There's nothing like an early death to prompt critical reconsideration--Frank Zappa, who succumbed to cancer in late 1993 at the age of 52, has gotten a major boost to his reputation.
At the time of his passing, the music made by this grumpy auteur was heard by few listeners outside the circle of the previously committed. Moreover, a considerable percentage of his recordings were out of print, and many that weren't could be obtained only through Barking Pumpkin Records, a label run for the most part out of Zappa's house. Few would have guessed, then, that this artist's demise would prompt worshipful obituaries from media sources he'd spent a lifetime savaging--Time magazine, for instance--and a renewed interest in recordings that only a handful of observers gave a damn about even when they were new.
In an effort to capitalize on Zappa nostalgia, the Massachusetts-based Rykodisc label embarked on one of the most ambitious reissue campaigns in the history of the record business--the release of 53 Zappa discs over the course of four weeks ending in late May. Of course, Rykodisc is in some ways recycling its own back catalogue; the company has been selling some of these offerings for years now. Even so, the appearance of this massive body of work in a single block is daunting--and so is the hype that's accompanying it. Suddenly, it's become fashionable to view Zappa not as an idiosyncratic rock 'n' roller with a keen satirical eye and a penchant for toilet humor, but as a neoclassicist whose accomplishments rival those of John Cage, Philip Glass and the most creative "serious" composers of this century.
Actually, listening to these recordings doesn't support this conclusion, and that's a shame. After all, those of us who admired Zappa for his quick wit and his stands against the de facto censorship promoted by the Parents Music Resource Center would like nothing better than to believe that he was also a man making music that historians will see as timeless. But draping Zappa's finest moments in the cloak of respectability saps much of the life from them; his pretensions aside, this stuff works better as anarchy than it does as high art. From 1966 until approximately 1970, Zappa operated at a very high level, making records in which musicality, scatology and nastiness butted heads in ways that still intrigue. And if the albums that followed were more erratic, and often a lot worse, they remained the spawn of a man smart enough to realize that well-beaten paths can be boring as hell.
Freak Out, from 1966, was the first album by Zappa's greatest group, the Mothers of Invention, and it's still the simplest route into his work. The majority of the songs here are variations on the rock 'n' roll then booming out of a million garages from coast to coast; bottom line, "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "Wowie Zowie" are pop songs, albeit ones in which Zappa and his compatriots often exude smugness, and a distasteful contempt for the form. This attitude can be a drag at times, but it also imparts an edge that gives the tunes staying power. Better yet, the cynicism occasionally subsides: On the surrealist lark "Help, I'm a Rock," the musicians actually sound like they're having fun, and not holding themselves above the material. At moments like these, Freak Out celebrates the clichs of the era even as it tears them apart.
The next Mothers opus, Absolutely Free, largely maintains this balance, and manages to come up with some good songs in the process; especially noteworthy is "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," an assault on the suburban mindset that slams together tempo changes, mock opera and a genuine blues riff. We're Only In It for the Money, from 1968, is even stronger because its various tangents work together as part of a vicious attack on the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a visual and aural model) and everything the misanthropic Zappa thought they represented. "What's there to live for?" Zappa asks at the beginning of "Who Needs the Peace Corps?"--a song brave enough to tear up the San Francisco hippie movement while it was happening. In short, the album is mean--and, a generation later, Zappa's ire still burns.
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Unfortunately, Zappa never again hit Money's peaks. The Mothers discs Uncle Meat and Weasels Ripped My Flesh came close; with its free-jazz skronk and collages of sound, "Didja Get Any Onya?" from Weasels was the sort of musical experiment that only a confident performer without any real interest in catering to an audience would have dared. But Fillmore East--June 1971, featuring ex-Turtles Flo and Eddie, is more typical of the period. It's extraordinarily well-played and sometimes amusing (in a junior-high-school sort of way), but it also caters to the portion of Zappa's audience that saw him as a novelty.
As the years went by, Zappa was more and more willing to throw bones to this crowd, and slowly the success of lowball efforts such as "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" (from 1974's Apostrophe) and "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" (from 1979's Sheik Yerbouti) began to overwhelm his better judgment. Even the three-volume rock opera Joe's Garage, issued in 1980, sank to these depths on occasion; Zappa's tale of a world in which music was outlawed would have stung far longer had he refrained from the sophomoric digressions of "Crew Slut" and "Wet T-Shirt Nite." Zappa saw those who criticized material like this as uptight and close-minded: The name of his 1986 live album, Does Humor Belong in Music?, was not chosen by accident. But this take avoided the real point of such gripes--that Zappa was better able to earn laughs and make listeners think when he didn't resort to pee-pee jokes. His best set from the early Eighties was the three-volume Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar, in which he did a brilliant job of taking the title's advice.
As for Zappa's straight classical works--including a pair of recordings made with the London Symphony Orchestra and The Yellow Shark, the last disc Zappa put out before he died--they are perfectly listenable and sometimes inspired, but they give only a hint of what he could do when he wasn't operating within the constrictions of a particular form. Like a karate expert fighting with his hands tied behind his back, the classical Zappa used only part of his arsenal. The same can be said about Civilization Phase III, a two-CD set that's not part of the Rykodisc program (it's available from select stores or from Barking Pumpkin, whose telephone number is 1-818-PUMPKIN). Composed primarily on the Synclavier, Civilization is not really classical, not really jazz and not really fleshed out. Rather, it's a collection of familiar Zappa devices--sudden tempo changes, for instance--interrupted by random dialogue recorded for the solo disc Lumpy Gravy almost three decades earlier. It's not an unpleasant listen--and it might have been better if it were.
Of course, the circumstances of Civilization's release have prompted many Zappaphiles to overpraise it, as they have Overnite Sensation, Zoot Allures and other platters that can't compare to his peak performances. Because prime Zappa is incomparable--whether Time likes it or not.