Peek inside Frank Zappa’s vaults part 1

By  Will Romano

Frank Zappa. Photo: Shore Fire Media.

Frank Zappa. Photo: Shore Fire Media.
Running the risk of sounding profoundly foolish, somewhat ghoulish and altogether politically incorrect, Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, might be the only rocker/composer/producer in history impervious to the natural laws of the planet.

Because Zappa’s musical gift was so abundant, his work so extravagant and quirkily complex, his insight and imagination so quick and sharp (approaching otherworldly at times), it almost seemed as though Zappa could, as some had predicted of comedian Andy Kaufman, cheat death. In some ways, he has.

Helping to preserve the work of rock music’s most visionary musical minds, the Zappa Family Trust, headed by Zappa’s widow, Gail, and aided by the technical know-how and watchful eye of Zappa tape archivist/vaultmeister Joe Travers, is on a mission to release never-before-seen or heard music and videos from Zappa’s long and diverse career.

The Zappa Family Trust, serving up a veritable sonic smorgasbord of musical mystery meats from the Zappa tape vault, is on a pace to surpass the prolific composer’s output in life. As of this writing, the official Zappa discography inches toward 90 albums (not including videos).

“We used to say that when we first started that we could [produce] up to 40 releases,” says Gail. “But [that number] keeps being true. We keep just finding things [to release].”

However, in recent years, a grave threat has been posed to the Zappa musical legacy that far exceeds the dangers of greedy corporate record companies, shortsighted politicians and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). What’s nearly stunted the growth of the Zappa catalog has been a deficiency of whale blubber oil.

“In 1976 [analog audio reel-to-reel] tape manufacturers stopped using whale blubber oil as a lubricant for their tape,” says Joe Travers, who’s been the Zappa tape archivist since 1995. “[Manufacturers] began using a synthetic lubricant, but it didn’t last over time. Manufacturers didn’t know they would be running into problems with shelf life …”

The thought of Zappa’s music being maligned by a malnourishment of mammalian qualities of tape is beyond insidious — it’s ridiculous and outrageous. It’s also just the kind of sordid, perverse tale (tail?) Zappa’s twisted mind may have envisioned as a sprawling, three-LP rock opera, boasting a flippant title such as, “The Flirty Fruckus with Flipper’s Flab.” 

“Certain tape configurations simply just didn’t last over time,” says Travers.
While Travers admits that he has become adept at recognizing what tapes are suspect, some mystery remains. The only sure way to know what’s on a tape is to play it. But therein lies the dilemma. Once a tape is played, it runs the risk of shedding and being damaged forever, leaving chief archivist Travers in a precarious position.

“The problem you run into with some tapes is that the glue that is used to keep the back coat and oxide together is what gets mushy and gross over time,” says Travers. “So you have to dry that up in order for the oxide not gum up and not come off the back coat.”

The process is called “baking,” which allows Travers to access the information on these tapes for a few weeks before the tape returns to its pre-heated condition (or worse).

“What [I] do is take the tape and put it in a food dehydrator, which is my favorite way [of heating up tape], because it’s the least damaging, and it sucks the moisture out of the tape and adheres that oxide… to that back coat,” says Travers. “The process is about 120 to 125 degrees for a couple of hours, depending on the tape. … Then, when you let it cool off, you [play the tape] to make sure that there is no residue.”

If no residue remains on the actual tape machine, then Travers can proceed with a high-definition digital transfer and retain a great sounding copy of the material.

“…[I]t’s always scary when you are dealing with tapes that are irreplaceable that you need to last time and time again,” says Travers.

Imagine the treasures from the Zappa Vault lost or unrecoverable. It’s as inconceivable as unforgivable. Zappa is simply iconic — from his signature moustache and bottom-lip beard/tuft/goatee to his acerbic wit, easily identifiable guitar playing (despite constant changes in tone), and bizarre but musically complex compositions like “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” “Titties and Beer,” and “Penguin in Bondage” (to name a few).

Zappa also stands as one of the most prolific rock composers of the 20th century. You can (and some fans have) spend years losing yourself in a forest of Zappa material, collecting, listening to and deciphering his extensive catalog.

“[Frank] taped everything he could within his budget,” says Gail. “… The biggest problem is identifying what is in a [tape] box. Just because [a box reads one thing] it doesn’t mean that’s what’s in there. [Frank also] had built reels … where he was building [a musical project], but we don’t know exactly what it was.”

It’s quite a chore for vaultmesiter Travers to sift through this type of material to, as Zappa himself had done, connect the dots from one musical project to the next. (Zappa had maintained that all of his work was part of one big composition, and fans have been searching for links and clues with each release, posthumous or otherwise, ever since.)

“A lot of people think that there’s a lot of complete concerts in there, and that there’s a lot of unreleased material,” says Travers. “In reality, there aren’t a lot of complete concerts in there. There are a lot of concert tapes, but, unfortunately, if Frank liked something, he would remove it from the tape and put it on a build reel. So, it is a search-and-seek mission to find out where everything is… So, it is my job to find out what exists, what’s releasable, what’s already out, what sucks and what’s significant.”

The extra intangible dimension bestowed upon the Zappa Vault releases can be traced, at least partly, back to Travers’ love and appreciation for the subtle nuances and overarching conceptual references in Zappa’s music. In the days before the Internet (and www.zappa.com), Travers was one of the lucky few fans who spoke with Zappa when he hosted telephone question-and-answer sessions with fans via the FZ/Barking Pumpkin Records hotline (1-888-Pumpkin).

“People would call from all over the world and talk to him directly,” says Gail. “… [Joe] is very much the drooling fan. … But that is really good drool. I want to save those napkins.”

Stay tuned for Part II of our look inside Frank Zappa’s vaults!

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