Posted: August 29th, 2008
The late Frank Zappa was a rock star whose fame will rise in this new century only when listeners start forgetting that he wrote lyrics. I’ve always suspected he only wrote provocative words for his songs so that people would listen. If he had made his strange brand of avant-guard classical-pop-jazz-rock without populating it with scatological imagery and absurdity, we might not have ever heard of this crazy genius. So his ploy worked. At his worst, Zappa was like a flasher in the park trying to shock all the old ladies. But sometimes he got it right, held his lantern through the bright of day and made some great rock and roll.
It’s hard to pin Zappa down. Early on, with his band, the Mothers of Invention, he specialized in Captain Beefheart-inspired wackiness and (God forbid!) made fun of the Beatles. Later he put out a impenetrable concept album like Uncle Meat, absurdist literature for the stoner set. He gave former Turtles stars Flo and Eddie the opportunity to exhibit all the depravity they had never had a chance to indulge as pop stars. There is the vast body of social commentary that exposed the various hypocrisies of the times, songs like “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” and “Dancing Fool.” He gave us crude sex jokes: on the Joe’s Garage 3-LP album we get “Why Does it Hurt When I Pee?”; “Wet T-Shirt Contest,” about a girl finding “home, on the bus” with his roadies; and a robot singing “fuck me, you miserable son of a bitch”–in German, no less. The highlight of the Baby Snakes album is “Titties and Beer,” an epic Zappa-Went-Down-to-Georgia contest in which the protagonist defeats the Evil One with an insatiable appetite for the title items. The so-called outrages went on and on.
But the music was always good. The individual songs that stand out are instrumentals like “Watermelon in Easter Hay” from Joe’s Garage and the ever-popular “Peaches en Regalia,” which is now played by the organist at Mets games. In fact, one of his most excellent albums is a collection called Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, which is just what it sounds like: the maestro on the six-string.
So on the one hand, Zappa would delight his fans with his antics, and on the other he would miscalculate with a “Jewish Princess” or a “Jumbo Go Away” that would offend non-700 Club members because those songs were, well, offensive. And on a third hand, in the middle of this 100-ring circus was the man on the high trapeze, the ringleader, Zappa, with his trademark handlebar mustache and the patch of hair on his chin, telling everyone (including Congress and Tipper Gore’s PMRC) to just lighten up, that it was just rock and roll and he liked it. Oh, and don’t do drugs, kids.
All the dick jokes appealed to teenage boys, of course. We teenage boys found Zappa’s music just as he wanted us to, through the siren call of sex and partying and life on the bus. When I was 11 or so, prepubescent and less alone than I thought, trying to find my way through a bleak suburban world filled with hypocrisy, I fell under the thrall of a group of older neighborhood kids. They were flirting with drugs, music, and the prospect of community college, and they couldn’t have been cooler, or more wise. One girl on the block even had a motorcycle and took me for my first ride.
This girl’s older brother was home for that summer, and I was admitted entrance to his room, which was decorated like Greg Brady’s when he got his own room. I pushed aside a beaded curtain and entered that dim sanctum filled with sweet-smelling smoke coming from a bong and music coming from a top of the line hi-fi. The music was 1981′s You Are What You Is, Zappa at his commercial height. And hovering above the proceedings was an enormous poster from which stared a face new to me, a man with intelligent eyes and weird facial hair. I watched these role models do hits, and when I was told,I turned over the record.
So I went out and bought my own Zappa, grabbing as much of the pottie humor and glorification of booze and life on the road as I could. But then I got a little bit older, and I went through and outgrew my Bukowski period and started looking for more substance. And I found it in–that’s right, Zappa.I caught on, at long last: this clown was a great musician. Those frantic arpeggios peppering his songs were there for a reason. Here was a man who had fed me a tempting line, and, like a mud shark, finally I bit. (It’s a private Zappa joke. There are many.)
I searched out the gaps in Zappa’s oeuvre, and soon I found both 1973′s Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe, released the following year. They are two half-hour-long records that have been rereleased by Rykodisc on one amazing CD. Over-Nite Sensation was Zappa’s first real commercial and critical breakthrough, and although the jokey content is here (“Dirty Love” and “Dinah Moe Humm,” a blow-job song) and the absurdity abounds, including a song about a naive man with pipe dreams of moving the Big-Sky country to raise dental floss (“Montana”), this is perhaps Zappa’s strongest album. The songs are short and tight expositions of amazing musical ideas, almost like a sealed-off laboratory.
The perfect complement to Over-Nite Sensation is Apostrophe, which is looser musically and more engaged with the world. Again, there is absurdity and scatological humor, but for some reason it works and is almost touching. Fine, so the opening two tracks “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Nanook Rubs It” are about someone who gets “doggie wee wee” in his eye, but it’s also about leaving home, and the music is so good, it almost doesn’t matter what they are about. The songs that cover social topics–like the economical “Uncle Remus,” a song of angry joyful protest about knocking jockeys off white people’s lawns–aren’t as maudlin as his later songs. The comment on racial relations is actually poignant and sad. The anti-metaphysical “Cosmic Debris,” a Zappa standard, never lowers itself to cheap shots, but rather is a smart and amusing (but never jokey, really) comment on our susceptibility.
Both albums stand up to repeated listens, something that is not true about all of Zappa’s albums. The words will never make you lift the disc from your collection only to reconsider. I’m glad I didn’t find this CD until late, because when I found it at long last, I really heard it.
- Frank Zappa – Bass, Guitar, Vocals, Producer
- Jack Bruce – Bass
- George Duke – Synthesizer, Keyboards, Vocals (bckgr)
- Bruce Fowler – Trombone
- Jean-Luc Ponty – Violin, Baritone Violin
- Sal Marquez – Trumpet, Vocals
- Sue Glover – Vocals (bckgr)
- Ray Collins – Vocals (bckgr)
- Ricky Lancelotti – Vocals
- Robert Camarena – Vocals (bckgr)
- Ruben Ladron de Guevara – Vocals (bckgr)
- Debbie – Vocals (bckgr)
- Kin Vassy – Vocals, Voices, Speech/Speaker/Speaking Part
- Lynn – Vocals (bckgr)
- Kerry McNabb – Vocals (bckgr), Engineer, Remixing
- Jim Gordon – Drums
- Aynsley Dunbar – Drums
- Tom Fowler – Bass
- Napoleon Murphy Brock – Saxophone, Vocals (bckgr)
- Tony Duran – Guitar, Vocals
- Erroneous – Bass
- John Guerin – Drums
- Don “Sugarcane” Harris – Violin
- Ralph Humphrey – Drums
- Ian Underwood – Clarinet, Flute, Saxophone, Sax (Alto), Sax (Tenor)
- Ruth Underwood – Percussion, Marimba, Vibraphone
- Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow (Zappa) – 2:06
- Nanook Rubs It (Zappa) – 4:38
- St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast (Zappa) – 1:50
- Father O’Blivion (Zappa) – 2:18
- Cosmik Debris (Zappa) – 4:16
- Excentrifugal Forz (Zappa) – 1:31
- Apostrophe’ (Bruce/Gordon/Zappa) – 5:52
- Uncle Remus (Duke/Zappa) – 2:44
- Stinkfoot (Zappa) – 6:37
- Camarillo Brillo (Zappa) – 3:59
- I’m the Slime (Zappa) – 3:34
- Dirty Love (Zappa) – 2:58
- Fifty-Fifty (Zappa) – 6:10
- Zomby Woof (Zappa) – 5:10
- Dinah-Moe Humm (Zappa) – 6:03
- Montana (Zappa) – 6:36