Frank Zappa Joe's Garage

It’s Time We Hung Out at Joe’s Garage with Frank Zappa Again

As extremist minorities corrode social liberties, it’s time to take our rusting democratic values to Joe’s Garage where Frank Zappa waits with his sleeves rolled up.

Joe's Garage: Acts I, II & III
Frank Zappa
8 August 2012 (box set)

If you want independence for your country, you must suppress music and not fear to be called old-fashioned. Music is a betrayal of the nation and of youth.

– Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Addressing the staff of Radio Darya, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a declaration banning music from being broadcasted on radio and television in Iran. This move to censor Iranians from hearing music was just one facet of a larger doctrine to ideologically separate themselves from the “satanic” regimes of the West, along with other sins like drinking alcohol and coed sunbathing. These actions and behaviors provided effects similar to opium, said Khomeini, and would corrupt the youth of Iran by robbing them of their strength, making their brains “inactive and frivolous”.

Khomeini gave this address during his ascension to power during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a tumultuous year that shocked the world as the nation of Iran shifted from being a prosperous, pro-Western secular monarchy to being governed by anti-democratic, fundamentalist zealotry. The wheels of the revolution began to turn when the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fled Iran in January that year and went into exile after violent opposition to his regime began to increase from Khomeini’s, leaving the country to be governed by the prime minister of the opposition party, Shapour Bakhtiar.

Having spent 15 years in exile for opposing the Shah’s regime, Khomeini would return after being invited back to Iran by the government following the Shah’s departure. Within weeks of his return, Khomeini would assume official power after a guerrilla force defeated the remaining troops loyal to the Shah. By April, a national referendum was voted upon by the people of Iran to become an Islamic republic, and a new theocratic-republican constitution was approved, which solidified Khomeini’s power and cemented him as the supreme leader, and instated Islamic law. 

Before the revolution and Khomeini’s consolidation of power, the monarchy governed by the Shah received support from the United States and other nations for the regime’s commitment to western values. Among these values promoted under the Shah, men and women no longer needed to be separated; women could wear western-style clothes, seek an education, find employment, and vote in elections; and religious minorities could become elected to hold local office. Due to this, Khomeini was able to instill within his religious fundamentalist followers a sense of creeping anxiety that their culture and values were being subverted and erased by a force he claimed was determined to eradicate traditional Islam and a society driven by theocracy.

The United States, as well as many other nations in the western world, grew increasingly alarmed by the rise of Khomeini and his ongoing efforts to spread his ideology to neighboring countries. Profiled as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1979, Khomeini represented an existential threat to the West that impacted “the world balance of power more than any political event since Hitler’s conquest of Europe.” As a result, it ushered in a newfound and oft misguided understanding of Islam for many Americans, resulting in increased Islamophobia at a time in American politics when many voters rejected progressive politics in favor of a newer brand of conservative values.

Since the Iranian Revolution, events would unfold over the years that revealed the delicate balancing act between the tenets of democracy and theocracy, such as the hostage crisis, the Beirut barracks bombing, and the Iran-Contra affair. While these events and others have defined a tense and evolving relationship between Iran and the United States, it cemented in many minds that the root of the conflict stemmed from completely opposing ideologies rather than the influence a fundamentalist minority can have, an attitude that has grown for over four decades with ever-increasing bouts of Islamophobia. However, as far as one iconoclastic rock star was concerned, the differences between the two nations weren’t that great, as both exhibited systems that championed the overlapping interests of religious, business, and government institutions. 

For Frank Zappa, Iran banning music shook his entire being to the core and left him angry and fearful about the possibility of a world without music. As an artistic response to Khomeini banning music in Iran, Zappa would write, record, and release a three-part rock opera by the tail end of the year shortly before Khomeini solidified total control; Joe’s Garage, with Act I released as a single vinyl in September followed by Joe’s Garage Acts II & III as a double vinyl set in November. 

The plot of Joe’s Garage is a cautionary tale demonizing music for all the ways it can lead to one’s self-destruction; by exposing youth to culturally progressive ideas that lead to sexual promiscuity, disease, and insanity. In this story, we follow the journey of a young man named Joe, whose passion for music leads to his eventual downfall as he forms a band during a time when the government is modifying the constitution to criminalize music. We follow Joe’s path of personal destruction, experiencing the myriad ways in which music pollutes minds and society, resulting in a dystopia where the desire for musical expression is banned, and freedom comes through an autonomous commitment to government-sanctioned labor and consumerism.

