The Present Day Composer Has Died.

Mister Stick again.

I returned to The Bunker on Saturday morning to find sticky evidence of group entertainment from the night before. I questioned Caretaker Glenn on this. Some threats were needed before he blurted out the whole story, as usual… The two-faced swine. But apparently, Frank Zappa’s Baby Snakes and a concert film of Frank’s magnificent son Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa band were screened in my absence.

I am familiar with both of these examples of ‘alternative entertainment’, and in fact, can recommend them, along with just about everything else produced by the Zappa brand. Often great, not always, but never, NEVER boring. Which is most of the battle.

Anyone who followed FZ’s career, and perhaps read The Real Frank Zappa Book, knows that Frank, despite the risque choices exhibited in Baby Snakes for example, was a model parent. Frank’s recollection in the book, of the way that a tiny Diva Zappa made and sold Jell-O to the rest of the family, could melt even Sean Hannity’s calloused and shriveled heart (if the monstrous pig-man has one). The juxtaposition of those two concepts – Burlesque Magician and Father Of The Year – is way too much for the average Red Stater, of course. But celebrate and care for his family Frank most certainly did, so it’s no wonder his #1 Son has the same love of music, ace chops, and an even better band, all happily put to service in the resurrection of his father’s work. No… his father’s compositions.

And that facet of Frank’s talents, and the vacuum their absence has created, has put me at the keyboard today.

The family that records together...

Zappa was not a rock star. Sure, he regularly dressed like one. He had long hair for most of his career, true, and he delighted in some of the offerings laid at the altar of rock’n’roll depravity (yeah-hoo). But there was little else to recommend him as a rock star. He never scored a big hit, unless you count 1982’s “Valley Girl” single, which peaked at #32. That song never became a staple of Zappa concerts, and was, I would bet, purchased most often by title, as a novelty, and not because of an interest in the artist.

Besides pimping their chart hits, ‘Rock Stars’ must do three things, it seems to me: Appear on the cover of a middlebrow, catch-all rag like People, gather en masse with other rockers to support some charity, and battle an addiction. Zappa’s count: Nope, nope, and nope. He was loosely connected to some of the other whiz-kids of his time, like Lennon, Dylan, Alice Cooper, and Clapton, but he was not in the gang. Like Prince.

Instead of ‘rock star’, FZ was willing and eager to be branded as a composer, and despite Lester Bangs and others decrying his claim to that title as pompous, Frank did seem to make good on it in a literal way with a slew of ‘serious’ orchestral records that demonstrated that his always entertaining jazz/rock/comedy/guitar-freak-job records had a foundation of real music-sheet wizardry underneath (as if the middle part of “Inca Roads” didn’t make that clear).

Frank’s bodyguard, John Smothers, appears in Baby Snakes, and makes it clear that he wouldn’t have remained in Frank’s employ for long if it weren’t for Zappa’s ability to “make symphony music with a five-piece band” (to learn more of Bald-Headed John’s perspective, check out this interview).

I’m not sure I heard symphonies in songs like “Willie The Pimp” and “Po-Jama People”, but it was pretty clear that song construction, and the wild dynamics of the tunes, was the fundamental juice in Zappa’s work – even more than the blinding musicianship he demanded from his bands. In fact, that point – that songwriting is WAY more important than song playing – is a foundation of this listener’s philosophy to this day. Could be that Frank was one of the pushers behind that conviction. And that must be because he was such a wondrous capitalist. He made it great, but he made it to sell, he sold it, and then he made some more. He knew the size of his market, and he worked on a volume margin.

But what this bring us to is this: There are no clever composers in the loud and bright public venue anymore. When Zappa died in ’93, more than one obit used the word ‘unique’. Sadly, I don’t recall any that used the more appropriate word: Brave. But the gist of memorials at the time was that we won’t see the like of this cat again soon. True dat. ‘Cause we haven’t seen anyone like him since, and I don’t expect to. Notice I didn’t say ‘as good as him’. I said ‘like him’. As in anybody even ATTEMPTING to bring new music of the same hard-core musical foundation to a popular setting. Instead, we’re expected to settle for Rock Of Ages (imagine a jukebox musical of Zappa tunes – Hey, you know, that could work).

