Houston ... Fort .. Marcuse: Sin Versus Archetype in Zappa
Out To Lunch (aka Ben Watson)
paper addressed to ICE-Z (International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology) 16 January 2004 at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road, Camden Town, London
When I first met Danny Houston, Zappa freak from Glasgow, in 1976, both our brains exploded, and I'm not sure I've recovered yet. Danny had come down to London from Glasgow in the mid-70s to live on the dole and be a freak and explore everything the English capital had to offer. They gave him a fierce interview in the dole office - one of those ones where they ask if you've been looking for work, and where they threaten to cut off your payments if you can't prove you're trying - so he got a job as a clerk in London Transport. One of the benefits of working for the underground - in the locomotive, rather than cultural sense - is that you obtain a pass allowing you to travel free all over London. Experiencing London accompanied by Danny was like a dream or a drug trip, because he knew how to get across the capital so fast. We'd always get extremely drunk, and by the end of the night, it was hard to work out exactly where we'd been. London was transformed into a warren of pubs, stairwells, bedrooms and kitchens, all interconnected in unexpected ways, with different opportunities for partying at every moment - in halls, back passage-ways, tube carriages, deserted rooms, bus stairwells, strangers' kitchens.
Danny lived in a bedsit in Ealing Broadway. The room's walls were covered in countercultural trophies and detritus. Indeed, it was spookily like Gerry Fialka's end-of-the-garden shack in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Gerry Fialka is the Zappa freak who wormed his way into the Zappa empire, so that at the point of Zappa's death in 1993, he was employed answering the telephone for the Barking Pumpkin hotline. That, he told me, was how he found girlfriends. Fialka also hosts a Finnegans Wake reading group in the Los Angeles public library (I think they've only got one). Gerry believes if you add Frank Zappa to Marshall McLuhan and Finnegans Wake, the world will suddenly wake up to the idiocy of its abuse of public communications for sterile profit rather than lived fun. In both their homes, it felt like the colour posters of Robert Wyatt and the photocopies of Captain Beefheart lyrics and the cassettes of Sun Ra and George Clinton and a polystyrene totem-pole decorated with a singed ticket to see Arthur Brown and signed photo of Jimmy Carl Black were all that held the ceiling up. I think this was quite literally the case with Fialka's "funny farm", as he calls it, though I may be confusing his shack with the garage inhabited by the founder of "Americans For A Darker America", who'd managed to extinguish all the street lights in his immediate neighbourhood. His garage home was reached through an extremely dark - and rather alarming - hole in a privet hedge. Charlie Parker was playing on his tiny transistor radio when Gerry and I visited on Halloween, and he was dancing and opening bottles of beer. He'd built a wall of books and records to replace the garage door which was stuck in the open position.
Danny's house, though, was a typical Victorian suburban building on an Ealing street. In the, 70s Ealing hadn't been colonised by the Asian community, it was straight and colourless and boring - but Danny's room was a treasure trove, gleaming with counter-cultural rareties. I'd visit to tape his records - he listened to everything on a little mono box grammophone - and then we'd go to a pub called the Wheatsheaf, and get blasted out of our skulls on Fuller's ESB, which started to stand for Extra-Sensory Bitter. If I came down to visit for the weekend - hitchhiking down the A10 from Cambridge - we'd meet in a pub near his work on Saturday lunchtime. Danny's colleagues worked overtime, and didn't like it if he didn't do the same. He seemed to spend most of Saturday afternoon in the pub anyway. He'd pop in and out, there were always other friends of his there to talk to. He lived with a continual buzz of people around him. I was his eccentric student acquaintance from Cambridge University who was also nuts about Zappa. He got in touch with me when I had a letter published in Street Life, a short-lived attempt to create a British Rolling Stone, and he wrote to me at the college address they'd printed. I remember holding up the note he'd sent - singed all round the edge - and everyone saying how weird it was to get a letter from a stranger, out of the blue. Like most Zappologists, our obsession upset and annoyed almost everyone else we knew in regular life. It was odd that we hung out together, considering his slogan at the time was "all students are cunts" (his was long before the c-word began gracing the pages of Time Out). Danny's now doing a degree in Communications at Auckland University, I hear. Danny always had shitloads of friends and acquaintances, he was an organiser, a mischief maker, a leader. He'd buy ten tickets for an Iggy Pop concert and sell them to his friends to make sure we'd meet ahead and arrive sufficiently lubricated.