Narrating Joe’s Garage is a government employee called The Central Scrutinizer, voiced by Zappa, who is a seemingly omnipresent figure whose official responsibilities are “to enforce all the laws that haven’t been passed yet”. As he also oversees the addition of laws in tiny print so as not to be obvious about their constitutional violations, The Central Scrutinizer also warns listeners about mundane activities they might be engaged in that could result in the death penalty or adversely affect their parents’ credit rating. The reason for all these bureaucratic and legal changes is that all the criminal institutions are filled with young people who were driven to a life of crime in the sense that they strayed away from traditional conservative values by the damagingly seductive allure of music. (“The Central Scrutinizer”)

Following The Central Scrutinizer’s introduction opening Act I of the album, we are introduced to Joe, portrayed by Ike Willis, an all-American young guy. He just wants to jam with his friends, eschewing drugs to hang out with buds and the local girls over some cold brews and hot tunes. Loosely autobiographical based on Zappa’s experiences during the 1960s forming a band and his motivation to play music for his intended audience solely, we see Joe promised a recording contract that never comes to fruition. However, as the years go by and audiences are introduced to newer, more liberal styles of music since his garage band days, such as disco and new wave, Joe believes it’s time to give the music business another shot. Unfortunately, his return to his craft conflicts with the impending authoritarianism creeping across the country (“Joe’s Garage”).

Local law enforcement intervenes with Joe’s dreams of becoming a musician and to set a young man on the right path, he’s encouraged to instead pursue wholesome church-oriented youth activities. However, at the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Joe joins, the activities are anything but wholesome, with Father Riley, the homosexual minister played by Zappa, turning down the lights while the boys learn about the sexual proclivities of the fairer sex. Things begin to look brighter for Joe when he meets Mary, portrayed by Dale Bozzio, a young Catholic girl at the social club with whom he spends time holding hands while thinking pure thoughts until music corrupts the serenity of this scene (“Catholic Girls”).

Mary eventually quits going to the CYO and instead pursues a groupie lifestyle following one of the touring rock bands that have come into town, seduced by the alluring promise of excitement that none of the local guys can give the thrill-seeking girls living in the industrial towns on the outskirts of the big city (“Crew Slut” and “On the Bus”). However, after a few weeks with the guys on the tour bus, Mary is dumped during the tour. To get the money to buy a bus ticket back home, she excitedly competes in a wet t-shirt contest emceed by Zappa’s Father Riley, now defrocked and embracing his new persona as Buddy Jones, proclaiming, “Mary’s the kind of red-blooded American girl who’ll do anything, I said anything, for fifty bucks” (“Fembot In a Wet T-Shirt”).

Unaware that he would find Mary in such a place, Joe becomes disillusioned by his former girlfriend’s path toward sexual promiscuity and wanders the streets in a daze before meeting Lucille, a girl who works at Jack-in-the-Box. Joe sleeps with Lucille and gets a sexually transmitted disease, an unpronounceable narrates The Central Scrutinizer, lamenting that it hurts when he pees (“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”). As Act I comes to a close, Joe is distraught by his erotic affliction and finds comfort singing along to a track from an old Jeff Simmons album, originally produced by Zappa in 1969 and written under the pseudonym La Marr Bruister (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up”).

In Act I, the standalone vinyl release, the listener is introduced to a strange, sardonic world that represents Zappa’s vision of the initial consequences of the confluence between religion, business, law enforcement, and government. In essence, the belief is that these institutions’ overlapping interests work harmoniously to impact the pursuit of artistic expression and individual freedoms negatively. In the liner notes for Act I, Zappa directly addresses that “desperate nerds in high offices all over the world” work tirelessly to enact legislation for the sole purpose of getting votes, even going so far as to suggest the passing of environmental laws is purely to get votes (a dig at the oil crisis that year in the wake of the Iranian Revolution). Further, those principled anti-smut campaigns are less about cleaning society’s moral ills but rather seeking a desired state-sanctioned saintliness for the office holder. 

