Honoring Dad's Legacy
November 8, 2018
For a dozen years now, Dweezil Zappa has been recreating his father Frank’s music in concert.
When he visits the Clyde Theatre on November 15, patrons will see something they’ve been denied at Dweezil’s shows for a while: images of Frank.
“On this tour, we do have even a little bit of merchandise that features my face and Frank’s face,” Dweezil said in a phone interview. “Even some of the tour posters for promotion actually do have a picture of my Dad on it.”
This may not sound like such a big deal to people who haven’t paid attention to Zappa family news bulletins lately.
The Zappa children have been embroiled in an ugly battle over their father’s legacy.
When Frank’s wife died in 2015, Ahmet and Diva Zappa gained control of the Zappa Family Trust. This led to no small amount of wrangling in courts of law and public opinion over Dweezil’s professional use of his father’s name and image.
But Dweezil said a resolution is close at hand.
The squabble did not spoil Dweezil’s love of performing his dad’s music, but it did give him incidental headaches for a while.
“The music is always the fun part,” he said. “It never took the fun out of it. It definitely made other things not fun because you have to waste your time doing stuff that is totally unnecessary.
“But it didn’t change anything for the music,” Dweezil said. “If anything, the band just got better and more comfortable. I think it’s reflected in the reaction we get. Right now, I think I have the best version of the band that I have ever been able to put together.”
Frank Zappa’s music is not easy to play correctly. In fact, it is easy to play incorrectly, which is one of the reasons Dweezil decided to start performing it in 2006.
Dweezil said he’d grown concerned in the early part of the 21st century that the musicians who were covering his father’s music were doing a poor job of it.
He also worried that Frank was remembered more for his presumed personality than his actual artistry.
“I guess a lot of people have this fantasy version of my dad, thinking, ‘Oh, he must have been wild and crazy,’” Dweezil said. “He was pretty conservative as a dad. I never really got into any trouble. Since I was 12 years old, I was playing guitar 12 hours a day.”
Frank was no fan of hell-raising behavior at his shows.
“I remember seeing people acting crazy and saying, ‘What’s wrong with those people?’ And my dad saying, ‘Those people are either on drugs or they’ve had too much alcohol and they think it gives them an excuse to be an (expletive).’”
As a leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank had high expectations for his bandmates. He behaved more like the maestro of an orchestra than a lord of misrule.
Dweezil has tried to emulate and perpetuate those expectations.
“The challenge that I have witnessed my dad have as a band leader was that you have to be able to find people that are not only capable of playing the music but are also professional and not irresponsible,” he said. “Sometimes you find a musician who seems to have a lot of talent or skill, but you think, ‘I’m not sure I want to have this person on a bus.’”
Dweezil has finally found his ideal band and bus mates.
“The version of the band that I have right now is the most capable of covering the most material from different eras and I am actually having the most fun playing with this band,” he said.
Covering his dad’s music was never a career strategy, Dweezil insists. His motivation has always been to do something almost no one else was willing or qualified to do: Keep Frank Zappa’s music alive.
“There was no way for people to discover the music,” he said. “It wasn’t being promoted. He was, in fact, being relegated to some back drawer where people file away artists that were considered novelty acts.”
The name is the current tour, Choice Cuts, is a testament to its feast-like nature for Frank fanatics.
“This probably takes it as deep as we’ve ever been on any tour,” Dweezil said.
There are Easter eggs in the shows for die-hard fans.
The version of “Florentine Pogen” that the band plays reflects Frank’s initial conception of the song.
“This is how it sounded the very first time it was played in May of 1974,” Dweezil said. “The song sounded completely different. It had a totally different feel. It’s like a fast, uptempo sort of thing. It is arguably a better version of the song.”
Dweezil said Frank was always trying out different arrangements of his material.
The band is also performing a funkier-than-usual version of “Pygmy Twylyte.”
“It may be one of the funkiest songs my dad ever did,” Dweezil said.
When Dweezil isn’t playing his dad’s music, he is creating his own.
Late last year, orchestral music he composed was performed for the first time by the Noord Nederlands Orkest, a Dutch orchestra. More orchestral music should debut next year, he said.
Music isn’t Dweezil’s only passion. He is currently working on a program called Fathers Uprising that should debut soon.
“It’s basically a lifestyle network/internet thing to get dads more involved in a lot of things,” he said. “It’s going to be about getting more information out about a father’s role.”
As a father to two daughters and stepdad to one daughter, Dweezil said he just wants dads to have access to more resources.
“This is not an exclusionary type of thing,” he said. “This is like, ‘How do we get dads more involved and better educated about what they can do to be the best that they can be for their kids?’”