Sunday, December 2, 2012

Frank Zappa

Scott recently sent me a post from entitled “Did Frank Zappa Actually Like Music?” Here’s the link.  

The point was yes, he was an amazingly proficient guitar player who attracted crazy-talented musicians to carry out his musical visions. But does it sound like he was really enjoying himself? Was he emotionally invested in it?

And I have to say, after thinking about it…no. I don’t think he really did. I don't he was as crazy about music as he should have been. And I don't even think it's that close.

I think he liked being good at music—he liked playing the guitar and tossing off killer riffs and creating intricate sounds with monster studio players. But with a few exceptions—most notably his earliest stuff with the Mothers of Invention—his music, while to be appreciated, always left me a bit cold.

Take the Joe’s Garage albums, no doubt one of his most popular recordings. At the outset he has three absolutely Grade A rock songs, bawdy and nasty and rock-n-roll to the core: “Joe’s Garage,” “Catholic Girls” and “Crew Slut.” And at the end you have a stunningly gorgeous piece of extended guitar work called “Watermelon in Easter Hay” that goes on for close to nine minutes and is mind-boggling in how moving it is. And throughout you have this dead-on statement about the evils of censorship. But in that middle 60% of the album(s) you mostly get sexual innuendo-rich musiporn. You get extended sophomoric jokes that only he seems to be in on. And it’s not bad—it’s just…cold. And it’s a shame.

Or take this clip from Saturday Night Live in 1978, when he first gives a monologue and then offers up soon-to-be-hit “Dancin’ Fool.”

Zappa comes across as 100% too cool for school throughout, starting with his cue-card focused monologue reading and extending all the way through this somewhat funny song. But rather than deliver it with the drollness we hear on the Sheik Yerbouti record, he delivers everything—monologue, lyrics, and particularly the interplay with the young woman at the end—with this clipped, detached, “let’s get this over with” level of apathy.

Zappa comes across as the eye-rolling senior at a freshman party, who doesn’t need to be there but keep showing up anyway, if only to point out how stupid this all is.

Which is a damn shame, really. Because holy crow could the man play. Check out the studio version of one of his finest hours, all the way back from his debut album Freak Out! in 1965. Yes, it’s got a social pulse—a rather hard look at the Watts riots of that year. But there is a soulful menace in Frank’s voice—save for the sarcastic “Blow your harmonica-phone!” at the end—that propels the song every bit as much as the thunderous bass and chaotic guitar.

He sounds pissed, and he sounds invested. Once more, the man had chops most could only dream about. He was an intelligent and thoughtful advocate for free speech and he attracted only the very best of the best of musicians for when he felt like playing. It’s just a shame we didn’t hear more stuff like his in the quarter-century of his career that followed. More music that sounded like he cared, rather than just reminded us how smart and talented he was.

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