Known for his improvisation, experimentation, rock, pop, jazz, and orchestral work, Frank Zappa is a legendary musician. Unbeknownst to many, Zappa lived in Lancaster during his formative years as a teenager and the experience would later greatly shape his music.
Frank Zappa, Photo Courtesy of MOAH Collections
Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland to an Italian immigrant family and he was the eldest of four children. The Zappa family moved often, as his father was a chemist, mathematician, and engineer who worked for the US military’s defense industry. Zappa would eventually make his way to California in 1952, moving to Mission Bay High School in San Diego. Here, Zappa would form his first ever band as a drummer. Around the same time, Zappa would also get a phonograph and begin a collection of music at home, holding a deep love for black rhythm and blues (R&B) music. At twelve years old, he was given his first snare drum and gained an interest in classical music, such as Italian opera, and his interest in composing music began.
In 1956, at age 16, the Zappa’s would move to Lancaster because, like many AV residents today, his father was hired as an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base. Zappa would join the ranks of Antelope Valley High School and while there he met several other young creatives that would influence his art. Zappa would meet Don Glen Vliet, a fellow student who would later take the stage name Captain Beefheart (Gurba). They became good friends and would influence each other throughout their musical careers. Also, around this time, Zappa played drums in a local band called the Blackouts, the only rhythm and blues band in the western Mojave at the time (Gurba). The band was racially diverse and also included James, or Jim, “Motorhead” Sherwood who would become a member of the famed band Mothers of Invention. Zappa played harmonica, drums, and guitar in the band. The Blackouts would play for only one school assembly and never at nighttime dances because the teachers thought the music was too suggestive (Gurba). The Blackouts also performed several times at the fairgrounds.
The Blackouts, Photo from “Legendary Locals of the Antelope Valley” by Norma Gurba, Courtesy of Patrice “Candy” Zappa
The Blackouts, Photo Courtesy of MOAH Collections
Photo of Zappa at Antelope Valley High School with some of the Blackouts band members, Photo Courtesy of MOAH Collections
Another band called the Omens was later formed and they were sometimes sponsored by the American Legion Hall Post No. 311. Performances were made at the Lancaster Woman’s Club and at the fairgrounds (Gurba). While in Lancaster, Zappa worked part time in the Record Den on Sierra Highway where his record collection and musical education grew. Zappa was also a painter, and he won a statewide art competition sponsored by the CA Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hallmark greeting company. At one point his artwork was displayed at the Sands Bowl and the Lancaster Woman’s Club building in Lancaster (Gurba).
Zappa’s family was supportive of his musical interests and, for the most part, his school was as well, though it appears that Zappa was prone to antics and would have a general disdain for formal education. He would join the AV High School marching band and his interest in composing increased. By the end of his senior year he was writing, arranging, and even conducting pieces for the school orchestra. Mr. William Ballard was his music teacher who seemed to support his endeavors but would later kick him out of the band for smoking while in uniform (Gurba).
Frank Zappa would graduate from Antelope Valley High School in 1958, with some residents naming him the “James Dean of the Antelope Valley”. He studied very briefly at Antelope Valley College, “only to meet girls”, before leaving Lancaster in 1959 (Gurba). He would move to Echo Park where he would meet his first wife Kay Sherman while briefly enrolling in composition study at Pomona College. Zappa would go on to form the Mothers of Invention and create music that mixed R&B, doo-wop, and experimental sound that captured the freak subculture of Los Angeles during the 1960s.
Frank Zappa’s Antelope Valley High School Graduation Portrait, Photo Courtesy of MOAH Collections
Zappa would release Freak Out!, the debut album by the Mothers of Invention, and on the sleeve of the album, he would encourage listeners to: “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.” Zappa also included a large list of people who had contributed to their music which has been dubbed by Zappa Fans as it the infamous Freak Out! List. On the third column, Mr. Ballard- the AV High music teacher- is listed. So, it appears that AV High School did have a strong impact on Zappa and his music.
Mr. Ballard is also mentioned in Zappa’s 1989 biography, "The Real Frank Zappa Book": "Mr. Ballard also did me a big favor without knowing it. As a drummer, I was obliged to perform the gruesome task of playing in the marching band. Considering my lack of interest in football, I couldn't stand sitting around in a stupid-looking uniform, going 'Da-ta-da-da-ta-ta-taaaah; CHARGE!' every time somebody kicked a (censored) football, freezing my nards off every weekend. Mr. Ballard threw me out of the marching band for smoking in uniform -- and for that I will be eternally grateful" (Wiki Kill Ugly Radio).
The Freak Out! List, Mr. Ballard is listed on the third column, 5th from the bottom.
In the 1974 album Roxy & Elsewhere, Zappa would do a live recording of the song “Village of the Sun” in which he mentions going home to Sun Village, a community located in the eastern Antelope Valley in Palmdale. In the live recording of the song, he asks the crowd if they are familiar with Palmdale and Lancaster and mentions that they used to farm turkeys there. From about the 1930s to the 1980s, turkey farming was popular in both Lancaster and Palmdale. Despite the lack of turkeys in the AV today, the song is still a relevant and humorous representation of the area. The insane high winds of the Antelope Valley are mentioned which will “take the paint off your car and wreck your windshield too.” The lyrics also speak to the concept of the “AV vortex” with the line “I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do Cause they're all still there.”
Transcription of Zappa’s “Village of the Sun” recorded on the live 1974 album Roxy & Elsewhere:
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a song about this place where I used to live where they used to raise turkeys. (Ready?) Goin' back home To the Village of the Sun Out in back of Palmdale Where the turkey farmers run, I done Made up my mind And I know I'm gonna go to Sun Village, good God I hope the Wind don't blow It take the paint off your car And wreck your windshield too, I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do Cause they're all still there, Even Johnny Franklin too In the Village of the Sun Village of the Sun Village of the Sun, son
Zappa would go on to make 62 albums and 39 singles over the course of his life and would pass away on December 4, 1993 of cancer just seventeen days shy of his 53rd birthday. His legacy lives on in his music, as do memories of the Antelope Valley.
Gurba, Norma H. Images of America Lancaster. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
MOAH Collections, Multiple photographs of Frank Zappa.
Wiki Kill Ugly Radio, Category: Freak Out! (The List), Category:Freak Out! (The List) - Zappa Wiki Jawaka (killuglyradio.com)
Wikipedia, Frank Zappa, Frank Zappa - Wikipedia.