Defending Zappa?

In my youth, I felt like I had an easier time introducing my friends to Zappa. I used to simply play “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” because when you’re 14 or 15 years old, it’s the funniest thing you could possibly hear. It had swear words in it, he was making fun of the jocks we all collectively hated, and it was catchy as Hell! Similar cases could be made for other tunes like “Stick It Out,” “Catholic Girls,” and “Jewish Princess.”

This changed for me in college, specifically after I’d dated a girl who had been raped. Suddenly that line was no longer funny, and that mentality no longer seemed worth giving the time of day to lampoon. Now, nearly ten years later, the song is almost a guilty pleasure for me. In the event I do play this song for a friend, I introduce it with a long apologetic intro, saying that Frank was kidding, this wasn’t really how he felt, and that he was making a point by taking up the voice of his target.

As time goes on, it seems that Zappa’s more touchy material – mostly the stuff dealing with sex and gender roles – isn’t aging well at all. Kelley Fisher Lowe goes to extreme lengths discussing it in The Words and Music of…, but his views are tilted. He condemns “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” as being sick and unfunny, for example. I think it’s a beautiful song musically, and lyrically it’s nowhere near as brutal as “Venus In Furs” or even (to stick with Zappa) “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?” or “Bamboozled By Love.”

The problem is the uncertainty of his satire. How much is he really kidding? With that said, does contemporary society still get the joke?

This brings me to the discussion question:
Do you find yourself having to make apologies for Zappa’s material when playing it for your friends? Are there songs you avoid playing for people? Or do you simply say, “Fuck it, if they don’t get it, it’s them, not me, and definitely not Frank!”

I’m eager to hear how fans of different walks of life, age, and gender feel about this.

PS – This is my first posting at KUR after my recent promotion from former comment troll to contributing writer. Bear with me as I learn HTML coding and all that fun stuff.

44 Responses to “Defending Zappa?”

  1. man with the woman head says:

    Good question. I gave up trying to get people to listen to ANY Zappa a long time ago. Much less his controversial stuff. I think his songs are pretty tame compared to most gangsta rap songs (although I think NWA’s “Just don’t bite it” is one of the funniest songs anywhere).

    Today, certainly, his homosexual references seem pretty dated — what, exactly, DID Freddie do poor Bobby’s balls, and why exactly did that turn him gay? I’m sure the answers were more clear in 1978, when gay men in movies and TV all wore flowered shirts and lisped.

    As a person, Zappa wasn’t exactly the best role model either — he ignored his family and children, cheated on his wife whenever he felt like it and abandoned his band after nearly a decade of hard work for no pay. Personally, I like him for his music first, his wit second, and lastly, for his social commentary — some of which was on the mark, and some of it (songs about gays, fat women, etc.) do not. I still think Jewish Princess is a classic — and I’m Jewish.

  2. Tim Tam says:

    @The Man with The Woman Head. Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone? The personal comments about the person is way off base IMHO.

    FZ always pointed out that the things he wrote about were reportage of things that actually happened in his world. He may have taken artistic licence with it but the message here must surely be “don’t shoot the messenger”. Blame the world if you must. IMHO the humor must be taken in that context – it is not an endorsement of the act of rape but a contextualisation of the act of rape. Does the world really need another insincere crass manipulative love song for disposable entertainment purposes? See George Benson.

  3. Dark Clothes says:

    Mike Barnes says that the only shocking thing about Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy is that an intelligent person like Zappa could conceive it as a funny song. It has a beautiful melody, of course, and that makes it hard to dismiss (as I’ve always tended to dismiss songs like Stick it Out, where I can live without both the lyrics and the music). A couple of clues, perhaps: His insensitivity was evenly spread out. And if you look at projects like Blood on the Canvas and FZ Meets the Mothers of Prevention, it’s clear that Frank had an absolute need to be provocative, to avoid blandness and acceptability. I think that’s the motivation for having We’re Turning Again on the MTMOP album, because he needed an uneasy song following his attack on censorship. Also note that his work after the conflict with Warner Bros took a radical turn in the red direction. Perhaps we should think of him more as a fiction writer to be compared with Burroughs or Jean Genet, and less as a singer-songwriter with a personal message. But this is still a moot point to me, and it’s good that you bring it up.

  4. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    As I live in a Non English Speaking Country™, I’ve found it harder to “defend” Zappa from a musical point of view, rather than lyrically.

    As an example: somewhere back in the late last century, I had the pleasure of acting as Bogus Temporary DJ for a “ZAPPA NITE” that took place in a local youth club. The kids, most of them into “alternative” music, rather liked the more rock/pop-oriented stuff (Muffin Man, Torture, Peaches) and yes, they all sang along to “Bobby Brown”. Then I thought I’d up the ante a bit and played “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” followed by “Echidna’s Arf”. It was at this point that I started getting odd looks from the kids, and the club-owner eventually came over and said: “That was great. Could you play Muffin Man again? Oh, and turn it down a little if you can.”

    Hey Alex, great to have you aboard!