Zappa is saying that whatever candidate generates the most media coverage gets the votes within this system. The business interests that fund their candidacy benefit financially from the legislation their candidate soon enacts. Ultimately, the point Zappa is making here is that voters can be influenced by a specific presentation sold to them, such as an American flag background or Christian iconography, that convinces them to support dangerous legislation that impacts constitutionally protected freedoms in favor of superfluous culture war issues like slightly cheaper gas at the pump. The threat of this happening in America is very real for Zappa as he asks the reader to consider that if any of this sounds silly or far-fetched, just look to Iran to see how state-sanctioned fundamentalist religious zealotry can change a country very quickly.

Opening Act II of the album’s double-vinyl release, the listener finds Joe seeking grace from the depths of despair. This path toward salvation ultimately leads him to the First Church of Appliantology founded by the spiritual leader L. Ron Hoover, performed by Zappa as a not-so-subtle dig at Scientology decades before South Park or Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping popularized lampooning the science fiction-based religious movement. Hoover convinces the impressionably fragile-minded Joe that he is a Latent Appliance Fetishist and that progressing along his spiritual journey means he must admit to himself that sexual gratification can only be achieved through machines (“A Token of My Extreme”).

Not quite convinced by Hoover’s proclamation, but having already given him all his money anyway, Joe decides to at least explore the idea by visiting The Closet, a club filled with machines that “really go for a housewife who can speak German.” There he becomes entranced by the many dancing machines before becoming sexually attracted to one named Sy Borg, portrayed by Warren Cuccurullo and Ed Mann, that “looks like it’s a cross between an industrial vacuum cleaner and a chrome piggy bank with marital aids stuck all over its body”, with Joe singing in German his desire to be penetrated by his curly chrome weenie (“Stick It Out”).

Sy Borg soon takes Joe back to his apartment, where they have a ménage à trois with a “miniature rubberized homo-replica” and engage in sex with bondage and humiliation. The scene comes to a dramatic close when Joe, after “plooking” him too hard, unintentionally destroys Sy Borg with a golden shower and The Central Scrutinizer shows up with law enforcement to arrest Joe for the destruction of government-issued property (“Sy Borg”).

While being admitted to prison, Joe comes across Father Riley after he has ceased being Buddy Jones. He is now the prison chaplain in this institution that houses musicians and record executives. Father Riley escorts Joe through the prison and tells him how much the other inmates love fresh meat, especially a giant of a man called Bald-Headed John, King of the Plookers, portrayed by Terry Bozzio (“Dong Work for Yuda”). Father Riley’s advice for Joe is to keep his behind lubed up so the experience of being plooked will be less painful (“Keep It Greasy”). Closing the prison scene and Act II, Joe’s experience with the music executives leaves him sullen and withdrawn, only able to find solace within the depths of his imagination where he is free to play the music in his mind for an audience of just himself (“Outside Now”).

Act III, the third vinyl of the album, opens with Joe leaving prison and venturing into a new world where music has systematically become illegal. He wanders the streets and observes people organizing and lining up to collect welfare checks to pay for obsolete and irreparable appliances, and who instead use the broken junk to build statues dedicated to the “Quality of American Craftsmanship” (“He Used to Cut the Grass”). Dismayed by this new world without music, he returns to the inner sanctum of his mind. Joe performs his imaginary guitar music and responds to imaginary negative reviews by imaginary rock critics, a scene that becomes an outlet for Zappa to express his grievances over the role journalists play as a tool for the government to subvert and delegitimize artistic expression (“Packard Goose”).

With that final burst of passionate, creative expression, Joe gives up music for good by exorcising it from his very being. Joe symbolically hocks his imaginary guitar before getting a job working the day shift at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. Act III, and the album, come to a close as the Central Scrutinizer turns off his megaphone, leaving Zappa singing in his regular voice for the final song, a silly and spirited nonsensical affair featuring the album’s cast singing about the little green rosetta Joe puts on top of the muffins (“A Little Green Rosetta”).

Having worked himself into a hysteria, Joe comes to terms with the reality of his situation that freedoms once seemingly guaranteed will likely never return when rescinded by the government. So, in a final effort to live out his dreams of becoming a musician, even if only in his mind, he performs one last guitar solo, one so profoundly moving and gorgeous that it is often considered one of Zappa’s best (“Watermelon in Easter Hay”).

The concluding double-vinyl for Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III, and the album’s ending represent the extreme extent to which total authoritarian control can be exerted over a population. Joe was exploited by a religious institution, although a seemingly fringe one, before being arrested for unintentionally destroying government property and serving a prison sentence, until being released in a world where artistic expression and individual freedom become the casualties in a world that elevates consumerist and traditional values.