Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader.
Zappa was, and still is, one of the most misunderstood of the psychedelic rockers. He didn’t take drugs and did not tolerate them in his band, The Mothers of Invention. He even did public service announcements, “Suzie? Suzie speed freak? You’ve got five years to rot your mind, rot your heart, rot your kidneys. Put speed down. Do it now.”
The irony is Zappa had another addiction; one that many say is harder to break and more deadly—he chain-smoked cigarettes. Even after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Zappa kept smoking. He died in 1993, two weeks shy of turning 53.
The following is from an interview with Frank Zappa’s brother, Bob Zappa.
Did Frank smoke as much as your father?
More. Frank used to say tobacco was a vegetable. He was always smoking, drinking coffee, and not taking care of himself. He had terrible dietary habits and smoked all the time. Frank was a workaholic who smoked when he played, smoked when he rehearsed, he smoked on stage and he smoked when he was writing, which was all the time. When he died it was [tears up] so difficult.
Are you positive Frank wasn’t into drugs? His music was so trippy.
[Laughs] Yes, quite sure. You can ask any of The Mothers. He fired anyone who abused drugs and alcohol.
Frank Zappa did not take drugs or drink alcohol like many people undoubtedly assume. In fact, he took an aggressive anti-drug approach to the drug culture of the ’60s, which evolved from LSD to heroin to cocaine. He believed that taking drugs would transform people and mutate their personalities and values. In believing this, he was very adamant in promoting a no drug policy among his band members, ensuring that there was no drug use while on the road touring. His hard-nosed stance led to the dismissal of fellow band members Lowell George and Ike Willis over the years. Many people are skeptical of Frank Zappa’s stance on drugs, finding him to be hypocritical, after all, he did have a well-known addiction to nicotine and caffeine. On one hand, he was this anti-drug advocator, but on the other, he smoked and drank copious amounts of cigarettes and coffee. Perhaps Zappa did apply a double standard in demanding complete sobriety of his musicians, while he himself took to his own remedies. However, coffee and cigarettes can’t be placed into the same category as drugs because they don’t share the same altering effects on the mind and body. “To me, a cigarette is food,” said Zappa in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. “I live my life smoking these things, and drinking the ‘black water’ in this cup here.” As depicted in this quote, coffee and cigarettes were a normal function of life and had little deterrent on his musical production and creativity. Thus, Frank Zappa’s truculent stance on drugs and alcohol is justified and admirable.
As an individual, Frank Zappa was very dogmatic. He felt everyone was entitled to his opinion, and he had a point of view on everything. While he was largely conservative and against the use of drugs, he admits to trying marijuana perhaps ten times during the sixties but didn’t find it appealing. So, it’s hard to say he didn’t understand the use of drugs when he had tried it for himself. He understood, he just didn’t believe there was a place for them in his own life. He took his music very seriously, working day and night without sleep, getting his relaxation through his work. For him to be classified as narrow-minded for his personal outlook on drugs would be unjust and irrational. Frank Zappa was simply just a workaholic who would not bring play into his place of business, for him the music came first.
The theory that Zappa’s attitude and views on drugs are a direct result of his time spent in incarceration for audio pornography, seems too far-fetched. He served a ten-day sentence for his actions, during which time he visualized hard guitar cords, so loud that they could break the prison walls surrounding him. This experience may have served to be a learning lesson, but was not instrumental in forming his opinion on drugs. He has been stated as saying he had tried drugs throughout the ’60s, meaning he had tried marijuana following his 1962 incarceration. This leads us to believe that he was not at all entirely taken back by the notion of the drug following his time served.