Thursday, September 10, 2009

Zappatude – September 11, 2009

This has nothing to do with the week's theme. I just like looking at it.

What I've noticed over my Frank Zappa-liking career is that the same things you and I adore about him are what normal people don't – that is, if they know anything about him at all other than his kids' funny names.

The sheer imagination and freedom of expression in Zappa music must overwhelm musical tastes calibrated to narrower bandwidth. The blistering, dissonant guitar, rhythmic complexity, weird textures, wacky topics and all that naughty, naughty talk.

At the core of Frank's formidable armamentarium of sounds and ideas is his attitude. That's what animates everything, from his most intoxicating guitar solo to his most caustic appraisal of human nature, it's the Zappatude that makes it all possible. It's what really closes the deal between Frank and his devotees.

It's doubtful though, that as close as we may feel to what he's saying during various moments of his music, any of us has really taken in the whole of Frank's vision. But when we get it, we really get it.

So that's what it'll be Friday night when I sit in for Scatch: songs laden with Frank Zappaness. Engorged, even.

I always feel compelled to start the show with something that Chas's blues audience can vibe with, so a good, attitudey song for that purpose will be "Nig Biz." Then something else, and something else... and whatever you request.

We'll foment Frankitude for the Sept. 11, 2009 Zen Through Zappa's Grubby Chamber.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Pretend That You Are Stoopid – June 12, 2009

A random relic from a foamcore promotional
display for Tinseltown Rebellion.


Frank, unlike those of his contemporaries who were also ultra-competent at their craft, never shied away from sheer, relatively unbridled stupidity. He embraced his inner dunce, parodied stupidity, celebrated and condemned it and – thankfully for us – leveraged it for massive musical reward.

I can't see Weather Report or Return To Forever ever lowering themselves to play "A Little Green Rosetta" or "No Not Now." Why would they, when they can be noodling at 392 miles per hour in 17/9? Only... Frank could do that too, and did, but he also obtained acute enjoyment factors from doing stupid music (I mean that in the best sense of the term).

Of course Frank never did anything genuinely stupid. He couldn't help himself. There's cleverness bombs riddled throughout his most retardated repertoire. Have you ever seen a simulated child's drawing in a TV commercial? Sorry, you can always tell an adult made it. The one element of his music Frank couldn't seem to control was resisting the temptation to imbue even the most dopey ditty with brainy fun.

Hats off, by the way, to Pat Metheny, who doesn't suffer from the "elite muso syndrome" that afflicts so many of his fellow hyper-advanced jazzmen. (Tsk tsk; it's such a tragedy to lose someone to Seriousness.) If you haven't heard "Forward March" off First Circle, all I can say is, it's really stupid and also Zappa-worthy, and that's the highest compliment of all in the musical kingdom. I'll play "Forward March" on the June 12 show.

And our world famous/infuriating Friends of Frank segment will also feature the dumb/dumber doings of the likes of Mike Keneally, Steve Vai, Russ Stedman and... wait for it... Frank Fucking Sinatra.

I swear to god, if there's any artist that annoys – no, offends me the most it's Old Blue Mouth. I'd gladly listen to Bobby Goldsboro's oeuvre over and over with low-voltage shocks being applied to my gen-pack for all eternity than listen to Artanis and his asinine croonings. I depise Sinatra and his "wine" voice more than anyone in show biz. Except maybe John Wayne and David Broder. But the Chairman of the Board fucked up big time on a b-side, and you're going to hear it. If you know the backstory, feel free to share once you hear this masterpiece. Again, that'll be during Friends of Frank in the second hour.

So that's the deal: Stupidity Supreme on the June 12 Zen Through Zappa's Grubby Chamber.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Addie & Her Band – June 2, 2009

There are some scintillating discussions going on, as always, over at the ever-entertaining Kill Ugly Radio. It's the best dang Frank blog in the Zappasphere, at least in my booklet. It's my home base for Zappa buzz.

I've been participating in one particular thread, "Conversations with Jimmy Carl Black", and some of my acrid expectorations might benefit from visual aids. Below are two.

The top item is a handbill/flyer/poster for the Grandmothers show in Hayward, Calif. on Halloween, 1980. The one below that is a scan of the '80 Tour Book, which includes what are apparently the original – and much more explicit – lyrics to "We're Turning Again." Click to enlarge.

If you read through that comment thread, you'll see why these items are relevant.

What I want to know is, how do I contact Addie & her Band?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Spaces – May 29, 2009

How many times have I heard some muso supremo espouse the notion that, in so many words, "music is about spaces – not the notes, but the spaces between them."