  5. Radioboy says:

    Well, I had “problems” being a Zappa-fan most of my life since 1967, when I first heard the MOI, although the situation seems to enlighten in the last ten years or so. Zappa’s MOI was in the late 60ies and early 70ies regarded as weird underground music. A “normal” person would not listen to it and overall Zappa’s music was regarded complex and too difficult to listen to by most people. Although Zappa and the MOI had a lot of fans in The Netherlands, where I live, most people did not like it and were not taking it serious. Zappa was a laugh!
    Being a fan of his music certainly wasn’t “normal” too and on top of that Zappa started using controversion lyrics to his music in the 70ies. Indeed his lyrics were social commentary to the American society (and not the European in many ways) and what he was singing about was not typically his family situation. But he enjoyed being extravert and it was part of his survival as a serious composer in the entertainment industry.
    And regarding the album covers: that too was really weird stuff in the eyes of a lot of people. A friend of mine advised me to put those in the toilet room, so we could enjoy them better over there…. There was this boyfriend of a girl I knew who had bought a copy of L. Shankar’s “Touch me there” that was produced by Frank. Every time we met he started a conversation on the lyrics of “Touch me There”. I was a fool listening to music like that and I had to defend myself for that. He really had a hangup on that.
    That made me realize that most people’s comments on Zappa’s music and lyrics are their own hangups! Zappa actually pointed out his philosophic view on life in the second album Absolutely Free: Unbind your mind! You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be. A song that in my opinion would actually be perfect for my funeral, but it’s not time for that yet ;-)

  6. Andy Bean says:

    A good question, and one that’s bugged me for a long time. I tend to ignore many of the songs mentioned when attempting to introduce people to Zappa (“Oh, is he the guy who did “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee”?”)….something like ‘Montana’ has enough ‘lyricaL wackiness’ for those easily amused, but a healthy amount of the patented Zappa beautiful melody, and, of course, a kickass guitar solo.
    Apologising for other songs is occasionally a problem, though. The one that sticks in my craw is ‘He’s So Gay’ (particularly the version with Johnnny Guitar Watson’s disgusted interjections). The black members of the band’s feelings about ‘Thing-Fish’ et al have been documented here & there, but were any of Frank’s musicians gay, and if so, how did they feel about ‘He’s So Gay’, ‘Bobby Brown’, etc??

  7. jonnybutter says:

    The only lyric I ever had a problem with was the ‘I’m gonna ram it up your poop shoot’ one. I had a problem with it because I *didn’t* have a problem with the whole song ‘Broken Hearts’. He seems to have been trying to sort of de-mystify or de-mystique women, to make the point that, despite the advertising/marketing-fueled notion to the contrary, women are indeed merely human and can be assholes too. I get that, but anal rape is a thoroughly repellent – and yes, sexist – way of conveying it. For me, he stepped over the line there. I always found ‘Enema Bandit’ to be boring, but I’m not offended by it. a.) there really was an enema bandit, and b.) it must have been an irresistibly materialist metaphor for him (and for Threadgill, btw). I wouldn’t defend it to someone though, because I find it dull.

    Some songs are just crap all the way round – music and lyrics – so I just forget about them. ‘He’s So Gay’ is reactionary. But I would never play that for somebody anyway, and wouldn’t waste the time to listen to it myself. It’s trash. Zappa wrote a ton of good and great stuff, but he definitely wrote some trash. I also wouldn’t play the witless ‘Goblin Girl’ for anybody nor listen to it myself. I don’t feel the need to defend Zappa’s trash.

    Something like ‘Sy Borg’ is very different, though. It’s clear to me that his target with that and some other songs of that era (including ‘Broken Hearts’) isn’t gay people, but sexually and emotionally incompetent people who aren’t *really* gay (‘I ain’t really queer, but..’), but who just sort of chicken out in whatever way is fashionable at the time (in this case, giving gay sex ‘a try’).

    ‘Carolina’ I also don’t find offensive. It’s definitely sad (and a really good song, musically) but…it’s probably a completely true story down to every detail (since it’s so weird) and, you know, she *wanted* to be stomped on. He calls it ‘abject misery’. I’d say it’s a song about extreme pathos. Zappa doesn’t believe in our traditionally conceived split between the mind and the body, and that notion scares some people. The ramifications of it *are* unsettling, but I don’t think that’s Zappa’s fault.

    Why would anyone be offended by ‘Touch Me There’, by the way?

    Of COURSE Zappa had gay musicians in the band! Plenty of em!

  8. PlotDevice says:

    I may be WAY WAY off-base, but I seem to remember that Warren Cuccurullo did porn for a while that wasn’t specifically gay, but primarily drew a gay male fanbase.

    Anyway, the lyrics. I think it’s a big stretch to find anything particularly “brutal” in FZ lyrics. What with endless wars and genocide and more than enough real-life horror to go around, it seems kind of weird to get worked up over some song lyrics. Even then, there’s plenty of stuff that’s mainstream today far more misogynistic and violent than anything FZ ever did.

    I too have ceased trying to inflict FZ on others, but it has nothing to do with the lyrics. My favorite FZ works tend to be things like the Synclavier stuff and the 9-minute guitar solos, and normal people aren’t very likely to be engaged by that sort of thing anyway.

