I’m a huge admirer of Frank Zappa, and have been since the mid-sixties. As a music critic I’ve written about him extensively, and during my time as an executive with Warner Music Group and Rhino Records I’ve had business dealings with his representatives that give me a certain “inside” perspective on him (more on that later). So before I begin ranting, I first of all want to assure the reader this piece in composed with love in my heart for one of the most important 20th century composers in any genre, the prolific FZ.
Certain quadrants of cyberspace have been abuzz with excitement since the keepers of the Frank Zappa musical legacy announced a new series of audio releases from the vault, starting with a previously-unbootlegged performance of The Mothers of Invention from Aug. 25, 1968 in Vancouver. The just-released double-CD “Road Tapes: Venue #1” contains many delights, including a suite of tunes from “Uncle Meat” recorded before its release, an extremely rare performance of the band doing Edgard Varèse’s composition “Octandre,” and plenty of FZ’s wry spoken introductions and interactions with the audience, especially during awesome versions of “Help, I’m a Rock” and “King Kong.”
But there’s a problem with this set, and many of the other releases supervised by Frank Zappa’s widow Gail, symptomatic of a longstanding issue many fans have with how The Zappa Family Trust has operated since FZ’s death in December 1993. Frank Zappa, who always connected with audiences even if they didn’t share his native language, still has a huge following around the world. Enthusiasts maintain numerous unauthorized websites, bootleg recordings are rampant, and discontent with Gail Zappa has become the default position for her husband’s most passionate followers. Gail Zappa does everything she can to tightly control her husband’s musical and social legacy as she sees fit, including approving masters for reissues and archive releases, taking legal action (unsuccessfully) to interfere with the tribute festival Zappanale that occurs every summer in the small German town of Bad Doberan, and branding Zappa releases as “official” or not. She’s on the lookout for anyone trying to make money off her husband, or even people who just associate themselves with him in a way she doesn’t like. She’s even trademarked the distinctive shape of his mustache.
One of Gail’s most persistent gambits is her strong tendency to disparage or ignore the contribution of Frank Zappa’s many band members and collaborators. For instance, “Road Tapes: Venue #1” does not contain the words “Mothers of Invention.” According to the packaging, it’s a Frank Zappa album. (A 1968 gig was obviously not billed originally as by “Frank Zappa.”) At least the performing personnel is listed in the skimpy booklet – in tiny difficult-to-read type, printed sideways as if an afterthought in the design. To my mind, the contribution of musicians Ray Collins, Bunk Gardner, Don Preston, Jimmy Carl Black and many more to Zappa’s stature should not be minimized. But over the years, certain members of the Mothers have sued the Zappa Family Trust for non-payment of royalties and other perceived slights and infractions, and Gail knows how to hold a grudge. There are some Zappa-associated musicians who seem to have maintained good relations with her (Ian Underwood and Scott Thunes appear to be okay) while others (Don Preston for instance) are openly treated with less respect. The chat rooms that cater to Zappa appreciators are full of sniping at Gail, deriding what fans see as her many obfuscations, episodes of misinformation or avarice. She rarely responds publically, but when she does she tends to deepen the enigma of how she sees her responsibilities.
The history of Zappa LP and CD releases was and is messy, especially during his lifetime, when record company censorship sometimes played a factor in what could be released, or re-released. Fans spend hours debating the variations and fugues of Zappa’s catalog. We can now add a technical problem with the Vancouver release to this debate: in the middle of “Trouble Every Day” there is a strange interruption, the sound of a door slam, and then a continuation of sound. Perhaps an attempt to cover up a reel-change, or some other glitch? You won’t find out in the non-existent liner notes. Gail leaves the consumer to discover it and wonder what the hell happened on their own. Providing information is not her strong suit. Since FZ was probably the one who made this editing decision (he was forever splicing together different takes and playing with master tapes in his studio bunker in Laurel Canyon) we might never know more.
