In my hometown there was a little record and book store where I’d spend a considerable amount of time as a teenager. New Horizons, it was called. No longer there, it disappeared a couple of decades ago in the vortex of casualties provoked by the advent of Amazon and Spotify and the everything-everywhere-all-the-time culture.
Books were on the ground floor. For records you’d have to climb a flight of stairs to the mezzanine, where Patrick, a twenty-something-years-old skinny guy whose knowledge of bands and recordings and everything revolving around them was indisputably close to perfect, would greet you into the magical and mysterious world of music. And in this little sanctuary, packed with vinyl and silently browsing long-haired humans, time would stop. And my afternoons would come and go unnoticed in the only place I knew (the only place there was, really) where I could talk about, discover, listen to -- and eventually buy -- music.
Things were different back then. When an album was released, you wouldn’t know much about it until the minute it physically arrived at the store and Patrick would let you remove the cellophane film wrapped around it, open it, smell it (fuck yeah), and put it on the record player. Maybe you’d have heard one or two promo songs on the radio already, but the rest of the album would still be a mystery. Now, this unwrapping and opening and listening wasn’t for everybody. It was a sacred practice, a delicate ritual only regulars and “friends of the store” were permitted to perform, or attend to. I was both a regular (I’d buy as much vinyl as my modest teenager pockets would allow me to) and a friend of the store (I’d hang out there until the end of Time).
I was there when The Wall arrived and we all stood in awe as, track by track, it unveiled its extraordinary beauty and some of the most incredible guitar solos Gilmour had ever conceived and agreed this would arguably be the pinnacle of Pink Floyd. I was there when Purple Rain was unwrapped and put on the record player for the first time and our jaws collectively dropped in amazement at such innovative and powerful sound and we wrongly declared that Prince wouldn’t be able to ever top that. And I was there when the first copy of Tutu was taken out of the cardboard box, revealing Miles Davis’ glorious black and white portrait by Irving Penn on its cover, and we all thought the same “He did it again” thought.
But one day I saw a copy of You Are What You Is by Frank Zappa sitting next to the record player, still untouched, cellophane wrap and all. Just arrived.
Weird that no regulars or friends of the store hadn’t opened and listened to it yet, I thought. Usually, whenever a new record by one of the greats came in, whoever was around would dash on it as rapaciously as prey-hungry hawks. Was that record not important enough? Was Frank Zappa not considered a member of the circle of greats? I was sixteen and I’d never heard of him. “If you’ve never listened to Frank Zappa, you should remedy that as soon as possible”, a voice from behind me said as I held the double album in my hands, evidently looking puzzled and intrigued. “What is he like?”, I asked without looking away from the album. “He’s like nothing else. Zappa is Zappa”.
But then why -- if he was like nothing else -- there wasn’t really any interest? Why wasn’t there a line of people waiting to check out the album and listen to it like there would be for anything that Bruce Springsteen or The Rolling Stones would release? “Zappa is not easy; definitely not for everyone”, that same voice added, as if they heard those questions in my head, “he’s a genius, and genius is often misunderstood; or not understood at all”. I never heard that voice again, and I don’t really remember that face (in fact, I believe I didn’t even look up at them, as intent as I was at processing those words and satisfying my curiosity).
So I put the record on and, right then and there, my journey in Zappaland started. And I couldn’t begin to make sense of what I was hearing. A beautiful, never heard before, synaesthesia of sophisticated harmonic structures and impossible melodic phrases and weird sounds and bright colors and sparky ideas and things I can’t even find the words for. A giant, interwoven panoply of strange emotions pervaded me. I was being taken to places I didn’t even know existed -- it was like being on psilocybin. Then I picked up the album cover and tried to follow the lyrics, and a whole new dimension opened up. Was it satirical? Was it theatrical? Was it all a massive mock-up of politicians and public figures and our rotten society? I didn’t have the tools to comprehend that but I was sure it was something along those lines. I was hooked. And smitten.
