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Published: 1999/04/15
by Richard Gehr

Frank Zappa: Too Much or Not Enough?

[Editor’s Note: It is our opinion that Richard Gehr is doing more for groove music on a national scale than anyone else out there. His writings in any number of glossy magazines and the Village Voice have cast a positive light on this music. He also is executive producing a jam band/groove/Gobi disc (with some notable bands) which we can expect to see later this year. All that and he wrote the Phish Book too. We’ll interview him about all of this in an issue to come. This time out, we are honored to present the following piece on Frank Zappa. Enjoy!]

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By the time of his death from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, Frank Zappa’s taste for life on the road had all but vanished. So we can only imagine the resistance he must have felt for what his family characterized as his “final tour” a couple of weeks prior to what would have been his fifty-third birthday. Yes, Zappa’s gone, and the world is a less interesting place for it. But why does it so often feel as though we live in a world that might well have been cooked up in the master entertainer’s Utility Muffin Research Kitchen?

Take this whole Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky mishegas. It’s hard not to imagine Zappa reveling in the hypocritical free-for-all surrounding the intimately documented intergenerational romance between the ruddy-faced President of the United States and his plump twentysomething intern. One envisions the composer whipping out a song cycle or two, perhaps even an opera, in the couple’s honor.

But of course he already did, sort of. “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” which appeared more than thirty years ago on the Mothers of Invention’s second album, Absolutely Free — describes “a world of secret hungers / Perverting the men who make our laws.” Zappa’s operetta concerns one City Hall Fred, a bureaucratic bore harboring presidential fantasies about a thirteen-year-old daughter (“I’d make her do a nasty on the White House lawn”). It’s not the fabled “windowless hallway” of Monicagate fame, but it contains all the libidinous urgency and subsequent sanctimonious moralizing endured by America’s citizenry over the past two years.

“Brown Shoes,” along with the rest of Absolutely Free, was a masterpiece of musically complex, dada-inspired, and rock-ignited social commentary. In it’s seven and a half minutes, Zappa paraded his Mothers through greasy garage rock, clanging electronics, maudlin lounge music, blistering acid-rock guitar, futurist noise collage, Lenny Bruce shtick, free jazz, Krzysztof Penderecki string clusters in order to parody and deflate the myth of white, middle-class masculinity.

Zappa continued to do pretty much the same thing over the course of more than sixty albums, i.e., use his talents as composer, guitarist, entertainer, band leader, and social commentator to skew the status quo, illuminate hypocrisy, and slaughter sacred cows while showing audiences a good time. Sometimes, though, it seemed as though the only sacred cow above the knife was Zappa himself, who tended to view the world through the sharp-edged lens of “Them or Us” (the title of an instrumental composition, an album, a book, and a proposed movie), forever pitting the know-it-alls against the nincompoops.

Zappa is rarely an acquired taste. To love his music is easy; to miss the point entirely even easier. Zappa abhorred criticism — as anyone with the self-confidence and artistic hubris to regard their entire output a single integrated gestalt would. For Zappa, his life and work were a “conceptual continuity” he referred to as the project/object. “Is there a single idea behind your work?” he was once asked. “That’s simple,” he replied. “It’s that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. Never has, never will.”

In the end, the different hats he wore all blended into a single slippery whole, presently copyrighted down to his trademarked mustache and chin hair. For a composer so vehemently opposed to commercialization, Zappa’s image is now preserved in brand-name aspic by the strenuously protective Zappa Family Trust. But at least we won’t have to worry about him appearing in Apple ads anytime soon.

FZ THE COMPOSER

As a future composer, the teenaged Frank Zappa was inspired by the music of Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinsky no less than by the visual delights of black notes on white score paper. And a quick skim through the 182 names of people who “contributed materially in many ways to make our music what it is” on the cover of the Mothers’ first album, Freak Out! (1966), will find such other twentieth-century stalwarts as Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono in addition to blues men Lightnin’ Williams and Sunny Boy Williamson, folkies Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and jazzbos Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor (“Please do not hold it against them”). But an often forgotten antecedent to Zappa’s maximalist approach to music was Spike Jones, who, with his group the City Slickers, was as twisted in his own way as Zappa and the Mothers ever were. During the 1940s Jones mauled both the classics as well as the popular music of his era, poked fun at foreigners, and used such unlikely noises as tuned gunshots and harmonized belches to create unusual pop textures — just as Zappa would more than twenty years later.

