grandparents' former home at 2019 Whittier Avenue -- but it didn't hold his interest. Frank politely suggested that a good reporter might better spend his time digging up dirt on the crooks who run the country instead of chasing after dead Italian men who sharpened knives for a living. He talked about the endless absurdities and offenses he witnessed every day on C-Span.

''Geezy, Frank,'' I said. ''Why do you let politics eat at you likthat? Sounds like you're becoming Lenny Bruce in your old age.''

This made him very angry.

''Lenny Bruce was a drug addict who ruined his talent and killed himself,'' he barked. ''I'm a musician who goes to work every day.''

It was our last conversation.

When Frank went public with his sickness, I mailed the knife-grinding story and a get-well card to his Los Angeles home.

*

Mud sharks and muffin men.

Jelly roll gum drops.

And penguins in bondage.

With a comic-book imagination, the spark and nuance of a virtuoso, a basement baritone and composing talent he credited to the public library, Frank Zappa made rock and roll like nobody ever made it before. He didn't fill a hole in rock, he carved a wild kingdom inside of it.

''Until I was 20 I never wrote a rock and roll song,'' he told me. ''The only stuff I was writing was chamber music and orchestra music, but I couldn't get any of it played. So what do you do? You go where the action is.''

In 1974, inside my tilted universe, Frank Zappa was action.

Every morning, while adjusting our minds to face another day of Catholic education at Mount Saint Joseph High School, my brother Danny and I listened to Frank while cruising to Irvington in our old man's yellow Mustang, with ''Overnight Sensation'' rolling inside the eight-track. I never got around to memorizing Eliot's ''The Waste Land,'' but I could recite every orgasmic line of ''Dinah-Moe Humm.''

In ''Camarillo Brillo,'' Frank ragged on the Earth Mother cool of the early Seventies: ''Is that a real poncho, I mean is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?''

And in ''Dirty Love,'' he simply asked us to give it to him.

Of all the insights Frank shared with hundreds of reporters and millions of fans in the last quarter-century, my favorite addressed the spirituality conjured when man coaxes sounds from inside of himself.

''Music,'' he said, ''is the only religion that delivers the goods on Earth.''

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

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