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.
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