For some, Frank Zappa was a musical iconoclast, capsizing the barriers between high and low culture. For others, he was a reactionary force, vilifying anything that didn't fit his cynical worldview. Ian Penman sits down with Zappa's newly reissued back catalogue and takes sides. This article originally appeared in The Wire 137 (July 1995).
For the pop life of me, I cannot see why anyone past the age of 17 would want to listen to Frank Zappa again, never mind revere him as a deep and important artist, never mind worship at the tottering edifice of his recollected, remastered and repackaged works. Surely the only pertinent use for Zappa was as an interim stage for young lads ‹ scared witless by what they suddenly perceive as the transience or hollowness of popular culture ‹ for whom Zappa represents a gi-normous prefab sneer of self-importance behind which they can shelter for a while. (And, lest we forget: in the pre-Viz, pre-Mayall and Edmondson 1970s, he was the only legitimate supplier of fart and bum and willy jokes).
When you're a Zappa fan, you're supplied with a number of get-out clauses from the idea of simple plain fun most of us plain simple folks get from popular culture. If you're still slightly nervous about the idea of worshipping some geeky, greasy-hair, guitar-stranglin' guy, there is Zappa's obeisance to notions of Western cultural fidelity (as witness his attempts at More Serious Works) to buoy up your sense of engagement with something bigger, something... Beyond. If you're just an average Bill 'n' Ted kinda guy, looking to gross out on guitars 'n' guffaws, then there is Zappa's blanket cynicism, misogyny, Catch 22 smutty humour (supposedly a parody of smutty attitudes ‹ yeah, and Are You Being Served is Hegel in hiding). And finally ‹ and perhaps most important of all for Frank's fan-boy club ‹ is the fact that all this would-be cultural iconoclasm is served up with its outsize Guitar Worship intact. So Frank's boys can genuflect at the feet of a Real Musician; they can collate and collect and fanzine-date each and every guitar solo into hermetic, cultural, slo-death oblivion ‹ while simultaneously pretending it's all being held suspended daintily between gilded quotation marks. Just like Frank did for most of his life. Instead of having to come out and face the difficult adult world of belief, lust, dirt, pain, you can instead strike ironic poses about belief, lust, dirt, pain; you can string ironic distancing effects like so many fairy lights, finally, around everything you do. Even unto your own aspirations.
At the beginning of his career, Zappa may have perceived one or two truths, whose pure toxicity proved too much for him. Not being someone whose genius was innately, genetically wild and crazy (no Beefheart, Iggy or Reed/Cale he), but who still wanted to be somehow, someway centre stage all the same (and all the time), he cast around. Could he be a leading edge satirist like Lenny Bruce, say? (No, because he wasn't innately... etc.) Could he be another Dylan, an irritant, generational Voice? No, because the economic veracity of the Song never was (and never would be) his forte. Then, why not just jack in all this rock culture bullshit he had such obvious contempt for from the very off, and stick to the Berlioz/Varèse beat, where he could carve out a respectable career as a 'modern composer'? Well, no, he wasn't quite good or brave enough for that, either. So, let's recap: can't sing, can't dance, not a pretty-boy or an intellectual, contemptuous of both the academy and the Street...
Welcome to Zappaland! A strange world of negative values and funhouse mirrors where acolytes spread out across the world, a demented glare in their eye, determined to persuade us non-believers of things that are manifestly not so. Just like Scientologists, who will earnestly tell you what a rocket scientist type guy L Ron really was (or still is), so the Zappoids buttonhole you with what a political giant he was, what a musicological genie, what a wit and a wag. But just because a few poor East Europeans deprived of guitar solos and anti-consumerist humour for a few decades made him Trade Minister Without Portfolio or something, this does not a Noam Chomsky make of the man who inflicted 200 Motels on the world.
Zappalytes say things like: "OK, by this point the humour was
getting a little oafish, and the endless tales of groupies and on
the road life is a little stale, and yes, perhaps we can even
detect a mouse-peep of misogyny here and there, but ‹ Wowee Zowee!
‹ check out the modal declension in the five minute solo on
"Limburger Corporation Wowser", it's about the third best version
on record so far! Hot poop!" No, they really do say things like
that. Even (or especially) the intelligent, grown-up ones. Even the
ones who have an otherwise coherent grasp of the adult world and
all its politics and evasions and lies claim him to be the author
of some kind of on-going modern Leviathan ‹ a splenetic
contemporary satire, withering in its attack, all-encompassing in
its range. Then you (and they) search for the actual targets of
this piercing worldview, and what do they (and you) find? Satires
on porn, wanking, dope, more porn, cocktail jazz, teenage girls,
disco music, more porn, TV evangelists (always a favourite stop-off
for the more intellectual rock star), um... session musicians...
I've been saying some of this stuff about Zappa for years, so when the staff here at The Ire (sic) sat me down with the first batch of Frank releases from the first stage of Rykodisc's all-embracing reissue programme (there are, naturally, lots of double and triple CD treats herein), I thought what a great chance to fire poison darts at the Emperor's pimply bod. I really would like to present you with a monumental, work-by-work deconstruction of the Zappa canon (I even started to write one: honest), but all those 'pressing' questions about matrix numbers and matching edits and how they differ from semi-legal bootlegs and so on, crumble into dust when confronted with just a few seconds of the globe-encircling smugness of that Zappa-knows-best voice intoning "Stinkfoot" or "Dinah Moe Hum". I mean, this is the sort of stuff you play real quiet so the neighbours don't think you're the sort of person who listens to this sort of stuff.
