Coming up with a relevant documentary about one of the most important musical figures of the second half of the 20th Century would no doubt be a daunting task, particularly when much of his life has already been scrutinised closely by the media. Mark Fraser looks at a new work which manages to provide some extra insights into the career of a true American maverick.
For the hard core Zappaphile, Thorsten Schutte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words doesn’t cover too much new ground when it comes to reflecting upon the man’s extensive legacy. It does, however, contain a couple of real gems for the Zappa enthusiast.
The first appears when the filmmaker looks back at the composer/rock star’s initial trip to Czechoslovakia in January 1990, where he was welcomed as royalty by fans and members of the country’s sibling government alike. Back then the Eastern European nation had just undergone its so-called Velvet Revolution, a moment when it finally started to break away from the shackles of Soviet Union rule after some 45 years of communist influence.
According to biographer Barry Miles (in his quite critical 2004 biography of the man), Zappa had already shown an interest in the erstwhile socialist bloc when he initially joined his eldest son Dweezil on a trip to Moscow during the late 1980s to help a family friend – Dennis Berardi of Kramer Guitars – try to set up a joint venture (namely a guitar factory) in Russia.
While this deal eventually fell through, the sometimes controversial musician continued to visit the Russian capital looking for further business opportunities. Then, in early 1990, he made a stopover in Prague with the hope of arranging an interview with the new Czech president (and fan), playwright Vaclav Havel, for a Financial News Network television show he was guest presenting on behalf of regular host Bob Berkowitz.
This idea had come about when Zappa met Czech musician Michael Kocab in Los Angeles during 1989. A band leader in his own right, Kocab would eventually become a member of Havel’s government, his brief in the new administration being (in Miles’ words) “the unenviable job of overseeing the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, negotiating with the Czechoslovakian Politburo, the Politburo in Moscow and the KGB”.
Although the sibling political Velvet Revolutionary and American composer did eventually touch base (an event which is briefly covered in Schutte’s documentary), things didn’t exactly go the way Zappa had wanted.
“I met with Havel and found that the minute I started talking with him about economics, he turned me over to his advisors,” he explained during a 1993 interview with Playboy magazine. “He didn’t know anything about it. We didn’t do the interview, but it was great meeting with him.”
As a result Zappa became – for the first few months of 1990 at least – Czechoslovakia’s representative to the West on matters of trade, culture and tourism.
This soon all changed, however, when the George Bush Snr US Republican Government (1989-92) cottoned on to what was happening. And, to a certain degree, Zappa proved to be his own worst enemy. In a documentary about the musician made by the BBC in the year leading up to his untimely death of prostate cancer in December 1993, he described how during one of his 1990 luncheons with Havel it was mentioned the Czech leader was planning to meet with US Vice President Dan Quayle.
“And I expressed the opinion that I thought it was unfortunate that a person such as President Havel should have to bear the company of somebody as stupid as Dan Quale for even a few moments of his life,” Zappa recalled.
“And the next thing I know Quayle doesn’t come – instead James Baker III (Bush’s Secretary of State) re-routes his trip to Moscow, so that he can come blasting into Prague, and literally lays down the law to the Czechoslovakian Government, and says: “You can either do business with the United States or you can do business with Zappa. What’ll it be?” As a result, Frank was reduced to being an unofficial cultural emissary.
While this particular piece of folklore is familiar amongst most Zappaphiles, Schutte’s documentary adds a bit more to the narrative by including a brief moment when the composer meets with a group of musicians/fans at Prague’s White Horse restaurant and performs an impromptu rendition of “Love of My Life”, a doo-wop number from his 1981 Tinsel Town Rebellion* album (which is playing in the background).
From all indications Zappa was an extremely competent and confident performer on stage during his decades-long rock and roll career. Nevertheless, one senses that at this particular moment he is not only completely at ease in his new environment, but is also truly enjoying himself as he informally rattles off one of the few benign love songs in his extraordinary repertoire.
And though it might not be the rarest of recorded moments in his life (given it can currently be seen on YouTube as part of a 30 minute Czech television programme made over a quarter of a century ago), it does reveal an unusually gentler and appreciative side of him. If anything, it looks as if he is genuinely having fun – something that can’t be said about him during a number of the other interviews featured in this documentary.
Another interesting point about Eat That Question’s coverage of Zappa’s Czech adventure is the fact it briefly (albeit inadvertently) portrays him as only being in it for himself. This occurs when he is interviewed by a local TV crew (the one that shot the above-mentioned TV show) and asked what his first trade deal with the Eastern European country entailed.
“It is to release records, CDs and cassettes of my music in Czechoslovakia for the first time legally,” is the reply.
While this suggests Zappa may have primarily been targeting new markets for his own brand, his earlier business activities in Russia show he was also considering a number of other trade options which had nothing to do with his – or anybody else’s – music.
