The Ultimate Frank Zappa Playlist, Episode 1

Youth is often defined by simplicity. As children, most of us have very few responsibilities compared to the lives we lead as adults. Our parents provide us with food, shelter, and clothing, and make all the important decisions for us; so, ultimately, our lives as children are really quite simple. We spend that time playing, socializing, dreaming, and forming the core perspective that will direct our thoughts and actions for the remainder of our existence. For this reason, children often think in simple and direct terms. Childish ideologies are known to be black-and-white; childish perspectives are contained in one-line platitudes; childish identities are encapsulated in categorical summaries like, "He's a jock," "She's a nerd," "He's one of those artistic types," "She's a free spirit," and so on. 

But real people, in real life, are nothing like this. Reality is complex, containing multitudes. No one is exclusively a "jock" or a "free spirit;" the truth is that most people contain elements of both, and of so much more. While most of us like to think we adhere to some kind of central ideology, the truth is that most of us fall short of our ideals and rationalize those shortcomings ex post facto. There is a little bit of the hero in each human being, and a little bit of the devil, and the way those two pieces swirl and interact makes all of us adults who we are. We decidedly cannot be encapsulated in categorical summaries, none of us can, nor can our inner thoughts be accurately expressed in platitudes and slogans. 

A popular artist, however, exists as a sort of exception. Artists, the people themselves, are of course just as complex and multifaceted as the rest of us. But popular artists are also in the business of selling their art, and one of the best ways of marketing that art is to present it as being more than merely a nice song or a pretty picture. A truly great artist has a way of creating a whole artistic world unto itself, and consuming their art as a member of the audience is often a matter of personally stepping into that world, imagining oneself there inside it. 

After all, what great art lover has never imagined what it would be like to walk along M.C. Escher's twisted staircases, touch the liquified drops of Dali's melting clocks, or walk along the distant paths visible in the background of one of Caravaggio's masterpieces? What serious music fan has never gazed out at the passing countryside during a long drive and heard the sound of a moody favorite song? Or, overcome with grief or sadness, who has never put on a long, sad, dreary album that sets to sound the powerful agony of our inner turmoil? Or likewise played the most exciting, invigorating music during times of pure elation?

Artists who specialize, and who gain fame for their work, must to some extent present themselves as the architects of these imaginary worlds so that they might invite us in for a visit. Ozzy Osborne thus becomes the "Prince of Darkness," Michael Jackson the "King of Pop," James Brown the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," Prince Rogers Nelson an unpronounceable and highly sexualized symbol, and so on. These titles function as more than mere nicknames, they're marketing taglines designed to help guide the consumer -- er, the listener -- through the process of stepping into that artistic world. It helps set the stage for what's to come. That is, it provides the frame.

"The most important thing in art is The Frame," Frank Zappa wrote in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. "For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively -- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?"

When a public artist steps out into the world as an artist, that is, as a representative of the art he or she hopes to sell, that artist exists as a living Frame in the Zappanese sense of the word. An artist selling art is a person engaged in the act of defining for the audience where the real world ends and the art begins, so that the audience can step inside and see how they like it. 

And for most artists, this is a relatively easy part of the job. The struggle of a great soprano consists of all the years of agonizing practice, slowly honing her craft and cultivating her voice until it becomes a thing of absolute beauty. Acting the part of a diva, by contrast, is no sweat. Take a bow, accept the bouquet of roses at the end of the big aria, and always decorate every media interview with beautiful, cascading laughter and wide-eyed declarations about the magic of the music you are just so fortunate to be able to sing. 

All anyone knows about that diva is her voice, her love of the medium, and her gratitude for existence. The fact that this woman might also be an obedient daughter, a callous sister, a treasured friend, a close confidant, a keeper of secrets, a terrible cook, a rather mean romantic partner, a loving mother, or any mix of all of these things is always obscured by her dedication to selling her art when in public. It is her duty as an artist to be That Voice. All other aspects of her life are important, of course, but only to her. To the audience, they are mostly irrelevant; at best, an aside in her Wikipedia entry, and at worst, salacious gossip.

