Pop Goes the Dweezil—on Vinyl, Video and MTV
12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Parents! Interested in raising a happy, stable, successful son? Try the following recipe: First, give him an unusual name—say, Dweezil. Next, make sure he has a sister named Moon Unit. When the two argue, lock them in the bathroom together, record their shouting match and play it back at high volume until they get sick of it, too. As a parent, set a good example—record a few songs that have such consciousness-raising titles as Haifa Dozen Provocative Squats and Don't Eat That Yellow Snow. Most important, when your son elects to drop out of high school at 15 to concentrate on playing electric guitar, reassure him that he's making the right decision.
Unusual directions, perhaps, but the proof is in the progeny. And a little time spent with Dweezil Zappa, 17-year-old son of musician-gadfly Frank Zappa, suggests that he may be a darn-close-to-normal, if precociously experienced, teenage guy—with a couple of important differences. Other teenagers, for example, date. So does Dweezil, but his steadies have included actress Molly Ringwald and Katie Wagner, actor Robert Wagner's daughter. Other guys his age dream of turning audiences into jelly with blistering guitar solos. Dweezil recently released his first album, Havin' a Bad Day, and played on the hit Heartbeat on Don Johnson's new LP. Some kids want to act; Dweezil just signed to appear with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film Running Man. Others fantasize about being veejays; Dweezil probably is best known as a regular guest host on MTV. Dweezil is, in short, just like any other teenager—except that he's figured out a way to make a living at it.
He is, not surprisingly, grateful and pretty much deliriously happy about the situation. "The only difference between them and me is that I'm on their TV while they're eating dinner," he says of MTV's viewers. "It's the ultimate teenage fantasy job. I can say anything I want. There are people who would die to do the things I do on the channel." They include emceeing beach parties, co-hosting the MTV Awards and letting fly with irreverent remarks—like the time he thought Lou Reed had served up a hackneyed guitar solo in the singer's Video Violence video. "I'm not going to talk to you about Lou as a person or the way he writes," said Dweezil, "but I am going to talk to you about the guitar solo because, being a guitar player myself, I was offended and want an apology."
Appearances aside, growing up Zappa was "very normal" and "very creative," says Dweezil, who was named after his father's pet name for one of his mother's baby toes. Dweezil's mother, Gail, "would paint a table white and tell us to draw all over it," he remembers. "That would be our furniture." Dad often kept strange hours, noodling through the night in the family music studio, officially named the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. This being normal, trips to schoolmates' houses were like interplanetary outings. Dweezil recalls encountering entire families that ate together ("Weird!") and others who didn't let their children watch TV. ("Wait a second—your parents are torturing you!") Eventually, says Dweezil, all the kids started hanging out at his house.
Dweezil says that he planned to become a baseball player until he learned that many pro players were recruited from college. Though only 12, he decided he could do without college, so he traded his bat for an electric guitar. Taking his inspiration from power rock nonpareil Eddie Van Halen ("I thought if I could get those sounds out of a guitar, I'd be a pretty happy guy"), he began writing tunes like Crunchy Water and My Mother Was a Space Cadet. ("It's not biographical," observes Gail.) One day last year Frank walked into the studio and asked Dweezil if he had enough songs to make an LP. The result was Havin' a Bad Day, a family affair from start to finish. Dad recorded it, siblings Moon, 19, Ahmet, 12, and Diva, 7, lent their voices, and one of the songs, I Want a Yacht, was inspired by a relative who used to make collect calls to request just that. "I tried to incorporate all the different styles of music I like into the album," says the guitarist. "My favorite combination at the moment is heavy metal and country." Dweezil—whose MTV gig grew out of a humorous fashion commentary he and Moon put together for the channel last summer—says his musical debut has affected the tone of the 100-or-so fan letters ("That blows my mind") he receives each week. "At first there were marriage proposals. Then there were cheap, tawdry love-affair types. Now they're starting to be about the record."
As for the future, "I want to do a lot of things, but it's not like I'm on a time schedule," says Dweezil. When not involved in his various projects, he dates Katie and goes to exceptionally hip restaurants, but he says he still spends much of his time at the Zappas' sprawling Hollywood home "because it's just a fun place to be. Even if there's nothing to do there, it seems like there's something to do." His father, for one, is clearly proud that his boy is doing well without getting weird. "Dweezil is leading a kind of ideal teenage existence," says Frank, teetering on what—for him—is the edge of mushiness, "and he hasn't turned into a mutant."