(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...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!
Next Thursday, teen town's finest...
But you forgot what I was sayin'
'Cause you're an asshole, you're an asshole
You're an asshole, you're an asshole
You're an asshole, you're an asshole
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!