Frank Zappa: Revolutionary

Frank Zappa was a prolific composer and musician. He released more than 60 records during his lifetime, and a few more containing unheard material came out posthumously. When he died 20 years ago, the New York Times called him "rock's most committed iconoclast." The word "iconoclast" also popped up in a Time magazine tribute, in the headline of Zappa's Los Angeles Times obituary, and in a Washington Post appreciation. He was, the Post noted, "the most caustic iconoclast of the rock-and-roll era."

But Zappa has a lesser known legacy: He inspired revolutions.

“Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground. He was one of the men who shaped the life of the generation which I belong to,” former Czech President Vaclav Havel said after Zappa’s death.

As leader of the band Mothers of Invention, Zappa created music that "impacted music, politics, social satire and contemporary culture in general," San Diego Union-Tribune music critic George Varga wrote in 2013. In the same article, musician Mike Keneally said it was understandable why Havel found Zappa inspirational. "Frank's music hammered away at the fact that the status quo was not ideal, and that you could do better in your everyday life," he said.

Lithuanian film professor Rimas Morkumas said, "We bought Zappa's albums on the black market, because they were banned. He was revolutionary, and he helped break down the wall (of the Iron Curtain)."

Zappa's music could be complex, comic and confrontational. It was called irreverent, insightful and idiosyncratic. But it may have been his personality, which came through in some lyrics, that most appealed to 1980s era freedom fighters. Zappa was "never one you could characterize as a follower; he lived by his own set of ideals, and held extremely true to what he believed in over the course of his career-––something immediately obvious to anyone that has ever listened to a piece of his music," David Von Bader wrote on ConsequenceofSound.net.

This music was smuggled behind the Iron Curtain. For example, his second album, Absolutely Free, found its way to the former Czechoslovakia after its 1967 release. The music "thus came to represent freedom and independent thought to dissidents in Czechoslovakia. Reports have it that when young kids in communist Czechoslovakia played heavy rock music, the police would tell them to 'turn off that Frank Zappa music,'" according to Radio Prague.

Zappa met Havel in Prague in 1989. The two were fast friends and Havel named Zappa as Czechoslovakia's "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism." (The title was later rescinded.)

Zappa was also outspoken in the U.S. He was a fierce defender of free speech and waged a public battle against the Parents Music Resource Center and its proposed ratings system. Speaking to a Senate committee in 1985, he called the group's plan an "ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. . . . The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"

Even after his death, Zappa inspired revolution. Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1995, a bust of Zappa was installed in downtown Vilnius, the country's capital. City worker Saulius Paukstys said it made sense because "We were desperate to find a symbol that would mark the end of communism, but at the same time express that it wasn't always doom and gloom," a 2000 article on TheGuardian.com reported.

When the bust was dedicated, a military brass band played Zappa songs. Soon after "a radio station allocated airtime for a weekly Zappa broadcast, which included doses of Zappa philosophy; and a Zappa Love Letter Club was set up to bring Vilnius's lonely hearts together," the article said.

And in 2000, when some residents organized in an attempt to get the local government to pay more attention to their neighborhood or let it secede, Zappa was once again their "patron saint," TheGuardian.com said. "The spirit of Zappa made us see that independence from Moscow was not enough and persuaded us to declare independence from the rest of Vilnius," Paukstys said.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."