Throughout his life, Frank Zappa proved far too wavering and iconoclastic to ever pigeonhole neatly. His music was as inscrutable as his persona. The term genre-defying is perhaps overused, in part, because some people get so pernickety about categorisation that avoiding it offers a safe way to navigate the genre-classified terrain, yet there’s scarcely any artists out there more befitting of the term than Zappa.
His music prides itself on non-conformity as did his character; for instance, contrary to how he may look, he was actually an ardent anti-drug advocate. Similarly, his music, contrary to the instrumentation, has more in common with the classical world than atypical rock ‘n’ roll. He started off as a high-school drummer with his early influences being percussion-heavy modern-classical, before picking up the guitar and dipping into doo-wop.
As he went along, he continued to gather more influences from around the world and absorb them into his artistic arsenal. In the process, he essentially became a cult act with a mainstream following—a sort of outsider artist for the masses, if you will. While this melee of musical madness was difficult to package from the outside, his ability was such that the intent was always clearly mastered from his own singular point of view.
During the 1980s, Zappa delved deeper into his eclectic influences and as a result, it all gets a little bit hard to tackle even for the most ardent fans of berserk beats and strange songs. However, in 1993, Zappa revisited some of his earlier rock classics on The Yellow Shark and produced a blistering reimagining of ‘Uncle Meat’ among others. Backed by his trusty band of stellar musicians known as the Ensemble Modern, his ensuing grand final tour was a fairground fanfare of sound.
Tom Waits toured with Zappa’s troupe on this fateful last hurrah, and he provided a testimony that defined Zappa’s fitting culmination. “The ensemble is awe-inspiring,” Waits later recalled. “It is a rich pageant of texture in colour. It’s the clarity of his perfect madness and mastery. Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right. Frank reigns and rules with the strangest tools.”
This vision came together in 1991. When Zappa was ill with cancer, he was approached by the German chamber ensemble and sensing a way to define his creative legacy in the face of his beleaguering illness he was quick to invite the musicians over to Los Angeles. Therein he turned the epics of the past into a blistering new maelstrom of sound akin to Edgar Varese in a fever dream. Complete with dancers and spinning choreography, the whole show was like a marionette powered directly from Zappa’s mind.
While Zappa was only well enough to attend two shows in Frankfurt, even this sorry element came with a touch of bittersweet levity given how it defined his work. After all, Zappa may well have been one of the most singular musicians in history, but it was to his credit that he was quick to recognise the skill of others as he handed the likes of Steve Vai their starts.
Zappa’s last band were as out of the ordinary as you would expect, but somehow in welcoming over 20 musicians to the mix, the star somehow achieved a final not of refinement in an otherwise wildly unfurling career. If Zappa’s career had been like turning on the tap without holding the end of the hose, then this step back into the gallery was the moment he watched his wild garden grow—it was a meadow that proved as kaleidoscopic and bottomless as everything that had gone before.