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Frank Zappa’s Surreal Real-Life Story

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Frank Zappa was one of the 1960s’ most beloved and influential musicians. His avant-garde music, with tastes of classical, jazz, rock n’ roll, and a signature Zappa flavor, made him an international sensation. He released over 60 albums between his solo work and recordings with bands Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. But behind the brilliance, Zappa’s life was full of turmoil and untold secrets that shaped his out-of-this-world music.

A Highly Dangerous Childhood

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore to two European parents. His father found work in America manufacturing chemical warfare agents, such as mustard gas, for World War II. Because the family was in poverty, Zappa’s father brought home lab equipment to serve as toys. In his youth, Zappa developed asthma, frequent earaches, and sinus problems, likely caused by exposure to the lab chemicals. The treatments for such ailments were traumatic for Zappa, and references to chemical and germ warfare are used throughout his work.

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Frank’s Painful Failures In School And In Love

Zappa went to Chaffey Junior College, not as much for the education but for the opportunity to meet girls. He impressed his professors by composing and studying advanced material in his first semester; however, once he met the beautiful Kay Sherman, he saw no need for school and promptly dropped out. His marriage to Kay quickly failed, as he was caught with another woman. Losing both his wife and chance at an education, Zappa moved into a recording studio in Cucamonga, California.

NPR Music

A Tragic On-Stage Accident

Mothers of Invention gained national attention when one of their fans shot a flare gun, burning down the building and inspiring the famed Deep Purple song, “Smoke on the Water.” However, this wasn’t the last time a fan would wreak havoc during a show. About a week after the flare gun incident, Zappa was shoved off the stage into the orchestra pit by a jealous fan. He fell 15 feet, breaking multiple bones, and suffering from head injuries, a temporarily paralyzed arm, and a crushed larynx.

Pensiere e Parole

An International Symbol Of Rebellion

Frank Zappa’s bizarre musical style wasn’t just popular in America. It reached all the way to the Czech Republic, which was still Communist-ruled at the time. Though his vulgar music wasn’t allowed on the radio or in stores, it was smuggled in and eventually became a symbol of freedom for the Czechs. His music made such a profound influence that in 1990 he was appointed the “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism.” He didn’t keep the title long, but his influence still remains.

Not Now Silly

A Shocking End To A Remarkable Man

In 1990, Frank Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. By the time they began treatment, the tumor was deemed inoperable. He had to have a urine bag inserted, and went through several painful treatments before the tumor was also deemed untreatable. However, this didn’t stop Zappa from composing. His last work, The Yellow Shark, was a classical album released in 1993. He died a few weeks after the release at the age of 52.

Eastman School of Music

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