‘Frank Zappa and the And’ Takes Us Deep Into Zappa’s Universe

[14 April 2013]

By Jedd Beaudoin

Frank Zappa and the And announces itself as the first academically focused book to explore the unique world of the late musician and composer. Editor Paul Carr has assembled an impressive collection of writers for this anthology, and each contributes a fascinating essay on an artist whose vision had seemingly no boundaries. The volume acknowledges Zappa’s scatological proclivities, but does not dwell there. Instead, we’re invited to––most often––examine the towering heights of his intellect. An intellect that, of course, did not prevent him from going to some low places, one of his most engaging contradictions as both an artist and a human being.

Zappa’s body of work––more than 60 official albums in less than 30 years as a major recording artist, three feature length films, countless compositions, and numerous live performances that have been both bootlegged and preserved in the artist’s own impressive vault––presents as many challenges as it does opportunities.

His music was impossibly eclectic. He juxtaposed orchestral music, doo-wop, jazz, and other styles frequently and seamlessly enough that one can’t simply discuss Zappa’s jazz period or his orchestral period but instead must acknowledge it all as “Frank Zappa’s music” in order to encompass its many permutations.

A notorious workaholic and perfectionist, he could be funny and warm as often as he could be biting and cruel. No one was safe from his skewering it seems, whether band mates, managers, high school conformists, or Zappa himself. The multitudes of his personality make for as interesting a discussion as any of his major musical adventures––but, of course, in this instance one cannot separate the man from his art. Zappa did not hide behind shifting personas, nor did he mask his personal convictions for the sake of attracting more fans or pleasing his industry peers.

All of that is represented in this volume, which, Carr writes, “... comprises an international and interdisciplinary array of scholars and industrial practitioners whose collective aim is to present the reader with an appreciation of the ontological depth of Zappa’s idiolect, by directly relating the man and his music to selected cultural, aesthetic, social, technological, historical and musicological factors.”

Longtime fans and scholars will easily glide into terminology such as Project/Object, Conceptual Continuity, The Big Note, and Xenochrony. Carr and his colleagues make sure to define each term with admirable clarity but also reference each enough that sheer repetition is bound to make these concepts clear. The topics range from Zappa’s use of ballads (more broadly referred to here as “story songs”), his fascination with editing, his interest in the counterculture and both his role in and distance from it, and his portrayal after death.

“Zappa and Horror: Screamin’ at the Monster”, masterfully penned by Richard J. Hand, explores the links that Zappa made between sex and horror––in the song “Zombie Woof” but also in the musical Thing Fish––and his deep appreciation for junk culture (“cheepnis”) that had a consistent presence throughout his work.

Hand also points to Zappa’s deep affection for Halloween and the importance of his Halloween shows to his fan base. Hand concludes with something that is echoed throughout the rest of the book––that Zappa had “a passion for American popular culture beyond music”.

In “Zappa and Satire: From Conceptual Absurdism to the Perversity of Politics”, Nick Awde argues that one of Zappa’s greatest gifts was marrying high and low culture; he was also, Awde writes, an intellectual descendent of comedian Lenny Bruce. Awde further argues for examining Zappa’s artistic evolution into three stages––The Conceptual Comedian (1966-1969), Social Commentator (1969-1984), and ‘Perverse’ Politician (1984-1993). In the first phase, Zappa had to work with an audience he found keen to absorb virtually anything placed in front of it and was thus frustrating in its naiveté; in the second he finds ways to challenge his audience’s established beliefs through deep satire, and in the final he began to drift toward a less comic approach.

Awde also touches on something that many others have left alone––Zappa’s ethnicity. He came of age in era when there was still discrimination against Italian Americans and although it’s hard to find explicit references to it in his work, he must have encountered some culture class at some point. Awde writes, “While he did not play on his Mediterranean ethnic roots in his material, he did so unashamedly in the depiction of his image. His (now trademarked) moustache was both iconic and ironic in statement, a flippant/sinister Zapata outgrowth that stuck up a middle finger at the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant psyche––as close to a threatening afro or Black Power fist as his ethnicity permitted. This significance of the moustache was confirmed by the fact that, publicly at least, it was never shaved off. “

Awde also finds Zappa “highly European, particularly in intellectual outlook” and suggests––rightly so––that the scatological and political slants of his work “posed no obstacle to his being hailed as a ‘serious’ artist [in Europe], an appraisal that continues to be problematic in his own land”. In the end, Awde writes, “Understanding Zappa the satirist is critical to understanding Zappa the musician and will help resolve the problem of whether he left separate legacies”.

As good as Awde’s work is, it ends on a strange note, in which he claims that Simpsons creator Matt Groening may be Zappa’s “direct comic heir”. While few Zappa aficionados would argue against that point––Groening once said that Zappa was his Elvis––it feels misplaced, perhaps a too-late assertion, at least in the context of the essay.

Claude Chastagner’s “Zappa and Resistance: The Pleasure Principle” and Martin Knakkergaard’s “Zappa and Modernism: An Extended Study of ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’”. The latter is painstaking in its analysis of a wildly imaginative and wholly diverse composition from the master, while the former explores Zappa’s assertion that his aesthetic could be described as “anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all” and his desire that people learn to deviate from the norm for the sake of progress.

Carr’s own “Zappa and Technology: His incorporation of Time, Space and Place when Performing, Composing and Arranging Music”, tracks Zappa’s evolution not only as composer but a composer who made a conscious and consistent effort to remain at the forefront of recording technology, even becoming one of the first artists to embrace digital recording. Carr’s conclusion is our own: What might have Zappa done with the innovations that became available in the years after his 1993 death? It’s easy to imagine how he would have embraced the Internet or the various projects he might have undertaken with Pro Tools.

The most touching of all the essays is David Sanjek’s “Zappa and the Freaks: Recording Wild Man Fischer”, which focuses heavily on the Zappa-produced and now long-out-of-print double LP An Evening With Wild Man Fischer as well as Fischer’s own descent into uncontrollable madness. It not only speaks to Zappa’s broad musical and anthropological interests but, perhaps, to some degree, the size of his heart.

Paula Hearsum’s “Zappa and Mortality: The Mediation of Zappa’s Death” is also essential reading as she meditates upon cultural proximity, collective memory, and, of course, Zappa’s legacy. It’s a remarkable end to the volume as well, a volume in which it’s hard to find a weak spot, each essay offering a unique perspective on a man who apparently eschewed academic discussion of his works and the academy itself.

But for a man who was prone to contradictions there may be one there as well. Zappa claimed not have been well read––or at least not enjoy reading––but he apparently had an impressive familiarity with Tolkien and Kafka and was said to favor Pynchonm, as well. Perhaps, then, he might have appreciated this work, which doesn’t attempt the usual tricks of trying to create or dispel a myth but instead focuses on the character of its subject, the richness of his work, and the beauty of his mind.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/170212-frank-zappa-and-the-and-edited-by-paul-carr/