When Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention announced themselves with the 1966 double-album debut "Freak Out!" they arrived speaking a language that was as indecipherable to the mainstream as it was mysterious even to listeners who would go on to become lifelong fans.
With intricate arrangements that aspired to the orchestral (an entire side of one record was devoted to a single suite, "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet"), the songs on "Freak Out!" weren't so much sung as layered with nonsensical soliloquies, droning non sequiturs ("you're so neat, I don't even care if you shave your legs," Zappa purrs on the pop parody "Wowie Zowie") and "noises that sound like a herd of half-slaughtered cattle" (Los Angeles Herald Examiner).
Worse yet, songs that seemed most accessible, such as "Trouble Every Day" (also known as the Watts Riot song) and "It Can't Happen Here" (which shared its title with Sinclair Lewis' frightening 1935 novel about the rise of a glad-handing fascist to the presidency of the United States), sounded like some secret, satirical, dog-whistling to a war-weary nation's weirdoes and revolutionaries. Parents who feared their teenagers falling under the spell of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or James Brown now really had something to worry about.
Since last summer's 50th anniversary of what Rolling Stone includes among "the 40 most groundbreaking albums of all time," guitarist Dweezil Zappa has been celebrating his late father with a tour that re-creates some of the best-known songs from "Freak Out!" Its power is undiminished, he says.
"Even 50 years later, it's just one of the most subversive things to ever happen in entertainment," Zappa says in a recent phone interview. "It stands in stark relief against anything else, and it always has. There's nothing to describe it other than 'Zappa' music."
And that is where things get sticky on this tour, its title a mouthful of conflict: "50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants — the Cease and Desist Tour."
For more than a decade Dweezil Zappa toured the world, with frequent stops in South Florida, under the name Zappa Plays Zappa. He played Frank Zappa music and sold Frank Zappa merchandise at these shows, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to his mother, Gail. Zappa says the arrangement was a point of contention between him and his mother.
When Gail died in 2015, she left her youngest children, Ahmet and Diva, in control of the Zappa Family Trust, with Dweezil Zappa and sister Moon in lesser roles. The guitarist says his attempt to reach a compromise on proceeds from sales of Frank Zappa merchandise on his tours was rejected by the two siblings.
Relations became so strained that ZFT attorneys notified him he could no longer use the name Zappa Plays Zappa. His first suggestion, Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, also was shot down.
"They refuse … to even have a 50-50 deal on the merch. They said, 'Nope, 100 percent or you can't use it.' I said, 'Fine, f--- you guys. I'll change the name," Zappa says.
When Zappa plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants on Thursday, Jan. 12, at Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room, the set will meander from "Freak Out!" and "Absolutely Free" to "200 Motels" and "Joe's Garage," he says. Nothing with Frank Zappa's likeness will be sold at the show.
Zappa says he has ignored threats from his siblings to bar him from playing their father's songs altogether.
"They can't stop me from playing the music. They can't stop anybody from playing the music," he says.
In December, Zappa started a PledgeMusic campaign at DweezilZappa.com seeking funds to help him fight the ZFT's bid for a federal trademark of the surname Zappa, which he says, if successful, might force him to start going by his first name, like Rihanna or Cher. The campaign prompted another cease-and-desist letter from the trust last week, he says.
Zappa says the value in his father's legacy, and the thing that keeps it alive, is not found on the merchandise table in the lobby but in the music heard in the concert hall, with all its irreverent intricacies on display for a live audience.
"[The tour] has been a grassroots thing to get the music to new generations. One of the most important things about the music is seeing it performed live, seeing the thought that goes into it," he says. "As a kid, I remember thinking it was a magic trick, to see people playing this music. How could they be doing that and yet have fun?"
Dweezil Zappa will perform 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $30. Call 954-564-1074 or go to CultureRoom.net.