According to Miles, he had already looked at the possibility of developing Moscow’s Luzhniky Sports Complex and its adjacent river front into a shopping mall and entertainment centre well before arriving in Prague. And, aside from attending a meeting at the Global Forum on Environment and Development for Survival at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, he also attempted to broker a deal for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
“He already represented MPI, a Chicago-based home video company, and was looking to set up TV licencing and mail order distribution of their film catalogue across Eastern Europe,” Miles wrote.
Perhaps one of the most uncharacteristic deals Zappa tried to seal, however, (and this is not featured in Schutte’s documentary) wasn’t related to entertainment, but to agriculture.
Speaking to NBC’s Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show in March 1990 (during which the host somewhat incongruously introduced the composer as being “in many ways an ongoing symbol of the sixties’ spirit of peace and love” – a claim thoroughly contradicted by Eat That Question), Zappa explained how he was trying to help a US tractor designer break into the Russian market.
“A guy called me up and said he had a tractor and it’s called the Jack Tractor,” he said. “It’s a new innovation in tractor technology. It’s a four wheel independent suspension, with a power train in the suspension – it’ll drive over everything, it doesn’t tip over, and it picks up a 2000 pound log with this thing underneath of it.
“And he wants to get it manufactured some place in the East. So what I’m trying to do for him is arrange to have it manufactured in a recommissioned Soviet military factory.”
Zappa – the composer who during the previous decade had commissioned the London Symphony Orchestra to play his music and later had a few of his pieces performed by Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain – branching out into the tractor business? How truly bizarre!
Nevertheless, it is a further indication of just how flexible his thinking really was, a point touched upon when he was later asked by Gumbel: “How central is music to your life these days? Is it as important as it used to be?”
“Well I think that even if I am doing something like a business deal it is a type of composition – I view the whole thing as a composition,” he replied.
The second real gem in Eat That Question – and possibly the documentary’s modest crowning achievement – turns up at the end of the film in the form of a rarely-seen clip in which an ill-looking Zappa conducts what would end up being his final “group” – Germany’s Ensemble Modern – as they play Edgard Varese’s “Ionisation”, a predominantly percussion piece that the composer (1883-1965) wrote circa 1930.
As with the Czechoslovakian story, Frank’s fascination with Varese is also well known amongst his fans. In a 1971 magazine article (and later in his 1989 autobiography), Zappa described in detail how he discovered the music of the Frenchman, who settled in the US during 1916 and later (1921) founded (with fellow composer and virtuoso harpist Carlos Salzedo) the International Composers’ Guild, as well as the Pan-American Association of Composers (1926).
At around the age of 13, after reading that Varese’s music was “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds”, the teenager – who was already heavily into rhythm-and-blues – set himself the task of tracking down The Complete Works of Edgar Varese Volume 1.
He eventually stumbled across it in a La Mesa hi-fi store.
“Sitting in the front (of an LP bin), just a little bent at the corners, was a strange-looking black and white album cover,” Zappa recalled. “On it there was a picture of a man with grey frizzy hair. He looked like a mad scientist. I thought it was great that somebody had finally made a record of a mad scientist.”
Zappa never made it a secret that “Ionisation” was one of his favourite pieces of music, and its influence can clearly be heard in some of the percussion versions of his more inventive jazz-rock compositions like “The Black Page” and “Cheepnis”.
And, by the time he conducted the Ensemble Modern in California during 1991 as they prepared for the The Yellow Shark concerts in Germany and Austria the following year, he knew his time was running out, having been diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer sometime around May 1990.
Taking all this into account, it’s safe to assume that Zappa would have considered any project involving the performance of Varese’s work as important. Furthermore, towards the end of his life, it was reported he was going to put together an LP called The Rage and The Fury: The Music of Edgard Varese which, put simply, would have been nothing short of fascinating.
However, it has yet to see the light of day, which is a bit strange given Zappa’s widow Gail saw fit to issue over 35 more albums of his material between his death in 1993 and her own demise (from lung cancer) on October 7 last year, but failed to release the one that would have been very close to her late husband’s heart.
For Frank’s hard core fan base, The Rage and the Fury is one of the proverbial lost albums – a work which promises to provide a direct link between the idiosyncratic composer and the biggest influence on the evolution of his own so-called serious music. Unfortunately (and somewhat inexplicably) it still hasn’t emerged from the Zappa Family Trust vault.
Putting aside a brief segment of interview which appears at the very end of Eat That Question’s closing credits, seeing Zappa conduct Varese is a truly fitting conclusion to this documentary, arguably providing the film with its most original moment.
*”Love of My Life” first appeared on Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, which was released by The Mothers of Invention in 1968. Zappa sang a second song from Tinsel Town Rebellion at the White Horse – it was “Ain’t Got No Heart”, a number that dated back to the group’s 1966 debut double album Freak Out!