“Thanks to songs like ‘Dinah Moe Humm,’ ‘Titties & Beer’ and ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ I managed to accumulate enough cash to bribe a group of drones* to grind its way through pieces like ‘Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation,’ ‘Bob in Dacron’ and ‘Bogus Pomp’ (eventually released on London Symphony Orchestra, Volumes I and II) — in performances which come off like high-class ‘demos’ of what actually resides in the scores. So how did I wind up using those guys? Well, it’s a long story…”
Okay, so I’m reading The Real Frank Zappa Book (above quote is from p. 146), enjoying chunks of it, finding some sections boring enough to speed read my way through them, but this anecdote stopped me dead in my tracks. I don’t know what’s more maddening here: a) the idea that these dreadful songs (and “Titties,” “Yellow Snow,” et al. are all dreadful, I’ve never thought otherwise about any of them) were merely cynical exercises in securing dollars for more thoughtful projects (which, if true, would seem to diminish Zappa’s own endless statements on the corruption of the rock process, no?), or b) that this offhand short paragraph (one paragraph in a book that is 352 pages long) is the best he can come up with to to deal head on with this particular side of his music/persona**.
Obviously, Zappa is hyper-aware of the critical response to this phase of his music in particular*** and for someone who has always slammed critics — sometimes in print, but often in his music too — and is more than willing to expound on his own ‘Frankness’ about his art and his life, this strikes me as little more than a self-serving evasion — unless the correct answer really is that all his smutty juvenilia was merely a cash-out tactic of sorts (though even if so, a couple sentences hardly suffices as an explanation, right?). (Note that, as I write this, I feel myself potentially falling into all sorts of traps here.) If this were Bob Dylan, or virtually any other pop musician I can think of, I wouldn’t have batted an eye; Dylan has never trumped himself up as a truth-teller**** the way Zappa did — and did so endlessly. Yes, you could argue that Zappa’s an artist not a critic and therefore the playbook is a little different, but no — important point here — that’s not in fact true. Zappa always set himself up as both (and more), it’s one reason I’m here doing this exposition in the first place (not that I’ve had the opportunity yet to expound much on that particular idea), so I want to take the man on his word and hold him up to standards not just of musicality (do his musical effects hit me where it counts?) but of verbal thought and intelligence (I should have conducted a word count of “stupid” in the book; not surprisingly, it shows up frequently).
(On the plus side, I’ve enjoyed some of FZ’s early Mothers anecdotes, and really like his explanation of what he believes he actually does; his definition of “composing” is a good riposte to people who think he’s using that word as a way to beat down the rock audience. Also — in the same section — the stuff about Project/Object is worthy of expansion here, eventually — it gets to the nub of the matter, in fact.)
I need to dig back into Ben Watson’s FZ tome; he deals with this stuff much more compellingly and directly, I think.
* By which he means the LSO. Zappa’s attitude towards classical musicians and audiences is no less scathing and condescending than it is to the rock crowd; indeed, it might be moreso.
** Big caveat, obviously; I’ve still got a long way to go. However, flipping through the remainder, I’m not seeing the words “Dinah Moe Hum” anywhere, though there is an upcoming section regarding his dirty lyrics, which I have a sinking feeling is him merely arguing about his “right” to sing what he wants to sing and why people who want to stop him from singing what he wants to sing are misguided for doing so… um, yawn.
*** There’s an entire chapter on critics, which I haven’t got to yet; I expect it to be fairly predictable.
**** With Dylan, bullshit was always part of the territory, and you’d be foolish probably to place too much stock in his statements outside of his music, though I personally love his sixties interview persona, which is perversely enlightening in at least a Warholian sense.