Yåbbä Zåppä Dôô
By Mike McGonigal
huH, July, 1995
This article is about a very decent, upstanding gentleman who contributed to popular culture in more ways than you could count if your name was Univac: Frank Zappa. The late Mr. Zappa single-handedly reintroduced the handlebar mustache to the world of style. He aided Captain Beefheart in creating the visionary masterwork Trout Mask Replica. He foisted several other, less-talented but insanely-diggable entities onto the record buying public through the label he started, Bizarre Records. Notable among these were the GTO's (short for Girls Together Outrageously, made up of LA's smartest groupies), Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and Tim Buckley.
Frank Zappa made it almost acceptable for rockers to compose modern orchestral music, but please don't blame him for that. He hung out with The Monkees. He appears in their mess of a film, Head. He made his own mess of a film, 200 Motels. He made arguably the first, rock-concept album ( Freak Out, by The Mothers of Invention, released 1966), but please don't blame him for that, either. He also introduced fake conceptual themes that seem to continue record to record, forcing stoned teenagers the world over to wonder if each respective record really is phase two of Lumpy Gravy, and what could that possibly mean?
Like George Clinton and Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa loaned very positive connotations to the word "freak." Like Franz Kafka, his name has been turned into an adjective by lazy rock critics – "Primus perform their quirky, humorous, Zappa-esque music at the Cow Palace tonight," etc. He made it perfect acceptable for heterosexual men to wear dresses onstage. If one were to judge a man by his enemies, Zappa did all right: too: a lot of very silly, uptight people, from Lou Reed to Tipper Gore, were not among his fans.
Along with Jonathan Richman, he was one of the only non-Quaalude-inhaling rock musicians in the late-60s/early-70s. And he wanted you to know about it. He put potty humor on the airwaves. Frank Zappa greatly influenced about a zillion people from the Residents, who briefly revived the corpse of rock & roll music, to Vaclav Havel, who staged a coup and attempted to revive the corpse of his country, Czechoslovakia. Zappa an excellent role model, and forever will be – even though a lot of his music is wank-off crudola bullshit.
All of Frank Zappa's records are now being reissued by the reissue-friendly folks at Rykodisc, appearing in versions which Frank spent the last decade of his life remastering or at least approving. All of Frank Zappa's records? That's something like 72 CD's, many of which push 70-to-80 minutes. All them records means, by a conservative estimate, 400 hours of music. (Which, by the way, is only a fraction of the stuff the man recorded or wrote, meaning that "rarity" and "previously-unreleased" records are likely.)
I have always considered myself a digger of, and sometime intrepid explorer of, the crackpot, the sublime, the unnatural, the obscene, the loud, the garish, the fascinating, the transcendent, the trance-inducing, the trashy – you know: groovy rock & roll sounds. But I am not going to listen to 400 separate hours of the most sublime music made by one person: not Albert Ayler, not Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison, not the Minutemen, not Traci Lords' secret bedroom cassette diaries (Well....) What follows is a brief description of the Zappa hours I think are most worthy.
Zappa figures prominently, if briefly, in my own musical fixations. He was a good role model. Zappa provided me, I thought, with total validation for being an ATAAT (A Truly Annoying Artsy Teen) – though he did not keep me from drugs even if he said they were bad. Started like this: Dewey Awad (real name), an extremely burly guy my age who moved in down the street and whose mother was quite pretty, had a tape of this really funny music. I never liked the music part that much (still preferring the Beatles, and just discovering Devo) but the lyrics were great: obscene, way-out, obscure to my seventh grade brain. The record was Joe's Garage, originally released in 1979. The problems I had listening to it 14 years ago are the problems I have with it today: 1) it's largely a comedy record (which means you can't listen to it more than 20 times without becoming physically ill by sheer repetition, even when "Crew Slut" has the line to tickle any seventh grade boy's funnyboner – "The boys in the crew are simply waiting for you").
The other gripe I got with Joe's Garage and Zappa's music of the early-'70s to mid-'80s is 2) THE MUSIC HAS TOO MANY GOD-DAMN NOTES IN IT. This is what fundamentally went wrong with Zappa: he stopped writing songs, and became a composer. Sure, he'd done shit like Lumpy Gravy before, but that seemed like a huge joke, more Dada-sound-collage hippy mind-warp than anything else (very heady stuff in 1968, and almost on par with Throbbing Gristle's experiments a decade later).