Yes, FZ himself was prone to the occasional desecration of his own oeuvre during his lifetime. When he remixed the seminal albums “We’re Only In It For the Money” and “Cruising With Ruben & The Jets” for CD release in 1984, he also had the rhythm tracks re-recorded by his current associates Arthur Barrow and Chad Wackerman, who were not on the original recordings. At the time Zappa claimed the original tapes were not in good shape, and he was honoring “the material.” In my opinion his “improvements” are vile. After an outcry “We’re Only In It For the Money” was later issued in correct form, but it took until 2009 for Gail to supervise a reissue of the proper “Cruising” version, which she inexplicably re-titled “Greasy Love Songs,” high-priced and sold only through her website. In the eighties FZ also mucked about with the masters of one of his greatest achievements “Hot Rats,” remixing the tapes to eliminate some (of my favorite) percussion effects etc. The original “Hot Rats” LP mix had never been on CD until last year, when Gail restored the correct 1969 version as part of a reissue campaign through Universal. She got that one right. It only took 30 years.
As demonstrated by the first “Road Tapes,” despite the enormous amount of “official” and un-authorized releases already circulating, the Zappa archive is undoubtedly full of fantastic unheard music. In 1976 I was managing the Rhino Records store in Claremont, California (a town in FZ’s old stomping grounds, and where he liked to play at the nearby Bridges Auditorium) when the sometime Mothers of Invention road manager Dick Barber came in with a stack of white label test pressings that he wanted to sell. He said they contained unreleased Zappa material. I immediately thought these might be “The Collected Improvisations Of the Mothers of Invention,” a multi-disc set Zappa had announced with great fanfare in the early seventies and then never issued, becoming embroiled in lawsuits with Warner Bros. Records and his manager and business partner Herb Cohen instead. After consulting with Rhino owner Richard Foos we made Dick an offer, but Barber ultimately decided it was best not to sell them at all. I never found out what those discs contained, but I think of them fondly.
It wasn’t to be my last professional encounter with Zappa’s universe. When I went to work at Warner Special Products in 1979, part of my job was administering rights to the recorded catalogs of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic. I almost immediately had occasion to puzzle over the court documents that supposedly untangled the contentious relationship and legal clusterfuck between Warner Bros. Records, Herb Cohen and Zappa’s Straight and Bizarre labels. In settling the claims and counter-claims, the parties involved and the judge had managed to inject new ambiguities into the issue of who-owns-what. (Part of the legal decision required certain agreements between Zappa and Cohen to be treated as if they never happened, a concept that had slippery consequences.) Over the years, from time to time, Gail would contact my office about something I’d done that she objected to, and vice-versa. (If you’re confused about the history of CD releases of The GTO’s, Captain Beefheart or Judy Henske & Jerry Yester, join the club. I can tell you that questions regarding the lack of any CD version – ever — of Wildman Fischer’s epic double-LP for the Bizarre label should be directed to Mrs. Zappa alone.)
In the nineties Gail and Rhino Records (the label that grew from the retail stores) did manage to cooperate on a set of “Beat the Boots” albums, which cleverly repurposed the work of bootleggers, with the money going to at least some of the right people this time around. When my Warner division was merged with Rhino in the early 2000s, since I was known as a Zappa fanatic I was tossed the unenviable task of trying to complete another volume in the series, a job that had already eluded the efforts of my predecessors. I got alone fine with Gail’s expert and affable “vaultmeister” Joe Travers, and after a flurry of emails we were close to an acceptable tracklisting, I thought. That was before the confusing, stonewalling, agenda-driven, and just plain infuriating side of Gail Zappa re-emerged. (To be fair, she might use the same words to describe me. But she’d be wrong.) The deal never got done, the (large) expenses and advance payment were written off, and I never had to deal with Gail again before I retired in 2005.
I never met Gail in person, despite a few opportunities to “stop by” her headquarters in the Cahuenga Pass. Frankly, I had learned to avoid her if possible. I still suspect she had something to do with the cancellation of an interview I was slated to do with Frank for BAM Magazine in the eighties. It was set up, but my editor told me I was un-invited to talk to him when it was discovered I’d been less than kind to “Joe’s Garage Part Two” in a previously published album review in the magazine. Was Gail the fiercely protective “gatekeeper” of FZ’s interview schedule at the time? Who are the brain police?
If you wish to explore Gail’s latest bright idea for the Zappa legacy, go to www.zappa.com and read about “Roxy By Proxy,” her scheme to raise money to complete a video release of the 1973 Zappa shows in Hollywood. If you’ve got $1,000 to invest, you can become one of her 1000 partners. . .well, not really partners. . .I advise you to read the fine print carefully before investing.