Compliments Any Burger You Put On (Centre Hinge Sliced)
paper addressed to ICE-Z (International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology) 16 January 2004
at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road, Camden Town, London
Des Pudels Kern - the core of the poodle. This is a German phrase meaning to get to the truth of the matter, to really penetrate to the core of a thing. It does not surprise any of us that the poodle, and indeed the poodle’s core, is where truthfulness resides. Zappologists have long recognised the crucial status of the poodle - the poodle is indeed the crux of the matter. The German phrase finds its origin in Goethe’s play Faust - Das also war des Pudels Kern!
- Faust. So this, then, was the kernel of the poodle!
Faust says this when Mephistopheles, the devil’s helper, reveals himself in his true form. Evil stands before him revealed in its true shape, not a poodle, but a man, and he wants to buy Faust’s soul.
Mephistopheles. responds - I am the Spirit that negates!
- Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint !
And his rhyme continues -
- Und das mit Recht : denn alles, was entsteht,
- Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht ;
- Drum besser wär's, daß nichts entstünde.
- So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
- Zerstörung, kurz das Böse nennt,
- Mein eigentliches Element.
And rightly too; for all that has begun
Should rightly to destruction run;
'Twere better then that nothing did begin.
Thus everything is what you call Sin,
Destruction - in a word, what you as Evil represent-
That is my own, my very element.
Faust. You call yourself a part, yet whole you're standing there.
Mephistopheles. A modest truth do I declare.
A man, the microcosmic fool, down in his soul
Is wont to think himself a whole,
But I'm part of the Part which at the first was all,
Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light,
The haughty Light that now with Mother Night
Disputes her ancient rank and space withal,
And yet 'twill not succeed, since, strive as strive it may,
Fettered to bodies will Light stay.
It streams from bodies, it makes bodies fair,
A body hinders it upon its way,
And so, I hope, it has not long to stay
And will with bodies their destruction share.
Faust. Now I perceive your worthy occupation!
You can't achieve wholesale annihilation
And now a retail business you've begun.
A body hinders light upon its way, while darkness - the very principle of evil is a more primitive force that is not hampered by the body. Darkness pre-exists the light, says Mephistopheles, and for that reason it is truth, original, the starting point. Darkness moves on its destructive course unseen and unseeing, conscious that was once the whole, out of which emerged all partiality we call life, bodies, humans, culture. This it will destroy. The black poodle is darkness and evil, and this is the secret at its heart. This evil is a force that constantly negates, says no, refuses.
To return to our German metaphor - des Pudels Kern. Thinking about Zappa’s songs always seems like a very difficult task of trying to get to the core of the poodle. The original darkness that exists prior to the light of the glitz of performance, the shiny blackness of the vinyl and the glint of the CD, tarnished only by the dullness of fans’ hero-worship. Truth is always hard-won, and sometimes entirely elusive. When it is found, it too is dark and nasty - the core of the poodle, some poodle doo-doo - what’s inside lacks taste and measure. That sounds like Zappa. His spirit tat negates is just what makes him so unpopular.
Zappa and Zank
There is no poodle in Kaiser Rolls, the song that was played on the 1975 and 1976 tours and was rehearsed in 1981 and appears on FZ:OZ from the performance in Sydney on 20 January 1976. No poodle, but there is a grotesque man, the stumblin’ man, who seems to be a very principle of malevolence, perhaps much like Mephistopheles. Zappa’s stumbling man, who we encounter in the song ‘Kaiser Rolls’ - ‘A week ago, I met a stumbler man….’, is not appearing for the first time. In fact the stumbling man is there in Village of the Sun, in 200 Years Old - and in Zappa’s own recollections of a man he met who stumbled and flailed in front of the juke box in a local bar. The man took him home and Zappa found that Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite was on his turntable. The stumbler man is not quite what he seems. This stumbler man, however, is vile - he has ‘stuff stuck up his nose’, that ‘crawled all over his clothes’. He pukes in a garbage can. Our singer gives him the finger and tries to evade him, but he is slow and lumbering and blocks his path. Slobbering, puking - in contrast to the tight frame of the music, this stumbling man is at the centre of a song that expresses a poetry of the everyday, the street-level, where all true creativity resides, especially in trashcans, the abject and the sleazy. If poetry is sought then it will be found in the garbage cans and arbitrary street encounters, with all their dangers and unpredictability. As a poetry of the normal mis-communications that occur between people, this stumbling man speaks in riddles. The words he uses seem unstable and impenetrable. Apart from the one perennial question - How’s about a dollar for some cigarettes? Which is fully comprehensible in any capitalist industrial society, for it echoes the basic law of capitalist society - money buys commodities that satisfy desires, for a while.
