We say goodbye to musical icons in many different ways, from flashmobs, SNL intros, and long retrospectives to live concert tributes featuring the biggest cover band on earth. No matter how outsized the gesture, it never quite seems out of place when it comes to artists of a certain stature. In the case of Frank Zappa, we’ve recently seen jazz orchestra tributes, a “monumental live performance” of one of his own orchestral works, and several Zappa tribute concerts by his son Dweezil.
For all their heart and stamina, however, no tribute can compete with the power of those artists’ farewells to us. Both David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, too fragile to perform in their last years, left phenomenal albums we’ll pore over for decades to come. Southern rock great Leon Russell, who just passed away this week at 74, put on rollicking live shows into his final years, and had concerts booked into 2017 when he died. Prince’s final performance was, like all of his performances, stunning.
And Zappa? Well see for yourself. Zappa played his way out of the world as he’d played his way into it, with sardonic humor and blistering virtuosity.
As you can see at the top and above, Zappa and band delivered on every promise in their last concerts in Prague and Budapest in 1991. In the 10-minute clip at the top, Zappa’s improvisatory prog guitar runs soar and dive over the band’s slinking jazz-reggae, then get more technical as he trades licks with another virtuoso guitarist. In the lower-quality video above, with clips from both concerts, Zappa and band display their mastery of an Eastern European-sounding march with their guest musician “gypsy friends” in Hungary (at 9:00).
In the following two years, until his death in 1993, Zappa would become too weak to play as he succumbed to prostate cancer. In his final interviews, he pronounced himself “totally unrepentant” for his life and career and insisted he had only ever been an “entertainer.” And it’s true, whatever else Zappa was—incredibly skilled guitarist, composer, and industry innovator—he was always, to the last couple years of his life, an incredible showman.
In One of his Final Interviews, Frank Zappa Pronounces Himself “Totally Unrepentant”
Frank Zappa Debates Censorship on CNN’s Crossfire (1986)
A Young Frank Zappa Turns the Bicycle into a Musical Instrument on The Steve Allen Show (1963)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
According to setlist.fm:
“Note: Frank Zappa’s penultimate public performance. Frank Zappa on guitar with The Pražský výběr: Michael Kocab: vocals, keyboards, trumpet; Michal Pavlicek: guitar; Vilem Cok: bass guitar, vocals; David Koller: drums; Stanislav Jelinek: guitar; Franta Honig: percussions; Milo Vacik: percussions; Ladislav Faktor: keyboards and The Roucek Brass Band.”
Note: Frank Zappa’s last public performance at the Taban Jazzfestival in Budapest (total duration: 44 min including the 16 min morning soundcheck). Frank Zappa on guitar jammed with Hungarian (gypsy) jazz musicians Gyula Babos (guitar), János Egri (bass), Béla “Szakcsi” Lakatos (keyboard), Imre Köszegi (drums). Taban is a part of Budapest and the location of the concert.