The Modern Day Composer’, a term coined by Frank’s hero, Edgar Varese, was redefined by Frank as somebody who could find a way to marry the lowdown and silly with challenging musical sculptures that swiped from every kind of pop music. This could only have been melded by somebody with serious music-school chops and barrels of nerve. They had to have the guts to serve up complex and compelling music with satire, and with Reeperbahn wit, and they would also have to finance it themselves, more or less.

See that happening today? No chance.

I can imagine a kid roaring out of Berklee or North Dallas with the brain battery big enough to produce something almost as multilateral as the Zappa canon. I cannot imagine him finding the initial launching pad in the marketplace needed to fuel his efforts, let alone sticking it out long enough to secure enough similarly-shaped loyal weirdo fanatics from said marketplace to crate sustaining compensation.

And so, the ‘Modern Day Composer’ remains quite dead. Before you list a myriad of modernist writers who appear only at tiny festivals, let me remind you: Zappa made records for big labels and sold quite a few. He found a platform, by fooling us into thinking he was another greasy rock guitar player with a dirty mind, and letting every myth grow like crabgrass. We came, giggling, for the Burlesque. But before we knew it, we were digging the orchestral knockout known as “Pedro’s Dowry.”

Bravery. I don’t see that in music anymore, either. And I don’t think it’s coincidence.

Mister ‘Thing-Fish’ Stick

Last album: Zappa and the Mothers – One Size Fits All

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Is Keith Moon Missing His Birthday Party, Or Are We?

Sad to hear of the passing of Jerry Leiber and also of Nick Ashford, particularly in a time when it’s hard to name any great contemporary songwriters. And in the midst of reading a little more about their respective careers, this overlooked fact popped up: Had Keith Moon somehow lived past September of ’78, he would have been 65 today.

Now, that statement is very unlikely itself, because had he not died from misuse of an anti-alcoholism medication (that’s right – this guy managed to overdose on the cure), it seems logical that he would have found some other way to check out before now. That’s harsh, I know, especially since, by all accounts, Moon was working hard at staying alive that summer of ’78. Well, working hard at not getting booted out of The Who, really, but that would have been the same as dying to him.

But face it: Moon without a drink would be like Groucho without glasses, and I have to believe that the minute he realized that being sober meant not having an excuse for the most outrageous behavior in the postal code, he would have gone back in the bottle. Were he here now, I think he would have been in and out of The Who a time or two, and Townshend’s continuous battle with himself, Roger Daltrey, and anybody else who still cares over whether or not The Who should exist would be far more pitiful, because Moon would be in the mix, and Pete, no matter his faults and contradictions, always wanted Keith to be happy. He does indeed show up for work if the team is really counting on him, as he did to save John Entwistle from bankruptcy. Entwistle would be just as dead today, by the way, whether Moonie were here or not.

I’ve heard people – toads, mostly – say that “some folks just are better off dying young.” Doubt it. I don’t know what Keith’s absolute expiration date had to be, but I certainly like to think that the available opportunities for mass-level clowning brought to us by the 1980s (MTV, Late Night With David Letterman, concert venues with giant crystal-clear video screens) would not have been wasted on him. To say nothing of the Internet. Imagine Keith Moon with Twitter. Dear God. We’d need a whole new set of those Homeland Security codes.

I can also imagine him getting his short-attention-span acting talents together and making lightning-strike appearances in Brit flicks like Baron Munchausen or Brazil. Or something a little more contemporary that could take advantage of a complete lunatic willing to play a lunatic. 12 Monkeys, maybe. The Coens might have been able to put him to work somehow.

