Sunday, May 17, 2009

Zappa in New York

Frank Zappa was well-known for inserting enigmatic references to all types of “relevant” musical and lyrical material into his music. These arcane references could be lyrics that either recall previously released material, or even foreshadow material that was yet to be produced. It can be references to other works by other composers; references to current events; historical figures; places and people from his personal past.

The 1978 live recording “Zappa in New York” is a good example of how Zappa wove outside influences into his music, as well as a prime example of how easy it can be to over-read inferences into his material. Case in point: the first track on the release, “Titties & Beer.”

The discussion on this song at the Web site Arf alludes to a connection between “Titties & Beer” and “L'histoire du Soldat,” an old Russian folk tale that Igor Stravinsky had set to music. While the connection is plausible, perhaps it is more likely that Zappa just took the libretto from “L'histoire du Soldat” and altered it in his own twisted way. The song is among his better comedic material, showing much more imagination musically than much of the previous comedic material he composed with Flo & Eddie (see “Fillmore East: June 1971” and “Just Another Band From L.A.”) While the Flo & Eddie material became quite tiresome at times, “Titties & Beer” has an engaging, albeit old-as-the-hills, story line that is carried by truly astounding music.

When I bought the LP the year it was released, the next track was “I Promise Not To Come in Your Mouth.” However, the CD version of this release gives us a much broader experience of the concerts it was taken from, a series of shows between Christmas and New Year’s in 1976 at the Palladium in New York City. On the CD, the second track is an instrumental version of “Cruising for Burgers,” which first appeared on “Uncle Meat.”

The LP release I purchased in 1978 didn’t have “Punky’s Whips,” but this is a great addition to the CD release. First you’ve got Don Pardo introducing the song. Pardo was gigging with “Saturday Night Live,” and Zappa had guest-hosted the show in 1976, as well as appeared as its musical guest. It was a brilliant show because he played “The Slime,” a superb coup to the inanity of broadcast television. Zappa re-wrote a portion of the song for Pardo to be performed on the show, and apparently a musical relationship was struck, leading to Pardo joining Zappa at the Palladium.

Let’s recall the era. In 1976, the sexual revolution in America was reaching its, err, climax, as was the gay movement. Sexual freedom was so prevalent – as was the androgyny of the time exemplified by such musical artists as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Brian Eno – that it was not uncommon for straight guys to take a walk on the wild side from time to time. So the story line in “Punky’s Whips” is quite plausible: a self-professed straight man develops a sexual obsession for glam rock star famous for his pouty lips. Not that Terry Bozzio (Zappa’s drummer at the time and the target of the song) himself had a true yen for a sexual liaison with Punky Meadows of the glam band Angel; rather, Frank was using as his story-telling vehicle that element of bisexuality that briefly showed its face before the advent of AIDS. After all, Bozzio sings quite plainly that “I ain’t really queer.” Zappa’s intent for the song was strictly to zing Meadows for his outrageous pout.

The Washington City Paper in 2002 reported that most of Angel’s members didn’t like Zappa’s song so much, temporarily blocking its release on the original vinyl version that was pressed. But Punky Meadows told the reporter that he was flattered by the song. “I thought it was cool. Frank is very satirical, so you can’t have a thin skin. I found it kind of flattering.”

Good for you Punky.

Next comes “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?”, but let’s move on to the last song on the first CD; “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Reality makes its way into the Zappa catalog, as Don Pardo sets the story line. I like how this is set to a traditional blues style, as this makes the song. And I also really like the lyric, “The Illinois enema bandit/I heard he’s on the loose!” While the rest of the song is explicit in its content, the double entendre in this lyric is beautiful. Zappa, also, takes the traditional blues style to exciting new extremes with his guitar solo, coupled with seamless time changes managed expertly by Bozzio’s drumming.

The true Illinois enema bandit was a man named Michael Kenyon, who, for approximately 10 years, had committed a series of robberies during which he also gave his female victims enemas. According to Neil Slaven’s book, “Electric Don Quixote,” Zappa reveals that he first heard about the enema bandit from a radio news report while travelling after a gig that was in Normal, Ill.

