The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”
From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.
Some works have a destiny of their own, independent of the intentions of their authors. They arrive, unannounced, slam the door in your face, take residency in your house, and boss you around.
In the summer of 1994 I was a student at the Aspen Music School, taking piano lessons with Joseph Kalichstein and spending every moment I could reading books, which my parents were sending to me all the way from Siberia. Slowly, one parcel at a time, our large library was following me to the U.S. I still remember the smell of the thick, blue volume of Maeterlinck’s plays, that peculiar blend of old paper and print smell, which is forever associated in my memories with my childhood and our home in Russia. The moment I opened The Blind, I had a jolt of recognition. “This is a perfect anti-opera, or perhaps an a cappella opera,” was my first thought. “This is insane. There is no such thing as an a cappella opera, this is just not possible!” was my second thought. And before I knew it, I started sketching the libretto and the thematic material. A few weeks later, by the end of the Aspen Music Festival, I had a complete manuscript.
To this day it remains one of the strangest creations in my catalog. It was not commissioned; nobody seemed to want it. So, it went into my desk, where it remained for many years—until 2011, when the Berliner Kammeroper found out about its existence and asked to see the score.
Shortly after the Berlin premiere, Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theater presented its own production of The Blind. For the overture I selected an electronic piece, “After the End of Time,” which I composed in 1993. Its post-apocalyptic soundscape set the desired emotional frame for the opera. The overture was omitted in Berlin and shortened for the Moscow production. Lincoln Center Festival will be the first one to present it in its entirety.
When John La Bouchadiére approached me about producing this opera in the dark, I welcomed the idea. Previously, I had the unique experience of attending Dialogues in the Dark in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum. In our modern society we tend to rely on our vision above all other senses, yet we struggle to communicate and to truly “see” and know each other.
By allowing other senses to take over, although feeling disoriented and lost at first, we can discover and enrich the understanding of who we truly are. Religious symbolism underlying this opera is amplified by this “unseen” staging. By wearing a blindfold, one surrenders to the unknown, to the vulnerability of uncertainty. The illusion of predictability is stripped off, and one is left alone with questions. Questions often reveal more than answers, and I personally look forward to not seeing this visionary production.
The strings are the veins of music.
In the night, inside the piano,
They grow silence
Until it ripens and calls
To the composer, who gathers sounds
In the darkness, like a blind-man
Picking the wild flowers
Guided only by their fragrance.
RELEASES #81-94 (2007-2012)
81. The Dub Room Special! (CD, Zappa Records ZR 20006, August 24, 2007)
This is the soundtrack for a television program FZ put together in 1974 called "A Token of His Extreme." This planned show was released on DVD for the first time only recently.
However, the basic television broadcast was actually one of the very first video projects released by FZ's home label, Honker Home Video, and was entitled "The Dub Room Special." It featured FZ in a video mixing room (wearing the bizarre "stereo" helmet seen on the cover!) and moving between clips of the '74 band at KCET and the '81 band (Palladium, NYC, Halloween '81).
As stated above (#20), comparing the "Inca Roads" here with what ended up on the album is both instructive and awesome...
82. Wazoo (2CD, Vaulternative VR 2007-2, October 31, 2007)
A special document of an underappreciated and very much under-represented-by-recordings era.
FZ introduces the band:
... [Well, here we are in Boston, ladies and gentlemen. Just to fill you in on some of the zaniness that took place earlier this] ... afternoon. In the process of examining the stage to make sure that it was fit for human consumption, these large objects over here on the side with the horns on top of 'em—you know those speakers there?—they fell over backwards and completely mangled Jay Migliori's woodwind instruments. So Mr. Migliori is at a certain disadvantage this evening. We just thought we'd let you know. Fortunately, Mr. Migliori was not sitting there when the cabinets went down, so that part's okay.
Well, now that we got that over with, I'd like to introduce the rest of the lads in the band—and the ladies in the band—to all of you here.
Let's start up in the top, with trumpet number one, Malcolm McNab. And the indispensible Salvator Marquez. And on pygmy trumpet and tuba, Tom Malone. And Bruce Fowler on trombone. And Glenn "hands up, face to the wall" Ferris on trombone. And Kenny "always jovial" Shroyer on trombone. And Ruth "also jovial" Underwood on marimba. That's a jovial little marimba. And Tom "with one smashed hand" Raney on congas.
And, over here in the wind section, you already know Jay. Play something, Jay. That one works. And Mike Altschul. Ray "The Phantom" Reed. Charles "up and down" Owens. Joann Caldwell McNab. Earle Dumler. Wait, wait. Try that one again. Can you hear him? That's a little bit better, yeah. Just a minute now. Jerry Kessler on cello. Ian Underwood on keyboards, et cetera. Jim Gordon on drums. Dave Parlato on bass. And Tony Duran on slide guitar.
RELEASES #68-81 (1998-2007)
68. Mystery Disc (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10580, September 15, 1998)
All of this material was previously released on the two discs which accompanied the re-released materials on the first two Old Masters boxes (#43 and #46).