I would have liked to have seen him make a truly worthwhile solo record to wash away the bad taste of his one attempt, Two Sides Of The Moon. A drums record next time, obviously, with a great cast of singers and a comedy track or two on each side. And I would have liked to have seen him recognized in his lifetime not just for being a great drummer, but for being a great musician. See, Keith had a gift for drumming with Pete’s guitar and between Roger’s vocals that was unbelievable. He listened very, very carefully and played his drums as a role in the show, somehow overdoing it but still not crushing anybody else. It would have been great to have seen him explain the importance of that to other drummers… To see him teach a bit, not just dazzle.

But I have to guess that those things would not have happened. Or if they had, they wouldn’t have been as fun as we might hope. They would have been accompanied by more painful experiences trying to play with The Who as an aging, tired, out of shape, sober man, and may have led to Moon becoming a bitter, nasty, tasteless piece of talk-show filler like his old pal, the completely unpleasant Oliver Reed. Nobody wanted to see that. And nobody wanted to see him become quiet and gentle either. Moon built a public personality that trapped him like a rat at the end of a hallway. If the rat could dance to keep beaten stomped, it would, but it would still be trapped.. And dancing itself to death.

As audiences do, we wanted to see the most ridiculous drummer ever go on astounding us forever, stopping his bashing only long enough to make another hysterical headline. And you see, that just ain’t possible. A revolutionary drummer, sure, but it would take a whole new slice of human to be able to give up his dependencies in favor of aging, and still deliver the goods that those dependancies helped insure – whether we like to admit that they helped or not.

So, was he better off dying at 32? No, I can’t say that. Everybody, especially those that stupefy the average slobs like me, deserves the chance to hammer out a happy middle age.

But that would have been hard for Keith Moon, though, and it could be that we’re better off not having had to watch him struggle… But I guess I would have risked that, if I had the chance.

Watch this instead: Keith Moon at Breaknock School, 1977

Stick says goodnight.

 

Current album: The 21st Century Guide To King Crimson, Volume One

 

Just What You Need: More Internet Music

Stick here, Bunker deep.

Today, I got wind of Spotify’s arrival Stateside. In case you are not acquainted, Spotify is the latest Internet music site to end all Internet music sites. It’s been thriving in Europa for a while, and apparently became Yankee-friendly on July 14. Basic idea seems to be that you can search for and play selections from millions of tunes, all for free, provided you don’t mind a narrow sound quality and some ads in your face. A few bucks a month relieves you of that burden. Seems like it’s been done before, but there’s supposedly something better under the hood this time.

I can hardly offer a review of the thing – Myself and the rest of the Pop Survivor swabbos have only just signed up and crossed the threshold, but the initial results were promising: As Litmus, I searched for, and found, Australia’s Greatest Band of All, The Motor City Sound From Down Under, some would say the Pappy Boyingtons of Aussie Punk, that’s right… Radio Birdman. A decent selection of The Birdman was located in milliseconds, offering first evidence that this might be a useful toy, at least until we’re distracted for the three seconds it takes to forget about something on the Internet (and don’t say “Like your blog”, Jocko).

See, I find all this ease-of-content related to Internet music sites to be a little disconcerting. And by ‘a little’, I mean ‘it’s starting to depress me beyond the point where reasonably-priced drugs can help’.

Exploring music, thus nurturing our addictions, used to involve a hunt that was in itself a satisfying thing. You’d catch the last half of some great new release on the radio and the mystery of it would take hold before anything else. Then the bugs would start to crawl up your spine – Who was that? What was the name of that tune? What stratagem shall I use to sooth this itch? These days, though, you breathe six notes of what you recall into an iPhone and the song you heard in the car is in your digital stash 5 seconds later. Is that really rewarding? Isn’t the anticipation and slow discovery part of the rush? And how long do you treasure the downloaded song? Until dinner? Maybe.

