Thursday, November 24, 2011

Andrew Greenaway's "Zappa the Hard Way"

There have been a ton of books about FZ over the years, starting with David Walley's No Commercial Potential back in '71. My faves are Frank's highly idiosyncratic autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book and Ben Watson's exhaustive Situationist academic treatise Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. I couldn't even bring myself to read David Gray, Barry Miles, and Neil Slaven's bios for the same reason it took me until last year to read Paul Trynka's 2007 Iggy tome; you can only get so saturated with information, even on an interesting subject.

Andrew Greenaway's Zappa the Hard Way, first pubbed in 2010, is a different kettle of fish, however. Rather than taking the macro career/life-overview approach, it trains its focus on a particular and hitherto not-well-documented (in print, anyway) phase in FZ's musical odyssey: his final tour, which took place in 1988 with a 12-piece band, including five horns, playing a repertoire of over 100 songs that included classical pieces, TV show themes, and classic rock hits as well as material from all stages of Zappa's oeuvre. That band fell apart on the road in welters of acrimony, resulting in the cancellation of the tour's last leg and costing Zappa, he claimed, $400,000.

It's been a long time since I abandoned the quaint (but common among FZ fans of a certain vintage) notion that the original Mothers of Invention were his "best" band (which I clung to even after witnessing the Roxy and Elsewhere, Bongo Fury, Zappa in New York, and Baby Snakes lineups in the flesh). Zappa's '80s aggros (which mostly trod the boards while I was preoccupied with Guarding Freedom's Frontier) were longer on vocal power (employing as they did different combinations of Ray White, Ike Willis, and Bobby Martin), shorter on the instrumental music that I preferred -- one reason why I find the Does Humor Belong In Music DVD, which documents an '84 NYC show, unwatchable save the opening "Zoot Allures."

The riddim section of Scott Thunes (bass) and Chad Wackerman (drums) anchored Zappa's bands from '81 (when both were aged 21) to '88 -- a chops-heavy tandem that combined punk-rock energy (Thunes) with jazz-rock metric flexibility (Wackerman). Surprise to discover on reading Zappa the Hard Way that the two hated each other's guts. (At one point in the tour, Greenaway reports, the drummer told the onstage mixing tech to take the bassist out of his monitor completely.)

Thunes served as straw boss during the band's late '87 rehearsal phase. His abrasive manner managed to incur the wrath of all of his bandmates save "stunt guitarist" Mike Kenneally, which resulted in such incidents as percussionist Ed Mann mocking Thunes (using the "Clonemeister's" own words) on mic during a concert in Pennsylvania, the defacing of Thunes' laminated backstage pass by a member of the road crew, and the scratching out of the bassist's name from a cake which was presented to the band in Austria (for which he retaliated by obliterating Mann and Wackerman's names). Ultimately, the horn section refused to continue the tour unless Thunes was fired. Zappa considered the expense of going back into rehearsal with a replacement and canceled the remaining dates. Sic transit gloria FZ, all recounted as objectively as possible by Greenaway.

Lately I've been spending a lot of time watching the DVD of the '88 band's performance in Barcelona, which was originally broadcast on Spanish TV. While it's a flawed document -- the horn soloists are undermiked, and there are numerous dropouts in the soundtrack -- it provides ample evidence of the band's onstage prowess (they compare favorably with the Brecker Brothers-augmented lineup I saw at the Palladium in NYC in '76), while showing nary a sign of the underlying tension.

The range of their repertoire is dazzling. There's a suite of political songs that wound up on the Broadway the Hard Way album; Zappa vocal R&B pastiches from Freak Out!, Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, and Chunga's Revenge; arrangements of classical pieces by Stravinsky, Berlioz, and Ravel; FZ's versions of "Whipping Post" and "I Am the Walrus" (the '88 band also played "Stairway to Heaven"); classic FZ instrumentals like "The Black Page," "Black Napkins," "Sofa," "Watermelon in Easter Hay, and "Strictly Genteel;" and best of all, a version of "Big Swifty" wherein Frank conducts a band improvisation in the same way he did on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, in the Baby Snakes film, and in the famous Youtube clip from Australian TV. While FZ was reportedly not happy with the quality of his guitar solos on that tour, to these feedback-scorched ears, they sound as facilely inventive and aggressively in-your-face as anything on his "guitar" albums.

Author Greenaway is a Brit Uberfan who oversees the website. Zappa the Hard Way is definitely a fan's book. It's published by a company (Wymer Publishing) whose other products include a Ritchie Blackmore fanzine and recordings by a Deep Purple tribute band led by Mk I bassist Nick Simper. Greenaway's text has lots of first-person POV, but he's also extensively interviewed most of the surviving principals (notable exception: Wackerman), as well as drawing on secondary sources. There's a charming foreword by Zappa's sister, Patrice "Candy" Zappa-Porter, and a revealing afterword by Pauline Butcher, FZ's '68-'72 secretary whose own Zappa tome (Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa) was just pubbed.

Not exactly a revelation, but an interesting aspect of the Greenaway book is its focus on FZ's sexuality, which casts a different light on his own take on "Marriage (As a Dada Concept)." Yes, kids, Uncle Frank was a horn-dog. Thunes: "[FZ] spent a lot of time describing in detail many of his sexual exploits but never told me if he loved his wife or his kids..." Or this, from Zappa's daughter and "Valley Girl" singer Moon Unit, writing in 2009: "Our rock royalty of a dad toured for nine months out of the year, cheated on my mom when he was away, but always came back to us, to sleep all day and work all night. When I was little, 'Mom' meant let people be themselves so Dad doesn't leave us for a groupie and we can keep food on the table and a roof over our heads." Or this from Butcher: "[Frank] had often told me that, after music, lust was the most important thing in his does appear that [on the '88 tour] this man who was so into lust all his life, was suffering from sapped energy and a loss of libido."

Was Frank sick on the '88 tour? Did he use the band's disharmony as an excuse for pulling the plug when in reality he was no longer up to the physical demands of life on the road? Did he let the band's interpersonal dynamic get out of control because he lacked the stamina to intercede? Considering the retrospective sweep of the band's repertoire, and one particular line from "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk" ("And if you don't know by now / The truth of what I'm tellin' you / Then surely I have failed somehow"), it occurred to me that perhaps Frank recognized on some level, perhaps subconsciously, that this was a valedictory tour. (He'd already vowed never to tour again after outings in '82 and '84.)

More sympathetic is the reminiscence by Swedish drummer Morgan Agren of the encounter he and his childhood friend/keyboard player/fellow Zappaphile Mats Oberg had with Frank before the '88 band's Stockholm show, and their subsequent guest appearance with the band onstage (playing a then-unreleased FZ composition, "T'Mershi Duween," that they'd learned off a bootleg tape). After hearing Agren and Oberg play his music, Frank tells Oberg (who is blind), "You have listened to my music so much -- you should know what I look like." Agren continues, "Frank took Mats' hand and laid it on his forehead, and Mats began to feel how Frank looked! And Frank said, 'Don't forget the famous nose!'"

Zappa the Hard Way is a worthwhile read for any FZ fan -- sort of a darker, real-life 200 Motels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed, thanks.

10:54 PM  

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