Thursday, January 3, 2013

Thinking about the blessings of Zappa...

Yesterday, on the fan site Fillmore East Archives on FB, a questions was asked:  "What was your first concert ever?  Who/what/were?"  Because I was down with a nasty stomach flu I took the opportunity to post that my first concert EVER was the Mothers of Invention at the late show on Saturday night at the Garrick Theater in the Village.  Think about it:  my buddy and I were 15 years old going to see the Mothers for the 12:30 am show during the summer of love, August 1967!  OMG it was heaven...

We ate dinner with an older sister who lived in Greenwich Village and then wandered around Bleecker and MacDougal star struck.  We even got into the Garrick early as the band did their midday 3 hour practice.  And when Zappa and ensemble noticed us - and asked us to come on up to the stage - we fled in terror.  After all, we were mere children and those cats had the reputation of eating their prey alive.  Think back to the uninitiated days of "Freak Out" and all those wildass, hairy older guys and smokin' babes in miniskirts. Our hearts were pounding, we were so buzzed that we spent the next 2 hours reliving that terrifying moment in total awe.  (Would that we had been smarter and braver.  Think about it:  a conversation with Zappa on-freakin-stage! Alas...)

Well, as the flu departed and I rested, I kept thinking back to Zappa and what he meant to me in the day - and what he means now.  And while I don't listen to him much anymore, except maybe his R'n'B things like "Directly From My Heart to You" (a killer remake of the LIttle Richard song with Don "Sugarcane" Harris on electric violin), my man Frank Zappa clearly shaped my worldview.

As an adolescent guy in the mid60s, I identified with the "otherness" of the Mothers.  While I dreamed of having plastic surgery (and a body make-over) to look like Paul McCartney of the Beatles, I knew it would never happen.  I would never be cool enough, sexy enough and cute enough to pull that off.  But the Mothers of Invention?  I already looked like some of them - and they weren't ashamed of being who they were - freaks and outsiders and marginal people finding a new way of living on the fringes of the straight world. 

No wonder we wanted to play their songs in church!?!  They were the embodiment of the promises of Jesus for a weird, geeky 15 year old boy living in a wealthy suburb of NYC without a lot of cash.  "Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest?"  Damn, I wanted some of that! And the whole Jesus welcoming and eating and loving the forgotten and outsiders?  Baby, that was me and all the other losers who would never be the suburban American equivalents of Paul McCartney.   Watching and listening to the Mothers was a religious experience for this over-weight, dumpy guy with cheap clothes because I knew in my soul that I would never be part of the "In Crowd" no matter what Dobie Gray or Ramsey Lewis told us.

So we played "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" and "Trouble Comin' Everyday" in worship.  We brought "Absolutely Free" to dance parties and made the cool kids put it on so that WE could dance while they sat around the side of the room looking bewildered.  Yeah, I loved Motown as much as any jock, but they cleared out when Zappa started to wail - and that gave me space to breathe - and a little rest, too.

As an adolescent male looking at life from the outside, I think Zappa also shared two other invaluable insights for me:

+ First, he confirmed that life WAS hard:  it wasn't just that I wasn't cool and rich enough, there was pain and suffering and injustice that I had to learn how to embrace.  When he sang about losing status at the high school, he knew what it meant to be embarrassed.  When he sang about drunken parents and mean-spirited teachers and cliches - let alone racial violence and war - it was clear that "all you need is love" wasn't the whole story.  Buying into the "dream" was more plastic than authentic for "what does it benefit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?"  How did he put it after the riots in Watts?  "Hey people you know I'm not black but there's a whole lotta times I wish I could say that I'm not white."  He introduced me to Kafka - and Coltrane - and exploring the pain of my life without drugs or alcohol; before Springsteen, Zappa showed me how art and music could save my life.  And it did.

+ Second St. Francis Vincent Zappa offered me a way of challenging the status quo in a way that was funny, intelligent and outrageous rather than violent or mean-spirited.  In the face of hot-shit fashion, long before Lennon was rummaging around the attic for antique eyeglasses, Zappa was raiding Goodwill bins for coats and weird vests in a way that made low budget chic.  He took on the world with his intellect and humor - and his art - that gave me a model for living defensively.  Think fast - and deep - and be ready to defend your beliefs with a quick tongue and open heart.  Even then he was urging us to unplug ourselves from the consumer machine. 

He once put it like this:  My goal is to use my art to wake people up from their apathy... because unless we wake up America is going to scarp up and devour everything in the world.  How did the ancient poet of Israel, Isaiah, put it?  Why spend your money on what does not satisfy? 

Later he took on the hypocrisy of Tipper Gore and those who wanted to protect the ears of their babies from the harsh sounds of real life by testifying to Congress about the dangers of limiting free speech in art.  He wasn't cynical.  He wasn't mean. He was just filled with the facts, intellect and a ton of humor and respect.  Yes, he pissed people off all over the place; but that was more about being nailed with the truth than his message or style.  I learned a lot from this cat as a young man.
As I grew older I stopped listening to most of Zappa's music - I appreciated what he was doing intellectually - but found I didn't have the time to take in his increasingly complicated compositions.  It touched my heart that he was recognized towards the end of his too short life by some of the great modern composers of art music.  He was clearly in the same world as Cage, Boulez, Messiaen and Takemitsu.  AND... he was a jazz man extraordinaire.

Back when I first saw him at the Garrick - and through all the times at the Fillmore and other venues - Zappa surrounded himself with some of the finest jazz artists to ever play live in America.  He brought the sounds of Coltrane to the rock and roll world.  He was playing fusion before there was a name for it.  And he found a way to keep at it with verve and humor.

Like he once said:  Jazz isn't dead, man - it just smells funny.  He worked with George Duke, Steve Vai, Ruth Underwood, Jon-Luc Pony and Sugarcane Harris.  And now that I'm playing a lot more serious jazz, I realize what a creative mother he really was - blending and bending genres - playing with style, form and structure when too many of his peers were getting coked up or blissed out.  I remember once sitting outside at one of the Shaeffer Music Festival shows in the Central Park.  At one point, the band did a spot on cover of "96 Tears" - all the horn players slowly moving down to their knees while playing their riffs in a ode to James Brown's band - and after they got back to standing they took off into "King Kong" with polyrhtyms and insane key changes.  Always a brilliant live show.

So, yeah my world changed - and kept changing - because we went to that late show at the Garrick Theater in 1967.  We road the milk train home - pulled into the Darien station at 7 am and my parents never even knew I was out of town!  (Not a recommended strategy but a total gas...)  While listening to the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream and Hendrix that summer, I still remember sitting in my buddy's basement as he read the New Yorker promotion for the "Absolutely Free" show by the Mothers that would end after Labor Day.  "Damn, we have to figure out how to see this, yeah?"

Thanks be to God that we did.


1 comment:

Peter said...

"Hi boys and girls. I'm Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the group. Hehheheheheheheheheheheheheheh...."