Let Me Be Perfectly Frank

Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have a motor?
Or was it

–F. Zappa, “Inca Roads,” (from One Size Fits All)

It is shameful to admit, but I am no great shakes as a thoughtful appreciator of music. Most certainly I enjoy it—rock, jazz and classical music (mostly pre-19th century) especially, but I seem to lack both the time and bandwidth to really give serious music the deep and sincere listen it deserves, except for when I am driving, of course, something I seem to do a lot, especially during harvest. Unfortunately, I often lack the presence of mind to carry much of an assortment of CDs in the car. ((Part of the problem is that I drive Citroëns, and recently I’ve had a really bad run of luck with them as far as their roadworthiness. It seems I’m always swapping vehicles, and of course swapping the CDs from one to another is a bit more than I can manage.)), ((It took quite some time for me to get it together to finally install a CD player in the DS-21; it’s located in the trunk (where else?) and therefore being out of sight, a bit out of mind.)) (I usually have perhaps one or two of them in the vehicle at a time, which I end up listening to maybe forty or fifty or a hundred times before I have the wit to replace them with something else.)
And it goes without saying that like virtually every Baby Boomer, I am compelled to share with my offspring, to wit, daughter Amélie, currently aged ten, the music of my youth and young adulthood, which I, like any BBer, regard as vastly superior to anything produced in the last thirty years or so. ((This is not an opinion, but an incontrovertible fact.)) These are the circumstances whereby, as it happened, I found myself with a couple of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention CDs in the car; Zappa has pretty much been what she and I have listened to together for the last couple of years. ((Apart from a brief flirtation with Taylor Swift when she was a couple of years younger (8), Amélie’s musical taste is quite sophisticated, favoring classical music and progressive jazz, and unlike myself, she possesses real musical and rhythmic aptitude; she is a very talented young pianist, cellist and dancer.)) She has become a real fan, and I have become utterly obsessed with Frank. ((She began listening to Hot Rats at a tender age, and while she liked the instrumental selections on the album, she gravitated to the vocal cut, “Willie the Pimp”; who could not be taken with its surging energy and by Zappa’s guitar virtuosity? We’ve not listened to it for a while, and mercifully, she was still at an age when (at least I trust) the audibility of the lyrics was a bit moot. Suffice to say that as she has become worldlier, more inquisitive and a bit more acute in her hearing, I’ve had to become rather more selective in the tunes she is permitted to hear.))

I didn’t really know his music all that well back when it was first released, and still I have a way to fully acquaint myself with the greater part of his oeuvre. The early stuff—Freak Out!—I first heard when I was in junior high, but some of the lyrics were a bit too outlandish to consider playing at home at normal volume. It was partially my own inhibition to play the music in my parents’ house ((A few years later in college, I became acquainted with The Fugs, a group that became an instant hit with me. Their music did not have nearly the originality or brilliance of Zappa’s, but like Zappa, they merged a sort of sophistication—in their instance it was political activism and East Coast intellectualism—with a raunchy satiric sensibility. I’m not certain why I find this fusion of high art and naughty humor so particularly cordial, but maybe it is a sort of Walter Mitty-like outlet for a combative, if nerdy guy, who would prefer, of course, that all of the actual combat remain squarely in the verbal arena.))—this was well before the day of the privacy afforded by iPods—as well as my modest musical curiosity that gave me but a shallow acquaintance with one of the real compositional geniuses of the 20th century. ((The other part of my inhibition in delving into Zappa’s music was what I imagined to be the great unevenness of his work. Somehow, at least then, I must have felt threatened by emotionally investing in wild risk takers, who would, perforce, occasionally fail, sometimes dramatically. Failure, in my family, was perhaps the greatest taboo of all, and I could hardly imagine risking that sort of contagion. But I see clearly now that the far more dominant side of my own personality is really to be a great risk taker. I am now only really, truly comfortable with people who can risk significantly.))

