I find that I tend to be more apt to give a tribute to those who are past than those who are present, so let’s consider honoring someone who is still with us today: namely, my mother. It’s her birthday today, so I know you’ve got cards in the mail as we speak.
If it’s weird to connect the dead to “Weird Al” Yankovic, then it may be more bizarre still for those who know of him to connect one’s mother to Frank Zappa. The truth is, I find this weird, as well. I didn’t at the time, of course. As I got older, and I listened to more and more of his work, things that are harder to justify came up. It’s not at all difficult, for example, to find lurid song titles in the Zappa catalog. Some are more provocative than the title suggests (“Harder Than Your Husband,” for instance, would be mostly safe to play in front of your grandmother). Others are far filthier than one could presume (“Broken Hearts are for Assholes” comes to mind). I have had the dubious honor of seeing “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” performed with my mother’s new husband, not remotely a Zappa devotee, sitting next to me in the audience, which was considerably awkward. So in this phase of my life, sharing Frank’s music with my mother always comes with the awkward realization that, while she frequently laments that people get caught up in his more controversial, racy content, she has nevertheless heard every last second of “Dinah Moe Humm.”
On the other hand, though, while it is supremely weird to think of my mother as a fan of this sort of thing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise from a woman who both tsk-tsked through Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and yet appreciated what it was as a statement, who once praised Tool’s “Ænema” for the sheer passion and anger of it, despite (quite fairly) not enjoying my own lapses into vulgarity and rage. My mom was always open-minded, for a mom, despite also being over-protective to this day. We all have stresses with our family that others cannot see: my mom and I are both pigheaded, and fight frequently due to it. Still, objectively, I agree with the more common friend opinion: I was blessed with a cool mom, especially musically. She was the one who drove my friends and I to concerts 9 times out of 10. She was the one who volunteered her credit card for those tickets. She snuck my sis and I into shows we were far too young for because she was a regular at the clubs. She once took a ticket I had for the Darkness, when they first came around, so I wouldn’t end up eating it. She once weirded out a friend’s older brother by playing Beck’s “Loser” on the way to taking us to school. If my father was the formative musical mind of my childhood, she took over quite nicely when he passed away. Not only am I still not embarrassed to go to shows with my mom (though let’s be honest, I’m embarrassed by many things about my mom, as we all are), but I owe some pretty specific fandoms to her, and Zappa is without a doubt the luckiest connection. A man with such a breadth of work and such an underground fanbase even now could have remained impossible to find access points to at this age. Early exposure helped give me directions to begin my own explorations.
Needless to say, of course, I was getting a lot of early Zappa as a kid, which is why I associate those goofier tracks with my mom instead of the more wide-ranging choices from a decade of joining her to see Zappa alums play. I’m OK with this. So while Zappa’s guitar tone and style get to the core of me, and while the political and irreverent Zappa songs speak to me in certain ways, it will be little snippets of sillyness like “Electric Aunt Jemima” that stay with me deepest. It’s short, it’s catchy, and the harmony has been sung by my mother and I in the car numerous times. It’s always going to make me think of her, and always going to be the Zappa song that holds the most relevance to me, even with so many others that are more meaningful on the surface.
Frank Zappa once said that none of his fans love all of his music, and that’s very true. He had so many phases throughout his work. He went from sloppy hippie protest songs to high tech synclavier arrangements, released jazz and surf guitar albums, challenged with discordance and vulgarity. The same could probably be said of our families. Just because we love them doesn’t mean some of their “work” doesn’t make us rage. I wish I could say otherwise about my own mother, but I can’t. But what I can say is that, when I really think about it, instead of letting the passions of a moment or the current annoyances cloud the bigger picture, I’ve been pretty lucky. My mother’s done a lot for me, and despite our family’s frequent jokes about her love of all things beige and boring, she’s done it as a woman who always was set apart from her peers. A song like this sort of sums her up in its quirkiness. It’s something I hope I’m lucky to see in her for years to come.
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