The song I am talking about is called 'Kaiser Rolls' - and it seems that at the end the stumbler man is pursuing Kaiser Rolls - ‘Kaiser Rolls, rolls and rolls, surprise to me they ain’t catched him yet’. So what is he after? What does he desire then? A Kaiser Roll is bread roll of a particular type, a white bread, with poppy seeds or sesame seeds often on top. It is crusty on the outside and inside it is rather soft, even aerated or hollow, and with a distinctive design - either five or four slits, that perhaps makes it look like an emperor’s crown - for Kaiser is German for emperor. Or perhaps the name stems from the fact that the Kaiser enjoyed this product so much he offered it his name, as he did to so many other products. The roll is rich in eggs, oil and sugar. People seem to like it. This roll was invented, it is said, by August Zank, an Austrian who also brought the Brioche to Vienna and who was the publisher of the newspaper Die Presse. Incidentally the innovation of Die Presse was to make the first part of the newspaper contain lots of adverts, which reduced the cover price and added to its commercial success. Zank, our possible Kaiser roll inventor, said ‘I sell advertising space like a Kramladen’, and so he became a multi-millionaire in 19th century Austria. Others say it began at the World's Fair of 1873 in Vienna when Hungarian roller-milled flour was leavened with "secret" yeast to produce the first famous blue ribbon Kaiser rolls. In any case, our Kaiser Roll emancipated itself from this original situation, and made its way to the USA along with Austrian and German immigrants. Kaiser Rolls were made in the US from about 1898, by ethnic Germans and Austrians. The rolls caught on - becoming one of the principal homemade hamburger rolls. New York took them particularly to heart, and they were assimilated into Irish, Jewish and Italian cuisine. There is a very rich literature on the web pertaining to the use of Kaiser Rolls in recipes, or even modes of baking them. One anxious surfer posted a problem in 1999 that still lurks in the myriad by-roads of the information superhighway: Miles Cherkasky remarked, presumably in a bid for advice from someone, anyone, on November 02, 1999 at 11:27:02: "I am experiencing a intermitant (sic) problem with the formation of internal air pockets at the cuts or creases of our Kaiser rolls. They come and go for no apparent reason." He received no answer. There appears to be something irrational about the Kaiser Roll, so irrational the highest levels of the academy attempts to fathom its meaning. There is a university course in the States that examines the contribution of German-Americans to mainstream culture. It sets the following exercise:
Visit your local grocery store, try to find the following: knackwurst (or knockwurst), bratwurst (or brats), wiener (often misspelled weiner!), wiener schnitzel, frankfurter (or franks), hamburger, liverwurst, braunschweiger, Thüringer sausage, sauerkraut, German potato salad, kuchen, streusel cake (or topping), apple strudel, torte, Kaiser rolls, pumpernickel bread, pretzel, marzipan, noodle, zwieback. Look for Entenmann pastries and baked goods and check out the names on their selections. Wunderbar cheese, Muenster cheese, Limburger. Ask your grandparents about Liederkranz cheese; unfortunately it is no longer available.
According to this university level course, the major contribution of German-Americans to mainstream culture in the US is edible. The Kaiser Roll is at its heart. But this is a Kaiser Roll for a new age, made industrially and assimilated into the fast food nation’s one size fits all, quick as you like with extra fries culture. As they say: Compliments Any Burger You Put On, and in case the effort of cutting is too much it comes pre-cut: with Centre Hinge Slice. And you can even get fakes. Here’s some I found which advertises itself with the following copy: ‘We have ‘bakery fresh’ life sized bread and baked goods that are completely fake! Fun fake food that's great for display! Made of plastic, resin coated foam, paper & other materials. These baked goods are molded and hand-painted. Handmade items may vary in size and weight.’ Now the rolls are made industrially in machines that can produce 9000 an hour, yet still the names of the US companies that specialise in this bread are Germanic, the immigrants who made good and made it big: Vosen, Wenner, Gutenplann, Bethel , Franz and Loeb
Is our stumbler man one of these immigrants, someone who comes from elsewhere, an alien, but this is one of the ones who failed? Failed that is to become the liver of the American dream. He longs for the Kaiser Roll - he is on its trail, but it seems to elude him - is this the familiar outlining of nostalgia, the bewailing of the loss of home and its accoutrements, the melancholic lament over the idealised and lost past. "The Kaiser hratche Rolls since time began"…. echoes the immigrant’s fantasy of the ancient homeland and its customs.
