Zappa: Still Crude After All These Years
By Robert Legault
HE'S A MODEL citizen. He's a happily married man with four lovely children who neither drinks nor takes drugs (though he does smoke a lot of cigarettes). He loves his work – it's what he spends all his waking hours involved with. His work is music – writing, playing, and recording it. Music is his whole life.
Yes, Frank Zappa is a regular guy and a good musician. So what's that he's doing up there on the stage at the Arena, sniffing some stranger's dirty underwear? Why does this reputed musical genius sing songs about dog peepee ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow") or that equate castration and homosexuality in an absurdly adolescent way ("Bobby Brown")? There are a lot of mature, intelligent, even intellectual sorts of people who appreciate Zappa's music, its orchestral complexities, his stinging rapid-fire guitar excursions – but then what about the part where he chants, "Ram it, ram it, ram it up your poop chute"? What's this guy driving at, anyway?
That last question is one that people asked when Zappa's first album, Freak Out! slithered out from beneath a heap of worn-out plastic go-go boots somewhere in LA in 1966, and he's kept them guessing ever since, through over 30 albums (not to mention numerous uncatalogued bootleg recordings) and two feature-length films: 200 Motels and the recent Baby Snakes, which blends live concert footage filmed at a Halloween show with the clay-figure animations of artist Bruce Benson [Bickford]. Zappa's career has been long and complex enough to spawn biographies in English, Dutch and French, but it can be summed up very simply: the man has just kept churning out his own personal brand of words and music that often relies for inspiration as much on the ads in the back of Hustler magazine as it does on the 20th century avant-garde and serialist composers and doo-wop R&B of the 1950s. His output has been prodigious, far exceeding anyone else in rock music; it's said that he has enough material "in the can" (recorded but unreleased) to put out an album once a year for the rest of his life.
IT WASN'T UNTIL 1979, though, that Zappa's career took a big upswing. He'd been pretty much holding steady for years with a small but loyal cult following buying his albums, but with the release of Sheik Yerbouti he had what every rock musician dreams of, secretly or not – a hit single, "Dancing Fool." Commercial potential, airplay, marketable product – all that stuff he'd joked about for years. so long that it was just a reflex – was finally his. This was also at a time when, after years of tiresome and costly litigation with former record labels and management that still wasn't entirely over with, he had finally set up his own independent record company. Now at last he had creative control. No more endless wrangling with some square executive over the use of the word "fuck" in a song. In its exultant sophomoric vulgarity, Sheik Yerbouti was a celebration of Zappa's hard-won freedom from corporate censorship.
With hordes of new fans, many of them relatively or totally unfamiliar with his early hippie-relic works, Zappa had to come to terms with the fact that a different sort of person was buying his records.
There's "a popular presumption," he stated at the time. "They figure that once you start in the music business whoever likes you once is going to be your love slave for the rest of your career. And it don't work that way. I mean, I've been doing this for about 15 years, and most of the people who were the original consumers for the Freak Out! album don't even go to our concerts anymore. They're all working their day jobs and worrying about the important things in life, you know. And our audience seems to get younger every year – we pick up more and more young people."
It's those younger fans that Zappa has concentrated on lately – they're the ones who love it most when he rhymes "come" and "scum." He has made some effort to please his older, more conservative fans by putting out a series of strictly instrumental albums, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More, and Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, available by mail order only (PO Box 5510, Terre Haute, IN 47805).
Zappa's recent Arena concert set a standard of performance that would be the envy of most rock groups today. The sound was excellent, the performances tightly organized, and there was a little of each sort of music that Zappa is known for. From You Are What You Is, his latest LP, came the strange saga of "Charlie's Enormous Mouth" and the catchy bubblegum-reggae of "Goblin Girl." Between vocal numbers, Zappa became a frenetic orchestra conductor, arms and legs flailing, as he directed the band in long, complex instrumental passages. These consisted mostly of rhythm vamps behind difficult melody lines flowing from keyboardist Tommy Mars, plump, shirtless, and perspiring; and percussionist Ed Mann, looking pretty ordinary except for the bra tied around his head like a bonnet, points up. Mann played mostly vibraphone, but at strategic moments he'd bang together two huge orchestra cymbals.
There were moments of humor: an anti-drug song "Cocaine Decisions," featured a projected cartoon of a demon sucking up mountains of nose candy; and panties and bras kept flying up from the front rows, by request, for Mann's underwear collection. The next to last song was "Bobby Brown." The crowd loved it, but Zappa suddenly seemed bored with it all. Was it just weariness from the road? Or, just for a moment, did he have some vague insight into the sterility and lack of passion of a lot of his recent material?
But it was only momentary. Out came his guitar again for a long spooky solo on "The Torture Never Stops." And then, with a kindly reminder to drive home carefully, another evening in another tour was over, and he went back to his hotel room to compose more music.
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