Thursday, April 26, 2007

We Have a Winner!

Just when I was about to give up on the nouveau abstrusion of it all, a learned FZ scholar has solved the mystery of Zappa's Grubby Chamber. That's right, you heard right – the term's etymology will be revealed on the show Friday night, April 27. Not only that, the meaning of "Zappa's Grubby Chamber" will be explained by Frank himself!

The winner, whom I will interview by telephone just after 10 p.m. (Ferndale time), will receive his ticket to the 1980 concert at Maples Pavilion along with a Zappa buck, above. These $100 bills were created by a fellow Frank fan back in the 1980s. I can't remember his name, but he was a guy who liked to make stuff. In those days, before Photoshop, it was done with paper and scissors, glue and a photocopier. I gave one of these cheesy bills to Frank one time, and he got a rather large charge out of it. In fact, it compelled him to track me down when he was on the road and write me a nice letter, postmarked New Orleans. I'll tell that tale in a future post.

I had a good time on the show last week – actual fun factors. It took a few shows to get used to the studio and procedures, but now we're rockin' with the tangy flavor of cheddar. We are moving forward, so to speak. What helps is audience participation, and I took calls from Garberville, Arcata and Tempe, Arizona. So, phone in requests and advice at (707) 786-5486 or e 'em in at

I was going to dwell on Early Frank and make a pilgrimage back to the first several albums, when he had to make do with sub-optimal resources, for this next show. I rarely listen to early Mothers, and should do so more often. I tend to dwell in the 1973-79 realm of Frank music, which is a lovely rut to be in.

But I'm feeling more free form at this point. For reasons having to do with the winner of the ZGC riddle (which will become apparent), I think I'll be departing from the primordial Mothers theme right off the bat. And I still owe Bob in Tempe a request for "Goblin Girl," which is one of Frank's most sweetly lascivious double entendre exercises, so we'll just see what happens. How about some controlled chaos? Works for me.

So, tune in Friday night as we reveal the mystery, wonder and enchantment of Zappa's Grubby Chamber!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guitar Player

Frank Zappa did a lot of things extremely well, any one of which could have been a complete career for someone else. He was, as we know, a consummate composer, producer, arranger, lyricist, satirist and all-around musician and showman... and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

But for some, Frank is most fondly remembered as a bitchin’ guitar player.

I’m not a guitarist, so the technical, music theory side of his guitar mastery is out of view for me. I do know that Frank approached guitar just as he did the other aspects of music – with total originality. Whether you’ve had any music training or not, you can just hear it.

I remember how at shows, Frank’s other splendid musicians – Messers Belew, Cuccurullo, Vai and others – would take a solo, and they’d be great. But then Frank would weigh in, and all bets were off. Things were suddenly on another level, or more like a different dimension entirely.

The initial notes of a Zappa solo were often a declaration of intent, and they were unmistakably Frank. A good example of this is that burst of near-obscene notes (actually the second phrase in the solo) in “Zoot Allures” on Does Humor Belong is Music? You can hear the audience responding to the volley of Frankishness.

If I had to pick, my single most favorite FZ solo would be one most people probably wouldn’t consider – the one in “Pick Me, I’m Clean” on Tinseltown Rebellion. It starts out almost like a conventional, melodic, even pretty guitar solo, but gets into some serious mischief before too long. I love the way how as the solo progresses, it kind of devolves from individual notes into diabolical chordal statements that just flow out of the speakers like molten lava. And of course, Vinnie Colaiuta matches Frank in providing the appropriate counterpoint, descending into washes along with the guitar.

Incidentally, here’s what Vinnie had to say about accompanying Frank in a 1982 interview with Modern Drummer magazine:
“He said, ‘I want you to listen to what I’m playing because I’m playing all those rhythms. When you accompany me, I don’t want you to just try to guess what they are and play some standard rhythmic fill. I want you to understand exactly where I’m at and communicate with me on that level.’ That forced me to try to improvise these polyrhythms and think in that way, which is not the norm by any stretch of the imagination.”
Vinnie and Frank were a great match. There's a lot in that interview about how Vinnie got hired, and it's utterly fascinating.

For sheer architecture, the solo in “Any Kind of Pain” on Broadway the Hard Way is an absolute masterpiece. Every note is simply perfect and irreplaceably relevant to the overall structure. (I’ve heard Mike Keneally joyously replicate this solo note-for-note.)

Frank, like all great guitarists (as opposed to the mere technicians), knew that it was about the Voice. You can hear any manner of human-equivalent vocalizations in his solos, from melodic singing to full-on arguments. And there’s some pretty despairing expressions of sadness in places on Joe’s Garage. I know that for many, the solo in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is the ultimate Zappa guitar solo, and I have no argument at all to counter that conclusion.

