24-Frank Zappa as Guru(!?)

Guru?! You have to be kidding…

No I am not kidding. Let me explain.

OK…first of all, my music bears no resemblance to Zappa’s works. And to be honest, he is not in the top 100 of my favorite artists and composers. But even so, in important ways I still regard him as my virtual “guru”.

“Guru” means “teacher” in Sanskrit, but the word has a lot more weight to it than the simple English translation. I like the definition from Wikipedia:

…one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others.

Zappa himself would probably be half-disgusted and half-amused at my applying that label to him. (Metaphorically of course, since he’s gone on to that great concert hall in the sky) But the more I read about him, the more amazing a person he appeared to be.

In a 30 year career, he released something like 60 albums, toured the world many times, met the president of Czechoslovakia who turned out to be a great fan, considered a run for president and testified brilliant before Congress during the “PMRC” album labeling/censorship debacle.  Oh, and along the way he got a Grammy for Jazz from Hell and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Before someone dismisses him as a minor leaguer, I’d like to see if they have those sorts of things on their bio.

So thought perhaps I’m not a huge appreciator of his actual music, I admire him on many other levels, particularly the fanatically incredible skill and focus he brought to his projects.

From an early age I too wanted to realize my own compositions and hear them played by actual musicians, but I had neither the drive, talent, ambition, or focus to ever accomplish much. And like Zappa, even though I lived in an area where there were abundant academic programs, including one of the world’s foremost experimental music departments at the University of California at San Diego, I never considered taking the academic route. It just wasn’t me. (For another outstanding musician who took the “one-man composer/arranger/producer” route see the website and works of Jerry Gerber.)

In my opinion, the essential book you need to read to understand Zappa is “The Real Frank Zappa Book” by Zappa with Peter Ochiogrosso. A hilarious, fascinating, thoughtful read. In particular since it’s the only one with significant input from him. I would supplement it with at least “The Frank Zappa Companion” by Richard Kostelanetz (1997).

There is a newer biography by Neal Slaven that I am eager to read as it is highly rated on Amazon.

Zappa on the prospects for the aspiring composer

From an interview in Modern Recording and Music (1984).

If by some coincidence you are a composer and an American orchestra wants to play your piece, something that you may have worked on for five years, in order just to get the parts copied for the orchestra it might cost you thousands of dollars. And do you know what you received from the orchestra for playing your music? $300 to $500 for the rental of the materials to play it. That’s how great the business is from a composer’s point of view. The only time a composer has a chance to earn anything above and beyond that is if the piece gets recorded and he gets publishing royalties from those records. But those records don’t sell in the huge quantities that rock records do, so the publishing royalties aren’t that great. The other way composers stay alive in the United States is with grants or with teaching positions. But it’s very difficult to see why anybody who is studying music now would ever want to become a composer. It’s pretty much a dead-end street in the United States. And if you become a composer, you have to know in advance that what you’re doing will probably never be played. The only person who will ever hear it is you, in your head…Because most symphony orchestras in the United States are simply doing what amounts to cover tunes of the greatest hits. Guys in orchestras have been playing Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and all that stuff since the conservatory. They already know all the hits, so when a guest conductor comes to town, all he has to do is go out there, wave his stick and look romantic and it sounds perfect. It’s like bar bands. Everyone knows how to play “Louie Louie”.

Typos in Barry Mile’s “Zappa”

This is a really interesting and thorough biography. I’m a little surprised at the typos in it from a major publisher. These are “frankly” nitpicking.

  • p. 22 “The same flare for performance led Zappa to entertain his family… “
  • p. 28 An address in San Diego is given as “the Hillcrest district at 48th and “Mead” p. 28. Not that anyone not in San Diego would care, but it’s “Meade” and that is not the Hillcrest district which is centered around University Avenue and 3rd – 4th Streets.
  • Terry Bozzio’s name is spelled “Bozio” at first, but then correctly later.

I’m still not completely finished with this, but it is definitely a corrective to my Zappa worship. Miles really doesn’t pull any punches in terms of his opinions about Zappa’s lyrics and his incredibly sarcastic, nihilistic and cynical view of life. In a way he was very narcissistic because he really only cared about his own needs and wants and felt that they trumped everything and everyone else. There is or should be a balance in life between caring for other people and caring about your work. There is no “right” or “wrong” here but I guess everyone finds their own balance. Zappa did not do things by half measures, apparently. And he didn’t do it all himself. Part of his problem was an inability or reluctance to credit other people with their contributions to his vision. I guess his retort would be: “yes, but I was the one with the vision. If these people didn’t help me with it, I’d go out and find other people who would.” You can’t really argue with this, but you can see how terrifically difficult it could make your projects.

Page#24/last modified 2022-03-20