It was a few years later that I was honored to be compared to Frank Zappa by the late wine writer, Jerry Mead. ((If memory serves, he called me “the Frank Zappa of winemakers.” Note that this was still quite early in my career and I had yet to really publicly engage in many zany antics. I maintain, however, that while I’ve said a few provocative things in print, I am, at least in public, behaviorally quite moderate, actually preternaturally shy, truth be told. I am not at all the wild or crazy man that people imagine me to be, nor have done (hardly) any of the putatively wild things I am alleged to have doon. (People are perhaps confusing me with some other longhaired winemaker like Jim Clendenen or Gary Pisoni). I suspect that Mead’s article might have, in part, helped to create the perception of this outré persona, this enfant terrible. Coincidentally, Zappa himself was imagined to be orders of magnitude more outlandish than he ever really was. Apart from his addiction to nicotine and coffee, he was largely an abstainer from alcohol and utterly eschewed drugs. There was a popular myth that he would do anything onstage to “gross his audience out,” even once eating his own feces, a rather outlandish legend that he many times had to dispel. (Quoth Frank: “The closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973.”) )), ((As mentioned, I am, by far, the great beneficiary of this comparison. Zappa was truly a musical genius. He was a genius composer, a brilliant guitarist, and very clever with a musical synthesizer, whereas I am but a very clever synthesizer, tout court)) I’m still not quite sure precisely what he meant by the comment—the article (predating the internet) is likely lost to oblivion—but I take him to mean that I was creative, experimental, and significantly, more than a little irreverent, if not outré, given to épater les (crus) bourgeois, if not to lobbing (or Laube-ing) the occasional cherry bomb on the relevant snooty salle de degustation. ((The irony of the cherry bomb in lieu of the fruit-bomb would be a bit anachronistic.)), ((The basis of Zappa’s animus toward the Establishment, Authority, and Received Wisdom would presumably have derived from the relevant psycho-dynamics of his youth and family of origin, but I have read that his stance against Authority may have been permanently hardened by his grossly unfair conviction on a trumped up pornography charge and spending ten days in jail. (Like any great artist, he was able to recycle the traumatic experience in service of his art.) My only real brush with the law was when the winery accidentally discharged about 60 gallons of grape juice into the creek up in Bonny Doon and the Department of Fish and Game was called out. (Was this event presaged in the tune, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”?) )) , ((We once released to our DEWN Club a Syrah that we called “Macho Nacho,” for the simple reason that it had a rather distinctive aroma of bell pepper (“Call Any Vegetable!”), which I hoped would over time eventually resolve into a more agreeable minty aroma. (Miraculously, it did.) We couldn’t figure out how to easily apply the topologically complex, virtually Cubist labels to the bottles, so we sent the labels out along with the bottles to our customers and asked them to put them on themselves. The arrant chutzpah of the nomenclature of the wine (what could be cheesier than “Macho Nacho?”) along with the provocation of the customer-applied topologically challenging label, was a gesture (both in form and in content) certainly worthy of Zappa. Frank was no stranger to Dada nor to cheez.))
While I am honored beyond words by the comparison with Zappa, lately I’ve been slightly haunted by the suspicion that there might, in fact, be some darker, if no less apt, aspects in that comparison to Frank.

