Zappa Redux

The son of Baltimore born rocker takes on a 'Tour de Frank' to keep his father's funny, bizarre, complex music alive

August 05, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. -- The star at center stage, his dark hair slicked behind his ears, works a wild rock riff on an electric guitar. The flute and synthesizer behind him shriek in sync, notes weaving into three-part harmony. A pounding percussion whirls.

The tension crests and resolves, 5,000 or so roar, and as the final notes of "Advance Romance" come crashing down, Dweezil Zappa -- a smaller, more neatly scrubbed version of his famous father, the late, great counterculture rocker Frank Zappa -- takes a deep and humble bow.

Dweezil Zappa -- and yes, that is his legal name -- is grateful for the adulation that fans have for his father's work, which spanned three decades, filled 80 albums and embraced genres from classical to doo-wop and jazz. That's why the guitarist and former teen actor is leading a worldwide concert tour in tribute to the musician and thinker who made the term Freak Out! a generation's call to arms.

"These folks have followed Frank for 40 years," Dweezil says. "I hope they enjoy the fruits of [our band's] labors."

What really pleases Zappa is a glance into the crowd, where teens, many in T-shirts that scream "Sheik Yerbouti!" and "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar!" -- album titles his father turned into catchphrases -- bop alongside middle-aged fans. "There are lots of kids here tonight, aren't there?" he says, picking out a fan in the front row. "How old are you, little girl? Ten? That's what I call good parenting."

"Let's feed the beast," he says, invoking one of his father's favorite images. He stomps out a new rhythm, and the musical tornado starts up again.

Reshaping rock

Dweezil Zappa, 37, emerges from a tour bus near the stage, rubs his eyes and sits down to recount why he decided three years ago to kick-start the Tour de Frank -- which arrives in Baltimore, the town of his father's birth, Thursday night.

Simply said, the world needs it.

"These days, people pretty much listen to music while they're doing something else," says Zappa, whose band, Zappa Plays Zappa, played Columbus the night before, its eighth show in nine days. "Frank had a quote back in the '80s, that music had become 'wallpaper for your lifestyle.' It's like an accessory, an ID tag for who you are. That was never truer than it is now."

Teens and pre-teens, listening to whatever's on the radio or on MTV, "know the instant gratification part of music," he says. "You know, getting the right hairdo, the right tattoo ... but I don't think they understand what it means to be a musician, or the genuine craft of music."

When prostate cancer claimed Frank Zappa in 1993, at age 52, Time magazine called him "a musical renaissance man for the rock era." At a time when the boundaries of rock were being challenged, music critic Drew Wheeler wrote, "Zappa merrily twisted them into Mobius shapes, creating an unheard-of rock sound that blended intricate rhythms, R&B harmonies, free-jazz saxophones and novelty-song vocals" with elaborate, "blues-meltdown guitar soloing."

Dweezil, who recalls a boyhood in southern California in which he shyly visited his father as he worked long hours in the studio, couldn't agree more.

"Casual fans see Frank as this strange, funny guy, like a Weird Al Yankovic," Dweezil says. "He used humor, of course -- he was absolutely a hilarious guy, and songs like 'Valley Girl' and 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow' are great -- but they don't scratch the surface of one-eighth of what he did. He was serious about his work, and his music is savagely underappreciated."

If it's ironic that a long-haired guy named Dweezil -- the name comes from a nickname Frank had for one of his wife's toes -- is playing the role of musical conservator, it doesn't seem to bother him. He has spoken often, and emotionally, of his fear that his father's music "could disappear within my lifetime."

He felt it critical to give older fans another glimpse and younger ones a chance to be exposed to his father's canon.

"Live performance is the only proper setting for experiencing this material," he says. "That's why we're so meticulous about getting it right."

To that end, he spent two years cocooned in a studio, studying his dad's musical catalog. He hired seven multi-instrumentalists -- including guitarist Ray White, Frank's bandmate in the 1970s and 1980s -- who he felt had the vision to recapture it. He culled three hours' worth of material that "defines what made Frank different" and that reflects "the trajectory of his career"-- from early psychedelic satire ("Son of Suzy Creamcheese") to rock-opera ("Joe's Garage") to instrumental stunners ("G-Spot Tornado," a composition so complex that Frank Zappa himself never expected it to be played on the guitar).

Zappa Plays Zappa rehearses two hours before most concerts. It has to. The band works hard to replicate musical nuances that shift as continuously as cars and trucks weaving through freeway intersections.

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