Zappa was always a conductor of sorts, but at some point he seemed to fall in love with scales, and the dreaded style of music known as fusion (where people like Donald Byrd and Chuck Mangione and the once-brilliant Herbie Hancock doodle all over each other like a pen full of chickens force fed bad drugs and chocolate laxatives). He was still throwing in some of his wild and wacky humor into the mix, but it somehow became much more banal as Zappa himself became more of a pop star – like the famous one about not eating the yellow snow, because the huskies were there first. Ha ha.
Mid-'70s Zappa just really made you want to have punk rock happen, because punk rock is about breaking down this kind of ego-fed, "musician's musician," soulless, pompous poop. Luckily punk rock did happen, to give us more of the kind of righteous satire-with-kickass music that Zappa had done at the start of his career with the Mothers of Invention.
After getting sick of Joe's Garage and not digging the "Valley Girl" song, I wrote off Mr. Zappa. Until 11th grader Mike MelonHead (not his real name), a kindred altitudinous twerp, pointed me towards the truly great works of Zappa with the Mothers of Invention: the mind-blowing double-album Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We're Only In It For The Money, which made such poignant attacks on the obvious contradictions within the youth counter-culture, the sprawling Uncle Meat, the very greasy Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Burnt Weenie Sandwich, and the odds-&-ends-mostly-recorded live record Weasels Ripped My Flesh. You should also nab Hot Rats and Waka/Jawaka, the two records that bridge the Mothers-style work with the fusion-orchestral stuff. They totally swing, Hot Rats in particular, with guest vocalist Beetheart on ''Willie The Pimp." Great for barbecues.
The music on these records by the Mothers of Invention is subtle, deceitful, brilliant. I was the kinda kid who was gonna DIG songs called "Prelude To The Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask," "Call Any Vegetable," "Flower Punk," "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet," or "Hot Poop," even if they were compositions, not songs. That the music should be white hot great, tape manipulation inventiveness and genrefuck that is fresh 30 years after the expiration date is awe-inspiring. The idea of composition is why Zappa and Beefheart got along at all, presumably: they both had very exact visions in their head of how their music should sound, and tended to be a little heavy-handed when working with bandmates.
The first two Mothers records spend a lot of their time poking fun at "silly" rock subgenres like surf and doo-wop, but for every measure of hatred there is one of reverence. On simple satires like "Go Cry On Someone Else's Shoulder" off Freak Out (the liner notes call the song "...very greasy. You should not listen to it. You should wear it on your hair."). The Mothers have their cake and eat it, too. They get to make fun, have fun, and sound great.
What else does a subversive wanna do? Perhaps make some totally tripped-out, Duck Soup-meets-Tristan-Tzara kinda proto-primitivist trance rock? That's also something the Mothers did on Freak Out when the entire third side (now tracks 13 and 14) consists of ''Help, I'm A Rock" which becomes "It Can't Happen Here" which becomes the aforementioned "Monster Magnet". In 1966, the Velvet Underground released their first album too. Both were on Verve, both records are conceptual opposites, but both delved into structural-musical territory that was so new, it must have been insanely exciting to be a part of it in any way.
The satire is heavy-handed, but so was everything else at the time. My father shipped off for Vietnam two weeks after I was born: my Mom was terrified he'd never come home, etc. etc. You've seen the movies, you have maybe some sense of the violence of the time (which is not very different from the violence of this time, just that people seemed to get all upset by it back then). The satire is heavy-handed and right-on on my favorite Mothers record, We're Only In It For The Money, the one record to really call the Beatles for what they were doing on Sgt. Pepper's: tripping out on drugs and creating a false sense of euphoria when life was really weirder and more difficult than even the worst STP trip could ever be. The Beatles were full of shit, and couldn't think straight! "The Fool On The Hill," my ass, howsabout Zappa's "Absolutely Free": "Discorporate & come with me...Dreaming on cushions of velvet & satin/To music by magic by people who happen/To enter the world of a strange purple Jello/The dreams as they live them are all/mellow yellow." No one else 'cept maybe the Fugs was doing such insightful satire of the hip corporate psychedelia; no one I'm aware of...maybe Laugh-In?
I hate to dis so heavily on Frank's later, easier shit. I even liked some of it at the time. Thing-Fish was a favorite, I saw him on that tour. I even threw a wadded up piece of paper on the stage exhorting Frank to listen to Husker Du's Zen Arcade, this new record that opened up my mind like his earlier ones had. I've always been a proselytizer. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention gave us six years of groovosity. Six year's worth of interesting music! That more than I've gotten out of Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, Paul Westerberg, or many other musical heroes. The fact that Mr. Zappa had such a lengthy, productive career just makes me happy, especially when their continued availability will help to convince other maladjusted freaks that being a total freak isn't just all right, it's the only way to be become a member of the United Mutations today!
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