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This combined book/CDs review was originally written for Signal To Noise, but they didn't print it because it was "too eccentric". Come to think of it, it was rather. However nothing is "too eccentric" for MilitantEsthetix ... so here it is:
Necessity Is ... The Early Years Of Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention
by Billy James (SAF Publishing: www.safpublishing.com)
Billy James Ant-Bee with My Favorite "Vegetables" & Other Bizarre Muzik (Divine Records)
Nigey Lennon Reinventing The Wheel (Dinghy Records)
Born in 1960, Billy James graduated from Berklee College in 1982, and was playing drums on Steve Vai's Flex-Able the very next year. In 1994, he released Ant-Bee with My Favorite "Vegetables" & Other Bizarre Muzik (Divine Records), with appearances by Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner and Don Preston, all members of the Mothers of Invention (1966-1970). Two previous books by James, both published by SAF, have Zappa connections: Lunar Notes told the story of working for Captain Beefheart written with guitarist Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), while An American Band was about Grand Funk Railroad, the teen proto-metal band Zappa produced in 1976 (Good Singin', Good Playin', EMI), an involvement which seriously offended arbiters of taste in the contemporary rock press.
Affection for the original Mothers can turn into criticism of Zappa for breaking up the band in 1970. Billy James wisely keeps that impulse in check. Wisely, because whatever resentments the Mothers may feel about being unceremoniously dumped in 1970, they have not since been able to make any music which approaches the density and power of what they achieved with Zappa at the helm. Even people who buy records by the Grandmothers - the name adopted by a reconvened, Zappa-less Mothers of Invention in 1981 - admit these releases are footnotes to Zappa's oeuvre rather than masterpieces in their own right.
James lets the Mothers talk freely. Some of their remarks strike home. Don Preston says that after disbanding the Mothers, Zappa got the sight-readers he wanted, but they had "absolutely no personality". Ray Collins says the problem was that the Mothers' successors tried too hard to be zany, thinking it was a matter of adding some "bit of clothing that's cuckoo". Ouch! However, James doesn't let the failings of later sidemen (or the lawsuits) tarnish Zappa's reputation as a composer of genius. Although many of the opinions and anecdotes here will be familiar to readers who have kept up with the literature (T'Mershi Duween, The Arf-Dossier, Le Pingouin Ligoté), there's enough fresh material to keep any fan happy: all the real-life stories about Herbie Cohen, the GTO's, Jeff Simmons, Flo & Eddie and Don Van Vliet you've been curious about since experiencing Zappa's "road documentaries".
But can all this gossip help define what is special about Zappa's "art in an environment hostile to dreamers"? A listen to the Ant-Bee CD shows how James's idolization of the Mothers misses something. Nostalgia blunts his critical edge. Zappa was indubitably the most self-conscious and critical intelligence in rock. The relationship between his first band and his later groups - and his eventual emergence as a solo star - was a microcosm of the relationship between the revolutionary aspirations of the 60s and corporate exploitation of the new "freedoms" they ushered in. Don Preston points to the example of the Grateful Dead and wonders how "huge" the Mothers of Invention could have got if they'd stuck together. However, Zappa was allergic to the idea of providing a wholesome "alternative" to capitalist alienation, to sustaining a bubble from the 60s: he wanted to inject his satire - his counter-virus - into the veins of the living monster. The awkwardness and gaucheness of his young employees in the 80s (not so much "no personality" as personal ineptness writ large) were part of his critique of his adolescent audience, something that makes records like You Are What You Is and Thing-Fish pullulate with satirical energies. Keeping afloat a raft of greybeard worthies just wouldn't have cut it - to get a grip on the 80s, you had to see Bobby Martin flex his biceps and sing "He's So Gay".
