Franciscus Vobiscum: Et Cum Spiritu Tuo (Frank Be With You: And Also With You)
February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Hail Dweezil, full of grace, Frank is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst guitar players, and blessed is the fruit of your mind, Zappa Plays Zappa. Catholic girls, down on your knees, go all the way for us sinners, now and at the hour of our dearth. Ahh, man!
11 p.m., January 26, 2013.
Just got back from Zappa Plays Zappa at Stubb’s and am a long way from the Land of Nod. Stubb’s as a concert venue sucks thousand-year-old eggs, but getting to see ZPZ again overcame my natural distaste for things akin to swallowing vomit. Frank is dead nearly 20 years now, and just when we need him more than ever. But son Dweezil and company channel him like rain through a gutter, and more so every time I see them. They played perhaps their most powerful and ambitious set to date. It showed off Frank’s mastery of the rock, jazz, orchestral – even Broadway musical — genres of music.
There was the usual healthy quota of Frank’s funny (Montana, Zombie Woof, Baby Snakes) and psychosexual songs (Penguin in Bondage, Ride My Face to Chicago,) but tempered with a healthy dose of his serious compositions featuring biting social commentary and complicated orchestral arrangements.
Hungry Freaks Daddy
Penguin in Bondage
I’m So Cute
Trying to Grow a Chin
Here Lies Love
Let’s Make the Water Turn Black
Harder Than Your Husband
Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station
Ride My Face to Chicago
The Evil Prince
Who Are the Brain Police?
Willie the Pimp, with Eric Johnson
Every Zappa album cover has featured the Edgar Varese quote: “The present-day composer refuses to die.” Frank had no gods, but Varese was a major inspiration for Frank, an artistic compass point, which sounds sort of like a god to me.
Frank said he made music to amuse himself with; if anyone else liked it, fine. But he had the belief that people would listen to it. People who shared his unique mix of cynicism and optimism, isolation, anger, vulgarity, nobility. Not many people, necessarily, but enough to make Frank happy.
It’s amazing how relevant “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” and “Who Are the Brain Police” are nearly 50 years after their introduction to the world on Freak Out. “Help I’m a Rock” and “Trouble Everyday” from the same album also bite the asses of self-absorbed mainstream American society, and it would have been nice to hear them as well, but ZPZ has played them on previous occasions and is quite correctly expanding its repertoire of Frank’s nearly endless catalog of work.
Lots of folks have one sort of a beef or another with Frank Zappa, especially for seemingly misogynistic songs like “Titties and Beer,””Wet T-shirt Night,” and the “Illinois Enema Bandit.” Or anal-centric numbers like “You’re an Asshole,” and “Bobby Brown,” which poke fun at the now sacrosanct sexual practices of gay men, and tastelessly named songs like “Teenage Prostitute,” “Dirty Love,” “Willie the Pimp,” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” But these people are focusing on the icing and ignoring the cake below, which is biting, spot-on social commentary.
Rock is not dead; it just smells funny. I wish I could have thought up that line. Lots of other people have used it. It’s a riff copped from “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)” on the album Roxy and Elsewhere: “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” The one jazz number of the night was everyone’s favorite, “Willie the Pimp” from Hot Rats, with Austin’s own Eric Johnson as guest guitarist, Eric having just finished playing with ZPZ on the European tour.
Frank was a buffet of great lines: “Being cynical is the only way to deal with modern civilization, you can’t just swallow it whole.” “There is no hell. There is only France.” “Remember there’s a big difference between kneeling and bending over.” “To me, absurdity is the only reality.”
If only Frank were still here to engage in verbal jousts with the likes of Bill Oh Really?, Lush Rumball, Glen “The Second Coming” Beck, et al. Back in the late 1960s, he appeared on Joe Pyne’s show, Joe being the premier mouth foaming, spittle spewing conservative pundit of the time. Joe’s other chief claim to fame was his wooden leg. Joe’s opening line to Frank that night was, “Well, I guess your long hair makes you a woman.” To which Frank, never at a loss for words, shot back, “I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.”
Anyone of age in the 1980s should remember Frank’s forceful appearances before Congressional committees and on political talk shows defending his — and our — first amendment rights against the well-intentioned but horribly misguided efforts of Tipper Gore and her mothers’ mob determined to censor recorded music that appealed to young people.
