Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
« on: 2010-04-05 14:20:47 »
When he died in 1993, Frank Zappa left behind on immense body of work - nearly sixty albums and thirty years' worth of compositions and recorded performances. Happily for current and future fans, Zappa's record catalog appears to have passed into caring hands: Rykodisc has issued a fifty-seven-CD collection of Zappa-approved masters of his albums, complete with finer notes and artwork by Carl Schenkel and others. Of course, for those unfamiliar with Zappa's oeuvre, this presents the challenge of where to begin.
Drawing on sixteen albums, Strictly Commercial is on excellent point of departure. (Even if you hove a complete Zappa library and a trunk full of bootlegs, this disc is worth adding to your collection). Chronologically, the material ranges from "Trouble Every Day," a potent and haunting R&B meditation on local L.A. television coverage of the 1965 Watts riots, to "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, " a bluesy instrumental vamp from the 1988 Guitar. The nineteen cuts on Strictly Commercial celebrote Zappa's abrosive social commentary and his musical and poetic genius. And they show him joyously at the wheel of some topnotch bands.
Those who wish to dig (much) deeper can turn to The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Ben Watson explores the composer's life, his eclectic philosophy, and the dynamics of art and commerce in his discipline. That plus a nearly line-by-line and note-by-note examination of the recordings, ensures that this scholarly yet very reodoble book will be the definitive work on Frank Zappa for many years to come.
Zappa was dismissed for his lowbrow, scatological humor and lionized for his avant-garde compositions. Watson argues that each view is correct, but neither is complete. Zappa's art lies in the use of shock to illuminate the repressive mechanisms of everyday society. Whether skewering notions of love and romance, reporting on media, or simply playing flat-out rock'n'roll, Zappa challenged listeners to be aware of the cultural/social/political forces acting upon them, and to respond with creativity, intelligence and resolve.
The way Zappa's musique concrete integrates with the novel `surf effect [at the end of `Nasal Retentive Calliope Music'] is seamless (one more example of the way in which Zappa degrades the art status of various sounds). However, just as the beat gets going, the needle is shoved across the grooves to `Let's Make the Water Turn Black,' another song in the mockingly `light' style that characterizes Money's songs - Byrds-type strumming guitars and idiot falsettos. The same thing happens to the psychedelic heaven that concludes `Are You Hung Up?' - the listener is plunged without warning into one of the Mothers' teasing ditties. This need to play with the listener's craving for excitement is Zappa's forte: it is why many people hate his music, but to those who are interested in becoming conscious of their own impulses, it is invaluable.
There were failings at the heart of the hippie mentality that led to its easy co-option by the record industry. The hippies' accommodation to class society was expressed in their idealism, which recycled one of the basic tenets of middle-class ideology: the belief that true values are above commerce, above the here-and-now of material society. Unlike rock'n'roll, this meant that its relation to a mass audience could only be hypocritical. It explains why hippie bands were invariably photographed in the countryside: the `non-commercial' (as opposed to Zappa's anti-commercial) floats outside time in idealized nature. By contrast, Absolutely Free (1967) depicted a cityscape blocked with traffic. Zappa mentioned how disappointed he was with the music of the San Francisco scene, and it is easy to see why: its anthemic, folk-based meanderings had little relationship to either R&B or Edgar Varese. Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service provided a kind of pastel wallpaper to the hippie lifestyle.... Part of the hippie ethos was a hazy contempt for `product'; this entailed lifestyle soundtracks without great aesthetic ambitions. Everyone was only too happy to hear Jerry Garcia plunking away as they rolled their joints. These bands were explicitly pro-drugs, which directly contradicted what Zappa felt was a freak principle (though of course there had been plenty of drug-taking in LA). Most of all it was the philosophy that offended Zappa: in engaging with it he worked out a species of materialism, a defense of secular imagination and real-time capability that is truly inspiring (unless of course you are a hippie or an idealist, in which case he just bursts your balloon).
Freak Out! is still fascinating - not because it represents some purist alternative, but because it uses commercialism against itself. Zappa was still capable of playing off-the-leash, socking R&B (and showed this on `Trouble Every Day'), but he was too fascinated by contradiction to restrict himself to that base. The leering threat of Freak Out! a terrorizing hint that something unspeakably filthy is going on, was brilliantly coordinated with cover graphics and liner notes: it was designed to catch the interest of anyone as jaded as Zappa with the conformist rigmarole of high school. A record of `well-played' blues and avant-garde composition could not achieve the same miasma of defilement as achieved by perverting innocent pop.
Re:Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
« Reply #2 on: 2010-04-05 15:36:43 »
I was really hating John Lofton by the end of that interview. It wasn't just that I disagreed with him completely, but he acted stupidly obnoxious, interrupting constantly, yelling, violating personal space (he was almost jabbing Frank Zappa in the head), temporarily usurping the job of the show director, I was almost wondering if he was high on crack. Well, I suppose it wasn't PBS, and I'm sure antics like that are good for ratings. Zappa looked sane by comparison.
ps. plus Lofton demonstrated Godwin's Law by unnecessarily invoking Hitler and Nazis. A reliable BS detector in my experience.
A perfect example of "shout down the rational argument."
Yeah, however Zappa didn't exactly permit himself to be shouted down, and he always returned to his central argument quickly. It was outrageous behavior but he came verbally armed. I enjoy Zappa interviews almost as much as I enjoy his music. He always seems to know just the right angle and foils attempts at distraction.
And as far as his music goes, it was his shameless low-brow-ness that initially got my attention, and only later that I discovered so much more about him. The man was a seriously creative musician in all respects and in many musical mediums. Rock & roll just happened to be the money making aspect of it for him and still only a fraction of his art. He was also very much into avant guard and all kinds of other experimental stuff.