Sons of Invention? The Zappa Brothers

By Mike Zwerin

International Herald Tribune, 25 June 1993

PARIS – Out of perversion, boredom, pomposity, an attempt to live up to their quirky names, or just plain orneriness inherited from their brilliant but volatile father Frank, Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa had assumed what can be described, only slightly oversimplified, as a spoiled-rich-kid stance. Precociously scrambled buffoonery makes a deceptively easy target. Beware. They shoot back.

Ahmet said his heros are Tom Jones (his photo is in his wallet) and Vanessa Paradis (what?!): “I like the way she sings ‘Yeah, rainbow . . .’ Just that phrase. I forget the name of the song. I don’t listen to whole songs, only listen to seconds here and there, even by people I like.” Nineteen years old, the singer, the one with the shaved head, Ahmet was awash to tongue-in-cheek sound bites. Production as well as consumption. Between yawns. 

This was one big ploy, I realized later, too late. “Actually, that’s very mainstream,” I said, ambushed into pedantry. “Americans have trouble concentrating on any sustained intellectual enterprise.” No comment. “Tell me if I’m wrong,” I added, to fill the silence more than anything.

“You’re wrong” Ahmet obviously could not care less.

“We have short attention spans,” explained Dweezil, 22, the guitarist, the hairy, communicative one.

“But we never make mistakes.” Ahmet raised his cranium from the table on which it bad best reporing: “We’re jazz musicians.’’

They were playing down (Groucbo-like eyebrow action) and philosopher (thoughtful hairy-chest-stroking) like good cop, bad cop. Dweezil threw Ahmet an indulgent look and explained: “A lot of jazz guys play seriously hideous notes but have this attitude, like, ‘I’m tough. I’m a jazzman.’ ”

Recalling that their father once said: “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells bad,” I put one and two together and realized that the spoiled- rich-kid number was actually deeper, a sort of dynastic superiority complex.“We’re a very close family,” Dweezil said, understating it. Their sister Moon Unit had a hit called “Valley Girls.” Frank is fighting prostate cancer (their ground rules specified not discussing it).

Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention played music that was likened to “a zoo burning down.” A reviewer predicted: “The Mothers of Invention will set necessity back a few years.” Zappa learned music “in the library,” which was “cheaper than music schooL” He collected rhythm-and-blues records and investigated Webern and Varèse before cutting rock records called “Unde Meat,” “Hot Rats,” and “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” He called the Mothers’ ground-breaking, complex, carefully constructed, flawlessly executed “air sculpture.” 

“Our father can write down any musk he hears,” Dweezil said with admiration, “He can look at music on a sheet of paper and hear it in his head.” Yeah, that’s what it’s all about, I thought silently, avoiding another ambush. He continued: “I couldn’t tell you what notes or chords I’m playing. I just know the relationship between what I hear and what it looks like on the instrument.”

He did not express any plans to look deeper. I wondered if his literacy was limited to music. It is possible, however, that the definition is just changing. They are smart alecks, not dumb. But (his was neither the time nor me place to ask what they were reading. They were not about to give up home-field advantage, and regulation tune was running out. “Are any of your songs political?” I asked, trying to keep the ball inbounds.

“All our songs are political,” Ahmet replied. “Particularly ‘Kidz Cereal.’ The politics in that song will drill you out.”

The song in question, sung by Ahmet, occupies a zappy place between nonsense and gore. Judging from “Shampoo Horn” (Food for Thought Records), the first album by their group, Z, which they were in town to promote, and their sold-out concert at New Morning, their band is somewhere between heavy metal and grunge, not a very long span. You hear evidence of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Color and Joe Satriani, and Ahmet draws blood putting on Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses (another easy target). The logo “AZ/DZ” on the album notes provides another due.

Dweezil co-starred in the sitcom “Normal Life” with Moon Unit. In addition to having made several albums under his own name, including “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” he has worked with Don Johnson, Jellybean Benitez and Spinal Tap, and he composed songs for the Saturday morning TV show “Pee-wee’s Play-house.” These credits read like a verse ridiculing the state of show business in our time by Frank Zappa.

Frank’s abrasive persona can be swallowed if not whole at least with a grain of salt flavored by accomplishment. The sons’ version of his trigger-happy, hipper-than-thou, in-your-face attitude would be a lot more amusing if not for the suspicion that without their father’s name, connections and money (they own a rehearsal room), this album would not be on the market let alone pushed. “We may seem silly,” Dweezil said, “but the main thing is we don’t want to be perceived as pompous. We’re just out there to have fun. If people like it, so much the better.”

“If they don’t, they should kill themselves,” said Ahmet. “There’s no other alternative; Like it or die.”

Ahmet’s head was once more flat on the table. “Does he have a lot more lines like that?” I asked Dweezil.

“Ask him about Lou Reed.”

“What about Lou Reed?”

Ahmet bared his teeth. “Lou Reed should blow himself away. He should get it over with as soon as possible and make a lot of people happy. We hate his music, it’s the most overrated diabolical music I ever heard. He has no talent at all. And he said some very cruel things about our father. He said something like, ‘Frank Zappa’ couldn’t write a good song even if you gave him a million dollars.’ He went out of his way to work on one side of a particular stage where my father fell and hurt himself pretty badly during a concert. He thought that was a very funny tiring to do. Lou Reed is the devil incarnate.”

Time to change the subject. There was a Walkman on the table next to Ahmet’s head. “What are you listening for I asked.

“Lou Reed.”