Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Frank Zappa, Mongolian throat-singing, Sleep Dirt and Peefeeyatko

The music my parents listened to when I was a kid was an odd mix (to me) of good and bad stuff. Popular music in the 70s wasn’t entirely distasteful to them so I wound up hearing a fair amount of whatever was popular on car rides and around the house. I was also exposed to the great originators of rock and roll through a pretty impressive collection of 45s collected by my father and his siblings when they were growing up in the 50s and early 60s. At times, they really showed excellent taste. So long as they weren’t on an “Easy Listening” kick. Remember the radio station that would play instrumental MUZAK’d versions of standards from the 1930s and 1940s - songs only your parents seemed to know the words to and they would SING ALONG with the radio driving you crazy? Yes, you remember that radio station. Well, these torture sessions would unfortunately help to fuel my ideas of what instrumental music was all about at an early age. Outside of movie or TV theme music (most of which was actually really cool – “Rockford Files” anyone?) – my view of “instrumental music” was this evil, insipid, brain-numbing “easy listening” hoo-ha. No words = BORING.

My ears gradually opened up to instrumental music as I became exposed to more exciting and challenging stuff. But one experience really threw me for a loop which I (thankfully) never got over. Some credit must go to Frank Zappa. In the late 70s I hated disco music. Anything making fun of disco was awesome. So when I first heard “Dancin’ Fool” on the radio I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Not just because of the lyric content, but also because I really liked that marimba part (percussion being my “thing”). I eventually wound up with the “Sheik Yerbouti” album and that was my introduction to Zappa. Now, of course there are some instrumental tracks on that record, but I was more interested in the crazy humor (of which there’s a LOT on that record). I thought Zappa was the funniest guy on the planet. So I decided to branch out a little to check out some of his other records.

In those days, the Zappa bin was full of the weirdest looking LPs I ever laid eyes on. The covers were outrageous along with many song titles. Not much Zappa beyond “Dancin’ Fool” was played on the radio so there was no telling what the records sounded like (especially since nobody I knew was into Zappa at the time). Once in a while I might quiz some guy behind the record counter if he had a favorite Zappa album. The dude I talked to at Lloyd’s was helpful. Recommended a few more popular titles like Apostrophe, Roxy and Elsewhere and Zappa in New York. Though I would eventually get those, my next Zappa purchase involved something I didn’t do much at the time – a blind purchase! I chose SLEEP DIRT based entirely on the cover art which led me to believe this would have to be the most outrageous, disgusting, vile, vulgar record I could possibly bring home because, well………look for yourself:

Remember – I was about 12 years old and into shocking, immature, crazed humor. If I could learn a few new swear words it could improve my status with my pals. I got a huge boost in coolness for being the guy who turned all my catholic-school friends onto Cheech and Chong. Now THIS record was going to really do it for me since Zappa was the funniest, coolest dude ever, right? I was about to get my first lesson in applied Zappa-ology!

When I bought SLEEP DIRT I was totally ignorant of the history behind it. Seems that in the late 70s, Zappa was desperate to end his contract with Warner Brothers Records (who distributed his imprint DISCREET) and delivered a bunch of master tapes in somewhat unfinished form to close out his end of the bargain to get a quick exit from the company. SLEEP DIRT was cobbled together from some of those tapes and was, with the exception of a few seconds of studio chatter an entirely INSTRUMENTAL album! Now, this blew my circuits at the time and helped to elicit the burning question:

“If Frank Zappa had such a great sense of humor, how could he possibly put out a whole album without a single “funny” moment on it?”

I felt cheated, but more than that I was just floored over what I saw as a total WASTE of good comedic talent! I was looking for some great new swear words or crazy stories and Zappa just didn’t deliver. Then…..the second idea started to form which went something like this………

“There’s just NO WAY Frank Zappa couldn’t at least try to be funny somehow. If I could get laughs like that guy I’d never be able to resist the urge to go for it as often as possible! Wait a minute……maybe……MAYBE the humor is there after all. Maybe the humor is somehow…………… IN THE MUSIC!”

Desperate logic maybe, but that moment was the beginning of a new outlook. I started playing SLEEP DIRT again and lo and behold! I heard the humor indeed – it was there all along. It just wasn’t conveyed through lyrics and singing. Totally abstract thought process, but it’s the truth and it happened for me just that way. Over the years I would find out the truth about SLEEP DIRT. It wasn’t originally designed as an all-instrumental album (it’s actually one of the very few of these in Zappa’s catalog!).  Zappa also had nothing to do with the cover art! Actually, the music on SLEEP DIRT was originally intended for a different project known as “Lather”, but that’s a whole other story I won’t go into here! When he got around to reissuing the SLEEP DIRT album on CD many years later, he actually added new vocals to some of the tracks (which he claimed was his original intention). I heard samples of this new version and steered clear. I didn’t want my memories tampered with. Not this time. SLEEP DIRT remains a watershed experience for me and it shall forever be in its vinyl form in my heart and mind. Plus, there’s some BURNING playing going on that I don’t want buried underneath some half-baked lyrics. Sorry Frank!

