Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Zappa

Almost seven years ago I started the Great Listening Project™. As of today (July 4th, 2013) I am almost done with Zappa. My goal, which seems so close now, is to finish the project on July 15th, the seven-year anniversary of the project. The journey has been a fascinating one, and hopefully soon I’ll write more about that, but today I’m here to talk about good ol’ Uncle Frank.

Zappa’s was easily the largest catalogue I tackled, listening to over 70 titles, some of which are two or three disc sets. Going into this stretch, I had a fairly sizable FZ collection (45 titles) but what really put this over the top is that Spotify has the entire collection of works released during Frank’s lifetime and a small smattering of the posthumous releases. I was able to listen to everything through Civilization Phaze III, a few of the later releases, and a few of the Beat The Boots series. All in all, quite a lot of Zappa.

So, what did I think about all of this music? To begin with, it’s fair to say that I have quite a respect for Zappa’s work, but this listening had the odd effect of both reinforcing and diminishing that respect. So, in true Listening Project fashion, let me begin all the way back at the beginning. (don’t worry, I’m not going to write about EVERY album)

I started with Frank’s appearance on the Steve Allen show. There are a number of things that are interesting about this piece. First is the fact that as a complete unknown he was bringing the music of the avant-garde into the living rooms of America. It incorporates tape music, free improvisation, and Cagean notions of noise as music. The other interesting thing about this performance is it showed that he thought he could become a “serious composer” in the same way one becomes a “pop musician”: by just doing it. Academia still to this day has a strong hold on the “right” to be considered a “serious composer” and very few artists have earned that label without the official stamp of academic approval. Zappa eventually earned that right, and did it his own way, but he had to sneak his crazy musical ideas into comedy tinged Rock music.

The Mothers were a truly great Rock & Roll band, and I could go on about the awesome power of the different combinations of musicians that came through that outfit, but I’m going to focus on just one work from that era: 200 Motels. This truly represents the best of what Zappa was all about. It rocks HARD, is filled with experimental tape music, and has plenty of dissonant orchestral writing. Zappa was never a great lyricist (more on that later) so we’ll ignore the lame penis jokes for now, but this was shining moment in a dense career. Sure he had other bands that had greater technical skills, but let’s face it, Rock loses something when it becomes too technical. And in this one instance he had it all, a band that rocked on one side of the stage, and an orchestra on the other. Power and skill. And when considering the movie as well, we get to add musique concrète passages, experimental dance, and (for the time) cutting edge video work. I wish there were more like this, but I’ll take the one.

Much of the Mothers material through the first seven years of the Zappa material continues to delight me in it’s playfulness, intricacy, and occasional insight. But then things start to take a turn for me after about 1978. While Zappa’s “lyrics” have always had an interest in sex acts and organs, this is when he really starts to go full blown into the Titties & Beer type tunes that would dominate his later Rock records. While his satire sometimes showed us some mankind’s flaws in a humorous way, it was also often misogyny thinly disguised as misanthropy. Again, these themes dominate his 80s output, which there’s a lot of in the form of many long live double disc sets. I found the Stage series to be pretty excruciating for this reason. Unfortunately, this material is often very catchy once you’ve memorized all the twists of words and music, so even as I thought about how wrong on so many levels some of this material is, I had that same music running through my head on a regular basis.

And then he dies, and we finally get a glimpse at what could have been. His work with both the Ensemble Modern and the Synclavier show us a version of Frank’s music that’s free from the necessity to play Rock music; or at least his perception that he needed to and his record company’s insistence that he did. And it retains quite a bit of humor, though usually not in a way that’s making fun of other people, except for maybe the American government or the American people writ large. But it’s here that the instrumental music fully comes to the front. This music, to my ears, really shows that Zappa was much better without the words. Of course, completely subtracting the lyrics from Frank’s work is impossible; I just wish the percentages were at least the other way around.

As I’m finishing this post it is three days after I started it, and I’m right this second listening to the very last entry for me, The Subcutaneous Peril from Finer Moments on Spotify. It’s an instrumental Rock number and it reminds me that no matter how high minded others or I can get about Zappa his main aesthetic was pleasure. Be it the delight in strange sounds, a solid groove to dance to, or laughing at the foibles of mankind, there’s a sense of pleasure that informs all of his work.