How Frank Zappa Saved My Life

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I didn’t get many visitors in the hospital after my first suicide attempt.  I was mostly too embarrassed to see my friends.
But two of the coolest guys I knew showed up, Andy and Mark, and they gave me precisely what I needed – to show up and shoot the shit with me.  I felt like a broken doll, but needed to be treated like a human being, and they kept the solicitous “…You okay?” questions to a minimum.
They were the first to make me laugh.
And I remember very clearly when they didn’t make me laugh.  Because Mark said there was a Zappa song that referenced me, and Andy put a hand on his arm and said, “Come on, man, don’t reference that, he’s not ready.” And I asked what song, and they demurred me, saying they’d tell me later.
A couple of weeks later that summer, when I got out of the hospital, I asked them to play whatever that song was for me.  And they bobbed their heads, embarrassed, and got out the tape and played the first Frank Zappa song I ever heard:
“Suicide Chump.”

You say there ain’t no use in livin’
It’s all a waste of time
‘N you wanna throw your life away, well
People that’s just fine
Go ahead on ‘n get it over with then
Find you a bridge ‘n take a jump
Just make sure you do it right the first time
‘Cause nothin’s worse than a Suicide Chump
They watched my face, horrified –
And I burst out in laughter.  Who the hell would say that?
“What else did he write?” I asked, thinking that Zappa was a guy like Tom Lehrer – all clever lyrics embossed over bog-standard tunes.  And they grinned and said, “Oh, you’re in for it,” because they knew what I didn’t – that song was among the most uninteresting tunes in the Zappa archive, a simple blues riff.  They knew that Zappa had complex polyrhythms that would get wedged in your brain for days but be impossible to play.
They unveiled You Are What You Is to me, and the top of my head blew off.
The thing about Zappa is that he was fearless in every direction – he’d make fun of anything.  (His first album notably pierced the hypocrisy of the hippie movement, in 1966.)  He hit conservatives and liberals with the same incisive glee, and nothing was sacred.
Yet he did so with a cold intellect.  He’d go dumb on purpose, sliding into dippiness because it amused him, but always Zappa would retreat to that high ground of thoughtfulness and he would not abandon it.
But he was also fearless musically, striding boldly into every territory to grab orchestral music from over here and doo-wop music from there and a snatch of heavy metal and then weld them all together with complexity that made his musicians have to do actual work.  He’d snag the most talented drummers and guitarists and keyboardists of his generation, and they would have to work ten-hour days to figure out how to play what he wrote.  Touring with Zappa became like graduating Juilliard – you couldn’t do it without a magnificent set of skills.
Yet for all that, his music never felt as studied as the prog rock movement, which often felt like they were doing crazily-hard stuff just to show that they could do it.  Zappa’s work, with rare exceptions such as The Black Page, felt organic – yes, the diabolical stuff was in there, but felt like it had a purpose.  It was singable.
And so Zappa saved my life.
Because Zappa showed me it was okay to be weird, so long as I kept observing.  He followed his dream so recklessly that he didn’t really give a crap about his fans, or the record companies, or even his musicians – he just wanted to explore whatever was interesting to him.
What interested Zappa was dissection.  He liked looking at things.  He liked tinkering with both ideas and notes.  I liked tinkering with ideas and words.  He liked changing styles, and I liked changing styles.  He hated pretentiousness for the sake of looking good for other people, treasuring honest exploration –
So that’s what I set out to be.
Zappa told me it was okay for me to be me, and maybe even Zappa wouldn’t approve of me, but that was okay.  The core message of Zappa was that he was living for his own amusement, and he didn’t give a fuck what you thought because he enjoyed what he did –
Which gave me permission to be weird.  And not the kind of performative weird I saw so much in high school, that Hey, look at how kooky I am guys, do I make you laugh? but the actual weird that comes from looking at things that nobody thinks should be cool and hugging them to your chest.
To this day, it’s hard to describe what I like musically.  I’m all over the map.  People hate my mix tapes.  Because I’ve got so many loves and they don’t have much in common except they called to me.  (It’s also why I have such a hard time whenever someone asks me what my literary influences are.)
And there were a couple of times I was tempted to commit suicide from then on, back when I was young and still working through what would eventually come to be known as my Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I thought of Zappa: Do you want to be a suicide chump?
I eventually came to realize that some significant portion of my suicides were, indeed, performative.  (The other portion was needing a vacation, which I came to realize suicide was not.)  And if Zappa wouldn’t feel sorry for me, then others wouldn’t, and if I was going to make a show out of my death then why would I do that for such an unappreciative audience?
Zappa’s one of the major reasons I’m here today.
And I think of David Bowie dying, and I see all the outpouring of love for him because for so many people, he was the first person who told them, “You can be yourself.”  They saw someone blazing their own path fearlessly, and they realized they could create their own life.  And to have that inspiration go away so suddenly, so unexpectedly, made them remember how much of their life was only possible because one person had been so unimaginably brave.
Their sorrow calls to mine.  Their grief is fresh; I lost my hero twenty-three years ago, in 1993.  I know this because I have a Frank Zappa print in my bathroom, right over the toilet – I’m pretty sure he’d have laughed at that – that marks his demise.  I think of him almost every day.
And in a sense, it’s good that Zappa’s gone.  He was already getting cranky, and I suspect he would have become insufferable in his later life – maybe he would have remained a hero, maybe his humor would have boiled away to leave him with nothing but arrogance and he would pucker into some Richard Dawkins-shaped asshole on Twitter.
But I don’t know. Zappa evolved a lot. It was exciting to see where he’d go.
And Bowie is gone, and Zappa is gone, and all our heroes must march into the sky eventually.  It’s a day of mourning for those beautiful freaks who found a different hero.
But we all marched down the same path, basically.  You and I, Bowie fans, we both had that moment where a man shook us by the shoulders and said, You don’t have to be this.  And pointed down a more limitless direction.
You.  Me.  Zappa.  Bowie.  We’re all part of the spectrum.
We all became our own heroes.  At least a little bit.
That bravery serves everybody, in time.
So be weird. Be bold. Be as big as your heroes, even if they’re gone. That’s what they would have wanted of you, and it’s the blessing I wish upon you, on a day that still feels a little colder and emptier than it should.

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