Walking on Gypsy Airs

Sep 5, 2017 1:28PM

By Sam Mellon

For most of my young-adult life I struggled to understand the music of Frank Zappa. His wild idiosyncrasies, iconoclasm, awkward timings and acerbic wit simultaneously fascinated and baffled me. I was drawn to the chip on his bony shoulder for as long as I can remember, although it’s only recently that I’ve been able fully to grasp his versatility and originality as an artist. This deeper appreciation has been a long time coming for sure, requiring my own coming of age, both as a person and a musician. It was Zappa’s hard-driving, working class mentality that initially appealed to me, echoing the values I’d been taught as a kid. His radical allegiance to himself as an artist resonated with my own youthful sense of independent empowerment and self-reliance, surely at odds as it must have been with the demands of the music business then. Looking back, one might say that I felt a vague sense of “connection” or “brotherhood” with Frank Zappa, this mysterious shaman of what we Gen-X’ers thought of as “classic rock.” It was an elusive and seductive bond that seemingly transcended time, space, and artistic genres.

Maybe the connection emerged because Zappa had spent his formative years in my hometown an hour outside of Los Angeles. I could have sworn it was my mother who told me about him (although she says that’s highly unlikely), but I do know that I was in my early teens when I first became aware of him. Zappa’s Studio Z—which was the former Pal Recording studio that had produced numerous surf tunes of the early 60s, including the Surfaris’ hit ‘Wipe Out’ —was located just a mile or two from my home on the corner of Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard (which coincidentally is also the historic Route 66, linking Los Angeles and Chicago). There it sat, right across the street from Miller’s Outpost, where my mom and I shopped for my childhood clothes, and various other mini-mall gems. I imagined Zappa’s studio, wild and chaotic, as a subversive outlier in what was then turning into the great American suburban wilderness.

Astounded that something creative and relevant had happened in our town, I would stare in amazement at the building that I thought was Frank Zappa’s musical birthplace. As it turns out, the original structure, along with Zappa’s studio, had been demolished in 1966 and the hideous façade I was gazing at was actually built in the 1970s, but that’s beside the point of this story. What was important was that the spirit of Frank Zappa had somehow blossomed right there on the streets of my own town, and if someone or something that revolutionary could spring from the streets of this godforsaken place, then certainly anything was possible for me.

I doubt that I had even heard a Zappa song at that tender age, and it probably wasn’t until High School that I cautiously approached his music, which then offered little connection with my teenage obsessions and angst. I definitely respected Zappa as an artist, but I wasn’t ready for his music. As I explored my own path into creative expression, I would put Zappa aside year after year, thinking that someday I would figure him out. And perhaps that’s what I liked about him the most: that his music begged a deeper inquiry, requiring a maturity that could be achieved only with time. Whatever it was, I somehow felt compelled not to dismiss him, even if I shelved his albums, again and again, for many more years to come. I instinctively sensed something that warranted my attention, even if it was just the need to champion a hometown hero. There was the element of Zappa as a misunderstood outsider that attracted me, offering an intangible connection that I just couldn’t explain and that demanded further revisiting.

So what does it mean to experience this type of “cosmic connection”? For some it can be a deeply spiritual, almost mystical and transformative encounter with a person or place, akin to a religious experience. For others, it simply suggests a happy transcendence of life’s limiting boundaries, a personal bond that defies gravity and hovers mysteriously in a realm outside everyday reality. For me, it evokes the shared spirit in which creative people approach the act of living, the attempt to expand and exploit the tight holes that society allows for us.

I’m reminded of another great artist, who emerged in the artistic wasteland that was Southern California in the 1950s and 60s, Wallace Berman. The revolutionary poet, hipster, photographer, sculptor and collage artist felt an intangible kinship with the artists that worked before and alongside him. In 1957, when he exhibited his art for the first time in a solo show at Walter Hopps’ and Ed Kienholz’s famous Ferus Gallery, he noted that in this installation he was “letting it come through from the dead poets”, conceiving of himself in a lineage of like-minded spirits through which primal creative forces pulsed. For Berman, such powers flowed in through the ether, that impalpable and indefinable “nothing that connects everything”. To him, the ether rose above physical and spiritual constraints, linking phenomena such as radio, television, space travel and art in a pre-internet vision of our collective past, present and future.

I similarly envision cosmic connections as a kind of strange “entanglement”, almost on an atomic level. According to quantum mechanics, which first gained speed in the early 1900s, when the German physicist Max Planck discovered that particles and waves are two sides of the same phenomenon, entanglements occur when two separate elements are so deeply enmeshed in quantum reality that they can be said to share the same existence. A physical change in one results in an instant physical change in the other, even though they may be galaxies and light years apart. Albert Einstein called such improbable, but now scientifically proven links “spooky actions at a distance”, attesting to the myriad, if ultimately unknowable connections between things, people, and places.

