Frank Zappa died 20 years ago today. I met him once, in his hotel in London when he was there in the 1970s suing the Royal Albert Hall for cancelling a gig they'd contracted to host (on grounds of anticipated obscenity). I attended the trial, a wonderful prolonged comedy, for Let It Rock magazine, and interviewed him in his commodious hotel suite one mid-afternoon. Room-service arrived bearing an enormous tray of flambuoyantly British afternoon tea. Zappa handed me a cup & saucer, picked up the teapot and asked: "Shall I be Mother?"

Here's the obituary I wrote for, ahem, the Daily Mail in 1993:

Frank Zappa, who has died of cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 52, might well be seen as the last wild man of rock, were it not that on the one hand Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard are still alive, and on the other that Frank Vincent Zappa, born December 21, 1940, was a composer and musician whose work ranged far wider than “rock” suggests.

For many, he will remain the man who gave the world The Mothers Of Invention, and albums called “Lumpy Gravy”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and “We’re Only In It For The Money” (this last a savage parody of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” artwork). His breakthrough came on the West Coast as a bohemian avant-garde was becoming the mass “hippie” movement, and with early songs like ‘Call Any Vegetable’, ‘Who Needs The Peace Corps?’ and ‘The Brain Police’, Zappa made himself famous with equally savage satirical attacks on both the gullible hippie young and their parents, while appearing in early publicity shots sporting a flowery dress along with a distinctively swarthy moustache and Imperial beard, and with his long hair up in bunches.

Having gained an entree into the world of rock celebrity, however, Zappa put himself at the cutting edge of studio technology and was a pioneer at integrating modern “classical” music, jazz and rock in complex, witty ways. In the end, he offered us thirty years’ worth of music across what was an unprecedented, and remains an unrivalled, breadth of musical terrain.

Zappa’s life and work always displayed dramatic contradictions. An artist of the most demanding musical sensibility, he never outgrew a taste for smut-songs, always missing the critical point by defending them for their “humour” and “sexual honesty”; a talented self-publicist with a trademark flair for grotesque-joke titles, he was always committedly serious about his work; a workaholic disciplinarian who despised the use of drink and drugs, he chose for his early image that of laid-back leader of an anarchic drug-fuelled hippie band. A loud champion of “groupies”, he was one of the very few men in rock to stay married (to Gail Sloatman) for over 25 years; an effective political campaigner against the New Right televangelists in Reagan’s America, he never considered himself a liberal or a supporter of the left. A fine rock-guitarist, he was a steadfast enemy of mainstream rock music; a “classical” composer, he was always quick to bring into his band jazz musicians of promise and talent, including George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty.

In the end, perhaps, Zappa came to see musicians as purchaseable units, like editing-suites or amps: part of the baggage the composer needed to finance and deploy. Or not, in the case of rock musicians. His 1986 release “Jazz From Hell” was made, one track excepted, entirely on the computer-keyboard instrument the Synclavier: dispensing with musicians yet sounding like lots of them.

The crunch came in 1988, when the rock tour that would be his last collapsed after 81 shows, Zappa sacking most of the musicians because they were all in dispute. The rehearsals had lasted 10 hours a day, 5 days a week for four months.

As the me-decade ended, Zappa made trips to Russia and Czechoslovakia. He got caught up in “facilitating American finance” (unsuccessfully) for a Russian horror film, and trying to help sell frozen muffins to the USSR. Zappa said: “I met all these very interesting people who wanted to do a wide range of business things with people from the West... [I was] kind of like a dating service.”

In 1990, Zappa revisited Prague, President Havel urging him to be a cultural liaison officer for the new régime in its approaches to the west. In 1991 he returned to Czechoslovakia and Hungary to celebrate the departure of their Soviet troops, and at a Prague concert gave his only guitar performance since the rock-tour collapse. In London he told BBC Radio 4 that he was still doing “a feasibility study” on standing for the US Presidency in '92, by getting US radio listener-response. By the autumn, no decision had been announced, and then his illness was announced instead.

Despite myriad other activity, serious composition had long been Zappa’s main concern. The vegetable-fetischist with the dope-head rock group and the aesthetically-challenged publicity (older readers may recall the “Zappa the Crapper” poster) had become a serious composer, his work performed in concert-halls alongside Cage, Stravinsky and other moderns.

In 1983, overseeing a Barbican performance of his orchestral works with the LSO and the young American conductor Kent Nagano (now with the Hallé), Zappa was unhappy at the orchestra’s apparent drinking in the interval, and said that on the subsequent recording-sessions, repairing trumpet-section faults needed forty edits in seven minutes’ music. These are undetectable because, as Nagano concedes, “Frank was such a superb editor.”

Zappa also worked with Pierre Boulez, but felt that the Ensemble InterContemporain, too, was under-rehearsed, for its 1984 performance of his work in Paris. “I hated that premiere,” he wrote. “Boulez virtually had to drag me onto the stage to take a bow.” Five years later, asked to identify his “primary goal”, Zappa answered: “That’s easy. I’m still waiting for an accurate performance!”

In the event, he lived to hear something he probably felt came close. Since contracting cancer, Zappa had cancelled many public appearances and new works. His last completed major project was “The Yellow Shark”, a collection of work commissioned by the Ensemble Modern and premiered at the Frankfurt Music Festival in September 1992. Zappa had planned to conduct part of each evening’s performance but in the event could manage the baton only for small portions of the first performance. The work was nevertheless an immediate success, and under Zappa’s own supervision yielded a CD recording, released only last month, which, happily, can stand as a decent last release from one of the major creative figures of modern music.

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