Saturday, July 11, 2009

You Are What You Is

Many Zappa albums are built around a musical theme or concept and carry this structure through from start to finish successfully. Among the better examples of this is probably the avant-garde and jazz fusion album series that included “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” “Hot Rats,” “Waka/Jawaka“ and “The Grand Wazoo.” “Rueben and the Jets“ is another example that was an homage to a particular musical style. The best was probably “Jazz From Hell.” Of course, there are others.

And then there were the concept albums built around content themes. The first three releases of “Freak Out!“, “Absolutely Free,” and “We’re Only In It For The Money“ are probably the most successful examples. Not until “200 Motels“ does Zappa deliver this type of album again, and then the lapse before another true concept album is produced is eight years when “Joe’s Garage“ is released.

Zappa comes close to another full concept album built around a singular content theme with “You Are What You Is,” but it’s probably more effective to think of this double album as one with two, somewhat related themes. There is the overt theme of race, anchored by the title song. But interwoven throughout this is the secondary theme dealing with religion, a favorite target of Zappa’s for lampooning, particularly televangelism. Because often at the center of our racial and ethnic identities is a religious style that enables this identity to exist. And yet, Zappa broadens this concept to include other cultural hegemonies around which we build our identities, whether it be the drug culture or the empty commercialism that is constantly telling us we must have things that we don’t need.

Stick with me on this please; I am going out on a limb here by positing that with “You Are What You Is,” Zappa is putting right in front of our face the notion that we have no real identity because everything we use to create what we think is the “me” in all of us is an ever-changing concept that is outside of us, rather than inside. This delusion propels us to continue to chase this ephemeral self, but instead of finding fulfillment, we continue to feel empty and unhappy. While this may sound all very depressing and a particularly melancholy theme for Zappa to build an album around, the entire notion was laughable to him. We get what we deserve in Zappa’s perspective, because most of us are too stupid to recognize that we create our own misery. Hence, you are what you is.

How does this alienation from self start? The explanation begins with the first track, “Teen-Age Wind.” The notion that our education system pushes us into the vapid emptiness we are constantly trying to escape is a theme that goes all the way back to “Freak Out!” The pip-squeaky character in “Teen-Age Wind” sings about parents who don’t love their children, teachers that deliver unimaginative curriculums (a common theme with the early Mothers albums), which gives rise to the desire to escape it all: “Nothing left to do but get out the ‘ol glue.” It also feeds the false notion of what freedom really is: “Freedom is when you don’t have to pay for nothing/or do nothing!/We want to be free!”

Our delusion carries into adult life where many follow the path of meaningless love affairs, as portrayed in “Harder Than Your Husband.” It’s not that Zappa was a puritan by any means: rather, the woman that Jimmy Carl Black’s character is saying goodbye to in this song is an unhappy married woman who thinks she’s going to find happiness by sleeping with this peripatetic cowboy. Expertly delivered, by the way, in a country style (With this song, we also get a bit of project/object in that Zappa has an Indian singing the character of a white cowboy, as he did in “200 Motels” with “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”).

The tables are turned in the next song, “Doreen.” This time it is the man dependant on Doreen to come make him feel good. The theme remains, however: someone seeking fulfillment through another. This song has a great ending and is among my favorite tracks on the album.

“Goblin Girl” is probably the weakest song on the album in terms of sticking within the overall theme. It’s a song that doesn’t appear often in live shows, as it would be pretty difficult to perform live given all the studio effects that were used in its production. “Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear” is an instrumental that was often played live and also shows up on “Them Or Us,” “Guitar,” and “Make a Jazz Noise Here.”

People often create their own sense of self-importance, not just for their own benefit, but for the promotion of that pretension among others. However, anyone who does that must eventually face how fragile the fa├žade is when some event or person comes along to screw things up. That’s the scenario we get with the next series of songs on the album.

With “Society Pages,” we get a clever little song about the self-important matriarch of a small town that Franks sings, “didn’t appeal to me.” The old lady in the song owns the newspaper and is involved in a variety of civic projects, but her motivation for such philanthropy is self-promotion, as evidenced by her always being on the society pages of the paper she owns.

But she brings forth a son who believes that he is “a beautiful guy.” With the song, “I’m a Beautiful Guy,” we have a self-centered egoist who charms all the vacuous ladies, who also are so infatuated with maintaining their beauty and presentation that they will go to any lengths to preserve it, even painful ones. Hence, along comes the song, “Beauty Knows No Pain.” This delicious little ditty succinctly clarifies that the pursuit of beauty (“Beauty is a pair of shoes that makes you wanna die”) is, of course, “a lie.”

The next musical vignette on the album centers around the demise of a girl named Charlie. With “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth,” we learn of a girl with an enormous mouth about which, “we can only assume how she’s been usin’ it.” Charlie also has a very large nose, and we get a bit more information about how she’s been using it: snorting cocaine. Her demise is foreshadowed by the line, “Kind of young/Kind of dead.” We get a glimpse into her disgusting brain, as well as meet her stupid friends who were either too indifferent or too ignorant to see that Charlie was headed for a train wreck. And when she does die, her stupid friends at the funeral can only inquire whether anyone has “Any Downers?” We’re all “Coneheads,” Zappa implies in the next song. Everyone else is strange or odd or screwing up their lives, but not us!

The title track comes on side three of the LP release, an up tempo number that has some outstanding vocals from Ray White. It tells the hapless tales of a white man trying to be black, and of a black man trying to be white. Zappa’s sage advice is simply, “Do you know what you are?/You are what you is/You is what you am/A cow don’t make ham.” Yet we continue to wear whatever costume is demanded by the tribe we want to identify with, and then drag ourselves to places like the “Mudd Club” to find whatever we’re looking for: sex, recognition, a sense of belonging, whatever.

