Gail Zappa

This year, recently, Mr. Zappa’s better half, Gail Zappa, stopped refusing to die.

Zappa scribe and author Pauline Butcher made available the obituary from the Sunday Telegraph, the only to offer more than the official press release provided. I offer the entire piece here and then I have some reflections of my own.

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Gail was married to Zappa for 26 years and during his life she managed his business affairs. After his death in 1993 aged 52, she fiercely protected his legacy, fighting copyright battles, sending “cease and desist” letters to tribute bands and insisting that his music be played as he had intended. When Apple launched its online music download service, iTunes, in 2001, she wrote a furious letter to Steve Jobs, signing off with the words “f— you”.

Although she acknowledged that her efforts to protect her husband’s legacy had given her a reputation as a “screaming shrew”, Gail Zappa insisted they were justified: “My job is to make sure that Frank Zappa has the last word in terms of anybody’s idea of who he is,” she explained in 2008. “A copyright, is a copyright, is a copyright, is a copyright.”
The unusually prolific Zappa brought out more than 60 records during his lifetime and left enough unused material in a vault for his widow to continue to issue new albums . According to Rolling Stone magazine, from 1994 she released 38 albums of rarities from the Zappa vault.

If Gail Zappa’s protective zeal made her popular among performing artists, it did little for her reputation among Zappa fans, who accused the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT), of which she was executrix, of preventing his songs being played by other musicians (except by her son Dweezil) and betraying the principle of artistic freedom in which her husband had supposedly believed. The ZFT was accused of taking down YouTube videos, stopping tribute nights and even writing to internet service providers of fans trading Zappa bootlegs. In 2009 fans were reported to be sporting “Stop Gail” T-shirts and a petition opposing her gathered more than 3,000 signatures.

Their specific grievance on this occasion was her attempt to stop Zappanale, a German festival devoted to the maverick rock star from using his image and trademark. When the organisers of the festival erected a statue of their hero in the town of Bad Doberan and began merchandising T-shirts bearing Zappa-esque facial hair, the ZFT sued for €150,000 in damages and a further €250,000 if the Zappanale continued to sell the merchandise, alleging violation of the musician’s trademark.
The statue, Gail Zappa declared, was an “impish creature” that “doesn’t look like Frank Zappa unless you argue that putting a moustache on any face looks like Frank Zappa. I’ve long known that there was this quote-unquote festival slash event slash what the f—, [but] I felt we were getting into territory where we were putting the audience at risk in terms of who Frank was.”

Unusually, the courts on this occasion agreed with the Zappanale, ruling that the ZFT did not actively use its trademark in Germany, and that the Zappanale logo was easily distinguishable from Frank Zappa’s official one.

Adelaide Gail Sloatman was born in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day 1945. Her father was a nuclear physicist who worked for the US Navy on the Manhattan Project. In 1959 he was posted to Britain, where Gail attended a convent in Kingston-upon-Thames and spent most of her teenage years. During the early 1960s she modelled for Terence Donovan and David Bailey and hung out with the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Returning to America in the mid-1960s, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, then hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where she met Kim Fowley, and recorded with him as “Bunny and Bear” – ironically, given her later concerns over copyright, a sort of tribute act to Sonny and Cher. She became a secretary at the Whisky a Go Go club on Sunset Boulevard, where, by her own admission, she became something of a rock groupie.

When she first met Frank Zappa in 1966, she was repelled by his casual approach to personal hygeine. For Zappa, however, the chemistry was instant and it took him “a couple of minutes” to fall in love. Despite her initial misgivings Gail soon moved into his house in Laurel Canyon, and by the time they married in 1967, she was heavily pregnant with Moon Unit.

Even though Zappa was an enthusiastic participant in “groupie culture”, their marriage was a successful and (for the rock world) unusually enduring one. Gail regarded her husband as a genius – the “HG Wells of rock’n’roll”. He described her as a “fascinating little vixen” and relied on her to manage his home and business affairs, leaving him free to concentrate on his music.

Gail Zappa’s protection of her husband’s musical legacy ran counter to his deathbed wish that she should “sell everything, get out of the music business and go get a house at the beach”. But as she explained, “I owe it to Frank and what I feel about his music. When it’s said and done, I still work for that guy.”

She is survived by her children.

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I adore Gail Zappa.

As noted, many fans felt her to have been overly litigious, and, I have to say, as a proponent of the fan-driven blogswarm we know and love as “Zappadan,” I’ve always been a little nervous that the Family Trust would become aware of us.

But the fact is that Gail Zappa gave us what I believe to be one of the most important documents that exists regarding the legacy of Frank Zappa, and it is a generous, lovely document that belies her existence as the First Freak. She, Gail Zappa, gave us Everything Is Healing Nicely, companion piece to Zappa’s final masterpiece, The Yellow Shark. Buy it. Listen. But more important, read its notes. Gail Zappa’s love and adoration and fan-dom seep sloppily through this entire lovely document. And she gave that to us, heck, screw you guys, she gave it to me, and for that, I’m grateful for her.

Thank you, Gail. We’ve lost a lot of folks from the Zappa universe of late, Motorhead, Jimmy Carl Black, Ray Collins, Captain Beefheart, blah, blah, blah, so many folks stopped refusing to die on us lately.

One thought on “Gail Zappa

  1. The Pauline Butcher book made it clear that Gail, as a wife, had her work cut out for her – being asked to take part in a threesome (at least once); preparing the bed for her husband and his next groupie in what became the UMRK; storming off to Pearl Harbour country with the infant Moon after scribbling “The present day sexologist refuses to day” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. It’s a pity she divided the fans after he died – it was no mean feat to bring out his 100th LP, even if some of the choices of posthumously released material was a bit controversial. Whichever way one looks at it, for the FZ fan her passing was another significant loss ….

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