WATERMELON IN EASTER HAY: THE FUNCTION OF THE REVERB UNIT & THE POVERTY OF THE INDIVIDUAL SPIRIT.
T.H.F. Drenching (aka Stu Calton)
paper addressed to ICE-Z (International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology) 16 January 2004 at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road, Camden Town, London
Although "Watermelon In Easter Hay" is part of a narrative, and fulfils a program-music function within "Joe’s Garage", I want to leave that largely to one side because it impedes us approaching the music concretely. That is, it diverts our attention from the actual effect of the music on the listener into vulgar Zappalogy; where the specifics of music are too easily abandoned in favour of mere concepts.
Zappa’s attempts to interrupt the smooth flow of musical illusion, his verfremdungtechnik, has been dealt with at length elsewhere. What have been less discussed are the relatively rare moments when he enlists the forces of illusion, when he mobilises emotional rapture.
The embattled emotional core of "Watermelon In Easter Hay" has done much to enshrine it as the revelation of "Zappa the Man", pure and unspoiled by the astringent intellect of "Zappa the iconoclast". When the Late Show produced a special on Zappa, near the end of his life, the closing images of Zappa, heavily-drugged, struggling to navigate from a standing to a sitting position due to the advanced stage of his cancer, were overlaid with the opening measures of Watermelon In Easter Hay. Already, to the hypocritical glee of the establishment, the "cynicism" and "crass smut" of Zappa’s oeuvre were suffering a conversion. Heartless iconoclasm was reinterpreted, under the pressure of mortality, as one man’s search for the expressive sublime.
As was to be expected, this trend reached its peak in the aftermath of Zappa’s death. The Zappa Family Trust, along with registering his moustache as a trademark, released a CD called Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa. The release compiled various renditions of Zappa’s "signature songs". These tracks were Zoot Allures, Black Napkins, an unreleased blues and two versions of Watermelon In Easter Hay. Dweezil Zappa stated in the sleeve notes that Watermelon In Easter Hay was "the best solo Zappa ever played", adding that the quality of the tune results from Zappa’s unique "tone and personality". (1)
An earlier report from Ben Watson that Dweezil had claimed these tunes as representative of Zappa’s "soul", proved to be exaggerated, (as is so often the case) but the philosophical implications are the same. (2) In the place of the soul we find the secular bourgeois equivalent: the free-floating, self-contained personality. Like all hard business-people, the Zappa Family Trust are profoundly sentimental: as usual the belief in private initiative runs in natural tandem with an isolated and heartfelt individualism.
In "The Jargon Of Authenticity" Adorno spoke of Hegel’s undialectical inheritors who
"… cleanse inwardness of that element which contains its truth, by eliminating self-reflection, in which the ego becomes transparent as a piece of the world. Instead the ego posits itself as higher than the world and becomes subjected to the world precisely because of this." (3)
Dweezil’s remarks present an identical paradox wherein the greatest piece of music Zappa ever recorded is the piece where he sounds least like himself. Dweezil’s reading of Watermelon In Easter Hay is a classic piece of transcendent idealism. As the great personality is purified and concentrated through the magical prism of self-expression, the extraneous jokes and contradictions are burnt off like slag, leaving just the Man under the stars.
This transcendental schema is engraved into the musical language itself, as the opening guitar note sounds in a medium-high register and then soars like the soul from the body towards unfathomed heights. The opening phrase comes to rest and the concluding note is held in suspension, the mortal fingers straining to maintain the spirit’s vibration. As the note fades the fingers allow the tightened string to relax back into silence. After the second repeat of the phrase, the guitar offers a parenthetical comment, of the kind at which David Gilmour excels, ending with two trembling glissandi. (4) The blissful mumble on the death-bed as the perishable body returns to eternity; this is the unbearable pathos which accompanies the extinction of the unique personality.
But what seems to have escaped his notice, and the notice of many other Zappa experts, is that this "soul-searching", far from concentrating the elements of which Zappa’s music is made, does the reverse, it dissolves them. This is precisely because, stripped of its materialism, it’s "transparency as part of the world", Zappa’s music no longer possesses any power. The music "becomes subjected to the world", that is, it becomes subjected to the conventions of heroic rock guitar-playing.
This is a dynamic peculiar to Watermelon In Easter Hay. Whilst there are other equally emotional guitar outings in appa’s catalogue, none has the stupefying aridity of Watermelon. Consequently, no other tracks have been so effective at drawing the praise of those who desire to neuter Zappa’s consistently embarrassing refusal to play by the rules of bourgeois art.
For the purposes of comparison it is instructive to take Stucco Homes from Return Of The Son Of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Although certainly emotive, spacious and "progressive" in the 70’s sense, Stucco Homes nevertheless manages to maintain a dialectic between the speculative harmonic shifts of the two guitars and Colaiuta’s drums. Colaiuta’s playing is a tough negotiation between the discipline of the bar and the freedom of movement which implies its negation. As such the drum-part alone appears as an almost unsustainable balancing-act. Although superficially a "free-floating" guitar showcase, the actual musical effect is one of tension, as the listener attempts to follow the divergences and correlations between the musicians’ lines of thought.
