From the first moment I laid eyes on my father's copy of Lumpy Gravy, Frank Zappa has seemed like a big weirdo to me. As a kid I'd frequently drop the turntable needle of the family hi-fi all over a scratchy copy of the Beatles' Revolver searching for "Yellow Submarine," but I never had any interest in finding Zappa's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow." In high school I discovered a small number of rabid Zappa devotees in my midst. His biggest fans were those troublemakers who'd turned to drugs when the classroom failed to challenge them. Just as Zappa fucked with the establishment (as well as commodified countercultures like that of Haight-Ashbury), some of his fans willfully disrupted the class, wickedly outsmarting teachers because it was far more provocative than solving a predictable algebraic equation. In 1982, Zappa became well known with that uncharacteristic and irritating novelty hit "Valley Girls." And later, he attracted more attention with his determined crusade against the Parents' Music Resource Center. Two years ago, Zappa died of cancer.
Before he passed away he arranged to have his wife sell his massive catalog, a deal that reportedly brought in $44 million from the pioneering CD-only label Rykodisc. Much of Zappa's work had been previously issued on the label in conjunction with Zappa Records, but this year Rykodisc has reissued 53 newly remastered and repackaged Zappa CDs. The occasion has generated a mound of glowing press--polite reappraisals asserting that there was more to Zappa than "Valley Girls" and the anticensorship battle. Depending on the article, you'll hear about the guitarist, the serious composer, the scathing social critic, the fusion pioneer, the proto-alternative rock icon, the sarcastic comic, blah, blah, blah. The list goes on, suggesting that Zappa was one of the great renaissance men of our time. There's no debating the man's sharp wit, observant intelligence, dazzling technical facility, and prolificacy, and it's impossible to knock on his passionate fight against Tipper Gore. But I wonder if anyone who's been polishing Zappa's reputation in the last few months has actually listened to the music. I'd rather have splinters wedged under my cuticles.
I wasn't about to tackle all 53 CDs, so I chose six of them, each generally considered to be a Zappa classic. I'd never actively listened to much of his music and had chalked up my indifference to being unfamiliar with his work. But now, after spending seemingly endless hours with these six albums, I've come to the conclusion that paying close attention to Zappa's music is a big mistake. Based on my survey, which left out his avant-garde/classical works and obsessive guitar solo collections, I've determined that Zappa played at music, engaging in it only to comment on it; he attempted to make musically complex comedy albums, but they had a dearth of good jokes--unless, of course, one considers countless scatological and/or sexist references a regular laugh riot. Zappa unsparingly attacked everyone and everything, and thus his criticisms have become meaningless.
Hot Rats (1969) is primarily instrumental--with the notable exception of Zappa protege Captain Beefheart lending his inimitable vocal stylings to "Willie the Pimp"--which helped define the following decade of indulgent fusion wankery. It's a record with many notes. Unfortunately, most of them sit there limply. Its soulless technoid virtuosity is generally appreciated only by other musicians who are envious of Zappa's dexterity. Guitarist Larry Lalonde of Primus, perhaps the leading Zappa-influenced jag-offs of the alternative-rock world, claims that playing in his Zappa cover band Caca--shit, what a funny concept!--is "a great way to improve your playing." And hitting a tennis ball against a wall is a great way to better your stroke, but no one wants to watch it on TV.
Throughout the 60s most of Zappa's albums were released with the shifting ensemble the Mothers of Invention. We're Only in It for the Money (1968) parodied the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and hippie culture in general. Endless attacks on ready-made psychedelic lifestyles--"Think I'll just DROP OUT / I'll go to Frisco / Buy a wig & sleep / On Owsley's floor"--are chuckle-worthy, but like most of his humor they reek of such smug self-satisfaction that after awhile you wonder who voted Zappa society's judge. His dizzying, rough-hewn pastiche of relentlessly quirky arrangements, goofy singing, and wacky stylistic shifts further distances the music from any heartfelt investment. Zappa doesn't seem to care about this crap, so why should we? Bits of interesting experimental electronic music, such as the album's closer, "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny," are reduced by the meaningless swill that surrounds them. Freak Out!, a 1966 album with the Mothers, is a more conventional psychedelic guitar collection peppered with quotes from everything from doo-wop to free jazz that offers little more than incoherent drug-addled babble. Absolutely Free (1967) is equally cumbersome.
Over-nite Sensation (1973) adapts more traditional song structures, pairing ultrafluid playing with sex-ridden, absurdist storytelling. Beyond Zappa's ultrasarcastic detached-TV-announcer vocal delivery there's not much more than a handful of tedious fusionoid tricks. Apostrophe seems to be a concept album about dog piss and feces: "He took a dog-doo sno-cone / An' stuffed it in my right eye."
I guess I don't have the intestinal fortitude to engage in more rigorous investigations of his work; with each listen I felt more nauseous. Frank Zappa was a nasty person who made mean-spirited, empty music. If you actually enjoy listening to this stuff, well, I've got a Porta-John to sell you.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Shapiro.