Like #64, this disc is filled with nostalgic gems from the early days.
Discs like these are certainly not for those new to Zappa.
But once you have (burp) digested much the material that forms the corpus of Frank's work ... you tend to start feeling hungry for these sort of bizarre nuggets. For example, "I Was a Teen-age Malt Shop" features FZ on piano.
The disc proceeds more or less chronologically. Several tracks from the Albert Hall show are here (#61). Things get zanier until coming to a tentative conclusion with "Harmonica Fun."
69. Everything Is Healing Nicely (CD, Barking Pumpkin UMRK 03, December 21, 1999)
Essentially a kind of documentary companion to The Yellow Shark (#62), this disc certainly contains no "Valdez" masterpiece or the like.
Instead, it is a collection of rehearsals, improvisations and bits that didn't make it onto Shark. Having stated that, this is actually a fine release with some, er, unusual works ("Master Ringo," "Wonderful Tattoo!") and pieces like "This is a Test," a short piece originally titled "Igor" which FZ had printed off the Synclavier and given to the EM as a sightreading test! Interesting that at times it sounds more like Milhaud than Stravinsky...
Using the same conducting technique he used to employ with the original Mothers (hand signals indicated predetermined musical phrases, motifs, or cells; or noises of all types, etc.), "Jolly Good Fellow" (4:34) sounds like a written-out composition. Ali Askin:
"... It looked as though Frank was playing the Ensemble like an instrument."
"Library Card" (7:42) -- the first track on this release:
Todd Yvega (Frank's Synclavier assistant):
" ... Frank assigned several musicians to improvise spoken interaction. The pianist, Hermann Kretzschmar, whipped out his library card to use as a text. The distinctive timbre of his voice, the German accent, and the humorous pace of his delivery obviously struck Frank as a vehicle to be developed and utilized."
Continuing with the same sort of idea, but this time reading from something a little heavier than his library card (the piercing magazine, PFIQ), Hermann has the EM (and FZ) in stitches with his readings in "Master Ringo" and "Wonderful Tattoo!" Warning: not for the faint of heart -- but it's also funny as hell!
"T'Mershi Duween" (2:30) is also found on #52 and #56 -- all three excellent renditions!
"Nap Time" (8:03) might just be that one unique track in the entire FZ catalog which defies description. It is unlike anything else in his catalog!
"9/8 Objects" (3:06) was recorded in July '91, Frank's house, when the EM were visiting and L. Shankar happened to be about. Awesome music here.
"Naked City" (8:42). Yvega:
" ... The guitar motifs were written in advance as was the primary motif played by the orchestra. The rest, including improvisations, were directed and improvised under FZ's baton."
"Whitey (Prototype)" (1:12) is mainly interesting as a comparison with the final version on Shark.
"Amnerika Goes Home" (3:00) -- an astonishing take from one of the Yellow Shark performances. Compare this to the Synclavier version on #63 and all the little details the EM gets right.
"None of the Above (Revised & Previsited)" (8:38) is a much longer version than the one on Yellow Shark and uses additional EM players -- mainly percussion -- in several sections.
... everything is healing nicely ...
70. FZ:OZ (2CD, Vaulternative VR 2002-1, August 16, 2002)
As Gail got the posthumous industry going into full gear, she and Joe Travers began raiding the Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark type UMRK vault for nuggets of enjoyment -- and in this case came up with a very special live concert that even the hard-core "tape traders" were ecstatic to see released!
To begin with, this '76 band is poorly represented in the catalog in general -- here it is only five pieces -- but they are very tight. Roy Estrada is consistently good throughout, with the young new Bozzio keeping a constantly moving groove.
"Stink-Foot" (6:35) is a perfect example of what a shame it is to have so few recordings from this particular band. They support Zappa beautifully (particularly Bozzio) as he sculpts one of his more interesting solos here.
