Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Daily Update #6: "I'm Not What I Appear To Be"

(Note: this is not a reflection of my current or recent mental state. I just like having music to go with my writing.)

Someone said to me last week, "It's really cool you can get away with maybe doing your thesis on Zappa," and that kind of pissed me off...granted, I was polite about it, assuming this person had the best of intentions, but still. I don't think I'm "getting away" with anything in doing this. The guy was a clever songwriter and composer, and coverage of his works in writing have been plentiful...just not that good.

There's the token "journalist with some sort of axe to grind" type of biographical sketch, and those are no fun. The worst is Barry Miles' book; he starts off painting a fairly good portrait of the man before getting downright mean in putting down anything Zappa did post-1972. In discussing the 1988 tour, where the entire band wanted Frank to fire bassist Scott Thunes because of his abrasive demeanor during rehearsals, Miles writes that Zappa wouldn't have thought twice about firing Thunes if he'd been doing drugs on the road. Shit like that just comes across as the author trying to get back at Zappa for some reason or another.

And then there's the books written by fans. Some of it is borderline samizdat-type publications, with at least two of my books rather mercilessly copying and pasting (with citations, mind you) from assorted Zappa sites.

THEN there's the academic approaches. Ben Watson's The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play comes really close in offering a great discourse on the material. However, there's also some head-scratching parallels that he suggests, such as "Dinah-Moe Humm" being inspired by one of John Ruskin's letters, or "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" having something to do with King Lear. Sometimes he needlessly overextends his analysis. Watson also falls into one of the great traps with die-hard fans of any artist: no other artist or musical group comes close. For no real reason at all, Watson trashes Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a way of building up how We're Only In It For The Money is a vastly superior record. He fails to acknowledge the latter would not have existed without the former, opting to make a sweeping generalization about the culture that embraced Pepper rather than giving the album itself a fair assessment.

It came out fairly recently, but Kelly Fisher Lowe's The Words And Music Of Frank Zappa comes really close to being the best. It doesn't quite make it. I'm not saying one absolutely HAS to be a musician to successfully write about music, but Lowe's attempts at describing the music he's analyzing gets pretty amateurish. He also has little to say about Zappa's instrumental works, glazing over a substantial chunk of Zappa's output as a result. I don't like playing the "Oh, well, he clearly just doesn't get it" card, but his lack of appreciation for Burnt Weeny Sandwich seems to stem more out of not appreciating the music, wondering instead where all the political or scatological lyrics are.

And that's another problem: Lowe is too politically correct. Any time he discusses one of Zappa's potentially controversial songs, he distracts himself by justifying the content against contemporary mores. It gets in the way of his enjoyment of the music at times, denouncing "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy" as something that is sick and "not at all funny." I personally think he could have had a simple disclaimer in his foreword about how Zappa approached satire with a sense of carnivalesque humor. Making it as offensive as possible challenged the values of his listeners, causing them to wonder what makes it offensive to their ears.

Then there's his foreword, where he bitches about how much of his book he had to amend because he committed the cardinal sin of letting Zappa's widow know about his book. There's a lot of dog-shit about "fair use" and "composer's intent," and even though Watson was able to quote screeds of lyrics throughout Zappa's canon, Lowe could at most cite three lines from a single song. I understand that most academic texts aren't exactly million-sellers. The book wasn't going to be in the display window at Barnes & Noble, so Lowe should have just had the book published.

A tinge of melancholy hovers over the book, as Lowe passed away a year after its publication; first of all, he died young. Second, this means there won't be a revised edition, no chance for an intellectual discourse between the two of us, not even a chance for me to say, "Hey, I really did enjoy your book." It sucks.

I haven't had a chance to give Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World Of Zappa a serious read, but I remain optimistic.

How did this turn into a literature review?

Anyway, I don't think I'm "getting away" with anything in writing about rock and roll music, thank you very much. It's still not getting the proper treatment by academia, with a bunch of Rolling Stone-minded goons on one side acting like rock and roll was theological text and that nothing by today's standards will ever beat the music that came out in [insert best year of said critic or scholar's life HERE], but then (and even worse) are the writers who denounce anyone who puts rock music on a higher shelf than pop music as a "rockist," implying that their tastes are racist and sexist simply because a majority of the rock genre was made by white middle-class males.

It's like the assholes behind such rubbish as The Gospel According To The Beatles (don't get me started) have already tilted the playing field, resulting in the other batch turning out such deliberately provocatively-titled books as How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, which - go figure - even has five-star reviews on Amazon saying it's a good book with a deceptive and sensationalistic title.

Not quite sure where I was going with this, but I think a middle ground exists. Frankly, I like acknowledging that Zappa, Lennon, and Hendrix were in fact mere mortals who had bad days and had their own dark sides. They weren't messiahs, they weren't anything more than men of extraordinary talent. Of course, I wouldn't spend my whole time focusing on that, it's just a point worth making. I like that pragmatic approach: The Beatles weren't the be-all, end-all for popular music. I recognize that.

But it's material meritorious of studying. We can even incorporate post-modernism, tonal theory, and all that fun shit to make it legitimate.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stumbled across this posting after reading a review of a new book about Ruskin's wife Effie, which got to me thinking 'wasn't there something Ben Watson said about Ruskin using canine servility in a sexual fantasy?' etc, one Google thing after another, and I'm on your blog.

Just wanted to offer my fewer than 2 and 3/4s cents re: "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy". There is nothing funny or satirical in that song- it's a (relatively) sober account of an intense, bizarre, and violent sexual experience.

The narrator does not disapprove of the girl, nor does he regret stomping on her with the shoes. Neither is he boasting. In my view, the narrator is simply recounting and (briefly) reflecting on the experience- "It might seem strange to Herb and Dee"- and then going about his day.

So no one needs to justify or attack such a song. It's just stating the facts, with no one looking any better or worse.

Thanks for this blog, and I hope your thesis is published in some form someday, and if it is, I look forward to reading it.