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Frank Zappa

When I was but a lad, my musical taste was -- well, let's just say not good. We didn't have a lot of records around the house, so my likes and dislikes were pretty much formed by what I heard around the neighborhood and on the radio, or saw on TV. When I was really young, I distinctly remember arguing with the girls who lived at the end of the street that they were horribly misguided -- the Monkees were much better than the Beatles, I said. A little later, I became a fan of hard rock -- Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, Led Zep -- El Lay country-rock (my first concert was the Eagles at the Mississippi River Festival when I was in seventh grade) and Chicago (because I played in the school band and Chicago had horns). All pretty standard-issue stuff, only some of which I would choose to listen to yet today.

Then one day I happened by the locker of my friend Jerome, who was older, had a cassette player and was a Frank Zappa fan, and the world never quite looked the same again. I'm not sure which Zappa tape he might have been playing -- my guess is Apostrophe, which was relatively new at the time, was one of Zappa's most accessible albums, and even spawned a minor radio hit with "Cosmik Debris." What grabbed me the most, though, was the opening suite: "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It/St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast/ Father Oblivion." It was musically dazzling, mildly naughty and so far out of the usual subject matter of a rock & roll song that I could scarcely believe it. I went out and bought a copy of Apostrophe, but the real treat was when I discovered the other records in the bin. Zappa may be the first artist besides the Beatles, Stones and, um, Chicago whose catalog I started to work my way through backward.

At the time, that wasn't too easy. Much of Zappa's early stuff on Verve was out of print and cost a pretty penny to acquire. So it became a kind of quest to find records such as Freak Out! and We're Only in It for the Money. Maybe because they were so hard-won, or because they were simply the weirdest records I'd heard at the time, they still rank among my all-time favorites. Zappa held nothing sacred, couldn't resist a cheap joke and made music that was a heady brew of genres, from doo-wop to classical to proto-fusion. For me, he provided the key to so many different artists, from the Coasters to Miles Davis to Stravinsky. On his recommendation, I checked out Eric Dolphy (whose name figured in "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" on Weasels Ripped My Flesh), and even Edgard Varese, whose motto "The present-day composer refuses to die!" Zappa adopted as his own.

Through the years, I've probably been a little too tolerant of Zappa's most egregious excesses -- his tedious synclavier albums and the juvenile humor of his late-'70s/early-'80s work. Overall, though, Zappa was an artist who followed his muse wherever it went, and it went further than most. For better and worse, his sensibilities have had an immense impact on my own.

 
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