Why am I telling you about Danny? Because his use of Zappa seems to me to absolutely right. He used Zappa's music as an opportunity for play, for pranks, for upending the passivity enforced by the star system, that gawping-at-the-famous which commercial interests - and the Idiot Bastard website - turn everything into. He knew Zappa's oeuvre was a battle over meaning, and exerted great efforts to insert himself into Conceptual Continuity. When I got to know him, I was starting to learn about revolutionary Marxism. I attended the Socialist Workers Party discussion week in London called "Marxism", and Tony Cliff, the old Palestinian Jew who invented the whole thing, blew me away in his talks. Danny was completely suspicious of organised politics, and fiercely anti-intellectual. He'd tried attending college in Scotland, and the way he was failed condemned intellectual pursuits in his eyes. When I say Danny "was failed", I'm refering to an old book by the anarchist John Holt called Why Children Fail, which explains how our schooling system is actually designed to tell 75% of the population they're stupid. I think the percentages are a little different today, but the same splits still exist - especially among Zappa fans, who always seem to be over-educated super-intellectuals (25%) or proud-to-be-lumpen opponents of book culture (75%). Danny once made me burst into tears when I came back all excited from hearing Cliff explain the difference between Leninism and Stalinism, and he denounced me for using terms no "working-class person had ever heard of". I also remember Danny ruining one holiday with a bunch of people when we'd got hold of a house on the fish-slope in Cromer on the Norfolk Coast - with a big bay window looking at a turbulent North Sea and with a fantastic pub with Adnams and Abbott round the corner. We used to get the bar manager, Eric, to pump beer into a huge glass vase as a take-away. The house - it had five storeys - belonged to my girlfriend's mother, but she was away, so we occupied for a weekend, which is a fantastic treat when you've been living in flats and apartments too small to accomodate anyone more than a couple. Anyway, Danny went into a diatribe about "middle-class student revolutionaries" and how we actually knew nothing, all because there was a toilet under the stairs, and everytime you put the light on, a fan started whirring, in case any of the odours emitted during pissing or defecation "might offend anyone's prissy little bourgeois nostrils". It was years later that I discovered that builders installing toilets without windows are obliged by law to install electric ventilation. Nowadays, every time I'm having a pee in a curry-shop toilet which has been built in some recess, some odd spare corner without windows, and the fan starts whirring, I reflect on the strange way young people persecute each other over their class backgrounds, and how the simple information that fans in closed toilets are obligatory by law might have made for a more pleasant evening in Cromer. Except, it probably wouldn't have helped. Martin Bennell, who recruited me to the SWP originally, and now works as a porter at St Jimmy's hospital in Leeds, was there too, and he and Danny - both older than me - were fighting for my soul and allegiance. On the one hand, an abstract and political concept of the working class, on the other hand, a really existing, but atomised, alienated and culturally-outré example of the real thing. But now I think everything Danny did should be understood as a struggle waged against the alienation of capitalism. His activities - putting people in touch with each other, writing to magazines, putting slips of paper with his phone number into albums in record shops, swapping photocopies and tapes, perpetual pursuit of unreleased Zappa material and coincidences and connections, organising visits to pubs and gigs, practical jokes, freak-outs - were never about some paltry individual career or advantage, some tedious pursuit of fame and fortune. It was always about creating situations where something magical could happen, something not driven by the time-is-money are-you-a-celebrity crap of everyday life as conceived by the tabloids and TV. Magic moments where time appeared to be revealed as an illusion, where genuinely bizarre things happened. Like the Sex Pistols, Danny was a Situationist and didn't know it. His every thought was anti-capitalist. His eagerness for bootleg tape recordings and postal communication inoculated me against the cyber-boosterism and net-frenzy of the mid-90s: thanks to him and the Zappa circuit, I'd been listening to unofficial material from across the globe and making virtual friends for two decades.
But it was when I was listening to a bootleg tape Danny made of Zappa at the Hammersmith Odeon on 24 January 1978, that I realised quite how freak-filled and futuro-fantastic his aesthetic was. During "Titties 'n Beer", at the line "it looked to me like it was titty skin", the sound quality - already boomy and boxy because Danny's microphone couldn't really cope with the volume of the PA - worsens and becomes distant and faint. It was like that moment in "Kaiser Rolls" on FZ:OZ, except there on Danny's tape there was no sleevenote explanation. I listened with consternation. You hear a door slam. Someone mumbles: "Got any dope to sell round here?". Danny says: "No, sorry mate ... actually there's some people standing just there, the first line ... [unintelligible mumble, mmmf] ... I don't think they've got any to sell but they're smoking, they're American ... [more unintelligible mumble, mmmf] ..." Then there's Danny's inevitable question: "You haven't got any tapes have you? Any tapes?". The other guy in the toilet has no idea what he's talking about. Another Zappa maniac. (Why is it when I think about civilians trying to understand a Zappa maniac like Danny I just feel like bursting out laughing?)