Really? To me, it's about notes. Lots and lots of big fat delicious loud notes. But then I like car chase moves and robot-battle TV shows too (didn't Ahmet host one of those?).

Obviously, as with visual art, music involves use of positive and negative space. And there is plenty of both in Zappa music. So, in my never-ending quest to run Frank music through ever more abstruse conceptual continuity filters, on this week's Zen Through Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll enjoy cuts that include one or both of two functions:

• Somewhere within the song, there are no notes being played. There might be hangover decay from the last notes, but technically, there is complete cessation of activity, or

• There's a whole lotta air going on.

Well, there you have it. Spaces, gaps and air, plus your requests on this week's Zen Through Zappa's Grubby Chamber.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How Frank Zappa helped transcend class differences, avert mob justice and apprehend the drunken dipshit who whizzed in our elevator – March 7, 2009

Why did it hurt when this guy peed?

Some of you may know that the tango, which is not a very popular dance anymore, was at one time reputed to be a dance of unbridled passion. You may also know that I write the Police Log for the Arcata Eye newspaper.

The coplog has gained some well-earned disrepute for its rhetorical excesses, which sometimes work and sometimes don't. Any creative writer (or musician or painter for that matter) can attest that there are times when the muse is present and others when you have to fall back on mere technique.

Maybe it's the water, mama, maybe it's the tea. Or maybe it's the fact that there was incidental Zappa content to an item I was writing up this morning that made me go off on a big old tangent. Actually it was probably just that I experienced the incident – a relatively minor one of some boozed-out schlub pissing in the elevator at the building I work in. I'd like to point out that despite this infraction, he's probably a very nice young man on some level, his mom probably loves him and that one day, he'll make a fine loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care.

So I had a grand time writing this thing this morning (with coffee as my sole trendy chemical amusement aid). That doesn't necessarily mean that it will be any fun to read, in fact getting through the grating grandiloquence and annoying alliteration will probably be work for most people. But like Frank always said, if two or three people get it, it's worth everyone else not.
• Tuesday, February 17 2:55 p.m. When the elevator doors opened on the fourth floor of an historic Plaza storehouse, a baked, boozed or both young man clad in today’s exciting falling-down-pants fashion was, unfortunately, observed peeing in the corner as he slumped against the wall of the lift.

As he struggled with the daunting logistics of zipping up, the potted pisser undertook a half-hearted psyops effort intended to distance himself from culpability for the still-spreading pool of urine rapidly overtaking the elevator’s floor. “That’s gross... mmgmshnhff, man... like, mmffgmmn,” he slurred with unconvincing moral outrage in fluent dipshitese, as though the shimmering sewage had been unleashed by some other drunken schlub and he just happened to be standing in it with his Johnson deployed.

As the door opened on the second floor (the lobby of which was full of little kids running around and eating ice cream during their President’s Week school break), a crisply attired and well-groomed young woman began to enter, but was warded away from the tepid tidepool by the well-meaning witness, lest she befoul her footwear in the piquant pee-puddle.

Meanwhile, the confused culprit mounted a low-velocity getaway effort which was hampered somewhat by distracting technical difficulties with his zipper and with maintaining fashionably sub-nominal trouser elevation. Staggering down the hall and then stumbling down the stairs as the witness described him to the police via cell phone, the saggy-clad lad first offered to bash the witness’s fucking head in, then proceeded eastbound through an alley and then on a northbound course through the Plaza.

With police on the way, the enervated elevator effluator struggled mightily to shed outer layers of clothing so as to confound the description phoned in to police, though the newly exposed underlayers were just as easily described real-time to the APD dispatcher, who relayed the info to the officer en route.

Approaching a gaggle of goodtime gadabouts at the Plaza’s center, the low-effort liquifier motioned back to the persistent pursuer, painting him as an oppressor or stalker of some sort (“That mo-fo’s following me!”), perhaps hoping to rouse the rabble to a street-justicey intervention that would cut off the chase.

However, what the wee-wee wanderer wasn’t aware of was that, as fate would have it, the crimefighting cop-caller and the putative Plazoid posse had already set aside both class and lifestyle differences and male-bonded in deep and lasting fashion in days past over matters of profound common musical interest.

