ROCK / The Zappa tracks of my tears: The death last month of Frank Zappa, musical maverick, cultural ambassador and all-round eccentric, stirred fond memories for Nigey Lennon. Here the American writer recalls their unlikely, and doomed, acquaintance

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The Independent Culture
When I heard Frank Zappa had succumbed to cancer on 4 December, a couple of weeks shy of his 53rd birthday, at first I found myself wondering if, like the old Mark Twain story, rumours of his death weren't greatly exaggerated. The Frank Zappa I remembered always stubbornly insisted on existing in his own space-time continuum and it was difficult to imagine him meekly submitting to any other construct and shuffling off to oblivion.

My acquaintance with Zappa began in 1969, when I was a sophomore at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. I had made a home recording of some songs I had written, and sent it to Zappa's Bizarre Records. Like countless other teenage oddballs of the Sixties, I identified fervently with Zappa's outre musical stance. I figured that because I was considered so weird by the other kids at my school, I was probably some sort of genius, and that if anyone in the music world would appreciate my talents, it would be Frank Zappa.

So imagine my reaction when I came home from school one afternoon to find a letter from the man, asking me to come in and talk to him at his office when he returned from a European tour. All of a sudden I didn't feel like such a genius. What would I say to him? I was 15.

On the date agreed upon, my boyfriend (who was also on the tape I'd sent to Zappa) and I showed up at the Bizarre Records office, which was located on the top floor of a nondescript Wiltshire Boulevard skyscraper. At precisely 3.30pm Frank Zappa strode through the door, greeted the secretary, told her to hold his calls, and immediately herded us into a private suite. I don't think I ever felt so important in my life, or so fraudulent.

He reached into the pocket of his brown tweed blazer and pulled out a piece of crumpled paper on which he had made what appeared to be copious notes about my tape. Then he proceeded to sing the first few lines of one of my songs. After that he could have knocked me over with the green-feathered lady's hat he was wearing. 'I like some of these songs, but nothing on this tape is ready to record yet.' Reading from his notes, he gave us a song-by-song rundown of what he felt needed to be done to improve the demo. 'I'd like to hear it again when you're finished,' he added.

Business having been conducted, he put his feet up on the desk and started to question us: where did we live, where did we go to school, what kind of music we liked. More than two hours had elapsed by the time he shook our hands and bid us farewell.

Although I had every intention of fixing up the demo and resubmitting it to Zappa, I never got around to it. I was expelled from school, sent by my parents to take care of my dying grandmother in Arizona and, in the process, I became involved in the rodeo world and put the idea of a professional music career on the back burner. But I kept writing songs whenever I happened to be side-lined with a fracture or a bad contusion. I still listened to Zappa's music as much as ever, too, and when I arrived back in Los Angeles a couple of years later, I decided to try looking him up again.

After a local concert I went backstage and said hello to him. He remembered me and asked how my music was going and if I had a band. I told him what I'd been up to, and we chatted awhile. By this time he had disbanded his original Mothers of Invention and was trying out different personnel combinations, and knowing I played the guitar and sang, he asked if I'd like to try out for his current road band. I had serious misgivings about being able to handle his high-tech arrangements, among other things, but I duly schlepped up to his home studio in Laurel Canyon, where I spent a horrendous afternoon getting inextricably tangled in suspended fourth and raised- eleventh chords. I still don't know why, but less than two weeks later I found myself at a real live gig. It didn't work out, of course, but we became good friends anyway.

The more I got to know Zappa, the more opposite I began to realise we were. Although he had been born in the United States, he was culturally a die-hard European. He had an instinctive hatred of almost everything American, especially cowboys. I, on the other hand, was as Western as they come, and dang proud of it. Being 14 years my senior, Zappa took his self-appointed role as my cultural mentor seriously, trying his best to civilise me by exposing me to 'serious' (European) music - Stravinsky, Webern, Varese and whatnot. Those critics who took him to task for corrupting innocent youth with filthy lyrics would have been flabbergasted to see him sitting solemnly at the phonograph, playing me excerpts from his favourite composers and intently waving his cigarette like a pointer at critical junctures in the musical lecture.

Our differences showed up even more markedly in the gender department. Although he was unfailingly encouraging when it came to my music, I always got the impression that he was uncomfortable with me intellectually because I was a girl. The women around him tended to fall neatly into well-defined roles -his wife kept his domestic scene running like a well-oiled machine, and all the assorted groupies and camp-followers who hung around the band served to make life on the road diverting.

He hated losing control, almost to the point of paranoia. Once, in New York during a tour, he rummaged through my carry-on flight bag and found my journal, which contained various observations, pro and con, about what was going on around me. He flew into a rage and accused me, entirely without cause, of keeping notes so that I could sell an expose to Rolling Stone. I tried to explain that I had no such intention, but he wouldn't listen. Fed up with his shenanigans I excused myself from that night's performance, which happened to be at Carnogie Hall. The next morning I heard that he had made a lengthy speech dedicating the show to me, as a sort of public apology. It was hard not to be fond of him, despite his eccentricities.

Our final rift was over the same sort of thing. I had an assignment from a national magazine to write some survey or other. Almost as a joke, I called Zappa and asked him if he'd like to participate. He was in a bad mood that night, and accused me of being an opportunist and a turncoat.

I decided once and for all that he was just a paranoid crank, and to hell with him. Before I had a chance to calm down, I fired off a nasty letter telling him I was tired of his delusional arrogance. I felt pretty bad about it after a couple of weeks, but the damage had been done. He continued to regard me as a turncoat, and that was the end of the staunchest and strangest friendship I probably ever had. That was in 1975.

More than once since then I have wished I could sit again in his basement studio, listening to that flat, ironically affectionate voice discussing the science of acoustics, the significance of Rimsky-Korsakov's influence on Stravinsky, or the idiocy of American voters. There was a lot I didn't understand about my friendship with Frank Zappa, but now that I know it's over for good, I realise how lucky I was to have known him and I'm truly sorry I never told him so.

(Photograph omitted)

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