* “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.”
– Walt Whitman
Frank Zappa was a wicked blues-rock guitarist. Frank Zappa, too, was a relentless, sometimes deranged, satirist of pop culture and of humanity. And Frank Zappa was a man, a musician, living in what seemed like constant conflict between these two essentially unreconcilable forces.
Probably misunderstood, somewhat like Ween, who also had a penchant for writing certain songs for what seemed like the sole purpose of making fun of some entity or group of people, Zappa was born on December 21, 1940, 80 years ago, to perish on December 4, 1993, at age 52. He was a lifelong cigarette smoker who swore of drinking and drugs. His bands were composed of freakishly talented, classically trained virtuosos, one of whom, Ruth Underwood, could play complex melodies in septuplets, on xylophone.
He was also known to use terms like “poop chute” and “cornhole” within lyrics and to write entire songs about the prospective opportunity of women to whore themselves out to members of a band’s crew. His lewdness, though, never seemed to devolve into an obsession. It always dissipated promptly and gave way to some absolutely sublime musical catharsis, in the way of, say, “Rat Tomago,” one of the many show-stopping song-length guitar solos that act officially as separate “tracks,” populating his catalogue.
In short, to sum up, a cursory glance at his general m.o. would seem to yield the conclusion that he was an immature, petulant… well… a**hole, and he was at his best when he shut up and let his fingers do the shredding. And as a huge Zappa fan, maybe not lifelong but rather since I was midway through college and I’d developed a taste for long-winded instrumental music, I can’t VEHEMENTLY disagree with this position. I consider Zappa among the top 10 guitarists all time and if I had to pick one of his tracks to listen to the rest of my life it would have to be the title track on Apostrophe, a completely instrumental number.
In other words, when you get to the endeavor of asking what the PRIMARY statement is that an artist is trying to make in his career, I would say it would be in Zappa’s case the jazzy instrumental stuff like “Apostrophe”; “On the Bus” and of course, unfortunately, “Get a Little,” which for some reason strikes me as less the obvious porno music that “On the Bus” is and more a sort of bluesy-swampy mourning session at the rampant atrocity of rape that pervades our society. But then, I’m a Virgo, and an azure personality. I strive to see the good in people, by nature.
But Zappa tried to be a discursive rock musician. He really did. He just hated everything and everyone so da** much and today I was shocked and illuminated, I think, to learn that his birthday fell on the winter solstice, December 21, the darkest day of the year. Actually, just to juxtapose, my mom’s boyfriend’s birthday is June 21 and the guy is one of the friendliest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met in my life, with an unflappable, tireless energy about him, to the point where I had the thought that people who are born on the summer solstice are like a found art object. It’s almost like they don’t even feel the need to express through ulterior media of any sort because they are, in everyday life, in a constant state of effervescent interpersonal or occupational expression. With the winter babies, then, it’s almost like expression is obviated and mandated, with the soul in a constant battle with its own darkness.
Short of offering a completely reductive summary of Zappa’s overall work, though, I must insist that there are exceptions to this rule — there are pithy, sharp and viable satires like “Cosmik Debris,” chafing faux-mystics, and “Uncle Remus,” da**ing institutional racism and oppression. There’s also “Help, I’m a Rock,” which is just too hilarious to be pigeonholed in any sort of way under the sun, a parodic plea from the vantage point of an unfortunate soul who’s encountered the unfortunate predicament of actually being a rock. Hey, he just wants some help! But is it possible that Zappa sees something of himself in that rock, sort of like being under a large, occlusive structure and in a position to only see darkness?