I asked Patrick to make me hear some other Zappa stuff, and he flooded me with records from the late sixties and the seventies like Over-Nite Sensations, Apostrophe, Sheik Yerbouti, Lumpy Gravy, Chunga’s Revenge and Hot Rats, and by the end of that afternoon my head was spinning. I knew the portal to a whole new universe was being opened for me, and I was eagerly and consciously stepping through it, fully aware that there would be no way back.
Unlike all my music obsessions -- where I would go all-in on a particular artist and hear everything they created on an exclusive basis, as if nothing else existed, only to abandon them after a while due to a sort of overdose (and cyclically return to them, maybe after months or even years) -- Frank Zappa has been a constant presence in my life. A perpetual obsession I’d never get tired of, one I’ve always been 100% sure I’d be at no risk of overdose from.
Who was Frank Zappa? Many think that he was an ugly, sexist, racist weirdo who filled his impossible-to-hear songs with pornographic lyrics and plain dirty words. Others think he was just another strange-looking rockstar who liked to be photographed on the toilet. But that’s wrong. Those who think that do not know him or his music and, as it sadly too often happens, let their superficial opinions be driven by the man’s appearance and demeanor.
Zappa deserves an in-depth study. I’ve always struggled with a definition/description, because there’s really nothing in the music world he could be compared to. He was a music polymath, a composer, an author, a workaholic, a humorist, a satirist, a free-speech and free-thought activist, a hell of a guitarist, an occasional actor, a political commentator, someone who would have liked to run for President had fate not interrupted his life too early. Most of all, he was a clear and intelligent thinker, a modern philosopher. He worked relentlessly, never took any drugs (in fact he was loudly and outwardly against it), had four kids, and had been married to the same woman until he passed in 1993. In many respects, he was the opposite of what you would expect. In many others, if you paid attention, he was exactly (and unsurprisingly) what you would expect: one of 20th-century’s most innovative and uncompromising composers. I’m obviously biased but, to me, he was the most innovative and uncompromising composer.
The objective of this piece is not a profile of Frank Zappa -- there’s plenty of material out there if you want to know more, and any many-thousand-words essay would barely scratch the surface of his complex life and immense body of work. But here are just a few interesting snippets/anecdotes for the uninitiated:
Frank was an extremely prolific artist. He released 62 albums over his lifetime; another 60 have been released posthumously since 1994; in his prime, he would release two-three albums per year (and given the complexity of his music, this is huge).
Frank wrote orchestra music before ever attempting a rock & roll song. The composers who had the most influence on him were Igor Stravinky and Edgard Varèse. The latter, in particular, was Frank’s very first source of inspiration: “I had no interest in Beethoven, Mozart, or any of that stuff; it just didn’t sound interesting to me. I wanted to listen to a man who could make music that strange”. On his 15th birthday, his mom said that he could have five dollars, but he asked if he could make a long-distance phone call instead. He wanted to call Edgard Varèse and figured that someone with such a unique mind would only live in Greenwich Village in New York City. So he called Manhattan’s directory assistance and asked for the phone number of Edgard Varèse and, sure enough, that’s where he lived and they gave it to him. Unfortunately, Varèse was on his way to Europe and Frank couldn’t speak to him.
After Frank’s death to prostate cancer at age 52, his wife Gail carefully protected his copyrights and legacy, including “The Vault”, a repository filled floor-to-ceiling with never-released music, videos and drawings that existed beneath their family home in Laurel Canyon, California. The Vault was brought back to life and digitized as a propaedeutic project for Alex Winter’s documentary “Zappa”. “Zappa’s vault makes Prince’s look like a safety deposit box”, wrote Rolling Stone’s journalist Daniel Kreps.
Frank surrounded himself with the best musicians out there; he was known for his brutal recruiting process held at his home studio (named the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen -- from someone whose songs are titled Stink-Foot, Baby Snakes, St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, or Harder Than Your Husband you’d expect no less), where, during excruciatingly demanding auditions, he’d ask musicians to play (allegedly) impossible parts from his gigantic repertoire. The musicians that had the opportunity to play in Frank’s bands all deem such experience as the most challenging yet formative of their whole careers, after which anything else would feel smoother and easier.
