Frank Zappa: A 'Lumpy' Legacy

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After our story aired, NPR was asked to take down the two Frank Zappa pieces we had been given permission to stream.

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Frank Zappa was called many things during his life, but lazy wasn't one of them. He put out more than 60 records, and unreleased music is still trickling out more than 15 years after his death. It's part of an effort by his widow, Gail, to keep Zappa's legacy alive.

The most recent effort from the Zappa Family Trust is a three-disc set titled Lumpy Money. It combines music — released and unreleased — that Frank Zappa recorded in 1967. One session produced the Mothers of Invention album We're Only in It for the Money, the group's third release. The other was a surprise.

Zappa was a 26-year-old, self-taught composer with long hair and a funny goatee when he walked into a Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles and handed an orchestra charts for Lumpy Gravy.

"At one point, he turned to me when we were listening, just to playback," Gail Zappa says, "and he said, 'Did I write that?' It was so shocking."

It's almost as if Frank Zappa was writing avant-garde classical music in Top 40 segments, says Rolling Stone's David Fricke, who wrote the liner notes for the new set.

"It just blew my mind," he says.

Lumpy Gravy is a suite of three-minute movements, built on Zappa's love of 20th-century classical music (particularly that of Edgard Varese), R&B and jazz. The music is not easy to play. Some of L.A.'s best studio musicians balked at the parts Zappa had written — until he picked up his guitar and tossed off the sections he'd written for bassoon and bass clarinet. Gail Zappa says musicians are still struggling to play what her husband wrote.

"I want people to play Frank's music," she says. "Go ahead; try. Don't hurt yourself, but just try it."

She insists that anyone who does try to perform it in public needs to pay royalties to his estate.

"I don't really care who's doing it, as long as they get a license," she says. "The people I'm going after are not licensing the music."

Legacy Vs. Controversy

Gail Zappa is going after cover bands she accuses of "identity theft." Her lawyers have sent scores of cease-and-desist letters. But many of the people who continue to perform Frank Zappa's music say they don't need permission.

"You or I cannot record that material and sell it for money. But we can perform it," says guitarist Andre Cholmondeley, who plays in a long-running Zappa cover band called Project/Object. "I'm not a lawyer, but that is the opinion and direction I've been given by probably a dozen lawyers at this point."

Cholmondeley maintains that as long as the venues he plays have paid for a blanket license from the performance-rights organization ASCAP, he is not doing anything illegal. Music lawyers consulted for this story agreed. It seems that Gail Zappa has never actually sued a cover band, but she has sued a 20-year-old festival in Germany called the Zappanale for trademark infringement. She lost but plans to appeal.

By all accounts, Frank Zappa was a perfectionist who liked to keep a tight grip on his business and his art. As he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1989, he struggled with symphony orchestras — and his own bands — to get his music right.

"Goal one for a composer is to just hear what it was that you wrote," Zappa said, "because you like to listen to music, as well as write it. That's always been the main thrill for me, is to come up with a musical idea and have it performed some way, and I'm especially thrilled if it's performed correctly."

That's why Gail Zappa has a problem with some cover bands.

"Somebody goes out there, plays music — it's not played very well; it doesn't sound anything like what the composer intended," she says. "And they are telling the audience that's never heard it before that this is Frank Zappa's music. It's not. It's some wretched version of it."

There are cover bands that the Zappa family does endorse, including Zappa Plays Zappa, a band fronted by Frank's son Dweezil. Gail Zappa insists that she's not playing favorites. But some of the musicians who have been threatened by her lawyers have doubts.

What Would Frank Want?

Many fans point to a message that was left on the hot line for Zappa's record label shortly after he died of prostate cancer in 1993.

The message says, in part, "Just play his music if you're a musician. And otherwise, play his music anyway. That will be enough for him."

The message was read by Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit. Gail Zappa insists that it's not what some fans and musicians have made it out to be.

"We wrote something for Moon to say on the hot line," she says. "But it was not a statement made by Frank. He never said that. He never told anyone that."

Ike Willis would beg to differ.

"The main reason I'm doing this is because I love Frank," Willis says. "I love his music. And he asked me to do it."

Willis is a singer and guitarist who worked with Frank Zappa on and off for 17 years. He now tours with Project/Object and other unauthorized cover bands. Willis says he talked to Zappa a week before the composer died.

"He said, 'I would really like it if you could be one of the people that could actually keep my music played, in some way, shape or form.' Those were his words," Willis says. "He didn't want it to die."

There are performers who have decided that it's simply easier to work with Gail Zappa. Students from the Paul Green School of Rock performed at Zappanale in 2005. A few years later, Green got a threatening letter from Gail Zappa's lawyers. He decided to negotiate.

"I don't disagree with her right to do that — just her opinion on the matter," says Green, whose work gained a wide audience through the documentary film Rock School. "He wrote this music to be played. If Gail opened it up a little more, I think kids would latch on to this music, if it was more readily and easily available."

Rolling Stone's Fricke says the disputes don't help the legacy — which is unfortunate, he says, because Zappa's music deserves to reach a wider audience.

"The legacy hasn't been taken seriously enough since his death," Fricke says. "In a way, I don't think people really understand him. I'm still working on it."

So are other fans, musicians and family members, who insist that they want Frank Zappa's music to thrive. But that's just about the only thing they can agree on.

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