A Typical Zappa Trick

By John Yurko

The Observer, November 18, 1969

Dear Frank,

How are the kids? How’s the wife? Frank, how old are you? Are you over the hill yet, Zappa? And why did you break up the Mothers, Frank, even if you do have enough material for 12 albums on tape?

I’m sitting here with the phones on, Frank, and I’m listening to your new album Hot Rats, and that’s what’s bringing up all the questions about your personal life. Frank, it’s fanatastic. But Frank, it’s jazz. That’s right...jazz. Frank, they even wrote you up in last week’s Downbeat, for God’s sake, not to mention that article in Time. All of us who’ve been with you since the beginning are beginning to wonder, Zappa.

Everybody and his mother (yeah, I know) is starting to like you and your music. Nobody is pounding on the walls anymore when I put you on and let it rip. It’s not like the old days, Frank, not at all. I remember when I had first heard Freak-out way back there in high school and those of us in-the-know would all walk around calling each other “Suzy” and start mumbling about Kansas in class. Or even, on We’re Only in it for the Money, I recall with pride that I followed your directions on the cover and read Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”, and then, and only then, did I play The Chromeplate Megaphone of Destiny, and yes, I got thoroughly fresked. Nobody else I know did that, Frank, and so I feel I have the right for some frank (again, yes, I know) answers about this Hot Rats thing, Zappa. It is with some stature that I claim to understand Rubin and the Jets. With its kicks in the ass (if Time can do it, why can’t it?) for all the Moody Blues fans.

Frank, why have you dumped words in favor of music? I ask, not as a Brogan-type teeny-bop, but as one of the few people who applauded you and the boys at Atlantic City, when you only played instrumentally, and actually like it as music, not just because I mouthed the funny lyrics in my brain as you played the music. Zappa, you’re on to something.

The whole idea about jazz from the beginning has been to pursue the ideal of creating an intense personal experience every time you play, so intense and so personal it cannot be repeated. That’s why there have been so many live jazz albums. The jazz man, see, when I think of a jazz man, any way, is Miles Davis outdoors on a summer night, a beautiful night, and there are like three thousand people spread out on blankets all around the bandstand. Then, as you zoom in, a really tight close-up of Davis, the music really comes up, you’re in the middle of Miles’ solo, and there are just tons of sweat pouring out of his hair, and he is blowing sooooohard! And his eyes are squinting tight, they’re locked shut, because there’s thing thing inside him and if he opens his eyes, he lets it get away.

You’re clinical, Frank, you want to cut out the very essence of what makes people make noise, pick that essence up in your sterilized hands, and then hold it up so that finally, the people get to see what you’re trying to do. The ultimate in head music. You want us to take the music out of our souls, run it through our minds, and understand it. All Miles wants is for us to experience it. If you weren’t a freak, you‘d be a brain surgeon, Frank.

After all that, I finally get to the album at hand. Hot Rats. Typical Zappa title. Typical Zappa cover. Is that one of Warhol’s broads on the cover, Frank? I hope not. You stay away from him, or you’ll get hurt and end up making T.V. commercials.

But not typical Zappa music inside. It’s jazz, Frank, and you even have Jean Luc Ponty on one cut. It’s jazz like I never heard before. The pieces are like all music, Frank, except for one vocal by Captain Beefheart, but it’s not really a vocal, like a Judy Collins (God help us) vocal, since his voice is so strange that the effect is that of another fantastic instrument solo. The closest thing I can think of is Janis. Nobody really cares about the words, just the way she pulls them out of herself and twirls them around for awhile and then zings them right into his entire body.

So the whole album is music, Frank, jazz. And it’s only you and Ian Underwood who are making most of the music, except for sidemen and Sugar Cane Harris on electric violin; who I’ll get to in a little while. A typical Zappa trick. You 16-tracked it. You broke the unwritten rule: “All jazz that is recorded must be like a live performance in the studio.” I mean, I’m sitting here listening to the drum solo in “The Gumbo Variations” and, Christ, nobody, nobody can play the high-hat, the floor toms, the snare, the toms on the bass, and two basses at the same time.

What I want to know is, Frank, where did you find Sugar Cane Harris? He is the best electric violinist I have ever heard. (Hmmm. That phrase seems to be creeping up a lot in this letter. Could that mean something?) His solo in “The Gumbo Variations,” the best piece on the album, is what every guitar player in the country tired of doing Muddy Waters-riff-with-his-fuzz-tone-on wants to do. The tonal expression that is both grating and lyrical at the same time, and the way he bends and sustains, it is perhaps the first instance on record that points the way to what electronic rock is all about. The energy waves sent up by Sugar Cane are almost pure, in that he is trying to dispense with the instrument and just play the amp. He has succeeded in tying himself, merging himself into the energy he creates. The music doesn’t simply go through the pick-up, down the wire into the amp way down there, and come out.

I like Hot Rats, Frank. I like it as music, the best music I’ve heard all year. Your production is, as always, fantastic, and the stereo separation is the best on record. I would tell all my friends to buy it, Frank, but I don’t have any friends. Not even you. You’re too weird.

A fan,
John Yurko

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net