His polyhedric personality was hard to pin down. “How to portray a man who began as the Dionysian leader of a Dada-esque band, the Mothers of Invention, and became a First Amendment advocate with a suit and tie and a haircut (at least he kept the mustache), testifying in Washington against Tipper Gore’s call for warning labels on albums and arguing with John Lofton on CNN’s ‘Crossfire’?”, wrote The New Yorker’s John Seabrook.
Frank’s most important trait, to me, was his uncompromising freedom of thought, his ability to think and act without having to please anyone. “My desires are simple: All I want to do is get a good performance and a good recording of everything that I ever wrote so I could hear it, and if anybody else wants to hear it, that’s great too”, he said in an interview. He would only write the music that he liked, not the music that would sell. Frank often said that he embarked on a number of projects just because he wanted to record something that he felt passionate about, and that, as long as he could afford to pay his musicians and all other production expenses, he wouldn’t care about selling a single copy.
It all sounds obvious and easy, but it’s really hard to do. It was hard back then, and it’s even harder today. It means being willing to take risks in the name of the sheer pleasure of doing what you do, in the name of freedom and uniqueness. It also means not giving a fuck about what people think. And having the deepest peace of mind.
The lesson that I learned from Frank Zappa and that I’ve treasured all my life is that mediocrity and conformism and alignment might be comfortable qualities, because you don’t have to fight or explain or live in intellectual isolation. And your probability of being liked by many is high, as mediocrity -- by definition -- guarantees a good fit. But our aim as human beings is to find our own voice and cultivate uniqueness, even if this means being liked by a bare few. Finding our voice is the only way to genuine, spontaneous and durable value creation (and I don’t mean monetary value); any other way requires the construction of an artificial structure, a house of cards that will collapse at the first sign of turmoil.
And finding our voice is a process of trial and error, where we take risks and make mistakes. Most of all, though, it is a process that gets real traction only when we relax and let go of our fears, of our obsession to be liked.
I went to see Frank Zappa at Teatro Smeraldo, in Milano. I think it was 1989 or 1990, right before he would be diagnosed with prostate cancer and stopped doing live performances. Most of the concert was pieces that had never been recorded on any album. A surprise that wasn’t really surprising, knowing him -- the only artist that would do something like that. And maybe the night after that he would do a completely different set somewhere else, with other never-released-before music. He could afford to do that. Teatro Smeraldo was where I also saw Miles Davis, right before he passed, and Joe Jackson and Eric Clapton and Neil Young and many others. A magic site with a magic atmosphere, and magic memories. In its place, today, there’s Eataly, a big gourmet food store. So sad.
“How does Frank Zappa want to be remembered?”, they asked him in the very last interview in May 1993. “It’s not important”, he replied, “It’s not important to even be remembered”. “The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush. These people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific. I don’t care”.
I find it so outrageously inspiring that the most unique and recognizable musician of all time (as far as I’m concerned), the one capable of leaving some of the most indeleble and unequivocally original traces on this earth, wouldn’t care about being remembered. I guess it speaks to a mysteriously spontaneous approach to his art, as if it was effortless for him to be so unique and recognizable, to be so naturally Zappa. It’s a creation process that comes from deep inside and flows out unconsciously to satisfy only the creator’s most intimate desires, nothing else. Frank had almost no social relationships, he was completely dedicated to his work, he would think and create music and perfect what he had created around the clock. So, it looks like his was not an effortless and unconscious process. Yet, it had all the features of one that magically unfolds just because the artist is no one but themselves. A mystery.
So outrageously inspiring.
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Not sure which I am more inspired by at the moment, the journey you took me on unwrapping and smelling new vinyl, or the character of Frank Zappa, who I really knew very little about. Going to watch that documentary. The bit about Zappa saying it's not important to be remembered communicates instantly the heart of someone who is living completely and fully in his now and the rest be damned. So fricking awesome.
Silvio, this was incredible. I wish I had my own Zappa moments as a child. It’s never too late to start.
Your story really captivated me back to a childhood where we could appreciate and experience awe.