My dear friend Nietzsche, never one to mince words, came over and held forth on the subject of opera. "You can have your Verdi and your Wagner," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Give me Carmen, Bizet's Carmen. Io mi sento diventar migliore quando questo Bizet mi parla. I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me -- Bizet, who died soon after the Paris premiere in March 1875 and thus never learned that he had written that rarest of things, a popular masterpiece. I have seen it twenty times." "Twenty times," I exclaimed, lighting his cigar. "Twenty times in the last seven years," he said. It was 1888. “Bizet makes me fertile," he said. "Whatever is good makes me fertile." I asked him what he most loved about the opera. "Carmencita," he said, smacking his lips. "Carmen is fertile. She is a celebration of all that is healthy in life. She stands for the utter triumph of the utterly immoral, life-affirming sexual instinct: passion at odds with reason, lust mightier than even a mother's love, desire that leads ineluctably to degradation, humiliation, annihilation. She is authentic, innocent, cruel — and therefore precisely in line with the natural order." "The music is great," I said. Disregarding the interruption he said, "Carmen depicts love that is war and at bottom the deadly hatred between the sexes!" Nietzsche paused as my wife entered with a tray of champagne flutes. "Prost," I said. "Hoch," he replied. We sipped. "The greatness of Carmen," he said, turning courteously to include my wife in the circle of discourse, "is not only in its parable of jealousy to the point of homicide -- a theme worthy of Shakespeare -- but in the parade of vices, great and small, that it serves in its choruses and arias: smoking and drinking, gypsy fortune-telling and blood oaths, blood sport in a bull ring, knife fighting, smuggling, desertion, murder. Carmen deserts Don Jose as he has deserted his regiment. Hers is the greater will. She will not be a wife, a slave; he is the one enslaved, and because he is, she no longer wants him. She is willing to die sooner than yield her freedom.” He paused and let me relight his cigar. "And," he sighed between puffs, "the little boys and girls march along with the soldiers wanting to play war." A grin appeared on my friend's ordinarily dour face and he strode over to the piano and led the three of us in a spirited rendition of the Habanera and the Toreador song. -- David Lehman
RELEASES #54-67 (1989-1997)
54. You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 (2CD, Rykodisc RCD 10085/86, November 13, 1989)
Five previously unreleased tracks ("Ride My Face to Chicago," "Carol You Fool," "Chana in da Bushwop," "Hands with a Hammer," and "Nig Biz").
One dramatically different arrangement of previously released tracks: ("Bamboozled by Love").
Six years covered: '71, '73, '76, '81, '82, and '84.
55. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (2CD, Barking Pumpkin D2 74233, April 16, 1991)
Twenty-eight tracks of '88 documentation.
Things really get going after an electrifying "Zomby Woof" segues into Ravel's "Bolero" (except on European CDs, due to copyright issues) ... and the band finishes off the first disc with some wonderful new versions of old favorites: "Zoot Allures," and "Mr. Green Genes" followed by a fantastic three-piece OSFA suite: "Florentine Pogen," "Andy," and "Inca Roads," and wrapped up with a beautiful version of "Sofa No. 1."
Disc Two is quite shifty -- Hendrix and Cream covers ("Purple Haze" and "Sunshine of Your Love") followed by an energetic "Let's Move to Cleveland," with most of the remainder of the disc being a Jimmy Swaggart suite, of sorts ... "Lonesome Cowboy Burt":
My name is Swaggart
I am an asshole ...
"Trouble Every Day," fresh and invigorating, as Zappa and Ike Willis seem to be improvising the lyrics:
Wednesday I watched Jimmy Swaggart
Watched him weepin' all over the place
An' I watched him weepin' an' weepin' an' weepin'
And that shit rollin' down his face
(Oh . . . I sinned!)
An' then I watched him weep some more
An' he kept on weepin' again
(Oh, forgive me, Assembly O' God!)
And they smacked him on his little hand
And he went out makin' more money
and "Penguin in Bondage":
You know it must be a Penguin bound down
When you hear that terrible weepin' and there ain't no other
all get special treatment in honor of the infamous televangelist's sexual escapades and subsequent teary apology.
Finishing with yet another cover, the band belts out the Zep tune, "Stairway to Heaven" with real zest and energy.
56. Make A Jazz Noise Here (2CD, Barking Pumpkin D2 74234, June 4, 1991)
The title comes from an actual line Zappa says during "Big Swifty." As the head winds down in anticipation of the solos, Ike Willis makes an "ooowwww" type of noise -- FZ gets the audience to sing along -- and at the exact moment when the last note of the opening melody is being held, he says:
Make a jazz noise here ...
This double-CD set -- the final document of the '88 band -- is an impressive release of mostly instrumental charts.
And the 12 musicians in this band make it seem like a walk in the park.
After a slinky guitar solo on "Stinkfoot," Zappa proceeds to politely embarrass Ed Mann.
"When Yuppies Go To Hell" (13:28) is a fascinating piece, stitched together from seven different performances. Before you know it, the sampled vocal "goin' to hell" is being repeated over and over, leading to a Walt Fowler trumpet solo in five which melts into a Synclavier/drum duet (Wackerman never sounded better). Bruce Fowler joins in, leading to another complete breakdown with bizarre synth noises ("make one here!") ... long improvised section with a few quasi-magical moments -- frankly, a few moments of excessive bullshit -- but those things happened, and Frank documented them -- with glee!
RELEASES #41-53 (1984-1988)
41. Thing-Fish (3LP, Barking Pumpkin SKCO-74201, November 21, 1984)
It will soon be 30 years.
When this three-album box-set was released, many Zappa fans were severely disappointed. Many old tracks were simply re-recorded with overdubs: ("Torchum" and "Artificial Rhonda" from 1976; "Galoot Up-Date," "YAWYI," "Mudd Club," and "Meek," from 1980; "Clowns" and "No Not Now" from 1981-1982 as well the guitar outro to "Mammy Nuns.") The whole thing seemed outrageous and offensive.
The album's storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theatre critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into "Mammy Nuns" led by the story's narrator, Thing-Fish. The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play performed by the "Mammy Nuns," and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life (Wikipedia).