  9. Dark Clothes says:

    I’ve never had a problem with Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, and I don’t think it advocates rape. It’s much more of an invitation to discover a hidden desire. Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy is harder for me to accept, because it’s triter and less insistent. I realized the comic book esthetics of the song when I saw Napoleon Murphy Brock performing it with the Grandmothers some years back, but I just can’t figure out Zappa’s interest and position in those lyrics. The argument that it’s based on reality is weak, even if that’s what Zappa used to say. At least that doesn’t explain anything for me. Bamboozled By Love and especially Pick Me I’m Clean are two other songs that reveal an unempathic streak in his personality. I don’t know how Plot Device can not find anything brutal in Zappa. Brutality is surely one of his main modes. Brutality + Resolver. I can deal with my ambivalence towards some of the songs, because I love Zappa’s frankness and complexity.

  10. Radioboy says:

    I never had ANY problem myself with ANY lyrics except that being a Dutch person the meaning of context of some lyrics didn’t always become clear immediately. Many of FZ’s lyrics are references to American culture (walking through LA-Hollywood is like walking through Zappa-country for me). Also the language used is not the English that we are familiar with.

    For example “Mamalian protruberances” is something I definitely had to look up in a dictionary and even there it yould be hard to find. This is easy now, when you use the internet. But even without the real meaning of the words one could make out what was meant.

    It struck me that other people, yes even my friends, had a problem with a song about sex, sexual activities or sexual behaviour. Talking or singing about it, doesn’t mean that you agree to these things, and neither does listening to it. Zappa was always referring to real life things. He was not making these things up. Even the sex-tape that he made in his Cucamonga studio, with sex sounds, is a relevant document about American society. So the same goes for ‘In France’, or ‘Catholic Girls’, or ‘Sex’, or ‘I’m in you’. A song like ‘He’s so Gay’ is not reactionary, no on the contrary. It is commenting on songs that are!

    If FZ would have been a film maker, things would have been different. But as we know: his movies WERE different than what you’d expect…

    Not only did I have to DEFEND Zappa for his lyrics, but a lot of times for his music. An album with guitar solo’s was regarded as totally insane and unlistenable. And that goes for a lot of stuff that I would regard as simple songs as well. I am so very very glad to see that so many people and groups are playing Zappa music these days or make music that is influenced with his music. You can find so many gropus in MySpace of on YouTube. This was out of the question say 20 or 25 years ago.

  11. Blessedly Relieved says:

    I avoid playing Nig Biz to almost anybody. I hate that he had to use the N word in a song that would have been otherwise stellar. And please don’t come back with “Well he only meant this…” and “He only meant that…” It’s disgusting and unfortunate. I know he was cool racially but if there were one thing I could change regarding his music, it’s that.

  12. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    I’ve never had a problem with Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, and I don’t think it advocates rape. It’s much more of an invitation to discover a hidden desire.

    I don’t know that it ‘advocates’ anal rape, but it doesn’t sound in the least like an ‘invitation’ – ‘Don’t fool yourself girl, [I'm gonna] RAM IT UP YOUR POOP SHOOT’. That is pretty direct and unambiguous. I think he’s trying to ‘break a spell’, but he goes pretty far to do it. Of course if his lyrics were anodyne, they would have no effect at all.

    Zappa is, in some ways, a very typical-for-his-time macho paternalist. That doesn’t mean he is always that, even when he is talking about sex, nor does it AT ALL invalidate his work. In a larger sense, he is what would now be called ‘sex-positive’ (albeit with reservations – see ‘Wild Love’) or perhaps a sexual utopian. But he definitely had a blind spot or two. We all love to spin stories about what he ‘really’ meant by some things, but I think quite a bit should be taken at face value; he said many times that he was a conservative, and I think he was, in some ways.

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    A song like ‘He’s so Gay’ is not reactionary, no on the contrary. It is commenting on songs that are!

    What would lead you to think that? What does ‘Maybe later we’ll all be gay’ mean? What songs is he commenting on? I think sadomasochism of whatever sexual orientation fascinates and revolts him. He wrote about it a LOT, including in ‘He’s So Gay’. Again, I don’t think he was being anti-homosexual so much as being against conformist culture (‘With his keys on the RIGHT, he’s into rubber every night’), particularly of the pathetic sort (‘..spindle up my butt till it makes me scream’), and against taking an easy way out (‘Maybe you think you’re a lonely guy/and maybe you think you’re too tough to cry/So you went to the Grape just to give it a try..’). He definitely had scorn for people trying to be something they aren’t.

  13. Dark Clothes says:

    Broken Hearts Are For Assholes sort of mimics Robert Plant (not Roger Daltrey or his cape this time) crying “I’m gonna be your backdoor man” and takes it to the its extreme and hilarious consequence. Invitations come in so many different forms.

    The progressive/reactionary dichotomy that johnnybutter points out is very real and alive in Zappa, I agree.

    It’s part of the complexity and humanity of the work that makes it so vibrant and engaging.

  14. Dark Clothes says:

    I guess that last line in my previous post is a bit too pompous and pathetic for your taste, Johnny?

    (On second thought I agree, but there’s no way of editing these damn posts!)

    While I’m at it, it’s interesting that a “critical and progressive” song like Brown Shoes Don’t Make It gets a different flavour when in the context of a “reactionary” album like Tinseltown Rebellion.

    Discuss!

