Touring with a Ghost
By Beppe Colli
Oct. 10, 2017

It was the third week of September, and while surfing the Net I happened to read some news about "Frank Zappa to go on tour, as a hologram" or something like that, which I completely refused to take seriously. It sounded quite ridiculous, and - of course - totally impossible to believe. If true, such a thing would be totally beyond the limit of what's acceptable, something with such a horrible taste that I refused to accept it as true. Also, I had to finish a review, had some business to attend, and so on and so forth. Case closed.

A couple of days later I found the very same news appearing on quite a few newspapers, full-page. So it had to be true. But was it technically feasible? It appears so, there are already a few (more limited) instances, also an upcoming tour titled Dio Returns, where the main character is the hologram of the famous singer, who died of tumor in 2010.

And while my mailbox started filling with messages asking have you heard and what do you think, I wondered who could have thought of bringing such a horrible idea to life (so to speak).

The firm that's working on the Zappa hologram is called Eyellusion - the same one, I read, that's dealing with the Dio Returns tour - and the whole thing gets the approval and the full collaboration of the Zappa family, or, better said, the Zappa Family Trust, which deals with such stuff.

The story was presented under the title Frank Zappa - Back On The Road: The Hologram Tour.

"I'm thrilled that Frank Zappa will finally be going back out on tour playing his most well-known music as well as some rare and unheard material". So spoke Ahmet, a Zappa son. "We are also planning on staging Joe's Garage The Musical with none other than Frank Zappa himself starring as The Central Scrutinizer."

The weird thing is that Zappa died in 1993. Are we to believe that having his hologram on tour is the same as having him in the flesh? I wondered about what kind of musician would participate in this.

The whole thing can be placed in front of a familiar background that makes it sound quite logical, money-wise. One can examine the thing on two levels, one objective, the other quite subjective, the solid news at one's disposal being quite limited and highly speculative, since there are lawsuits involved, and lawyers, and many documents are not available for the general audience to consult, and the main characters, when speaking in public, always talk in a way that's intended to only benefit their side.

When it comes to the objective side, we all know that nowadays the market for music sales is small, and decreasing in size, something that artists try to balance by doing more concerts. It goes without saying that this scheme is highly inflationary, as experience has already shown. So there's a very strong incentive to stage bigger "events".

A long time ago Zappa sold quite a few records, and his concerts were very well-attended. While today, I'd say his market share to approximate zero.

So it's only logical that in order to make more money he has to tour, even if he's dead. But I think there are more than enough live videos, some of them official and quite recent, that show him at his live best. Who are the people who are supposed to pay in order to attend a concert where they can only see his hologram? I also wonder if his fans - who I assume to be the great majority of this potential live audience - will consider the "human side" of the equation with the same aplomb as those who are promoting the tour.

Then we have what I consider to be the subjective, speculative side, and here doing a Web search using the words "The Feuding Zappas" will show readers more than they need to know.

A lot of things that happened after Zappa's death are shrouded in mystery, and even the day-to-day commercial activity appeared sometimes to be capricious, at times surprisingly counter-productive.

What I understand is that the death of Zappa's widow accelerated an explosion that had its legal seeds planted in the distant past, a conflict that increasingly appears almost impossible to solve.

The average fan can only read bits and pieces that are quite difficult to understand: the old, famous house put on sale; the dubious fate of those audio and video tapes; the crowd-funding in order to finance a documentary; and so on. Then, all those lawsuits and quarrels.

In my subjective opinion, Dweezil - the son who plays the guitar - attempted to earn some bread with the formula Zappa Plays Zappa. While the other son, Ahmet, whose qualities I've never seen clearly shown in the open, now appears to want to cut his legs using whatever means available: so, sending the ghost of their father on tour could be the ultimate effort in order to take away Dweezil's (quite small, I'd say) audience.

Of course, having this machine in full operation necessitates the work of highly skilled musicians whose name fans can immediately recognize. One can read quite a few names on the Web, but - with just a few exceptions - it's not clear to me if those names are of people who have already said yes or who have been asked but have yet to decide. For instance, at first Adrian Belew declared he was onboard, then that he was not, having noticed that audience reaction proved the matter was "divisive".

What reaction?

Here comes a fine article which appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, where former Zappa sideman Mike Keneally offers his side of the story:

"I was invited by Ahmet last week to be a part of this." (...) "I'm so intrigued by the idea. I'm already seeing a lot of hand-wringing online about it, but I'm interested in the potential for something pretty dang mind-blowing".

Of course, upon reading about the hologram everybody did speculate about Zappa's opinion about the whole matter. Keneally appears to know:

"I think Zappa would be hugely intrigued by the technological aspects," Keneally said. "And I seriously doubt he'd be concerned with any perceived sacrilegious aspects - he was never too concerned with keeping things sacred! Actually, I can easily imagine him watching this show with a huge grin on his face."

Now it's the time for me to tell readers about something they will have a hard time believing. I can only tell the tale, just as it happened.

I entered my room, and there on my couch Frank Zappa was waiting for me. Something I don't see every day for sure. "C'm 'ere", he told me swiftly, "and tell me about this stupid story that's making the rounds over there. Jimi told me I'm supposed to appear as a Dancin' Fool with a bunch of clowns, and he usually knows about this stuff. Nicolas Slonimsky thought the news appalling." Then, after a brief pause, he said "Are you sure you know how to spell it? It's Slo-nim-sky."

A servant of the truth, I gave him the official press release. Zappa exploded: "Ma chimminchia dici me' figghiu", or something like that (the Sicilian dialect of the Palermo district not being exactly my forte).

"You have more stuff?". I gave him the article off the San Diego Union Tribune. After reading, Zappa looked me in the eye, and in a measured tone he said: "Keneally is a nice man, but he has to get his priorities straight." Then, "Could I have a cuppa cawfee, please?".

I went to the kitchen, prepared the coffee (a very aromatic type I hoped he would dig), went back to the room, and... well, he was gone, leaving only a strong smell of cigarette smoke in the air.

I know it sounds difficult to believe, but it's true. Should I e-mail Keneally?

It's entirely possible that this whole hologram thing proves to be legal, and that - all technical difficulties being overcome, after many rehearsals - the ship will sail.

But side-by-side with legal aspects about brands and such, there is a moral dimension to consider.

I'll try to be clear.

Here at Clouds and Clocks we've always operated by giving everybody a level playing field, the attention given to music being completely independent from such factors as size and importance of a given distributor, P.R., or record company. The same does not necessarily happen elsewhere, and readers can easily see the amount of space devoted to artists dramatically change according not to the quality or sales of their work, but to more "mundane" factors. Our attitude here entails a moral dimension.

This very same moral stance entails that we proudly present our middle finger - it's "rigid 'n stiff", to quote the mustachioed Maestro - to the whole hologram enterprise.

So, starting from today, Clouds and Clocks will not review any Zappa product approved by the ZFT brand anymore. The same will be true of all releases by musicians who will decide to take part in the hologram program.

Beppe Colli 2017 | Oct. 10, 2017