[5 December 2002]
Calling all Phish fans. Rykodisc asked Jon Fishman to drum up some business by baiting the hook that will haul in the fresh cash of the day. As a “famous fan”, he’s selected and “sequenced” 16 numbers from Zappa’s existing catalog with the label. Ryko’s put these picks on a CD with the idea that 5% of Phish’s huge fanbase will punch the ATM for a 20 to hear Fishman’s favorites. It is hoped they will become more interested, which allows the company access to an untapped market for their extensive Zappa catalog.
This release bothers me for more reasons than can easily be explained. For starters, people should be introduced to music differently, in a more personal way, or the music and its message should naturally extend into an audience that might be receptive.
For example, Zappa literally gave away his first Mothers of Invention release to help support public radio in Los Angeles and get some radio exposure for his music. It was the summer of 1966, the summer of growing concern that Ronald Reagan would end up Governor of California. I was listening to a KPFK public radio fund raiser and Frank Zappa (then nearly unknown) came on the air offering an autographed copy of Freak Out!. Nonetheless, a $10 donation to the station would soon be exchanged for a copy of the double-disc album that Zappa would have personally signed. That was a natural extension of music and also characterized Zappa and his concerns perfectly.
One of the songs on that debut (and this collection) was “It Can’t Happen Here”, which happened to carry the same title as Sinclair Lewis’ best selling novel. Lewis wrote his political satire in 1935, at a time when the US and Western Europe had been mired in an economic depression for six long years. Lewis posed a question many at the time were wrestling with: Hitler and Mussolini were in Europe, but could fascism ever come to America? Lewis presented the topic in a new and not entirely unbelievable way—what if some ambitious politician used the presidential election to make himself a dictator by promising quick and easy solutions to the disastrous economic situation, much the same way Hitler had done in Germany in 1933. To add another level to Lewis’ novel, the identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself a dictator, would have been obvious to any American in 1935, modeled as the character was on Huey Long, senator from Louisiana. A dictator himself, Huey Long once said, “If fascism came to America it would be on a program of Americanism.” I know that Zappa had been exposed to that book, just as I had been, and that’s why I kept this in mind.
Sometimes it pays to look beyond the obvious. For some people, that would just be a song title, completely apropos of nothing but itself.
Though my suspicion is little has been done with this release to place Zappa or his music in a meaningful context for the target audience, Fishman to his credit obviously cares enough to incorporate his sense of history. He wasn’t even born until 1965, but he structured a chain of three Zappa songs in a sequence every bit as compelling as the historic events that figured in their creation. “Son of Orange County”, supported by Teutonic-sounding themes, this is hardly an homage to the subject, but its sudden quote “I am not a crook” is surprising, laughable, and defining. Followed by the horn-laden R&B of “More Trouble Every Day” in which Zappa shares his reactions to watching the 1965 Watts riots on television (“There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ every day”). These two political commentaries are trailed by the compositional hysteria of “It Can’t Happen Here”. Amidst a wail of gibberish mixed with inanity, the song dug its sharp, satirical fangs into the déclassé absurdity that was promoted as modern life, and punctured popular notions of advance and progress (“Oh, get a tv dinner and cook it up”). All while rubbing everyone’s noses in the idea that any idea of individual comfort and safety can be comically delusional when large socio-political forces are at work.
Without liner notes, there’s no knowing why Fishman picked the songs he did. He obviously favors Zappa’s fluid instrumentals, such as the fuzzy, buzzing, bended and stretched like gooey molten plastic of “Apostrophe (’)”. Anyone can understand the overstated and obvious anti-propaganda message of “I’m the Slime”, as told by the very thing in the box that sprays out the day’s ration of stupid gas. Or get into the dark and uneasy guitar groove of “Rat Tomago”, a live track recorded onstage in Berlin, which Fishman reduplicated intact in its original placement, sandwiched between two weird sound collages (“Whatever Happened to All the Fun in the World” and “Wait a Minute”).
Selected as the obligatory “comedy” cut, “Magdalena” was placed up front for early shock value on this collection. A lurid fable about how when a father catches sight of his teenage daughter wearing a see-through blouse, his quivering, drooling incestuous lust completely erupts. This is a vicious shocker and an attack on propriety made more ridiculous and contemptible when maintained by denial. However, “Jewish Princess” (from Sheik Yerbouti) resides in the same comedic spectrum and could have effectively played off current events and trends, but the safer and less controversial bet was to continue pandering to those who dream up the juvenilia of the Britney Spears-Bob Dole-Bow Wow ads.
The closing movement, “Sofa No. 2” (from One Size Fits All), is Zappa at his zaniest, moving like an equal-opportunity art machine from doo-wop into ersatz Wagnerian profundos with assorted plush symphonic accents.
While it was rather nice to hear Frank Zappa again, this release does seem to go against his philosophy. As such, this is like one of those eventualities not necessarily looked forward to, like realizing that one day you may have to decide what to do with a dead person’s clothes. Zappa has been gone for nearly a decade and the company that was the trusted repository for a major portion of his life’s work is under a different owner. Though the very passage of time sometimes forces the issue, compilations are just inevitable, because the break-even point is so attractive. As most production costs have been previously absorbed elsewhere, the record company can start making money after selling 5,000 to 10,000 units, about one-tenth the sales required for an album newly produced by any major. This is only the first of many scheduled compilations, all to be culled from the catalog by famous fans of Zappa’s.
To be positive, this release may help put the sting back in contemporary satire, and strong political commentary in music back in front of the listener.
Zappa’s prolific output through four decades is daunting to approach even with the idea of deciding where to start. He released close to seventy albums, most of which are still in print, which can only make compilations appear more accessible and attractive than any music historian. If at all interested in Zappa’s music, it may be preferable to find a local Zappa freak of your own (there’s one in every crowd), and get an education that way, person-to-person.