The 1955 Zappa
A RECENT article in The Times Literary Supplement refers us to an early story by Jorge Luis Borges called 'Pierre Menard, Autor Del Quijote', in which a writer attempts to write a book which will 'coincide in every particular with one which already exists', namely 'Don Quijote'.
The writer finds that it is impossible to think spontaneous 17th Century thoughts and that he will therefore be unable to write a copy of Cervantes' novel, he will have to produce a premeditated 20th Century reconstruction of it. (The TLS writer refers here to the infinite scale of this fulfilment in which time is the only impediment, and he therefore introduces us to the realm of monkeys typing Shakespeare given a typewriter and given enough time and therefore an understanding of present time in terms of the Indian interpretations of the Three Gunas.)
Precisely the same problem is present in the Mothers of Invention's latest album 'Cruising with Ruben and the Jets', Verve V6 5055S, in which Frank Zappa undertakes to make an album which will coincide musically with the rock and roll of the 1955 era. A more complex character than Menard, Zappa is also faced with the intrusion of 'Art' into his attempts at 1955 rock. Taking the position of Arp rather than Tzara in the face of pure chance as anti-art he introduces alien virtuosity and meaningful words into some numbers which tend to disturb the overall fabric and make the album less 'pure' than it could have been.
However, had he achieved his original aim the album would be redundant as the 1955 sound still exists in the original. Zappa, the master of editing, has achieved a perfect balance in the light of these problems. This album is almost a tribute to Ahmed Ertegun – The Shoobydoo, oo-wah school and the deep bass second vocal. Many obvious influences can be detected, The Ad-Libs 'Boy From New York City'; Hank Ballard and the Midnighters 'Walk With Me Annie'; The Chords 'Sh-Boom'; The Diamonds, etc. A particularly good reference album to use with 'Ruben and the Jets' is volume 2 of the History of the Rhythm and Blues (Atlantic 587095) which covers the period 1953-5.
Then of course we should ask why? – What is Zappa up to? This record marks a tangent from his overall direction in that usually his words have been designed to make what he calls plastic people so uptight that they may see through the consumer society just for one second. He has often referred to 1955 music, using it as parody and as material for his collages thus giving them a historical depth and precluding the use of electronic sounds which have no such emotional meaning.
His overall direction has been that of the tradition of Stravinsky, Varèse, and the serial composers and thus has been away from the main direction of pop. It is doubtful however if his words have even reached their target, good as they are: for example:
Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion
In between the moisture cream and velvet facial lotion?
Ever tell your kids you're glad that they can think?
Ever say you loved 'em?
Ever let 'em watch you drink?
Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad?
It's such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom & Dad.'
But this album marks a release to the complete environment of early pop and may therefore be taken as a second front attack on those who got away in the 50s. All the songs are to do with love and though presented in the most banal fashion they tend to correspond with his overall 'message'. He is working on many fronts and has wisely chosen to devote an album to each of them. This record also contains an excellent graduation photograph of the composer.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net