Friday, August 28, 2015

Remembering Frank Zappa, and Not Enjoying Doing So

I read on Facebook yesterday that the late Frank Zappa believed only musicians qualified to judge music. For all I know, the great man said this to exactly the same extent that Abraham Lincoln said, “Never believe anything you read on the Internet.” Zappa is also thought to have compared writing about music to dancing about architecture, though there are those who believe the comparison was originally the satirist Martin Mull’s. For the fun of it, though, let’s take as given that Zappa said both things.

Both, in my view, pretty inane. If only musicians are qualified to judge music, would it not follow that only chefs are qualified to rate restaurants? Should the work of the brilliant film critic Pauline Kael have been discounted because she was not herself a filmmaker? Must we be painters ourselves to be awed by the work of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, for instance? Am I not entitled to disdain conceptual modern art as nothing more, at best, than a good joke if I am not myself an artist?


As too is the notion that all musicians would concur. If you can get the little showoff shredder at Guitar Center to stop playing 64th-note triplets at the very top of the neck long enough to ask whom he regards as the really great guitarists, do you suppose he’d mention Django Reinhardt? Jeff Beck? I don’t. My guess would be that he’d cite the guitarist in some Finnish thrash-metal group who plays 128th-note triplets, and whose music a great many musicians might very well find comical.

Not that I don’t find some merit in the idea that one should know something about music before undertaking to review it. I personally loathe what I call the English Teacher School of rock criticism, whereby one mumbles something meaningless about the music (the Los Angeles Times’ long-time pop critic used to hope that something like, “[The artist’s] music contains elements of blues, folk, and rock” would appease everyone), hope no one noticed that the statement meant nothing at all, and then hurry over to the lyrics. Someone like NPR’s Ken Tucker is a slight improvement. Before hurrying over to the lyrics, he’ll speak, for instance, of a “whipcrack snare drum,” which at least gives the reader some idea of the sound. Writing expertly about music without invoking the sort of jargon that made that famous early celebration of the Aeolian cadences in The Beatles’ “Not a Second Time” seem so very fatuous is no easy task. I have always regarded J.D. Considine, most recently of Canada’s The Globe and Mail, as incomparably good at it.

Frank Zappa, I suspect, felt strongly that he should be regarded as a genius because his stuff was really complicated. Whatever else they may argue about, all musicians will agree that the best music is invariably very difficult to play. Not. Because I asserted early in my writing career that his movie 100 Motels was an unfunny disaster, and that I would eagerly trade the whole of his recorded oeuvre for a scratched copy of James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Pupper,” for instance, Zappa was widely known to think no more highly of me than I thought of him. Which troubled me not in the slightest. I never ceased to marvel at the extent to which Zappa was able to intimidate people into regarding his puerile name-calling as satire. Anyone that full of disdain for just about everything just had to have a great, great deal on the ball, right?

By the way (behold my Donald Trump imitation!), I have no compunctions about speaking ill of the dead, my guess being that they don’t mind in the slightest. Indeed, it seems to me that the dead are exactly those of whom we should feel least guilty about speaking ill. And in fairness, I will admit that I think Zappa’s famous observation that the USA was in grave danger of turning into a fascist theocracy was absolutely apt, and prophetic.

Zappa, of course, wasn’t alone in loathing me. I wasn’t on Led Zeppelin’s Xmas card list either, or Neil Young’s.  Remembering which, I’ve got to marvel at what spoiled little fellows some of our fave rock stars have been over the years. They’ve got wealth and fame, and beautiful young women in their most provocative attire lined up for the privilege of fellating them, but is that enough? You bet it isn’t! They also need the critics to pat them on their heads in print and say, “What a wonderfully, wonderfully talented little fellow you are!”


  1. In spite of it all I found your liner notes to the Zapped song sampler greatly enhanced the listen-ability to some of the more lacking tracks contained therein.

    1. Much appreciated, Andy. As I (very dimly) recall there were some VERY lacking tracks.

  2. By the by, Kael was a filmmaker, if a temporary experimental filmmaker when she was married to Brakhage--maybe in school. And she worked on The Group (Lumet). But she liked to quote a Debbie Reynolds line in Singin' in the Rain: "You don't have to be a chicken to know an egg is rotten."

    1. Didn't she also write a treatment or script for Warren Beatty, which he vindictively turned down?

  3. I admire Frank Zappa a great deal, but beyond his first three albums with the Mothers of Invention and the wonderful Lumpy Gravy it's a case of diminishing returns for me. In modern parlance it's my belief that he crawled up his own ass, enjoyed the vibe, and continued releasing music to assuage his own ego. There were still occasional high points like Roxy & Elsewhere and One Size Fits All, and as a guitarist he was absolutely compelling to watch, but on the whole I rather enjoy his political commentary more than his music.

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