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Family drama fails to derail Dweezil Zappa on stage or off

Dweezil Zappa | JEFF DEAN PHOTO

On his current run of shows, Dweezil Zappa is playing “Whatever the F@%k He Wants.” While that has always sort of been his M.O. — choosing to perform his father’s complex rarities alongside his own solo material — Dweezil’s new “Cease and Desist Tour” is a direct response to the latest round of drama with the Zappa Family Trust that has caused a deep fissure with the surviving members of the family and subsequently been drawn out in the public eye.

DWEEZIL ZAPPA PLAYS WHATEVER THE F@%K HE WANTS
When: 7 p.m. October 12
Where: Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $30 (in advance)
Info: ticketfly.com

Twice now, Dweezil Zappa has been hit with what he calls “meritless” cease and desist letters from the Trust, which was developed to protect the intellectual property of Frank Zappa upon his passing in 1993. The trust is currently run by Dweezils’s younger brother (and once music partner) Ahmet, and his sister, Diva. They claim that the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tours Dweezil has coordinated since 2006 have been a trademark violation, something he vehemently rebukes.

“I don’t believe there’s any reason I should be prevented from playing this music; I’m not doing any harm, in fact I’m doing the opposite. I’ve done more to promote the music to new generations than anything the Trust has ever done. And I get to carry on a relationship with my father by playing his music, and to me that’s a worthwhile thing to do,” Zappa says about continuing to move forward with the tours, despite the opposition and never being paid what he says is his fair share of the merchandise proceeds.

Frank Zappa | SHNS file photo

Frank Zappa | SHNS file photo

The issue is a long-standing one that began with Dweezil’s mother Gail (Frank’s widow), and has only gotten worse since her passing a year ago as Ahmet and Diva “continue to do her bidding,” says Dweezil. Both siblings have continued to decline comment on the matter. “Gail is definitely somebody that, on the outside, wanted people to think she was the great protector of Frank’s music, but really she was the great preventer; she was constantly creating problems and making it so that people could not perform his works,” Dweezil Zappa intones. Including her children.

In a candid and emotional two-part interview with Marc Maron on his “WTF” podcast, Zappa alleges that his mother hid and ultimately changed Frank’s will and kept letters Frank wrote Dweezil on his deathbed. Dweezil believes he and sister, Moon Unit Zappa, were disavowed after not agreeing to sign off on Gail’s wanting to cash in an insurance policy that would have made up for some of her “bad business decisions,” and the conflict within the family is only going to get worse before it gets better, says Dweezil. The latest is the Trust applying for a trademark for the surname name Zappa, “to the extent that Moon and I are not allowed to use it as our professional name.”

But until those legal proceedings take place, Dweezil is refusing to pull the plug on his commemorative shows, the latest of which is in homage to the 50th anniversary of “Freak Out!,” the debut album of Frank Zappa’s group the Mothers of Invention and also the first double album to ever be released. For the Chicago date on October 12, he will be joined by long-time Zappa collaborator and fan favorite Ike Willis (known of his work on “Joe’s Garage”) to offer deft renditions of songs like “Wowie Zowie” and “Who Are the Brain Police?” alongside other abstract sonic collages. “They have all this crazy distortion long before it was normal to hear it on a record,” says Dweezil, also contextualizing the deeper socio-political importance of the album. “He shines a mirror on society in a lot of ways that people don’t like. And Frank’s music still seems to offend people because there’s so much truth in it.”

Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, photographed in 1994. | FILE PHOTO

Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, photographed in 1994. | FILE PHOTO

Partly because of that, the album never really got the kind of airplay that the more comical “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” did, which Dweezil says unfortunately gave his father the reputation of being some kind of novelty artist. “But that doesn’t represent the majority of his music in the more than 65 albums he made in his lifetime. He was a composer by nature, which is what I want to put forward in the shows — the things I think he should be most well known for.”

The theme is also prominent in the new, largely archival, documentary “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words,” which Dweezil sees as a “gateway film” into who his father really was: “He was in love with the creative process of music, that’s what motivated him,” admits Dweezil, who says that if he were still alive today, “Frank would be most focused on serious classical music … and having a field day with what’s going on politically.” If not also really sad about the state of the family. Says Dweezil, “It should always be about the music first.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.