Dweezil Zappa Takes on Dad's Music

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Musician and composer Frank Zappa left an amazing legacy: more than 80 albums and hundreds of additional compositions. Now his son, Dweezil, is working to keep his father's music alive. He and an orchestra are embarking on an international tour, playing selections of Frank Zappa's music.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY and a story about a musical father and a tribute from his musical son. It's from our senior producer Steve Proffitt.

(Soundbite of song)

STEVE PROFFITT: Forty years ago, America's young people were rocking to bands like the Jefferson Airplane, growing their hair long and tie-dyeing their T-shirts. And while there were many voices of protest and change during that summer of love, none was more subversive or probably more sarcastic than that of Frank Zappa.

(Soundbite of song, "It Can't Happen Here)

Mr. FRANK ZAPPA (Singer): (Singing) It can't happen here. It can't happen here.

PROFFITT: With his band, The Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa simultaneously inspired and ridiculed American culture. In early albums like "Freak Out!", "Absolutely Free," and "We're Only In It For The Money," he created unusual, biting and funny compositions.

(Soundbite of song, "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here")

Mr. ZAPPA: (Singing) You're probably wondering why I'm here. And so am I, so am I.

PROFFITT: But there was another, far more substantial side to Frank Zappa.

(Soundbite of music)

PROFFITT: Zappa, who died 14 years ago at age 53, was also a serious composer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DWEEZIL ZAPPA (Frank Zappa's Son): He's a guy that could sit on an airplane and write a piece of music and hear all the parts in his head.

PROFFITT: Dweezil Zappa is Frank's son, one of four Zappa offspring and a very talented guitarist in his own right. He calls his father's music massively complex. The New York Times agrees, deeming it fiendishly difficult to execute.

Mr. ZAPPA: Yeah. It's very difficult. And some people might even think it sounds chaotic. But there's definitely a rhyme and reason to it. Frank was a composer that mostly used a rock band. Knowing that that's how he put his music together, it's easier to understand, but it's certainly not easy to play.

(Soundbite of music)

PROFFITT: Dweezil knows just how difficult it is to play. For the last three years, he has devoted his life to learning and playing his father's work, including this notoriously difficult piece, known as "The Black Page."

(Soundbite of song, "The Black Page")

PROFFITT: It gets its name because there are so many notes on the chart, the page looks black.

(Soundbite of song, "The Black Page")

PROFFITT: Dweezil put together a band of virtuoso musicians and he's touring with them, playing traditional rock venues and concert halls. It's become his mission to keep his father's work alive.

Mr. ZAPPA: It's not about, oh, let me make a compendium of hit songs and create some nostalgia event. It's way beyond that. I think Frank has been misunderstood and overlooked for so long that I wanted to focus on things that could help tell the story and uncover some of the secrets to his music, you know, for new listeners as well as long-time fans.

(Soundbite of music)

PROFFITT: Dweezil's biggest concern is that people think of Frank Zappa as a creator of novelty songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow")

THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION (Band): (Singing) You watch out where the huskies go and don't you eat that yellow snow.

PROFFITT: And not someone who produced more than 60 albums and who was influenced at least as much by Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese as he was by Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard.

Mr. ZAPPA: You think of him like Weird Al Yankovic because he was on Dr. Demento. That was the only airplay that he ever got, so it made people think of him as this sort of mad scientist, funny guy. Then he has kids with weird names and all this other stuff, so they - if they've not heard the other 60 some odd albums that show off all these other music and they've only ever heard "Yellow Snow" or "Dancing Fool," they get the wrong impression.

PROFFITT: And in fact, it may be difficult to reconcile that the man who wrote this...

(Soundbite of song, "Dancing Fool")

THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION: (Singing) Dancing fool. Dancing fool. Dancing fool

PROFFITT: ...also wrote this...

(Soundbite of music)

PROFFITT: And yet there is something very Zappa about these two disparate compositions.

Mr. ZAPPA: Nobody sounds like him. And when you think of the millions of albums that have been made, you know, how hard it is to create a signature style and instantly recognizable signature within your music. And that's a real stunning achievement in of itself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAPPA: He's very astute when it comes to rhythmic manipulation. I mean it's incredible. He started off as a drummer so it makes sense.

PROFFITT: Dweezil admits what he's doing is a little quixotic. And he figures Frank would probably give him a pretty hard time about it.

Mr. ZAPPA: Well, I think he'd be very amuse that I have gone to the lengths that I have to get the details correct on the music. And I think he would really enjoy being able to work with the band that I've put together because there is no fear in the band. We've taken on challenges and all kinds of things. Everybody is multitasking to the nth degree.

But he had a great sense of humor. I'm sure he would have said, isn't there something else you'd rather be doing with your time? You know, he's very self-deprecating when it comes to his own work. It's a shame that he - that he's not around so he could be making more and more music, you know. They say that composers really reach their stride in their mid-50s, and he didn't get a chance to do that.

PROFFITT: Dweezil Zappa working to keep his father's musical legacy alive. His band is on what they call the Tour de Frank - playing Frank Zappa's music at sites across North America and Europe. They will be in Chicago and Milwaukee this weekend.

Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Call Any Vegetables")

Mr. Zappa: (Singing) Call any vegetables, call it by name. You've got to call one today when you get off the train. Call any vegetables and the chances are good. The vegetable will respond to you. The vegetable will respond to you.

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