Monday, August 20, 2012

Frank Zappa (slight return)

Two days of weekend marinating in Frank Zappa on Youtube and Wikipedia. And Zappa Jabawiki. When he talks in interviews he sounds intelligent but then you recall that he came on the pop scene a mere 25 or 27 years after the world was soaked in blood and a bloodletting of nearly a hundred million people not to mention the hundreds of thousands of American boys who gave their lives to keep the world from going to bloody snot. The wretched blood-soaked, meat market world that was WWII in the Pacific, and Europe 1940-45. Had there ever been anything like it? No. Yet we arrive a couple decades later and we get Frank Zappa going on about how oppressive is modern society: you can't say swear words on radio and TV and American is a repressive consumer society, to boot. Ah, and that cursed pop music. But smart people should be careful about their targets of satire. You need a real target and I’m afraid pop music as a target is lame, tame, etc. People aren’t born appreciators of art in music, or reading or movies or whatever. Sometimes a song, a sentimental or even a sappy tune or a sentimental movie can be the only entrance door to the imagination that many kids have available to them. Even as an adult I’ve swooned to all kinds of music: Ravel, Debussy, Villa Lobos Mozart and Beethoven. As an adult Baden Powell sent me to Brazil and the tropics as did Jobim and Villa Lobos. Am I now a sap and a sentimental dolt for being carried away by these composers? Well Zappa takes on a pretty big barn by satirizing the pop song and music industry. . pop music at its worst is almost self-parody and doesn’t deserve the ridicule that FZ heaps upon it. Eric hoffer often noted that the avant garde didn't always emerge from the most skilled members of a particular field of art; that much of it was clumsy or misguided in presentation; yet it opened the way for further and better experimentation. The late 1960s saw a big push to say swear words over the radio and TV: Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin and the rest. A world with public swear words, how wonderful. A low point in Zappa's work arrives with “Cops and Buns” wherein a civil servant, a tired cop, is harassed when he arrives at Zappa's New York walk up to advise them to turn their musci down. There follows smarm and irony, the late-night studio goings on and the teasing of the tired cop. Yeah, authority is there to be harassed. I suppose you can make a case for an overarching oppressive society but Zappa got all the attention he wanted and his career was allowed to do what it did under the auspices of a fairly benevolent if not maddened political landscape of the late 1960s. Again when Zappa talks about music he makes clear and wonderful sense. When he talks politics and society he sounds like a dunderhead. But then the kicker is why didn’t anyone have the common sense to tell him that? If he had just stuck to promoting his music in clever and funny ways, well, OK. But the American entertainment industry had a lot to answer for: why were the great black acts of American culture never celebrated as they should have been? Black and Latino musicians never had much of a chance on Ed Sullivan or any of the big variety shows. Guitar Slim, Johnny Guitar Watson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf…Zappa knew what he was doing, appealing to the inner 13 year-old boy and calling it revolutionary. Again you see the lack of literature in all this. He hadn’t read Henry Miller. Or even Flaubert. Flaubert sends up cliché and popular culture, see the Opera section of Madame Bovary. This lousing up the bourgeoisie is old hat. But I give Zappa points for getting out there and laying his ass on the line with his compositions. For pushing musicians to the brink. For not hiding away in academia. For blowing the lid off the classical music culture, exposing unions and the scam of playing continually work in the public domain. So here comes Frank shouting about everything with bonehead political ideas thrown in for good measure, Howard Zinn and Chomsky, et al. but he really did have something to say when it came to music and creativity. America is so free and her citizens so dense. Why don’t we do more with our individuality? Now that is a good question. The pop music industry is built upon cuteness, that is a Zappa insight, true if obvious. A bunch of old talented guys are not going to get noticed unless they freak out, as it were, wearing dresses and growing wild hair. And that is what Zappa did. Watching American Idol and other knockoff TV shows you see the pop industry is worse than ever. It’s all money and Justin Beeber and other Cute-Bots that help little girls scream. FZ expressed the natural frustration about an industry, popular music, attached to little adolescent girls sex drives; it would be hard to run a steel company or a brick factory that way. How do you incorporate mature professionalism, dedication and application to get good at an instrument? Like a lot of intelligent people who don’t read books or who haven’t read many books, who don’t have a mind shaped by reading, FZ reinvents the wheel; many of his big concerns had been dealt with long ago, and their expression is old hat; worse he doesn’t realize how old hat he is. Then, on the other hand, you get a lot of well read people who don’t know hell-all. Zappa thought changing time in songs was more than it was. He also presented a mixmash of living theater, musical theater, harmony vocal groups, soul, funk, R & B, outright rock, cartoon music, Spike Jones, modern symphonic music, a total mashup. Sometimes a bit too much Zappa and not enough just plain old music. Despise the part of him that sat up there with media access while he trashed the president and the country just for his pet peeves. Things change. It was a different world after 1970. Big Mr. Non-Conformist. It would be easy to satirize the satirist. You can tell the intelligent but without a literary background; you are subject to thinking you are smarter than you really are. This is not about being overawed by the classics. It is about at least getting a handle on what has come before, getting the measure of your stature. Frank Zappa diddled with rock n roll and lost a lot of respect he should have had from the serious music community. But then again, how serious is the serious music community?