Plastic Man

By Andy Doherty

Crawdaddy, June 1978

Frank Zappa
Discreet (2D 2290)

Recorded live late in 1976, Zappa in New York sounds as much like formula work as anything this character has ever foisted upon his public. Anyone at all familiar with Zappa's recent work could have guessed how many minutes this album would devote to audience-appeasing raunch, or what proportion of the concert would be extended in more cerebral endeavors. Even the infamous Zappa sneers could have been pencilled in beforehand.

At its most pedestrian, this album offers "Titties and Beer," yet another Zappa attempt to secure the affections of the sophomores in the audience by reviving the crudest elements of vaudeville. The song centers on a locker-room dialogue between Zappa and the Devil (played by drummer Terry Bozzio), who has eaten Frank's girl and beer. Sound familiar? It should – the routine aims for the same sleazy places Flo and Eddie (to cite the obvious example) explored years ago. For graphic effect, urging the Devil to hold his "pickle" just can't match spewing all over a young girl's "vital parts." Being predictable is bad enough; "Titties and Beer" is that and mild, a far greater sin.

"The Illinois Enema Bandit" is a considerable improvement, owing in large part to a successful integration of yuks and riffs. There are a number of structural twists to the piece, as well as a few engaging solos hung upon it. Best of all, the trial of the fetishist cleverly borrows a Coasters bit. Still, the song was inevitable; eventually Zappa had to write a song about enemas, there only being a finite number of ways to be gross and disgusting.

Instrumental passages, while hardly groundbreaking, present the brightest moments on Zappa in New York. The band is bolstered on "Sofa" by a five-piece horn section featuring the Brecker Bros. and Ronnie Cuber. Cosmetic overdubbing can't clean up the sloppiness of "The Purple Lagoon" – the section was under-rehearsed for Zappa's complicated charts – but "Black Page #2" outlines the possibilities of the ensemble delightfully, as does the arbitrarily named wordless "I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth."

In the end, however, I get the unsettling sensation of having been there before. Zappa in New York is this year's model of an old show: Buy your ticket and you're guaranteed lots of sex jokes frothed by 20 minutes of guitar. The problem with old shows, particularly popular old shows, is that they begin to telegraph their punch lines long before the remainder of the routines are played out. "Titties and Beer" is extreme, but the problem pops up elsewhere. After "Sofa" breaks off in the midst of free-flung cacophony, Zappa steps forward to scoff at his audience and do what you'd expect: hit them with another bit of bonging ("Manx Needs Women") that his average concert-goer could never hope to comprehend. Zappa became famous/infamous for his outlandishness and unpredictablility, but the latter quality is hiding on this album, and the former is strained. Who says it can't happen here?