The Duke of Prunes

  FRANK ZAPPA 1940-1993
   Frank Zappa surely would have appreciated -- indeed, relished -- the
   irony that his death last week was, as the old show-biz line has it, a
   shrewd career move. The musical iconoclast, best known for his work
   with the seminal 1960s rock band the Mothers of Invention, was in many
   ways the prisoner of his own raffish image: hirsute hippie freak;
   countercultural sire of prototypical Valley Girl Moon Unit Zappa and
   her siblings Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva; opinionated crank (''AIDS is a
   CIA plot''); and First Amendment scourge of Tipper Gore. With his
   death from prostate cancer, a few days short of his 53rd birthday, it
   may now be easier to appreciate an often overlooked fact about Francis
   Vincent Zappa: he was the most protean and adventurous American
   composer of his generation.
   Yes, composer. ''The only reason I went into rock 'n' roll,'' he
   explained, ''is because I couldn't get anybody to play the classical
   music that I wrote.'' During a career that spanned three decades,
   Zappa never pretended or wanted to be anything else. On the first
   Mothers' album, 1966's Freak Out!, he quoted the maxim of his hero,
   the '20s avant-gardist Edgard Varese: ''The present-day composer
   refuses to die.'' They were words he lived by.
   In addition to his 12 albums with the Mothers and his numerous other
   rock recordings, Zappa collaborated with the likes of composer Pierre
   Boulez and conductor Zubin Mehta on such pieces as The Perfect
   Stranger, a collection of chamber music, and 200 Motels, an ''opera
   for television.'' The self-taught Zappa was as prickly and puckish
   about his ''serious'' music as he was about rock. ''I write,'' he
   declared, ''because I am personally amused by what I do, and if other
   people are amused by it, then it's fine. If they're not, then that's
   also fine.''
   Born in Baltimore, Zappa was the son of a Sicilian-born meteorologist
   and metallurgist who worked for a poison-gas manufacturer -- the
   inspiration, perhaps, for his later Prelude to the Afternoon of a
   Sexually Aroused Gas Mask. The family moved to California when he was
   10, and young Frank grew up in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. ''I
   developed an affinity to creeps,'' he recalled, ''and I've surrounded
   myself with them ever since.'' At 15 he read a magazine article that
   referred to Varese's audacious compositions as ''the ugliest music in
   the world,'' and he knew he had to hear them; for a birthday present,
   he cajoled his parents into letting him telephone the old man, then 72
   and living in New York City.
   Throughout his life, Zappa's music was both eclectic and uneven. At
   his worst he could be amateurish, as in the early Return of the Son of
   Monster Magnet. On guitar Zappa was no Eric Clapton, and as a band the
   Mothers were no match for Lou Reed's raw Velvet Underground, with whom
   they shared an in-your-face aesthetic that guaranteed zero radio play.
   At his best, however, Zappa fused two seemingly irreconcilable 20th
   century musical strains; his masterpiece, Absolutely Free (1967), is a
   dazzling merger of Stravinsky and Varese with rock and rhythm and
   blues. Who else would have thought to counterpoint the Berceuse from
   Stravinsky's Firebird with the doo-wop of Duke of Earl on a song
   called The Duke of Prunes? To quote The Rite of Spring and Petrouchka
   as a prelude to some of the hardest-charging, straight-ahead rock of
   the era? To use Varese's musique concrete, which alters conventionally
   produced sounds to create an electronic effect, in a paean to
   rock-groupie archetype Suzy Creamcheese?
   His post-Mothers work, including Lumpy Gravy (1967), which Zappa
   called a ''curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a
   ballet but probably didn't make it,'' never quite reached the same
   freewheeling, free-associating level, although it became more
   ambitious and technically accomplished. In such works as The Yellow
   Shark, a 90-minute program of his instrumental music performed last
   year in Europe, his natural predilections for spiky, dissonant
   sonorities and unusual sound effects were fully in evidence,
   exemplifying his Cage-like motto of AAAFNRAA -- ''Anything anytime
   anyplace for no reason at all.''
   By the end of his life, Zappa had all but abandoned rock; the '60s
   icon who had posed sitting naked on a toilet for a poster called Phi
   Zappa Krappa was instead encouraging young audiences to register to
   vote and battling censorship of rock lyrics. After cancer was
   diagnosed in 1990, he worked 14 hours a day in his home studio in the
   Hollywood Hills, composing a musical called Thing-Fish and
   contemplating an opera. With Suzy Creamcheese finally grown up, Zappa
   dropped the entertainer's mask, revealing the face of the artist
   beneath. ''My music,'' he said, ''makes the mind think.''
   Copyright 1993 Time Inc. All rights reserved.