In retrospect, Zappa may have pulled a fast one here. After years of imagining an actual production -- someone actually pulled it off in 2003. What a shame Frank didn't live to see it.
42. Francesco Zappa (LP, Barking Pumpkin ST-74202, November 21, 1984)
The one and only Frank Zappa release without a speck of music written by Frank Zappa!
Yes -- Francesco was a real composer -- check him out here.
Zappa's assistant, David Ocker, helped him program the synclavier with what he thought might be "appropriate" patches for 18th century music.
Naturally, Frank would come in the next day and change all of David's settings with more bizarre patches -- marimbas, spooky synths, etc.
A toss-off for the average Zappa fan, this one continues to hold interest for the person deeply interested in the Complete Works of Frank Zappa.
43, The Old Masters Box One (7LP, Barking Pumpkin BPR-7777, April 19, 1985)
For many years, a great deal of Zappa's early work was nearly impossible to obtain. In 1985, with the new medium of the compact disc creeping up on the music industry, Frank remixed nearly his entire catalog -- sometimes adding new bass and drum parts (#03, #05) or creating radical new mixes like #08).
At $100 per box, this was an easy choice for most serious Zappa fans. Using high-quality vinyl and reproducing the album covers and booklets (cutely scratching out old addresses for defunct record companies, fan clubs, etc.) -- FZ put the first five releases in here plus the "Mystery Disc" (which later -- along with the "Mystery Disc" from #46 -- become a separate release, #68).
44. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (LP, Barking Pumpkin ST-74203, November 21, 1985)
At the time, watching Frank testify up on Capitol Hill, you just sensed that something amazing was going to come out of all this -- musically, speaking!
This is it!
Certainly, "Porn Wars" (12:05) is the featured track here -- but again, Zappa is nothing if not imaginative and all-encompassing in this exciting mid-80's release.
"I Don't Even Care" (4:39) features Johnny Guitar Watson, one of Frank's childhood heroes.
The next three tracks are Synclavier compositions -- "Little Beige Sambo" (3:02) is a nice tribute to Conlon Nancarrow. Pure genius at work here -- and a wonderful preview of much exciting "classical" music to come in the few years left in Zappa's too-short life.
"We're Turning Again" (4:55) is Zappa commenting:
They took a whole bunch of acid
So they could see where it's at
(It's over there, over there,
Over there, over there
And under here also)
Name-checked: Donovan, Hendrix, Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, and Keith Moon.
"Alien Orifice" (4:10) -- an instrumental -- is played nearly perfectly by this amazing eight-piece '81-'82 band!
"Yo Cats" (3:33) -- Zappa's third anti-union ditty (previously, "Ruby Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" [#11] and "Stick Together" [#36]).
"What's New in Baltimore" (5:20) is another one of those very special FZ compositions that is truly filled with beautiful marvels! The track is put together with at least three separate edits from the above-referenced '81-'82 band.
RELEASES #28-40 (1979-1984)
28. Joe's Garage Act I (LP, Zappa SRZ-1-1603,
September 3, 1979)
29. Joe's Garage Acts II & III (2LP, Zappa SRZ-2-1502, November 19, 1979)
Originally, three discs covering two separate releases. The compact disc era compressed the material and today the CD is one complete release on two discs.
These are the final Frank Zappa albums recorded in a regular studio -- after this, everything will emanate from the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, Zappa's home studio.
However, as we discussed in #18, getting his music on the radio was really not Zappa's highest priority! The "singles" were incorporated into an ever-evolving Project/Object which today we call a "rock-opera." Zappa himself referred to it as a "stupid little story about how the the government is going to do away with music."
After "The Central Scrutinizer" (FZ) introduces himself, "Joe's Garage" surprises us with its undisguised sentimentality:
Down in Joe's Garage
We didn't have no dope or LSD
But a coupla quartsa beer
Would fix it so the intonation
Would not offend yer ear
And the same old chords goin' over 'n over
Became a symphony
We could play it again 'n again 'n again
Cause it sounded good to me
ONE MORE TIME!
"Catholic Girls" is not only as hilarious as "Jewish Princess" -- but contains some remarkable passage work. "Crew Slut" has a dirty Chicago-blues feel to it which just keeps on grinding.
"Fembot" (note the different titles on the LP and CD versions) uses a cool little theme which Frank liked so much, it became the opening motif of "Mo 'N Herb's Vacation" (#38), a complex orchestral work.
Zappa also continued his work with xenochrony, splicing guitar solos on top of unrelated backing tracks. His guitar playing is as exciting as any other time-period here, and he pushes his band to respond accordingly. "Keep it Greasey" features a section in 19/16 time (5/4 with one 16th-note chopped off the end of the bar!)
"Watermelon in Easter Hay" (original title: "Playing a Guitar Solo With This Band is Like Trying to Grow a Watermelon in Easter Hay") -- a 9/4 magical ride into Zappa's most intimate guitar solo ever -- is a very special piece of music; as is "Packard Goose" which closes with Zappa's classic and eternal statement:
Voice Of Mary's Vision:
Hi! It's me . . . the girl from the bus . . .
