I am spending January in a cottage in the Netherlands, volunteering for one of the most impressive NGOs I’ve come across (Against Child Trafficking) and listening to Zappa.
I’m living alone and enjoying it so much that it almost makes me feel guilty. Aren’t we supposed to live with partners, parents, families, children? Trouble is, I find, that living with people results in endless compromise: if they cook, I don’t; if they watch too much TV, I do too; and if they don’t like my music I don’t listen to any.
Also, when I’m on my own I have so much more time to read and write. I experiment in the kitchen, I do silly exercises and I discover new music. I’m never bored or lonely and yesterday I went on a long walk down a windy and deserted beach.
Yesterday morning I discovered Frank Zappa and today I am revelling in one of the greatest rock songs I’ve ever heard: The Gumbo Variations. It starts out as a conversation between a confident saxophone, a subtle drummer and a persistent bass. The guitar makes an appearance later on and there is a very discreet electric organ in the background—something I only noticed after listening to the song five or six times in a row. The song lasts for 20 minutes and I’ve decided how I want my funeral arranged: buy a crate of whisky and play this song.
Here you can hear Zappa and his crew playing The Gumbo Variations.
I say I “discovered” Frank Zappa as if nobody else has heard of him, as if it was me who found him in Backwoodsville, Oklahoma and made him great. “The sheer arrogance of him,” you may be thinking, “who the hell does that Rupert Wolfe Murray think he is?”
What I mean is that, like most people of my generation (baby boomers), I’ve heard of Frank Zappa and I thought I knew him as I’d listened to his “Best of” album a few times. If you want to develop the Rupert-is-an-arrogant-shit theme I can give you more ammunition: I used to buy one or two albums of people like Bowie or the Beatles and think I knew their stuff. It’s only in my fifties that I’m discovering the depth of my ignorance.
The person who helped me realise my lack of musical knowledge was Claudiu Revnic, a brilliant Romanian who studied in Manchester and Edinburgh and whose knowledge of music and film in encyclopaedic. I mentioned David Bowie to him once and he talked about his life, his influences and so many albums that I’d never heard of. The great thing about Claudiu is that he doesn’t look down on us mere mortals, he doesn’t make us feel like the ignorant peasants we are, and he has endless patience in educating us. He really should have his own radio show.
Another Romanian with sophisticated musical tastes is Adina Daca. A few years ago, when I was living in Romania, I told Adina that I’d just lost my big collection of music as my computer had crashed and I had no backups. (The one thing I really miss was the complete works of Vangelis, picked up in a dodgy DVD market in Moscow; but I often listen to his soundtrack of Blade Runner on Youtube as it’s one of the few albums I can listen to while working).
Being a friendly type, Adina gave me some music. Not just an album or a playlist but the complete works of David Bowie: 23 Studio Albums; 4 Live Albums; 5 Tin Machine albums; 47 Eps and singles; 4 soundtracks; 15 compilation albums and two tribute albums.
Dear Adina, thank you so much for your generosity but I have to confess that I’ve only listened to a fraction of the great man’s work. I am unequal to the task of exploring the achievements of just one artist
I also want to thank Adina for giving me five albums by Frank Zappa. These have been sitting on my computer for years; an artist I didn’t bother listening to, partly because my only speakers are locked up in a store in Liverpool and also because it’s hard playing music in the presence of my family—my daughter, brother and mother all wince if I put music on.
But here in Holland nobody can hear me scream or see me dance (and I was dancing like a hippy earlier as I listened to The Gumbo Variations for the fifth time). The only decent music I thought I have on my computer (apart from Bowie of course, although, I must admit, I find a lot of his work a bit too serious) is a superb album called Rough Guide to Ethiopian Music.
Yesterday, between writing about intercountry adoptions and child trafficking, I decided to look for some other music. I find the ideal time to listen to music is when I’m cooking and eating (and now that I’m alone I can experiment with cabbage and sardines and onions and other concoctions that my family would, I suspect, not approve of).
