Zappa is still playing Zappa
Despite aggressive legal action, Dweezil Zappa—virtuoso guitarist and son of the eccentric Frank Zappa—will not stop performing.
“A few years after my dad passed away in ’93, I would ask people what they thought about him,” Dweezil tells the Straight on the line from Scottsdale, Arizona. “A lot of individuals under 40 didn’t even know who Frank Zappa was. To me, that was pretty surprising, because my dad has made some major contributions to the world of music. I noticed that there wasn’t anything happening in terms of trying to develop a new audience to appreciate Frank’s work, so I started the Zappa Plays Zappa tour in 2006 to expose people to a wide selection of his music. We’ve been performing his songs every year since.”
Dweezil’s attempt to revitalize interest in Frank Zappa’s catalogue, however, suffered a serious setback in 2015. After Gail Zappa—head of the Zappa Family Trust, and Frank’s wife—died of lung cancer, control of the trust, which includes the rights to Frank Zappa’s music, passed to two of Dweezil’s siblings: Ahmet and Diva. According to the guitarist, the pair deemed the name Zappa Plays Zappa an infringement of copyright, and suggested that each song Dweezil performed could incur penalties of up to $150,000.
“It’s very baffling to me,” he says. “I don’t understand what their thought process is. I would have thought that a prudent person who was tasked with looking after the future of the Zappa legacy would say, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we got a very proficient team of people who know how to handle a very particular catalogue, and understand the nuances and integrity of the music, and then propel the songs into the future with a sense of professionalism?’ Instead, they’re trying to stop it.”
Last year, Dweezil was slapped with a cease-and-desist order from his siblings for using the name Zappa Plays Zappa. But despite the legal threats, the guitarist will continue to take Frank’s music on the road—under the new moniker 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F*CK He Wants—to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his father’s first album, Freak Out!.
“I organized the songs for this tour in a way that feels almost chronological,” Dweezil says. “It’s roughly a two-and-a-half-hour show. The early Mothers of Invention stuff has a certain feel to it that’s very different from Frank’s later work. It’s more about the energy of it as opposed to the drilled precision of the actual notes and rhythms. Some of it is comical, some of it is sarcastic, but it’s a real collage of temperaments.
“When you put that record into perspective and compare it to other things that were out at the time, it’s so subversive and dangerous,” he continues. “Even half a century on, it still retains that quality because there’s nothing like it. The songs have elements that feel like they’re ripped from today’s headlines—you take a track like ‘Trouble Every Day’, and the lyrics feel exactly like what is happening like, now. It’s like he was a rock ’n’ roll Nostradamus.”
Although deeply upset at the Zappa Family Trust’s legal action, Dweezil will continue to prioritize his father’s work above the potential financial penalties. He’s also offering a big “fuck you” to his siblings.
“My goal is to point out that what people think they know about Frank often wasn’t very accurate,” the guitarist says. “So, for example, if they had only heard songs like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ or ‘Montana’—the songs with a monologue and a bit of a sense of humour—they would regard him as a novelty act, especially because that’s the stuff that got the widest exposure. I don’t think that does justice to the over 70 albums that he made in his lifetime, because the majority of it is not like that. Frank ultimately was a classical composer that used a rock band as his orchestra. He eventually ended up working with classical orchestras as well, but rock bands were his main medium. He was a real musician.”
Dweezil Zappa plays the Commodore on Tuesday (April 25).
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