Thursday, June 28, 2007

It's All My Fault

Don't Cry for Me, San Ber'dino (Feet of Clay, Part 2)

It's hard to believe, but Frank Zappa has been dead for 14 years now. He always was an iconoclast and a loner, but like R Crumb his ambition and unique and misogynistic talent was right for the times and carried him into the limelight. He was a prolific serious composer with a love of doo-wop, but seemed to realize early on that the racy, rockier side of his avant garde sensibilities sold better than his cerebral atonal work. Whether this compromise was something he embraced happily or not I'll never know, but I think it contributed to the sneering undercurrent of intellectual elitism that runs through almost all of his work. In a sense he was equally disgusted with everything. As for his fans, he he spent most of the 80s producing songs whose bathroom humor appealed to his audience's basest instincts while their delivery and composition derided that same audience for their inability to appreciate his polyrhythmic complexities (it also didn't help that a deranged Brit pushed him off the stage in 1971 and put him in a wheelchair for a year). He continually complained about the inability of his band members and orchestras to play his music correctly; his experiences with the London Symphony left him so upset that he added a disclaimer on that album as to the performance's accuracy. For the recording industry, the business side of the arts, Britain and the US Government he harbored a special and unwavering contempt that found expression in songs like "Baby Snakes", his acrimonious break with his long-time manager Herb Cohen in 1976 and his anti-censorship crusades in the 80s. He was passionate about music as an exercise of the will, an ideal construct with the the composer at the apex and hordes of willing performers and listeners arranged below. He ended his life composing on the Synclavier, finally doing away with any and all collaborators.

I was a big fan of his music until about 1979; after that everything sounded shrill and disappointing to my ears. I realized that there was perhaps one song in all of the albums I had (and that was every album of his in print at the time) that you could say was "beautiful" - the title track on his album "Sleep Dirt". Even there he undercuts the piece's impact by ending it abruptly with some inane studio banter. Sincerity and tonal beauty were simply not a part of his vocabulary.

Frank Zappa was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in the early 90s. I don't think he was the kind of person who would have mellowed with age and he died far too young. Maybe his childhood in Baltimore, surrounded by poverty and the toxic chemicals his Dad worked with and brought home hastened his end. Maybe it was the thousands of cigarettes he smoked even as he derided the widespread drug use of the 70s. His wife and children have tried to carry on his legacy even while trying to establish their own identity in his giant shadow. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but almost as an afterthought and with little fanfare; the presenter, Lou Reed, had been a sworn enemy of Zappa's since the 60s. The family have hundreds of hours of unreleased material in a temperature-controlled vault, but only time will tell what will remain of this brilliant, misunderstood, caustic, industrious and perhaps fragile individual.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


from my days posting at

Feet of Clay Department

Way after the fact, I finally connect the dots about a couple of heroes (read anti-heroes) of my misspent youth, with varying results.

Tony Hendra is a brilliant writer and satirist who worked on National Lampoon, Spy (a guilty pleasure of mine), and the movie Spinal Tap. Lately he has written the spiritual confessional Father Joe (2004) and the anti-evangelical fantasy (imagine a book-length riff on the Kris Kristofferson song "Jesus Was a Capricorn") The Messiah of Morris Avenue. Father Joe was supposed to be a purging of sorts, a middle-aged dissolute’s account of his discovery of grace and spirituality through his friendship with a monk. The always gloriously wrong Andrew Sullivan praised it to the skies. Maybe in his Sullivanish way when he wrote sentences like “These ideas of sin that we have are not really sin” he was speaking as much about himself as Hendra. Who knows? In any event Sullivan’s review made the book a runaway hit; this confessional of a debauched man who’d come clean and found a kind of acceptance was touted as the perfect Father’s Day gift.

I then found an amazing review by Carolyn See in the Washington Post:

To be frank, I didn't much care for the book…Hendra's voice was sour, peevish…I was snide, I suppose: "It's a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses," I wrote, "so it should sell well"…

Flash forward a few weeks. I'm drinking coffee and watching morning television and there's a desperately nervous woman being interviewed. She's Tony Hendra's daughter and she's saying, in a barely audible voice, that her father molested her when she was a child…

The younger Hendra’s book, How to Cook Your Daughter (2006; the title comes from a short story written by her dad shortly before the alleged incidents begin) chronicles life in the 70s with her self-obsessed, drug-addled, philandering father. The older Hendra denied her allegations of abuse and suggested his daughter was mentally ill, but some legwork done by the New York Times confirmed many of the specifics. Perhaps the most damning fact, however, is Hendra’s subsequent behavior: cutting off all contact with his daughter, he has returned to writing satire but with a bitter partisan edge and a smugness reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens at his worst. He often blogs at the Huffington Post, where last Thanksgiving he offered a mock prayer that opened with a request for the speedy death of VP Cheney and rapidly went downhill from there. Even without his daughter’s revelations, it seems that any sort of conversion he experienced with Father Joe was short-lived.

In retrospect, a few of the bright lights from that era have prospered: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and P. J. O’Rourke come to mind. But for every O’Rourke (who incidentally, Hendra loathes, perhaps because he replaced Hendra as editor at National Lampoon) it seems there are dozens of Doug Kenneys, Michael O'Donoghues, and John Belushis. And Tony Hendras.

more to come...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Watch Out! It's CulturalRelativism Man!

Actually, he probably shouldn't be smoking.


Tora! Tora! Tora!

Bill Whittle of EjectEjectEject! is a Big Idea Guy par excellence. His lengthy essays always leave you saying to yourself "Yeah, that's just what I've been thinking all along but have felt too intellectually confused by the liberal zeitgeist to thoughtfully articulate it". The sporadic nature of the essays also leave you wanting more. Now Bill has simultaneously unloaded perhaps the heaviest articulation of his philosophy and summoned the faithful to create an online community of like-minded believers. I wish him all the best, although the avowedly secular nature of the endeavor is probably not ideal for me. But anyone who loves clear-headed and fearless analysis who doesn't already have Mr. Whittle's RSS feed on their reader of choice should do so immediately.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Stereotypes - the Great Conservative Time Saver and a Renewed Promise to Write Some More

Too much time away and where to begin? There is so much to talk about. I've been subscribed for a while to a few standard left-wing blogs such as the Daily Kos and The Huffington Post. It is important to be able to confront/consider all points - the Right would be poorer without the Left and vice versa. But although Best of the Web's James Taranto's concept of the "Angry Left" is perhaps an over-generalization, I still see very little to contradict it in the Left-Wing Blogosphere. Like Bernard Goldberg (although unlike Goldberg he is an excellent writer), his points are very apt. And in spite of voices like Goldberg and Taranto the concept of activist journalism (facts are secondary to the greater and usually progressive truth) has continued to thrive by adopting quasi-scientific terminology (such as "post-normal science") to justify its existence.

Science is now more than ever the "moral engine" that drives the Progressive movement. In a world where trickle-down versions of scientific Big Ideas like Evolution, String Theory, Relativity and Behavioral Sciences seem to offer the average humanistic intellectual something like Truth and with the Humanities immolating itself in a bonfire of nihilism, the Progressive Movement sees the continued march of humanism as the only way to a rational, happy future. Who would have thought that the bold standard carried by men like Voltaire and Nietzsche would end up in the hands of Gene Roddenberry? And if it's hard not to see the appeal in progressive activist journalism to someone like me, then it must be near impossible for someone on the other end of the political spectrum .