Danny was as addicted to live tapes of Zappa as the dope smoker was to his marijuana: Danny collected them, swapped them, duplicated them - but he never sold them or made money from them. He didn't have a tape-recorder, so it was my task to tape the Hammersmith gigs, which meant strapping a tape recorder to my back underneath my "OUT TO LUNCH" raincoat and walking past the door-men with a backwards lean so the bulge wouldn't be noticed. Danny knew he was making a raid on Zappa's copyright and knew that how much he hated bootleggers (we hadn't yet received the message - as outlined in the American edition of Society Pagesin Society Pages - that tape-swapping was okay, Zappa just hated the sleazy way bootleggers can charge high prices for inferior quality recordings just because they're "rare"). For Danny, the fact that tapes could be duplicated was Potlatch all the way (and he'd never heard of Guy Debord). Then, during his tape recording of the Hammersmith Zappa gig from 1978, as the rest of the dialogue from "Titties 'n Beer" leaked through the toilet doors, there was a trickling sound, and you realise we're in the gents and we're listening to the sound of Danny's urine splashing into a urinal. As usual, Danny had to get his cock in there, a case of inevitable insertionism. Then the sound is cut. The tape resumes with Zappa asking for innocent volunteers to dance to "Black Page #2", so we haven't missed much - it was the next song in the show that week. In the same period, Danny also dangled his microphone into the band's dressing room from an outside window in order to catch moments of the Project/Object even Zappa would not have on tape. This idea of introducing your own recorded urine into what Gail Zappa calls The Loop - the international circuit of Zappa tape, CD and MP3 swappers - is for me the definition of the entire zappological project: self-extension via grotesque invasions of privacy, an attack on the discreet individual, a translation into absurd social fragments. It's as crucial a moment in Modern Art as The Fountain (1915) by Marcel Duchamp: genuine "theater-piss".
But what of the oeuvre itself? Zappa's work is exciting because his art is not the product of an ideology or theory, it wrinkles and overlaps and concentrates bits of the material world so that the whole universe may be viewed in it upside down, tiny, like the image inside the convex mirror in the parlour of your great aunt in Chingford. Hence theorists as different as Charles Fort and Herbert Marcuse might be used to apprise us of its multi-layered, multi-valent energies. Charles Fort published The Book of the Damned in 1919. It laid the foundations of an anti-authoritarian approach to knowledge which is now enshrined in the magazine Fortean Times. In 1976, Fortean Times wasn't in most newsagents, and when Danny showed me a copy, seemed more like a dried muffin remnant of the counter culture than the prototype of a popular 90s title. Danny thought my theories about Zappa would appeal to the Fortean crew, and encouraged me to report the bizarre discoveries I was making to the editor. Danny dropped by the editorial office, and was surprised how earnest and "not insane" they were. For a Bolshevik Punk like Out To Lunch, though, Fortean Times and its crop circles and flying saucers seemed off-puttingly hippie and mystical; I didn't quite understand how lacking in any belief - New Age or not - the Fortean method actually is. Out of loyalty to Danny, I bought Book of the Damned second-hand, a cheap paperback published by Sphere in 1979, but couldn't read much of it. Now when I look at Fort's book, it reads as a powerful statement of anti-positivist monism, a kind of plainspeaking man's Hegel. In fact, it reads like Josef Dietzgen, the leather worker whose book The Nature of Human Brain-Work Presented by a Workingman: a Renewed Critique of Pure & Practical Reason was published in 1896 as part of his The Positive Outcome of Philosophy.
Charles Fort pointed out:
If science could absolutely exclude all data but its own present data ... it would be a real system [THe Book of the Damned, p. 28]
and then went on to list all the facts and reports science ignores in order to pretend that it's a seamless system. Fort didn't like intellectual systems. In this, Fort is like Karl Marx. The popular misconception of Marxism as a rigid dogma is not borne out by reading anything Marx actually wrote - or anything by Marxists worth their salt, like Herbert Marcuse, whose One Dimensional Man was another popular paperback issued in the early 70s by Sphere. According to the cover of the edition of 1964, One Dimensional Man sold more copies than Mao's Little Red Book. Since, unlike Mao Tse Tung's, Marcuse's work wasn't a collection of poetic platitudes and paradoxes which could apply to any political position under the sun, this fact is rather amazing. Frankfurt School radicalism - contra Andrew Greenaway's Thatcherite notion that it's all stuff for academics and toffs - can be popular! But what concerns me here is that in Marcuse's analysis of Soviet Marxism, a system which had betrayed Marx's concept of a free society and individual self-development for all, Marcuse said:
What is irrational if measured from without the system is rational within the system. [Soviet Marxism, p. 28]
This is the same thought as that of Charles Fort 39 years before! Here it is again:
If science could absolutely exclude all data but its own present data ... it would be a real system [The Book of the Damned, p. 28]
I want to argue that you can't understand Frank Zappa unless you take what Fort and Marcuse say onboard. Zappa was the only historical materialist in rock, a genre which in essence was a bourgeois/idealist steal from the materialism, honesty and directness of the blues (okay, let's except Iggy Pop). So, in rejecting Danny's suggestion of approaching Fortean Times, I was blinded by generational identity tripe. What Zappa's father says about official history in The Real Frank Zappa Book has exactly Fort's scepticism about power's use of knowledge.