The last tour?
Well . . .
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST . . .
Wisdom is the domain of the Wis (which is extinct)
Beauty is a French phonetic corruption
Of a short cloth neck ornament
Currently in resurgence ...
You don't want to miss this one!
30. Tinsel Town Rebellion (2LP, Barking Pumpkin PW2 37336, May 11, 1981)
With Steve Vai now playing "stunt guitar," and a huge band filled with keyboards and percussion and more guitars -- Zappa was beginning to enjoy re-arranging some of his earlier material into challenges for this exciting new band:
"Fine Girl" is the only studio cut. Bob Harris #2 sings falsetto. (#2 because there was another Bob Harris who played in the "Flo & Eddie" band!)
"Easy Meat" begins with 4/29/80, Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA. At 2:59, we briefly hear the 9/18/75 (Royce Hall, UCLA) mini-orchestra. This dissolves into a brief "inside-the-piano" motif with Davey Moire (?) saying:
" ... if he'd played something else ...
'Cause, uh, they just aren't gonna stand for it ...
RELEASES #14-27 (1972-1979)
14. Just Another Band From L.A. (LP, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2075, March 26, 1972)
There is no incarnation of any Zappa band that did not incorporate large doses of FZ-humor into its regular repertoire. However, over the years, this band has come to be known as "Zappa's Comedy Group." They appear only on #11-14 (and a few posthumous releases). If the hard-core early Zappa fans stubbornly refused to give this band a chance -- they missed out on a quite a bit of incredible music!
Everything on this disc was recorded on August 7, 1971 at Pauley Pavilion (UCLA).
"Billy the Mountain" is a classic (CC: compare the versions on Release #60 and 91).
"Call Any Vegetable" gets a unique treatment with a Gustav Holst quote thrown in for good measure, which cleverly segues into an historic high-octane guitar solo.
15. Waka/Jawaka (LP, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2094, July 5, 1972)
With good reason, FZ put the words "HOT RATS" on the faucet handles. This is a sort of follow-up to the '69 masterpiece; it is an all-studio album, but it is also quite different than Hot Rats. There is no Ian Underwood, no Ponty or Sugarcane Harris.
Zappa had been thrown off a stage in London by a crazed fan and was severely injured. He recuperated by creating two new masterpieces.
"Big Swifty" (17:22) features an amazing five-piece band (FZ, guitar & percussion / Tony Duran, slide guitar / George Duke, ring-modulated & echoplexed electric piano / Sal Marquez, many trumpets & chimes / Erroneous [Alex Dmochowski], electric bass / and Aynsley Dunbar, drums) with tons of overdubs. The initial melody, stomps out an insistent seven, dissolving into long -- but never boring -- solos by Marquez and FZ.
"Your Mouth" (3:12) is hilarious. By now, Zappa's producing abilities were enhancing his compositional skills -- like the weird little musical snippets which accompany the vocals here -- and creating an end product that sounds both slick and shockingly original.
"It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal" (4:16) features FZ on "electric bed springs." The lyrics -- something about a frog with a satchel -- are partially recited with a Russian accent. This is wonderfully obtuse.
"Waka/Jawaka" (11:19). Nine musicians make this track sound like a full big band! Masterful music with never a dull moment, despite the track's length.
16. The Grand Wazoo (LP, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2093, November 27, 1972)
As Zappa's injuries healed, he rehearsed this large ensemble from his wheelchair, and began pondering the idea of taking this current band on the road -- which he ultimately did for two very brief tours at the tail end of 1972 (see Charles Ulrich: Big Band Projects of 1972). The five tracks on this record are all suberb -- the final one "Blessed Relief" (about pain meds, I heard once -- but it might have referred to the time when he could finally stop taking the pills -- he hated taking drugs in any form, other than coffee and cigarettes) has become something of a jazz standard, with its lilting 3/4 melody and rich 9th-chord harmonies.
17. Over-Nite Sensation (LP, DiscReet MS 2149, September 7, 1973)
Many people believe -- and sales would probably verify -- that the next four releases constitute the finest period in the entire oeuvre. It would be hard to argue otherwise. These are four slickly produced studio albums (Roxy is live, of course) played by some of the finest studio musicians in the world.
This seven-track release is stitched together like a thousand-dollar suit. What sound like relatively simplistic "pop songs" are carefully tailored charts, using Zappa's sophisticated musical language in new and unusual ways (for example: the dirty blues feel he achieves with syncopated flat-sevens; the cute musical fills in tight rhythmic spaces, etc.)
Next week will mark the 47th anniversary of Frank Zappa's first release, Freak Out! (#01)* (June 27, 1966).
On December 12th, 2012, Gail Zappa released Finer Moments (#94), a beautifully-packaged double-CD of music from 1969-1972. To date, this is the 94th "Official Release" in the Frank Zappa catalog. (The term "official release" is used to distinguish the recognized canon from bootleg recordings, live shows taped by fans, compilation albums, etc.)
