You Say It's Your Birthday: Frank Zappa

Today is the birthday of the late Frank Vincent Zappa,

born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. Zappa's long and storied career could --

and has -- filled volumes; he recorded over 60 albums spanning rock, jazz and

eclectic genres and continues to make waves though he passed away over three

years ago. His influence on contemporary rock is immense; bands ranging from

Phish and Primus to the Residents owe much to Mr. Zappa.

The eldest son of

a guitar-playing government scientists, Zappa became, at a young age, obsessed

with '50s rock 'n' roll and contemporary composers like Stravinsky and Varese.

In high school he formed his first band, the Black-Outs; around the same time

he met Don Van Villet, christening him Captain Beefheart.

After stints at

Chaffey College, as a lounge musician and scoring the films The World's

Greatest Sinner and Run Home Show, Zappa built a recording studio in

Cucamonga, California and in 1964 began working with the Soul Giants (which

included vocalist Ray Collins, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, saxophonist Dave

Coronada and bassist Roy Estrada). The group was later renamed the Muthers,

then the Mothers; they were finally dubbed the Mothers of Invention by MGM

records, who were wary of the band's outlandish nature. Their first album, the

appropriately-titled Freak Out! was released in 1966. It is one of the

most important rock albums of all time.

The Mothers of Invention released several more brilliant

albums--Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money (a

send-up of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers that skewered the hippie ethos),

refining the eclectic, sarcastic style that would infuse all his work.

Following the release of 1969's Uncle Meat, Zappa married his second

wife, Gail, with whom he would have his children: Moon Unit, Diva, Dweezil and

Ahmet Rodan. Later that decade, Zappa moved to L.A. and founded the Straight

and Bizarre labels, producing acts like the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously

featuring groupie/author Pamela Des Barres), Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart

(Zappa is credited with both producing and releasing Beefheart's masterpiece,

Trout Mask Replica).

During the early 1970s Zappa began scoring

films again, having temporarily disbanded the Mothers. The group reformed, but

critics were beginning to look cynically upon the band's penchant for wild

humor. Zappa continually ran into trouble on obscenity charges, but that never

stopped him. In 1977 he retired the Mothers name, instead using his own last

name for future works, and released Sheik Yerbouti. The album featured

"Jewish Princess," a song which led the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League to

file a complaint with the FCC. It also included a surprise hit single with

"Dancin' Fool."

Problems regarding Zappa's 1980 recording of "I Don't Wanna

Get Drafted" -- specifically, his current label at the time, Mercury, refused

to release it -- led to the founding of the guitarist's Barking Pumpkin label.

He continued producing solo works, satirizing American culture and offending

the moral majority. During the '80s he also consolidated his business affairs,

taking time out to support free speech and voter registration. He began

dabbling in classical work with Pierre Boulez, culminating in 1984's Boulez

Conducts Zappa/The Perfect Stranger; he became enamored with the

Synclavier, a complex synthesizer with which he recorded his award-winning 1986

release Jazz From Hell.

During the early 1990s, Zappa mentioned

that he'd like to run for president, but the 1991 announcement that he was

suffering from prostate cancer drowned those hopes. Though he'd always taken

care of himself and continued to do so, he couldn't beat the disease; he died

December 4, 1993. Since his death, Civilization Phase III was released

in 1995 and his disemboweled masterpiece Lather was released in its

entirety earlier this year. Other birthdays: Carl Wilson (Beach Boys) and Tony

Lewis (Outfield). Also, yesterday we forgot to note that it was Mike Watt's

birthday. We hope he celebratedit in style. -- Beth Winegarner