Zappa's whole oeuvre was a reflection on the social limits of freedom. An uncowed, (un-"post") modernist, he believed you're only free if you're playing music never hitherto conceived, delving into rhythmic extrapolations which make history (again, not exactly Grateful Dead territory). Instead of bandmembers whom he could treat as peers, Zappa increasingly hired sidemen equipped to carry out meticulous orders ("better musicians"). However, unlike the simulacrum of 60s liberation favoured in corporate rock (Guns 'N Roses, Nirvana, Oasis), Zappa did not present a lie. Instead, he dramatised the hysterical power-relations involved in composition and interpretation at the limits of virtuosity. This meant that Zappa's music became a devastating musical criticism of identity-soundtracks like Fusion, Metal and Grunge: something musically authentic in the midst of an exploitative charade. Nostalgia for Zappa's early work - playing off adult corruption versus the innocence of childhood - fails to pinpoint the special nature of his critical art. This explains the vitriol of "We're Turning Again" on Mothers Of Prevention: 60s nostalgia is an emotional plague.
One of the challenges of playing blues and jazz and rock is "finding your voice", learning to be yourself as a musician. When reading this book you occasionally feel that, in awe of the wild times of a previous era, Billy James holds himself back, prefering to sit around talking about the good old days when Uncle Frank was "one of us" than engage with musical and political realities. References to vegetables and snorks become less "bizarre" than boringly predictable. I should have liked to hear more about his writings on rhythmic theory (work James says was appreciated by Zappa), and more evidence of his Berklee training - it's almost as if he suppresses the analytical side of himself, ashamed it's not "bizarre" enough to take on the Mothers.
A recent release - Reinventing The Wheel (Dinghy Records) by Nigey Lennon - also illustrates the pitfalls of Mothers-era nostalgia (Lennon was the author of a touching memoir about an affair with Zappa in the late 60s, a book called Being Frank, California Classics, 1995). Zappaesque assault on sexual hypocrisy and peer-group conformism needs to be backed by cutting-edge musical invention, or one feels the satirist hasn't earned the right to point the finger. Lennon's overblown psychedelic rock and cool jazz chord-changes are simply not abstract and severe enough to sustain her social critique (though Lennon plays a deft card by using Frank's kid sister Candy, blessed with a wonderfully raunchy R&B voice, on three hilarious numbers). Use of Zappa-style motifs can feel confining rather than liberating. Stu Calton (singer, programmer and guitarist with the hi-tech critico-pop outfit Pence Eleven) made a similar point when he said that Evil Dick (another satirist of today's musical cretinism) shouldn't name a track "Return Of The Son Of Suzy Creamcheese". Learn from Zappa, sure, but don't set up some cosy "zappalternative" replete with in-jokes and derivative tunes: the very opposite of Zappa's intent to drop you into a Varèsian confrontation with sonic shock as a corollary of your own nature.
Like Pence Eleven, JFK's LSD UFO (the auteur project by André Cholmondeley, guitarist in Project/Object, the best-regarded Zappa covers-band in the States) have the musical technique and political indignation required to drag Zappa-appreciation out of 60s nostalgia and into action. Maybe it's simply that marijuana usage and Zappa's metric futurism are incompatible (although I know such an observation is unlikely to be popular among Les Fils, or chez Eugene Chadbourne!).
However, it's not to be denied that the original Mothers have a - albeit slightly odiferous - charm. Abandoning the drums, Jimmy Carl Black has become a fine, deepvoiced blues vocalist, turning a sequence of songs (Captain Beefheart's "Plastic Factory" and "Dropout Boogie", Howlin' Wolf's "Evil", Black's own "prowess" song set to a Bo Diddley beat, and "Great White Buffalo" from the days of his band Geronimo Black) into a memorable section of the Muffin Men's set. Bunk Gardner's saxophone keeps alive an epoch of R&B honking that is in danger of being forgotten (though James Carter is doing his best). Don Preston's involvements with Meredith Monk, Carla Bley and Michael Mantler supply a fascinating angle.* The original Mothers say things that are wise, pithy and humorous, and it's good to be in their company for the length of this book.
[Thanks Remi Raemackers, whose stirring 71-page essay "Absolutely Free" inspired the formulations here about the critical function of Zappa's work in the 1980s - how about replying to my letter, Remi?]
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