  15. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    Broken Hearts Are For Assholes sort of mimics Robert Plant (not Roger Daltrey or his cape this time) crying “I’m gonna be your backdoor man”

    Zappa mimicking Robert Plant (wanly) mimicking Muddy Waters? I don’t know, Dark. I get the sexual satire, sort of, but I still think it’s kind of…ick. Maybe it’s because I read Nigey Lennon’s book and I’m unduly influenced by some of the episodes she recounts. What you’re talking about works better on the Lather version, I think, with the do-wop-esque ‘ram it, ram it’ in the background vocals (that actually *is* funny). It just sounds plain nasty to me on the Sheik version. Muddy said ‘I am your backdoor man’. THAT is an invitation to perhaps hidden desires. Zappa said, ‘I’m gonna ram it..’ They seem pretty different to me.

    BTW, completely OT: When I first heard ‘Carolina’, I heard ‘I had a Roger Daltry capon [ie, a chicken]‘. Makes sense if you’re using a chicken to measure it.

  16. Dark Clothes says:

    I haven’t read Nigey, maybe I should. I know Moon is uneasy with the song, too. I still think it’s great, always have, since I heard it on Norwegian radio when I was 14, and didn’t understand much of the lyrics. Same thing with Illinois Enema Bandit – the song was ingrained in me long before I could understand the lyrics.

    It’s true that some versions of the ambivalent songs stand out as nastier than others. I think the Illinois Enema Bandit live in 1981 sounds nastier than the original version, and Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me sounded much more innocent in 1975 than in 1976 and later. So that’s a good point you have about the difference between Läther and Sheik Yerbouti versions of Assholes. It’s the same sort of difference between Brown Shoes Don’t Make It on AF! and on TTR. Production values (economics and social circumstances) have an influence on meaning.

  17. Brad Henserling says:

    I’ve never had an issue with Carolina or Broken Hearts. The only song that makes me uneasy is Jumbo, maybe because it’s the only song I can think of in the canon where the questionable/violent activities are being explicitly rejected (Your eye will get black when I give it a smack – Please Denny, don’t hit me!).

    Good question, I’ll probably think more on this tonight.

  18. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    I haven’t read Nigey, maybe I should.

    Up to you, obviously, but for me it didn’t add anything to the understanding or enjoyment of Zappa’s music/art. Whatever kind of private person he was really doesn’t matter that much vis a vis his work, IMO. The work either is good or it isn’t (and it is!). And Lennon doesn’t portray him as a horrible man anyway – just maybe a bit domineering at times.

    I’m actually in sympathy with a lot of his criticism of feminism – particularly the American version – but sometimes he misses pretty important nuance. I see Zappa as somebody who really took a chance and went with his instinct – a LOT. He was spectacularly, even eerily, incisive SO often – most of the time. But now and then his instinct was just normal bias like everybody has.

    On the more general subject, I defend Zappa the artist all the time. I no longer try to get people to listen if I know they won’t be receptive, although sometimes I’ll…innocently, of course…slip something onto the CD player or computer queue, and wait for the ‘Wow, who is that?!” (Many people like it until I tell them who it is.) But I defend him verbally all the time, both for his music and for his sociological acumen and/or prescience. Since he anticipated so much, it’s really not hard.

  19. Theydon Bois says:

    A quote from Brad Henserling:

    The only song that makes me uneasy is Jumbo, maybe because it’s the only song I can think of in the canon where the questionable/violent activities are being explicitly rejected (Your eye will get black when I give it a smack – Please Denny, don’t hit me!).

    Magdalena, of course, also rejects the advances of her maple-syrup-making papa.

    I have a lot of sympathy for the original poster, given that I too am in a relationship in which throwaway lines referencing rape (or similarly questionable topics) would be unlikely to be indulged. And while it’s true that quite a lot of the more unsavoury lyrics can be excused when you engage with them and consider what Zappa was trying to achieve, newcomers to FZ-world may only have a limited supply of benefit of the doubt to offer.

    Magdalena’s a good example of this. While it’s quite clear that the father is bang out of order – “Right on, Magdalena!” – and that the whole purpose of the song is to explore what could possibly drive a man to carry out such a deed – “Do you have any idea what that can do to a man?” – the unprepared listener is first faced with Kaylan’s gleeful delivery of the description of a sexual assault, set to what sounds for all the world like novelty song music. The chances that they’ll still be on board by the time the tragic song-closing monologue comes round are frankly limited, and that’s why I don’t feel I could ever play that song to anyone without substantial hand-wringing first.

  20. Paul says:

    As a non-native english speaker, I don’t pay that much attention to the lyrics as such, and I prefer instrumental Zappa anyway. When I am giddy, I sing along with Dinah Moe-Hum or Joe’s Garage’s songs. For me the melody is the most important thing there, although *I do realize* the lyrics might be offensive. This doesn’t bother Finns though (my adopted home country) because I have heard Bobby Brown played MANY times over the supermarket sound system!!!

    The only song I really have some issue with is Jumbo Go away, this seems just a cruel song.

    On a side note, this discussion also ‘terrorizes’ John Zorn’s output, in particular the Naked City discs. A significant book about his music called John Zorn: Transgression and Tradition by John Brackett investigates this issue thoroughly through Zorn’s interest (and affinity) of the philosophy of George Bataille. It is possible to argue that similar explanations would work for Zappa’s touchy songs although his ‘satire’ is probably not intended to be transgression, while Zorn on the other hand does not intend satire.