I’m still not quite sure why I’ve been thinking so much about him these days. Perhaps, it is a gathering sense of my own mortality, and a great trepidation about being able to really get a significant body of important work done before I shuffle off this Merlot coil. When I muse about Frank, I am struck by two thoughts that exist in a sort of ideational Mobius strip: How extraordinary is the sheer volume of his oeuvre, how Olympian his will and fearlessness in pushing himself beyond his own limits.
The other thought that is omnipresent in my consciousness is the simple but utterly jarring fact that as a corporeal body he is no more. ((He died at the absurdly early age of 53 from prostate cancer, which should certainly have been detected well before it reached an advanced and untreatable stage. One simply assumed that Frank would ultimately succumb to lung cancer; the omnipresence of the cigarettes could not but presage this sort of end. But the way he died strikes me as ironic (“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” was a song he wrote many years before the onset of any symptoms of his illness), and a particularly tough way to go. If one were to imagine there were a celestial pantheon—something that Frank could never do—one might think that Frank was on the receiving end of a thunderbolt, a sign of immense displeasure from the gods for his hubris.)) As human beings, it is hard for us to accept that someone who was once alive and vital is no more, but somehow, with time, we mostly manage to come to some level of acceptance. It’s been twenty years that Frank’s gone, but I for one, am still in major denial, at least as far as the length of time it’s been. It is just very confusing to me. ((There is another more obvious aspect to this conundrum, and that is that I’ve come to a lot of the music quite recently—kind of like buying a new used car (a Citroën, even) that while thirty years old, still seems quite new (partially because of its strange futuristic aspect).)) For one thing, while he was alive he managed to set up a living trust, a fiendishly efficient institution that continues to release new CDs posthumously, ((This is in some sense an echo of the inherent creepiness of the Internet itself, where nothing or no one ever totally dies, and the “fact” of someone’s dying is just another bit of information with the same weight as the thousands of other bits of information that will persist perhaps forever (who knows?).)) continues to wage fierce copyright wars against all potential usurpers, even recently attempting to protect the iconic image of Frank’s trademark “Imperial” beard/mustache arrangement from intellectual property infringement. The Zappa website is alive and well, and his son, Dweezil, continues to play his father’s music brilliantly, exposing new ears to a lot of music that is being heard for the first time. His music does not appear dated at all; with the passage of time, it has become oddly more progressive, receding not into the past but into the future.
Frank does not speak to me directly; I don’t reckon he could be much bothered to do so, or indeed, be bothered to take his eyes and ears off of anything that did not totally possess him or take him away for a moment from his vast auditory playground. ((It is a great illusion—a granfalloon in Vonnegut’s parlance, or perhaps just an intellectual parlor game—to look for correspondences in the respective biographies, especially given the fact that Zappa was truly gifted, and I am on the outside looking in at the illuminated world of true genius. My “experimental” period—the crazy number of DEWN wines we produced, the brandies, eaux-de-vie and picaresque adventures in importing wine from France, Italy and Spain—might well correspond to the highly productive, somewhat manic time in Zappa’s career, where he was doing a massive amount of touring, attempting to mount elaborate performances with various symphony orchestras. I can’t really speak to the grandiosity of Frank’s ideation, but in my own instance, the apogee of this sort of intoxication was achieved when, in 2004, we mounted “Born to Rhône,” a sort of rock opera. (Frank was himself either composing rock operas or making fun of those who did so.) One thing is for certain: While mounting the performance was a wonderfully creative exercise, it was at the same time a massive ego trip, that carried with it some doonside, if you will (not to mention an enormous price tag). Critics at the time of this theatrical production were not so utterly enamored with the Bonny Doon vinous line-up; this would be a way to show them all how clever I really was! This madness (a kind of bipolarity?) could not, of course, sustainably continue and not too long thereafter, I put an end to this febrile adventurism with the sale of Big House and the other large brands.)) But the weird timelessness of his music and the fact that he’s already been gone so long tells me every day that it would serve me well (and you, too, dear reader) to become a lot more conscious of the preciousness of the short time we are allotted. Not to panic (it’s organic), but the time is nigh to really buckle doon.
