Joe’s Corsage – Frank Zappa
Vaulternative Records 20041
A friend of mine really hates Frank Zappa, mainly ‘cause Zappa was such a smart-ass. What is charming to many (myself included), my friend found unrelentlessly obnoxious. And I guess he has a point, but Zappa’s cynicism remains very different from most strains currently popular. Like every artist, Zappa’s core can be traced to his first albums. In his case, that brings us to the loser laments of 1966’s Freak Out! and the loving doo-wop tribute/parodies of 1968’s Cruisin’ with Reuben and the Jets. The first release in the Zappa Family Trust’s brand new Vaulternative series, Joe’s Corsage, takes a further step back.
Though undeniably skimpy (less then a half-hour of music, bolstered by a few fascinating interviews with Zappa), the tantalizing glimpse that Joe’s Corsage offers on the early Mothers of Invention is not only revealing, but musically rewarding on its own. Two segments of studio demos sandwich three live cuts (with no apparent audience). Much of the material, such as ‘Anyway The Wind Blows,’ ‘I Ain’t Got No Heart,’ and ‘How Could I Be Such A Fool?’ would be re-recorded for Freak Out. ‘I’m So Happy I Could Cry,’ an early version of ‘Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,’ inadvertently initiates the creative-process-in-action of Project/Object.
The lo-fi demo makes the Mothers sound even more like the bar bands they often seemed to be aping. But, given this live excerpt, featuring straight-forward covers of Marvin Gaye’s "Hitch Hike" and the traditional "Handsome Cabin Boy," plus Zappa’s encyclopedic knowledge of R & B revealed in the interviews, songs like "I Ain’t Got No Heart" and "Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder" don’t seem so tongue-in-cheek. The Mothers weren’t making fun of R & B at all. By injecting a sense of perpetual dejection and, well, adult themes, into the jangling rhythm grinds, they were introducing (or attempting to, anyway) a rich self-awareness to the genre. The same way that Bob Dylan made polemic folk music three- (and, eventually, fourth-) dimensional, Zappa strove to do the same to R & B.
There’s a reason that Zappa’s music has appealed to generations of nerdy high school kids, and it can be found in base form on Joe’s Corsage: it’s music that literally addresses the issues of rejection and acceptance of teenagers (mostly guys). But it doesn’t do it in anger. It does so in confidence. It’s patently obvious that Zappa (or Ray Collins or whoever is singing) is delivering his lines with a big ol’ grin. Listening to Frank Zappa, especially ‘How Could I Be Such A Fool?’ and his other music addressed directly at teens, can be as much a self-affirmation than anything else — an entrance into a secret club of smirkers and smart-aleckitude.
The music on Joe’s Corsage is cynical, sure, but it is the kind of cynicism that at least suggests a better world. Zappa’s yet-unexplored experimentalism makes its first appearance in the breathless melody of ‘I’m So Happy I Could Cry,’ which – in its future incarnation – would become a grounding motif of both Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money. But a young man’s first forays into a larger world can necessarily only exist within a rarified space. It’s fleeting. People grow up. Either you embrace the weird, or you don’t, but – at a certain point – a choice has to be made. And once the choice is made, you can’t really and fully go back, musically or emotionally or any other way. But you can sure dig it when it gets remastered and issued nearly 40 years later.