  21. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    I have heard Bobby Brown played MANY times over the supermarket sound system!!!

    That makes me (an American) laugh and laugh. It is probably Zappa’s most scabrous song of all, and the fact that it was a hit elsewhere in the world is what Watson would call a ‘surrealist coup’.

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    It is possible to argue that similar explanations would work for Zappa’s touchy songs although his ‘satire’ is probably not intended to be transgression, while Zorn on the other hand does not intend satire.

    I think this is one reason why people will still be listening to Zappa when Zorn is forgotten. I think transgression is important for both artists, but in Zappa’s case transgression is not the *whole point*. Transgression ‘for its own sake’ (hope that phrase makes sense) is a very limited idea, and tends to make for boring art (in my opinion). I find Zorn’s music mostly boring, although I sort of enjoy some of the Klezmer stuff. Listen to it once, and it seems OK. But I’m never compelled to listen again. Read a Bataille novel (or part of one) and forget what you are ‘supposed’ to think about it. I find that not only is it laughably bad as art, but also very shallow as philosophy. Zappa usually had a point to convey beyond the transgression – transgression as a means rather than an end.

    Bataille is, for me, a perfect example of art for what Zappa called ‘intellectuals and other dead people’.

  22. Brad Henserling says:

    A quote from Brad Henserling:

    Magdalena, of course, also rejects the advances of her maple-syrup-making papa.

    Wow, Theydon, you’re right. I didin’t even think of Magdelena.

  23. urbangraffito says:

    I have never been an apologist for Frank Zappa or the Mother’s music, lyrically or musically. Neither have I felt the need to defend him, except perhaps, during those teenage years when so often boys and girls are walking, talking billboards of their favorite artist or artists. Even at that time it was apparent that you either “loved” Zappa’s music, or “hated” it. There was no middle ground with Frank – or Beefheart for that matter.

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    As I live in a Non English Speaking Country™, I’ve found it harder to “defend” Zappa from a musical point of view, rather than lyrically.

    As an example: somewhere back in the late last century, I had the pleasure of acting as Bogus Temporary DJ for a “ZAPPA NITE” that took place in a local youth club. The kids, most of them into “alternative” music, rather liked the more rock/pop-oriented stuff (Muffin Man, Torture, Peaches) and yes, they all sang along to “Bobby Brown”. Then I thought I’d up the ante a bit and played “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” followed by “Echidna’s Arf”. It was at this point that I started getting odd looks from the kids, and the club-owner eventually came over and said: “That was great. Could you play Muffin Man again? Oh, and turn it down a little if you can.”

    Similarly, Barry, the handful of times that I dared play the music of Frank Zappa and the Mothers to a group of people – in many respects, the very songs that you played – the reaction was far more volitile and far less polite (even for the late 70s and early 80s): “Turn that fucken shit off and play some real music! Right on!” To such a group of the day, real music constituted bands such as AC/DC, Van Halen, Nazereth, Mohogany Rush, Rush, Heart, The Allman Brothers, etc. Frank Zappa was beyond their musical and lyrical orbit of Top 40 AM Radio. I mean, playing a ten minute song by Yes, or something by Gong, or Magma was really pushing the envelope – not to mention their attention spans.

    Largely, the music of Frank Zappa and the Mothers was my own indulgence that I shared with the few other freaks I knew who also “got it” – understanding and fully appreciating FZ’s and the Mother’s unique satire and sardonic critiques of the contemporary world: sexual, social, religious, economic…For those who got it, it was like learning the secret code to Enigma. One learned to quickly read between the lines and dig the tongue only partly in cheek references.

    A quote from Radioboy:

    That made me realize that most people’s comments on Zappa’s music and lyrics are their own hangups! Zappa actually pointed out his philosophic view on life in the second album Absolutely Free: Unbind your mind! You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be.

    Radioboy stated it quite succinctly. The need to defend Zappa, or apologize for him stems from our own hangups, be they societal, social, or sexual.

    Every song Zappa wrote, quite literally, was a mirror he held up to the world, to us, and to the particular topic he was writing about. Song for song, it’s not so much about his hangups, but ours (and did we have a lot of hangups for him to hold a mirror up to did he not?). “Nig Biz” – a song about slavery to big record companies, though to someone who is politically correct, they cannot see past the word “Nig”. Remember, Patti Smith had a hit with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger”.

    A quote from Dark Clothes:

    Perhaps we should think of him more as a fiction writer to be compared with Burroughs or Jean Genet, and less as a singer-songwriter with a personal message.

    I couldn’t agree more. As a transgressive artist, Zappa wasn’t just attempting to shock. If that were the case, most of his songs would have had their novelty value and long since faded away. Why then do songs such as “Magdalena”, “Wet T-Shirt Nite”, “Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy”, “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”, and “Wild Love” still titillate the minds of the youthful listener, and bring a impish smirk to we old freaks?

    Answer that, and you’ll know why I’m still listening to Frank Zappa and the Mothers 40 years on now.

  24. Tim Tam says:

    Everything I attempted to say in my earlier post has now been said much more eloquently by Urbangraffito thank you very much.

  25. Shelley says:

    Fuck it.