The Stick is no Luddite, and has the iTunes bill to prove it. But the insta-touch approach to music searching seems to yank stones from a damn, and much faster than is healthy for the valley below. You came to the Net to find a song you just heard or one you remember from way back, and before you know it, you are so flooded with options of songs to either play or download that you can’t recall why you opened the laptop in the first place. Playing the first 10 seconds of one tune from the thoroughly busy interfaces of iTunes, Pandora, or whatever-the-hell-it-is entices us to play something else. And RIGHT NOW. As if that little button was gonna disappear forever.

Music, like baseball, has the ability to teach us patience, and to show the value of the elusive. But how can it when everything is at our fingertips, and we’re hopping from tune to tune like a frog on Bennies? The ultra-quick fix can reduce music to White Castle. The more there is in front of you, the cheaper it is, the easier it is to root through, the more disposable it becomes. Somebody, supposedly, poured their guts into that tune, and we can move it in and out of our lives with three mouse-clicks. Don’t seem entirely right, does it?

But summer-sweat-soaked sofa philosophy aside, sites (okay, apps) like Spotify might be beneficial to blogolas like Pop Survivor. Maybe it’s just the thing for hipping you all to something worth your attention – and vice versa.

You hip to this thing? If so, advise The Stick. How can those of us in this small crusade wrench this tool into our own fists for the better good? That is, without reducing my bully pulpit to the pitfalls of social media.

Anti-social media, that’s what we need. Thin the herd a little.

– Mr. Stick, like I told you already, boy.

Current album – Miles, Live Evil

*Ever notice how we don’t mind referring to ourselves as Yankees in matters of international diplomacy, yet most of us – right-thinking people anyway – hate the pin-striped Yankees more than we hate syphilis?

You Say You ‘Love Jazz’? Then Get Away From Me.

Another fine road trip is behind us, and Monsieur Stick once again settles in to the bunker. Glenn asked me to say thanks to Follower Brad for the hospitality in Seattle. But Brad done nothin’ for The Stick, as usual.

Despite all the irresistible good vibes of the Pac NW, Pop Survivor returns to the airwaves with a gripe, a beef, and an itch dying to be shredded with a dental instrument.

Have you ever been in a conversation with somebody at a party, or maybe on a first date, and heard him or her say “I love jazz”? Sure you have. Next time you hear that, spin on your heel and hit the highway pronto. And Mister Stick offers this advice sitting in a room with hundreds of great jazz albums just inches away.

Why? Because that statement, “I love jazz”, can mean bad news in two ways. Either the person making this declaration has a definition of America’s greatest art form that is hollow and simplistic and incomprehensibly incomplete, or, perhaps worse, they have their ‘jazz cap’ on. The ‘cap’ is really a helmet, and the owner uses it to head-butt any even-minded person who may have ever championed any form of more popular music. In either case, “I love jazz” is what they say to show off, and is often part of the FaceBook profile of shallow dullards, and creepy, spiteful snobs.

How they say it tells you a lot about which category they fit: If they say it with a wry smile, drag out the word ‘jazz’ or dreamily underscore ‘love’, and if they are catalog-dressed and have a nice haircut (or hair at all) they probably like what has come to be known as ‘smooth jazz’ (sorry, I meant to say ‘Smoooooth jazz… Music for Sperm Whales that sip Chardonnay’). These folks think that this pallid plate of common fruit is the width and breadth of it all; That Dave Koz and Lee Ritenour and other Sunday Brunch Soundtrack-makers are really improving the purity of the planet’s oxygen.

However, if the person is cheaply bespectacled and wearing ill-fitting corduroy, and if they sneer or look past you when they say they love jazz, and sort of spit the word ‘jazz’ at you, then they probably are an anti-populist malinger who socializes mostly with a keyboard, and had a strong emotional connection to Quantum Leap.

What’s really fascinating is that these two tribes, who speak the same phrase, have next-to-nothing in common musically. Both groups use what they define as jazz to define themselves, yet neither has an open mind. One explores only vertically, while the other doesn’t explore at all.

