On any street in any town

Hey, you know people, I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I wasn’t white.

That line from “Trouble Every Day,” inspired by the race riots that scorched through the Watts section of Los Angeles in August 1965, is probably the most nakedly emotional lyric to be found in the Frank Zappa song catalogue. The man was not a confessional songwriter, to put it mildly; sarcasm and absurdist humor were his chief methods for facing the larger world in his music. But when a drunken driving arrest became the spark that sent black residents into the streets to burn, loot and fight with police, Zappa — like anyone watching the smoke rise from the skyline of his own city — could only respond with confusion, anger and sadness. Those feelings burn through “Trouble Every Day,” the best song on Freak Out!, the 1966 debut album from the Mothers of Invention, released barely a month before the first anniversary of the riots.

Well I’m about to get sick
From watchin’ my TV
Been checkin’ out the news
Until my eyeballs fail to see
I mean they say that every day
Is just another rotten mess
And when it’s gonna change, my friends
Is anybody’s guess

So I’m watchin’ and I’m waitin’
Hopin’ for the best
Even think I’ll go to prayin’
Every time I hear ’em sayin’
That there’s no way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day
No way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day


Wednesday I watched the riot…
I seen the cops out on the street
Watched ’em throwin’ rocks and stuff
And chokin’ in the heat
Listened to reports
About the whiskey passin’ ’round
Seen the smoke and fire
And the market burnin’ down
Watched while everybody
On his street would take a turn
To stomp and smash and bash and crash
And slash and bust and burn

And I’m watchin’ and I’m waitin’
Hopin’ for the best
Even think I’ll go to prayin’
Every time I hear ’em sayin’
That there’s no way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day
No way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day

Well you can cool it,
You can heat it…
‘Cause, baby, I don’t need it…
Take your TV tube and eat it
‘N all that phony stuff on sports
‘N all THOSE unconfirmed reports
You know I watched that rotten box
Until my head began to hurt
From checkin’ out the way
The newsmen say they get the dirt
Before the guys on channel so-and-so
And further they assert
That any show they’ll interrupt
To bring you news if it comes up
They say that if the place blows up
They’ll be the first to tell
Because the boys they got downtown
Are workin’ hard and doin’ swell,
And if anybody gets the news
Before it hits the street,
They say that no one blabs it faster
Their coverage can’t be beat

And if another woman driver
Gets machine-gunned from her seat
They’ll send some joker with a Browning
And you’ll see it all complete

So I’m watchin’ and I’m waitin’
Hopin’ for the best
Even think I’ll go to prayin’
Every time I hear ’em sayin’
That there’s no way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day
No way to delay
That trouble comin’ every day

Hey you know something people
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lotsa times
I wish I could say I’m not white

Well, I seen the fires burnin’
And the local people turnin’
On the merchants and the shops
Who used to sell their brooms and mops
And every other household item
Watched the mob just turn and bite ’em
And they say it served ’em right
Because a few of them are white,
And it’s the same across the nation
Black & white discrimination
They’re yellin’ “You can’t understand me!”
And all the other crap they hand me
In the papers and TV
‘N all that mass stupidity
That seems to grow more every day
Each time you hear some nitwit say
He wants to go and do you in
Because the color of your skin
Just don’t appeal to him
(No matter if it’s black or white)
Because he’s out for blood tonight
You know we gotta sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many left
To see it really end
‘Cause the fire in the street
Ain’t like the fire in the heart
And in the eyes of all these people
Don’t you know that this could start
On any street in any town
In any state if any clown
Decides that now’s the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right
And if a million more agree
There ain’t no great society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
And the law refuses to see
If all that you can ever be
Is just a lousy janitor
Unless your uncle owns a store
You know that five in every four
Won’t amount to nothin’ more
Then watch the rats go across the floor
And make up songs about being poor
Blow your harmonica son!

This isn’t the place to analyze the roots of the Watts explosion: you can read the McCone Commission’s report on the riots, released in December 1965, and explore the numerous articles from the period. I’ll just note that the title of the report — Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning? — seemed downright prophetic as the decade progressed and the phrase “the long hot summer” took on a newly menacing sound. I wonder if that echoed in Zappa’s head as he wriote these lines:

You know we gotta sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many left
To see it really end

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2 thoughts on “On any street in any town

  1. Scott Stiefel says:

    When the Levee Breaks actually sounds a whole lot like this one – I’d never thought about it before today.

  2. Perezoso says:

    Those feelings burn through “Trouble Every Day,” the best song on Freak Out!, the 1966 debut album from the Mothers of Invention, released barely a month before the first anniversary of the riots.

    “Trouble every day” definitely rocks, and Frank’s rage seems pretty authentic, even kinda innocent–tho’ not sure if it’s best of Freak Out (wowie zowie’s pretty cool, as are the montages). Reminds me of Beefheart’s Safe as Milk–both have that, shall we say, Fontana Psychedelic R n B sound.

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