Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The best of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have been my favorite musical act for most of my adult life. There's just something about the complexity of the music, the intricacy of the composition, the irreverence of his lyrics and the complete disregard for popular music trends that I've always found appealing. I could (and often do) listen to Zappa and the Mothers for hours on end, as you can always notice something different with each listening, and you can virtually listen for a week without repeating an album. Frank was very prolific in life, and his family trust keeps pushing out new compilations out of his tape vaults with regularity.

I'm not going to say Frank Zappa was some god of some sort. I've yet to see any modern performer that can be called that (sorry Clapton fans). The title track of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is the single most grating and maddening piece of noise that was only rivaled by Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Zappa had lots of idiosyncrasies that a lot of people found annoying and didn't seem to deal with people on a personal level with much alacrity, and tossed a lot of people to the side of the road without a lot of conscience. I've read quite a few books on the man, his relationships with his musicians and his work, and the best that can really be said that Frank Zappa was indeed a man like any other. But as a musician and particularly as a composer, he was one of the best that the 20th Century had to offer (to paraphrase one of his lyrics).

Here are the five albums (sort of) that I think are his very best, and are most representative of what Frank Zappa and the Mothers were about.

Uncle Meat (1969)
It is so very hard to decide on whether or not Uncle Meat or We're Only In It For the Money is the better album, but I have to give the former the upper hand in the contest. Uncle Meat is 90% instrumental and features some truly classic cuts ("Dog Breath", "King Kong", "Cruisin' for Burgers"), as well as the final vinyl appearance of the iconic Suzy Creamcheese. It has a near-symphonic range of sound, from Paducho-inspired garage rock to the orchestral arrangements of the various parts of "King Kong". And a few bars of "Louie, Louie" played on the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ don't hurt the production.

We're Only In It For the Money (1968)
Some folks, along with Frank Zappa himself, have said that this album was the final coffin nail in the Flower Power movement. That's debatable; I personally consider the travesty that was Altamont to be the end of the "Peace and Love" era. This album definitely heralded the end the Los Angeles Freak Movement, though a lot of people apparently didn't listen. This album, with the often-banned Sgt. Pepper-inspired cover, has some of the most poignant and powerful lyrics that Zappa ever wrote.  Much like many of the topically-inspired songs on Freak Out, many of these songs sill have the same relevance today, particularly "Mom and Dad" and "Flower Punk" (which many folks think was about Kent State, but is instead about an earlier tragedy).

Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)
While a lot of people may have become aware of Frank Zappa's work through the drive-time novelty hit "Valley Girl", the first song that ever caught my ear was the radio single of "Joe's Garage", a simple tale of a neighborhood rock band that practiced in a garage. Little would one expect that buying the full album (and the double album of Acts II & III), one would be delving into a world of Catholic girls, crew sluts, Scientology, 1984, German sex toys and eventually prison and prison sex. This is surreal humor for the ear ... the musical equivalent of listening to Bob and Ray, but with adult language. And there is some of the best guitar work ever heard on a Zappa album (or any album for that matter). "Watermelon in Easter Hay" quickly became my second favorite piece of music of all time.

Electric Aunt Jemima (1968; released in 1992's Beat the Boots II Boxed Set)
First off, this is a bootleg album, and Frank Zappa had little to do with it, other than reissuing it under his own label in the Beat the Boots series to get a measure of vengeance against the pirates. The recording quality is not up to Zappa's usual standards, but the performance is one of the best ever recorded, at least in my opinion. This live album is almost totally instrumental, and really shows the versatility of the Mothers of Invention.

London Symphony Orchestra Vols. I & II (1983, 1987)
The two LSO albums really showcase Frank Zappa as a true modern composer, and while they were released five years apart, I'm considering them as one double-album. While he was never happy with the performances he got out of any orchestra he paid to perform his music, you wouldn't know by the quality of the recordings on these two albums. Several of the tunes (notably "Bogus Pump" and "Strictly Genteel") have been heard in other forms on other albums and in other Zappa projects (the two mentioned were the opening and closing numbers of Zappa's motion picture, 200 Motels) and really come to life in the hands of a properly conducted orchestra.

Honorable Mention:
Bongo Fury (1975) 
This is one of my single favorite albums of all time, and features a collaboration between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The two recording legends were often at odds with each other, but when they got together, it was audio magic. Zappa produced Beefheart's (whose real name is Don Van Vliet) iconic Trout Mask Replica, and both have worked together on each other's projects over the years. This particular concert tour and album was spawned because Beefheart was having legal disputes with his former record label and wasn't legally able to record anywhere. He sings several songs and recites two poems. The album was also notable for what having I think was the first song to mention the U.S. Bicentennial being used as a marketing ploy, the first appearance with Zappa by drummer Terry Bozzio, and being the last album to feature a proper line-up of the Mothers of Invention.