It is in vain that we search for comparable engagement in Watermelon In Easter Hay. It is precisely stupefaction which it engenders. It is a replica of emotional rapture which attempts to quarantine the intellect, and its characteristic negative role, in favour of dissolving the listener in sentimental solidarity with a perceived individual expressive subject. But since it is nothing more than a replica, the promised dissolution of the listener’s ego realises itself as the opposite: he is confronted by a formalised internality where his identification with this stupid and partial sublime merely confirms his isolation. As Adorno says:
"… inwardness becomes a value and a possession behind which it entrenches itself; and it is surreptitiously overcome by reification." (5)
Speaking on Radio 1, Zappa revealed the "real title" of the song as "Trying to play a guitar solo in this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter Hay". (6) Equally when freedom becomes the private property of the isolated individual, artistic production is like trying to grow authentic expression in a desert of freeze-dried abstractions.
The surrounding music itself forges a fully-furnished replica of eternity, cycling between two arpeggiated chords, the drums booming and dream-like under swathes of reverb and delay; a serviceable illusion of endless space. Vinnie Colaiuta is reduced to Nick Mason by the oppressive pseudo-import of the production. (7) No speculative thought is allowed to disrupt the eternal cycle. It is a schema which tries to do away with time. In so doing it also attempts preclude the possibility of material analysis.
An early prototype of Watermelon in Easter Hay recorded live in 1978 was included on the Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa CD. (8) Shorn of reverb and the isolation of studio conditions the piece sounds, if anything, less immediate. The guitar stands in sharp relief to the rest of the music which rings with emaciated pureness. Zappa seems to be struggling to plot a route through this juiceless setting. The effect is like that of a diner furiously peppering a slice of white bread. Zappa’s blue-notes sound curiously misplaced, the band seem helpless to intervene in the stand-off. The whole experience, ‘though it manages to retain its celebrated poignancy, is utterly different to the experience of the finished album track. Free of the domination of reverb, the fabric of the music comes apart. The cracks in the cardboard sublime are revealed, the façade of expression falls away from eternity and we see, as Zappa said elsewhere, "the brick wall at the back of the theatre". (9)
Faced with this document, it becomes clear to what extent Watermelon owes its powerful narcotic effect to studio production. Zappa always insisted on a professional approach to production and employed a whole barrage of effects to this end, even when, as on You Are What You Is, it results in a stifling flatness. (10) This professionalism draws fire from punks as well as original Mothers fans, but has the merit of eschewing the frequent fetishisation of the "authenticity" attributed to poor audio quality. However, Watermelon is unusual from the point of view of its production. Firstly because it refuses the rupture of Zappa’s musique concrète, or the openly parodic polystyrene-gloss of Sheik Yerbouti but more importantly, because it uses unconventional amounts of reverb for very conventional ends.
The use of reverb in Watermelon corresponds illuminatingly with the history of the reverb unit itself. The company Sound Enhancements include, on their website, a blurb describing its invention:
"When Laurens Hammond introduced the first Hammond Organ in 1935, most people were only familiar with the traditional pipe organs they had heard at churches and theaters. So, when they purchased a Hammond for their homes, they expected the same room-filling sound they had come to know and love. Of course, in their thickly carpeted living rooms with low ceilings and drapery covered windows, they didn’t get it." (11)
The reality of physical sound refused to underwrite the ideological prejudices of the consumer. Searching for a solution to this abomination, Laurens Hammond then approached Bell Laboratories, who had stumbled across spring reverberation whilst developing long-distance telecommunications technology. From 1939 onward consumers were treated to the latest in artificial audio-grandeur.
There is a hint of mocking condescension in the anonymous blurb-writer’s depiction of 30’s American domesticity, which characterises the commercial expert’s contempt for the craven consumer. Beneath the marketing gloss is a little satirical sketch: a picture of the petit bourgeois who revels in the sonic grandeur of the church organ or the opera-house and seeks to purchase his own little slice of the expansive sublime. Once outside of the power-structure of the church or the spectacle of the theatre, in his dingy home, he finds he has been cheated out of his share of universal exultation and must make do with his impoverished replica-transcendence.
In Watermelon reverb is returned to its original function as an artificial means to disguise the domestic as the sublime. An analogous phenomena is included in the title itself: Easter Hay, the American trade-name for the plastic mock-straw in which Easter eggs are packed, is itself another artificial means of replicating a romantic ideal. (12) In this case the rustic homeliness by which the alienated consumer attempts to transport himself back to the craft era.
