Tuesday, April 05, 2005

TV Dinner By the Pool

Bobby Lightfoot's running a real funny blog-game, the "Trade with Baby Jeezis Game," where you bargain with Ol' Jeebus to try and get him to give up a few Tragically Dead in exchange for for some rather more Deserving types -- The Olsen Twins in exchange for George Harrison, say, or Usher and Justin Timberlake for Warren Zevon.

(You have to scroll down to Petak, April 1, just past Live Rust -- now that I've taught him how to hyperlink, the next step's the Permalink, the Blogger's Tricky Friend.)

Xtcfan suggested trading the entire production staff at VH1 and MTV for Frank Zappa, and I can't help but applaud mightily, in 13/4 time. By coincidence, I was listening to "Roxy and Elsewhere" this morning on the drive in to work, having been inspired to dig it out by Barry Miles' mediocre and unsympathetic book, Zappa: A Biography. I waved a lit Bic over my head during the guitar solo in "Son of Orange County," one of my all-time favorite passages of music.

To be fair, It's hard to build up a huge load of sympathy for Zappa, a fairly unsympathetic man. His towering genius was limited almost exclusively to the world of bars and dots; in pretty much anything that didn't involve entertaining large rooms full of people by making "air sculptures" he was a bit of a trog. Elitist, dreadfully sexist, possessed of a frequently repellent and cruel sense of humor, childishly quick to anger, a holder of grudges with a Gargantuan chip on his shoulder, he must have been terribly difficult to like, let alone be married to.

But on the other side, he was fanatically self-reliant, intellectually curious, fiercely independent, a fighter of good fights -- and when his sense of humor wasn't cruel and repellent, it was gut-bustingly funny.

Miles' most important contribution (he did no original research, and apparently interviewed no one for the book) is to illustrate the arc of Zappa's attitude toward people. Over his first few albums with the original Mothers, he exhibited an appealing idealism, very similar in fact to the Situationist ethos of the first Punks: Free your mind, and your ass will follow. The Mothers' legendary residence at the Garrick Theater in New York in the summer of 1967 must have been an unbelievably heady thing to have witnessed -- as challenging and artistically compelling as anything seen at CBGB ten years later. Goading off-duty Marines to rip baby dolls apart, inviting the audience to provide the music for the evening while the band watched from the seats, spraying whipped cream out a stuffed giraffe's ass -- it must have been memorable.

In the depths of the early Seventies, Zappa gradually fell away from this idealism, this idea of the perfectability of humankind through art, into a misanthropy that both repelled and fascinated. More importantly, he redirected his contempt away from a conception of society-at-large and straight at his own audience. I remember being utterly flabbergasted at a 1981 gig in Columbus, Ohio, where he directed the lyric from "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" straight at the front rows:
But you came back on Sunday for the gong show
Next Thursday, teen town's finest...
But you forgot what I was sayin'
'Cause you're an asshole, you're an asshole
That's right
You're an asshole, you're an asshole
Yes, yes
You're an asshole, you're an asshole
That's right
...And all he got back was adoration: TESTIFY, Frank! You tell 'em! Everybody else in this room except you 'n' me, they're ASSHOLES, Frank! But you 'n' me, we KNOW BETTER! My brother in non-assholery!

I fell a little more out of love with ol' Frank that night. And also with his fans.

Miles' chief failure is he just doesn't have the chops to talk about music. He can't describe it either in technical or emotional terms, and a biography about someone as deeply musical as Frank that doesn't even address the technical aspect of his compositions of a bewilderingly large variety of musical styles shouldn't be allowed off the hook for it. I'm not looking for Wilfred Mellers, here, but you can't go from Uncle Meat to Hot Rats in six months (March - October 1969) without even mentioning the gigantic stylistic differences between them, let alone describing them. Tut tut.

(There's a danger, of course, in attempting to tackle Zappa's musical work: There's always someone who knows way more about it than you do.)

For some bizarre reason, back in that Punk Heyday you weren't supposed to admit to liking Zappa -- although Beefheart was the Received God -- but I nevertheless fell very hard for Joe's Garage in 1979. Check out Watermelon in Easter Hay from Act III -- it sums the guy up perfectly. Just an achingly lovely guitar piece, in irregular meter (18/4), -- but in the spoken intro, supposedly winding up the libretto of this increasingly creaky "rock opera," Frank cracks himself up with what can only be described as just puerile cynicism. And it's not like he couldn't do a second take -- no, he wanted that cynicism in there. From Genius to Idiot in nine gorgeous minutes.

I sure do miss the fucker, though. Yo, Jeebus! Puff Daddy for Frank! You can't go wrong!


XTCfan said...

>More importantly, he redirected his contempt away from a conception of society-at-large and straight at his own audience. I remember being utterly flabbergasted at a 1981 gig ... I fell a little more out of love with ol' Frank that night. And also with his fans.<

Yeah, but completely understandable, when you consider than many of those in the front rows first heard about the man when he put out Over-Nite Sensation, as he knew from watching them sing along with every single word of Dinah-Moe Humm. Granted, the album's title shows that Frank knew exactly what he was doing when he crossed that line, so maybe the misanthropy was self-directed, too.

Interesting what you say about the early years ... I've been listening to the Bonzo Dog Band's stuff over the last several days, and was thinking how much their satire reminded me of a kinder, gentler Zappa/Mothers ... one more indication of the difference between Angry America and Cool Britannia in the mid- to late-60s.

Kurt Ellis said...


a post on Frank Zappa. I love it.

Cynical, bitter, exploitive, mysoginist? perhaps. I'm willing to bet that a lot of these critisism are older, reading the liner notes to Lather, the author adresses, defensively, a lot of these issues. "Broken Hearts are For Assholes." but Frank would apparently point at himself most of the time. hmmm. This song depicts women as vapid whores? Well look at what he does to the men!

All of this is to say, that the guy's a gifted and intelligent sui generis in America, the most ridiculously over the top and often contradictory place there is. his contempt for hypocracy wherever he saw it is certainly the one piece of continuity in his life. Plastic people are potato headed mouth breathing conformist. When fame comes along, and all the grudgeons with it, he turns his scorn towards his fans and the unions that worked for him. But still, he stuck to his guns, financing all of his more masturbatory experiments, and he did stand with Jello Biafra and the DK during their run with the law, providing comfortt and relief.

I guess I don't like the guy to much myself... even though i worshipped him back in the day. He's just too out there. Teetoltering know it all who wore kooky clothes.

Besides the point that he was certainly one of the most innovative musicians ever, he represents a unique figuer in Americana. A pop celebrity who enjoyed pop success, but never sold out. he only mitigated the challenge of assaulting the public while making enough cash to do it.

Clever guy, that Zappa

Kudos to Jingo for even considering this freakish creep for his blog