Swinging Modern Sounds #8: Black Napkins


zappa_frank2Frank Zappa was a gateway drug for me. In 1974, I went directly from Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side of the Moon to Over-Nite Sensation and Roxy and Elsewhere, and I have my late sister to thank for this. She had very eclectic and rather strange taste (she appreciated the Grateful Dead and Little Feat, but she was also obsessed with Shawn Phillips and John McLaughlin), and I think she thought that my middle school sense of humor would appreciate the polymorphous perversion of Zappa’s lyrics. Which it did. (Monster movies! Dental floss! Yellow snow!) But I was just as interested, turns out, in the really complicated instrumental sections, the startlingly ornamented arrangements, the weird noises, the ambition, in, perhaps, the same way that Frank himself, at a similar age, got interested in Edgar Varese’s Ionisation. Eventually, that is, I found Over-Nite Sensation too obvious, and preferred the earlier stuff, like Uncle Meat and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. (And, in due course, the absolutely sublime Lumpy Gravy, which is a true masterpiece.) These were the gateway drug to a lot of experimental music for me, to Captain Beefheart, of course, which is a natural leap, since the two played together, but from there to Pere Ubu and, at the other extreme, Rhys Chatham or John Zorn or Roland Kirk or Lester Bowie, which artists then lead to almost anything. These days, my record collection has a lot of “serious” music in it, and this probably has a lot to do with listening Uncle Meat and One Size Fits all without respite in my middle teens. I think, at this point, I have the vast majority of albums Frank Zappa released, including the authorized boots, and that’s a lot of albums. Actually, I don’t have Thing frank_zappaFish, which is problematic for me (I resist some of the strident “political” material of the mid-late period, the eighties, “I Don’t Want to Get Drafted,” e.g.), but the point is this: in my own extremely eclectic and restless music collection, I have made room for dozens upon dozens of works by this composer.

And: he was also the first live show I ever saw. I think I was 14 or 15 and the gig was at the Palladium, in New York City, which was concert venue back then, and it was Halloween. Somewhere around the time that Warner Brothers had rejected Läther, Zappa’s four-lp admixture of rock and roll, Vaudeville, jazz, musique concrete, and classical. He played a lot of that material at the concert in question, a lot of the stuff that eventually ended up on Live in New York, and I sort of thought, based on the experience, that all rock shows were supposed to be like this. Far-ranging, generous, unpredictable, complex, entertaining, joyful. Since that time, my life with the music of Frank Zappa has been so consistent (with little breaks here and there where I don’t listen to him every week, or every day, the way I do in the more fervent periods) that I have really had the illusion, at various moments, that I kind of understood Frank somehow, even knew him personally. I know that this is completely illusory, because I guess I have experienced something similar (if less intense) among readers who are passionate about my writing. I feel, when faced with this, that I don’t quite have anything in common with the Rick Moody these readers are reflecting back to me. But knowing the fan worship is illusory doesn’t really stop you from feeling that way. It really can be a way of life.

4054315Imagine my delight when I heard that Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s son, had assembled a band and begun to tour playing his father’s music. I mean, delight is a strange word to use here, since I had some trepidation, because time has moved popular music in some very different directions since Frank Zappa’s death in 1993. And then there’s the emotional issue of a son playing his father’s compositions, which is as hard to fathom for a listener as it must have been, at first, for the player himself. Which brings us to the post-modern question implicit in this whole idea, son playing father, viz., to what extent does it make sense to have a repertory attitude about “popular” music? Is popular music meant to be played as though fixed? A similar thing was happening to Captain Beefheart’s compositions about the same time that Dweezil began playing Frank’s compositions. Longtime Magic Band member John French convened a sort of ur-Magic Band to rehabilitate Don Van Vliet’s compositions, without Van Vliet’s participation. That band sounded kind of great in spots. But how long could it go on just playing those songs? Similarly, there’s the Rocket from the Tombs project, in which some members of that proto-punk Cleveland band reunited after thirty years to rehabilitate “Sonic Reducer,” “Final Solution,” and other classics associated with that project. Arguably, all these examples further fuel the charge that the record business has given up serving a certain kind of listener. The obsessive, obscurantist, auteurist, intoxicated, tired, middle-aged, hung-out-to-dry listener, the soft-around-the-middle-listener, the balding listener, the ought-to-have-better-things-to-do listener, who nonetheless has one thing going for him: genuine fealty.1680875164_adcf038970

So I was delighted about Dweezil, if worried, but willing to shell out the dough to see him do his thing, which I managed to do on October 30th of 2008 (at the Blender Theater in New York City), just a little more than exactly thirty years since I saw my first Frank Zappa concert. As I understood from reading the press, Dweezil was playing almost entirely with younger musicians, presumably with talented people from the L.A. scene who were up to the compositions. He wasn’t, that is, fashioning some kind of fusty all-star Zappa lineup featuring Terry Bozzio (fresh from some Missing Persons reunion tour) or Bruce Fowler, or Patrick O’Hearn (taking time away from his new age wallpaper), et al. There was only one Frank Zappa alumnus on the tour that I knew of, and that was Ray White, who often sang on Frank’s albums (and played some rhythm guitar) in the late seventies and eighties. After all: the band needs one extraordinary singer.

