Frank Zappa

I just saw this post on Dangerous Minds about an un aired interview with Frank Zappa in 1985.  I figured, why not, lets give it a viewing.

Suddenly, before I knew it, I was catapulted back to my early teens, sitting in my New Jersey living room, watching the VHS (!) rental copy of Baby Snakes from Tower Records.  It was long out of print, they wouldn’t sell it, so I just kept renting it over and over.  My neighbor, who was actually in the film randomly on the stage, showed it to me, and forever changed my musical outlook.

Zappa is a musician and figure who doesn’t get much notoriety these days.  This interview reminded me of that.  On the surface to the casual listener, he made really weird, sometimes funny music.  Obviously, the first song I latched onto was called “Titties and Beer”  about a motorcycle rider fighting the devil over his girlfriend.  Yep.  But go slightly beyond the silly lyrics, and all of his music was incredibly complex.  The man was unstoppably prolific.  In his lifetime he released over 70 albums.  Composed music for orchestras, early synthesizers, rock bands, jazz groups, made films, was an early pioneer of clay-mation, and who knows what else.
Oh yeah, he also testified before congress and led the fight against censorship in music.

After bringing my first guitar teacher some Zappa recordings I wanted to learn, it soon became evident there was a lot more going on than lyrics about strange characters.  If you watch Baby Snakes, finally reissued on DVD a few years back, look at the band.  Terry Bozzio is on drums, and looks about 14.  He’s playing some ridiculous stuff, somehow not sounding as annoying as any wanking fill-fueled fusion asshole drummer that came after him.  You get the sense that he’s just trying to do what Zappa envisioned, and there’s no one else on the planet who could do that.  Adrian Belew of King Crimson is on guitar, dressed as a flight attendant for most of the evening.  Nearly everyone in the band has a modular synthesizer.  There is a full orchestral percussion setup.  The vocal arrangements could make your head explode.  And on top of that, it ends with Zappa shredding the face off of all in attendance on several guitar solos.  Who the fuck was this guy?

Luckily, he did write a book before he passed.  The Real Frank Zappa book is 100% required reading.  I haven’t thought about it in years, I’m now going to go back and re-read it.  If for nothing else, the political connotations.  I rarely if ever will get political on this here blog, but I’ve gotta throw out a few things.  Zappa makes the point in the above interview of defending freedoms.  There’s this whole Occupy Wall St movement happening, and say what you will about their methods, but their message is important.  Pretty much no people of note have stood up and outwardly supported the movement.  Sure, some musicians have played short sets, but I mean, come on.  No one comes out in the media and supports it.  We’re stuck with these shitty 24hr news as entertainment outlets. Has anyone of note written a scathing article taking down the financial criminals? Its not like there’s no outlet for it. Like it or not, celebrities have power in our lovely land, why not do something with it. Eh?

When Tipper Gore (wife of the inventor of the internet) decided to form the PMRC (parents music resource center) in order to get those “Parental Advisory” stickers on albums at the time….Zappa stood right the fuck up.  No one could quiet him down.  He led the fight, flaming sword full of unplayable arrangements waving.

Would Bieber do this?  Would ANYONE? Radiohead couldn’t articulate it this clearly.  But Zappa marched right up to the hill and spoke in his own words.  He read the first amendment out loud to the committee trying to censor him, then he said “That’s for reference!” Just watch the video.  How did his balls fit through the door!

I just wish we could see what Zappa would be doing today.  Sure, people say that about any musician long gone…Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, whatever, but all of them would have likely fallen from greatness, sold out, made much worse music, and tarnished their reputations to some degree.  What would Zappa have done with the internet?  Pro Tools?  Youtube?  His output would have made Ryan Adams look like Axl Rose.  Can you imagine Zappa’s blog?  Would you see his music in a Wall Mart commercial?

These are just some things to think about.  Go back and listen to “We’re Only In It For The Money”  then listen to “Sheik Yerbouti”  then watch these videos once more. What we’re really missing is someone who just does not give a shit about what anyone else thinks, answers to no one but themselves, and says whatever they believe it. It’s surprising, because we basically all have our own broadcast networks, the major labels are dead, MTV and Radio are irrelevant, and you can sell your own products without distribution.

Anyhoo, that enough ranting for now. Happy Chanukah!

James Taylor at Tanglewood


You know what sucks?  Don’t Stop Believin by Journey is a fantastic song.  It’s a beautifully crafted pop tune that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.  It would be a flawless piece of music played on an acoustic guitar, or sung by a barber shop quartet.  Nothing can stop it.   Not even every douchey frat guy or wannabe real housewife that sings it at the top of their lungs in a Murray Hill Kareoke Bar.  Well, maybe them, but even so, every time I hear it, it just gets to me.  No real point to that, other than to listen to the actual song.   Moving on.


While celebrating America this weekend up in Massachusetts,  I attended a James Taylor show.  This may not be my typical musical event…but I did enjoy it quite a bit.  Lately I’ve come to respect Taylor as an all around badass.  The main turning point, was when he posted free guitar lessons on his website.  What other legendary songwriter/players do such a thing?  Kudos to you JT, kudos to you.

They call this type of music “Easy Listening” and it is just that.  The melodies are  pleasant, the tempos are just in the right place to bob your head a little bit, the show is not too long, there is nothing at all offensive about this type of music.  While I will not analyze James Taylor’s songwriting style, I will talk about the musicianship of those performing with him.

When you’re at that level, you probably don’t have a lot of time to waste with less than stellar musicians.  I once saw a workshop with drummer Greg Bissonette, who played with Taylor.  He basically said, they go to his house in the Berkshires for a few days, have a BBQ and rehearse, and that’s it for the tour.  It’s the old “I cheat, I just use great musicians” thing. There were no extraneous notes, no rushing or lagging, everything was dead on.   There were about 14 people on the stage, 5 backup singers, horn section, extra percussion…but no toes were stepped on.

On drums was Chad Wackerman, best known for his work with Frank Zappa.  Zappa is the musical equivalent of having unquestionable street cred.   Its like playing for The Yankees early 2000’s while winning the superbowl, and having 14 gold medals in various sports.  Are those terms accurate?  I was kind of winging it.  Yes, that was the only sports reference you will ever see on this blog.  Deal with it.  Here is Wackerman and another Zappa Alum:

Not the first person you’d imagine playing with James Taylor…but he can hold his own in any musical situation I’d imagine.  He’s not shredding 128th notes over “You’ve Got A Friend” or something.

On guitar was Michael Landau, who I had never heard of, but who’s Wikipedia page claims played with Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, and all sorts of others.  The guy could play some hella tasteful solos, and even shred a few 12895th notes without looking like a dick.  Serious players all around.

There was one moment when Vince Gil and Amy Grant came out….well, not really a moment, more like 30 unnecessary minutes.  They played some cheesy pop-country, and some 90’s hits, it really had no place happening.  Maybe old JT was just feeling tired and wanted a break?  Who knows, I’ll forgive him


One notable thing about the venue – Tanglewood up in MA, is absolutely beautiful. They encourage picnicking, and even allow alcohol!  What a concept!  No one gets out of control intoxicated, everyone has a lovely little area set up, some with candles and tables and whatnot, I felt so civilized!  Maybe its owed more to the artist than the particular crowd…I mean, If it were a Dave Matthews Band show or something, you know there would be a few kids in white hats shotgunning beers to Don’t Stop Believin’, ya know?