The stumbling man’s grasp of the American language is shaky. He uses a linguistically logical but grammatically incorrect phrase, in pursuit of Kaiser Rolls, ‘surprise to me they ain’t catched him yet’. The ends of lines are swallowed up in the song - ‘a dollar for some cigarette’, ‘might raise some san’. These are words that refuse to be rounded off and communicative according to the logic of written language. On the other hand, they are expressive and owe much more to the actual language spoken by people, with all its indeterminacy, incoherence and grammatical anarchy. You will notice the untranscribrable mouth noise rendered here in the traditional Zapparian manner as hratche-plche - signalling a further breakdown in communication and a return to the pure language of the body, such as is possessed by babies and the very old, and now voiced by this inscrutable tramp, who stumbles and stutters. It might also be a cleaned up substitute for the word fucking - again a one size fits all word indicating the impossibility of finding a word that expresses anything specific. The stumbling of the stumbler man might be both physical and also something akin to a stumbling over words, a stammer. Certainly the song’s lyrics testify to this, as we get repetitions and indistinct phrases. Words slide around - rolls could be a noun or a verb. On the second version of Kaiser Rolls on FZ:OZ the phrase ‘How far the Kaiser Rolls’ even seems to be replaced by the words ‘How far the skies are rolled’. This conjures up a Biblical image of the celestial skies unfurled like a carpet above the heads of mere mortals. Does our stumbler man have some sort of contact with the heavens, and so far from being a friend of Mephistopheles, perhaps he is a divine manifestation, yet in the shape of ugliness. Whether his calling is from above or below the stumbler man is certainly part of myth. "The Kaiser hratche Rolls since time began" he says. The stumbler man recognises an endlessness of time, but he also hopes for some sort of conclusion. "All I wanna know, How far the hratche-plche Kaiser Rolls". ‘This is a story’ says the opening line, that is to say, this is myth. Walter Benjamin has drawn connections between the tramp and myth. The mythical figure of the tramp is perhaps underlined by his curious relationship to exchange, which is the fundament of bourgeois rationality. The stumbling man cannot speak for himself - he has not reached Kant’s condition of exit from ‘Unmündigkeit’, until the closing line when Terry Bozio’s voice as stumbler bursts in guttural and phlegmy - ‘How about a dollar for some cigarette’, the point of the song is expressed. Here is the tramp who refuses exchange, except for by proxy. He will not enter into wage labour, rewarded by measly wages for paltry pleasures. He will take the dollar from another, and exchange it for cigarettes, bypassing the rigours, exploitation and alienation of work.
There is some discussion on the web of the fact that Kaiser Rolls might refer to a type of car called a Henry J, manufactured by Kaiser, for Zappa’s father bought one. It was named after one of the most prominent industrialists of the time and was a car for the masses. The Kaiser rolls, that is to say, the car moves, though in this line there is an echo of the car that is antithesis to the Henry J., the Rolls Royce.
From these researches, I might conclude that ‘Kaiser Rolls’ refers to both hamburger rolls and a car - of course these are the two emblematic symbols of the postwar American economy and two that depended on each other, for as we know the hamburger was invented as a food that could be ate with one hand - that is while driving. The phrase goes to the heart of America’s mythology of itself - we are the land of cars and hamburgers and everyone will not only know that but also become in our image. And yet the song ironically challenges this myth: with its suspicion of transparent communicability, transfer and exchange, its puke - vomiting up of great American foodstuffs, and its stumbling man - that is, precisely a man who goes by foot. We witness the American nightmare, who opens a space for something other than the dream. It is an age-old principle, or at least one that has existed sand will exist as long as capitalism does.
But there is another echo - and is this song not about echoes, insinuations, mishearings, imprecisions. Roll and roll, as the song puts it in its closing lines, cannot but make us think of that other epithet Rock and Roll. A moment of self-reflexivity flashes. What is roll without rock? Is this a comment on the aerated sweetened pop that moves without swinging, as puffy and unsatisfying as a fluffy Kaiser roll, which has been de-ethnicized and assimilated into the US industrial bakery system?
Edgar Allan Poe in his discussion of the bad taste in interior décor in the US in his tract ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’, from 1840, notes the ignorance of people discoursing on carpets with the air ‘d’un mouton qui reve’, a sheep that dreams - presumably Poe had a low opinion of the fantasy life of sheep - desire for grass and the fear of the dog its general parameters. He quips that these are fellows who could not and should not be entrusted with the management of their own moustaches.
I am reminded of this line when I survey the current state of much Zappological research. ‘Kaiser Rolls’ is a case in point. One can find transcriptions of the lyrics. One can even find the revelation that Kaiser rolls is a bread roll and a car on one website, but upon finding out this riveting information, the research stops abruptly. It has to be led back to Zappa - did Zappa speak of such a car, did he ride in one, did he eat Kaiser rolls? There is no sense in which the lyrics are understood as a social phenomenon, as a social unconscious, as well as the product of immersion in a social world of signs and customs. There is a dull empiricism at work in such analyses, which denies both fantasy - the subjective response to the work - and resonance, the objective social meanings that exist independently of Zappa’s mastery. I hope that I have opened up ‘Kaiser Rolls’ to an imaginative and yet socially responsible practice in this short exposition.
Have we found the kernel of the poodle? No, I am sure. But it is the investigation and speculation itself that is the point, the truth of the thing, the true form of the oeuvre. The stumbler man in the highways and by-ways, rooting through garbage cans, shows us the always convoluted way. Let Zappa tend his own moustache and the empiricist Zappologists learn to cultivate theirs - we will proceed as speculative hairdressers of the imagination and critical clippers of the objective world!
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