Thursday, June 28, 2007

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.

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