Monday, February 09, 2015

Frank Zappa, cont'd

(Requested by reader D.M.)

A couple years ago, Scott Woods over at (and, and elsewhere) started a series on Frank Zappa and at one point invited me to contribute. I suspect it's because he noticed I had a handful or more of posts on Zappa. Most of them came from the earliest days and another incarnation of this blog, when I was more or less attempting to orient and/or introduce myself in terms of taste via landmark albums. Zappa came up early because I encountered him early, as a 15-year-old in 1970, and he made quite an impact. The piece I came up with for Scott was a list of my favorites, all from the period 1966 to 1970, with some explanation. Some of these songs and albums I have returned to regularly all my life now, such as Uncle Meat. I also talked about my permanent point of departure in the early '70s, with the one-two(-three) combination of Fillmore East - June 1971 and 200 Motels (album and movie).

For this piece I decided to look on the other side of all that. The way I picked the four albums I landed on was highly scientific use of Google search engine ("best frank zappa albums"), going through the first page of results (one was a forum with many, many lists) and taking a raw tally by title. The vast majority—not surprisingly, I know, but still—came from the 1966-1970 period I already touched on. There was a fair amount of agreement on the full Joe's Garage (1979) but after that it was murky. Very little from the '80s and '90s seemed to have any kind of consensus of regard, if any regard at all. Out of the bulge of tepid support from the '70s I settled on Over-Nite Sensation (1973, for the good associations I had with "Montana"), Apostrophe (') (1974, though it contains the execrable "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow"), and Roxy & Elsewhere (1974, because I desperately hoped there might at least be some great live performances). I came close to looking into Waka/Jawaka (1972), Bongo Fury (1975, a collaboration with Captain Beefheart), and a few others, but decided to wait for further inspiration.

Alas, that inspiration was not coming. While I'm happy to report there is good music on all of these albums, I'm sorry to say that picking it out is like going after the kernels of corn in you-know-what, if I may resort to the Frank Zappa worldview—Zappa the droning, muttering Svengali intruding upon all he surveys with unrelenting contempt. I actually share that contempt many times. I'm sympathetic with his point of view. But it makes things so rancid. At the very least he's forever the smartest, hippest, sexiest guy in the room and his sneer is there to prove it. Of course he appealed to an adolescent—the 14- to 17-year-old is his natural audience. And make that boys, because his outdated attitudes about women and sexuality are often merely prurient and embarrassing to hear now. There's a scene at a wet T-shirt contest on Joe's Garage, for example, with a stupid-sounding woman (played by Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons) who will "do anything for $50." "Dinah-Moe Humm," on Over-Nite Sensation, describes a degenerate scene involving two sisters and a wager on orgasm (the production reminds me in a few spots of Prince, which almost salvages it). These fits of pique are distracting, and hard to ignore. They are pushed up high in the production.

The limits of Frank Zappa's project thus imposed by his own alienation are found perhaps most poignantly in a concert scene on Roxy & Elsewhere, toward the end of the 16-minute "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)." After a lot of predictable diddling around— Zappa's familiar stitchwork mode we know from "King Kong," "The Little House I Used to Live In," and others, with nice jazz passages, intriguing melodic orchestrated pieces, some awkward business here with George Duke scatting, and unfortunate dumbass standup shtick including something about a stripper—the time finally arrives for a manufactured (yet convincing) rave-up finish and Zappa wants the audience on its feet because he's sure they'll want to dance. But not sure enough to just let the music work the magic and force the issue. In fact, it's the second painful time on the long track he has sought audience participation, debasing himself again by asking them at this point to come to their feet. The seething, sullen resentment that possesses him asking even for that much from others is palpable. It doesn't sound like he's having fun.

Life is too short to attempt getting down to the Freudian bottom of all the Phi Zappa Krappa sprinkled throughout his work. But as I have long feared, and expected, the proportions of the good stuff to the bad were still going in the wrong direction in the four albums I focused on, compared with the '60s material. They are much more often painful than funny, and unfortunately it got to be a bit of a chore to listen to them. But I persevered awhile. I started out with hope.

Herewith assembled some of the kernels recovered:

Joe's Garage is indeed probably the best of the bunch, but only offers more of same, honed nicely—the guitar playing, the songwriting, whatever. There's still no escape from the ham-handed "social commentary" (aka talking dirty), and it doesn't work to attempt to dignify these flights as narrative aspects of a rock opera. Examples: "Catholic Girls," "Crew Slut," "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt," "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" ... wait, that's a whole lot of the first disc. Yeah, it's like that. "Sy Borg" is about a submissive robot that gives blowjobs. The second disc (with the second half of "Act II" as well as "Act III") is better but not without the meandering distractions. It takes awhile to get to it, but "Watermelon in Easter Hay," the second-last track, might be my one favorite on all these albums, a pensive, slow-burning guitar showcase.

—I hoped for great live performance on Roxy & Elsewhere, and it's there, but not to the level of passages on Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich or even close. Still, it's likely the one of these four albums I would recommend (if you're going to pay attention to one, and only one). Inspirational moment: "Son of Orange County," whose melody has been well worked previously by Zappa (notably on Lumpy Gravy and later on "Oh No / The Orange County Lumber Truck," from Weasels Ripped My Flesh). Some nice guitar play too.

—There's something mellow and likable about the approach on Over-Nite Sensation (and now I know where long-running yeoman blog Camarillo Brillo gets its name). The songwriting is more conventional but that's a good thing at least as often as bad. Some well executed, if tentative, toiling in the funk and soul vineyards. Jean-Luc Ponty's violin may never have sounded better than on "Fifty-Fifty." "Montana" typifies most of the proceedings here with its easygoing way, a nice guitar solo, and an absurdist lyric that is annoying because so meaningless (the singer wants to move to Montana to "grow" dental floss and become rich).

—Zappa's most successful album commercially, Apostrophe (') is also generally more mellow in approach. But ultimately it may be as problematic as the punctuation mark for which it is named (for no apparent reason) because of the continuing yellow snow theme in a handful of songs. The title track is a meandering instrumental jam, which does nothing to explain the title.

—One of the things I miss most from the '60s material is the range of vocalists, some very good, such as Ray Collins. On these albums the majority seem to go to Zappa's reedy sneering (or sarcastic talking). One of the few that affords us a break, "Village of the Sun" (Roxy & Elsewhere), is refreshing just for that, and reminds me a little of Was (Not Was). Not sure who is singing, though. Jeff Simmons? Napoleon Murphy Brock? Album credits are unclear (why?). Another is on Over-Nite Sensation, with Ricky Lancelotti and "Fifty-Fifty." Probably more to do with similarities in the production styles of Zappa and the Was brothers.

—"Echidna's Arf (of You)" (Roxy & Elsewhere) has some nice examples of Zappa's orchestral chamber-rock, though the track is a bit busy in a prog direction. Also some of that toward the end of "Fifty-Fifty" (Over-Nite Sensation). In general, I think there's way too little of Zappa's great "the present-day composer refuses to die" spirit on all four of these albums.

—That said, there are many good guitar solos embedded in songs that may or may not be otherwise noxious, such as "Keep It Greasey" (Joe's Garage), "Dirty Love," "Zomby Woof" (Over-Nite Sensation), "Cosmik Debris" (Apostrophe [']), "Penguin in Bondage," and "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" (Roxy & Elsewhere).

Next stop for Frank Zappa and me: I hear rumblings there is material worth tracking down in the You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore series. But honestly, I'm not sure I'm up to finding out.

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