A few weeks ago I was listening to a CD copy of Frank Zappas 2/15/78 performance in Berlin. There are a few recordings which I revere enough to feel a bit uncomfortable listening to them. This is one of them. It was good to revisit it again, though, in a new format.
One of the first songs in this show is The Torture Never Stops. It contains a guitar solo which Zappa would release a year later on Sheik Yerbouti under the title Rat Tomago. By this time, he had performed this arrangement of this song in every show for a year and a half.
Not many bands we regularly discuss on this site have an improvisational vehicle like this song. Perhaps a fitting label would be a bleak jam. The most similar song from another group which comes to mind is Led Zeppelins No Quarter. There are parallels between these two songs. Performances of both songs have included free form keyboard interludes, tempo shifts and classical references. On the other hand, I dont think Robert Plant ever sang No Quarters lyrics to the tune of the I Love Lucy theme, as Ike Willis did with Torture in 88.
Both songs, though, end up with a similar section: a slow, one-chord, minor-key, 4/4 guitar solo. No Quarter has hit some peaks check the unfairly-maligned Song Remains The Same soundtrack. Rat Tomago, though, is a peak high enough to have a fair amount to do with why I write this column.
In a Q & A about his writing that he did once, Bruce Springsteen talked about the line which makes a song good enough to put on an album. One of Rat Tomagos lines comes right at the beginning of the solo as Zappa released it. Its a three-note motive (F#-A-C in the original performance; the album has it sped up a half step). For me, in that motive, as Zappa inflected it, there is an ironic hint of happiness which yields to a devastating bitterness. It isnt a motive present in the dozens of the previous performances of the song Ive heard on unofficial recordings.
This motive is an example of a moment which signals a good night. In a book I own titled Forces In Motion by Graham Lock, Anthony Braxton lambastes the concept of the good night. Zappa may have agreed with Braxtons point that strong improvisation is the result of a solid conceptual foundation, not luck. Some improvisers have little noticeable change from night to night. Others, though, like Zappa or Garcia or Sonny Rollins, hit things on certain nights which neither they nor any other musician could reproduce.
Zappa recorded practically every show. He also edited his live statements, which a fair amount of bands discussed often on this site have done once or twice (the Deads Infrared Roses, Phishs Montana or Siket Disc), but perhaps not often enough. On the original 2/15/78 recording, Zappa played sixteen relatively unmemorable bars before he hit the motive which starts Rat Tomago. This was one instance of him finding the essence of a statement embedded in a larger, less focused statement.
Also unlike most other bands featured here regularly, there was a hierarchy to Zappas improvisations. His accompanists had to be creative enough to interest him over the long term, while being subservient enough to work within his limits. Terry Bozzio and Patrick OHearn, Zappas rhythm section at this time, did so. OHearn is quiet, by his standards, on this piece, but Bozzios fills and cymbal smashing drive Zappa to the second line around three minutes into the solo, a series of repeated Ds surrounded by rapid high register lines, each more furied than the last.
Many other Tortures before and after this one, evoked different moods. Some were calm, others bluesy and some indifferent. Few others were peaks. This one was. I filed away the 2/15/78 discs and returned to the rest of the music competing for my attention with more energy for the task.