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Frank Zappa's Influence on Linux

Posted by Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on Jun 2, 2010

"Bitchen" sounds totally Valley Girl right? The sort of speech pattern that, like, gags you with a spoon, right? The link two sentences back is to a YouTube (sound-only) version of the original Frank Zappa song that started the whole Valley Girl thing, with the Valley Girl talk in the song supplied by his daughter Moon Unit Zappa.

Grody to the max, right? Whatever.

And all this Zappa stuff has what, exactly, to do with Linux? Zappa may have been as much of an influence on Linux and FOSS development as LSD was on Apple, although the Zappa influence on Linux isn't thought about as much as the Apple-counterculture connection.

 An awful lot of people were responsible for the early growth of GNU/Linux and Free and Open Source Software, most of whom were not famous like Linus Torvalds or Richard M. Stallman. One of them, Clay Claiborne of Cosmos Engineering, was the first person to sell Linux pre-loaded on a hard drive. This may not sound like a big deal now, in 2010, but back in the dial-up 1990s, when most Linux distros came on stacks of floppies, this was a major step forward for GNU/Linux usability.

Was Clay influenced by Zappa? "Of course," he says. And he still is, not just because of the counterculture thing, which is why Clay originally got involved with Free Software, but also because Clay has lived in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles for many years, where a certain amount of homage to the Mothers of Invention is almost a residency
requirement: "Of course."

Don't Eat the Yellow Snow

Is "Yellow Snow" specifically about Adobe? Or, as long-time Linux hardware builder and hosting service owner Joe Volodarsky asserts, about all proprietary software companies?
 
I have heard Joe sing this song while assembling custom computer systems (and loading them with Linux). He's the kind of guy who has a whole server dedicated to his MP3 collection, and a large part of that collection is Zappa stuff.

But Joe is not just a system builder. He is also an amateur philospher who has been working with Linux since the days when he had to write his own drivers more often than not to produce workable systems for his high-end customers. And this is why he can say, with total authority, that Zappa's "Dinah-Moe Hummm" is totally about Linux, at least in spirit, while the song "Montana" with its talk of zirconium-encrusted tweezers and dental floss, "is obviously about Mac users."

Note that in the second half of Dinah-Moe Hummm, Zappa invites members of the audience to join him on stage, then invites the entire audience to join in. Is this crowdsourcing or what? Is this a precursor to collective, FOSS-style software development? Is Zappa taking the Torvalds role here, where anyone can contribute, but he has final say about who is and who isn't on stage, and who gets the microphone?

Sadly, Frank Zappa died in 1993, so there is no way we can ask him.

Marty Connor, leader of the open source Etherboot/gPXE project (and fine clarinetist), says:

"Frank Zappa, like many brilliant comedians, looked at the world in an irreverent but unjaded way. When I looked at the software industry I saw enormous contradictions in the way software was developed and sold.  It was a joke.  Broken software sold for ever higher prices, and there was no way to fix problems other than begging someone on the phone who knew less than I did.  I'm sure Frank would have seen the irony and ridiculous structural stupidity of it."

There is little doubt that Zappa knew a bit about such things, but while Marty was working at MIT with Richard Stallman back in the days when there was no GNU/Linux, only GNU, Zappa was more occupied with politics than with technology. Check out this (poorly recorded) video of his 1986 appearance on CNN's Crossfire.


'Penguin in Bondage'

In the early 70s Zappa wrote and performed a song called "Penguin in Bondage," a foretelling of the various anti-Linux lawsuits and threats from SCO, Microsoft, and other evildoers.

Zappa was also a heavy user of the Synclavier, an electronic music-machine that was a precursor to today's "studio on a computer" recording and sound editing software. Today, I strongly suspect Zappa would be using Linux and Ardour for most of his recording and composition.

But Zappa is not alive, and hasn't been since the earliest days of GNU/Linux.

All that lives on about him, aside from a bunch of CDs and some YouTube videos, is the Zappa.com website maintained by his widow, Gail Zappa.

This website has what may be the only worthwhile Flash intro I've ever seen, on any website, anywhere.

And before you ask: Yes, Zappa.com runs on Linux (and Apache).




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