Theatre: Absolutely Freeeee

By Diane Fisher

The Village Voice, June 1, 1967

A musical by Frank Zappa, with The Mothers of Invention, presented by Herb Cohen at the Garrick Theatre, Direction uncredited.

Theatre, it's not: "Absolutely Free" is a concert pure and simple, but if the Mothers of Invention want to down it as theatre that's okay with me. I'm perfectly happy to hear good music, no matter what it's posing as.

The seven Mothers, if anyone doesn't know it by now, amalgamate "serious" music, jazz, and rock into a sardonic, electronic eclecticism. Mother-in-charge Frank Zappa, the composer-arranger, plays guitar and sings (with Ray Collins and Jim Black). There is a one-man wind and brass section—Bunk Gardner on bassoon, piccolo, flute, clarinet, and soprano, tenor, and alto saxes. And a vast rhythm section—Black, Billy Mundi, and sometimes Don Preston, percussion; Preston, piano, organ, and related and unrelated instruments; Roy Estrada, bass; and singer Ray Collins on occasional tambourine. Everything that possibly can be electrified is, including the wind-brass section. It works, and particular well on jazz.

Zappa and other of the Mothers have a jazz background, and jazz doesn't sell too well these days, but I wish they would sneak in an all-jazz evening now and then. I suspect the extent of their electric instrumentation is unprecedented. It's new, and it's good.

Zappa looks nasty, and when he comes on stage you brace yourself for a hostile assault; the group follows, you prepare your ears for deafening hate bleeps. They don't come. Zappa is relaxed, gentle, his rage is pressed into a fine-tuned irony. (Try to ignore it if he asks you if the music's too loud, then puts the voice mike, during an electric soprano sax solo, to the big vertical speaker. I've been at concerts that literally left my ears ringing for two days. This wasn't one of them.) The sound is different from anything else, energetic, often loving.

The Mothers' image is deceiving. Their scandalously unrespectable appearance must be pretty forbidding for post-puberty generations, yet in age and frame of reference the Mothers are at least a generation older than the hippies who compose most of their following. A few of their targets date back to the '40s (Avalon Ballroom-style emceeing), some to the '50s (rock'n'roll of that era).

Their attitude hasn't much to do with age. It might be called surrealistic enlightened. Subject matter ranges from plastic people ("you think we're talking 'bout someone else") to the President ("he's been sick") to Donovan (some wicked epatering that should outrage the coterie).

But most of what can be said about the lyrics can be ascertained only from their new record. The "Absolutely Free" album was distributed absolutely free to critics, but presumably it won't be any more free in stores than tickets to the show—$3—are at the box office. At any rate, the unbalanced sound system on stage renders the lyrics unintelligible. Paradoxically, however, although this second record is better than the Mothers' "Freak Out" album, neither hints at how good the group is in person. One hears everything all at once on the records and somehow the sum doesn't amount to much.

In person, one can't assimilate all the different musical and verbal things going on, and more imaginative, varied light-works would reinforce this. I have a theory that mixed-media events work only if so many absorbing things are happening simultaneously that one is missing something exciting all the time, and this seems to apply to the Mothers in person. And from this angle, maybe "Absolutely Freeeee" is theatre after all.