Freaked Out in the Gym
By Neil Hauser
For the past 14 years, Frank Zappa has been churning out product with an efficiency that Pepsi-Cola would envy. He has a cult following with a devotion that could keep him selling records into middle age and supposedly a catalogue of unreleased material for enough albums to take him there. However, a question that has always remained one of contention is whether Zappa is one of the most accomplished, original, saterical talents of our time or whether he is just another jerk with a gimmick.
After seeing his performance to a gymnasium packed with his admirers, little doubt is left concerning his musical talent, but what he has been doing with it all this time is another matter. Does he represent a truly original viewpoint regarding merchandised music or does he manufacture busy sounds to help one hallucinate? It's probably both.
Zappa's return to Stony Brook was, like most of his appearances, one of little risk. The bulk of the audience seemed like experienced followers that were ready from the start to devour anything he had to offer. As with the Grateful Dead (another cult institution), being there is already half the evening. After years of playing the role of the somewhat demented, but amiable freak during the days of the legendary Fillmores and then spending the later part of the '70s becoming a corporation unto himself, it seems pretty safe to assume that Zappa was not out to conquer any new frontiers in the University's gym. In fact, Zappa did not appear overjoyed to be there at all. He was there to give people the evening they anticipated, and this he can do with an ease that only comes from years behind the same desk.
The late show consisted of a large amount of his newer material including that of his new release, Crush All Boxes (changed from "Fred Zeplinn" after John Bonham's unexpected exit), sandwiched between such standards as "Black Napkins" and "(Don't Eat Yellow) Snow". With a casual attitude boardering on boredom, Zappa incorporates an enormous selection of musical elements with a range including heavy metal sensationalism, progressive jazz, fusion, novelty pop and extended jamming straight out of the Woodstock Nation.
From beginning to end, Zappa was all business. With minimum acknowledgement of his audience, Zappa blew through his set without even pause given for applause. His body remained in syncopated animation as he led his band of top quality professionals through a mosaic of intricate rhythms and effects developed around such titles as "Meek," "Suicide Clump," "Flakes" etc. Musical versatility is obviously the main attraction here and Zappa orchestrates each transition within and around the songs with a deftness that at times left the audience awed. Does it matter that he is no longer doing a burlesque of the shallow obsessions of our society, but, rather, is using a sure-fire way to bring the bucks home to the wife and kids? Apparently not. The band delivered what was expected, everybody had taken their vitamins and the whole program felt into place.
There were moments when none of his burn out poetry was being muttered and only the west side bluesy instrumentation was evident. This was when Zappa seemed as sinister and perverse as he must have with the original Mothers of Invention. The man who has been the model for freaks everywhere lacks the ability or the desire to outrage that he once had. What is left is a funny looking but talented musician who is parodying himself and his audience. It's a good joke, but it is doubtful that people will still be paying money to see Steve Martin wear arrows through his head, 14 years from now.
The reason to see Zappa was shown best in the last jam of the evening. Here Zippa did his routine where he matches a cigarette, puts it between the strings of his guitar and for the time it takes for the butt to burn all the way down, he does an improvised solo that is both energetic and technical.
The creativity that was in that solo is proof of a major musical talent that is stifled by Zappa's inability to change in musical direction resulting in his own frustration. No wonder he is no longer on speaking terms with his audience. For the faithful though, Zappa will still tinker around with all the equipment in his home studio, look really wierd and put on shows with lots of flashing bright co'ors and the volume turned way up.
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