Saturday, August 23, 2008

Keeping It Real With FZ

Earlier this year a co-worker came to me with what seemed like a simple question: what was out there for her fourteen year old son who spent all his days playing drums, listening to classic rock of the 1970s, and wanted to know more about music, but not what passes for music writing in the magazines these days. Her son wanted something that wasn't gossip, or a band profile filled with pictures. He wanted something real.

And I opened my mouth and I uttered the name Frank Zappa and her hand instantly went up in protest. "I don't need him going there just yet." The problem as, her son already was there. He had been consuming an aural diet of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors (among others) and had done enough research to know he wanted something more, something substantial.

And I cannot think of anything more substantial for a young mind interested in a career in rock and roll music than The Real Frank Zappa Book by FZ with Peter Occhiogrosso. Here's a guy who, in his life, testified before the Senate against music censorship, was invited to Czechoslovakia by President Václav Havel to serve as consultant for the government on trade and tourism, introduced (for better or worse) Valley Girl speak into popular culture, and scared folks so badly that his one Grammy award is for Best Rock Instrumental Performance on an instrumental album called Jazz From Hell that was forced to carry an "explicit lyrics" sticker.

I'd say a teen with a non-vanilla interest in music could learn a lot from this guy.

"I detest 'love lyrics.' I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on 'love lyrics.'"

FZ has a lot to say, about a lot of subjects, and whether you agree with him or not it's hard to just ignore what he says. That quote about love lyrics comes from his account of an album of faux doo wop called Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. In this briefest section of a chapter he discusses how MGM failed to follow-through on a contract, how some DJ's thought the album was really a doo wop album and then pulled it because they felt duped, then he connects what he set out to accomplish along the lines of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (and even included a bit of it in one of the recordings), sets out the formulaic chord progressions of popular hits of the time, pokes fun at the 'love lyric,' and explains how it "creates a semantic corruption" in the listener. He does all that in a mere two and a half pages.

There's more. A drunken encounter with John Wayne. Lessons in how the record industry used to screw over musicians (some may still). Why he didn't drink or do drugs (he did smoke, which he considered a food) and why no one ever believed him. Politics and religion are attacked on all fronts, just as they are in his music, and in such a way that it makes it hard to defend them. Like Lenny Bruce, he knew how to talk dirty and influence people.

FZ freely admits up front that he talks dirty. He uses language deftly to both express himself and to provoke thought in others. And because of these things he scares people. But it's a good scary, the kind of scary that can help open a closed mind, or at the very least makes a good argument that when the world thinks you're crazy maybe you're on to something. FZ posed the question "Does humor belong in music?" but left it to the individual to decide. He considered himself a "practical conservative" who always urged people to vote, but the way he lays it out you'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional conservative thought. He disdained hypocrisy and believed in treating children with the same respect as adults. Without being didactic, FZ presents in himself a portrait of what it means to be a driven artist, a musician, and a non-conformist adult. What more could a teen want from an autobiographical pastiche?

Yes, he can write a mini opera about yellow snow, and it can be funny and on the verge of obscene, but he took his musicianship seriously. In his lifetime a handful of his compositions were performed by classical outfits -- the Ensemble Moderne of Germany and the London Symphony Orchestra -- and a sizable number of musicians apprenticed with him throughout his dizzying band line-ups and went on to fame either on their own or with others: Guitarists Steve Vai and Adrian Belew (Talking Heads, David Bowie, Kind Crimson) and Warren Cuccurullo (Duran Duran); bassists Shuggie Otis (Cal Tjader, Etta James) and Patrick O'Hearn (Mark Isham, Missing Persons); jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty; drummers Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons) and Aynsley Dunbar (Journey); keyboardists George Duke and Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music); singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo and Eddie, aka The Turtles). You start tracking the "family tree" of FZ's direct and indirect influences and you could make a living doing so.

You say you have a teen who wants to read something real about music, in theory and as a lifestyle? I suppose they could read Rolling Stone or Mojo, but why sell them short. Show them FZ's world and really open their eyes.


buzz said...

Phenomenal choice. This is one of my favorite books about music and being a musician. Not to mention, lots of isight into one of the great composers of our time.

gonovice said...

Weird. Driving to work this morning, I wondered if I might review The Real Frank Zappa book here. But you did a much better job than I would have. I also recommend Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, by Kevin Courrier. I love Zappa's humor, guitar work, and musical inventiveness. Courrier shows that Zappa's drugs were the legal caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which are just as psychoactive, potentially, as any others. See Andrew Weil's From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs.