Zappa (4)

Some good email comments from Steven Rubio re: Zappa, which he said I could use here.

…an interesting discussion might be had about Ruben and the Jets. [Zappa’s] love of doo wop oozes from the record, but he can’t help himself, he has to fuck with it, so the album works more as comedy than as doo wop. You could say he’s messing with our expectations, and that can be a good thing.

I’m not immune to him, or at least I wasn’t at one time. The first four Mothers albums got played a lot, although now that I think about it, I never owned any of them, it was always friends. But we showed how cool we were by referencing Suzy Creamcheese, and to this day, when I hear the word “rutabaga”, I burst into “Call Any Vegetable.” After Ruben and the Jets, though, I lost track of him (maybe I just changed friends). Not that there’s any real connection, but I like Beefheart much more than Zappa.

But my reaction to Zappa is entwined with my thoughts about his stance re: rock and roll. And the older I get, the more I appreciate that there is room for a multitude of stances.

Again, as with the Penman piece, a bunch of stuff in there to eventually, over time, try and unpack: the doo-wop-as-comedy angle; the idea of Zappa “[fucking] with it” (clearly the most [over?]used move in Zappa’s bag of tricks); the Beefheart connection, which btw I think is very real on several levels, including the critical one (for every rock critic who loves Beefheart there are 75 who loathe Zappa); finally, and perhaps most importantly, the idea of Zappa having a particular “stance re: rock and roll.” I think I know exactly what Steven’s talking about with that, and though I think it’s a hugely arguable point, I’ve long pegged it as the #1 reason why Frank Zappa is the most critically-despised rock musician of all-time (can you think of someone more universally reviled?).


8 thoughts on “Zappa (4)

  1. More critically reviled than Zappa: Pat Boone, Michael Bolton, Nickelback, The Knack (maybe less so these days), Emerson Lake & Palmer, Journey (though maybe “Don’t Stop Believin'” is excluded from that nowadays), Insane Clown Posse, Kenny G, plenty of others. Zappa comes nowhere near – plenty of critics do enjoy at least some of his stuff (Christgau gave We’re Only In It For The Money an A!).

  2. I don’t feel convinced by these examples, Patrick, but I’ll give them (and more importantly, my un-stated criteria for my original statement) some thought. Pat Boone doesn’t count, though; he’s really not of the era in which rock criticism thrived, or even existed. I know he’s despised, and is often cited as the great desecrater of rock and roll, but I don’t know of any critics who have actually ever dealt with his work (Tom Smucker admitted he was a fan, I think, but that’s it). Also, the Knack lasted for about five seconds, so I’d probably disqualify them also.

  3. I guess to clarify a little, I’d amend my comment to call Zappa the most critically reviled *major* rock and roller of all-time. We could quibble about who’s “major” and who isn’t, and what makes one “major,” but I think there’s a general consensus among the rock intelligentsia that to some degree Zappa does matter; even those who dislike him (like Christgau) laud his early formal innovations, and again, he’s someone who for a few years critics felt they needed to deal with, he was one of them in a sense. He’s also in the rock hall of fame, which – yeah, yeah, whatever – is at least symbolic of a certain status that he does hold, in a way that Journey, ELP, and Nickelback don’t, and probably never will. Michael Bolton and Kenny G are, or rather were, reviled, but I don’t think the people who reviled them ever really *cared* all that much about them, or held out hopes that they would do something worthwhile; they were convenient critical punchlines more than anything, no?

  4. I think “reviled” and “despised” are the wrong words, especially “despised,” and what you yourself have posted here explains why: not just that Zappa is “major,” but that he did something and has got something singular and he cuts a strong enough figure that you have to at least take him on (or at least if you’re a critic over forty you think so*). So, instead of “despised” and “reviled,” I would use the word “hated,” which allows for at least some respect.

    Btw, I think you’re underrating what ELP represented to critics: “classical” quoting Prog that represented a path that enticed some of “us” but in retrospect represented our insecurity and that we were supposedly right not to follow. Modify this slightly, and it applies to Zappa too.