Zappa's albums present such an outlandish splice of complete madness and cutting sanity that he forces the listener to speculate about the relativity of madness and sanity, the dialectical involvement of opposites like order and chaos, rationality and irrationality. The boredom of the capitalist system is interrupted. The "irrational" is the threat to an ordered system which only an undogmatic, flexible and living dialectic can deal with ("The man who was talkin' to the dog ..."). This commitment to the irrational also explains why Frank Zappa's song "The World's Greatest Sinner" is the key to his work (something which, funnily enough, is true of every song he wrote).
In The Myth of the Eternal Return: Archetypes and Repetition, published in Paris in 1959, Mircea Eliade explains what "sin" is. It's simply the irrational being excluded from the socially-recognised "system". That's why Charles Fort called his book The Book of the Damned". Fort's book lists in stunning succession all the observations and material evidence - showers of jelly, frogs and blood, thunderstones - which science has so far failed to explain. For his part, Eliade shows that, to the religious mind, "personal events" - eccentric, individual, particular - are intolerable: they sin against the "archetype", which in the Christian system is named Virtue. [p. 75] Zappa's positive view of masturbation - almost unique in hippie rock (apart from Cream and Hendrix) - was thus a polemic against religious "virtue" and all mythical thinking which crushes personal experience under archetypes. Zappa wanted to make an art consisting entirely of "sin" - of unabstracted, specific, personal expressions unrepressed by any generalised archetypes. That's why the records he produced are so delightfully knotty, gnarly and pleasing, even when you can't understand a word - and once you've worked out all the ingredients of "Debra Kedabara", all the stuff about B movies, Mexican rubber masks and dental flossers, you're really no wiser. Why did he put all that junk in there? Because it resists the abstract concept!
A brief musicological parenthesis in case people think my potato has been baking too long. Of course, Punk Rock was replete masturbation songs: "Orgasm Addict" by the Buzzcocks; "Phone-In Show" by the Members (the great, reforgotten troupe of white-reggae soulboys from Camberley who discovered their souls on the Seven Sisters Road, and whose phallic pun is honoured in the name of the band playing at the College Bar for our entertainment tonight); "Turning Japanese" by some awful band whose name I can't remember, but which Steve Parry of Chocolate Sandwich told me was about wanking; and not to forget "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones, which was apparently released with altered words to hide its real meaning (when I first heard the song on the John Peel show, I remember its image of blissful teen coupling rang false).
The materialist and dialectical view of the world is not that of abstract dead matter being shaped by unchanging, eternal laws: it is that of self-defining, irreversible and unique processes which create their own laws, and this applies to hydrogen atoms and dwarf nebulae as much as to human beings. Zappa's music is constructed according to these principles, which is why dialecticians unclouded by left identity-thinking love it so much.
That's my conclusion really, so I'm going to peter-green out with some random remarks. In this I'm following the structure of "Handsome Cabin Boy", which Simon Fell described as "doing that Zappa thing where he fiddles with the possibility of some classic form, does something utterly original and unexpected with it, seems like he's going to resolve it nicely, then throws it all away as if it's all too finicky and buggers off and does something completely different ...".
It was a great day, or rather 4-in-the-morning alcohol binge moment, when Danny noticed that Ruth Underwood is wearing an enamel Zoot Allures badge on the seat of her jeans in the photograph in the inner gatefold of Zappa In New York. This explains the psychic tendency of the pungent aroma which surrounds the Zoot Allures album. Of course - and this is why we love conceptual continuity - this explanation only arrived after the release of the album. Time is not linear, it's a spherical constant: while you're at home what's everyone else doing? Linear time is a bourgeois-individualist illusion. Zappa's records never stay still (as long as you're not such an Idiot Bastard that you fail to open up to the non-zappological world enough to get some chance, so-called "random" or "red herring", connections in there, that is). "One whiff of it," says Julia in First Training, the pornographic classic of the 1910s, refering to the allure of zoot, "and men follow you around like dogs." But, much as I'd like to explain how George Clinton and Swamp Dogg mainline, stressify and overdose on canine continuity, I'm leaving dogs to Dominique Jeunot, Président of Les Fils de l'Invention, the Parisian Frank Zappa chapter.
