REGARDING Frank Zappa’s unusually named children, a Scot can’t resist plonking them in a Scottish context, just for the fun of it. Imagine a gaggle of kids playing on some recreation scrub and this cry tinkling down from an 11th-floor window: “Moon Unit, come awa’ in for yer tea!” Or imagine Moon’s wee brother as a footballer, plying his trade in our leagues. Surely the telly pundits would quickly refer to him, without irony, as “the boy Dweezil”.
Well, the boy Dweezil is 43, nine years short of Frank’s age when he died of prostate cancer in 1993. Frank doesn’t get quoted much these days, which is a shame given this is such a vanilla age and he sang songs about running-shoe odour, growing dental floss on the prairie and the female orgasm. Dweezil, though, is doing his best to keep alive his dad’s music for the old fans, and to expose new ones to the work of rock’s great controversialist. Zappa Plays Zappa is his show and sometimes, performing a selection from that incredible 70-album output, he feels a ghostly presence in the hall.
“The show is a bridge,” he explains, “so I can continue to have a relationship with my father. His songs are pretty poignant for me and I think the audiences pick up on that. I’ve gone to great lengths to recreate specific sounds on these records and while I’m not pretending I’ve got my father’s genius as a guitarist, I can be playing so much in his style that I’ll think: ‘Hey, what happened there? That part – it wasn’t done by me.’ ”
It would be entirely in keeping with the man and his way-out weird legend if he was getting up to musical mischief from beyond the grave. Aged six, experiments with gunpowder got him banned from school and this set a trend for small explosions. Politicians and hippies, truckers, televangelists and Jewish princesses – few escaped his satirical swipe, with or without the Mothers of Invention. Every style – doo-wop, heavy metal disco, jazz, choral, symphonic – went into his blender. The results could make the ears of session musicians – and an Old Bailey judge – bleed. Or, unexpectedly, perversely, they could be strangely beautiful.
So what was it like having him as a dad? A few years ago I met Moon with another Zappa progeny, Diva, and while the sisters admitted exposure to TV’s The Addams Family offered reassurance that other clans were unconventional too, they insisted: “Our house was probably more exciting in your imagination.” Down the line from the Hollywood Hills, Dweezil concurs. “What people like to believe about Dad was: ‘There goes that guy with the crazy songs and the kids with the crazy names – good luck to them!’ People like to think it was chaos all the time but there weren’t lots of wild parties. The house was a pretty sedate environment, quite conservative.
“The very business of making 70 albums necessitates some structure – even if they’re Frank Zappa albums. When he was working in the basement us four had to be quiet. When he was done for the day, he wasn’t a rambunctious, playtime dad. He didn’t like sports and I did. But we loved his bedtime stories, which he wrote and drew himself – the one about the Snot Monster was a favourite. And later he made us play games with words. The object of one was to come up with words which should be in the dictionary but aren’t. I remember trying to think of a way to describe a person who only ever wears rock T-shirts. In a nanosecond Dad put ‘insignia’ and ‘ignoramus’ together and came up with ‘insignoramus’.
“The things that got us interested and excited, we were urged to follow. And thanks to him and our mom we’ve turned out all right. We never had the issues of other Hollywood families: rehab and the police having to be called. Now we’re fine, upstanding citizens.” Frank was vehemently anti-drugs and Dweezil adds: “I’ve never taken any and I’ve never touched alcohol or cigarettes.” Of course, it could be argued that with Frank’s music wafting up from the basement, sensory overload was always on tap.
Until the age of 12, this was all Dweezil knew. “When I first heard pop radio – the Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen – I was like: ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ Next to Dad’s music with the complicated instrumentation and changes in timbre, these bands sounded so normal. I mean, I quite liked the simplicity of that stuff but I wanted to hear bagpipes over it.” And Dweezil still believes that Frank’s records sound like they’re “from the future”.
Conventional pop rhymed “moon” with “June” whereas Dweezil was a Moon Unit kind of guy. What was he going to do with his life? “To rebel against Frank Zappa I would have had to become an accountant or a lawyer,” he laughs. There was a bit of acting – a John Hughes Brat Pack cameo, a sitcom with Moon, a cookery show with then girlfriend Lisa Loeb – but music has always been his big love. Being Zappa’s laddie – help or hindrance? “Early on, if I hadn’t had the affiliation, maybe people would have perceived what I was doing sooner. Given that, you might have thought a show based round Dad’s music would do me no favours, but it’s only now that people are recognising something in my playing not noticed before.”
Being called Dweezil – help or hindrance? “I love it,” he says. “When Dad showed up at the maternity hospital, the staff told him they were offended by my name and made him lengthen it, so he rattled off some band members – Ian, Donald, Calvin and Euclid – then said: ‘Now let me see my son.’ When I heard that story later I was offended! The other names were removed from by birth certificate right away.” So no self-consciousness about the moniker at all? “Well, a big moment was when I was five and this menacing boy came up to me in a shoe store, asked me my name and said; ‘That’s stoopid.’ I asked him his name. ‘Buns,’ he said. I knew that Dweezil was far superior and never looked back.” «
• Zappa Plays Zappa is at the HMV Picturehouse, Edinburgh on Thursday.