With all of that in mind, it becomes clear that Frank Zappa had a serious problem: his artistic work was as complex and multitudinous as most people's lives are. Fed on a steady diet of pop culture, history, music theory, and practical economics, Zappa wanted to pour all of these ingredients and more into his art, twist it all together, and see what came out. The result was always something unmistakably Zappa, but how does an artist market a portfolio that contains a little bit of pretty much everything?

Frank Zappa could not be "the diva" or "the guitar god" or "the rock icon" or "the freak," or any other thing; at least, not without sacrificing the other elements of his art. The art world was not then, and is certainly not now, capable of absorbing a marketing message that required nuances and multiple facets. 

So, instead, the marketers did the best they could with the primitive tools they had. Some of his lyrics were comedic, so for some he became "comedy music." Some of his lyrics were overtly political, so for others he became a purveyor of "acerbic social commentary." Some of his music was deliberately whimsical, even noisy and abstract, so for favorable critics he became "avant-garde," while for hostile critics he became "ugly."

Where all of these descriptions -- and the many other failed descriptions of Zappa's work -- fail is in their singularity. How would we describe the Sistine Chapel using only a three-letter word? The truth is, Zappa's music fused elements of Dadaism, avant-garde, 20th Century orchestral compositional concepts, social commentary, highbrow humor, toilet humor, inside jokes, personal quirks, conceptual music theory, satire, earnestness, and above all a love for music. As he put it, "Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All."

That indelible combination created one of the largest and most varied bodies of work in the music world; not the rock music world, not the 20th Century music world, but ever. And all of it is unmistakably Zappa.

Over the course of this series, I would like to guide an unfamiliar audience through some of the depths of Frank Zappa's music. My hope is "to suggest, to the suggestible listener" that Zappa's art is best understood holistically, as a complex sum total, rather than as a mere set of marketing taglines the seldom ever really do justice to what they attempt to describe. If an audience mostly unfamiliar with his work (and that will be my assumption throughout this series) can be chaperoned through some of its most important elements, then perhaps that can help demystify and obviate the appeal of one of the Twentieth Century's most exciting musicians and composers.

Well, where better to start than with "Inca Roads," a song that served as one of Zappa's signature pieces during the mid-seventies? I've chosen it for a number of reasons. First, as the opening track on the One Size Fits All album, it fits as an apt "kickoff." More importantly, however, is the fact that it packs so many classic elements of Zappa's music into a relatively concise space.

To really understand this piece, it helps to have heard the version that most of us only got to hear in 1996, when it appeared on The Lost Episodes, released after Zappa had passed away. This "lost" version of "Inca Roads" presents all of the musical themes arranged as straightforwardly as possible, with none of the excess decorations present in the version released in '75. The dedicated Zappa fan might find this simpler version a little too boring for everyday consumption, but the student of Zappa will appreciate having the complex musical themes laid out plainly in advance.

After all, the song's Wikipedia entry suggests, "The non-serious nature of these lyrics and even the music itself seem to be mocking other progressive rock bands and their possibly forced divine depth." But interpreting Zappa's music solely through the lens of satire flattens its dimensions. Its obvious from listening to the stripped-down version of "Inca Roads" that the original album version was arranged specifically to introduce each melody, and indeed each permutation of the melody, slowly and deliberately. Once each element of the full composition has been so introduced and permutated, the band takes a break while Frank Zappa performs one of his trademark improvised guitar solos -- another classic element of Zappa's music. The guitar solo appearing on the One Size Fits All version of the song is, in fact, a particularly good one by Zappa standards, and it's easy for the listener to close his or her eyes, turn the volume up, and get lost in the moment as Zappa himself surely did when he performed it live, on stage in Helsinki, Finland. 

(This Zappa technique of mixing performances from some records with those of others, which he termed xenophony, is yet another important element of Zappa's music, which I will surely explore in greater depth in a future episode.)

But when the solo climaxes, the band falls nearly silent, things get briefly quiet, and then... "Inca Roads" really begins.

When the band kicks back in, all of the previous melodies reappear in their proper sequence, gradually building from quiet to loud, from separate to cohesive, until at last the full "Inca Roads" compositional sequence appears, driven mainly by the marimba lines. These melodies are permutated the same way they were at the beginning of the song, but each time the speed gets faster and faster until the keyboard solo ends and we hear the full sequence played at hyper-speed, unaccompanied, by Ruth Underwood on her marimba.