Is anyone else as huge a fan of L. Shankar's Zappa-produced Touch Me There album as I am? There are unmistakable Frank flourishes on that album's guitar parts as well. Frank's the only guy I know of who could actually play funny guitar. Some of the little notes on "Darlene" are giggle-inducing, to say the least. No one else would have done it that way.

That graphic up top, by the way, is the back cover of the 1980 tour book. Frank really liked that sunburst Les Paul.

So, for Zappa’s Grubby Chamber 3, it’s all about Guitar Frank. What’s your favorite FZ guitar solo? Why’s that, huh? Call or write with your requests, and we’ll make a dang show of it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Very Funny, Mr. Zappa

If you had to pick out the one characteristic that most distinguishes Frank Zappa from other musicians, what would it be?

Certainly his music is among the most ambitious, his guitar work as amazing as it gets, his concerts mind-blowing. But other progressive and art-rock musicians had these capabilities to varying degrees as well. What they didn't have, almost universally, is a sense of humor, at least not one they were willing to put on a record and go on the record with.

Frank's music was, as we know, heavily imbued with funniness. Some of it was naughty, some banal and heavy-handed, some of it subtle and ironic, and some of it even musical (like when Frank would "go Hawaiian" with that wonderful little Donny and Marie punctuation).

Everywhere in life we seek humor – at work, with our families and in social circumstances. And yet when it comes to music, for some reason we have to dwell endlessly on one subject: love (actually, lust in a polite disguise). Why?

Why must music be artificially stripped of the singular feature which distinguishes humans from the other beasties that roam this earth? Other critters may have fun, and play, but they don't seem to make too many jokes. We homo-sapes do this everywhere, in every circumstance. And yet, if music contains humor, it's not "serious." Sigh. 'Tis a puzzlement.

Frank, who, as we know, thought different, was right up front with not just the funny biznis, but the sex too. No metaphoric pussyfootin' for Mr. Z. Does humor belong in music? Hell yes!

So, Zappa's Grubby Chamber Number 2 for April 13, 2007, will be all about the ha-ha/ho-ho/hee-hee aspect of Frank Zappa. What's his funniest tune? His wittiest? What's an example of his musical humor? Have any other musicians dared to approach humor? (A few have, and I'll play them.)


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Do You Like My Band-Aid?

Thanks for the comments and suggestions, folks. Show No. 1 is shaping up, but, oddly, will likely be fairly amorphous. (Where'd you get that word, amorphous?) No high-concept conceptual continuity the first time out, except that which might accidentally occur. I'll probably just play some fun Frank while I get comfortable with the board and all the other frightening little tools that science has made available.

Since the "maiden voyage" holds rich promise to be a meltdown as I bungle in the jungle with KHUM's fantastic array of punchbuttons, I guess the de facto theme could be ugliness. As we know, Frank had a wonderful relationship with ugly. He took it to the limit in all forms, whether it was naughtiness, stupidity or graunchy guitar, and discovered the underlying beauty.

I always thought Frank promoted that which seems superficially ugly in order to get rid of the faint of heart who might expect cute (ick, bark heave) music, clearing the decks for stuff that has eyebrows, as he put it. Sometimes the music didn't have eyebrows in terms of being fiery or thrusting, but attained wonderment by being severely stoopid. As accomplished as FZ and his musos were, they, almost alone in the world of art rock, dared to play dumbly at times.

So I'll play some of these aesthetic violations Friday night – I'm thinking "Them or Us," some "Shut Up and Play Your Guitar," maybe "The Radio is Broken." Oh yeah, "Packard Goose," too. That one has some interesting observations on beauty (and journalism) before it goes into a bizarre and majestically ugly/beautiful guitar interlude. What else would go good with the ugliness theme? Ah! "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?"

Mystery, adventure and romance

No one's guessed the etymology of Zappa's Grubby Chamber yet. But it'll happen, and up top there is the Big Prize, such as it is, the winning contestant will receive. Yep, it's a genuine unused ticket, plucked from the garbage can in the hospitality room at Maples Pavilion.

The ticket's story is, my friend Eric and I had weaseled our way backstage at the show, as we were wont to do in those days. After scalvaging things like the sign to the band's dressing room and other effluvium, we enjoyed tasty snacks and then went rummaging around in the garbage. There we found reams of unused comps, and, of course, helped ourselves.

This and other bits of tid have been languishing in my filing cabinet lo these many years. It's about time they saw the light o' day. So, be the first to explain where ZGC came from and I'll mail the damn thing to yez. Then you can fetish the thing, use it as a band-aid or sell it on eBay.

And if there's anything you really wanna hear Friday night, well, keep it to yourself. No! I mean feel free to request it.

See you on the radio!