Tag Archives: Zappadan: 2008

Conceptual continuity

And so Zappadan 2008 enters the history books. Hats off to The Aristocrats and everybody else who pitched in. It’s been a lot of fun.

As soon as this guff about . . . oh, you know, Christmas . . . New Year’s . . . Summer . . . Halloween . . . Thanksgiving . . . gets cleared out of the way, we can start planning for Zappadan 2009. Until then, let me close with an example of Zappa’s return to certain musical themes and ideas over the three decades of his career — a practice he called “conceptual continuity.”

Start with “Dog Breath Variations” from Uncle Meat:

And follow it through A Token of His Extreme:

And here it is, morphed into “Black Napkins” from Zoot Allures. That’s Adrian Belew playing alongside Zappa in this 1977 clip:

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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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Blue Monday (Sugarcane Zappadan Edition)

Don “Sugarcane” Harris is probably best remembered today by Zappatistas for his scorching electric violin performance on “Directly From My Heart to You,” the Little Richard tune that provides the demanding album Weasels Ripped My Flesh with a welcome note of soul. I like the way Harris sometimes makes his violin sound like a blues harp. I also love his lengthy solo on “Little House I Used to Live In,” the standout track on the outstanding Mothers collection Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Even though he made outstanding contributions to those records, Harris had a lengthy career in his own right and hardly deserves his current obscurity.

Harris started out in music in the mid-1950s as a team with Dewey Terry, and as Don and Dewey the two write such early rock and roll standards as “Leaving It All Up to You,” “Farmer John” and “Justine.” Those recordings often featured the work of drummer Earl Palmer, a fascinating character in his own right, who died this past September after a 60-year career that included sessions with Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Jan and Dean and even Tom Waits, who hired Palmer for his Blue Valentine album. But I’m losing the thread here.

Though he was a skilled guitarist as well, Harris made the electric violin his signature instrument following his breakup with Dewey Terry in the 1960s. He was noted for using a wah-wah pedal and other guitar effects in his playing, and he had plenty of session work with white blues-rock and psychedelic outfits.  Along with his stint as one of the later iterations of the Mothers of Invention, Harris played with British rocker John Mayall, who featured Harris in his Bluesbreakers. Check out his performance of “Crying” on Mayall’s USA Union disc:

Harris later joined psychedelic guitarist Harvey Mandel in the band Pure Food and Drug Act, an ironic name given that Harris undermined his career and health with drug abuse. As late as the 1980s Harris was still plugging away with an experimental rock group called Tupelo Chain Sex. He died on November 30, 1999.

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Zen Voodoo

weasels1

Frank Zappa launched the careers of scores of musicians, but he also gave some artists their first turn in the spotlight. One of them was Neon Park, aka Martin Muller, a Bay Area poster artist who earned himself overnight notoriety for his cover art on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, one of the Mothers of Invention albums Zappa released in 1970.

Park  was working for a design group called Family Dog when he got a phone call from Zappa, who asked him to come down to Los Angeles for a meeting. According to Park, Zappa showed him a men’s magazine with a cover showing a shirtless man standing waist-deep in bloody water, trying to fight off a mob of bloodthirsty weasels. The accompanying article was called “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” Zappa challenged Park to come up with something even worse, and the resulting image was so disturbing to contemporary sensibilities that Zappa had to face down Warner Bros., which at first refused to release the album, and then the printing company, where one of the employees refused even to touch the painting.

One of the performers on that album was a slide guitarist named Lowell George, who started the band Little Feat after quitting (or being fired from) the Mothers, and who was sufficiently impressed to use Neon Park for the cover of the sailinshoesFeat’s second album, Sailin’ Shoes. Park’s paintings are on all the classic Feat albums, and the Zappa boost established him as a commercial magazine illustrator as well.

Park called his style “Zen Voodoo,” and in later years he broadened his magic realist approach with a series of taped paintings in which he would paint successive images over the same  canvas, each time peeling away strips of tape to create a blurring between the images. When a degenerative disease kept him from using his hands to paint, he took to writing poetry, tapping it out one-fingered on a typewriter as the disease worsened.

The disease that finally carried Park off in 1993 was amyotrphic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly konwn as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” When his doctor delivered the diagnosis, Park reportedly said, “And I don’t even like baseball!” For that kind of savoir-faire, and in keeping with the spirit of Zappadan, we raise a glass of some Pop Art colored beverage to the memory of Neon Park.

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‘Montana’ on my mind

Because some days you just want to hear a song about dental floss.

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The Captain and He

The first time I heard Captain Beefheart, I thought I was listening to a long lost Howlin’ Wolf outtake. Then the jangling weirdness of the music started to kick in. As you can see from the song above, “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man,” Beefheart had his own take on the blues, which he undercut with all kinds of disparate influences. His influence can be heard in everything from Public Image Ltd. to the Swordfishtrombones era Tom Waits. After touring with Beefheart in the early 1980s, jazz-fusion guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer said, “When I listened to him, I realized where a lot of stuff I’d been hearing came from.”

Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, was a childhood friend of Frank Zappa, who produced — in a manner of speaking — Beefheart’s third album, the clamorous Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart sang on “Willie the Pimp,” the only vocal track on Zappa’s Hot Rats, and the two collaborated outright on the 1975 concert album Bongo Fury. Here’s a clip from an interview in which Zappa — looking weak and ravaged shortly before his death from prostate cancer — reminisces a bit about Beefheart:

Though Trout Mask Replica has the hipper-than-thou vote as Beefheart’s greatest record, I have to say I find it pretty much unlistenable except for scattered bits and the long poem “Orange Claw Hammer.” Doc at the Radar Station is much the superior “weird” Beefheart record, while the title of best “straight” Beefheart goes to Clear Spot, which includes one of his loveliest songs, “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.” It was a pleasant surprise to hear it on the soundtrack while watching The Big Lebowski.

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The poodle papers

Poodles were to Frank Zappa what clowns were to Charles Mingus, or pinheads to the Ramones: a source of inspiration, an image of deep personal significance, a unifying thread in a sometimes scattered career. There is, for example, the legendary “poodle lecture,” which is publicly available only on the 2004 bootleg An Evening in Detroit, recorded during a 1976 show at Cobo Hall.

In the interests of stimulating collegial debate, and to honor the Zappadan season,  I would suggest that the poodle obsession finds its most spectacular expression with “Cheepnis,” Zappa’s homage to grade-Z monster movies, featuring the terrifying giant poodle Frunobulax.

As Zappa himself disclosed in The Real Frank Zappa Book, the family had a sheepdog named Fruney, and the name inspired . . . well, you know. This clever video, collated from snippets of exactly the kinds of movies Zappa was talking about, omits the spoken intro on Roxy and Elsewhere. As a public service, here is a transcript of what Zappa says:

Let me tell you something, do you like monster movies? Anybody? I LOVE monster movies, I simply adore monster movies, and the cheaper they are, the better they are. And cheepnis in the case of a monster movie has nothing to do with the budget of the film, although it helps, but true cheepnis is exemplified by visible nylon strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider . . . I’ll tell you, a good one that I saw one time, I think the name of the film was “IT CONQUERED THE WORLD,” and the . . . Did you ever see that one? The monster looks sort of like an inverted ice-cream cone with teeth around the bottom. It looks like a (phew!), like a teepee or . . . sort of a rounded off pup-tent affair, and, uh, it’s got fangs on the base of it, I don’t know why but it’s a very threatening sight, and then he’s got a frown and, you know, ugly mouth and everything, and there’s this one scene where the, uh, monster is coming out of a cave, see? There’s always a scene where they come out of a cave, at least once, and the rest of the cast . . . it musta been made around the 1950’s, the lapels are about like that wide, the ties are about that wide and about this short, and they always have a little revolver that they’re gonna shoot the monster with, and there is always a girl who falls down and twists her ankle . . . heh-hey! Of course there is! You know how they are, the weaker sex and everything, twisting their ankle on behalf of the little ice-cream cone. Well in this particular scene, in this scene, folks, they, uh, they didn’t wanna re-take it ’cause it musta been so good they wanted to keep it, but they . . . when the monster came out of the cave, just over on the left hand side of the screen you can see about this much two-by-four attached to the bottom of the Thing as the guy is pushing it out, and then obviously off-camera somebody’s goin’: “NO! GET IT BACK!” And they drag it back just a little bit as the guy is goin’: “KCH! KCH!” Now that’s cheepnis. Awright. And this is “Cheepnis” here. One two three four . . .

A poodle also plays a role in the lyrics of  “Dirty Love,” from Over-Nite Sensation:

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Mikey likes it!

And so Zappadan rolls on. Frank Zappa performs “Black Napkins” from Zoot Allures on the Mike Freakin’ Douglas Show, 1976. In the second half of his appearance on the show, Zappa talks classical music and drugs with Mike Douglas, Jimmie Walker and Kenny Rogers. Douglas also screens a portion of A Token of His Extreme featuring Bruce Bickford’s striking clay animation.

It’s interesting to think that so much time would be accorded to Zappa, a third-tier guest who didn’t exactly blend in with the Mike Douglas audience. (The irony is that the clean-living workaholic Zappa may well have been the straightest guy on the show that afternoon.) I have to say I like the slower pace of the old talk shows, the way guests would mingle and chat with each other and, occasionally, say surprising and interesting things.   The Leno-Letterman rat-a-tat-tat pace in which guests come on, hype their latest product, then hustle off is grating and annoying.

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With an outfit like that, you better play good

Continuing our celebration of Zappadan and all (or most) things Frank Zappa-related, here’s “Stevie’s Spanking,” an epic guitar duel from the 1982 tour, with Steve Vai and Zappa throwing everything they’ve got at each other. If Stratocasters are built for speed, these guys are racing Lamborghinis. Though no slouch himself as a fretman, Zappa was unstinting in his praise for Vai’s technique, and in his albums from the early 1980s Zappa credits Vai with “Impossible Guitar” and “Strat Abuse.” Vai’s matching of guitar overdubs to Zappa’s vocal lines on some key songs are pretty much all that rescue The Man From Utopia from complete uselessness.

Here’s Vai talking about his audition with Zappa:

Zappa could be an exploitative prick in his business dealings with his players — he insisted on months of rehearsals not simply out of perfectionism, but also because he could pay his bands lower rates — but top-flight musicians still clamored to work with him because his work stretched them in all sorts of ways. For an aspiring flashmeister like Steve Vai, there was no higher-profile gig than a stretch with Frank Zappa. He went on to lead David Lee Roth’s first solo band (when it seemed like Roth could actually have a solo career) and has recorded several of his own albums that are beloved by guitar geeks like me.

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