In spotting the vigilant witness that fleeing pee-boy had pointed out, the agglomerated idlers recognized him and began bellowing with animated glee and bursting into song, even.

they howled, invoking selected titles of the musical titan’s masterworks in spontaneous joy. “Dinah-Moe Humm! Suzy Creamcheese!” the Zappaphile ’Zoids howled, dancing in circles, riffing on air guitars and high-fiving the self-appointed central scrutinizer’s free right hand as he passed by, while he continued tracking the fleeing pissant’s journey via cell phone with the other. (Had the drippy dimbulb ever attained sufficient musical erudition to appreciate the broad-ranging and eclectic repertoire of Frank Zappa, he might have joined in the lyrical merriment with an ironic excerpt from “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” off Joe’s Garage, but alas, it was not to be.)

As the urinary incompetent meandered toward Tavern Row, police cars closed in, eventually encircling him at Ninth and H streets. On asking the witness and suspect what had happened, an officer’s investigation was interrupted by a cameo player in the drainage drama: an emaciated, prematurely wizened-looking traveler who had tagged along from the Plaza’s center. Volunteering to “mediate” the situation with his abundant spare time, the diminutive diplomat was sternly commanded to mind his own business by the officer. At this, the uninvited sprite dutifully reversed direction to rejoin his colleagues, still cavorting ’neath the stolid flanks of a battered Plaza statue.

Meanwhile, bladder boy continued to claim that he was the wronged party, sitting on the curb and sputtering out a spittle-flecked legal analysis to the effect that the witness’s reporting of his hoist-moistening misdeed was “illegal” and by extension, presumably inadmissible. Police weren’t swayed by the pro-bonehead legal advice from the curbside witness stand, and the vitiated varlet was soon in shackles, being chauffeured to a steel-and-concrete facility featuring more-than-ample modern conveniences to accommodate any further waste disposal imperatives, assuming the percolating poltroon can master the elusive intricacies of mechanical operation of the flush handle, which may be a leap of faith. There, he was booked on a public drunkenness charge.

The witness then returned to the storehouse with the intention of eradicating the fetid pool from the elevator, but a business there inexplicably refused to loan him their mop and bucket. This reversal was all the excuse the sewage Samaritan needed to give up on that distasteful chore and go about the non-urine related business which had been interrupted 10 minutes previous and four floors up, relevant passages from certain special songs still swirling through the canyons of his mind. Knirps for moisture.
Yes, this actually will appear in a community newspaper Wednesday, March 11, 2009.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Green Hotel – February 13, 2008

This ticket has no particular significance other than being kind of cool.
Almost the whole band signed it. This was the show me and Eric
got to see the soundcheck for.

Where'd they go, those good old days and all that crap we used to sell?

Hard times are here again, though as of this writing one may still purchase utterly useless manufactured goods, such as perfumed glossy fashion magazines featuring undernourished, dour models wearing the ugliest clothes imaginable. We'll probably be on the same caloric intake level as the beautifully sad specimens on those pages before the year is out, unless we eat the magazine.

Scatch asked me to do the Feb. 13 Zen Through Zappa, and since it means a lengthy late-night drive on Friday the 13th, I had no choice but to agree. What could go wrong?

All in all, the theme that suggests itself right about now is not bunnies in clover, no. But rather, hard luck – immediate and long-term, near and far. Like, say, the type which has enveloped civilization. In case you hadn't noticed, things are really rough these days. No, really really rough. But we still have Frank.

So what we'll do Friday the 13th is hit the streets, the mean streets of post-Bush America for some nitty-gritty. We'll swig some hooch with wino men on the Arcata Plaza (really, we will), hear episode No. 1 of the Grubby Chamber proto-podcast and toast our troubled times with relevant repertoire from you-know-who.

"Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel," "Trouble Every Day," "200 Years Old," "Teenage Prostitute," "Suicide Chump," "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," "Stick Together," "Flakes," "Yo Mama," Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" "Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station," "Wonderful Wino," "Dummy Up," "Can't Afford No Shoes," "San Ber'dino," "Stuff Up The Cracks" and "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" all seeme relevant in some way, and could get played. Along with whatever you have in mind.

KHUM becomes Hot Plate Heaven as we celebrate the Depression on Zen Through Zappa's Grubby Chamber Friday, Feb. 13.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Review: Zappa Plays Zappa, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, Dec. 31, 2008

Here's my review of the Zappa Plays Zappa show at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, on Dec. 31, 2008. But first, some art by Ward Shelley – a piece titled "Frank Zappa Chart ver. 1."

Dweezil and his fine ensemble offered an enjoyable evening of the Frank Zappa tunes we all love at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on New Year’s Eve 2008/9.