Frank was considered a deviant, but he was a patriot (not your average stripe) with a lifelong interest in politics. Beyond his defense of the first amendment, Zappa’s interest in politics manifested itself in ways beyond the social commentary found in his songs and interviews.
He timed the U.S. leg of his 1988 “Broadway the Hard Way” concert tour specifically so that voter registration booths could be set up in the lobby at each show. And he lobbied his audience, hard, to step up to plate, register to vote, and then vote.
In 1991, despite the battle with advanced (incurable) prostate cancer that would soon kill him, he publicly contemplated an independent, nonpartisan run for the White House. In a survey conducted by a Los Angeles TV station, 86% of 1800 responders said they would vote for Zappa, the long-outspoken critic of U.S. government policy and the status quo, were he to make an official White House bid.
But when it came to political beliefs, Frank was no lock-step, left-wing, peace-and-love hippie. He hated drugs (other than cigarettes and coffee) and any band member or roadie caught using them was immediately fired. He was vehemently against labor unions, as expressed in the songs “Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink” and “Stick Together.”
In a 1991 interview from his home, Zappa said, “My main qualifications are that I don’t play golf, I don’t take vacations and I do think the U.S. constitution is one hell of a document and that this country would work better if people adhered to it more closely. But if a miracle were to occur — and it would take just that — and I really ran for office, you can believe that I’d be serious about the job.”
Zappa’s presidential platform would, he said, center on eliminating federal income taxes, raising most state taxes except for those on staple food items, and “getting the government out of people’s faces.”
Asked about the U.S. military’s role, Zappa replied: “The only thing the military should be used for is protecting the country, not bad foreign policy.”
Zappa said that if he ran he would like then-obscure Texas industrialist H. Ross Perot to be his vice presidential running mate. His preference for attorney general was Harvard University professor and constitutional law expert Alan Dershowitz (in his pre-O.J. Simpson defense attorney era).
Zappa described himself as “a reluctant candidate” who was “volunteering” to run for the presidency. “If there was anybody else who could walk in from outside and do this, I’d vote for them,” he said. “But I don’t see any other volunteers.”
I’ve never had much respect for John Aeilli of Austin’s KUTX radio because he has never had any respect for Frank Zappa. All he seems to know of Frank are his peepee caca doodoo songs, the nature of which he doesn’t understand, being the politically correct fascist that he is. Frank was never afraid to use the seven forbidden words in order to make a point (or not, other than exercise his first amendment rights, which he always spiritedly defended on behalf of all of us), which gives Aielli the excuse to never play Frank’s music, because he says he never knows when a shit or fuck might show up in a song. That’s what interns are for, John, to screen music for you. And you do have interns.
John appears to be unfamiliar with Sleep Dirt and Strictly Genteel, which are pleasant, instrumental albums; not a word, good or bad on them, and Strictly Genteel is suitable listening for even the most strait-laced of grandmas. My mother is 81 and she enjoys Strictly Genteel.
“Outside Now” and “Packard Goose” are from Joe’s Garage, a powerful indictment of the sad state of the music industry at the end of the 1970s, as Frank saw it, and the album skewers new wave music, the record industry, groupies, bands willing to sell their souls, cocks and balls for 5 minutes of fame, scientology, innocent gullible young would-be musicians, the Catholic church, muffins, Jack in the Box, and airport music as it tells the story of a group of teenage boys who jammed every day in Joe’s Garage, got the idea to try and make it big time, and the results of their efforts.
Roxy and Elsewhere is one of my favorite albums, a double album recorded live in LA, with titillating songs like “Penguin in Bondage,” “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Echidna’s Arf” and “Dummy Up,” where Frank initiates one of his most immortal, insightful and biting dialogs on the wastefulness of smoking pot and the state of American education. A reality that many out-of-work or burger-slinging college graduates can relate to:
FZ: The evil dope pusher is cutting up a white gym sock, formerly owned by Carl Zappa and still damp. The shredded sock will be placed inside of a high-school diploma and ignited with a sulphur preparation …
Napoleon Murphy Brock: Wait a minute ….
