Had he not lost his battle with prostate cancer in 1993, American composer, satirist, musician and cultural icon Frank Vincent Zappa would be 70 this year.
Two months ago, the world celebrated the 70th birthday of founding Beatle John Lennon. YouTube converted its entire page to a Lennon tribute and celebrities offered their opinions on the man in retrospect (it must surely be a highlight of the man's legacy to learn he was such a profound influence on the Jonas Brothers). Lennon's eight solo albums were remastered and re-released in various forms - box sets, LPs, individual CDs. The news covered the story and reminded us all how great he was.
It seems seriously unlikely the same treatment will be awarded to Zappa.
I would never dispute that Lennon's contributions to popular culture and to music are monumental. He was a hugely significant figure, and his death is referred to as an "assassination" rather than the slightly less-emotional word, a "murder." But to my mind, Zappa's cultural significance perhaps trumps even Lennon's, and that he is ignored completely or at best acknowledged as the guy with the mustache and the weird names for his kids is a travesty.
There is a bit of a chicken-egg dilemma going on. Does the media afford Lennon so much more attention, and therefore we love him, or do we love Lennon and therefore the media gives him the attention? It's probably the latter - I am a huge Beatles fan and Lennon is just an inconvenient counterpoint to my argument relating to Zappa - but it does make one wonder why Lennon is so highly regarded while Zappa, whose commentary was actually sharper and far more realistic, remains a relative unknown.
On the surface it might not be hard to see why. The Beatles' music certainly has far more popular appeal than Zappa could ever have hoped to achieve (and it's a good thing he never hoped to achieve it). But I would say Lennon's genius and Zappa's are roughly comparable, and if you're looking for a significant social and cultural figure, I'd say Zappa ought to be your real guru, not Lennon. Lennon fits in with a certain strain of radical and dissident, but he also had many deep personal faults which tend to undermine his sometimes childish worldview. He was a deep, profound musician and cared deeply about the world (or at least wrote as though he did), but with Lennon, much as I admire the man and his work, there's always a certain kind of naïveté, as though the world might actually one day join in a chorus of "Give Peace a Chance" and crumble the capitalist machine. Where Lennon is more Abbie Hoffman, Zappa is more Mark Twain. However, both of them are complete individuals, having carved out their own legacy and separated themselves from their influences enough to be able to stand alone as cultural icons.
But for my money, Zappa's message is far more dangerous to the established powers than Lennon's. Zappa's politics are like a nihilistic Noam Chomsky; Lennon's are occasionally at best a misanthropic Mao Zedong. If you want proof of Zappa's superiority over Lennon in the department of social commentary, just go to YouTube and look up any number of interviews with him, particularly his Crossfire appearance. Where Lennon saw things as they ought to be in an almost religiously naive way ("imagine" that for irony), Zappa saw things as they were. Lennon was never as perceptive as Zappa when it came to sniffing out and exposing bullshit.
In 1966, Zappa released his debut album with the Mothers of Invention, "Freak Out!" It is commonly called the first-ever concept album in rock, and the first double-LP and inspired, along with The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "Freak Out!" also contained the song "Trouble Every Day," one of Zappa's best, most direct, and most honest social commentaries, with lyrics about the Watts riots and race in general, and how the media does nothing to help. I see no reason why the comparably childish Buffalo Springfield or Jefferson Airplane get their revolutionary status in the wake of a song like "Trouble Every Day," which has quintessentially 60s lyrics and a quintessentially 60s guitar sound. In fact, it might just be THE quintessential song of the end of the decade.
Then, two years later, just after the Summer of Love, Zappa released one of his highest-regarded masterpieces, "We're Only In It For The Money." A strange hodge-podge of pop, rock, psychedelia, musique concrete (a genre with which Zappa always experimented and consisted of layered sound effects) and surf music, the album lampooned everything about 1960s culture - the hairstyles, the music, the shallowness, the childishness, the drug use, and perhaps most pointedly, the parenting. Although it was about the hippies specifically, the record has hardly aged a day, and it's easy enough to translate it to whatever "hip" movement you like.
"We're Only In It For The Money" is probably Zappa's peak as a social satirist through his music, but he didn't stop there. For 25 years after the album's release he continued to work tirelessly, recording seminal avant-rock albums ("One Size Fits All"), satirical send-ups ("You Are What You Is"), classical music ("Burnt Weeny Sandwich"), avant-garde free jazz ("Weasels Ripped My Flesh"), jazz fusion ("Hot Rats"), doo-wop ("Cruisin' With Ruben and the Jets") and more. He was extremely prolific, spending much of his life recording. And when he wasn't recording, you might find him doing interviews or defending free speech from Senators' wives with nothing better to do alongside metal degenerate Dee Snider and folk wimp John Denver. If he didn't become a hero to everybody by saying to Tipper Gore, "May your shit come to life and kiss you on the face," then I don't know what more he could do.
It wouldn't please me to see people ignoring Lennon's legacy. But raving about it so fervently when there's as much or more going on in the music of Frank Zappa seems a crime. Zappa ought to be one of America's national treasures. Rather than being cast into relative obscurity, known primarily for his facial hair and funny kids names, he should be on our stamps and preserved in our national libraries (some of his recordings are). His music and philosophy have been tremendous influences on my own music and philosophy, and for every guitar-god wannabe worshipper of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix there should be at least two of Frank Zappa.
There's still time until his birthday. I recommend everyone celebrate it with a burnt weeny sandwich, and if your friends aren't down with it, let them have a yellow snow ice cream cone.