I read an article this weekend about the ongoing family strife between the surviving members of the Zappa family, who now inhabit the very strange, corporate, and likely necessary Zappa Family Trust. Sons Dweezil and Ahmet and daughters Moon (Unit) and Diva (Muffin). There is a rift between the siblings that has come to a head with Dweezil taking flack for his ongoing Zappa Plays Zappa concerts. He claims in the report that he is being charged with exorbitant fees for using the Frank Zappa catalog, for using the Zappa name (even though he shares it), and has been expressly forbidden from using the quasi-iconic eyebrows, mustache and soul patch imagery, even though it is his dad’s likeness.
Immediately I jumped to Dweezil’s defense, but upon further reflection I thought there had to be more nuance and drama here than just one wronged kid in the brood.
This is not the first time the Zappa estate has courted controversy, with one of the more public scrims being Don Van Vliet’s attempts to reclaim masters from the Captain Beefheart catalog and being denied. Without knowing the full extent of the legal formalities, I can only say it reflected badly on Zappa Records. There was something incredibly anti-Zappa about how the whole thing shook out. The Zappa vault has been something of legend, and was briefly toured in the Classic Albums series’ spotlight on Zappa’s Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe. Zappa seemingly kept everything, but he always struck me as being vehemently anti-corporate. His musical harangues about those who were “strictly from commercial” or how the “gurus bite it” have to leave one to think that, had he been alive, he wouldn’t have stuck it to a previous co-conspirator that way.
This is, likely, a naive sentiment as we were never really privy to the diegetic melodramas inside the former Barking Pumpkin/DiscReet/Zappa organization(s). Nonetheless, knowing the battle for the Beefheart stuff, and knowing that Van Vliet died while being denied access, sets a bitter stage upon which the latest act plays out.
So let’s get into this. What is the Zappa Family Trust protecting the material from? This is probably the easiest thing to speculate upon. Look at all the other dead musical icons and how their memories — and music — are abused. These have been rendered in sometimes respectful, but often extremely crass and thoughtless ways. In order to maintain the integrity of the legacy, someone has to stand watch over the portrayal of the deceased. I get that.
But there’s something inherently counter-intuitive about how some of the Zappas are going about it. I can hear the talking point as I write this: “We’re here to preserve the Zappa history so that it can be discovered for future generations without being made a corporate parody of itself.” Can’t argue the intentions, but I can certainly argue the discovery part. Let’s knock these down a bit at a time.
How will these be discovered? Not on radio. Very few Zappa songs can be played on terrestrial radio even today. The FCC will not allow them. The only stations that might make the attempt are classic rock stations which are famously inept and pitiful at the only job they are there to do — play old rock and roll. Classic rock radio is as follows: “Stairway to Heaven,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Dream On,” “Born To Run” and/or “Born In The U.S.A.” and/or “Glory Days,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and/or “New Year’s Day” if it happens to be New Year’s Day, rinse and repeat. There is no diversion from this plan. There’s no room for Zappa.
Fine. How about satellite radio? You get around the FCC restrictions on satellite but those who can afford the subscriptions are those who might already know Zappa, so that’s not discovery. Plus, any informal poll will tell you that most satellite radio subscribers buy in for one reason only, being Howard Stern. Stern and Zappa’s anti-authoritarian stances merge consistently on the Venn diagram, but their audiences do not. The discovery claim is bogus.
The claimed new audience that the Zappa Legacy is being preserved for is relatively post-rock, and discovers music in one of two ways; on the Internet or through their peers who, circuitously, learn through the Internet or through their peers. If Beyonce isn’t sampling one of Zappa’s tracks for her latest, new audiences may not know, may not care, and may not know to care. Discovery today is through reference points from newer, younger sources. The other way would be through that weird dad, granddad, or uncle that drags the young’uns to — wait for it — a Zappa Plays Zappa concert. So you see, the Zappa Family Trust’s hindrances of Dweezil Zappa’s efforts is ruining their own, cutting off the very audience that would be that “next generation” of fans.
Dweezil’s not getting off easy here though. He has — let’s face it — made the vast majority of his career about playing his father’s music, a property that is now owned by four people. As such, they have equal rights to the money made on that property, and so the costs of the split must be shouldered. This wouldn’t have been such a problem had Dweezil amassed his own musical backlog as large, and then the Zappa Plays Zappa thing could be an infrequent excursion and not the crux of the career. As it stands now, we shouldn’t hold our breath for the Z reunion tour where Shampoohorn is played front-to-back. Dweezil’s bandmate in Z is Ahmet Zappa, a person who now reportedly only communicates to the other wing of the family through lawyers (and vice versa).
What to do? There appears to be a lot of bad blood among the Zappas now, so a miraculous kumbaya moment is unlikely. Rather, a sit-down to hash out the strategic intent of the Trust in full is necessary. One side — the one protecting the catalog and iconography — needs the other side — the one that is the last best option for actually keeping the music itself from fading into obscurity. They don’t have to like each other anymore. It is sad that perhaps the one thing these people have in common anymore, being Frank’s kids, is the one thing ripping them apart. But if they really are concerned with the preservation and continuation of Frank’s music, they have to get with the modern realities. Their dad’s fanbase has aged out. If they don’t work together, with noses held high and tightly pinched shut, they will quickly have a library of music in their possession that a scant few will give a damn about. At the same time, they must recognize that they’re not sharing their “backyard,” but they are equally inhabiting their dad’s. That means playing by the rules of any of the three others who are out on the turf.
To sum it up: there is a song on that Shampoohorn album the Zappa brothers made in the 1990s. It’s called “Doomed To Be Together.” That’s correct. Deal with it.