Lately–in addition to spending a lot of time writing abstracts–I’ve been thinking about where Zappa’s ideas about music come from. He’s generally considered to be a sort of musical anomaly, but I think it would be a mistake to say that his was an isolated case. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty about that Zappa that’s unique! But I have to wonder what influenced his (often highly polemical) opinions, particularly with regards to the status of new music in contemporary culture and the perceived division between art and pop.
Recently, one of my advisers suggested looking for a connection between Zappa and Abbie Hoffman, the outspoken yippie activist. I don’t think that Zappa had much to do with Hoffman or the yippies. If anything, he was highly critical of their motives. Posed with a question about his cynicism towards certain social movements of the late 1960s, Zappa responded:
A lot of people were really into it. They thought it was the end-all. They really thought they were going to rule the world with a flower in their hand. It was nuts. They were believing in all these Yippie leaders and whatever else these assholes were telling them. 
On the other hand, critical though he was, Zappa does seem to have a lot in common with the New Left and I think that much of his understanding of avant-garde art music stems from radical culture and politics.
Historically, the hippie counterculture and the New Left have been regarded as separate entities. But, as historian David McBride points out, there was a lot of overlap between these two groups. This is especially true in Los Angeles where, given the fairly conservative mindset of the sprawling city, hippies (freaks, to use the local parlance) and New Left politicos often found themselves living in the same spaces and facing the same opponents. Furthermore, with LA being the epicenter of the blossoming mass culture industry, political discussions inevitably touched on issues of culture and vice versa. (McBride gives a detailed account of how these groups interacted in his article, “Death City Radicals: The Counterculture in Los Angeles.”)
When Zappa moved to Echo Lake (1819 Bellevue Ave., to be precise) in 1965, he quickly became enmeshed in the freak movement. This accounts for the joining of politics and counterculture aesthetics in his music, but what about the influence of the avant-garde? Stuart Hobbs, in his The End of the American Avant-Garde, argues that avant-gardism in the US ended when it was subsumed by the counterculture.  This would suggest that countercultural music was intimately involved with modern art music. But most discussions of the counterculture tend to focus solely on the folk/rock that would later come to dominate the public consciousness.
To get a better picture of the environment Zappa found himself in, I decided I’d have to turn to some primary sources. McBride describes the Los Angeles Free Press–a weekly alternative newspaper, modeled on the Village Voice–as a major advocate of freaks and leftist radicals alike. Inaugurated in 1964, the newspaper seamlessly blended politically-charged reportage of local events with descriptions of hip events and other happenings around LA.
I’ve spent the last few days in the microfilm dungeon of UC Berkeley’s Doe Library, poring over the first three years of publication and have been surprised (and delighted!) by what I’ve found. Unlike other alternative publications–where discussions of music tended to focus on folk or rock–the Free Press, in its first few years, showed a marked interest in avant-garde art music! Among other things, contributing writers spoke of the vitality of new music in contemporary life and lamented the conservative programming of the L.A. Philharmonic.  These articles convey a sense of urgency regarding the decline of the avant-garde and actively promote it as an important social institution.
Consider the following excerpt from an article describing a newly founded concert series:
It is an unfortunate trend in our time to expect our universities, even supposing them to be the stronghold of liberalism which they are not, to almost single handedly furnish all avenues for the performance of new music, I believe this would be a serious mistake due to the built in prejudices of these institutions by their administration as well as their professors. This is not offered as a criticism, but simply as a statement of fact. Furthermore, most patrons of contemporary music have long since given up the possibility that programs offered by the L.A. Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl or the Local 47 Musicians Union will ever be able or willing at least in the near future) to supply significant avenues for the performance of new works by composers whose worth is still to be decided. Since these programs are not a part of the Ash Grove’s regular presentations, they must operate on a self-sustaining basis. The concerts therefore rely on public support. Every indication is that the programs will be both exciting and diversified so any music-lover who is in search of an entertaining as well as a challenging evening of musical fare, should be well rewarded by attending Concerts at the Ash Grove programs. 
Anyone familiar with Zappa’s discourse on the state of new music will immediately recognize the similarities: the disdain for educational institutions, the rewards of listening to challenging music, the lack of faith in established orchestras, and so on.
In another article we find the author attempting to enlighten its readers by educating them about new music:
‘The problem the layman has in understanding avant-garde music’, says The Editor, ‘is a lack of standards.’ The cures for this are several. One can enroll in a ‘music appreciation’ course at the nearest college. One can read John Cage’s fascinating book ‘Silence’ or Harry Partch’s ‘Genesis of a Music’ (not available either at the public library or the UCLA music library—an interesting indication of the true state of things.) Attendance at concerts is sine qua non, but a single hearing is hardly ever sufficinet [sic], and no post-Schoenberg work is scheduled a second time. (I would be delighted to be corrected on this point.) Familiarity, in this case, breeds respect: if not always affection. Records allow repeated hearings and are an excellent start towards developing standards regarding the ‘avant-garde.’ 
The article goes on to provide a sample discography including works by Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, and Henry Brant, among others. Many other similarities between Zappa and the Free Press could just as easily be cited.
I’m very excited about this discovery!
I should point out that I’m not suggesting Zappa simply lifted the cultural ideologies right out of the paper and called them his own. But I do think I’ve found a significant cultural precedent for his opinions. This was a community in which Zappa was an active participant. (Zappa would later contribute to the Free Press himself, and organized a benefit concert for the paper’s second anniversary.) That his own views on politics, art, and contemporary culture were so closely aligned with these writers, suggests that the the similarities are more than mere coincidence. I’ll post more information as it surfaces.
(My apologies for the lack of posts lately! I’ve really been under the gun with abstract deadlines.)
 David McBride, “Death City Radicals: The Counterculture in Los Angeles,” in The New Left Revisited, eds. John McMillian & Paul Buhle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 110-136. (Text available here.)
 See Michael Agnello, “Concerts at the Ashgrove,” Los Angeles Free Press 1.18 (November 19, 1964): 7; and Ed Cray, “L.A. Philharmonic: No Waves Expected,” Los Angeles Free Press 1.11 (October 1, 1964): 2-3. (Scans of articles here and here.)