Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Even Leftists Have to Take a Break

Zappa Plays Zappa – First Avenue – February 16, 2014

The U.S. is not in the midst of an upheaval, as are so many countries.  So I’m not handing out leaflets anymore or calling people on telephones.  I don’t have to travel to organization conventions or get on buses to Washington.  I have no required reading from ‘the leadership.’  I don’t worry about peddling newspapers.  Paying the high or ridiculously low dues is out.  Attending too many meetings is optional.  Going to every picket line or march or forum is no longer done.  No security details, tear gas or standing behind barricades even.  I can choose to enjoy myself after work a bit.  Like 'normal people.'  It is a hard thing for many leftists to hack.  Theater?  Nightclubs?  Bars?  Museums?  Travel?  Dancing?  Eating decent food?  Even movies are a stretch.  The revolution beckons. 

Frank Zappa was probably the freest musician to come out of the 1960s.  His 60 albums are a compendium of doo-wop, R&B, electronic, jazz, rock, comedy and classical.   His skills were even broader than groups like the Grateful Dead, who covered many styles too. (See review of “Let Us Now Praise the Dead,” below.) Zappa was a prolific composer, probably the best to come out of rock and roll so far.  His influences range from early R&B to Edgar Varese and Stravinsky.  Zappa never shied away from politics.  He made fun of conformist education, the Christian religion, the police, naïve hippies, Valley girls, repression of speech, TV, drugs, Ronald Reagan and commercial music like disco, heavy rock, bebop and psychedelia.  He appeared before Congress to debate Tipper Gore’s proposals to censor popular music.  He was one opinionated bastard, loved by all opinionated bastards.  Zappa started as a drummer, met Captain Beefheart while in high school, then graduated to guitar and became a self-taught musician.  His absurdist orchestral rock is complex, beautiful, dissonant and always intriguing. 

Zappa was an underground youth sensation in the U.S. with only one very funny hit, “Valley Girl,” with his daughter Moon Unit.  Many U.S. musicians loved him.  He was huge in Europe however.  A street is named after him in East Berlin.  Many bands tried to cover him in Czechoslovakia.  The legendary ‘Plastic People of the Universe’ rock band in Prague named themselves after lyrics from one of this songs. Vaclev Havel even named him a ‘cultural attaché’ in the early ‘90s. He played Budapest and almost every European capital, even during the so-called ‘cold war.’  Like the Beatles his free music subverted the constricted cultural guidelines of the apparatchiks - and of the capitalists as well.  (Read reviews of “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” and a play related to Czech rock, “Rock & Roll,” both below.)

Of course Zappa was an individualist, not a leftist.  He could be considered a left-libertarian perhaps nowadays.  His music can sometimes become too cute, jokey, juvenile and intentionally and arbitrarily dissonant – reflective of the composer, I think.  Zappa was legendary as a highly-controlling band leader.  He ran his own studio in his basement.  He tried his own record label.  He changed band members like a rotating record.  He was a businessman, in spite of the fun he made of having ‘no commercial potential.’  As Thomas Frank said in the “Conquest of Cool” – this is how rebellion is turned into a marketable commodity. 

So.  Too bad he died in 1993 anyway.

However, his son Dweezil carries on his father’s music.  Dweezil and his accomplished band of multi-instrumentalists came to First Avenue this Sunday. First Avenue is the blacked-out “Fillmore” of Minneapolis, an intimate rock venue that has been rated as one of the top 10 rock clubs in the U.S.  I saw Zappa in the 1970s in that very room, when he had Flo & Eddie, ex-Turtles, doing the vocals, and the place was called “The Depot.”  It is an old bus depot and the stage at the time was tiny.  Now it is not.    

The centerpiece of this performance was a recreation of the whole 1974 album “Roxy And Elsewhere,” 40 years after it was first recorded.  It is a live Zappa album I’d never heard.  It was all new music to me, as is any music you’ve never heard.  Even if the album came out so long ago, as Dweezil said, this is still ‘the music of the future.’ A great show.  2.5 hours and not boring.  Danceable to a limit.  The female keyboard/ clarinetist/ saxophonist almost stole the show.  Dweezil soloed almost like his dad. The deep-voice singer and horn player hit all the lyrics.  The drummer could have done jazz.  The keyboardist had 7 boards and a computer to play.  And the bassist jumped around.  A good time was had by an audience stretching between 19-year olds and those who had seen Frank themselves.  Musically intriguing, crescendos of horn-driven choruses, and cowbell.     

So, if you like rock music, let us now praise … Frank Zappa. 

Red Frog
February 18, 2014

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