In addition to the 94 LPs and CDs, Zappa directed two amazing full-length films (200 Motels  and Baby Snakes ); wrote two books (Them or Us  and The Real Frank Zappa Book ); produced numerous video compilations and played literally thousands of live concerts between 1966 and 1988.
Thus the term “project/object,” which refers to the whole shebang: music (live and studio), films, books, interviews, public appearances, etc. The PO is held together by the musical, lyrical and Dadaistic connections of FZ’s universal language. Poodles, dental floss, the tritone, a gas mask, naughty televangelists – all figure into the mysterious, ethereal, ever-changing world that Frank Zappa created, nurtured and produced over an approximately 35-year period.
Zappa used the term conceptual continuity to define the inner workings of his Project/Object. CC has a variety of usages in the FZ universe.
For example, chronologically, the word "poodle" is first used on a track entitled "The Purse" from the posthumous 2005 release, Joe's XMASage (#75). (In the liner notes, Gail says that "there are over 19,321 clues in this one.")
Al Surratt is reading a letter from some girl out loud to Zappa:
'Guess what? I have a French poodle. That's right.
A pedigree. Apricot champagne French poodle. He was given to me as a present, gift from a man who raises them. He was repaying me for a flavor I did him once. I named the dog Duchamp, with a long A. He sure is a cute thing, and I -- and so well-behaved. He is six months old. I wish you could have see him. He is the prettiest color. George just loves him. And he is trying to spoil him something awful. Sometimes I feel he comes over just to see the dog.'
'We are doing real good in football so far. We played Burroughs last Friday for our first league game. And beset them.'
From that 1963 tape onwards, there are 16 additional and separate references to poodles on other releases, not including the clever title of Ben Watson's mighty tome, "The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play."
2. #14. (1972) On the high-energy remake of "Call Any Vegetable," Flo & Eddie engage in this brief rap over a repeating vamp:
You know, a lot of people don't bother about their friends in the vegetable kingdom. They think, "What can I say?" Sometimes they think, "Where can I go?" / Where can I go to get my poodle clipped in Burbank? / At Ralph's vegetarian poodle clippin', where you can come this ...
3. #17. (1973) In the original three-minute "Dirty Love," Zappa as narrator sings:
Your dirty love
Just like your mama
Make her fuzzy poodle do
4. #18. (1974) The "Stink-Foot" outro repeats the
poodle bites / the poodle chews it ...
section from "Dirty Love."
5. #19. (1974) On "Cheepnis," the poodle is named Frunobulax -- a movie monster!
6. #52. (1974) In Helsinki, the poodle became Frenchie.
7-9. #70/#86/#59. (1976-1977) "The Poodle Lecture" preceded "Dirty Love" in concert, usually with the assistance of visual aids, as Frank would explain it all for his rapt audience.
10. #37. (1977) "They stole my poodle from last ..." screams a deranged fan into the microphone during "Disco Boy." (Most likely, the guy was referring to the stuffed poodle toys that Zappa used as props in "The Poodle Lecture.")
11-12. #34/#80. (1980) "Mudd Club." Zappa's voice is electronically modulated:
Try it on a Saturday 'bout four o'clock in the mornin'
Or even a Monday at midnight
When there's just a few of those
Doin' the Peppermint Twist for real
In a black sack dress with nine inch heels
And then a guy with a blue mohawk comes in
In Serious Leather ...
(And all the rest of whom for which
To whensonever of partially indeterminate
Seek the path to the sudsy yellow nozzle
Of their foaming nocturnal
Parametric digital whole-wheat inter-faith
Geo-thermal terpsichorean ejectamenta)
13-15. #40/#54/#67. (1984) "In France"
Now we cannot wait
(Wait wait waiting)
Till we go back
(Wait wait waiting)
Gets so exciting
(Wait wait waiting)
When the poodles 'react'
16. #62. (1993) How fitting that this one last poodle reference made its way onto this track on this magnificent FZ release -- the last one before his death -- for which the complete lyrics are as follows:
'Food Gathering In Post-Industrial America, 1992'
When the last decrepit factory
Has dumped its final load of toxic waste into the water supply
And shipped its last badly manufactured,
Incompetently designed consumer-thing,
We gaze in astonishment
As the denizens of NU-PERFECT AMERICA dine on rats,
Styrofoam packing pellets,
All floating in a broth of tritium-enriched sewage,
Roasting the least-diseased body parts of abandoned 'wild children'
(Accumulating since the total ban on abortion a few years back)
Similarly, musical connections can be made from era to era; for example, this single line in "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt" from Joe's Garage, Act I (#28):
I know you want someone to show you some tit!
is re-used as the initial motive which begins Zappa's greatest orchestral work, "Mo 'N Herb's Vacation" (#38).
Quotes from Stravinsky, Holst and even Tchaikovsky adorn some pieces, while "The Sailor's Hornpipe" is just as likely to show up in some marginal musical space as the "Entry of the Gladiators (Thunder and Blazes)" by Julius Fučík (1872-1916) -- written in 1897.
