This Is How Frank Zappa Was Nearly Murdered

Frank Zappa was known to ruffle a few feathers with his straight talk, strong opinions, irreverent attitude, and sardonic lyrics. He once said his goal was "to shake people out of [their] complacency [or] ignorance and make them question things" (via "The Words and Music of Frank Zappa").

Although Zappa got himself into a heated debate or three, he most likely wasn't expecting anyone's distaste for him to turn violent. But on December 10, 1971, the prolific artist experienced a vicious physical attack that could have killed him. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were performing an encore at London's Rainbow Theatre when someone emerged from the crowd and knocked Zappa off the stage.

"All I remember after that is waking up in the orchestra pit in pain," Zappa wrote in his memoir, "The Real Frank Zappa Book" adding, "I didn't know what had happened to me. In the weeks following the attack, I was able to piece it together, but at the time I had no idea."

After Zappa was knocked off the stage, his bandmates "thought he was dead"

While The Mothers of Invention were onstage performing an encore that included a cover of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," a 24-year-old guy named Trevor Howell stormed the stage and punched Frank Zappa, causing the musician to plummet from the stage and into the depths of the orchestra pit.

Before Zappa regained consciousness, members of The Mothers initially thought he was dead. "I had fallen fifteen feet down into a concrete-floored orchestra pit, my head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken," Zappa wrote in "The Real Frank Zappa Book, adding, "I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed."

As for where his security was hiding at a time like this, Zappa wrote in his book that the two guys who were assigned to protect the stage "were off smoking reefer someplace." (Despite any assumptions that could be made based on his long hair or devil-may-care attitude, Zappa opposed drug use.)

Was Zappa's attacker an unsatisfied customer, a jealous lover, or just a senseless maniac?

Although Trevor Howell tried to escape back into the audience after knocking Frank Zappa off the stage, some of The Mothers of Invention's roadies grabbed him and brought him backstage while the police raced to the venue.

The attack appeared to be an unprovoked, random act of violence, but Howell offered up different motives for the press reports. One was that Zappa had been "making eyes at his girlfriend." Zappa disagreed, noting, "That wasn't true, since the orchestra pit was not only fifteen feet deep but twice as wide, and the spotlight was on my face." He went on to explain in "The Real Frank Zappa Book." that, "I can't even see the audience in those situations — it's like looking into a black hole. I never even saw the guy coming at me."

Howell's other story was that the attack was a reaction to The Mothers of Invention's supposed failure to give him his money's worth at the concert. "Choose your favorite story," Zappa wrote in his book. Howell ultimately spent one year in jail for causing "grievous bodily harm."

Zappa spent a month recovering from his injuries in London hospitals

After the attack, paramedics transported Frank Zappa from the orchestra pit to a local public hospital in London, which Zappa later described in "The Real Frank Zappa Book" as "understaffed" and smelly. "I remember being in the emergency room, which, like the rest of London at that time of year, was freezing cold," he wrote.

To make matters worse, the doctors there could not give Zappa any anesthetic when he arrived due to the "hole in his head." The musician recalled a nurse pulling back the curtain next to his bed and getting a look on her face "like she had just seen a monster." "I was pretty mashed up," he wrote in his memoir.

After the incident, Zappa spent a month at London's Harley Street Clinic. "I had a 24-hour bodyguard because the a**hole who had hit me was out on bail, and we didn't know how insane he was," said Zappa.

The attack permanently changed Zappa's voice

Frank Zappa left the Harley Street Clinic on crutches and in a cast that ran from hip to ankle, but his leg didn't heal. "[The doctors] wanted to break my leg again and reset it," he wrote in "The Real Frank Zappa Book." "I said, 'No thanks — just leave the f****** cast on.'"

He used a wheelchair for a year, during which he refused all interviews and photo ops. Once the cast came off, he had to wear a contraption he described in his memoir as "one of those things with metal joints and straps and a special shoe." His leg healed crooked, leaving him with legs of two different lengths (which adds truth to what seemed like a jokey lyric from his 1979 hit "Dancin' Fool": "One of my legs is shorter than the other").

Of course, Zappa, a known workaholic, refused to let any serious injury keep him from his music. During his year in a wheelchair, he produced the albums "Just Another Band from L.A.," "Waka/Jawaka," and "The Grand Wazoo." He also wrote two musicals, called "Hunchentoot" and "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary."

Still, the attack left a lasting impact on Zappa's vocals. His larynx was crushed during the ambush, which initially rendered him unable to talk and permanently lowered his voice by a third of an octave. "Having a low voice is nice," he wrote in "The Real Frank Zappa Book," but "I would have preferred some other means of acquiring it."