By Kevin Begos
A Maverick Musician's Complex Cancer
Advances in prostate cancer can seem as complicated as Frank Zappa's music
By Kevin Begos
He wrote complex, challenging music with lyrics like “Weasels ripped my flesh” and “Don’t eat the yellow snow,” named a daughter Moon Unit, and openly displayed his contempt for powerful Washington politicians, so naturally millions of people grew to adore Frank Zappa even as others demonized him.
Among the latter group were U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore; they essentially suggested Zappa didn’t represent American values and was a deviant whose music would destroy young minds and souls. Among the other group was Václav Havel, the playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who thought Zappa’s music was a beacon of liberty and creativity that helped free people’s minds from the heavy cloud of communism.
But to prostate cancer, Frank Zappa was just another collection of cells, and without awe or disdain it slowly, methodically took his life at the age of 52. Zappa was a pivotal figure in America’s culture wars from the 1960s until his death in 1993, but his illness came at another point of turmoil—an era when prostate cancer was still poorly understood and treatments were exceptionally hard on patients.
It was also the era in which prostate cancer was taking the greatest toll on American men. According to National Cancer Institute (NCI) figures, the mortality rate for white men increased from about 20 per 100,000 men in 1973 to a high of 25 per 100,000 in 1991; then declined to 23 per 100,000 in 1995. Among black men, the rate was 40 per 100,000 men in 1973; 56 per 100,000 in 1993; and 54 per 100,000 in 1995.
There have been many improvements in diagnosis and treatment since Zappa died, but also continuing frustrations, including uncertainty for some men about whether their cancer is aggressive or not. “It’s astounding that it’s an organ the size of a walnut [and] we can’t figure out what’s inside of it,” says urological oncologist James Montie, the chairman of the department of urology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a past chairman of the Prostate Cancer Task Force of the American Joint Commission on Cancer. “It’s a bit distressing, actually. But it’s not an insolvable problem.”
Zappa’s attempts to overcome the disease—greatly complicated by the fact that he couldn’t get health insurance at the time—had a ripple effect on his entire family. His son Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa was 15 when his father was diagnosed and 18 when he died. Even now, a chance viewing of a father/son interaction on TV sometimes hits him hard. “I burst into tears,” Ahmet says, adding that his father was an “über-intellectual, charismatic guy with an unbelievable sense of humor.”
Born in Baltimore in 1940, Frank Vincent Zappa became a counterculture icon but grew up in a traditional Italian-American family. At an early age, Zappa started to show the interest in diverse types of music that would shape his career. The family moved to California when he was a teenager, and like many kids at the time, Zappa loved doo-wop and blues. But his curiosity went deeper. A passing reference in Look magazine to an album by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse intrigued him.
In his autobiography, Zappa recalls that “The article [in Look] went on to say something like: ‘This album is nothing but drums—it’s dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world.’ ”
“Ahh! Yes! That’s for me!” wrote Zappa, who later used the money from his birthday present at age 15 to attempt a long-distance call to Varèse, who was listed in the New York City phone book.
Zappa learned to play several instruments and even to compose long pieces by the time he finished high school. Soon, two other key traits in his life emerged: an almost Renaissance-like commitment to detail—and hard work—and a desire to control as much of the music-making process as possible.
He took over the lease on a tiny recording studio in Los Angeles at age 22 and literally moved in, living and working there. The studio became a gathering place for a diverse group of musicians, and by 1964 Zappa had formed a band, the Mothers, which was playing the Los Angeles and San Francisco club circuits. By 1966, the group had landed a record deal (advance: $2,500) on the condition that it would change its name to the Mothers of Invention, since the Mothers had a vague suggestion of rude slang.
The record label apparently thought Zappa’s group was a “white blues band” though there were soon signs this wasn’t an apt description. Zappa recalled that when the group started to record the second track on the album Who Are the Brain Police?, the recording engineer seemed to make a frantic call to his boss.
Reviewers took note of the album Freak Out! —but with a puzzled tone. The hip album cover fit with the era, but the sometimes discordant and frenetic music was worlds away from the simple ballads and three-cord rock songs that bands like the Beatles were doing at the time. There were other differences, too.
For musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, drugs were expected and cigarettes were the norm. Zappa chain-smoked as he worked long hours composing songs and negotiating the treacherous ground of the music business. But he was almost kicked out of the band because he didn’t use drugs.
“Listeners at the time were convinced I was up to my eyebrows in chemical refreshment,” noted Zappa in his book. The myth was so pervasive that it became entrenched, and even now people come up to Zappa’s children, claiming old family friend status by telling a nostalgic story of smoking a joint with their father in the family kitchen. “They think that’s the way to approach us,” Ahmet says, but instead he tells them, “No way—that didn’t happen in our house.”