In a 1999 interview, Steve Vai spoke of the track in hushed tones, employing some terminology which revealed that reverb and bourgeois individualism are close linguistic bedfellows:
"Frank textured that song with guitar tones and endless sustain... On "Watermelon", there's such a beautiful, clean, bell-like tone… That song just invites you in. I don't think people understood the depth of Frank's experimentation with guitar tone… It's one of Frank's signature songs,"
The interviewer continues:
He ranks "Watermelon" alongside "Zoot Allures" and "Black Napkins" as prime examples of Zappa's depth as a guitarist. (13)
The extent to which Vai has internalised the Zappa Family Trust’s party-line is a salutary lesson for anyone who believes that expert musicological knowledge alone is sufficient to understand modern art. The phrase "signature song" which Vai borrows from Dweezil, appropriates the language of the legal contract. It is a telling turn of phrase as the signature compresses the individual’s social power into a squiggle on a cheque, a Texan death warrant, or an autograph-hunter’s pad. Vai’s "endless sustain" plays on the properties of the immortal soul, the unending movement only possible in a gravity-free zone. Most conspicuously of all, "Depth" is the premier compliment in bourgeois art criticism. The humanity which the ruling class so brutally deny to their subjects in the economic and political sphere is permanently quarantined in the aesthetic, where it is revived as a specious, privately-owned sublime insulated from the vulgar herd.
This individualism and its accompanying rapture is not without its more sinister precedents. Dweezil’s sleevenotes again:
"Without words Frank was able to communicate his ideas, emotions and his personality to international audiences"
Wherever there is talk of the heroic, unitary individual, there is its counterpart: the hypnotised and adoring throng. In his book The Mass-Psychology Of Fascism, the Freudian-Marxist Wilhelm Reich spoke of the rise of Hitler and of the "reactionary historians" who believe that:
"A great man makes history only inasmuch as he inflames the masses with "his idea"." (14)
He goes on to unpick the irrationality of Nazi theory, explaining the way in which the energy held in stasis by sexual repression can be mobilized by reaction. He emphasises that the Nazis gained power, not by argument, but by harnessing the irrational desires of the German people.
Likewise, in Watermelon the distinctive musical argument of Zappa’s usual soloing unravels, the listener finds himself, in Vai’s words, "invited in", rather than smashed against Zappa’s usual contradictions. However, once inside, the listener is caught in an hermetically-sealed environment, where communication is replaced by mystification. That even informed listeners frequently appear unable to recognise the difference attests both to the totalitarianism irrationality of commodity culture and the attendant sickness of consciousness under Capitalism.
Zappa once remarked that the "sabotage" which ruins his music for the casual listener is the real information. (15) Amidst the consistent interruption, the splatter and outrage of Zappa’s oeuvre, these rare moments of high-flown conventional beauty are the most pernicious sabotage of all.
(1) Since I don’t own a copy of this album, this information was given to me over the phone by Simon Prentis.
(2) Watson’s claim can be found on pp103 of The Complete Guide To The Music Of Frank Zappa, published by Omnibus Press in 1998. Well below the high standard of academic scholarship we have come to expect from this meticulous author.
(3) Theodor Adorno, The Jargon Of Authenticity, 1964, Routledge, pp59-60
(4) See, for example, Gilmour’s scene-setting doodles which preface the main body of Shine On You Crazy Diamond on "The Floyd’s" Wish You Were Here (1975). The track was inspired by Syd Barratt’s drug-induced isolation and so qualifies as another overwrought guitar show-case which duplicates the alienation it purports to mourn.
(5) Theodor Adorno, The Jargon Of Authenticity, 1964, Routledge, pp59.
(6) Frank Zappa speaking on Radio 1 quoted at www.arf.ru
(7) Witness any number of Mason’s appearances. Notably Atom Heart Mother where his extremely unimaginative fills are out of time, and the video The Delicate Sound Of Thunder, where a sweaty, dynamic percussionist is drafted in to handle the fast stuff, whilst our Nick plods away like Jabba the Hut.
(8) See footnote (1). Likewise, Simon Prentis played me the live version of Watermelon In Easter Hay over the ‘phone. Which, given that the album is £27, was considerably cheaper.
(9) Quoted in Watson, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle-Play, 1994, Quartet Books, pp217.
(10) The flatness of the production on You Are What You Is was pointed out to me by Nathan "Nes.Co." Blunt, who bemoaned the lack of sonic shocks in its evenly-mixed palette. He contrasted it to the exhilarating entry of Captain Beefheart’s harmonica (or musette, I haven’t decided) on Tarotplane from the album Mirror Man.
(11) unattributed blurb-writer, www.accutronicsreverb.com/history.htm
(12) Many thanks to Andrea Brady for this information.
13) Steve Vai quoted at www.cht.qc.ca/cht/zappa4.htm
(14) Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology Of Fascism, first English language edition 1946, pp34.
(15) Quoted in Watson, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle-Play, 1994, Quartet Books, pp387.
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