Who the f*@% is Frank Zappa? Do we need to answer that question? Maybe so. As commenter Kattullus remarks on a recent Zappa-related MetaFilter post, “When I was a kid… he was one of those rock stars that pretty much everyone knew. Now he’s almost vanished from popular culture.” He has also vanished from his mortal coil, as of 1993, and so it’s maybe no wonder we don’t hear that much about him. But it’s a shame all the same. Those who know and love Zappa know he was a musical genius and more—“a master showman,” says Alex Winter, director of the new crowdfunded documentary Who the F*@% is Frank Zappa.
Winter calls Zappa a “performer, orator, wit, political pundit, etc.” And in discussing the clip above, the director (best known as Bill in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) reminds us that Frank Zappa was also a regular guy with regular emotions. The footage comes from April, 1980, when Zappa was greeted at the San Francisco airport by the Navy Band playing his song “Joe’s Garage.” Winter enthuses about Zappa’s response to the surprise. The composer and guitarist, he says, “was so rarely himself in public… In this clip, Frank is genuinely and profoundly moved by the band’s performance of his music, and so we get to see him unprepared and just being himself.”
Indeed, Zappa played characters in public, though each one at the core contained his wry sardonic wit. And the fact that he always came prepared is part of what made him seem so effortlessly great at everything he did. So this moment is rare for its candor, on the part of both Zappa and the Navy Band members. Zappa, “it turns out,” writes Navy Times, “was a huge fan of the Navy Band.” That love was requited. Half the fun of the clip is watching “the joy, concern, nervousness and reverence of these musicians, doing a fantastic job of playing a difficult piece for the notoriously discerning composer.” The musicians occasionally stumble or hit a sour note, but like Patti Smith’s heartfelt tribute to Bob Dylan at the Nobel Ceremony, these mistakes make the performance all the more endearing.
Zappa, notes Rolling Stone, “liked the clip so much that he duplicated the master onto his own tapes.” The clip we have at the top was recorded from a monitor in the Zappa Vault (to the left, you can see the edge of a poster for the Zappa-directed film 200 Motels). Zappa’s dada poses and virtuoso musical theater seemed to offer the ideal response to the repression of the Nixon-era sixties, and the Reagan-era 80s, when he became a vocal critic of Tipper Gore’s PMRC. Perhaps, after all, as Kattullus says, he’s “due for a resurgence.”
If so, we can learn a good deal about not only Zappa the musician, but Zappa the person, through his family archive of artwork, photos, personal letters, etc., all of which Winter and his colleagues have raised money to help preserve. See the documentary project’s fully-funded Kickstarter page here, where the top prize, for a donation of 9 million dollars, is “Frank Zappa’s actual f*@%ing house” in the Hollywood Hills.