The end of the song is filled with several “project/object” references, such as when Ray White sings that he “ain’t talkin’ bout Fontana,” an allusion to Potato-headed Bobby, a character who first appeared on the album “One Size Fits All” in the song “San Ber’dino.” And just before the finish, Zappa brings in a reference from the “Freak Out!” album with a bit from the “It Can’t Happen Here” section of the song “Help, I’m A Rock.”

By the time I heard the album “Apostrophe(‘)” I was recognizing how Zappa continually referenced other material from his catalog. While I knew the references were intentional, I didn’t know the reason behind them. Consider what he says in his autobiography:

“Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’”

There are many other good songs on this recording. When first released on vinyl, this was the recording that debuted “Big Leg Emma,” a song originally recorded to appear on “Absolutely Free,” and which appeared later in the CD release of that album. Personally, I’m glad it was not released with “Absolutely Free.” The song works well on the New York album, but is really out of place on the former.

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: March 1978, Warner/Discreet Records.

Original vinyl release:

Side One
Titties & Beer (5:31)
I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth (3:31)
Big Leg Emma (2:09)

Side Two
Sofa (3:15)
Manx Needs Women (1:39)
The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1 (4:06)
Black Page #2 (5:25)

Side Three
Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me? (4:18)
The Illinois Enema Bandit (12:09)

Side Four
The Purple Lagoon (16:20)

CD release:

Disc One
Titties & Beer (7:36)
Cruisin' For Burgers (9:12) - bonus track
I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth (3:32)
Punky's Whips (10:50)
Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me? (4:12)
The Illinois Enema Bandit (12:42)

Disc Two
I'm The Slime (4:24) - bonus track
Pound For A Brown (3:41) - bonus track
Manx Needs Women (1:50)
The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1 (3:50)
Big Leg Emma (2:17)
Sofa (2:56)
Black Page #2 (5:36)
The Torture Never Stops (12:35) - bonus track
The Purple Lagoon/Approximate (16:41)


Frank Zappa (conductor, lead guitar, vocals)
John Bergamo (percussion overdubs)
Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals)
Mike Brecker (tenor sax, flute)
Randy Brecker (trumpet)
Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax, clarinet)
Eddie Jobson (keyboards, violin, vocals)
Tom Malone (trombone, trumpet, piccolo)
Ed Mann (percussion overdubs)
Lou Marini (alto sax, flute)
Lou Anne Neill (osmotic harp overdubs)
Patrick O'Hearn (bass, vocals)
Don Pardo (sophisticaded narration)
David Samuels (timpani, vibes)
Ruth Underwood (percussion, synthesizer)
Ray White (rhythm guitar, vocals)


QueuePublic said...

There are lots of us out in the world who love FZ. As I've gotten older (in my 50s) it's become increasingly difficult to hang-onto a big group of 1) music-obsessive friends and 2) the subset of those who appreciate FZ.

And so I thought it'd be a kind gesture to let you know you're not alone.

QueuePublic said...

There are lots of us out in the world who love FZ. As I've gotten older (in my 50s) it's become increasingly difficult to hang-onto a big group of 1) music-obsessive friends and 2) the subset of those who appreciate FZ.

And so I thought it'd be a kind gesture to let you know you're not alone. Dweezil's doing a great job, too... gotta go see him. Not to mention my catching-up with FZ's orchestral work from Yellow Shark to LSO. OK, bye.

QueuePublic said...

It's been more than a year since you posted this and many more since Zappa in New York hit the racks, or virtual racks. I'm listening to it for the first time. And I remember how I bought an Angel album, liking the guitar noise... but was repulsed as a teen homophobe, scratching my head over all that hair and pout. All of which is to say thanks for a good blog post. I've subscribed to this blog o' yours, though I'm not sure how or when I'll keep-up. I'm just glad to find you as I wend my way through a pretty deep and obsessive FZ (and next, ZPZ) re-introduction.(Yellow Shark is mind-blowing btw.)

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. I hope to get back into the swing of posting after my lengthy hiatus because my laptop died.

Yellow Shark is an excellent release and certainly will be reviewed eventually, but I am attempting to catch up on some of the concert boots I have.

Thanks for stopping by!

Chechoid said...

Hello, Zappa has such an amazing universe and is a fantastic thing to discover it, and finding song after song a story that shows how crazy and genious he was.
A hug to all from Buenos Aires. Great post!

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for your comment and for stopping by Chechoid!

anthony_74 said...

Awesome blog!

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks Anthony!