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Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

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To recent pop music fans, the enigmatic genius Frank Zappa may best be remembered as the father of Moon Unit, whose memorable spoken vocal on 1982's "Valley Girl" (produced by her father) perfectly reflected a funky aspect of the Southern California lifestyle, a cultural phenomenon Zappa consistently commented on over the years. For more serious rock students, however, Zappa was indeed a mother of invention, the most caustic iconoclast of the rock era who once said that his job was to extrapolate everything to its most absurd extreme. A powerful musical satirist, Zappa blended an appreciation for modern classical music with his loves for doo-wop and guitar rock to create one of the most fascinating legacies in rock history.   

Born in Baltimore in 1940, Zappa, with his family, came to the high desert town of Lancaster, California at age 10 and started his musical career as a high school drummer in garage bands like the Black-Outs.  Zappa always said his life, and musical tastes, changed in 1954, when he read a Look magazine story on the Sam Goody record chain, which cited its ability to sell such ''weird'' music as ''The Complete Works of Edgar Varese, Vol. One.'' When Zappa finally found a copy, he embraced its avant-garde dissonance.

His penchant for composing, as opposed to performing, was first evident in soundtracks concocted for the B-films Run Home Slow and 'The World's Greatest Sinner. But Zappa also liked having an audience, and turned to rock and roll. His restless invention was evident in an unproduced early '60s pop opera titled 'I Was a Teenage Maltshop'' (narrated by high school buddy Don Van Vliet, later to become Captain Beefheart) and such bands as the Muthers and His Magic Mufflers, the latter renamed the Mothers on Mother's Day, 1964. The 'of Invention' was added later by nervous MGM Records executives.

Even in the mid-'60s, the Mothers of Invention were a band apart. As the sleeve of their 1966 debut album, Freak Out, noted of Zappa: 'Sometimes he sings. Sometimes he talks to the audience. Sometimes there is trouble.' The Mothers followed that album with Absolutely Free and We're Only in It for the Money, which lampooned the hippie/alternative culture.

In a six-month residency at New York's Garrick Theater, the Mothers created a visceral style of improv that was half comedy, half music.

Moving back to Los Angeles, and taking up residence in Laurel Canyon with its 'open door' policies, a cult movement grew up around the Mothers of Invention and Frank himself. Frank and the Mothers released Ruben and the Jets, Hot Rats, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, while the Mothers members came and went. He made a cult movie about the Mothers' tour, called 200 Motels. Although it looked like fun from the outside, Zappa was growing frustrated with financial attrition, some of the musicians, and the audiences. He disbanded in 1970 and toured under his own name.

1970's Road Ladies began a string of less than stellar songs that would lead many to dismiss his body of work. Among them: 'Dinah-Moe Humm' (about a woman who said she couldn't have an orgasm), 'Illinois Enema Bandit'' (based on a true story) and 1974's 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow.'' The last turned out to be Zappa's first hit single.

A new Mothers was formed from the musicians contributing to Zappa's third solo album, Chunga's Revenge, and 200 Motels. Three former Turtles, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan and Jim Pons joined drummer Aynsley Dunbar and long-standing affiliates Ian Underwood and Don Preston in the band responsible for Live At The Fillmore East, June 1971. It became the band's best-selling album to date. Members of this group eventually left to form Flo And Eddie.

He wrote his autobiography and embarked on a world tour in 1988. That was the end of his live performing, except for such isolated appearances as one in Czechoslovakia at the invitation of its post-Communist president. His schedule of album releases continued to be rapid until he died of prostate cancer in 1993.

He is survived by wife Gail, daughters Moon and Diva, and sons Dweezil and Ahmet.

© 2004