  26. profusion says:

    I’ll just come out and say it. Based on his lyrics, Frank had a shitty attitude about/towards women. This has greatly inhibited my ability to introduce his music to my wife. It seems like every time I try, it ends in some truly cringe-worthy moment. The sex-oriented lyrics aren’t the problem, it’s the occasional line that seems to reflect a deeper hostility towards women.

    In some ways, I suppose, he was simply a man of his era, having grown up in an Italian-American household with a domineering father and passive mother. It would have been unrealistic to expect him to have adopted attitudes toward women that would not become commonplace until he was well into middle age. However, I’ve long detected an underlying emotional dark side that goes well beyond the attitudes of 1950s America.

    As some have noted, this attitude seemed to play out more in his later lyrics. His lyrics up through the Roxy band seem to have more of a carefree and playful attitude about relations between the sexes. Indeed, in songs like “Dinah Moe Humm,” he seems to be an advocate of open and frank talk about women’s sexual desire, which was still very much a taboo subject in 1973.

    In the end, you have to simply accept that Frank was who he was, and that he never tried to sugarcoat anything or “play nice.” We are all “dumb all over, and maybe a little ugly on the side.” Including Frank.

  27. Dark Clothes says:

    A quote from profusion:

    His lyrics up through the Roxy band seem to have more of a carefree and playful attitude about relations between the sexes.

    The “circumlocution” that Zappa refers to in one of the Roxy preambles was part of a kind of self-censorship that seemed necessary up until the late Seventies. Censorship is a bad thing in any form, but it is often an incentive for artists to develop a more original and metaphorical language. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union before 1989, and it’s happening now in places like Iran. The necessary circumlocutions in the first half of Zappa’s career made him work harder on the lyrics to create witty, imaginative songs like Penguin in Bondage, rather than blunt statements like Jumbo, Go Away or SEX ten years later. I don’t why he so often chose bluntness instead of imaginative metaphors when he was less restricted. But he did insist on saying “fuck” on stage from the beginning.

  28. Älgarnas Trädgård says:

    Fascinating discussion you have here.

    Like many of you, I’ve long ago given up trying to convince people to listen to Zappa. I tend to make friends with intellectuals and yet they either seem to view his music as infantile or boring. While I used to feel bad that and think they just were not getting it, now I am finding myself gravitating to their point of view, at least when it comes to the “controversial songs”.

    In the last 15 years I’ve been able to hear most every official release as well as dozens of bootlegs. I even went over the edge with works like LSO and the Perfect Stranger, Civ Phase III, Yellow Shark, etc. All of those works I hold as absolutely brilliant. I also never get tired of the ’69-’75 era, which I hold as his golden period when he produced his most musically compelling works.

    After seeing ZPZ one night in 2008 I was on such a natural high and the mood seemed so perfect for listening to Envelopes off of LSO (!), that I rolled down the windows of my car and blasted it! That angular weird incredible song seemed to fit so perfectly with the music I just heard Dweezil play, as a complement to the guitar pyrotechnics, so I agree with Frank that there is no difference between the do-wop, the rock solos, or the modern classical music – it’s all just music. I wish my friends or girlfriend could see his oeuvre as I do, but there you go, it is what it is.

    From the mid-70s onward, the satirical songs from Bobby Brown to Broadway the Hard Way, etc, all of that, for the most part, I am bored with now. He was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned, on many, many of the jabs and skewers, so I didn’t find any of the above mentioned songs shocking. Many were funny the first few listens. But, what I was always concerned with was the music itself. And, especially in the 1980s, these types of songs seemed to get less and less fun or interesting musically and more just bitter angry rants and I would skip over. I knew better than trying to get friends to listen to Truck Driver Divorce and the like. ‘White trash American culture is shit’, wow, thanks for point that out! Why not shutting up and playing your guitar was what I felt!! Thing Fish I admire as a failed experiment, but it is one of his biggest missteps, in my opinion. On that work, and on a number of others, the message he wanted to get across was given more effort than the making of an enjoyable musical experience. Sometimes it came together, though, like with the brilliant Joe’s Garage, or much of Sheik Yerbouti. But, something like Thing Fish perhaps should’ve incubated a few more years so he could stream line the story and write some better, new songs to accompany the satire. ymmv.

  29. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from Älgarnas Trädgård:

    From the mid-70s onward, the satirical songs from Bobby Brown to Broadway the Hard Way, etc, all of that, for the most part, I am bored with now. He was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned, on many, many of the jabs and skewers, so I didn’t find any of the above mentioned songs shocking. Many were funny the first few listens. But, what I was always concerned with was the music itself. And, especially in the 1980s, these types of songs seemed to get less and less fun or interesting musically and more just bitter angry rants and I would skip over. I knew better than trying to get friends to listen to Truck Driver Divorce and the like. ‘White trash American culture is shit’, wow, thanks for point that out! Why not shutting up and playing your guitar was what I felt!! Thing Fish I admire as a failed experiment, but it is one of his biggest missteps, in my opinion. On that work, and on a number of others, the message he wanted to get across was given more effort than the making of an enjoyable musical experience. Sometimes it came together, though, like with the brilliant Joe’s Garage, or much of Sheik Yerbouti. But, something like Thing Fish perhaps should’ve incubated a few more years so he could stream line the story and write some better, new songs to accompany the satire. ymmv.

