Monday, August 30, 2010

St. Lester, "Zoot Allures," Adrian Belew, Psychodots

Just re-read Let It Blurt, Jim DeRogatis' bio of Lester Bangs, and am in the process of surfing Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, anthologies of his scrawl. Although I read him in Creem as a snotnose and in the Village Voice as an adult, I didn't realize what a great writer he was until Carburetor Dung appeared in '87. (I gave my first edition to a cat I know who showed promise as a writer. He didn't dig it, and soon quit writing himself. You win some, you lose some.)

Reading Lester now, he seems naive, quixotic, and easily swayed, all because he wanted so badly to believe in the music, the way I did when I read him the first time, when I badly wanted to believe in him. (In somebody/anybody.) What stands out now is his command of the language. Amid the untutored rant-torrent, there are phrases as elegantly crafted as anything in Twain or Joyce. It matters less that the aesthetic he championed (punk and metal si, singer-songwriters and prog no) actually and improbably won out in the end: 40 years down the road, Funhouse and Paranoid still resonate more than most rock records released in 1970.

While Carburetor Dung remains a classic, I find Mainlines (which I bought in Lawrence, Kansas, while waiting for Nathan Brown to show up for a gig there) indispensible, containing as it does Lester's scrawl on the Rolling Stones (back when I still gave two shits about 'em), Miles Davis, reggae, and Captain Beefheart (the last thing he wrote that I read while he was still living). You needn't choose.

All that said, it's been a long time since Les was a major influence on what I listen to. Since Stoogeaphilia started (four years and change ago, imagine that), I'd rather play Stooges music than listen to their records (because I'd rather play than listen to anybody). I listen to a lot more Zappa than Beefheart. As great and true of an innovator as Don was, he was also kind of a one-trick pony; FZ just gives you more to wrap your head around. And I listen to the early Jeff Beck Group a lot more than I do the Yardbirds. Something about having a singer and drummer worthy of the name.

These days, it's people I know that pull my coat to more music than any writer. I don't even read the music rags much. I let my sub to The Big Takeover lapse when it started to seem kind of silly to me reading men in their 50s arguing about who started punk. These days I get Razorcake for the quality of the writing (which is mostly conversational in the great fanzine tradition) and Ugly Things for the quality of the scholarship.

I recently snagged a copy of FZ's Zoot Allures I saw at Doc's because Jon Teague says it's his favorite Zappa album, even though when it was new, it seemed like The Beginning of the End to me. It was a funny time. I'd only been a dyed-in-the-wool Zappaphile for a couple of years then, influenced by cats I knew at college, and at that time I was still the kind of fan that thought the early Mothers of Invention were the best (still believing in the artificial separation between technique and "feeling"), even though we all loved Roxy and Elsewhere. After that band's seamless classical-jazz facility, Zoot Allures definitely sounded like a retrograde movement -- the first FZ record to include "stupid"/ironic rock 'n' roll songs like "Wind Up Working in a Gas Station" and "Disco Boy" (although Frank's on record saying that he thought the "satirical" pop songs on Freak Out! were commercial).

I remember being nonplussed by the "sinister" vibe of "The Torture Never Stops," replete with more of Frank's close-mic'ed low register vocalismo a la Apostrophe and the Donna Summer-esque fuck-noises, which now sound as innocuous as, say, Alice Cooper's Killer. And sitting in a bar in Smithtown with John Wilmshurst singing along with "Find Her Finer" the same night we heard Queen's "We Will Rock You" for the first time and fell out of our chairs laughing. In the fullness of time, though, what the album really seems all about is 1) Frank getting his guitar tone together ("Black Napkins," "Friendly Little Finger," title track) and 2) the arrival of Terry Bozzio, the best drummer he ever employed IMO (whom I'd seen in Albany on the Bongo Fury tour, but Zoot Allures was really a duet between FZ and Bozzio in the same way Hot Rats was an FZ-Ian Underwood duet).

Bozzio's all over Baby Snakes, the doco of FZ's 1977 Halloween show at the Palladium in New York (which I missed but had recapped for me over the phone by Brian Quigley -- lucky bastard!) that my sweetie 'n' I view every Thanksgiving on the living room floor, sharing our holiday feast with the cats. So is Adrian Belew, providing visual comic relief, singing "City of Tiny Lights," "Jones Crusher," and the outro to "San Ber'dino," and playing stunt Stratocaster. My sweetie saw Belew on his tour promoting The Lone Rhinoceros, which I had on cassette in Korea along with King Crimson's Beat (second and my fave in the triptych of albums he made with that band before they folded the tent for the second time).

Belew combines a gift for quirky pop songwriting with a guitar style that synthesizes all the elements that made Jimi's Axis: Bold As Love great: the crystalline arpeggios, the fluid backward guitar warpage, the wild whammy bar/harmonic/feedback rides. There's a bit of his style in Reggie Rueffer's Hochimen masterwork, and the Crimso lineup that featured him is my fave. (Mr. Fripp evidently agrees, as he's kept Belew in the band for 20 years now.)

Derek Anderson recommends Belew's Power Trio with brother/sister riddim team of Julie and Eric Slick (Eric played on a Tim Motzer ceedee I recently reviewed; small world!), while Jerko Dabelic from Sunward has good words for their album e, which appears to be available via Belew's website exclusively. I shall have to hear more.

During the late '80s, Belew also played in The Bears with a trio of Cincinnati musos who'd formerly worked together as the Raisins and went on to perform sans Belew as the Psychodots. (Whew!) At one time, the Psychodots were my drummer from college's fave band, and he sent me a cassette which had their first, self-titled album on one side and a recording of him playing with an R&B horn band in Boulder (!) on the other. Back in '97, when I was driving to Dallas two or three times a week to sit in at open jams, I listened to it constantly. Their guitarist-singer Rob Fetters is like a slightly more mainstream Belew (bluesier, less avant-garde), and has an interestingly-shaped head. Bless him.

psychodots from Tribeca Flashpoint on Vimeo.

Howzat for a ramblin' rant?


Blogger Breaking Light said...

Good summation of Zoot. Not my favorite FZ but one of the few Zappa on vinyl I have, so it gets listened to. Recently got Belew's "side two" at HPB, as good a guitar freak-out album as he's ever done. If can remember I'll burn ye a copy.

3:05 PM  

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