SON OF THE FREAK Dweezil Zappa

“Frank’s music sounded
the way it sounded because he
wrote it that way”: the son reprises, and in places even expands upon, the late
composer’s genius.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Frank Zappa’s 1966 debut Freak
Out!
was presciently titled, as first listens to Zappa’s music evoke a
range of reactions, almost all of them some form of freak-out. A Surgeon
General’s warning, if music was a concern to them, might caution listeners that
Zappa music could cause them to crack up – fall into fits of laughter or go
hopelessly bonkers – or get good and pissed off: ‘What is this shit?!’

 

Hyperbolic, you say? Only if you’ve never really listened to
Zappa. Or perhaps you’re one of the weirdoes for whom Zappa is as catchy as
bubblegum pop; you ‘get it’ as if Zappa’s odd tuplets and freewheeling lyrical
themes are bundled into your DNA,
and your own introduction to his music made you as nutty as a Beatles groupie
in 1964. Fact is, Zappa – whom straight-laced folks regarded as a freak – is
tough to wrap one’s head around. Just ask his boy, Dweezil.

 

Yeah, that dude. The name is familiar to most people,
usually because FZ became famous circa 1982 when his crossover hit/novelty song
“Valley Girl” showcased the vocal stylings of his daughter Moon Unit. The
hubbub over her name exposed Dweezil’s own unusual moniker and thus was written
another note in the fast-food popular perception of Frank Zappa, the crazy
composer that gave his kids seemingly embarrassing names. A few years later,
Dweezil began to make a name for himself with shred guitar albums and stints on
MTV, playing guitar for Donny Osmond, composing theme music for The Ben Stiller Show and doing voiceover
work (see Duckman).

 

Although he’d carved his own niche in the music world and
kept busy helping mom Gail run the Zappa Family Trust after Frank died in 1993,
Dweezil wanted to ensure his father’s music lived on beyond simple reissue
campaigns. To that end, he tried on his father’s shoes and formed Zappa Plays
Zappa, a band dedicated to taking Zappa’s music to a younger, larger audience
and put it in context for them.

 

“The impetus for me to get involved in this was to educate
the audience,” says Dweezil. He laments the fact that the average person’s
exposure to Zappa’s music has been the comedic material like “Valley Girl” and
“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” and as such, they’ve missed the point entirely:
“You really don’t have any idea of what Frank’s music is about.” So instead of
writing a book or going on the lecture circuit, Dweezil took two years to learn
enough of his pop’s catalog to take ZPZ on tour and commence an effort to “give
people a broader perspective.”

 

Little did Dweezil know his horizons would be first to
expand. Beyond some rudimentary first lessons from guitar virtuoso and one-time
member of FZ’s band the Mothers of Invention, Steve Vai, Dweezil was a
self-taught “rock” guitarist with a taste for high-octane solos a la Eddie Van
Halen. Although he’d grown up watching his dad from the wings, heard more than
his share of the records, and developed a hefty musical vocabulary of his own,
Dweezil had to become a “musician.” What’s more, he had to contend with his
father’s devout fan base, who would approach Dweezil’s take on FZ with
skepticism, and a desire to do right by his dad.

 

He started in the most logical place: guitar. FZ was a
guitar hero – albeit not like the Van Halens of the world. His six-string
acrobatics came from a composer’s perspective, and involved an improvisational
sensibility that paired a jazzman’s improvisational skills with the most open
of minds. Getting into that headspace, recreating that towering musical
presence, was job one. “I needed to learn some of the other impossible guitar
parts and take it to extremes,” says Dweezil.

 

One of the first compositions he tackled was the notorious
“Black Page,” a piece of music FZ wrote as a drum solo and was so named due to
the myriad black notes crammed onto the sheet music. With no shortage of hard
labor, Dweezil adapted it to guitar and included it on ZPZ’s eponymous 2007
debut live CD and DVD, which found
the band – a group of Zappa neophytes – winning over crowds around the country
with their note-perfect renditions of Zappa’s greatest works, including “Zomby
Woof” and “Peaches En Regalia.”   

 

Not that it was so easy. At first the band met with the
expected skeptics and critics. Some self-appointed huge Zappa fans even thought
rarities like “Imaginary Diseases” and “Regyptian Strut” were Dweezil originals
and complained. Some even called ZPZ a glorified cover band. But that only
proved Dweezil’s point: Even if you think you know Frank Zappa, there are
layers yet to be exposed. Ultimately, ZPZ’s enthusiasm and reverence for the
music won out. The band won a Grammy for their performance of “Peaches” on Zappa Plays Zappa and his father’s
audience has accepted ZPZ, seeing them multiple times on a single tour and even
asking when they’ll record original music. “I never expected that,” marvels
Dweezil, who says they may even comply this year.

 

For now, ZPZ is touring behind their sophomore release, The Return of the Son of…, a live 2-CD
set on which they resurrect more of FZ’s greatest material. Mainly they perform
the recorded arrangements, which are more familiar than the umpteen live
bootleg versions, but they’re known to cough up hybrid arrangements that merge
recordings with noteworthy live takes. Special to this release, however, are
the guitar solos, which Dweezil decided to take into the stratosphere just like
his dad would do if he was still alive.

 

Although he says “Frank’s music sounded the way it sounded
because he wrote it that way and he
made people play it that way,” Dweezil notes that it’s a way to feel close to
his father, whom he often watched play from the wings. Sharing his father’s
music and helping expand on it creates a feeling of closeness that transcends death.
“Ultimately my goal was to create a band that could play this music with
respect and really give people and authentic experience.” And that’s something
to freak out about.

 

[NOTE: An abridged version of this story appeared in the
June 3, 2010 edition of Salt Lake City
Weekly
.]

 

 

 

 

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