The excellent music blog run by Jeff Meshel has a nice appreciation of Frank Zappa up, focusing on the song—if you can call it that—“Help I’m a Rock”, from the Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out!
I grok where Meshel is coming from. He and I are contemporaries and have a lot in common. We fell under the spell of the times in nearly identical ways, inhaling deeply the Something in the Air that was present between the period roughly coincident with the Beatles as a group—1964 to around 1970.
Not that it was all about the Beatles. They may have kicked it off but a lot more than their music happened in the next six years, musically, politically and culturally. And things proceeded at a breakneck pace, helter-skelter, fast (and bulbous) enough as to be unsustainable and destined to crash. Which it did for the most part by the end of the decade, with the break-up of the Beatles being just one indication of the collapse.
As Meshel puts it:
My perception today is that Things (i.e., music and the cultural revolution it expressed) happened from The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964 to Altamont (August 1969) or the release of “Let It Be” (May 1970), take your pick. Everything before was preparation. Everything after was aftermath.
Meshel’s account of how he responded to Freak Out! when it came out in 1966 is uncannily like my own.
Suzie, you have no idea how off the charts “Freak Out!” was. The word ‘freak’ was strictly a pejorative in those days (that means ‘a bad word’). The hippie scene was nascent, hardly mentioned in the white boxer-short media. My grandfather saw me, the harbinger of fashion, in cut-off jeans, and asked why I was wearing torn clothing. “It’s the fashion,” I replied. “Oh, the fashion,” he nodded, lighting his pipe, comprehending yet bewildered.
In those days good was good, bad was bad. Good kids wanted to be good. They certainly didn’t want to be freaks. Me? “Freak Out!” entranced me. My parents, who really were not members of the Brain Police might have confiscated the album, had I not hidden it in a plain brown rapper. It was that outrageous. Thirty years later it was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and voted among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
I was similarly gob-smacked. As a high-school junior in 1966 I was basically a kid out of the Mothers’ song “Status Back Baby”:
I’m losin’ status at the high school
I used to think that it was my school . . .
WOW WOW WOW!
I was the king of every school activity
But that’s no more . . . oh mama!
What will come of me?
I actually was the king of every school activity. My yearbook has more entries for activities than anyone else in my graduating class.
But even so I had already checked out of activities by senior year, under the weight of, and following the stern but humorous command of, Zappa. He was that influential.
Freak Out! was followed by Absolutely Free, to me a quantum leap beyond the first album musically and in terms of the rough, pro-freak, anti-status quo message it put across. That was another big prod for me in senior year to drop out of the whole high school scene.
But then, in the annus mirabilus of 1967, I went to — where else? — college, and We’re Only in it for the Money was released. To me this was yet another quantum leap musically and message-wise: a dense, witty, processed montage of music, tape splices, visual images and cultural references; a total and totalizing world view; an odd inversion of Sgt. Pepper, maybe; a kick in the groin not only to Mom and Dad but “phony hippies”, too.
Frank had taken aim at me as a high school activity king and I lapped it up. Now he was down on all the phony hippies who did not make it all the way to the “freak” side of the river, and I loved that, too. Like Meshel, I proceeded through this period not as a true freak–though the image was alluring–but mostly as a collegiate hippie-style product.
Obviously there were contradictory elements to my admiration of Zappa’s music, and of my own countercultural identity. But that was part of the era’s charm, as well as one of the reasons for its collapse before too long.
And heck I was not the only one exhibiting internal contradictions. Frank himself was poised oddly between competing poles of libertarianism and fascism. We should all be free to sing and dance and love–and LISTEN UP you will do it my way.
Bang, bang, bang. But after those three albums nothing was the same. The deflation had a lot to do with the times, and my own aging out as I got into my twenties. But I think it had something to do with the music, too.
You write that Zappa did a lot of good music after Money, and I agree. I stayed with him through Lumpy Gravy, Hot Rats, Waka Jawaka, Uncle Meat, Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Chunga’s Revenge with only minor fall off from the first trilogy. But then after that . . .
I never quite warmed to the Flo and Eddie edition. I mean, he kind of needed someone other than himself on vocals considering he was limited in that category–his voice works on “Trouble Comin’ Every Day” and such but face it he lacked vocal chops. It’s just a greasy baritone of no great distinction. Ray Collins worked well at the outset and the vocal stuff in Money was so overworked and tweaked that who sang didn’t make much difference. But with Collins gone Flo and Eddie arrived in the vocal (and humor) department and it just didn’t work for me. I never liked 200 Motels
Of course all of this is still “early period” Zappa, taking us only to the early 70s, and there were many more periods to come after that. Some I paid attention to; others not. So I can’t hold myself out as any kind of expert on Joe’s Garage, Sleep-Dirt and later stuff.
I will say I always found him to be an excellent, fluid guitar player capable of wonderful licks, and I did pay attention to his guitar playing all the way through. Even as early as Uncle Meat, before he aspired to be a Guitar God, I thought this little solo at the end of “Uncle Meat Variations” to be one of the best things I’d ever heard, and listened to it over and over again appreciating the craft, creativity, wit and heart that went into it.
And that was one of my problems with him as time went on: heart. Or the lack of it. His early period was a perfect match for my own (muddled, callow) “early period”–late teen to around 20 or so. The music was challenging–indeed a hard one rammed “up the poop shoot” to use one of his elegant middle period phrases. It made fun of the things I wanted to make fun of–which is another way of saying the things in me that I knew I was. Someone afraid of losing status at the high school. Someone desperate to separate from the world my parents made. There is no avoiding that that was a key part of the appeal.
The music itself? Yeah, some of it was excellent, genius even, if you insist. But though I like “Help I’m a Rock” a lot (and loved it at the time for its chaotic insouciance) I am no fan of modernism in music, just as I am no fan of modernism in the other arts, especially architecture.
Zappa quotes Varèse on Freak Out!: “The present day composer refuses to die”. If only! Meshel likes “Help I’m a Rock” but does so, to his credit in a way, genuinely. He thinks it is a fine piece of modernism, Varèse-worthy, and worth listening to as music and not just as a statement of rebellion. Good for his integrity that he feels that way about the actual music. I don’t. The present day composer ought to pass away as far as I am concerned. And while Zappa did not ape Varèse that closely there is no doubt he considered himself, in his serious, non-Guitar God incarnation, to be a modernist composer. Alas, I don’t like musical modernism.
Which is the main reason that while I followed Zappa’s guitar in later years his compositions started to leave me cold. You can take an intellectual approach to music if you like and still have some instinctive feel for melody and harmony, at least as I understand those terms. His jagged phrasing seems to have flowed directly from his head to the sheet music without any pit stop at the heart. It is cold, mechanical and from time to time . . . ugly. And wasn’t it Frank himself who commanded that we kill ugly radio?