As for the lyrics, again Wikipedia suggests that they're satire. It states, "As the song progresses, the lyrics become sillier and seem to mock the beginning of the song. An example of this is "...or did someone build a place or leave a space for Chester's thing to land (Chester's thing... on Ruth)." But whoever wrote this was unfortunately unfamiliar with the meaning of the phrase "Chester's thing." Chester, of course, refers to Chester Thompson, the band's drummer at the time; while Ruth obviously refers to marimba player Ruth Underwood. Note that both drums and marimba are percussion instruments played with sticks or mallets. So, when Zappa announces, "Chester's thing on Ruth," he's directing the band (and the listener) to play Chester's drum fill on Ruth's marimba. Lyrics of this kind can be found throughout this song, and Zappa's full catalogue.

While Zappa's lyrics ostensibly explore an idea presented in popular book at the time that the Inca Road system was built by aliens who landed in South America during ancient times. You can learn about this on the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" TV series. But the lyrics also serve a meta-purpose in that they provide sonic placeholders for the instrumental themes of the composition. As the lyrics change, they do so in comical ways, but this isn't a form of mockery so much as a fun way to permutate the melodies themselves. And by the end of the song, it all collides in a glorious, and dare I say absurdist, mishmash that only Zappa could have pulled off. 

There is, in fact, nothing "satirical" or "mocking" about the song "Inca Roads." It's one of the most earnest, cheerful, and straightforward pieces Zappa ever published. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the most complex and physically demanding pieces in his repertoire. 

We start here, and if you've followed along this far, then you're in for what I hope will be an exciting and educational series!


Something Is Inevitable - But What?

These last few years, especially the first half of this tumultuous 2020, have been an almost surreal experience for me. Even the simplest facts seem incredible. For example, who would ever have guessed that Donald Trump would become the President of the United States? Whether or not you like his policies, you have to admit that the mere fact of his presidency is highly unusual. I'm not sure there is a historical analogue for it.

It's not just the Trump presidency, of course. There are just so many things about life today that seem strange. America's ongoing military campaigns across the Middle East, a violent historical fact that has depleted our national treasury and strained our military resources, are 20 or 30 years in (depending on where you start counting) and show no signs of abating, even as we descend into an economic depression the likes of which has never been seen before. The United States of America, stereotyped as a bastion of free enterprise and laissez-faire capitalism, is now engaged in some of the most protectionist and mercantilist policies -- not just of the USA's brief history, but also comparatively across contemporary nations. The "socialist" European Union and communist People's Republic of China often give more powerful defenses of free international trade than any public figure in the United States today, other than the usual free-market libertarians who have been around for decades. The Black Lives Matter organization, a publicly Marxist organization with a professed antipathy toward the institution of private property, is the anti-racist organization that has captivated our youth; BLM, rather than any other organization out there. 

Even my fellow libertarians are acting out of type, making arguments for universal welfare schemes and environmental paternalism, arguing against democracy itself, or in some cases defending racism as a human right. 

The common denominator in all of this seems to be impassioned extremism, rather than stoic rationalism. It almost seems to me as though even-tempered and restrained thoughtfulness is just... gone. In its place, even formerly rational people seem to be competing with each other to tackle quirky, zany, and/or extreme ideas for their sheer novelty. 

Is that it? Do people now latch on to the extremes and the quirkiness mostly for their novelty, whereas reasonableness is boring? Or, is it that reasonableness doesn't make the news because it doesn't generate enough popular interest? Something else?

Now, when I look at what's happening around me, I am overcome by a single thought: "This can't possibly go on." It's not sustainable for a diverse country of 350 million to stop trading in the international marketplace while deficit-spending many several Middle Eastern wars and flirting with socialist populism. It just can't continue. It will inevitably end.

The end is inevitable, but how will it happen? Will the United States grow more restrained, reduce its global military presence, reduce its annual budget, seek more inter- and intra-national cohesion, and become a calmer nation overall? Or, is this the beginning of the end of the United States as we know it? 

I honestly don't know.