To hear this immortal music performed live, on such a grand scale by musicians of this caliber, is heartening. It may be decades before society catches up to Zappa’s genius. For now, it is kept alive by the beleaguered Zappa community – the listeners, musicians, bloggers and even a disc jockey or two – and, of course, by the dedicated work of his son.

Having been to two ZPZ concerts now, though, I’ve figured something basic out: even though the song list might be similar, you don’t go to ZPZ shows for the same reasons you used to go to to Frank Zappa shows.
The show

The show began with Dweezil saying that the band’s flight had been delayed and that they hadn’t had time for a thorough sound check, so “crazy things” might happen, even apart from the planned crazy things. And then they began.

Frank, and other bands with ambitious, that is to say acrobatic repertoire, like maybe Jethro Tull, often start their shows with something less demanding, to sort of limber up. Not Dweez and the gang. First up was “Inca Roads.” Thankfully, Dweezil did his own guitar solo, not replicating Frank’s, which is already well burned into all our minds.

Next was “Cosmick Debris,” with drummer Joe Travers on lead vocals. For the guitar solo, Dweezil actually unstrapped his SG and handed it to Ray White (rather ceremoniously, I thought, and after the spot for the solo had already begun). Ray did good, then handed the SG back to Dweezil for an outing. At one point he traded licks with Scheila Gonzales, and that was enjoyable.

Next, “Magic Fingers,” played at a slightly more sedate pace than Frank used to do it. In fact, most of the songs were at a more stately tempo than I remember Frank doing them. Then, “Carolina Hard Core Ecstacy,” during which, I thought, Mr. Travers began to play with more verve and gusto.

Then Dweezil invited the audience to sing along on the next song, but said that could be a challenge since it contained “4,000 words of text.” You guessed it: “Billy the Mountain.” I just did a word count on the transcription available here, and it’s actually 2,376 words. But close enough.

As a bonus, Billy was sung, mostly, by Billy Hulting, percussionist. That’s logical, since most of the vaudeville bits don’t require his sounds. Various bandmembers took turns doing Studebaker Hawk, to vast hilarity.

Overanalytical journalistic wankage begins here

Yes, it was all enjoyable, fun and entertaining, make no mistake. But, and not to get too “journalistic” about it, but Dweezil’s approach to “Billy” is where the essential riddle/conundrum/philosophical glitch with ZPZ comes into play. The performance was – with some refreshing exceptions – a carbon copy replication of the Flo & Eddie-based performance on Just Another Band From L.A. Even down to the little asides that Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan tossed off on the spur of the moment in Pauley Pavilion 36 years ago.

OK, well, that’s one way to go... except that, mercifully, there were some contemporizing adaptations. “Chief Reddin” became “Corey Feldman,” and instead of “Zubin Mehta,” it was “Gary Coleman.” Also, the band did something really great with extending the big “Studebaker Hawk” theme song. It was unexpected and really delightful that they mined those passages for more fun and frolic.

I simply don’t understand the concept of religiously replicating the way Frank performed a song on one particular album or tour decades ago. Even less do I understand taking that approach with the most ephemeral nuances of live performance in the original recording, but then, in the same song, massively revising a whole passage like the Studebaker Hawk song.

The main reason the cloning-of-old-arrangements-and-performances approach jars me is that it isn’t something Frank ever did, and I just don’t associate that kind of slavish adherence to the established as being part of the Zappa ethos.

Think about it –did you ever hear Frank do a song the same way twice? Even from night to night on the same tour, he mixed up the arrangements, tempos and certainly the order in which songs were performed.

To be fair, Dweezil did subvert the dominant paradigm to some mild degree. He “played the band” with hand signals at times, so that was a plus. But never did it produce the results Frank’s mischievous meddling did, which is understandable, since there was only one him.

When, after the previous ZPZ show I attended, I encouraged Dweezil to add a couple of his songs to the show (and he has some damn great ones), he dismissed it out of hand. For what it’s worth, I previously opined about this here.

It seems to me that Dweezil is too humble about his own compositional skills and perhaps too reverent of Dad’s stuff. I will presume to give him this advice, because I don’t believe that Frank thought his work was something that had to be entombed in one state for ever and ever: “Don’t you act like it’s made of gold.” In other words, bend it, play with it, tweak it. Hell, you’re a Zappa – no one will do reinterpret Frankness better than you. Oh, and don’t sell your own compositions short. They’re lovely, and Frankworthy.

Journalistic wankage ends there

Next was “Flakes,” with Dweezil by now playing a white Stratocaster. I didn’t particularly care for Scheila’s version of the faux-Dylan part, only because it was in such an exaggerated caricature of a voice that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Plus she was too close to the mic and it overdrove and sounded harsh and gravelly.