Look, it’s really hard to describe what a great show this Zappa Plays Zappa show is, because to do so requires a lot of insider speak about Frank Zappa minutae, and I don’t expect all the readers of these lines to be interested. (In fact, my tendency to think of Zappa as a guilty pleasure much informs this post. I just don’t expect conventional music listeners to get this stuff. It is, assuredly, for people with unusual palates. And people like me can go on and on and on and on.) But let me try. The first thing that needs to be said about Dweezil is that he adores this music. He lives and breathes it. You could imagine, of course, Dweezil’s playing Zappa music for the money, or you could imagine him doing it because the Estate of Frank Zappa needs someone to build the audience going forward, lest the music should somehow slip into the social-security set and never return. You could imagine Dweezil playing the music to stay busy. But it’s hard to imagine him doing it, and doing it so transparently, out of love.

Because he treats the compositions like compositions. Because the parts are played as close to the originals as they can be in this day and age (which is not always possible), and without mounting huge wind sections or orchestras to do so. Because the players are, nonetheless, free to move about the sonic spectrum when soloing. Because, and here’s the second important piece of the post-modernist puzzle, Dweezil’s idea of what constitutes Frank Zappa repertoire is his own idea, which is to say that Dweezil interprets Frank in a way that Frank might not have done himself. Let me come at this point in another way. I have often felt, and I know that many others have often felt, that, despite musical ineptitude, the original Mothers of Invention were Frank Zappa’s best backing band. They didn’t last very long, and they were a mixture of gangsters and classical musicians assembled only in order to disassemble, but they had something, a kind of lurid, beatnik glory. Frank himself, as far as I can tell, had disdain for this interpretation of his work, and he enjoyed assembling ever more virtuosic bands in the later seventies and eighties. After which he moved away from live playing entirely (even before he was ill with prostate cancer).

Dweezil has none of his father’s baggage with respect to the historical output, and he simply follows his own taste and inclinations. He plays what appeals to him. Therefore: at this point in musical history, we can arrive at a much more liberated interpretation of what, among the many, many pieces of music Dweezil’s father released, are most lasting. And the most emotionally rich. Dweezil does exactly this, with a particular emphasis on the early seventies. Was it the period in which he was born? Was it the music he first remembers hearing as a child? Why does he love “Black Napkins” so much? That guitar solo from Zoot Allures, probably extracted from some other composition and rechristened? The facts is, however, that Dweezil has extremely good taste in his father’s compositions. And though he accepts audience balloting on set lists, there’s only so much of the music he has learned so far, all of it extremely interesting, all of it inclining less toward the scatology and less toward the socio-political hectoring and more toward the celebratory mystery of Frank Zappa, composer.

For example, chief among the accomplishments of the gig I saw was a renovated version of the incredibly long and precarious composition called “Billy the Mountain.” Astute fans of the early seventies, Flo-and-Eddie lineup of the Mothers will recall this parody of “rock opera,” which features satire, genre mastery, and tricky harmonies and meter changes, consistent with the master’s theory of “conceptual continuity:” “anything, anywhere, any time, for any reason.” Recreating, arranging, and memorizing this piece, which was both composed and improvised, learning it exactly as it appeared on the original album, is an act of postmodernism and filial love for one’s dead father that was rather awe-inspiring to behold. Frankly, I can’t imagine how many weeks it took to learn the damn thing, on which nearly everyone in the band was singing, shouting, ranting in multiple-part harmonies throughout.

And then there were the guitar solos. For my money, in the period of 1970-1975 Frank Zappa was among the best guitar players anywhere in contemporary music. Totally underrated as a soloist, and totally singular. He liked little fusillades of notes that fell into sevens, and which skittered ahead of the beats, when there even were recognizable tempi or time signatures, and he mastered feedback like no one else at the time, and also the wah pedal. In short, he was an inimitable player. Dweezil himself, who apparently learned some technique from Steve Vai, who played in Frank’s bands of the early eighties, comes from a different moment in the history of the electric guitar, and that moment is the Eddie Van Halen moment. How to go from that show-offy, hammering-on moment back to the melodic and noise-oriented solos of his dad? Only through intense discipline, and lots of transcribing and memorizing. No part of the Zappa Plays Zappa tour could have been more difficult. And there was a lot of soloing in the show. Still, in the end, what Dweezil did not attempt to do was duplicate his dad’s playing. He played the melody of “Black Napkins,” for example, or the melody at the beginning of the solo on “Inca Roads,” from One Size Fits All, and then he headed off in his own direction entirely. Blissfully untethered to history, but informed by it, acquainted with it, tackling, along the way, his own idea of what a solo is and ought to be, long after the fact of Eddie Van Halen, so that he has become, in this difficult limelight, his own musician, while in the process of attending completely to his familial legacy.

Those who attended the Halloween gigs of Zappa Plays Zappa in NYC were meant to get a board mix of the show, but were then e-mailed with the news that Dweezil has spent so much time tinkering with the recording of the very first show on the tour that he hadn’t finished editing the later ones. To tide us over, we were given the live recording of that first gig, from Chicago. So this review is of that show (as well as the one I saw), unreleased, except to those among the later audiences who redeemed their coupon for the board mix. I think, in the end, that Frank Zappa was a difficult man, an exacting task master, who worked like he would have only a short time here on earth to realize his vision—which, alas, turned out to be true. He played music that had both mischief and child-like glee about it, though it was as difficult as any music produced in the same period, serious or popular. Dweezil Zappa seems to have the perfectionist streak, too, to his credit, but his post-modern examination of his father’s music has an additional layer, a love for the composer, a complex understanding of the man, warts and all. Which makes Dweezil’s refraction of Zappa and the Mothers a little less astringent, a little more affectionate, a little more endearing than his father’s own recordings. Is Dweezil’s contemporaneity inexact? It is, and it has to be, because it’s now forty-five years since the first Mothers of Invention release, but that doesn’t make it any less faithful. Its oscillation between perfection and the recognition of its own belatedness it part of what makes it go.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →