In these times of superbly surreal ridiculousness, where it seems that almost anything is possible, it seems only logical that one’s listening tastes should follow suit. Frank Zappa, man, what a talented guy. He built soundscapes that were highly technical and strongly influenced by jazz, but which were also highly comical, satirical, and above all, smart. He played around with vocal layers, with rock and roll stylings, with unconventional instruments, and mimicked other popular musical movements of the time. He made things even downright dirty at times, the sonic equivalent of an R. Crumb drawing. A blast from the freak culture that was psychedelic in a very different way from what we commonly think of when we think of psychedelic music of that era — Jefferson Airplane, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, etc. It had grit. It had flavor. It had one foot still planted in reality. Always moving, never boring. Structured, but borrowing from improvisation.
My father is a huge fan of “the FZ” (as he likes to refer to the late Frank.) There are no fans that I have yet to meet of the FZ who don’t obsess and pour over the man’s entire discography. Likewise, I have yet to meet any children of Zappa fans who don’t do the same. He may have died at a young age but his collection of works is extensive. So, of course I can’t pick anything obvious to write about. I refuse to, because that doesn’t do the FZ justice. I will say that Apostrophe was my first favorite Zappa album, mostly caused by my father playing the classic track “Nanook Rubs It” any time it would snow enough in our small Appalachian Southwestern Pennsylvania mill town for school to be cancelled. As a ten year old, the subject matter of the song — eating yellow snow — was the absolute funniest thing I had ever heard. Definitely funnier than Weird Al — which, trust me, was a big deal for all 10 year olds who came of age in the 90’s — and maybe equally as funny as the episode of Ren and Stimpy where Stimpy lost the fart son he named Stinky. Fart jokes are also a big deal when you are 10 years old. Actually, toilet humor will never not be funny.
A few years later I realized that Britney Spears and N*SYNC were so totally over and that I needed to listen to other things besides the MTV garbage that was being shoved down my throat. Logically, the first thing I turned to was my parent’s CD collection. Oddly enough, they listened to CD’s in those days despite the fact that they had an extensive record collection and a working turntable hooked up to a killer system. Listening to a record was a rare occasion. It was also much easier for me to “borrow” (read: steal) a CD from their collection and listen to it quietly in my room via headphones and my discman. Yes, a discman. Honestly the worst thing to happen to music listening technology. Endless skips and reading errors. I don’t know if it was the fault of the discman or the CD anymore. Probably both, as they both were terrible.
The CD in question was a compilation of Zappa’s more offensive lyrical works, appropriately titled “Have I Offended Someone?” I was much less of a PC person as I am today, but hearing songs such as “He’s So Gay” and “Jewish Princess” for the first time completely turned me off from trying to research Zappa further. I finally understood why the godly FZ, whose image was postered on my parent’s bedroom wall not just once but twice had been included in the parental guidance sticker congressional hearing in 1985. That little sticker caused my father so much rage when we would stop in at Sam Goody for a new laser disc or two. “Fuck Tipper Gore” I can recall him saying. I understood then that the censorship of art is offensive and also plays a key role in the rise of fascist regimes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, censorship is wrong, you are entitled to your first amendment rights just as 12 year old girls are entitled to being offended. Frank Zappa offended me that day, and also made me feel extremely conflicted because I wasn’t cool enough to not be offended. No, I wasn’t cool at all. I was about as cool as one of the “wives of Big Brother”. So I retreated back and fell in with something a little more soothing to the ears: The Beatles’ White Album.
But we aren’t here to talk about that. We are here to talk about the big ol’ FZ.
Quoting Frank from the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) hearings in 1985: “Children in the vulnerable age bracket have a natural love for music. If as a parent you believe they should be exposed to something more uplifting than ‘sugar walls’, support music appreciation programs in schools. Why haven’t you considered your child’s need for consumer information? Music appreciation costs very little compared to sports expenditures. Your children have a right to know that something besides pop music exists. It is unfortunate that the PMRC would rather dispense governmentally sanitized heavy metal music than something more uplifting. Is this an indication of the PMRC’s personal taste, or just another manifestation of the low priority this administration has placed on education for the arts in America? The answer of course is neither. You can’t distract people from thinking about an unfair tax by talking about music appreciation. For that you need sex, and lots of it.”
