It’s not a place many people were allowed to venture. But in 1985, MTV’s Martha Quinn stepped inside Frank Zappa’s “Vault” at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
“Tell us what all these tapes are,” Quinn asks, dwarfed by tall shelves filled with row after row of film canisters and reel-to-reel tape boxes.
“This is from ‘Baby Snakes,’ ” says Zappa pointing in one direction.
“These are tour tapes from ’79 and ’80,” he continues, and on and on.
When the boundary-busting, iconoclastic musician and composer died in 1993, he left behind a vast treasure trove of unreleased recordings, works in progress, film footage and more.
It’s all warehoused at the Hollywood Hills home he shared with his wife and family for 25 years, and to documentary filmmaker, actor and Zappa fan Alex Winter it’s a mythical, magical place.
“It’s like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ” Winter says. “Master tapes, concert recordings, rehearsals, other musical ephemera, and it goes back to the ’50s.”
Winter now has full access to the Zappa Vault, thanks to a deal struck with Zappa’s wife, Gail, who passed away late last year, and the Zappa Family Trust.
While there have been numerous Zappa concert films and documentaries before, Winter’s film “Who the F*@% is Frank Zappa?” aims to be the first that explores the man with help from unseen and unheard material from Zappa’s own private stash.
“Gail said, ‘You know, we love your idea, we would like you to be able to have access to the Vault,’ which they had never granted to anyone before, which was good news and bad,” says Winter, who also directed “Downloaded,” an acclaimed 2013 documentary about the trials of the music file sharing site Napster. “Good news because I was going to get material that no one had never seen.”
The not so good news: combing through miles of uncataloged film and audiotape, some at risk of deterioration.
“Largely film stock, which is extremely sensitive, and certain very old forms of audio that Zappa had, like, hand spliced,” Winter says.
The Zappa archives had not been sitting fallow in the attic of his home all these years. Even before his death, Zappa had begun the arduous work of transferring older material onto more modern tape formats. There’s also an official appointed Zappa archivist, Joe Travers, who has helped shepherd numerous posthumous releases.
But now that Winter is aboard to make the documentary, special attention is being given to the material most at risk of deterioration and to the piles of unlabeled tapes that no one has a clue about.
So, earlier this year Winter launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $500,000 to begin a renewed preservation effort. More than twice that rolled in before the campaign ended.
“We made enough money so we could put our arms around it and just take the whole chunk and get it done,” Winter says.
What’s mined from the thousands of hours of film and audiotape will help shape the direction of the film.
“I’m not trying to make what should be a nine-part (PBS) Ken Burns series,” Winter says. “Because I don’t have a hard and fast answer as to who he was. That becomes the journey that I get to take with the (film).”
Winter aims to explore the myriad contradictions of Zappa as an artist, social satirist, activist/agitator and family man.
“We want to make a film about the paradoxes,” Winter says.
On the one hand, there’s the regimented, note-perfect orchestral composer, and on the other, the shredding self-taught guitar improviser who jammed with John Lennon and Eric Clapton and even caught the attention of Jimi Hendrix.
“It’s me against the laws of nature,” Zappa said about his improvised guitar solos an in a 1984 TV interview. “I don’t know what I’m going to play, don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time you get to decorate it.”
“There’s the paradox of the improv guitar player and the rigorous composer who needed the notes played properly,” Winter says. “And his ability to ride completely opposing ideas simultaneously. And I think this is part of the flow of who he was as a person.”
There’s the sober, clear-eyed bandleader who barred musicians from doing drugs on the road, yet chain-smoked for years. There’s the devoted husband and father who was also a notoriously lascivious songwriter renowned for hilariously risque lyrics and a fondness for groupies.
For better or worse, if there’s one Zappa song people know it’s probably “Valley Girl,” the surprise 1982 Grammy Award-nominated hit he recorded with his then 14-year-old daughter, Moon, satirizing the vapid teenage lingo of affluent San Fernando Valley teenage girls.
Moon and the three other Zappa children are again at the center of the Zappa universe — this time over her and brother Dweezil’s apparent disapproval of Winter’s fundraising campaign and their reluctance to be involved with the documentary.
Moon and Dweezil have taken to social media in recent weeks, distancing themselves from the project.
“I had spoken to both Dweezil and Moon about my plans, and I had assumed I was going to have their participation and there was no opposition at that point,” Winter says. “It’s an internal family issue, and in all honesty it’s really none of my business. We’re getting on with the preservation work, and then I’ll get on with the movie and hopefully I’ll be able to have some resolution with them.”
Winter is moving forward with the blessing of Zappa’s other children, Ahmet and Diva, and of Gail Zappa herself, who sat down for multiple on-camera interviews before her death on Oct. 7, 2015.
And what might Zappa himself think of all the hubbub over his legacy? Well, you can take the following comments with however many grains of salt you wish.
“It’s not important to even be remembered,” a visibly ill Zappa said on the “Today” show in 1993 shortly before his death from prostate cancer at the age of 52.
“I mean the people who worry about being remembered are guys like (presidents) Reagan, Bush, and they’ll spend a lot of money to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.”
And for Frank Zappa?
“I don’t care,” he said.
“However,” says Alex Winter, “all you need to do is walk into that Vault and see the extraordinary degree of energy that he specifically put into archiving his work.”
It’s an effort that not only paved the way for Winter’s film, but an ongoing project by Zappa’s estate to make sure many of his unreleased recordings eventually see the light of day.