Frank Zappa Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out
By Rick Bolsom & David Walley
In the canyon that lies north of the Los Angeles sprawl there lives a mustached musician who has made his living out of being professionally non-commercial. But there is a difference, that of being thoroughly artistic as well. There is much mystery about Frank Zappa and much misunderstanding about exactly what he does and what he hopes to do with America and music.
Starting as a small time pachuco go-go bar musician in the early 50's, starving in a studio in Cucamonga, California, Zappa and his talents have had a chance to mature and grow under the harsh southern California sun. Los Angeles is the base of his creations because, for Zappa, Los Angeles is America, and what better place to create and live than a place that is America, that embodies all the sickness and joy of the American way of life.
There used to be a time when the Mothers of Invention were a household word for everything that was ugly and dirty. Ah, yes, a fine publicity ploy because for all his apparent declamations against the system, Zappa is one of the foremost businessmen in America (his short stint in an advertising agency served him well). To explain the ethos of Frank Zappa is to try to discover what indeed makes America itself have so many contradictions. Zappa's music is indisputably avant-garde although his major themes are quite recognizable. His themes are plastic people trapped within a plastic culture bemoaning their plasticity. In the same way he views the co-option of flower power in his last "review" album "We're Only In It For The Money," he will use for the purposes of musical satire every type of American music from fifties rock and roll to Hendrix' guitar moanings to garbage-can percussion atonalities. Not only does he use what is present in America, but he also coins certain new phrases and meanings into the language.
The concept of theatre is omnipresent in a Mother's performance; it borders on the Theatre of the Absurd coupled with Zen No plays where very action is symbolic, every action is necessary, every action is meaningful. Predictably the audiences he has performed for have taken a rather dim view of his artistic affirmations choosing to put him within their own limited conceptual box. For many Zappa is the freak, the ugly long hair foul-mouthed baddie who makes his point their annoyance. They further refuse to consider his genius because they cannot identify with his type of stoned genius (a natural creative high to be sure!). Frank Zappa is the bent mirror image of America. If the Birch Society only knew the truth in Zappa and the truth in themselves they'd be Zappa if not Mothers fans.
Frank Zappa, the Mothers of Invention, Bizarre, Inc. and its Straight Records subsidiary. Advertising agencies, stories in magazines... "concept art" Zappa calls it. Everything planned from the first. Even the mistakes planned. You can't blunder because every bad note has a purpose and a place.
Frank Zappa, boy patriot. Expelling in grotesque spasms the innermost secrets of the straight world. Picking on the little sacreds of surbaninity. But more than that.
Explaining America in his own terms, translating morals, mores and games into sight and sound, into Theatre of the Absurd indeed, but more into a theatre of interpretation. No so much a slice of life as much as the whole smeared palette in speeding technicolor.
Frank Zappa works and lives in a basement. Totally in touch with the world but totally cut off from the limitations of day and night, from cocktail parties and interference. The lawn can stay unmowed if the work of composition needs to be done. It's funny though, it doesn't matter what's outside, and Los Angeles' being the home of Americanism is no deterrent. Yet even if he chose that proverbial bucolic setting with lambs, Frank would be met with the same thing going down in Los Angeles when he went into town for the week's groceries. It's reality to appreciate reality and if it is omnipresent then it is accepted as a necessary part of the creative milieu of an artist. If Frank Zappa were a European, he would be classed as one of "those modern composers" and his works would receive polite attention with maybe after a few years, an appointment to a position of trust in one of the lesser universities as a composition teacher. Because and in spite of the fact that he is an American, a product of a franchised society, he commands the respect of Europe (where he is a smash). But Europe can't understand Frank Zappa as a person just as America can't understand him as a musician. (But somebody in this country is buying lots of shiney black discs stamped Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention).
There is however a terrible problem. To start to understand Zappa is to dig him, the position, but to really understand him is to get that bad taste in your mouth. He has a hate/love relationship with the greasers and beer bellies of America. To see them through him is to taste the staleness of the structure, the Establishment. (No, the Rockefellers and the DuPont's are not greasers or beer bellies but it is their establishment that gives womb to it all).
How can you help but love the men who built this country. Either with dollars or sweat or brains. But how can you not help but get that old boa-constrictor-got-me feeling when you turn in your credentials as an individual. Get your I.D. card at the company gate. Turn in your peace sign and your four letter words. Buy a piece of the smooth life. The price is only you. Zappa in the meanwhile has managed to play the "building for the future" game to his own advantage. He has set an example for people whose insight has not been turned off or burned out.