I must have seen the name Frank Zappa on my short list of music a hundred times, but I never noticed it—which reminds me of Ron Weasley (or was it the bus conductor?) in one of the Harry Potter films who says “Muggles! They don’t see anything!”
Without any sense of anticipation, I put on one of Zappa’s albums—Freak Out—and started chopping up an apple, a banana and two oranges for my breakfast. Some of Zappa’s music sounds ridiculous; he uses kazoos, cheap organs and anything he can find to make horrible noises, to reflect horrible reality I suppose. He also uses sounds he’s recorded, and conversations, many bizarre and grotesque, and integrates them into his songs. If you want a short sample of what I’m talking about, look up the song Are You Hung Up? – a nasty but hilarious critique of phoney hippies and middle class American jerks.
My first reaction was to skip this nasty background noise but I was too busy chopping fruit and I just ignored it.
But then I started noticing that some of the music was seriously interesting and each song seemed totally different from the last one. The kazoos and cheap organs are only used for comedic effect, not when the real music is being played. And his lyrics are so fresh and challenging that they could have been written in 2017 as a protest about the Trump phenomenon.
Here is an extract from Trouble Every Day, a song about rioting in LA:
HEY, YOU KNOW SOMETHING PEOPLE?
I’M NOT BLACK BUT THERE’S A WHOLE LOTTA TIMES
I WISH I COULD SAY I’M NOT WHITE.
THE SAME ACROSS THE NATION
BLACK AND WHITE DISCRIMINIATION
YELLIN’ YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND ME…
THERE AIN’T NO GREAT SOCIETY
AS IT APPLIES TO YOU AND ME
BLOW YOUR HARMONICA, TOM…
Why isn’t Frank Zappa better known? Why isn’t he appreciated and promoted and celebrated like we do endlessly with less interesting people of his generation (Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Kinks, Eagles). He’s more revolutionary and experimental than the lot of ’em.
Everyone’s heard of him but nobody seems to listen to him or even know his songs (can you name a Zappa song? I think the best known is probably Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow!)
Ignoring the work I was supposed to be doing, I listened to another Zappa album – Apostrophe – and then another—Hot Rats—which is where I found the sublime track Gumbo Variations.
I felt the urge to describe him, to tell everyone about him, to celebrate him—which is something I very rarely do (in fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever written an article like this). But I was alone in a cottage in the middle of nowhere and there was no audience to listen to my ravings.
Feeling the need to get these turbulent feelings out of my system, I wrote down the following words which came to me when listening: to the great Zappa: witty, psychedelic, experimental, funny, ironic, political, cosmic, pure rock, twisted, diseased, mystical, melodical (is that a word?) social commentary, harmonious, innovative, insane.
He reminds me of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, an outrageous cartoon strip from the Sixties, as well as Billy Connolly. Unlike just about every other artist I can think of, Zappa’s whole sound says “I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. I’m just doing my own thing and if you don’t like it you can take a flying fuck.”
Okay, that’s enough about Frank Zappa—long may he Rest in Peace. I must have something to eat (sardines, onions, scrambled eggs and Ryvita) and then work on my current paper—a history of intercountry adoption.
A final note: if you’re still reading this far-too-long-for-the-media-article, let me know if you too discover Zappa and what you think of him. If you feel that he makes you feel uncomfortable, or that his sound could drive you insane, I will not be judgemental. I quite understand. There is something distinctly insane about Frank Zappa; he seems to occupy a curious borderland between madness and creativity. Some people would find this disturbing and others, like me, find it inspiring. Maybe that’s because I’m more on the insane side of the line (I can think of several people who would wholeheartedly agree with this).
That’s it from me. Please leave a comment. Even a rude one. They all count.
Photo Credit: the image is from the inside of the album cover for One Size Fits All (1974), Barking Pumpkin Records (which was Frank’s very own record company).
Postscript: if you’re still hungry for more info on the great Zap, this is what Wikipedia have to say about the man:
Frank Vincent Zappa[nb 1] (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, actor, and filmmaker whose work is characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his generation.