    You certainly make some valid points, Älgarnas Trädgård. By the time the 80s rolled around, Zappa was, indeed, preaching to the choir, releasing certain albums for more economic reasons than purely artistic ones (at least in my opinion at the time of their release). Also, by the 80s, transgressive art had pretty much caught up with Zappa’s transgressive creative esthetic, and for Frank, as well as his fans, it was more about the music, itself, not so much it’s shock value.

    Still, there were gems to be found at the onset of the 80s and the remainder of the decade – “Easy Meat”, “For The Young Sophisticate”, “Pick Me, I’m Clean”, “Bamboozled By Love” and “Peaches III” from Tinsel Town Rebellion and the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series as well as “Theme From The 3rd Movement Of Sinister Footwear” from You Are What You Is, all in 81; “Drowning Witch” and “Envelopes” from Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch in 82; “Tink Walks Amok”, “We Are Not Alone”, and “Mōggio” from The Man From Utopia in 83; “Marque-son’s Chicken” and “Truck Driver Divorce” from Them Or Us in 84; “Little Beige Sambo”, “Alien Orifice” and “What’s New In Baltimore?” from Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention in 85; not to mention Jazz From Hell in 86 and FZ’s classical releases, London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I and II (83/87) and Boulez conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger in 84.

    Can it be said that Frank Zappa ever repeated himself in all his official releases, conceptually speaking? Album for album, just as his public performances, were absolutely unique.

  30. Gary says:

    I first heard Bobby Brown when I was in college in the early 90s. I liked it because first I thought it was really nervy for a guy to put out a song like that. It made me think about how uptight things have become in certain areas – like television for example. I can’t imagine a show like All In The Family being done today. Same goes with a song like Bobby Brown. I also liked it because the Bobby Brown character reminded me of the frat guys I was surrounded by. At that time date rape was becoming a big issue and it just seemed to fit with some of the things I was thinking at the time. I also saw a video where someone equated GW Bush with Bobby and I think it’s a funny comparison, if not really accurate. I enjoy the idea of the privileged white boy that feels entitled to anything he wants to take, getting boned in the ass hahaha. I don’t agree with all of it, but I do enjoy the absurdity of it. I don’t think Frank had it all figured out for sure. He seems to think that people choose to be gay for business reasons. I really don’t get that at all. He also thought cigarette smoking was a fantastic thing and that trying to be somewhat healthy was stupid. I know he was smart enough to figure out what a moronic thing it is to smoke – he knew other drugs were bad – he just had the ones he preferred.

  31. profusion says:

    Songs like “Bobby Brown” or “Fine Girl,” where he is using a seemingly mean-spirited lyric to poke fun at society, are an interesting comparison to others like “Jumbo Go Away” or the ‘ram it up your poop chute’ part of “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” where things seem to get a little nastier and more personal.

    I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    At my rapidly advancing age, I don’t hold musicians up as heroes or role models. I’m not going to throw away my FZ albums just because he demonstrated asshole tendencies on occasion. However, I do find that I enjoy his instrumental music more than the vocal tunes as I get older.

  32. Jamez says:

    Most people nowadays would find Zappa a refreshing change from the banal middle-of-the-road crap they play on the radio and on TV.

  33. Thinman says:

    A quote from Jamez:

    … from the banal middle-of-the-road crap they play on the radio and on TV.

    I’m afraid, most people want just this, because REAL music would disturb their boring miserable little lifes. They don’t know what real music is because they never learned to listen actively. They only know the purpose of music as wallpaper.

    Therefore FZ-music is of no significance for the ordinary society of today and it would be useless to play any FZ to them, because they wouldn’t recognize it as music.

    Th.

  34. bcw says:

    Frank needs neither defenders nor apologists. I’m not sure how useful it is to focus on the relatively small percentage of his oeuvre that deals with sexual mores. The real problem with trying to introduce Zappa to the uninitiated, I’ve found, is comparable to trying suggest to someone where to start with Balzac, say, or Trollope: the sheer size of FZ’s catalogue is so intimidating that (beyond just going straight through it) there is no necessarily logical place to wade in. I’ve been listening to, studying, and learning from the music since 1972 and there’s always something musically that I learn from Frank when I engage with his pieces.

  35. Slap says:

    Lyrics have always been a problem in the FZ world — we know he often completely dismissed the idea of their importance, in general. Me, I have an aesthetic issue with many of the lyrics — they function properly in context, I’m just not drawn to them. (I have a real antipathy toward lyrics — I can admire when they’re well-written, but if the MUSIC doesn’t gel, it’s just words in search of a home.)

    Problem is, FZ absolutely LOVED vocalists and the sound of the human voice used in melody. As he famously said, the public has little appetite for instrumental music. I’d go further and say that most listeners would have a hard time with an extended diet of non-verbal vocalese, as well.

    So they’re a necessary bother if you want singing.

    If I’m going to start someone on FZ, my instincts go straight to either Yellow Shark or OSFA, or other albums where the visceral beauty of the underlying music is so profound that the lyrics are irrelevant.

    If someone has demonstrated that they tend to judge an artist by the content of their lyrics above musical considerations, they’ll likely be put off by FZ, period. Other than his political and evangelical satires (which, IMO, rank with the best such satires), I truly believe his lyrics were function, rather than intent, most of the time. If a person seems to grasp that concept, “defense” of FZ becomes less relevant or necessary.

