Cruising with Ruben & the Jets
Around the time I popped out, teens of a musical bent -- especially black, Italo-American, and Hispanic ones that prolly couldn't afford instruments -- could be found harmonizing on street corners in every major city. They called it doowop, after the nonsense syllables the bass singers would come up with. By the time I started working in rekkid stores in the early '70s, the most desirable collector's records were doowop singles, for which paunchy middle-aged guys with duckass hairdos would plop down big bucks to relive the glories of their misspent yoof. (Today you can't give those records away because all those guys have died or otherwise gone out of existence. "Fixed incomes" don't stretch enough to support the frivolity of rekkid collecting.)
Who knew that Frank Zappa (b. 1940) was also one of those guys? (Indeed, he and original Mothers of Invention lead singer Ray Collins wrote a bona fide hit, "Memories of El Monte," for one of the key doowop groups, the Penguins.) Released in 1969 amid the first "rock and roll revival," Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is a unique and oddball entry in the FZ discography. I first owned this record when I was 13, and I thought it was funny. But it was also familiar; records like the Dovells' "Bristol Stomp" and the Rays' "Silhouettes" / "Daddy Cool" were part of my growing up (as were the greasy Italian baritones named Jimmy and Tony on the "good music station" that my sister and I referred to as "Mafia music").
My old copy wound up getting donated to Goodwill in Shreveport by my ex-wife ca. 1990. I just found a clean vinyl copy at Doc's, bit the bullet, and paid $25 to hear it again. Vinyl is the only way to hear this album; FZ replaced the bass and drum tracks when he prepared it for CD release in the late '80s, and died before he was able to release a "restored" version. I remember being distinctly unimpressed by the re-recorded bass and drum tracks on the original CD versh of We're Only In It for the Money, so I never bothered to check out the CD Ruben. (The Zappa Family Trust just gave Ruben the deluxe reish treatment; I wasn't curious enough to check it out, but finding an original at Doc's near the end of my long walk last Thursday made it too perfect to pass on.)
Listening to this for the first time in 20 years, it sounded less ironic than it did back in the day, even with the speeded-up voices that had been a trademark of FZ's productions since early-'60s Studio Z days. Frank and the original Mothers admittedly really liked this kind of music, and it shows. Ray Collins, who always sounded smarmy on the original MOI's other records, sounds perfect here. His lead on "Anything" and the mellifluous sax solo (Bunk Gardner or Ian Underwood? YOU decide!) are nothing short of gorgeous. Ditto Roy Estrada's pachuco falsetto, deployed here as it was meant to be heard and not as an element of the music's "weirdness."
The three songs that originally appeared on the MOI's double-disc debut Freak Out! have a more naturalistic feel here, thanks to the more leisurely tempos and sumptuous vocal arrangements; "You Didn't Try To Call Me" even gained a pair of not-idiomatically-correct-but-still-fine FZ guitar solos. Among the new songs, I related the talking part of "Fountain of Love" to the one in the Velvets' "I Found A Reason," which I discovered maybe six months after Ruben. (Uncle Lou was a vocal R&B fan, too.) "Stuff Up the Cracks" (on which my rowdy college cohort used to try to harmonize) might be the first rockaroll suicide song. Its coda (FZ soloing over a two-chord vamp) sounds like the MOI breaking through the wall into the fictive past of Frank's imagination.