Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on May 15th 2009 4:00PM by James Sullivan
From rock and jazz to doo-wop and avant-garde classical, Zappa was one of the most prolific, and confounding, characters American music ever produced. Born to a Greek father who worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, he was destined for weirdness: As a child, Zappa's frequent illnesses may have been caused by exposure to mustard gas, and he was once "treated" for sinus problems with radium pellets in his nostrils.
The twisted sense of humor that would eventually lead to Zappa's committed opposition to Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center in the 1980s was apparent from the earliest days of his career. His band's debut album featured a song that asked 'Who Are the Brain Police?' and the 1968 LP 'We're Only in It for the Money' satirized hippie culture and the Beatles' sacred 'Sgt. Pepper.'
Though the Mothers lost all their gear in the Geneva casino fire in December 1971, they regrouped to continue their European tour. At the newly opened Rainbow Theatre in London later that month, the band had just begun to play a cover of 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' as Zappa recalled, when he was attacked by an enraged fan who'd climbed onstage. Zappa pitched forward off the stage, onto the concrete floor of the orchestra pit, 15 feet below.
The assailant, Trevor Howell, later told reporters conflicting stories -- that he believed Zappa was eying his girlfriend (impossible, said Zappa, given the blinding glare of the spotlights), and that he was angry about not getting enough value for the cost of his ticket. "Choose your favorite story," Zappa drolly wrote in his autobiography, years later.
When the bandleader came to on the floor, he recalled, "my head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken." He had a broken rib and a broken leg; his chin was split open and he couldn't move his arm. The band thought he was dead.
He spent a year in a wheelchair, and when his injured leg healed, it was shorter than the other, causing a lifetime of chronic back pain. The tumble also crushed Zappa's larynx. When he eventually regained the ability to speak and sing, his voice was considerably lower.
"Having a low voice is nice," he wrote, "but I would have preferred some other means of acquiring it."