They've come a long way, but not really so far
By Martin Smith
Think of Frank Zappa – images of wild hair and that enormous beaknose, an incredible guitarist whose grunts, burps, and yowls perfectly complement the savage lyrics of his songs. Zappa tells the greasy groupies who want to become his teenage queen: "Do you think that I love you ... Stupid and blind? Do you think that I dream through the night of holding you near me?" – in "We're Only in it for the Money."
Walking on stage at the Electric Factory, skin tight pants and orange T-shirt, the first of an unbroken chain of Winstons stuck in his guitar, the only thing jarring the image is his hair, which is shorter and tied in the back. He introduces a perfectly awful song, "White Port – Lemon Juice," which is what people did before acid: talking about the results of the acid experiments, which aren't in yet, and what "you little devils" have been doing recently. But then he says, in a tone that is, well, almost paternal: "You think you've come a long way, but you haven't been very far."
The Mothers have come a long way, but they, too, haven't been very far. Last year at the Factory  they were much more freaky, given to staring blankly at the audience, almost childishly fascinated by what you can do with a Pep boys matchbook. Where all this led was back to the beginning, to Ruben and the Jets, except that now they have more respect for this greasy music: they have moved from parody into satire. Zappa identifies this shift on the liner notes to "Ruben and the Jets,"
"This is an album of greasy love songs and cretin simplicity. We made it because we really like this kind of music (just a bunch of old men with rock & roll clothes on sitting around the studio, mumbling about the good old days). Ten years from now you'll be sitting around with your friends someplace doing the same thing if there's anything left to sit on."
Ruben and the Jets is nostalgia. It is no more the Mothers than Stravinsky, Ravel, Ives, Stockhausen, and even Edgar Varèse really are. The lyrics, with their wide range of concern, amusement, and wonder with what's going on, are likewise not really the Mothers. The music has always been Frank Zappa's main concern; it is what the band came to play at the Factory, and it is what the Mothers of Invention are all about.
Dual drums, two electric guitars, electric bass, amplified trumpet and saxophones, organ and electric piano form the basis for the Mothers music, with Zappa occasionally playing xylophone and drums, in addition to lead guitar, on which his competence is fully equal to Clapton, Hendrix, et al. All of this to present the extraordinary synthesis that Zappa's music has become.
The band is strikingly together, they all watch Zappa and his control is complete. Zappa brings his hand back, and the presence or the trumpets and saxophones surges into the audience and back, perfectly with the movement of his hand. He holds up one out, and stops, perfectly on cue. He points at bass player Roy Estrada, who instantly becomes wildly incoherent: together.
The Ruben and the Jets stuff is amazing, complete with occasional choreography – the Mothers kicking first to the right and then to the left – and oral program notes from Zappa it's getting near the end now, see how it sort of builds up but doesn't really know how to build up, and then it's over. A very sympathetic and deep understanding of this music keeps it in the illusive identity of satire, an extremely difficult thing to pull off effectively. Zappa takes a request, "Trouble Every Day," a powerful statement composed at the time of Watts, but it isn't really appropriate to what is happening. "Stuff Up the Cracks," from "Ruben" would have been better.
"Cracks" is Frank Zappa's statement about Ruben and the Jets, about where his music is really going. It is done in 6/8, which is archetypical Zappa, and it literally oozes grease. It is disappointing for those who listen to the Mothers for the dirty stuff, and those who really like 1950 greaser music, much as one would like to believe that these people don't really exist. The song says, in specially abridged form designed to prove the reviewer's point:
"If you decide to leave me, it's all over
... I tried to make you happy
I gave you all my love
There's nothing left for me to do but cry.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net