However, there is time to tell you that Didier Mervelet of Les Fils (who will be performing a Tableau Vivant Qui Bouge about Francesco later on) caused me a similar ganglion of the imagination as Danny did - perma-scar, war wound, benign trauma, permanent damage, psychic growth, what-you-will - when he showed me the cover of Peter Frampton's 7" single "I'm In You". The line from Punky's Whips, "He's little fond of chiffon in a wrist array" was finally explained, even though Punky's Whips was not about Peter Frampton, but about Punky Meadows (have you ever though what a ludicrous name that is? Did we really used to discuss Angel and the lawsuit and Warner Brothers "pulling the track" seriously??). It took me several years to find it, but the single with the pic sleeve - French issue - was finally tracked down on a cold rainy day in last November in the Wazemmes market in Lille. For a mere 30 Euro centimes. As Danny taught me, the way that conceptual continuity is undervalued by record dealers in the grim grey world of the zappologically untouched, makes many of our purchases VERY GOOD BARGAINS! I've never been able to work out whether it was drunken wishful thinking which caused me to see this astonishing aspect of conceptual continuity, so I'm going to invite controversy and discussion by actually showing you the sleeve and what I saw in it. [This is actually a fraudulently re-enacted situation created by Ben Watson with one of those little scan-it-yourself devices ... the night before, the arrival of Marco Maurizi and Jürgen Gispert and Les Fils had so twanged his tiny brain he FORGOT to load the jay-pegs onto Esther's laptop ... but you get to see 'em anyway ... yummy yummy yum yum]
This record sleeve contains another "sleeve", and so hints at mise-en-abyme infinitus ... Just like the strange "z" which popped up in Hermann Kretzschmar's name in the transition from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to Civilization: Phaze III, something uncanny happens around the semiotic materials manipulated by Zappa. The gross material suddenly speaks new, unheard concepts, the sedimented content breaks the tight taut membrane of the fact/value dichotomy, and monsters walk the soft earth of your mind. Peter Frampton isn't just wearing "chiffon in a wrist array", he's got letters sewn there!
Here's an "F". Well, Frampton's name begins with an "F", it's possible ... But look here, turn the image on it's side, there's an "R"!
I admit this is the most far-fetched letter, but "R" is always "R"-fetched", sonce it stands for Rover the Dog (the retriever, the Pudel), or maybe "raver", which is what I am now, probably ... unless everyone in the Theatro Technis auditorium agrees with my diabolical vision/projection, and my irrational "sin" is subsumed under a virtuous archetype by the Internationale of ICE-Z delegates. I must inform you that this particular feature was revealed to me after seven bottles of beer at Didier's maison de famille in the dixième arrondissement of Paris in 1998, beneath the twinkling fairy lights on the Mervelet Christmas tree, and the flickering of Stan Brakhage wondermeat on the video. All of which was most conducive to poetical visioning. But wait, we've got an "F" and an "R" - what's this, an "A"!
Put them all together and you get ...
"F R A", or "arf" backwards! Whether in the actually-existing (or "alienated") world "F R A" goes on to spell "FRAMPTON" or "FRANK ZAPPA" is a fact that's not yet been ascertained. We'd need to find Frampton's costumier and ask her. I think I'll leave you with this aperçu - the one about King Kong the South African musical and the back cover of Absolutely Free is simply too uncanny to broach here [but not at MilitantEsthetix - see PARANOID PERCEPTIONS IN THE FIELD OF ZAPPOLOGY ]. Okay that's it.
I've kept this short. As Jacques Derrida might put it, "I've already written too much about Differ Rance Muhammitz". Since Zappa's method was always to focus on the cusp between personal events or eccentricities - in short, socially unredeemable acts of sin - and public display in its most heated and blatant kind, I'm going to stop attempting to shovel Zappa into a system, and let other people have their say. Zappa's Oeuvre is, after all, a tissue of oral, unbookish culture, and everyone should sneeze in it. May the Poodle dog bless you all! At about 12:30 or so, we should stop the discussion and form an International Esemplastic Zappological phalanx on the street outside - solemn and turgid, although slightly historically innacurate - in order to bear the Data Projector back to the Working Men's College on Crowndale Road, where, if we can find the Mystery Door,
Back to ICE-Z
Get You Back Home
Brazilian lunch awaits ...