‘Smoothies’, whose favorite radio station is likely known as ‘The Wave’, feel sophisticated for their choice of elevator music over anything with any kind of soul. ‘Jazzbos’, of course, are bigger fans, and dig deeper into the music, but they build a moat around themselves. The more time they spend memorizing Art Tatum’s discography, the more they alienate people who don’t know who Art Tatum was – and they seem to enjoy it.

Both groups feel superior to others, but in different ways. The first group like themselves way too much, and hope you will feel the same. Smoothies are far too easily satisfied. They take pride in having settled down with the most comfortable, easily digested kind of music around. It goes well with their wardrobe, which came first. Smooth jazz is like flavorless post-surgery Jell-O: No one would choose to eat it, yet it won’t make you barf, and it’s forgotten seconds after ingestion. Music is not fuel to smooth jazz fans; it’s not even aspirin. It’s a Mojito in a really nice glass. It’s just a rationalization for being 100% white bread.

Jazzbos, of course, take the opposite side of the bi-polar divide – They hate themselves, and they’re not real wild about you, either. They don’t wish to be liked, just admired for their intellectual stoicism. Life is a cold bitch to them, and they blame their woes on rock and roll and country and western and anything else that makes others happy. Then they despise others for being happy in the first place. We owe them something, and they want us to understand that.

Granted, the tastes of serious jazz freaks are way, way more rewarding than those who groove to the vapid lightweight drizzle of Kenny G. Lite Jazz from Miller is, obviously, the worst music on the planet, if for no other reason than it is made by the laziest of blow-dried, freeze-dried, just plain DRIED musicians. To be fair, this kind of jazz, if you accept it as such, is sometimes the only way instrumental writers and musicians can actually eat. No doubt that Larry Carlton drives a nicer car than Roy Hargrove. But just because many succumb to this cultural injustice is not reason enough for the crime family to exist. The only possible rationale for God allowing smooth jazz to thrive is that Chuck Mangione can be a gateway drug. For some of us, the most accessible, easily palatable jazz, the kind that seeped onto AM radio in the 1970s, had something that set a hook in our mouths. Of course, it was a tiny hook and we weren’t satisfied for long. So, rather than settling for just ‘feeling so good’, or pulling out the hook, we went looking for the hard stuff, on the theory that our parents might hate Pharoah Sanders as much as they hated Deep Purple or The Ramones (turns out, they hated it even more).

And once you are into heroin, you never crave pot again.

Those junkies who use hard jazz as a badge of honor surely have great tunes at home, and they certainly won’t deny that jazz is the center of the musical universe of the last 100 years. But they will resist the idea that there is any kind of universe beyond the center. To jazz jerks, the farther you get from Louis Armstrong, the stupider and more painful the world becomes. And, let’s face it, the land of serious jazz has its con men, too. There are musicians who can’t offer anything more than atonal squonks, but will call it ‘free jazz’, knowing that many serious jazz-heads will pay homage rather than admit confusion.

Do yourself a favor. Deny both the Jazzbos and the Smoothies access to your personal space. Jazz, while smelling funny, as Zappa put it, is such a rich world that it needn’t be hyped or pigeonholed at all. And if you don’t allow it to connect to every other worthy moment of music, your plate isn’t full. Jazz was made to mingle, to set alight every other kind of peoples’ music we have. You can get from Sidney Bechet to Rob Zombie in less than 10 moves, because Chuck Berry dug Charlie Christian. Therefore, we ALL love jazz, because it gave birth to everything after it.

If jazz is the coolest music, as those at both ends of its tether claim, then how about just being cool about it? Surely, it must be better to let your musical taste define you, than to use a brand of music to forcibly define yourself to others.

So, never say you love jazz. Instead, just listen to it, play it, buy it, read about it, and more than anything, be sure to mix it with everything else. You’ll be more interesting without even trying, and one hell of a lot easier to put up with.

 

Last album: Mozart, Sym. 32, 35 and 38, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Bohm