Fifteen years ago last Thursday, American iconoclast Frank Zappa died at age 52; on December 21, he would have been 68. He left an impressive body of musical work, both on his commercial recordings and on various unreleased media, enough material to keep several people employed for years to come in preserving his legacy. His son Dweezil is currently in the middle of a three-night stand at the Roxy, which runs through Saturday, December 13. The younger Zappa and his band perform as Zappa Plays Zappa, and the stint commemorates the 35th anniversary of Dweezil’s father’s own recorded performances at the venue. And Frank’s widow, Gail, administers the Zappa Family Trust.

Despite the family’s heroic efforts to preserve his memory, Frank Zappa remains an enigma. That’s partly due to his having assumed so many roles: of composer working in the neoclassical and post-Webern traditions and seeking acceptance in that anoxic world; of rock songwriter-guitarist rising within the catalytic stew of the mid- to late-’60s; of record producer wielding a razorblade on two-track edits; of Swiftian chronicler of Southern California life.

There are simply so many Frank Zappas that his true identity remains elusive. But if there is a musical locus to the soul of Frank Zappa, an upcoming release (date to be determined) might be Ground Zero. Fans will soon rejoice in the special 40th-anniversary three-CD reissue of two of his most important works: Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It for the Money. The reissue’s title? Lumpy Money.

The history of the first two of those albums is convoluted, and concerns much of 1967 and 1968 in Los Angeles and New York City. Gravy and Money are inextricably linked in their conception, which is one reason the merged reissue makes sense as a package.

Unlike the majority of Frank Zappa recordings that currently appear on the Rykodisc label, Lumpy Money will receive the Zappa Records imprimatur. Joe Travers, the “vaultmeister,” who oversees the massive Zappa tape collection, explains: “Since Ryko distributes the approved masterworks of those two records, we are left with lots of yummy things.” Ryko, he explains, can only release the official, Zappa-approved versions of his LPs. But that leaves a vast archive of previously unreleased material from which the estate can dig.

Gail stresses that her first obligation in releasing archival material is to Frank’s vision. “If we’re going to reintroduce something, it has to be the iteration that Frank produced.” Once those recordings are available, however, the estate looks for complimentary unreleased recordings. Explains Gail: “What do we have that’s in the vault that people would like to hear that’s related to that project?”

Lumpy Gravy was originally to have been released on Capitol Records as a solo Frank Zappa project, freeing him from the strictures of the Mothers of Invention (who recorded for the Verve Records division of MGM). Nik Venet produced. Venet, says Gail, “was farsighted in those days as a producer to create an opportunity.” The result was roughly 22 orchestral minutes.

Travers continues, “The Capitol version of Gravy got as far as an acetate — a finished, cut four-track sequenced master — and then MGM/Verve stepped in. They said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re signed to us. You can’t do this.’” What followed, explains Travers, was a protracted 11-month battle between Verve and Capitol, which Verve eventually won. As a result, Gravy came out after Money. “By the time that happened,” adds Travers, “Frank completely changed the initial project [from] where it was in the Capitol days 11 months later, to the masterwork that it is now.”

This might explain why the released version of Lumpy Gravy sounds like the wizard let loose in his workshop. The central orchestral tracks — “Oh No,” “King Kong” and “I Don’t Know if I Can Go Through This Again” — are bridged with surreal monologues and goofy dialogues set inside a giant piano (reused many years later in Civilization Phaze III, and a good example of how Zappa never regards something as finished but as always usable material).

Zappa knew he had a good thing going with “Oh No” and had it reprised on the album (“Oh No” was later reworked as a song with lyrics on 1970’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh). It contained fundamental Zappa motifs: rapid musical triplet figures, Zappa’s enduring love of vibes and marimbas, and a lilting melody. To counterbalance that melodicism, the percussive, aleatoric influence of composer Edgard Varèse is heard elsewhere on the album.

Money and Gravy are really hand in hand,” explains Gail. “Because he was continuing to work on Lumpy Gravy while they were having this whole battle [between Verve and Capitol], I think that [battle] became the inspiration for Money.

But the evolution of released versions of Money, Zappa’s first outing as a producer, is controversial. In 1984, he did a remix of Money, which included overdubbing new bass and drum parts. To many fans, this was sacrilege.

The artist felt he was dealing with a crisis situation. He had survived two other, well-publicized lawsuits: one he filed in 1976 against his manager, Herb Cohen, for absconding with funds from DiscReet Records, and the second against Warner Bros. for its refusal to release the four-record set of Läther.

Gail explains: “At the time [the suit with Warner] happened, [Warner] put a lockdown on all of Frank’s tapes. Warner sued the company that was storing those tapes and said, ‘If you release those tapes, we’ll sue your ass.’” She says that the tapes languished while the lawsuit worked its way through the system. When Zappa finally got them back, they’d been stored improperly. “Frank opened up the tape box,” recalls Gail, “pulled up the tape, and you could see daylight through it.” Only later did Zappa find backup copies (safeties) of the Money master.

“In some of the albums,” adds Travers, “you could restore from safeties. In the case of Money, the original two-track final master was damaged, but the multitracks were not, and that’s why, when he went to the multitracks and remixed it, he was embracing the new technology.” Travers says that Zappa did make the original stereo mix of Money available on CD, which is what Ryko offers. The ’84 remix has been out of print, but, Travers says, it will also be included in the forthcoming anniversary reissue. “You’ll have the mono — which is actually a DiscReet [Records] mono mix (which is different) — the ’84 mix of Money, and the unreleased ’84 remix of Lumpy Gravy that no one has ever heard.”

The outtakes and studio chatter included on Lumpy Money should be interesting to all pop music historians; less so the ’84 remixes. Instrumental versions reveal parts previously buried in the final mix (shimmering 12-strings and intriguing harmonic movement). Discovering the building blocks of Money will be a real treat. As well, Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke will provide the liner notes.

The irony is that despite its criticism of 1968 counterculture, Money remains one of the greatest sonic LSD trips a listener can take; it’s a consummate countercultural document. Nearly everything works — from Eric Clapton’s spoken opening (with an essential Zappa question, “Are You Hung Up?”) to the menacing sustained chord at disc’s end. The songs are memorable (“Mom & Dad,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”). Musique concrète interludes (“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” with Clapton “seeing God”) actually provide a respite from the songs, not the other way around. And unlike the solo Lumpy Gravy, Money offers Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at their peak.

Zappa Plays Zappa performs at the Roxy Wednesday, December 10 through Saturday, December 13.

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