Whenever I compile my list of favorite albums, I have to restrict myself to one LP per artist. Otherwise about half my list would be Frank Zappa albums. And the rest would just be there to pad out the Zappa.
It’s taken a long time for Frank Zappa to achieve serious cultural rehabilitation. Arguably, he has never achieved — and never will achieve — popular cultural rehabilitation, since those who have never heard of him are less prejudiced than those who’ve heard some bullshit story about how he defecated on stage or did publicity photos sitting naked on a toilet.
Wait, the toilet photos are true. But it’s that age-old Aleister Crowley notoriety syndrome. If you use outrage to stoke up press attention, don’t be surprised when nobody takes your work seriously. Who now remembers Crowley as one of the first modern mountaineers, or the man who developed a western system of meditation through yoga?
It’s telling that Zappa’s status is higher in the classical world than in the rock world. Zappa has made his way successfully onto the concert stage, including a featured evening in the Prague proms this month (June 2016). His complex, erudite, and inventive classical works have found an audience that appreciates risk-taking mavericks — and that’s not how anybody would describe today’s rock and pop fans.
Only last year, we finally received on record a full version of what I have long suspected to be a lost classical masterpiece, I Have Seen The Pleated Gazelle, which until recently only existed as fragments scattered over the fourth side of the 200 Motels soundtrack.
The piece is extraordinary both musically and lyrically, with at least one section (a description of sadistic Irish Catholic nuns) that seems rooted in autobiography. For this one piece alone, Zappa ought to be revered. But it’s just the tip of an astonishingly rich legacy, much of which is still in the vaults. Zappa loved to draw those little black dots.
He had faults, as all people do. He could be insensitive, sexist, puerile, stubborn, bloody-minded, contrary. He hated the pop game and went out of his way to demean it. His public image, carefully nurtured, was of a disgusting, repugnant weirdo. He certainly understood branding.
But the real Frank Zappa was also generous and welcoming. He had a warmth that friends say was magical. He respected and nurtured talent — his band was practically a finishing school for two generations of rock’s finest musicians.
He was a family man, despite whatever happened on the road, and a man of surprisingly deep emotion to balance his fierce intellect. That emotion peeks through repeatedly in his work (one listen to ‘Mom & Dad’ will prove it), and is revealed in full whenever he picked up the electric guitar.
Frank Zappa was, in my opinion, the finest rock guitarist of all time. Yes, better than him. Better than him, too. He is one of the few players of stature to use the instrument as more than a means to make an exciting noise, but he’s more even than that. For Zappa, the guitar was a direct conduit to the creative soul. He used his solos as a means of instant composition.
He certainly wasn’t the most technically adept guitarist, or the fastest — though if speed is your criteria for excellence, you’ll find the guitarist of your dreams on Youtube, twiddling away in some record shop demonstration. But he played with an unmatched grace and melodic invention, and with an emotional release that could be draining to the listener.
For me, out of the 3,078 notable Zappa solos I’ve heard (and yes, I’ve counted them — I’m going to write a book about them one day, which I’ll call Who Gives A Fuck Anyway?), his finest ever was the eight-minute ‘Yo Mama’ sequence on Sheik Yerbouti. It drives me to tears, every time. Eight minutes of tears. But I won’t argue with anyone who says it’s ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay.’ I’m not fighting over which child I love the most.
Most of all, Zappa adored music of all kinds, from his well known teenage devotion to Edgar Varese to a brief but warmhearted association with The Chieftains toward the end of his ludicrously short life.
On this subject, Zappa created one of the simplest and loveliest of all aphorisms: Music is the best. As a philosophy, it’s hard to beat. And tellingly, the album on which he chose to express this sentiment was the same one that included ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ — a trashy science fiction triple-album narrative called Joe’s Garage.
For novices, one of the daunting things about Zappa is just how prolific he was. At this writing, there are 103 officially-released albums in his catalog, which isn’t bad for a man whose career from first album to death was just 27 years. Many of these are doubles or triples, or multi-volume CDs.
And here’s why I could fill at least half of my top 100 with Zappa albums. There are so many, and so many of them are highlights, whether it’s the punk-meets-Varese shock of Freak Out!, the ahead-of-the-curve orchestral/rock collision of Lumpy Gravy, the vicious tape collage of We’re Only In It For The Money, the chamber rock of Uncle Meat, the pioneering jazz fusion of Hot Rats, or the complex prog of Burnt Weeny Sandwich — and that’s just some of the peaks of his first five years!
But given just one album for my list? Impossible. Hold me to gunpoint, however, and I’d probably go with Joe’s Garage, even though it’s something of a cheat since the album was originally released as two separate volumes in September and November 1979.
Joe’s Garage may not be rock’s most successful dalliance with science fiction, but it’s certainly one of the most fascinating.
Zappa was never good with long-form structures. I can’t think of another of his large conceptual pieces that comes to a satisfying conclusion. But the stars were all in alignment for Joe’s Garage.
His theme was the redemption and catharsis of music. The way he chose to tell his story was through the frightening prism of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
For the bulk of its length, Joe’s Garage is a typical meandering, inconsequential Zappa construction. After expressing nostalgia for the garage bands of his youth, he has his lead character Joe set out on a picaresque odyssey through a chaotic American landscape of rock concerts, wet T-shirt competitions, absurd religious cults, blow jobs, and venereal disease. This culminates with Joe accidently ‘plooking’ to death a sex robot (wickedly modeled on Sky Saxon of the Seeds), leading to his incarceration in jail.
And here, suddenly, at the end of side four, the entire project abruptly shifts tone. It’s as if Zappa broke his own heart — or the Ayatollah did it for him.
In ‘Outside Now’ Joe yearns for his return to society, but when he is finally released it is to find himself wandering in a sterile wasteland littered with the “mounds of dead appliances” Zappa had previously written about in his SF stage play Hunchentoot.
Joe’s only solace in life, playing the electric guitar, has been rendered impossible since music is now illegal everywhere.
The album itself is, in fact, a morality play recited by a stentorian robot called The Central Scrutinizer whose job is to go around haranguing kids about the dangers of music, just like Nancy Reagan was about to go around haranguing kids about the dangers of drugs.
But this is when Zappa busts open the structure of his own construct. Most of the third disk of Joe’s Garage is a hymn of praise to the electric guitar, and by extension to the power of music itself.
Here is where Zappa plays that revered solo ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ in order to answer the question I already mentioned: Who gives a fuck about music anyway? I do, Zappa is saying. Music is the spirit, and inspiration, and redemption of this trashy worthless and inconsequential existence.
This isn’t the final scene in this most brutal of all satires. Joe’s Garage ends with its hero effectively lobotomized — at the very least rendered docile and compliantly insane — by the lack of music, mindlessly laboring on a factory production line. Just another meat robot pressing the buttons of his machine to churn out colorful conveyer belt crap.
The Central Scrutinizer declares this to be a good thing. But its message has already been blown wide open. Music is the best. It’s something worth fighting for, as Zappa did courageously, and almost alone, until the end of his life.