So, what did we share in common? He and I certainly had a lot of difficulty with authority and equally, with what were called in an earlier and less ambiguous day, “posers,” “phonies” or “plastic” people. His early targets, very oddly, were hormone-addled teenagers, disco dancers and squares (this was shooting fish in a barrel), ((It is a curiosity to me that Frank would single out the lamest of the lame for his opprobrium. Maybe I’m reading far too much into it, but it strikes me a bit like bullying. On the other hand, I don’t think Frank really worried much about fighting fair. He was just looking for an appropriate medium that would allow the music to get out.)) later, hippies, yuppies and ultimately, the voice for wholesome, family values, Tipper Gore. For me, the easy targets were initially Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot drinkers ((If I were musically adept, I might have written a tune called, “It’s As Easy as ABC.”)) and then of course influential American wine writers, who, not surprisingly, took some umbrage at my jabs. Frank didn’t seem to have any personal problem at all in offending people—gays, Jews, Catholics and other groups too numerous to mention; on some level, it seemed as if it were his mission to give offense. ((I am myself more than a little appalled by the jaw-droppingly offensive lyrics of “Jewish American Princess,” and can’t help but believe that on some level, Frank actively sought out censure and opprobrium, i.e. part of his definition of self was that of an outsider. (There were a number of lawsuits that ensued from this little number; he not only touched but seemed to intentionally caress the third rail, ideally in a lightning storm, his own tragic compulsion toward a Camarillo Brillo ‘do.))), ((If I were one third as naughty as Frank, I might well have taken some advantage of the satiric possibilities of deploying Monica Lewinsky (or her Doppelgänger) as a possible spokesperson for Le Cigare Volant, but I can’t say I never thought of it. For the candid historical record, when the Clinton scandale royale was hitting, my colleagues and I briefly toyed with the idea of engaging a sort of M. Lewinsky look-alike (ideally we would get the real Monica) to pour Cigare at the Wine Spectator Grand Tasting, an event to which we assuredly would never be invited back, had we been successful in our recruitment. Mercifully, the real Monica was not available and ultimately, better sense prevailed.)) I, in my passive-aggressive way, remain shocked whenever I have managed to offend absolutely anyone. (This was probably one of the important differences between us.) There was a combative spirit that we both shared, but, more relevantly, it is certain that for Frank, it was ultimately only the music that mattered. For me, it is, or at least has become, all about the wine; most everything else is but a mere distraction.
It seemed that Frank was often frustrated with fallible human institutions and certainly with fallible human beings—business managers, record companies and record company executives, symphony orchestra musicians (and symphony orchestras), and above all, studio players, who would seldom meet up to his most rigorous standards. ((I’ve gone through more than my share of assistant winemakers, sales managers and general managers, it must be said.)) He burned through a Who’s Who of sidemen over the years, with just a precious few sticking with him for the duration. He was “difficult,” a perfectionist, and did not suffer fools. I’m not sure if I am any less frustrated than Frank was on a daily basis, and there is a rather different assortment of characters that tend to push my buttons, wholesale distributers and grape growers, primarily. ((The three-tier wine distribution in this country is a total mess, far too many wineries and wines being pushed through an ever-constricting channel. As far as the other source of my eno-tsuris: Many grape growers, who, over the years, were admittedly victimized by opportunistic, often unethical (mostly very large) wineries, are now taking their sweet (one hopes, short-lived) revenge, raising prices to profiteering levels, as well as cutting back on supply.)) But, I’ve been able to mostly avoid expensive litigation and ongoing acrimony with the people with whom I interact. Perhaps my vision of the world is slightly fuzzier and more forgiving than Frank’s was and I am slightly less attached to a given outcome than he was.
I often talk about the difference between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—the latter being the only kind of wine that holds any real interest for me—but maybe the vinous analogy to music here does not quite obtain. I am not certain precisely what would constitute musique de terroir. (Is there such a thing as “natural” music, or music created without the strong imprint of the composer?) Frank’s music was musique d’effort, experimental, explorational, in so many respects, “against the grain,” finding beauty in the synthetic, perhaps in the unnatural, or at least in the unfamiliar. ((He would certainly have felt totally at home in conversation with J.-K. Huysmans.)) But what is music if not a communiqué from the celestial spheres? Frank’s discovery of the strange music to be found in “noise,” in the abrupt juxtaposition of varying time signatures, in the practice of what he called “xenochrony,” the blending and harmonizing of music from disparate sources, ((This is essentially precisely what the winemaker does in a “composed” wine such as Le Cigare Volant.)) revealed his great genius, which is another way of saying that he heard the music all around us that most of us are incapable of discerning.

In some sense, winemaking and certainly wine blending might be compared to writing, arranging or producing music, with the important difference that music, having an added auditory dimension, possesses a rhythmic and melodic structure that unfolds in a measured fashion over time, in fact, almost defines time itself. (The flavors and aromas of wine unwind over time as well, but at a much, much slower rate; the pulse of the their gradual revelation is not the main Gestalt of the experience.) ((The unfolding of wine over time is not exactly like watching grass grow, but does require real patience. The real drama is in the tension between the tonal registers of the flavor elements, and how each element releases on the palate.)) Dubbing and mixing tracks you are seeking the most felicitous polyphonic voices, and Frank was certainly a genius in discovering these incredible voices. The unctuous, New Joisey-like lead vocalist of “Florentine Pogen” (She was duh dawtuh of a well-thee Flaw-run-teen Poh-gun…), ((I am not certain who actually sang the lead on this tune, but in my mind at least, he looks precisely like Ron Jeremy.)), ((I had the odd experience of reading Murakami’s 1Q84 at the same time as the “One Size Fits All” CD was stuck in the player of the Citroën wagon; I was struck (as would be any true paranoid) by how resonant the tune, “Florentine Pogen,” was with the dystopian, friendly/sinister, paranoid theme of the novel. But it is the novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose wacky, obscurantist literacy (it’s frankly, more musical literacy in Zappa’s instance) and paranoid world-view the composer most vividly evokes, despite the obvious differences in temperament—Pynchon is an entirely private person and Zappa was (when he was not being utterly private) a far more public person (or at least a projection of our respective fantasies of who he might be. They are more or less from the same vintage (Pynchon was born three years earlier), and were clearly both formed deeply by the music and overall cultural sensibilities (especially Beat/hipster) of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In their young adulthood, both gentlemen lived in Southern California (my appellation d’origine as well), Pynchon more littorally situated and Zappa an iconic denizen of the Inland Empire. One could perhaps argue that spending any significant time in Southern California in the ‘50s would turn anyone into a surrealist (think of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” as well as SoCal’s truly bizarre outré architecture). And the fact that one can’t help but imagine that one is not just living one’s own actual life, but rather that one’s life is in some sense also a movie. This kind of double-consciousness seems to pervade Zappa’s work; there is always a sort of fourth wall with the auditor that is continually being broached. Pynchon’s characters, for his part, are often unselfconsciously breaking into song, usually of the slightly cheesy variety. Pynchon and Zappa share an interest in Zoot Suiters, cars (especially with fins), rockets, dopers, television, and strangely, talking dogs. They both (rightly) share a deep revulsion for the increasingly controlling power of the State. I can imagine Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49, as one of Zappa’s personages. She would, of course, be “deep in the city,” catching a joyride in the Florentine Pogen’s Daughter’s ‘59 Morgan.)) the nasal, snarky, Pachuco-sounding voice in “Disco Love.” ((Again, I’m not sure precisely who is the actual person behind this voice, but it is certainly a component of one of Frank’s multiple personae—the mocking, wise-ass, ironic one.)) (It’s dee-sco loff too-nite. Be shoor you luke awl rite.)
In making a wine blend, one analogously looks for the appropriate balance between the benign, gentle elements—fruit, the warmth of alcohol, soft tannins—and the darker, earthier components, that hard, mineral edge, and (if one could possibly control this) even adding (or allowing) in a discreet touch of the Brett-monster (the snark in “Disco Love”). Frank was a notorious perfectionist in his re-mixes, certainly far more fastidious than I am or ever was. And yet, without self-flattery, I must say there was something like fanaticism in at least some aspects of my work, ((It goes without saying that these days I aspire to a level of fanaticism in our grape-growing and winemaking efforts that heretofore was evinced primarily in the realm of marketing.)) though in candor, this was mostly applied to the detail that went into our packaging and marketing efforts, which at times could take on a strong OCD aspect. ((I wish that I could say that this was entirely a function of my own efforts, but a good deal of this brilliance may be laid squarely at the foot of my former colleague, John Locke. John was a brilliant collaborator—his brain does not really work on any of the known, well-trodden neural pathways—and a creative catalyst. I think that whatever good work I did at the time was largely doon with the intention of pleasing/impressing John.)), ((One of the tenets of Chuck House’s work—the designer who gave us Le Cigare Volant and a myriad of other labels—was to add value in every aspect of the design (maybe a bit like Steve Jobs in that respect), to embed wonderful, evocative and unexpected nuggets. In his music, Frank would do something similar by artfully inserting a bit of Stravinsky in a doo-wop tune; being a bit of an obscurantist (and show-off) myself, I might drop in an allusion to Kant, Kierkegaard or Heidegger in the back label text, to delight the perhaps .0002% of the customers who would appreciate the reference.))
Frank was a Libertarian, of all things. I am most certainly not, though oddly enough, there are (or at least were) a substantial number of attendees of Bonny Doon Vineyard winemaker dinners who come up to me at the conclusion of these solemn events and proffer the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead-cert that I am One of Them. The clear difficulty I have with authority being one of the telltale signs. ((I’m not sure I would even recognize the lines within which we are instructed to color.)), ((They also (though not recently) proffer joints to me, certain that I will appreciate this toke(n) of their appreciation. It is certain that many people also (erroneously) imagined Zappa to do his most creative work with the help of some psychotropic enhancement.)) Frank and I both love satire and parody, terrible puns (e.g. Sheik Yerbouti), and things that explode, and oddly enough, thought enough alike to come to similar parodic, iconoclastic ploys, at least in once instance, though in fairness, the Sgt. Pepper spoof was a bit of a gimme.
And we both love sofas or at least find them quite amusing. ((There are two songs devoted to sofas in One Size Fits All, one sung in German. The sofa is one of the great Dada-esque dream-like objects; it can stand for anything one wants it to be. The challenges that we’ve experienced with our “Contra” label perhaps mirror some of the challenges that Frank encountered finding commercial acceptance of his music (or at least his album covers), and suggests perhaps that Dada is not at all well.)) I don’t remember thinking of Zappa when we created the Contra label, but it’s not impossible that his imagery was lurking somewhere in my unconscious. (The image of the sofa in the Antioch vineyard was “found,” not composed art.) Since the days of Dr. Freud, sofas (and couches) are absolutely hilarious; they represent a sort of nebulous area between the familiar and the not so safe. (Clearly, what goes on on sofas, kind of like Frank’s music, is not 100% reputable.)

Frank was a public figure but also very much a solitary individual, preferring his own company to that of others, professing to have not much to say to anyone. (I am afraid that I can utterly relate to that.)
Frank and I seem to share something like the self-absorption gene. ((One indication of this pathology we both share is our reliance on a cryptic, private, self-referential language, clear to ourselves and possibly to a small band of confederates, yet largely opaque to everyone else (unless one has been paying very close attention). Just as Zappa had a roster of characters and objects that populated his universe—Suzie Creamcheese, sofas, weenies (burnt), polkas, ponchos and plastics, I have populated my “Dooniverse” with my own recurring iconic objects: flying cigars, old telegrams, labyrinths, Marcel Proust, the town of Gilroy (perhaps my San Ber’dino?). I am known to be a serious user of Twitter as well as a notorious blogger; is this not prima facie evidence of acute self-absorption?)) Is it clinical narcissism or perhaps is it that the interior theater is just a lot more compelling than the show going on outside? He and I both share some challenges with emotional literacy, ((The songs, “Ain’t Got No Heart,” and “Heartbreak is for Assholes,” present good evidence to support this assertion.)) but there are (one hopes) some significant differences in our perspectives on some sensitive areas. Frank had no use whatsoever for what he thought of as the fantasy of romantic love, (whereas I remain an utterly delusional romantic naïf on the subject.) ((One hardly imagines Frank being emotionally “available” to his wife, Gail, and yet I want to believe that he treated her and his family well (if slightly unconventionally). He was certainly a lot better with money than I am, jealously guarding the family fortune, making triple sure his family was well cared for after his demise.)), ((I am thoroughly mortified (might I protest too much?) by the arrant misogyny of some of his lyrics, “Crew Slut” and “Fine Girl,” being just a couple of examples among, frankly, many (pretty cute Tom Swifty, eh?). Zappa clearly had some serious “issues” with women. Women represented sex, sex represented danger, and danger (and women) could only lead to big trouble. While not having any formal training in psychiatry, it is dicey for me to pronounce on this, but women apart, it seems that Frank had some real problems with sexuality itself. Like Swift and other satirists, he seemed to be morbidly fixated on the somewhat mechanical absurdity of the mysterious act (he may have a bit of point there), and tended to see human beings as pathetic prisoners of their own hydraulic mechanisms. It seems he wanted to assume a sort of Olympian detachment from his own body and its ruinous imperatives. I do share some of Frank’s Luftmenschlich tendencies, being a somewhat scuzzy tenant in the Temple of my own body.)) Believing that Frank and I share some personality traits/quirks, the most disturbing thing I read about him was an interview with one of his kids (maybe Dweezil?), who, while clearly admiring, if not adoring his father, stated baldly, “Frank doesn’t do love.” Doesn’t do love? This sent a bit of a chill down my spine. I instantly felt a pang of pity for Zappa (and perhaps one for myself as well). I know that in my own case I can certainly do better. The literature suggests that Frank was at times perhaps a bit exploitive of some of the people with whom he worked, ((This was in fact alluded to in 200 Motels.)) but on balance, I believe that he was far more of a giver than taker, ((Can we realistically aspire to anything greater?)) and was utterly beloved for the gifts he shared with the world.
I hope I’ve taken some cautionary lessons from Frank’s weaknesses and peccadilloes. The greatest positive lesson I have learned from him is the need to truly be oneself (who else can one be?), to think for oneself, and above all, seek to please oneself in the work that you do every day. ((I’m honestly not yet quite sure what to make of Frank’s very late work, which was composed and produced largely on his beloved Synclavier, that is to say, al solo, without the ballast of human interaction provided by his musical cohorts—the sidemen who had previously driven him crazy. I wonder at times if he did not in his later work drift off into musical solipsism, or, alternately, was he, without the ten thousand distractions, finally allowed to hear the ever more rarified celestial voices? (Perhaps it will have to be a more advanced humanoid species that will render the final judgment.) I look at my own case, and note that Bonny Doon’s Great Creative Ferment (which was, from my perspective, largely a marketing exercise) took place with a much larger team, who were true collaborators. My (relatively) recent obsession with producing vins de terroir, and the notions I entertain for a methodology by which this may be achieved, may well be the result of angels singing in my ear, or alternately, the onset of onanistic madness.)), ((Since this is in some sense a sort of elegy to Frank, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with one last pithy lesson to be extracted from his example; I feel a bit like the Woody Allen character at the conclusion of “Love and Death,” trying (with just a few seconds remaining on the clock) to distill the meaning of life. Frank was not a great fan of proverbial wisdom, precepts, or pious apothegms and above all, he detested corny. I think that if he had but one bit of advice to give me from wherever he is now, it would be, “Shut Up ‘N Make Yer Wine.”)) In the end, there’s nobody else out there offering final letter grades (or even narrative evaluations).