Despite my being offended, I think he was onto something here. Media literacy is so much more important than our current society ascribes it to be. In fact, I believe it is so unimportant that most people wouldn’t know what the hell I was referring to when I mention it. I once mentioned it in a job interview as a response to some annoying question and got a drooling deadpan face back. “Whassat?” It’s okay. I know it’s weird. But it shouldn’t be.
Instead of keeping our children from watching tv, playing video games, listening to certain types of music, maybe we should allow them to explore those things. Maybe we should discuss these things with them, and also with our friends, family, and the strangers we choose to interact with on the world wide web. Maybe we should ourselves learn how to critique and understand art, propaganda, and media and how they function, how to read through things to see how we can be mislead through the use of biased statistics in “news articles” and advertisements. Maybe then we wouldn’t have Donald Trump for president. Maybe then we would have election reform, as well as many other reforms that allow a middle class to actually exist. I dream of the day when our country isn’t run by the rich elite. In my opinion, one of the first steps is to pull a “Rowdy” Roddy Piper from They Live — find your special glasses that allow you to see through the bullshit to what is really going on. Understand how you can be manipulated and never be manipulated again.
This is the influence that Frank Zappa had on my adolescence, less through the lens of his music and more through the lens of his social commentary. Then came young adulthood.
Ah, mix cds. That early 2000’s version of the mixtape that was mostly made out of necessity. We all knew cd’s sucked. They skipped, they got scratches in them, the quality of sound was cold and digitized. But, it was the most accessible platform at that strange time that fell between the widespread use of magnetic tape and the creation of an affordable ipod or iphone. You could rip cds in a matter of minutes and pass them off to whomever might be willing to listen to the same garbage you were tuned into and consequently share your world with them. I bonded with my friend Tyler over growing up in Beaver County with baby boomer parents who were still somehow stubbornly stuck in the age of the fall of the steel industry. Translation: they still listened to DVE and had passed their musical obsessions onto their offspring. Where Tyler’s was Rush, mine was largely Jethro Tull. But somehow Tyler remembered my bringing up Frank Zappa as well, and when we exchanged mixes, Peaches En Regalia ended up on there. In all of my educational upbringing, I don’t know that I had ever heard it before. I listened to it again and again. I still put it on playlists to this day, it’s a great opener thanks to the drums and good to the last drop, weird and funky. Heavy on the keys, with that strange programmed horn sound. No words, but the phrasings and the guitar work are all decidedly.. Frank. They could be created by no one else. As a person who had only ever heard the controversial Frank, this early work that swells and zooms in and out so imaginatively did it for me. It converted me from being a person who got it but didn’t really GET it into a being who craved so much more.
The early works of any artist tend to be my favorites time and time again. It’s something about the synthesis of many influences coming into fruition. The raw talent not quite yet molded into form, or jaded by too many years on the road. The experimentation, the playtime of trying to figure out where one wants to go. The light of so many possible musical roads one could go down. To me, it’s a type of magic that continues to open doors for anyone who drops the needle. Or, I guess in our case these days, decides to click “play”.
Hot Rats — the album that Peaches en Regalia kicks off — on the whole, is still so playful to me. I know, I know, it’s not really Frank’s first album. It’s not even his first solo album (it’s his second). But what it is is almost entirely instrumental (minus Willie the Pimp, which includes vocals from Captain Beefheart). The lack of lyrics allows the listener to zero in on the playing throughout the entirety of the work rather than getting caught up in “I can’t believe he said that.” It allows you to see through to the psychedelic exploration of jazz influenced tunes. There are so many little bits and things to notice that I can’t begin to enumerate them all here. Hot Rats is a trip, a tunnel through which you come out the other side saying, “What the hell was that? Play it again!” For christ’s sake, please do.