  36. metafunj says:

    I think “Suicide Chump” is a little heartless. Also the abuse in jumbo go away. “Shot in Fox hole” also rubs me the wrong way. The original “We’re Turning Again” was also mean spirited.

    “Bobby Brown Goes Down” though doesn’t bother me. He is imitating what a jock macho type would say. The dude loses his balls anyway ;-)

  37. Dark Clothes says:

    A quote from metafunj:

    I think “Suicide Chump” is a little heartless.

    I know what you mean. My wife and my ex-girlfriend both had experiences with suicide in their close family, and I would never dream of playing that song for them. On the other hand, I remember a guy who found Broken Hearts AFA therapeutic and funny as hell when he was lovesick, and who knows maybe Suicide Chump could have the same effect on some…

  38. Robert says:

    A quote from Dark Clothes:

    On the other hand, I remember a guy who found Broken Hearts AFA therapeutic and funny as hell when he was lovesick

    I happened to be such a guy now and then waaaaaaay looong ago in my teen days. And even though there actually was a case of suicide in my family, i’m still well capable of appreciating the rude irony of “Suicide Chump”. The average listener, however, does not immediately have access to FZ’s various lectures about the topic during the shows when this piece was performed live.

  39. urbangraffito says:

    Yikes! Still moaning and groaning over Zappa’s xrated and tawdry lyrics 20 and 30 years after they were written? Find me a fan who secretly doesn’t love FZ’s rude irony in “Suicide Chump”? Or FZ’s bold and bombastic reaction to 70s feminism in “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”?

    Ah, so sweet is the sardonic humor with each “ram it, ram it, ram it, ram it up her poop shute”. And find me a man who hasn’t wished, at least once, that the woman he’s gone down upon would have “washed up her pie”?

    C’mon, such political correctness involving FZ is really unbecoming a fan of the maestro. Zappa never apologized for anything he ever wrote. Why should we?

    If non-fans don’t like it, they can “get off bein’ juked with a baby octopus and spewed upon with creamed corn…”

  40. metafunj says:

    Well I just think that for people who have been effected by suicide it may not seem as such a funny song. It is funny in that I know someone who threatened suicide just to get attention and thats what this song is about. In the end he finds love and is happy.

    I’m not sure “Suicide Chump” is ironic unless your talking about how Frank wrote, “maybe I’ll just kill myself I just don’t care no more.” I guess thats why Frank’s lyrics were no longer about his pain after he met Gail(his jumbo).

    I’m a fan of the maestro, but not his beliefs. I don’t believe that rock lyrics and music don’t effect people. Look at the sexual assault and destruction that took place at the Woodstock 99. It happened after Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica played consecutively. The music they play is aggressive and the lyrics are as well and many responded to that aggressiveness. Not everyone but its hard to say it didn’t have an influence. I don’t think that would have happened if it was Dave Mathews Band and the Grateful Dead.

  41. urbangraffito says:

    Having been affected by suicide, metafunj, several times (three relatives, two close friends, one ex-girlfriend) and an ex-wife who attempted suicide several times during our marriage, I still find “Suicide Chump” a funny and ironic song. Like has been said before, people bring their own hang-ups to Zappa’s music and lyrics, not the other way around. To suggest that people become aggressive due to aggressive music and lyrics is the same absurd thinking that associates real violence with TV violence. The sexual assault and destruction that took place at the Woodstock 99 did so not because of the music but because organizers allowed the function to deteriorate into the same “mob entity” that occurred at the infamous Altamont Music Festival in 1969. People tend to allow themselves to join a “mob mentality” and abandon personal responsibility when alcohol and large groups are brought together; therefore, sexual and physical assaults become a group action, and the riot, a physical/social entity. Zappa’s music and beliefs – indeed his overall philosophy was completely antithetical to such “mob thought”.

  42. metafunj says:

    I have to concede that you maka a good argument. You are right that events at Woodstock ’99 would have occurred differently had people been allowed to bring their own water and not end up being over charged for food and drink and had adequate water closets. I mean who wouldn’t be angry at having to survive on $4 dollar bottles of water and $6.00 microwavable pizza in sweltering heat.

    Limp Bizkit telling people to break stuff may not have helped, but it probably would have happened had they said nothing. Yes the mob mindset causing problems again. A wiser man would have just gone home.

  43. urbangraffito says:

    Indeed, metafunj. It makes one wonder if this might have been the underlying reason why Frank Zappa as well as The Mothers made so few appearances at larger festivals? Or was this just because they never seemed to get paid by their organizers? It always comes down to the bottom dollar, doesn’t it?

  44. Mooning says:

    You Are What You is… I just realised that this is exactly the discussion Zappa was set out to trigger. As he is doing in ‘Crossfire’ back in ’86. Its just a lot of bollocks to be offended. He wants to tease the uncomfortable side of our brain. Even in the instrumental songs, he tends to break the ‘rules’. He has said that in various interviews. There is no master plan. Its just plain music with an extreme twist. Lyrically and musicaly he wanted to challenge the listener all the times. Reading all the reactions, he seemed to have done just that. I hope everyone keeps enjoying the FZ library, because there is some for everyone.

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