    29 Responses to “Let Me Be Perfectly Frank”

    1. Dominic says:

      The parallel may be the amazing tightness and cohesiveness of a Frank Zappa live performance, compared to any studio recording, and a wine offered in one take, not rehearsed and tweaked till perfect. Old enough to know..

      • Among my many regrets in life is that I never had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Zappa’s. I continue to try to draw inspiration from his utter perfectionism. Thanks for your comment.

    2. Mike Lynch says:


      I just read your piece on Zappa. Very nice. I’ve been a fan of his music since my teenage years and was lucky enough to see him in concert half a dozen times. If you haven’t gone through his entire library I’d recommend two albums that don’t get a lot of recognition: The Grand Wazoo (a jazz album) and The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life which includes brilliant covers of Stairway to Heaven, Sunshine of Your Love and Purple Haze.

      Hope all is well. Talk later.

    3. I never got to meet Zappa or hear him play live (even though he’s from my home town). I did get the chance to work on a record with Chester Thompson, who played drums with the Mothers. Chester was producing and he gently quote Frank on a number of occasions, even remembering how Frank made him cry when he had trouble executing an unusual time signature. Zappa made us think about guitar, music, and song writing in an entirely new and beautiful light. He was erudite but irreverent, satirical searcher of truth. I can think of a more apt analogy (and LOVE that this post has SO many footnotes!).

      Sincerely, one of your biggest fans… (and Frank’s)

      • Thanks so much, my friend. I live for footnotes, muttered asides, so much so that I sometimes imagine that my life is a Robert Altman movie. Looking forward to doing a dinner w/ you this fall and to spending some time.

    4. o and best Frank quote was “turn it up to hurt minus one.” So right on in guitar and recording. So right on in life.

    5. Randy Fuller says:

      Tonight, I’ll raise my paper bag and toast you with white port and lemon juice. Thanks for a great article, Randall. Long live Zappa.

    6. Doug Frost says:

      Frank offered many a delightful rock (or sometimes big band – Grand Wazoo) show; and you’re right, he had great taste in singers: Ray Collins, Roy Estrada, maybe even Motorhead Sherwood. Frank knew he wasn’t much of a singer, but dood could seriously play guitar in his live sets. Thanks for remembering him! Next column: Don Van Vliet?

      • Lovely to hear from you, Doug. Not sure if I share quite the same affinity for the good Dr. as I do for Frank, but it has been interesting to think about wine’s strange parallels to other disparate universes. Cheers!

    7. Suzy Barros says:

      Really lovely and thoughtful tribute to one of my idols, musically and in general. I’ve always thought the music and wine industries had a lot in common and you just did a really nice job of elucidating some of them. Great post and long live FZ