    *I think you need to be careful about the word “universal” here. There probably are critics over forty who’ve barely listened to the guy and who’ve not formed an opinion — or anyway, some who back at age 16 didn’t hear a long disquisition in study hall from their friend Maureen about the genius of Frank Zappa.

  5. Yeah, my word usages are a bit off, if not reckless, in places. Not *entirely* seeing a world of difference between “despised” and “hated” (I also used “loathed” above, which in some ways *feels* most apt to me), but “universal” is ridiculous, just me spouting a cliché.

    I think I agree about ELP. Of all the prog bands, they were the ones critics seemed to hate the most (maybe because they pushed the hardest towards faux-classical without spilling over into “avant-garde”? also, I think Emerson might have come across as a snob in interviews). Still, I think there’s a bit of a difference between ELP-hate and Zappa-hate. ELP seemed to “represent” a strain that made critics uneasy, but did critics ever truly care, or feel let down, by ELP in particular? Maybe you’re saying they did, and I have no reason to doubt that (I can’t say I’ve gone back and re-read reviews of old ELP records*). Whereas it was Zappa himself who made critics uncomfortable, I don’t know that he really represented any one particular strain (i.e., the “art rock” move towards more highbrow musical forms) because he was always undercutting himself in that regard and he never stayed still in any event. I guess I just sense that when critics dismiss Zappa, there’s something more personal about it — he’s invading their territory, perhaps? One thing I hope to delve into at some point is the way in which what Zappa did, at least in the early years, is completely analogous to rock criticism ** (i.e., Meltzer’s use of “Surfin’ Bird” in *Aesthetics* feels entirely Zappaesque to me, even if it may be the case that he came up with that move prior to hearing a note of Zappa’s music).

    * I did, however, recently go back and try to listen to *Brain Salad Surgery*, which was my whole life for two years, and I did not make it through one enitre song.

    ** I think I will need more than mere “hope” to ever actually pull this off, though!

  6. Well yeah, among other things, Zappa’s a social critic whose impulses and targets are very similar to mine, yet he goes after easy targets or whatever is easiest to attack in the target, and when he can’t find easy targets he invents them, and does so with such a know-it-all wised-up “I am not fooled” sneer (that rarely seems based on actual knowledge or research) that I end up wanting to defend whatever he’s attacking.

    Of course, (1) in all of that (excepting “whose impulses and targets are very similar to mine”) he’s like 90 percent of the people you see on the Internet, and (2) “rarely seems based on actual knowledge and research” applies to me in regard to Zappa, given that I’ve listened to very little of his work and don’t know much about him.

    But he’s also a musician, and those are worse flaws in a critic than in a musician. And one thing you’re drawing out in these posts is that he seems to be an interesting fan.

    Btw, though Zappa may never have done well in Pazz & Jop (I don’t remember) I do recall highly favorable commentary about him in Jazz & Pop. Well, I seem to remember an issue that I read in my high school library with someone calling him “the mother of us all” and a back issue where someone talked of his influence on Their Satanic Majesties Request as a good thing, which it may have been. I also <official tangent> hear Velvets and Kinks on that album, not just in its drones and such but in “2000 Man” sounding like “Death Of A Clown”</official tangent>. If I’m correct, author said that he heard a lot less Beatles than everyone else was claiming to hear and a lot more Mothers and ______ (don’t remember other band he cited; could it have been the Velvets, whom I barely knew of at the time and had never heard?).

  7. I think I’ve read in a few places that Zappa was quite beloved amongst a number of jazz writers. I know Frank Kofsky (a jazz critic who I think also has a reputation as being some kind of hardline Marxist?) did a lengthy interview with him in the late ’60s, which is collected in one of those Jonathan Eisen *Age of Rock* books. (I’ve been meaning to read it.) I mean, whatever his strengths at doing so, a lot of Zappa’s early ’70s instrumental stuff is right up the fusion alley (unsurprisingly, he mocked jazz also).

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