This was followed by “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” always a crowd pleaser. Then "Bamboozled By Love," done partly in double-time, an interesting choice. Then “King Kong,” which was loaded with band showcase solos. At one point, Les Claypool came out in a longcoat and chimp mask and played what looked like a segment of a bed frame with a string attached to it. He beat upon this device [since identified as a "Whamola" – h/t Clenn] with a drumstick while modulating the tension on the string and sort of dancing around as the band provided a soundtrack. It was during KK that Dweez conducted the band a la Frank.

For me, the standout solo was that of guitarist Jamie Kime. As at the previous ZPZ show I attended, he offered some truly original and intense sounds on his guitar. It was deeply impressive – this guy is a major talent.

Last song was “Willie The Pimp,” and it was red hot. The encore was “Muffin Man,” always the feel-good hit of the winter, or summer, or whatever season it’s played in.

And then, about 10:30 p.m., it was done. The road crew then hurriedly dismantled the ZPZ stage setup to make room for Les Claypool, and I was disappointed that Dweezil et al didn’t hang out to talk to the fans like last time. But there was so much feverish activity going on on the stage that they probably would have been in the way.

We didn’t stay for Les, because I had to drive 300-plus miles back to Arcata early the next morn in shitty weather.

A few observations

If you haven’t been to a “big rock show” lately, note that they have changed in one respect. Audience members now fuss with their cell phones throughout the concert, taking pictures of each other and the band, texting, checking their e-mail and even surfing the Web. Sometimes you look down at the stage (from Row R in our case) and the foreground is filled with literally dozens of little glowing screens.

And then there are the self-absorbed dickheads. Thankfully, no one right behind me was bellowing “WWWUUUHHHHH!” or talking throughout the solos this time, as has happened at lots of other shows.

Also, while the show was well attended, there were plenty of empty seats around us, including just about the whole row in front of me. That was a stroke of luck; others weren’t so fortunate. Several rows down, there were people wearing fucking top hats, which I’m sure were very fashionable and impressive to each other, but if you had to sit behind them, not so much. And yet they didn’t even take them off, apparently oblivious to the viewshed impacts the comical headgear was having on the people seated behind them.

There was also a large man in about Row L who was frequently moved to stand up and dance in place during a number of tunes. You could see the people behind him leaning this way and that to see what was going on on stage. It never fails to amaze me how self-centered and inconsiderate some people can be, even of fellow Zappa fans. Personally, there’s no way I could not be conscious of hindering someone else’s enjoyment if I was blocking their view or making noise. Captain Considerate, that’s me. Actually not, but it’s not in me to be a lout at a concert.

I didn't buy any of the ZPZ swag because it looked tacky. They didn't have any tour books or hats, and $30 for a T-shirt would be an inexcusable extravagance, even if it does say "Zappa" in ugly typography.

Also, I wish there was a way to have Ahmet be involved in all this. He's fun.

The takeaway

As I said, you wouldn’t go to a ZPZ show for the same reasons you went to Frank Zappa shows. I went to Frank concerts to be dazzled, surprised, shocked and to laugh my ass off. Zappa concerts always included moments when you turned to your friend who you came with and just looked at each other in slack-jawed wonder at the sheer originality of the music and the thought process behind it.

What I experienced on New Year’s Eve was an elegantly performed, loving tribute to some of the most clever and engaging music that I’m aware of. But hearing it performed in ways we’re already well familiar with means that many of those key shock-and-awe elements of Zappa concert enjoyment just aren’t there.

The other thing that was missing (except for Jamie Kime’s bit) was the intensity of a Frank show. Dweezil’s band was hot, but they didn’t burn. And there’s another thing separate and apart from that, something which Frank’s bands had an abundance of: spark. The ability to turn on a dime, with every note distinct. By comparison, the ZPZ band kind of lumbers through their paces.

Know what I mean? Even the amazing Joe Travers didn’t put everything into it that I know he has. He played with considerably more devotion to the cause at the tiny Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville with Mike Keneally in May, 2005 – for two dozen people. Joe was white-hot that night, but just workaday awesome for the thousands at the ZPZ show. Sorry, I’m spoiled.

The whole ZPZ thing is just a different approach to Frank music, and one which I suppose is fully valid unto itself. But would I drive 300 miles each way to experience this again? Unless Mr. Vai, Mr. Bozzio or – and this will never happen – Mr. Keneally were to be involved, probably not.