So long as he is very successful at being highly unsuccessful (read non-commercial) he is a living proof of the possibility of what he is saying. You can do it from the outside. You can do it from the inside. You can play all the old games to a different beat. It works in music and it works in life.
Frank Zappa (The Mothers) was and probably is the most purposeful ugly thing in a world of measured and tinted beauty. Mothers can't go on diets or clear up their pimples. Ugliness and freakiness at a price for everyone.
You can't get off on ugliness when you watch TV, except for the unpredictable news. Damn right there is lots of ugly people in the world, but who advertises that?
It's hard to stop being a clown once you get typed. Ugly is funny. Singers are pretty. Comics are ugly, or at least homely.
So laugh at the Mothers and laugh at Frank Zappa. It's easiest to communicate to a laughing person since we all relax when we laugh. Make the message simple because laughter is distracting... it has to be. Frank Zappa can never be arrested because even though his truths are self-evident and indeed omnipresent, no one can understand exactly what he is saying. A Mother's performance is multi-leveled. There is the basic humor coupled with atonal undercurrents, there is bizarre staging, choreography effects coupled with obscene noises supplied by Roy Estrada. When confronted with so much in such a condensed atmosphere as a performance, the audience if forced to take sides, to focus on one thing. But the secret of enjoying Zappa's mind is not to focus on anything at all — for it all means the same when each segment of his performance is carried out to its logical conclusions. Again, what is his message?
The message is that you are what you eat, see, read, sleep with. America is nothing but a collection of separate images on a large canvas which hang together in some sort of cosmic order. The order is not particularly spectacular, but face it, America, it's all you've got. Zappa's music is everything which is American and Un American — he achieves his effect of hitting you in the nose and then will empathize with you when you bleed. Not that you haven't been conditioned by repeated psychic and audio suggestion already, no, that's not the rub at all. You are conditioned to accept the punishment because IT'S THE ONLY THING WHICH YOU CAN UNDERSTAND.
Repeated attempts to understand Zappa on a one-to-one level will be met with defeat because in order to grasp the complexity, one must accept the simplicity as well. Here no one will succeed until he can look in the mirror unself-consciously.
A conspicuous event in a Mothers concert is the amount of nervous laughter from the audience. There are the Mothers doing their numbers and every so often Frank will ask a direct question. He will be met with silence, or laughter. But the uncomprehending multitudes will look askance at him because they don't understand what is going on. Mr. Jones can't help either. No commercial potential has been an epigram for the apparent success du scandale of Zappa's music. Every so often he will be asked about that, understandably. His answer is always the same. That he wants to play for people, he does not, however think that they will understand him, but he wants to play. No commercial potential, because in order to be himself, he will always be at least five years ahead of the time. So art never is commercial which isn't commercial art.
His artistic concepts are stringent and hard-headed. The object of any performance is to mold all these elements together to present a real piece of art as a total experience. And it's so, tiring to keep explaining what is when all one has to do is to accept whatever is. The condition of facing present reality is all-important, there is nothing else to do.
In the case of Frank Zappa and the Mother of Invention, there is nothing else that can be done except to sit there and take it. Perhaps he wants his audience to throw things or fight back, better yet he wants them to listen with all energies... if they are going to listen at all. For art must be well-constructed or at least well-intentioned so every utterance of Zappa is carefully orchestrated, building up the level of understanding of the audiences he is presented with. But the contradiction of what Zappa is doing is that at its moment of success it fails.
He planned his failure as others plan their success. He wove faults into the fabric of his presentation just as a good director will eliminate flubs from a rehearsal. Other artists can afford to sell out. The price is right and often the hidden things they then do will eventually guarantee them a place in some sort of history or reminiscence. Zappa's art is alive and can only be generated from life. It does not spring full born from the forehead of its creator. It comes in one ear or one eye. It slowly works its way around the cells of the mind and emerges at the fingertips.
It is laid out and on the public for its understanding more than its approval. The newsclip from Viet Nam is not voted thumbs up or down by the CBS audience, you can't tell it to go away. You can't tell Zappa to go away. You might like to do both but you can't. So you try to understand the news clip. And you may either march to Washington or count the dead commies. Or you run away from Frank Zappa. Luckily for everyone he can't draft your grandchild or your neighbor's into the Mothers. He can't raise your taxes or integrate your schools. He can't do much of anything but annoy you so just turn him off. Frank Zappa cannot influence your life unless you invite him in. Life is really too short for anything but a bullet to really turn you around against your will. What he can do however is make you think of yourself, of your environment, of the United States. Don't blame him if you retch.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net