There are those among us, however, who believe they are above all that hedonism; they are following a higher calling. But those who seek solace in religion are just following a different delusion, as Zappa opines that “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.” As an alternative to blindly following an austere doctrine promising you something that it cannot deliver, Zappa offers something simpler: “Do what you wanna, do what you will/Just don’t mess up your neighbor’s thrill/’N when you pay the bill, kindly leave a little tip/And help the next poor sucker on his one-way trip.”

Sage advice, but there’s always someone who thinks they know better and want to dictate to you how to live your life. To Frank, they’re just “Dumb All Over.” And not to mention, “a little ugly on the side.”

This song, which is really a spoken-word piece set to a driving beat that adds to both the seriousness of Zappa’s thesis and the pseudo-seriousness of the doctrines he criticizes. Right down the line, Zappa spells out how monotheistic religion has been a root cause of all our troubles throughout all of history. It isn’t a faith in god that screws things up; it’s doctrine, as doctrine is simply a different form of politic.

Among Zappa’s favorite targets are televangelists, whom he goes after in the next song, “Heavenly Bank Account.” After being exposed to all this charade, this chicanery, Zappa recognizes that some folks might feel a bit helpless and depressed. So with his typically terse delivery, he suggests the option of bailing out, which would make one a “Suicide Chump.” All of this is really quite harsh, and might be over the top for some listeners. But Zappa’s message is clear: if your life is a mess, you made it that way, and suicide is just a chicken shit way of avoiding personal responsibility. If you screwed up your life, you can unscrew it. Suicide is so chicken shit, in fact, that Zappa suggests that anyone going through the theatrics often associated with suicide just might “want a little attention.”

Our sorry suicide chump is saved by a girl “with a head like a buffalo,” leading to the next song, “Jumbo Go Away,” the tale of a girl who has an insatiable appetite for giving head. The vignette moves into “If Only She Woulda,” which begins to stretch the thematic glue of the album. Our suicide chump gets saved by Jumbo only to be drafted. The last song, “Drafted Again,” was written at a time when reinstating the draft was under consideration during the Reagan administration, a notion that resulted with a requirement that all men of draftable age register, and that subsequently, anyone who turns 18 must register. It’s a situation that continues today.

Granted, the thematic notion I present at the outset for “You Are What You Is” requires a few interim songs to sort of string some of the concepts together. And one has to wonder if Zappa had intentionally set out to construct such an album, or was it serendipity that he had the base material available and all he had to do was write material to bring it all together.

Don’t be too harsh with me in your own personal assessment. But I am inclined to think it was serendipity. Had Zappa intended to write such a concept album, I think it would have been constructed differently with compositions that blended seamlessly, rather than finding filler material to bring the sort of ad hoc material together.

And yet, if you read the liner notes from the album, you have to wonder.

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

Released: Sept. 23, 1981, Barking Pumpkin Records.

Track listing (from original double LP):

Side one
“Teen-Age Wind” – 3:02
“Harder Than Your Husband” – 2:28
“Doreen” – 4:44
“Goblin Girl” – 4:07
“Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear” – 3:34

Side two
“Society Pages” – 2:27
“I'm a Beautiful Guy” – 1:56
“Beauty Knows No Pain” – 3:02
“Charlie's Enormous Mouth” – 3:36
“Any Downers?” – 2:08
“Conehead” – 4:24

Side three
“You Are What You Is” – 4:23
“Mudd Club” – 3:11
“The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” – 3:10
“Dumb All Over” – 5:45

Side four
“Heavenly Bank Account” – 3:44
“Suicide Chump” – 2:49
“Jumbo Go Away” – 3:43
“If Only She Woulda” – 3:48
“Drafted Again” – 3:07


Tommy Mars – Keyboards, Vocals
David Ocker – Clarinet (Bass), Clarinet
Mark Pinske – Vocals, Engineer
Motorhead Sherwood – Sax (Tenor), Vocals
Allen Sides – Engineer
Craig "Twister" Stewart – Harmonica
Denny Walley – Vocals, Slide Guitar
Ray White – Guitar (Rhythm), Vocals
Ahmet Zappa – Vocals
Moon Unit Zappa – Vocals
Jo Hansch – Mastering
Dennis Sager – Digital Engineer
Santi Rubio – ?
Amy Bernstein – Artwork
John Livzey – Photography, Cover Photo
Thomas Nordegg – Engineer
John Vince – Artwork, Graphic Design
Ed Mann – Percussion
Jimmy Carl Black – Vocals
Ike Willis – Guitar (Rhythm), Vocals
Bob Stone – Remixing, Digital Remastering
Arthur Barrow – Bass
George Douglas – Assistant Engineer
Frank Zappa – Arranger, Composer, Vocals, Producer, Main Performer, Guitar
Bob Harris – Boy Soprano, Trumpet
David Logeman – Drums
Steve Vai – Guitars, listed as "Strat Abuse" on album cover

1 comment:

Adrian said...

Thanks for the thoroughly thought provoking review. It almost intimidated me and prevented me from posting my own scruffy little mundane thought which is that "Fine Girl" and "For The Young Sophisticate" should have been included on this album one after the other, after "Goblin Girl", in the slot vacated by "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear" which should have been on a 'Tinsel Town Rebellion' that kicked off with "Easy Meat" (where it could have nestled nicely between "Tinsel Town Rebellion" and "Pick Me, I'm Clean" and, in all it's non-repeating intricacy, provided a nice juxtoposition with the stuff about the three chord bands of Tinsel Town).

I've always considered both "Now You See It - Now You Don't" and the solo from "Pick Me, I'm Clean" to be quintessential, top-of-his-game Zappa guitarness. Perhaps a little overlooked or perhaps cast into the shadows somewhat by the humungous guitar albums?