Over the many years I’ve remained a Zappa fan and my enthusiasm for the many facets of his career continues unabated. While most rock fans associate Zappa with rock and roll, his interest in modern composing and music is something that sets him apart from the typical rock crowd. Although he would die at a young age (only 52), he packed so much living and WORK into those years – there were always several side-projects going on at the same time - many of which remain unreleased even though he saw them to completion. In the 1980s he pioneered the use of a sampling / composing device known as the Synclavier. Compositions for this machine made their way onto a Grammy-winning record called "Jazz from Hell”. When he toured in 1988, he brought the darned thing on the road with the band. Amazing.

One of his last projects was a sequel of sorts – an album called “Civilization Phase Three” which was released to great fanfare after this death, yet has managed to sink into near-oblivion. True confession time – I still don’t own a copy of this release. Much of the music was made for the Synclavier. But there were some other segments worked into the proceedings……..the record has since become known as the semi-sequel to the very well-regarded “Lumpy Gravy” album which has the distinction of being the very first Frank Zappa solo record released in 1968 (while the Mothers of Invention were his main concern). “Lumpy Gravy” is a nifty combination of music and Audio-Vérité. “Civilization Phase Three” carries on this tradition.

One of the sessions for that record was captured on video tape and reveals a facet of Zappa’s life few know about – the periodic “salon experiments” which consisted of informal concerts organized by Zappa at his house which were devoted to exploring uncharted musical territory. This territory could include new compositions from Zappa himself or historic “jam sessions” with some very disparate participants involved. For one of these events, the cameras were rolling and some blessed soul decided to leak it onto youtube. Here’s a great intro clip to give you a feel for what the longer clip shows: a jam session between the Celtic group “The Chieftains”, the Tuvula throat-singers from Mongolia, Johnny Guitar Watson (!) and Zappa himself.

Now, here’s a longer clip that shows a lot of what was essentially a recording session for “Civilization Phase Three”. In the longer clip you can see all sorts of characters including original Mother Motorhead Sherwood (who recently passed away as it happens……)! The recording session is more like a party at the Zappa house. The music is cultural-diffusion gone wild! It’s a bit tough to watch the whole clip in one shot, but toward the end there’s a fascinating discussion happening between the Mongolian throat singers and a Russian woman at a piano. They’re talking to each other in Russian and the Chieftains are standing around watching with looks on their faces like they’re DYING to know what the heck the others are talking about and SO AM I! The addition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson to the proceedings is just so cool, man. Look, this is the kind of party I want to go to in the Great Beyond so I’m going to have to try to be a good boy while I’m here on God’s grey golfball because I don’t want to miss this kind of action.

Now if all this wasn’t enough, I also stumbled upon another offbeat, yet totally amazing Zappa-related film created in 1991 that is a pro-shot and finished piece of work by a European film-maker. It’s part documentary and part art-film. And it has an unusual twist related to the rather obscure title of the documentary (which serves as the “secret word” in this case): PEEFEEYATKO. Now, if anyone reading this already knows the significance of this unusual term you won’t be surprised by the appearances of Ray Wallace in the film. For everybody else I won’t spoil the fun – the title / word reveals itself in a dramatic, guffaw-inducing segment about 3/4ths of the way through. Even after all these years, Zappa gets one over on me. Too funny!

Anyway, the real value of this film cannot be overstated: it is a rare peek into the inner sanctum of Zappa’s home studio environment during his love-affair with the Synclavier. Zappa gets to talk about his philosophy as a composer AT LENGTH and the monologues are nothing short of stupefying. Adding flavor to the mix, we also get to see and hear from none other than Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen and John Cage. One of my other favorite moments happens towards the end of the film when Zappa is riding in a limo on the way to a TV studio to do an appearance of some sort. He is asked by the film-maker if he likes to “walk around downtown Hollywood for fun”. Zappa’s response is caustic, funny and frighteningly prescient and relevant to……how shall I put this…..PREMONITIONS CONTINUING TO COME TRUE!

It is also worth noting that the film-maker’s suggestion that Zappa re-record his favorite Anton Webern pieces takes an interesting turn a few years later. The suggestion of such a project elicits a complicated reaction from Zappa that is clearly evident in the film – it’s a weird combination of both excitement and cynicism. You can tell Zappa is really tickled by the idea, but he doesn’t want to get too excited since he knows how unlikely it would be. Although he doesn’t undertake such a project with Webern as the subject, he DOES complete a recording project AND film doing this exact thing with the music of Edgard Varese! It’s not well-known (mainly because it’s still sitting in the Zappa vault), but Frank Zappa’s last project completed before his untimely passing in 1993 was titled “The Rage and The Fury” – a Zappa-directed performance by the Ensemble Modern of the music of Varese. It sure would be great to see and hear this and I hope the Zappa family sees fit to bless us with a release of this important and historic project.

Speaking of Varese, I decided to profile his music in my own way over at the classical-annex of this blog. Check it out here:

As Varese would say: “The present-day composer refuses to die!”