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Frank Zappa's 'last word'

The musician's widow, Gail, says she promised him that she'd look out for his legacy.

September 21, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Whoever devised the slipknot contract clause "into perpetuity" hadn't conceived a Gail Zappa. She's made it her job to parse the music industry's dense legalese, close contractual loopholes and, most significantly, end what she sees as its iron grip on an artist's past, present and future.

"Let me say it in the simplest way," she lays it out, her full hand on the table, "My job is to make sure that Frank Zappa has the last word in terms of anybody's idea of who he is. And his actual last word is his music."

To that end, Gail Zappa has become a vocal advocate for artists' rights. The wife of the late musician-composer Frank Zappa, she has been keeping watch over not just her husband's image and brand but his legacy. Despite what people might think, her dogged efforts are not about erecting razor-wire around all things Zappa but protecting his memory.

Yes, she knows all about the finger-pointing and the grousing, the battles with the record labels about who owns what; the fury and frustration of fans who are unable to download the most famous and seminal works of the Zappa canon. The Zappa Family Trust is in the middle of a dust-up with Rykodisc; Gail Zappa is suing Rykodisc over "copyright infringements including digital rights."

It's not the first time the Zappas have been in a legal dance: In 1977, Frank Zappa filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. Records and his former manager citing artistic grievances and questioning certain "creative accounting practices," Gail says. After an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1982, the rights to his master recordings reverted to him, a lucrative boon.

December marks the 15th anniversary of Frank Zappa's passing, but interest in him and the work continues only to grow. "No two of Frank's shows were ever the same, which is one of the reasons he was one of the most heavily bootlegged artists," Gail explains.

Tapping into that interest, in the last few years, the Zappa Family Trust has begun to release rarities from the Zappa vault. Frank was an obsessive chronicler, recording both audio and video (in every conceivable format) of his process. Gail has established two labels -- reconstituting Zappa and launching Vaulternative -- to showcase that material, which includes band rehearsals from the '60s and live footage selected by Gail with the assist of Vaultmeister Joe Travers. This summer, they've issued on DVD the concert film "The Torture Never Stops" in Frank Zappa's original edit and "One Shot Deal," a previously unreleased compilation of guitar-focused music. Reissues of Zappa's first solo album, 1967's "Lumpy Gravy," and the following year's "We're Only In It for the Money" are in the offing. Coinciding with all of this is the very first staging of his 1979 rock opera, "Joe's Garage," at Hollywood's that, loosely speaking, chronicles the travails of an imaginary guitarist named Joe. Gail gave the first-time greenlight.

"I'm the front-of-house mixer," Gail Zappa says, settling into a soft chair near Travers, just to the right of an old console setup in what was most recently Frank's editing room in their Laurel Canyon home. Gail usually makes herself available only for the nuts-and-bolts sound bite related to a release, "but it's not often that I can get into the grommets and widgets and explain what's behind all of this."

Her position hasn't always made her popular -- she's butted heads at times with everyone from record execs and label lawyers to fan boards and tribute bands. "I can't go out and be the rebuttal witness every minute because I just end up looking like the screaming shrew that I'm getting the reputation for being."

But she has her reasons, and they're rooted in a promise: "My job is to make sure that everything is as clean as you can get it. . . . I don't want anybody standing between the audience and what Frank's intention as a composer was and still is. [W]hat I've discovered in the process . . . comes down to one simple thing. Because everybody wants to remake his image. And they can . . . Well, they can all pound salt!"

Fifteen years gone, and Frank Zappa still casts a long shadow. Gail, like Travers, often speaks of him in present tense. And though, on this late-summer afternoon, no one occupies Frank's old console chair, there are all sorts of winking reminders salted about everywhere. Gold records and old album covers. A "Nixon for Governor" poster hangs on a far door. Scores of "Zappa" license plates, gifts from fans from across the country, frame the old console, and photographs, tucked into unexpected places, have a fun-house effect: the eyes seem to follow you. It's not a spirit that hovers but an ethos; standards to be upheld. Gail Zappa is not custodian of a ghost but of a force that still has power to prod and provoke.

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