    8. Molly W. says:

      I’m a Zappa fan, though I hesitate to share the lyrics to Jazz Party Discharge Hats with my young ‘un, quite yet. This is making a lot out of one bit from your essay, but isn’t that the point of the internet: Doesn’t do love? One of my strongest recollections from writing about him, perhaps in his autobiography or elsewhere, was his family’s shared notion that what children do is serious work. The kids were given a white table to paint however they liked, and the family used it. Nowadays that sort of thing is fairly common among the overindulgent among us, but when I read it in the 80’s, it was pretty unusual. Even when my class of parents does it now, I think it’s still trivialized, a reflection of parental overindulgence rather than youthful ability. According to the bit I read, he went further, and the implications for kids, not least his own, were big. Recognizing that age is not a useful yardstick for measuring ability or potential or output and applying this knowledge at home is, to me, a profound act of love. Ask Dweezil. BTW, I googled the quote, and it appears to be from Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, and is attributed there to Gail Zappa, his second wife, who was perhaps going through a rough patch with Frank and not intending to be published on the matter. 🙂 So, IMHO, and I would guess in your family’s opinion as well, being a narcissistic, talented, embattled, obsessive overachiever is not entirely or at all incompatible with being loving. It just makes you able to share a product the rest of us would rather consume than go to the enormous trouble of making. So, thanks. Also, with regard to legacy, are you really incapable of setting your goals retroactively, like the rest of us? Pobrecito.

      • Molly, thanks so much for your comment, and sorry that it has taken so long to get back to you. (I got a bit distracted in responding to the comments on the Zappa piece.) Granted, that the comment about Zappa “not doing love,” is perhaps a bit contextual, there still remains the very disturbing evidence of his very real misogyny. It would really seem that Frank had some issues with women. Maybe it was just that he was such an extraordinarily artistic personage, he had issues with essentially everyone (note, he was constantly involved in litigation), and his difficulty with friendships is substantiated in his own autobiography. Nevertheless, as difficult a person as he might have been, I am so incredibly thankful that he shared his gift.

    9. Jan Hersh says:

      Ah, this reminds me of the WONDERFUL newsletters I used to receive. The footnotes are delightful. Perhaps you should try a new brand of auto equipped with the latest in musical technology. Spouse Sam is enjoying his SUBURU OUTBACK.
      When I finally make it to one of your wine tasting dinners I will gift you with Sam’s mp3 mix that lasts about 8 to 12 hours. I listen to his eclectic mixes whenever I am driving. Frank is there along with many others.
      A fond toast to you and to Frank

      • Jan, So lovely to hear from you, and look forward to seeing you at one of the winetasting gigs sooner than later. There is no question that I need a newer car. I’m not sure what leverage can be brought to bear on Citroen to begin to export their cars again to the US. But until then, Imy extreme francophilia puts me at a great disadvantage. All the best.

    10. Katie says:

      As an enormous Zappa fan, and as a woman, I don’t know that agree with your footnote about misogyny in songs like Crew Slut. I think he was holding up a mirror to the iconoclastic “rock star” lifestyle mentality. I don’t find it any different than Randy Newman writing Rednecks.

      • This is a problem that a biographer (even a very sloppy and lazy one such as myself) has. How do you know if you’ve really captured the essence of the person. Maybe if I had had the chance to hang out w/ Frank and had some Frank discussions with him, I’d have a better read. But, I think that there is truly a good case for his misogyny – it really seems to be all over his lyrics from the beginning to the end of his career. (He was nothing if not consistent.) I wish it weren’t so, as I have so much respect for his great talent. But, perhaps his greatness stands out in greater relief in virtue of his flaws.

    11. Michael Blunden says:

      Thank you for revisiting Frank Z for us.
      Give up the Presidential motoring style and buy a Citroen Deux Chevaux designed for transporting bottles of Chateau la Mission Haut Brion 1982 across a ploughed field without disturbing the sediment.

    12. My utter pleasure. It took forever to complete the article, but it was a great adventure, and such a treat to dig in again to Zappiana.

    13. Chef says:

      Greetings Randall,

      It is 3:39 AM on July 6th, 2014 at the first quarter moon and somehow it is an auspicious moment to have found you and your article on the grand (Wazoo) maestro himself! FZ had an enormous mutative influence on my life. It’s the one thing in my life that is beyond description (and especially to attempt as a “comment” here)! However, I have started a blog on this and over time am reasonably sure that I will add to it.

      Now I’d like to taste your wines!

      Strangely enough I came to discover your site by way of a search for “biodynamic biochar”! Is this bizarre?

      Thank You, Randall!

      • Randall Grahm says:

        There are no coincidences. No question that Zappa’s music is an incredible nexus that brings together quite a number of disparate elements. I hope you will enjoy the wines.

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