What goes around

Tony Bacon devotes this issue's column to the incomparable wisdom of Mr Frank Zappa ....

Guitarist, January 2012

30 years ago, Frank issued a boxed set of vinyl entitled Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. I think this is the best album title ever.

Once when I interviewed Frank Zappa, he gave me a blue drink. As it's that time of year, I thought I'd raise a glass of conventional pale-gold bubbly and toast Uncle Frank's memory – he died in 1993 – by inviting his ghost to guide us through some potential New Year's resolutions. So, here comes resolution number one. Never accept a drink from a stranger. That blue drink didn't exactly assist me in formulating the best questions. But then Frank thought nothing of explaining himself. His song Absolutely Free opens with a short, spoken introduction. "The first word of this song is discorporate," announces Frank. "It means to leave your body." And then in comes the song. You see? Music really is educational as well as enjoyable. Or at least it was when Frank was involved.

Next up on the resolution front? Be honest. As the blue drink made me consider discorporation as a viable option, Frank asked if I read music. "Of course," I said, only partly lying. "What do you make of this?" asked Mr Z, showing me some handwritten music for The Black Page. I'd never seen so many dots. Certainly the effect was black, but I could only assume there once had been a page underneath it all somewhere. I muttered something about it looking tricky and then confessed that I had no idea what any of it meant. He told me it was drum music. That eplains it.

And while we're on tbe subject, our next resolution should be – never underestimate your drummer. "Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe," said Frank. "I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."

Believe that it can only get better. Think of the worst gig you've ever played. Here's a brief pause while you recover your composure. Frank, meanwhile, would merely shrug at your slight inconvenience. Much of his song Road Ladies is concerned with sexually inflicted maladies, but there's a verse you might bear in mind the first time you find things adrift on stage in 2012. Frank wonders if a chap might ever get lonesome out there on the road and if it all makes one want to pack everything up and go home. He paints a picture of piles of laundry by the hotel door – and then on to the dismal gig itself. "When the PA system eats it," he sings, "and the band plays some of the most terriblest shit you've ever known."

Just get on with it. lt was 30 years ago that Frank issued a boxed set of vinyl – what else could it be? – entitled Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. I think this is the best album title ever. You'll be hard pressed to beat it, but by all means do have a go next year. The set revealed lengthy solos and other instrumental trinkets by the great man, snipped from live recordings. ''While the papers and magazines shouted the praises of every other fashionable guitar strangler," ran the sleevenote in l981, "and condemned Zappa for having the guts to sing lyrics they felt were disgusting, he quietly continued to play things on his instrument that were far more blasphemous than any words could convey."

Make the right choices. Ian Underwood dropped by the studio to see if Frank's Mothers might need an extra musician. "Frank Zappa was sitting in the control room. I walked up and said, How do you do, my name is Ian Underwood and I like your music, and I'd like to play with your group. Frank Zappa says, What can you do that's fantastic? I said, I can play alto saxophone and piano. He said, Alright, whip it out!" It's not a bad question to bear in mind for just such an occasion during the coming year: "What can you do that's fantastic?"

Do more of whatyou enjoy. I asked Frank if there was anything he'd like to be remembered for. "No," was his doubtless honest yet undervaluing reply. Okay, which bits of your work do you like doing best? "I enjoy playing with my band: that's the best part of it".