Tuesday, June 30, 2020


Iconoclast, auteur, philosopher, social commentator, genius. My relationship with Frank Zappa began, like it did for many, in 1969 with the release of Hot Rats. The cover of that landmark LP so captures the late 60’s mindset: beautiful, a little scary and just plain weird. Musically, it was a heady thrill ride of heavy guitar, big ideas and jazzy chops. It seemed miles ahead of most stuff on the radio. 1971’s Fillmore East-June 1971 was my next stop. Juvenile, hilarious, rude-it defined underground to me. It was the musical equivalent of an R. Crumb comic book. In ’73 and ’74 Zappa struck gold with Overnight Sensation and Apostrophe, which were loaded with FM hits that, again perfectly captured the gestalt of the era. You can see, at the time I was sort of drawn to those Zappa albums that rose to the commercial surface and actually got radio play. I was also lucky enough to see him in concert several times and was both blown away and mystified by these dense, instrument heavy bands slogging through labyrinthine compositions at breakneck speed.  Later, I started to recognize the artistic diamond mine that the Frank Zappa catalog was. It has been one of my greatest pleasures over the last 20 years to try to wrap my arms fully around the depth and breadth of this incredible artist’s output.

C.U. Events Center 1981
I have found every period of Zappa’s output to reward repeated listening. Few artists had as grand a vision that they held on to for an entire career and actualized to the level of Frank Zappa did. He had fearless determination in the face of stupid and corrupt labels, a largely indifferent public, money woes and a never-ending stream of amazing, but undependable musicians. The sheer number of world-class players who passed through his various bands is staggering. The best of the best appeared on his records and on stage. As for Zappa himself, his energy as a composer, arranger, performer, producer and promoter of his own (and others’) output is almost hard to believe. It seems, from his pre-teen years onward, Zappa never took a break - not until his untimely death from prostate cancer in 1993.
I enjoy it all, but the first 10 years (66-76) of his career represent the apex of his artistic growth. He did not stop innovating for a second in that period. The span of musical ideas from Freak Out (1966) to Grand Wazoo (1972) to Roxy And Elsewhere (1974) is hard to take in. From psychedelic parody, to orchestral rock ensembles to a science fiction soul review, Zappa seemed to be the master of all he surveyed. Starting with 1976’s Zoot Allures something seemed to change with Zappa. His musical ideas remain lofty, but his lyrical thrust took on a slightly darker tone. Always prone to social criticism, his observations accurately reflect the spirit of the post-Watergate, coke-fueled disco era. It ain’t pretty! But then, sometime in the mid-80’s when I had my first record store, I got a bootleg copy of Zappa’s unreleased masterpiece from the 70’s Lather which was a sprawling, confounding, multi-genre box set. I was completely inextricably driven to dive back in to the Zappa universe. 
Toward the end of his life, he shifted his focus back to the strictly musical with releases like Yellow Shark and Jazz From Hell. Since his death, his widow Gail and now his son Ahmet have taken his legacy into the future by releasing as many albums of his music as he did in his own lifetime. It has been a thrilling ride studying Frank Zappa’s life work. The dense, percussion-heavy, guitar lead ensemble sounds of his compositions are immediately recognizable and never fail to thrill me and bring a smile to my face. - Paul Epstein

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