For our purposes, think of Zappa’s work as one big lifetime-long composition. This week, I will attempt to deconstruct that work into its sub-units, the 94 “Official Releases.”
For a good history of FZ’s life before 1966, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.
From the black-and-white postwar British movie Easy Money (1948), here is the Norwegian actress Greta Gynt singing "The Shady Lady Spiv" to fellow spiv (or cheap crook) Dennis Price at the London nightclub where she works. She and Price are conspiring to rip off the football lottery outfit that employs him. The plot is a sort of milquetoast toast to Barbara Stanwyck's partnership with insurance agent Fred MacMurrary to defraud his company and eliminate ehr husband in one swell foop in Double Indemnity..But listen to the song, and delight in "spiv," a piece of English slang that has not lost its strangeness, especially when coupled with "shady lady." The movie is available streaming from Netflix. -- DL
Lately I’ve been thinking about the things we keep returning to as writers. Our obsessions, I heard an old novelist call them once, speaking to a group of students. You all have them, he said, you just may not know it yet.
I guess this started because a friend invited me to contribute to an anthology she’s putting together of poems about ______. (A quick Google search doesn’t turn up the title, so I’ll keep this cat in its bag.) And I’ve learned ______ is something she’s really very interested in, both personally and as a writer. Whereas I’d really never written or thought too much about ______. But I am also not one to say, “Oh, no thanks,” when someone asks me—not that they ask so often, but it happens—to write something for their anthology or journal or website. (See, here I am guest-blogging right now.)
So after glibly saying, “Yes, of course, I’d love to,” I spent the next couple months worrying and wondering, trying to find my way into this subject I’d never much thought about before. How would I do it? Where’s the door, or at least the window, I could slip through to get into this poem?
Whereas if someone asked me to write a poem about New York, or about food, a poem that works in a jazz reference or two, or plays on internal rhymes, well, I’d be on my way.
So what did I do? I wrote a poem that deals with ______, but by way of New York, food, jazz and internal rhymes.
* * *
The flip side of obsessions, in a way, is re-invention. Like Miles Davis going from Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and on and on and on. Or like my mother-in-law. “Try something new!” she says to my wife and me when we go to a Chinese restaurant. But then 90% of the time we end up wishing we’d ordered our usual kung bo gai ding or mapo tofu.
Recently I saw a terrific documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record the earliest tracks of what would eventually become Graceland, and about the political fallout and controversy that trip generated.
One very interesting moment in the film comes when he says that because his previous album, Hearts and Bones, had been a flop commercially, he didn’t feel any pressure or expectation about what he’d do next. The record company executives weren’t calling to check up on him, so he felt free to just explore what interested him and make the music he wanted to make – which turned out to be, well, arguably the best album of his career. (And of course there are in fact some terrific songs on the generally underrated Hearts and Bones, starting with the title track.)
* * *
I like bold departures and reinventions. But I also admire poets who do something again and again, playing all the variations on a theme or a form. Like Baron Wormser in his book Subject Matter, a collection of dozens of 14-line poems. Or Marianne Boruch’s latest, The Book of Hours, in which each poem is composed of four quatrains.
And it’s not just a formal thing. Think of Monica Youn’s Ignatz (a book at least partly about obsessions, by the way) or others that delve into a particular subject or place or theme with an intense focus.
But I also remember Seamus Heaney saying in an interview that when you realize what you’re doing, it’s time to stop and do something else. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader, in Frost’s version.
These things don’t all line up exactly, obsessions, repetitions and reinventions, variations. I’m still thinking through them. But I remember when I finished This Time Tomorrow, a book that includes more than a few longer poems, that involved (for me) quite a lot of research and fact-checking about specific places and people, some learning on the job about volcanoes and Chinese scholars’ gardens, I thought: time for something new. I really wanted to write short little poems that were only about themselves, that made up their own facts.
But what happened? Well, life happened, and I wound up writing a book-length poem set in more specific places (The Bronx, central Jersey, Miyajima, Shanghai) and that involved some medical learning (how we translate thoughts into speech). But now that that’s done as well, I’m writing—yes, finally—those little self-enclosed, un-factcheck-able poems.
Ultimately we write what pulls at us, the things we need to, or feel most satisfied by. Who knows just what they'll be. Maybe you'll hear a cassette someone made for you, labeled in Sharpie "Accordion Jive Hits No. 2," and decide you need to catch the next plane to Johannesburg to find that band and make music together.
As Charles Simic says in one of his wonderful essays, "It took me years to realize the poem is smarter than I am. Now I follow it wherever it wants me to go."
I want to tell you about one of my favorite poems at the moment. It’s from Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green, which was selected last year by David Mason for The New Criterion Poetry Prize and recently published by St. Augustine’s Press. As an editor at The New Criterion, I was thoroughly delighted by Mason’s choice, since I had championed George’s work on a number of occasions, both in the magazine and in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.
I remember showing up several years ago to a marathon reading organized by Roddy Lumsden at a bar up by Columbia University. We were asked to write a poem based, I think, on some theme—the theme, like the poem I produced, was eminently forgettable.