“Frank was a dada composer in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp,” says composer Joel Thome, who conducted the 1991 concerts of Zappa’s music released as Zappa’s Universe (1993). “He used all available materials, like the bicycle he played on Steve Allen’s television show. Did he even know that one of Duchamp’s most famous pieces was a bicycle wheel?” The original Mothers of Invention worked firmly in the dada tradition of multimedia theater. Marines were invited onstage to tear apart dolls during the band’s infamous 1967 run at the Garrett Theater in New York City, and the album Ahead of Their Time (1993) documents the others performing a strange piece of musical theater entitled “Progress?” in England with members of the BBC symphony orchestra in 1968. In this hilariously awful piece of performance art, laughing band members spout diatribes about “overthrowing the diatonic system” in-between musical bits referencing marches, waltzes, and a tarantella.

Zappa’s compositional modes alternately displayed the influences of Schoenberg and Anton Webern’s twelve-tone serial music, Varese’s experiments with percussion and timbre, and the sweeping melodies of Aaron Copeland, while always displaying nonetheless his own unmistakable voice and style. “Zappa included serial techniques in pieces like ‘Brown Shoes,’” says Thome, who orchestrated the piece for an orchestra and live rock musicians. “He told me he wanted everybody to hear the twelve-tone rows, so I arranged it in a pointillist way, using timbre to bring out the pitch series.” As a rocker, you could argue that Zappa was most interested in percussion. As a composer, however, he was constantly searching for new sound combinations. “Girl in the Magnesium Dress,” for example, reflects the texture and timbre of Pierre Boulez’s composition Eclats in its cymbalum, bells, and chimes.

While Zappa took pride in the perceived ugliness of his writing, much of it was either simply beautiful, or consisted of beautiful music played in a nonpretty manner. “Duke of Prunes,” “Holiday in Berlin,” “Toad of the Short Forest,” “Oh No,” “Peaches en Regalia,” “Strictly Genteel,” and “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution” are all exquisite melodies that sound as fresh today as when they were first recorded. Yet Zappa also wrote reams of compositions that resemble little more than soundtrack cues. You can hear his guitar lines on The London Symphony Orchestra’s (1983/1987) “Bob in Dacron,” but this and other sociologically oriented “dance” pieces sound stream-of-consciousy, as though they’d been scribbled during odd moments on the road in reaction to Zappa’s other functions as band leader, entertainer, or rock-star guitarist.

Zappa’s longtime dissatisfaction with the ability of musicians to realize his scores is well known. His discovery of the Synclavier in the early eighties at the time seemed an almost too-perfect solution to the problems of human fallibility, union regulations, and the expensive nature of rehearsal time. As Joel Thome recalls, “One night Frank called me and said, ‘I’m not going to write any more music for living musicians.’ I said, ‘Of course you will.’ And of course he did.” Much of the Synclavier music Zappa released on Jazz From Hell (1983) sounds frantic and anxious, like an overcaffeinated and digitized version of Conlon Nancarrow’s piano rolls.

Zappa’s career as a “serious” or “classical” composer extends from 1967’s Lumpy Gravy to the music for Civilization Phaze III (1994) he composed in the years preceding his death. Tellingly, both works contain some amazing music and a lot of only intermittently amusing talk about pigs and ponies. If 1968’s Lumpy Gravy displays Zappa the composer at nearly his most accessible (with multiple versions of “Oh No”), the pieces “N-Lite” and “Beat the Reaper” are its polar opposites. The title of the latter Civilization composition describes the former: “N-Lite” is a nucleic solar cloud of a work that sounds as though the composer were desperately cramming every idea he had into its eighteen timeless minutes. “N-Lite” is Zappa’s masterpiece, a dark star of a goodbye note that resonates today and forever.

Not only could Zappa do it all, he was interested in it all — but always from an outsider’s perspective. His rock was outsider rock, his jazz outsider jazz. “Our initial appeal is to the outcasts,” he once said, “the weirdoes.” Of course this was long before outsiderism had been thoroughly institutionalized by “alternative” rock, and before Zappa fans came to resemble any other drunken louts partying down at the local arena.

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