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Frank Zappa, Iconoclast of Rock, Dies at 52

December 06, 1993|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Musician Frank Zappa, who rode to fame in the late 1960s as leader of the eccentric Mothers of Invention and kept on breaking the musical rules, has died from the complications of prostate cancer he had been battling for more than two years. He was 52.

"Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6 p.m. Saturday," the family said in a brief statement Sunday night. Zappa died at his Laurel Canyon home with his wife, Gail, and four children, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva, at his side.

A family friend, Jim Nagle, said he was buried Sunday in a private ceremony in Los Angeles.

The prolific Zappa was one of rock's premier and most versatile iconoclasts. In an era of increasing commercialism, he never tired of composing, singing and philosophizing to the beat of a wildly different drummer.

In later years, his different drummer led him to urge people to register to vote, to testify before Congress against censorship of rock lyrics--and even to broker business ventures in Eastern Europe. On one such trip to Czechoslovakia, he met with one of his old fans--President Vaclav Havel.

He won a Grammy in 1986 for his "Jazz From Hell" album, but his music made the charts only rarely and reluctantly, usually with parodies such as 1982's "Valley Girl," mocking the "infantile" phenomenon.

His work was a frothy stew of '50s doo-wop, rhythm 'n' blues, serious experimental jazz and avant-garde classical strains--often heaped high with perverse, often scatological, lyrics.

In albums with such far-out titles as "Freak Out," "Lumpy Gravy," "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" and "Weasels Ripped My Flesh," and "Sheik Yerbouti," Zappa served as a Spike Jones of the counterculture. Or, some might say, a musical counterpart to Mad magazine.

"People think of me as some kind of deranged comedian," Zappa once mused in a magazine interview. Some of his work embraced a Dada-esque, John Cage-like confrontational style. His eclecticism once led him to take his band on a 1969 jazz tour of the East Coast, playing on the same bill as Duke Ellington.

A year later, the group performed at UCLA with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His orchestral work has been recorded and performed by the London Symphony. Conductor Zubin Mehta once called Zappa "one of the few rock musicians who knows my language."

Yet his anarchic demeanor, and occasionally juvenile antics, were counterbalanced by an increasingly strong sense of social commitment.

Zappa may have joked in his songs about raising dental floss in Montana and the dangers of eating yellow snow. But by the mid-1980s, his long stringy hair and floppy mustache had been manicured, and he emerged as a leading voice for registering young people to vote.

Zappa also appeared in a business suit at a 1985 Senate subcommittee hearing to rail against the censorship of rock lyrics. (He followed up with a caustic recording called "Porn Wars," incorporating legislators' comments with an electronic music pastiche).

He was also responsible for introducing mainstream America to one of the major cultural phenomena of the early 1980s--the vernacular and social habits of the "gag me with a spoon" crowd, in the hit song "Valley Girl," recorded with his teen-age daughter, Moon.

Over the years, Zappa, whose albums were never huge sellers, sustained a cult following that ensured the marketability of a seemingly endless stream of eclectic recordings.

He was viewed by influential critics as rock's leading sociologist, and a nonpareil, if idiosyncratic, synthesizer of musical styles. He spent much of 1992 sequestered in his home studio, writing new works for the Ensemble, 25 classically trained international musicians specializing in modern music. Zappa joined in the European performances of the work until his illness forced him to leave the tour. A recently completed classical work, "Civilization, Phase III and IV" is scheduled for release in the spring.

But he also had his share of detractors, who regarded him as a self-promoting crank, who rarely, if ever, wrote a memorable tune.

Zappa himself once said that whatever people thought of his work, he always enjoyed doing it.

"I write because I am personally amused by what I do, and if other people are amused by it, then it's fine. If they're not, then that's also fine," he declared in a 1983 interview. "Even if I wasn't releasing records I would still do it."

Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore to Sicilian immigrants.

Zappa's father, a meteorologist, worked at the Maryland-based Army Chemical Center, studying the effects of weather on poison gases and explosives. His mother was a librarian.

The eldest of four children, Zappa was frequently ill as a youngster, and his family moved several times to warmer locales to cope with his respiratory problems.

After stints in Florida, Monterey, Pacific Grove and San Diego, the Zappas settled on the outer fringes of Los Angeles County--in the desert community of Lancaster, where young Frank attended Antelope Valley High School.

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