After a couple hours of poems sliding by like fried eggs off of memory's Teflon, George got up (he may have been the last reader, in fact) and read “Bangladesh.” So surprising and so weird was this poem, we were rapt. You could have heard the reshelving in Butler Library. And funny! So funny. The abrupt, associative segues and the logic-defying half-slapdash, haphazardness of the narrative resolves, quite mysteriously, into a unified, warmly satiric portrait of an age that we lived though in Downtown New York and loved for its Bohemian craziness and, and, now, in hindsight, for the wince-making tartness of its bittersweet excesses. He wrote the poem the night before, he told me, when I said how much I liked it.
Riotous and sweetly sad: such a killer combo. Bravo, George Green!
We have to start in 1965,
when all the gay meth heads couldn’t decide
which one they most adored, Callas or Dylan,
both of them skinny as thermometers,
posing like sylphs in tight black turtlenecks.
Then, gradually, a multitude of Dylans
began to fill the park, croaking like frogs,
strumming guitars, blowing harmonicas,
hundreds and hundreds, several to a bench.
But there was only one Maria Callas,
sequestered in her gloomy Paris pad
and listening to Maria Callas records
(and nothing but), her bulky curtains closed,
which works for me because it worked for her.
What doesn’t work is three David Lee Roths,
one checking bags at Trash and Vaudeville, one
strutting with ratted hair up St. Mark’s Place,
and one zonked out in tights and on the nod,
surrounded by the Dylans in the park.
David Lee Roth times three would mean the times
would have to change, and so a roving band
of punk rockers began to beat the Dylans,
chasing them through the park and pounding them
senseless, then busting up their folk guitars
or stealing them. They even torture one
unlucky Dylan by the children’s pool,
holding him down to burn him with Bic lighters,
then cackling when he begs to keep his Martin.
Later on at the precinct, deeply troubled,
a sensitive policeman contemplates
the crimes. Why were marauding gangs of punks
beating the Dylans in the park? He asks
himself, repeatedly, not realizing
that they, the punks, were cultural police
determined to eradicate the Dylans
and purify the park of Dylanesque
pollutions and corruptions, rank and abject
folk rock recrudescences, and worse—
that odious and putrid piety,
the sanctimoniousness of all the Dylans,
the phony holiness that peaks for Bob
(his faddish Christianity aside)
during the benefit for Bangladesh,
where George insists that Yoko not perform
and John agrees ’till Yoko blows her stack,
and they start primal-screaming at each other,
John flying out of JFK and nodding,
and Eric flying into JFK
and nodding. Well, Ravi would go on first,
the one and only Ravi Shankar, folks.
I saw him five times, three times high on acid,
the first time straight with Richard and his mom,
Debbie, who drove us down from Podunk High
to see him at the Syria Mosque (long gone,
bulldozed in ’75). Debbie’s not well.
Last August she was totally Alzheimered
and, my sweet lord, she made a pass at me,
which was embarrassing. Rebuffed but proud
she sat down on the porch swing with a thump,
and, chirping like a parakeet, she swung.
Tomorrow: I attend the dress rehearsal of my daughter’s grade-school production of Romeo & Juliet and come away impressed not only by the performances, which were super, but also by the playwright who clearly has what it takes!
George Jones, who died this past Friday at age 81, had long been lauded as one of the greatest voices in country music history. He was also, along with Hank Williams, one of country music's most cautionary tales, with a history of alcoholism, substance abuse, marital woes, and career mismanagement that would have forced a lesser man into early retirement or (as in the case of Hank) an early death. Unlike Williams, Jones was never a great songwriter; he was a great interpreter of others' songs. He was very much a contradictory artist: A loner who did some of his best work in collaboration with another singer -- Tammy Wynette (his ex-wife) and Melba Montgomery most notably. And all of the problems that dogged him whenever he didn't appear onstage (which was frequent enough to earn him the nickname "No-Show Jones"), vanished when he was in thrall to his own gift, in performance, at one with the baleful sentiments he sang. He was hard on himself in every sense, and always carried with his toughness and stubbornness an air of hangdog shame, as though he felt destined to be the fool, not the master, of his life.
Jones was one of the most self-conscious, for good and ill, of great American artists. He knew his gift, he knew it wasn't so much his voice as his phrasing that was the genius part ('s why he could redeem so many lesser lyrics). But the clenched-jaw delivery can also serve as synecdoche for a man frozen, trapped: trapped by his feelings of inferiority, the unwarranted shame he felt about his class, the paralyzing sting of those in mainstream music industry who never recognized him fully, for the cruelty of country radio for abandoning him when he still had something to give. People of privilege sometimes don't understand why an artist can start to self-destruct when he feels resentment, abandonment, false praise instead of the kind of praise and appreciation of his gifts he knew he was owed. (And I'm talking about the whole arc of his career, not just the final years.) "No-Show" was a fond joke barely concealing a different diagnosis: an addictive, isolating personality that could not achieve enough comfort in his own skin. All of which makes the best music that he leaves behind more precious.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.