FZ: His first taste of big city life
Napoleon: That’s okay, wait a minute … wait …
(DUMMY UP … )
Jeff Simmons: Hey! The roach of this is really gonna be good, so I’ll save it …
FZ: Have mercy!
George Duke: Awright … awright …
Napoleon: What d’you do with that thing?
What do you do with that thing that you have?
Wait a minute
Wait a minute
Wait a minute
What do you do
With that thing?
I wanna know
Napoleon: Wait a minute
FZ: Now the next step of this operation
Napoleon: Wait a minute!
FZ: The evil corrupter of youth is going to take him from Step One, which is a mere high-school diploma stuffed with a gym sock, to Step Two, which is a college-degree stuffed with absolutely nothing at all. Smoke that and it’ll really get you out there!
Napoleon: I still don’t feel as good as I felt this mornin’ … yeah yeah …
FZ: You’ll grow out of it …
Jeff: DUMMY UP!
Napoleon: I heard it again, somebody said …
Jeff: You see this?
Napoleon: What d’you mean? College!
Jeff: That’s college-rhythm
Napoleon: You mean if I smoke that
It’s the same as if …
As if I was at college?
Roll it over up!
Roll it over up!
Roll it over up!
Gimme a …
FZ: No, no, the college-degree is stuffed with absolutely nothing at all, you get … you get nothing with your college-degree …
Napoleon: Oh …
But that’s what I want
FZ: I forgot, I’m sorry
You get nothin’,
But that’s what I want
FZ: A true Zen saying: Nothing is what I want … The results of a higher education!
ZPZ chose not to play “Dummy Up” this time (they did on their first tour with Napoleon as guest vocalist), but they played the similarly scornful “Wind up Working in a Gas Station” from Zoot Allures, some of the lyrics of which (You wanna know now all your education, Let me know how your education, Won’t help you no how, You’re gonna wind up workin’ in a gas station … Pumping the gas every night … “) I twisted to fit my own immediate post-collegiate situation: “You ought know now with all your education, you’re gonna wind up working in a bike shop … twisting the wrenches every day … ” I sang the song every day, as I watched all the luscious UT co-eds walk past the bike shop’s windows on their way to class. It was a bit of bitter fun.
In introducing “The Evil Prince,” Dweezil explained that he, Moon and Frank had gone to see Cats, which left Frank to write a Broadway-style musical of his own, Thing-Fish. He had already made the album, Broadway The Hard Way, full of show-style arrangements but definitely not a musical with a storyline.
Thing-Fish, according to its Wikipedia entry, was originally released as a triple album box set in 1984. It was billed as a cast recording for a proposed musical of the same name, which was ultimately not produced by Zappa, but later performed in 2003.
The album’s storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theater critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into “Mammy Nuns” led by the story’s narrator, Thing-Fish. The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play performed by the “Mammy Nuns,” and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life.
The story was constructed during the recording sessions, which included producing new overdubs for recordings on that had earlier appeared on Zoot Allures, Tinseltown Rebellion, You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. Thing-Fish was initially received poorly by critics, who criticized the use of previously recorded material, but has since been reappraised for its highly satirical content.
This being Austin, it was de rigueur to include content from Bongo Fury, recorded here in 1975, and ZPZ obliged with “Muffin Man” and “Debra Kadabra.” The anthemic “Kosmik Debris” (from Apostrophe) was the first of three encore numbers, but Frank’s longtime opening song, “Stinkfoot,” was missing from this night’s playlist. No matter, we had heard ZPZ play it on several occasions previously, and its absence opened up time and space for new numbers such as “Moggio,” “Harder Than Your Husband” (one of Frank’s few “cowboy” songs) and the closing number, “Strictly Genteel,” from the instrumental album of the same name, which shows off Frank’s prowess as a serious composer.
Dweezil and the rest of ZPZ are anything but pretentious, and always make themselves available for audience interaction after the shows. Tonight was no different. My brother walked away on air with a $35 T-shirt autographed by Dweezil and the multi-talented, Grammy winning Scheila Gonzalez. Dweezil hit it out of the park when he recruited Scheila, a music educator who sings and plays several woodwind instruments and keyboards for ZPZ. Even Frank, who had a knack for finding and hiring the best talent, would be jealous of Dweezil’s find.