I highly recommend anyone check out any of these albums.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rambling Holiday Thoughts

I suppose a lot of folks get sentimental this time of year. I don’t often get maudlin and start sniffling about things, but I do occasionally think about my situation and how lucky I am to be where I am today.
The holidays are supposed about family. For most of my wonder years, I kind of had a family, but it was never quite right. I’m not talking an abusive horror story or anything like that here, but it didn’t have the stereotypes that a classic American family was supposed to have. I grew up with my mother, my grandfather and grandmother. My grandmother died of liver cancer back in 1973 or so. I recall her illness as being rather long, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of pain (for her) involved in it. My mother was mildly mentally-retarded and died of a heart attack in 1980. She was 41 and had been complaining of what I later learned were classic cardiac symptoms. She died while being forced to exercise at the hospital. I went to live with my grandfather, who took care of me (and whom I took care of in his later years) until he had one too many strokes and finally had to go into a nursing home, where he died at the age of 96. I was working at the answering service used by the nursing home, and I took the call hat he was failing early one morning.
The one member of my family that I have always held in high respect was my uncle David Reyes, a World War II veteran of Iwo Jima who was an electronics expert and traveled the world for Admiral Television. He passed away in the early eighties, a victim of cancer. I also have an estranged aunt, and supposedly somehow I’m related to the guy who played The Flash on TV, but I have no idea what my actual roots are; though I have been told I am related to the Scottish clan McPherran (or I think more properly spelled McFeran). I never knew my father, as the man I had been told was my dad had been chased away the day I was born and has since died. I’ve also been told that my father could’ve been the postmaster of the town I was born in, but he too has been dead for a long time. That was pretty much it for my flesh-and-blood family.
I came to a personal understanding a long time ago that a family is what YOU make it. Blood ties can only go so far, and there are no entitlements or disenfranchisements because of a few shared or lacking chromosomes. My family has always been a small circle of people who have been important to me, and usually a houseful of pets. I moved to Pennsylvania back in 1998 and married my wife, Elona. She has been my guiding light all this time. I’m not the most expressive guy, but I hope she knows how much I love her and how much she means to me, and especially how happy I’ve been since I she became a part of my life. Like a good married couple, we don’t like all the same things so things can be interesting, and we have enough in common to keep things on an even keel, through the good times and the bad times.
Neither of us wanted children. I have enough trouble explaining to someone how to set up an internet connection much less trying to teach a kid something heavy like the difference between right and wrong. But we have a plethora of furry children; our family currently consists of two small dogs (Emiko and Montagoon) and four cats (Pip, Luli, Maxwell and Liam). And unlike regular kids, we don’t have to worry about sending any of them to college. Unfortunately, as we’ve found in the past few years, they are also not with us nearly as long as a real child, and the hurt often seems to be just as great when they pass on.
Elona doesn’t really have many relatives that we’re in regular contact with anymore, as most of them seem to have different priorities than we do. We tend to keep to ourselves, not because we’re anti-social, but more because few people understand us - our sense of humor, beliefs and values. Our “extended” family still includes a lot of friends instead of “proper” relatives. I’ve managed to keep in touch with a few of my friends from my former life in Wisconsin, and there are a few folks around here that I have become good friends. Dennis Sninsky and his dad Johnny, who run the service station two houses down from here, went out of their way to make me feel welcome when I arrived. It was almost like I walked in the door and I was at home with the gang of old (and young) fellas that hung around the station. Johnny passed on a few years ago, but you can still feel him in the neighborhood. Our postman, Jimmy Purcell, is quite possibly the anathema of all postmen: Our dogs love him. Heck, he was my dog Duncan’s uncle (we bought him from Jimmy’s sister). Jimmy is one of the few people who could lay claim to the title of “Nicest Person in the Known Universe” ... and I wish he would. We also get the occasional craziness of phone calls from my friend Larry in Green Bay, and the more level-headed nostalgia of my pal Jim in Oakland.
I suppose by most people’s standards, this is going to be a horrible Christmas in our household. No tree, no decorations, no presents. Guess what? We don’t care! Any cat owner knows most decorations are a frivolity that will be taken down before you even finish getting them up. And while I wouldn’t mind seeing what effect a tree would have on our beasties, I always thought it was very strange and rather contrary to celebrate the birth of someone who advocated life and peace by violently chopping down and displaying another living thing. And as for no presents, again who cares? We both have everything we need right at the moment. Elona and I have come through a couple of long stretches of financial difficulties. It was lucky I was a hoarder of books and stuff before I came here, because we’ve had to sell almost everything of value we had over the years to pay the bills. There was one moment where we were two weeks from losing our house and everything. I’ve been unemployed since March of 2009, and since May of this year we’ve been a one-income family, getting by on what she makes at her job. I was recently approved for disability and in a couple of months there will be at least that much security in our future.
Like many families in this economy, we’ve weathered some hard times. But we’ve managed to come out of them on our feet. We have a roof over our heads, food in the kitchen, furry creatures next to us on the couch, and there’s always a lot of smiles and laughter in our home. As long as you’ve got the laughter, you’ll always have a family.