It was a curious encounter indeed -- and a memorable one, and was strange and directly appealing, the way everything about Frank Zappa had been strange and directly appealing from the beginning.
I first saw Frank Zappa's odd albums in the record store when I was 13 and 14, in the old days, when they sold big 33 1/3 RPM vinyl records in stores, in big cardboard jackets with album art. Weasels Ripped My Flesh was one album with a creepy parody of a 1950s sort of commercial on the cover. There were albums Zappa produced as well like Capt. Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and Wild Man Fischer.
Somehow, I recall an album, or perhaps it was even the B side of a 45, in which it seemed to me Frank Zappa was singing (but it was more likely Wild Man Fischer, characterized as insane, even violently so at times) a very odd song, "Miss Jennifer Jones is lying dead on the porch doo doo doo doooh." The song was so arresting because its content was so unlike the sugary bubblegum stuff we usually heard on the radio (at least until I started listening to Spark Hicks' WCMF.fm), and unlike a lot of rhyming romantic 1960s Mo-town stuff, and was more like an opera, telling a story, albeit a very grotesque one of a bizarre murderous rampage. I didn't understand any of this -- the weasels, the dead Miss Jones -- but I felt it was some kind of fascinating parody that was saying something more deep and mysterious about our age than was usually being said.
Zappa had a strange fascination for us. There was the name of the band which seemed so clever -- "Mothers of Invention" (necessity being the mother of that). Then there were all the strange songs that were stories, not just banal lyrics. It's hard to explain now why the weirdness of those songs and the album art and the deconstruction of the 1950s and parody of the 1960s seems to penetrating -- yet it did. I never saw Zappa in any concert, I don't think the Mothers ever came touring close enough to where we lived, but I was interested to follow his career, read about him in Rolling Stone, and see that he even inspired the Czech dissident band Plastic People of the Universe -- in Eastern Europe, where perhaps the edginess of weird deconstructions were more keenly in demand, Zappa was very popular, maybe even more than at home in the U.S. In time, Zappa also came to fight the good fight against censorship of rock music which took the form of a battle over ratings of music (something I'm not sure I oppose, but given the context, it was good Zappa took on the fight).
Back in February 1990, Vaclav Havel, who had just been elected president by a now-free Czechoslovakia, came to the United States for a kind of victory tour, stopping to see the people who had supported him when he was a political prisoner. I worked for several organizations that had campaigned for him and for the rock musicians and we were all invited to a gala event at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, followed by a fancy reception. The event was very crowded, and I found myself standing next to one of the former political prisoners I knew from various travels who had now been made minister of something -- there was a lot of this free and exciting feeling in the early days of the Havel administration when everyone thought this playwright-turned-dissident-turned-politician was going to represent some kind of new form of governance. Remember, this was even before the Soviet coup defeat in 1991, and of course long before 9/11, it was a day when the wind was really in the sails of citizens' movements especially in Eastern Europe.
After the church ceremony and a lot of speeches, we made our way to some fancy venue -- I can't recall where, but only that the feeling of it was a lot like entering the ramp of a jet plane, upholstered walls winding up a ramp to a large room. With the crowds, and trying to get cabs or something, we were somewhat late.
I arrived to find myself in a kind of long receiving line that eventually snaked up to Havel himself to shake his hand. I saw writers like Bill Styron and his wife Rose and other celebrities, and various State Department officials and ambassadors. There was such a crowd that it seemed the food and wine were already dwindling.
As I inched along the walkway, suddenly, I looked straight into the dark brown eyes of someone who seemed terribly familiar -- and also very sad. It was one of those moments in life where it seemed as if you had always known the person forever, and you were just picking up the conversation where it had left off -- and that you knew *exactly* what they were thinking.
Looking at Frank Zappa sitting, dejected at a table, alone, with crumpled napkins and used champagne glasses around him, I instantly sensed what had happened -- somewhere, somebody, had talked Havel out of making Zappa special ambassador for culture and tourism. We had all marvelled when the appointment was first made, and like the other appointments of rock stars as interior ministers and such, it seemed part of that wacky, wild heady moment of the Havel reign that simply would not last -- reality would set in.
Without hesitation, I went straight over to Frank's table and sat right down. I nodded toward a prominent ambassador who was involved in Eastern Europe. "Did he...did they...?" I said, speaking in only half phrases, because we both knew what this was all about. He nodded sadly -- I could see that something had been said to him just recently, and he was still kind of in shock. I hung my head, feeling crushed, too. Certain cool things were just never meant to be. Having Frank Zappa as a cultural minister accepted at a state level with official protocol in the United States was something that obviously more than one fussy bureaucrat was not going to let go by.
I sat there in silent commiseration with Frank Zappa. I don't know what was more strange about this moment -- that I had instantly recognized him (his hair was different than I had recalled from the album pictures); that I had immediately understood what had happened just when it did; or that when I sat down, I was somehow accepted as a commiserator from a community of people that had found Weasels Ripped My Flesh compelling. I can't remember if I said anything more, I just patted his hand, letting him know that I cared. He seemed dazed, lost in thought -- and his dark eyes sad. Famous people kept pushing by the little table -- nobody seemed to give him a second glance. Eventually, nodding in sympathy again to Frank, I got up and got back in the line. I never saw him again.
Later, it turned out that in fact indeed, James Baker, who apparently had a longer-standing grudge with Zappa over an insult to his wife, apparently got some intermediaries (quite possibly the ambassador I had known) to talk to the Czechs and tell them that it was unacceptable to have "an American citizen" (well, this one, anyway) as an ambassador. Apparently Baker even said something like "You can do business with the United States of America. Or you can do business with Frank Zappa." Havel then must have made some sort of awkward explanation for why he chose the former -- but somehow he cooked up something later called "unofficial cultural attache" or something that of course wasn't any compensation -- the look on Frank's face let me know that.