However it is that they come to be, these “cosmic” associations with other artists signal a shared experience to me: a kinship, almost, on a family plane. I see them manifest on a ground floor level, like the bootstrap ethos that ties together members of the blue-collar class, whose gritty determination and DIY approach always resonated with me. I never thought of myself as particularly bright in the traditional academic sense, realizing early on that I’d have to work harder and figure out a way to sneak in the back door. I often think that artists like Zappa, too, found that the only way in was to get off their asses and do it themselves, grinding out the hard work and making bold, alternative choices, even if it made them look foolish in the eyes of the mainstream.

In 1963, when he was 23 years old, Zappa appeared on the Steve Allen variety show playing a bicycle as his instrument, channeling his own “cosmic connections” in pursuit of his creative voice. Far from being merely provocative, he displayed a subversive Dada spirit, echoing the work of ground-breaking artists like Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann and Marcel Duchamp. He was deeply indebted to the musical avant-garde as well and immersed himself in the work of pioneering composers like Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and John Cage. Zappa’s bicycle performance may be a direct homage to Cage, who in the 1950s also performed on television, making music with radios, watering cans, bathtubs, and a myriad of other everyday contraptions. To me, it was this type of bold action and irreverent risk-taking that identified Zappa as an “artist’s musician” and linked him to generations of practitioners who upended the rules and took themselves seriously even when the public may not have entirely.

And this is where the lines of “cosmic connections” converge for me, signaling an ephemeral network of artists, musicians, poets and filmmakers that found a way to get out there, inventing their own voice in a resistant world of corporately controlled arts. In the case of Zappa, I think that the “cosmic connection” initially came to me in the form of that obvious geographic tie. But it took more than that to keep me hooked in to him. There must be something more primal at play that harkens back to tribal instincts, aligning us with our own people. A brotherhood of misfits perhaps? Maybe Zappa’s strong assertion of libertarian, common sense politics? His punk rock spirit (if not his musical style)?

I believe that it’s no accident that we surround ourselves with like-minded people, and that we operate in circles that bring us closer to knowing who we are.

We seek each other out, however subconsciously, and find ways to intertwine so that we might validate each other’s ideas and understand ourselves better. I now realize that what I was drawn to was Zappa’s quirky spin on the classic building blocks of rock and roll. He had a truly unique ability to take you down a groovy verse, only to give you whiplash by the time he reached the chorus. And he would do this several times in the course of a single composition. As a youngster I found this confusing, an annoying interruption of a great riff that prevented me from getting lost in his music.

But as I grew older, I recognized the genius in his use of what one might call a musical “alienation effect”. Such radical distancing techniques were pioneered in German avant-garde theater and cinema of the 1930s, aimed at jolting the audience and turning them into critical onlookers, rather than complacent consumers of narrative. Zappa’s music, like Berthold Brecht’s plays, is radically aimed at making the familiar strange, interweaving disruptive and genre-bending motifs to construct a soundscape aimed at an attentive listener. He did all this with a seemingly spontaneous, uninhibited bravado that revealed an artist completely at home in his gypsy skin. Zappa possessed an honesty and self-given freedom rarely seen in popular music then or today.

I will admit that at times it can seem exceedingly mysterious when you lock on to someone in the way I did with Zappa. It can be even stranger when you look into the eyes of a person you have just met and feel the draw into their eye sockets as if being sucked into an inevitable portal of mutual recognition. Personalities connect. Emotions engage. Ropes are thrown to each other. Who knows where these connections come from, but in this exhibition, carefully selected by David Totah, you’ll find his curatorial version of such inexplicable and life-changing connections. He has assembled the works of artists that intersect in his world like shooting stars; independently minded makers all, who stayed true to their work despite changing trends and fashions.

For Frank Zappa, he eventually took over operations of Pal recording studio in 1964 and renamed it Studio Z. He remained there until 1966, when he was arrested and falsely accused of making pornographic films in an elaborate sting operation by an ultra-conservative Sheriff’s Department. After the demolition of the property, Zappa moved to Los Angeles, where his career skyrocketed with his ‘Mothers of Invention’. But it was his work at Studio Z in the first half of the 1960s that no doubt formed the building blocks for what became one of the most assertive and prolific composers of late 20th century popular music.

The spirit of Zappa still shines bright for me today, and I feel rewarded for my persistence with his music. I wonder what Frank would make of the world today and how he would react to it? Perhaps it’s easier to feel “cosmic” about connections to those that have passed on. There is something to such “spooky actions at a distance” that is different from connecting with a living, evolving artist. In any event, it’s what I love not only about art, but about life itself: with every turn we discover gateways to new realities about ourselves, truths that can only be accessed through the work gifted to us by the creativity and credo of others, living or dead. They are like lifelines thrown to us from another stratosphere of creative consciousness, strengthening our undeniable subconscious human bond and broadening our perspective on life and on our shared creative potential.