Today’s the birthday of George Washington and . . . my older brother Thomas. So it seems fitting to take this opportunity to salute an American original and a one-of-a-kind talent, whom no one who ever hung out with my brother in the Seventies could avoid hearing and hearing plenty: the one, the only (and soon to replace the mudshark in your mythology) . . . Frank Zappa!
Does Zappa have his own postage stamp yet? What’s wrong with this country? Frank Zappa, besides being a fiendishly inventive guitar-playing genius, a composer of wit, verve, audacity, complexity and cartoonish absurdity, a jokester, scourge of hippiedom and formal education, champion of freedom of speech in rock lyrics, well-spoken, intelligent, and even humble advocate of his own weird but accessible music and persona, was a beacon of what you hope for your children: that they will figure out an angle on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that is unique, satisfying, and even inspiring. And he died dismayingly early for such a clean-living (except for those cigarettes) family man, at age 53.
And I’m not really that big a fan. I heard almost every Zappa recording up through Zoot Allures (1976). I saw him live at least three times. One of those times, October 1976 at the Spectrum Theater, I’ve just found out is now available online and I’m going to have to go for it. I mean, I was there! Zappa was ever and always Zappa. No bullshit about that. But his music is so NOT “strictly commercial” or strictly any recognizable genre but Zappa, there’s no easy way to make him match to what passes for music in the world of rock’n’roll. Zappa had little patience for rock. And as to writing songs that speak about emotional entanglements, soulful self-examination, high and happy pursuit of sexual thrills, or earnest evocations of Meaning and Causes—as Suzy Creamcheese would say: “for-get it!”
Today’s “song” is a perfect example, from the album Apostrophe (1974), the only top ten record Zappa released. In this first-person narrative, a man finds his python boot is “too tight”; he is unable to take it off; a week goes by and he finally removes the offending article; his girlfriend informs him that he’s “got stinkfoot”; he then brandishes his foot in the immediate olfactory vicinity of Fido, a puppy who is bringing his slippers. Fido passes out. (Then there's a blistering guitar solo of amazing dexterity.) But that’s only the set-up. Fido regains his senses and proceeds to relate to his master a tale in which Fido, when questioned about his “conceptual continuity,” informs his interlocutor that “the crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe.”
This sets off a brief foray of denial by “the man who was talking to the dog” (whether the python-boot-perplexed master or the other speaker in Fido’s tale) who, using most if not all of the contractions which our language permits, says “you can’t say that,” etc. At which point Frank says “ain’t this boogie a mess” and then proceeds to serenade us on his guitar, while some backup singers regale us with the lyrical reflection, “the poodle bi-yites, the poodle chews it.” Meanwhile in the closing thirty seconds, Zappa buries many guitar heroes.
A product of a clean-cut world of doo-wop and bobby-soxers, Zappa, like others of his generation, had to invent his musical idiom out of whatever came to hand, but retained the taint of squaresville longer (in 1966 he's still dealing with Elvis-era stuff) and made it the antithesis of the Freakdom he fully represented. But not the freaks of Hippiedom. Zappa hated hippies and I doubt he had much use for The Beatles even before Sgt. Pepper, which struck him as pretentious, and got travestied by the cover of his album We’re Only In It For the Money (1968). He does a Dylan knock-off of sorts on Freak Out! (1966), the debut album of Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention. All of which lets you know that Sixties “counter-culture” struck Zappa as a kind of silly white-boy fantasy. His way of handling things was the lampoon. Everything is mockable.
As to me, I adopted the phrase “the crux of the biscuit” to apply to any apothegm that nails it. It might even apply to doing the right thing at the right time. And, well, we all can only hope that we have or find some “conceptual continuity.” As to the “apostrophe”—Frank cleverly distracts us with the punctuation mark, used to indicate a contraction or possession (which is where a lot of people get into trouble) and, at times, quotation, when in fact the nature of most of Frank’s songs, in addressing the listener (particularly in asides such as “this is the dog talking now”), use “apostrophe”: “an address to a person or personified object, not present.”
Well, y’know, friends, I’m kinda partial to the apostrophe myself. Seems it gets me out of that rather less beguiling situation where you really are always and only talking to yourself. By virtue of the apostrophe—hey, presto!—I’m not talking to me any more, but to you. That helps. And now, as we used to apostrophize to Frank many times: shut up and play yer guitar!