Zappa At The Rock-And-Roll

By John Wolfe

Orpheus, July, 1968


[reprinted from the underground publication Distant Drummer, Philadelphia]

Frank Zappa is a good playwright, a great musician, and the funniest man now working the record game. And since he's in it for the money, it is understandable that his new album ("We're Only In It For the Money") is so confusing.

And, like all comedy albums, it is impossible to play more than three times. After hearing it those three times, you won't play it again unless to introduce Zappa to a friend. And, come to think of it, that is pretty much true of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which is to Zappa's work as Lyndon Johnson is to Jules Feiffer.

But do not take the analogy too seriously. I'm only in it for the money.

How strange it must be to grow up in Southern California! Poor Zappa still hasn't recovered. So Hi boys and girls, I'm about to take you through our West Coast Disneyland and listen good, for your life is empty and every town must have a place where phony hippies meet under the concentration moon over the camp in the valley.

Does Zappa like hippies? Does he like the cops as they kick the shit out of you? Does flower power suck? Any kid raised near a radio and all those overheated tubes must suffer God knows what brand of technological transmutation.

Zappa and his Mothers ridicule and malign without control: mothers and fathers (plastic mom and dad), the wear-a-flower-in-your-hair-scene (I'll go to Frisco and sleep on Owlsey's floor), the supersensitive Graduate syndrome (Are you hung up?), an entire generation (Vicki, what's happening? – Bowtie daddy don't you blow your cool . . . just go on with your drinking . . . and drive home in your Lincoln.)

Punctuating Zappa's observations is the bitterest of conceits. Let anyone who really thinks Country Joe's angry listen to three minutes of Zappa. What he has created is an ongoing comic opera; a theatre piece exposing foible and pretense in literally everything. His is the satire of overkill; his must be the most all-encompassing graphic put-down ever recorded. Zappa keeps coming at you through the speakers. There is no banding, no pause between lyric, no relief save for a short, magnificent, incongruous, discordant piano solo immediately followed by a young girl's voice: "I don't do publicity balling for you anymore."

Zappa has extended voice (and all its possibilities) to its ultimate absurdity. Listening to the record is like being in a huge room on whose walls are being flashed all kinds of images, movies, slogans – and all the while 300 people are talking to you as you try to read yesterday's newspaper. There would seem to be little left for Zappa to create verbally – he can, doubtless, repeat himself endlessly. Or he can (as he will in "Lumpy Gravy Waltz") return to the totally musical.

If there is a point to all this (and what fun Zappa has with messages) it is that "You'll be absolutely free, only if you want to be." Zappa seems to be saying that we don't really want to be free. If going to the love-in and playing our bongoes in the dirt is our idea of freedom then we are deluding ourself. Which is what makes the album so confusing. Nothing is spared – and that is justified. No one is free; no one really wishes to be. And when Zappa becomes didactic (as in "Discorporate") and actually advises us (remove free yourself from the corporate logo) one is impressed unless one wonders how many $$$ Verve makes of Frank's latest discorporation.

Zappa bares the lie about genius in rock music. It has been said that by parodying Pepper, Zappa is indulging in the grandest compliment. But Zappa does, in fact, succeed in making Pepper look even more gentle; more harmless, more significant that it ever appeared. He does the same with Jimi Hendrix, head musicians, and just about all the rest. There is a limit, one supposes, to the satiric possibilities there. For anyone else but Zappa. His talent is probably limitless. Now that he has gotten us out of his system, now that he has destroyed ugly radio and freed himself from Laurel Canyon High's senior prom, he may be able to succeed in becoming an American Jonathan Swift – long-haired creep from another time.

Zappa's endless onslaughts are funny and significant. And he has established his operational bases – our life is completely empty. He has hinted at his answer. One always returns to Zappa because his is the one intelligence in rock that doesn't express itself in the usual clich├ęs or Negro slang or Underground Press verbiage. He is, simply, a very smart man. There may be half a hundred certified geniuses in rock, but there are fewer than three smart men. Zappa is there.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net