The classical pieces? About as desiccated as bourgeois formalism
gets. (The only time I got a genuine laugh out of these reissues
was reading an exasperated Zappa-penned sleeve note about how one
of his 'ground-breaking' pop/classical crossover performances had
to be curtailed when The LSO went off to the pub to get drunk
halfway through and never returned: Y-e-s! Let's hear it for that
Dunkirk spirit!) Doesn't even that supposed split between serious
and workaday popular idioms tell us something about him? You can
tell a lot by a person's language, and Zappa's ‹ both musicological
and critical ‹ is split between two poles: smut and seriousness,
both of which carry an overwhelming aura of anal retentiveness, of
shoring yourself up against an unmanageable world. The 'serious'
Zappa ultimately operates on the same double-bevel as the scabrous
stuff. It's so laced with his flashily dissimulated self-doubt and
Other-hatred that it points continually to itself as a parody of
its form, so that if the world catches on to what a big con trick
is being pulled, he can then turn around and say: "It's all just a
parody." Or: "You either get it or you don't." Zappa albums
valorise the idea of virtuoso instrumentalists and guitar heroes
(or rather, Jean Luc Ponty, Terry Bozzio and Steve Vai) to a point
which is beyond parody, however. We were always meant to worship
these people, make no mistake about it. (You can never get through
any piece on Zappa without certain giveaway buzz phrases cropping
up: "chops", "seamless virtuosity", "modal run", "great studio
sound", etc.) This is, in essence, as un-rock or un-subversive as
music can get, in a way that Terry Riley or Morton Feldman or John
Cage, say, never were: this is all about how fast your fingers can
go. ... And how low your sarcasm can dredge. Zappa takes the piss
out of some of the best things in the modern world (girls, drugs,
discos, S&M) without offering anything better in their place.
(Except colour-coded Boy's Own Record Collecting.) He took the piss
out of ‹ or hitched a ride on (as with doowop) ‹ the transient
world of Pop, but tell me this: if you were stuck on the proverbial
desert island, which disc(s) would you rather have ‹ one solitary
song by Brian Wilson or the entire Zappa back catalogue?
He had long hair but sneered at longhairs; he made a long and lucrative career out of endless guitar solos but sneered at other rock musicians; he constantly bumped his little tugboatful of 'compositions' up against the prows of the classical establishment, but he lambasted that, too. In stuff like "The Torture Never Stops" and "Dancing Fool" he got some of his biggest audiences by exploiting the very idea of exploitation he was supposedly upbraiding. He sneered at people who took drugs; he sneered at their parents who didn't. Most of all, he sneered at women; girls trying to get by in a world of hateful, mastery-obsessed fools like himself. He sneered at anything which represented the mess and fun and confusion of life. He sneered, in short, at anything/everything that wasn't Frank Zappa.
And all through this long, lonely night of merciless Reason, the only people who thought they weren't being sneered at were the fans. Well, how deluded can you get? Go ahead -you buy something called "Titties And Beer" and persuade yourself you're not the asshole and butt of the joke, and that not only are you not being sneered at but you're participating in a revolutionary act. That takes some kinda tortuous contortion of logic beyond most pop fans, so I guess maybe in the final analysis Zappa fans are smarter than the rest of us poor schlobs, at least as far as advanced sophistry goes.
As for the looming, monolithic, Mad King Ludwig shadow of this reissue programme ‹ think about it: there really isn't any equivalent of this sort of monomaniacal, anally-retentive, self-congratulatory madness in cinema or literature. (There is, of course, in music: Zappa is nothing if not a kind of weird 'n' whacky Wagner for junior Ring-spotters). This is not because Zappa's career in popular music represents some kind of brave singularity ‹ it's because elsewhere is real culture and (t)his is ersatz. Compare him with anyone from George Clinton to Can to Sun Ra to Miles Davis (some of whom have their own reissue programmes underway) ‹ genuine breakthrough artists who didn't just reshuffle the given forms ‹ and realise that although Zappa built a career on purporting to despise the facades of Western consumer culture, he could never actually tear himself away from its value system (he just recycled it, reflected it back in myriad 'negative' forms); he could never step out of his circus-master role and plunge into the world of the Other.
The strangest feeling I got from listening to all this back-to-back, hyper-clean, remastered stuff is that Zappa ‹ supposedly the great arch-modernist, the man who lived inside a studio console ‹ was actually on some level scared witless of technology; or that he could only approach it (like everything else) as something to be mastered, a kind of aural vacuum cleaner for his archives, and that any real mind-scrambling interface with music-as-techne or techne-as-music was quite beyond his scope; that any rending of the veil of the future and away from his beloved twin antiquarian unreconstructed poles of Guitar and Symphony would have sent him gibbering into a permanent yesteryear. Modern composer? Please. Like those poor fools who early on in their careers get stuck in one pose of drug-taking Wild Man or buffoon, Zappa early on got saddled with a job description of iconoclast, and there is nothing more wearing than nearly 30 years of neat, tidy, conscientious, sniping iconoclasm. The only way Zappa could ever wow anyone, finally, was through quantity not quality. He was a jack-off of all trades, and master of none.