Recommended: My Frank Zappa Documentary

Zappa shows were always exciting

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Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


After recently watching the 2020 documentary “Zappa”, directed by Alex Winter, an old inspiration has become new again. That is, the music and vision of guitarist, composer, and bandleader Frank Zappa.

Here’s my own Zappa “documentary”:

I’m riding in the car with my brother in Phoenix in 1967. The radio is on and some VERY strange music is coming out of the little speaker in the dashboard.

Frank Zappa

The song is “Lonely Little Girl” and it is my first exposure to the music of The Mothers of Invention — jittery, mad cap, unrestrained, and crazy — nothing like anything I had ever heard before. It definitely WASN’T pop music.

I wouldn’t get to see Zappa live until 1973 in Hollywood. His music had undergone several changes since I heard “Lonely Little Girl” — still unrestrained and crazy, but now with more complex musical underpinnings. And his band was made up of a new caliber of players including keyboardist George Duke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. 

What wowed me was every time Zappa stepped up to play guitar, his fuzzy tone propelling snaky lead lines all over the map.

Frank Zappa circa 1975

By the time I saw Zappa in Seattle the next year, I was an affirmed fan. I waited out in the rain for two hours to get a good seat and Zappa’s set was transformative. He still indulged in silly lyrics — my favorite tune was “Montana” — but the instrumental sections were clean and tight.

Back in Phoenix, in 1975, I couldn’t resist seeing Zappa again. This tour featured a reunion with Captain Beefheart, who naturally did the vocals for “Willie the Pimp”. After the show, my friends and I ran into Beefheart out in the parking lot, walking around in circles, fuming as he told us he was pissed with Zappa for limiting how much he got to “blow”.

I wouldn’t see Zappa again until 1986, this time in New Jersey. The curious thing was that there seemed to be a whole new element to the audience — bunches of black-shirted heavy metal kids throwing their “horns” up in the air every time Zappa did something outrageous, like punching an inflatable sex doll.

Zappa Plays Zappa in Denver (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

The final tune of that night was everything I could have desired — a version of The Allman Brothers’ classic “Whippin’ Post” complete with a long Zappa guitar solo.

I didn’t get to see Zappa live again, but in 1988, I wrote one of my early articles for the Fort Collins press on a Denver artist contracted to make him a custom quilt. Apparently, Zappa had been encouraging his female fans to throw their underwear onto the stage. He gave the collection to this artist who made the quilt out of the unwashed laundry.

Zappa died in 1993, but in more recent years, I got to see Zappa Plays Zappa, lead by his son Dweezil, revive his music on stage. And the last concert I saw before the onset of the pandemic was Dweezil Zappa playing the entirety of the classic “Hot Rats” album at Washington’s.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ music still lives (Design by Tim Van Schmidt)

These are fun stories, but are only fragments. I learned a lot more about this artist from “Zappa” — like his early attraction to filmmaking, his cultural attachments to Czechoslovakia, his fight against censorship, and his groundbreaking orchestral efforts. I can only recommend that music fans check out “Zappa” to learn about the full arc of this unique artist.

But more than anything, it is important that Zappa is still being heard. That’s his biggest success.

Explore “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt” on YouTube.