Frank Zappa’s children feuding over control of name and musical legacy worth millions
When Zappa’s wife Gail died last year, she bequeathed control of the Zappa Family Trust to their two younger children – dividing the family at what could have been the ideal time to introduce a new generation to his work
Inside a home recording studio known as the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, where the late Frank Zappa composed and recorded some of his most adventurous works, his youngest son, Ahmet, reflects on his father’s legacy.
It is a rich musical heritage from one of rock ’n’ roll’s most beloved figures, but one that has become entangled by a contentious family battle.
The Zappa Family Trust owns the rights to a massive trove of music and other creative output by the songwriter, filmmaker and producer – more than 60 albums were released during Zappa’s lifetime and 40 since his death in 1993. Like the intellectual property of many rock stars, the Zappa archives controlled by the trust are potentially worth tens of millions of dollars, according to one music insider.
However, since the death of Zappa’s wife, Gail, in October 2015, their children have become embroiled in a feud over control of the trust, which is millions of dollars in debt, pitting sibling against sibling. At issue is not just a celebrated artistic legacy but even which of the children can perform using the Zappa name and profit from it.
Sitting in the recording studio beneath a portrait of his father, Ahmet, 42, is contemplative. “It’s emotional for my older sister and my older brother and certainly my little sister,” Ahmet says. Thanks to a decision by their mother, he and his younger sister, Diva, 36, share control of the trust – to the dismay and anger of their older siblings, Dweezil, 46, and Moon, 48, who got smaller portions of the trust.
It was “the most hideous shock of my life”, Moon says of the day she learned of her mother’s division of the trust. “It’s comical, the level of betrayal. That’s all I can say.”
As beneficiaries only, the two eldest siblings won’t see any money from the trust until it is profitable.
Dweezil, who achieved fame in the ’80s as an MTV personality and for the past decade has been performing his father’s music, received a cease-and-desist letter from the trust after he announced that he was being forced to perform his upcoming tour as “Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa” instead of using his longtime moniker, “Zappa Plays Zappa”. In response to the trust’s action, Dweezil renamed his performance series “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the … He Wants – the Cease and Desist Tour”.
Diva says that the past year has been difficult on many levels and that she and Ahmet are doing the best they can with a difficult situation. “We are grieving and are being forced to put aside our grieving so that we can take care of everybody in the family, for the good of all, and to maintain the legacy and everything that my mother and my father put in place to protect us and take care of us for our lifetime.”
This should be a prime moment for remembering Frank Zappa and introducing new generations to his music and ideas. June marked the 50th anniversary of Freak Out!, the Dadaesque debut double album from Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention. A recent deal negotiated by Ahmet with Universal Music has set in motion an extensive reissue campaign enabling a regular flow of Zappa reissues and unreleased recordings. And a new documentary, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, is out featuring televised interviews, appearances and performance footage from Frank’s life, including his work in the decade before his death as a free-speech advocate.
“His legacy is full of misconceptions. That’s one of the reasons we did the film,” says Thorsten Schutte, director of Eat That Question.
Another planned documentary, Who the … Is Frank Zappa?, recently broke a fundraising record in its category on Kickstarter with pledges for more than US$1.1 million. The movie won’t be released for a few years, but director Alex Winter has been given full access to the trust’s archives and promises a deep dive. In fact, money from the Kickstarter campaign is financing the digitisation of the trust’s film and video archive.
Until recently, the home that Ahmet described as Gail’s “super groovy artistic space” also contained a few lifetimes’ worth of art, musical instruments, recording gear, artefacts and memorabilia. But now that the house has been put on the market, most of that has been packed and loaded into trucks, some to Julien’s Auctions for an upcoming sale, the rest to an off-site cold-storage facility and offices.
“It’s a rediscovery, for me, of Frank, because I lost him so young,” Ahmet says. “As we go through things in the vault I look forward to seeing what’s in there. We don’t know. We have an idea of something written on the box” but that’s not always accurate.
For Dweezil, the contents of the vault contain more than notes and melodies. He grew up surrounded only by what Frank was working on or listening to. “I didn’t hear the radio that I can even remember until I was about 11 or 12. I only ever heard Frank’s music, what he was working on at home or listening to at home.”
After his death in the home’s master bedroom following a long battle with prostate cancer, Gail inherited the family’s holdings. That wasn’t surprising. Gail ran the business while he was alive and earned a reputation for her tough management style. After his death, though, Gail became a polarising figure among Zappa followers. She was fiercely protective of Frank’s music and threatened to sue tribute acts she felt were diminishing his work. Gail was diagnosed with cancer in early 2014 and died a year and a half later in the same bedroom.
As trustee of the Zappa Family Trust, Ahmet is responsible for turning the tapes and other recordings in the vault into money. Before she died, Gail gave him a crash-course in running the business. As she weakened, he assumed more responsibility. Eventually, says Ahmet, “we had a family meeting and my mother explained to the rest of the kids that I was taking over”.
Gail made the Ahmet assignment official in her will when she divided the kids’ share of the trust. Ahmet and Diva each received 30 per cent and Moon and Dweezil got 20 per cent each.
To say Moon and Dweezil were surprised by the imbalance is an understatement.
“It’s complicated enough to be grieving the loss of a mean mom,” Moon says, “and then to find out she was meaner than I could have possibly comprehended.”
Ahmet doesn’t see Gail that way at all. “She demanded respect and got the respect, and that’s really unusual. She was the greatest,” he says, before interjecting, “Well, it depends on who you ask. Anyone who has the opposite opinion must have done something.”
Asked later about the public argument, Ahmet says, “I think it’s embarrassing. I don’t like it and I feel it’s not accurate. But I want nothing but the best for my brother. The part that hurts my feelings is I have no reason to stand in the way of my brother’s success, my older sister’s success, my younger sister’s success as it relates to anything Zappa-related. I’m not doing anything other than having to do what’s in the trust.”
Neither Moon nor Dweezil agree with that interpretation. Citing a “prudent person clause” that gives Ahmet license to change the terms of the trust, Moon says, “I don’t care how many times Ahmet says it. He has a 100 per cent ability to make any and all changes to the trust. So I have to laugh every time he says, ‘My hands are tied.’”
Moon says that when Gail passed away, she figured that the children would commiserate and then move on as a unit. “I thought we would all breathe a sigh of relief and, like refugees that made it across the border, put the whole thing behind us. Hug – the four of us – and say, ‘We made it, guys.’ That is not what happened. And it’s heartbreaking.”
The Los Angeles Times