FZ's "You Are What You Is"
Released in 1981, Frank Zappa's You Are What You Is provided the same kind of social critique of its time (the dawn of the Reagan era) that We're Only In It for the Money had for the Summer of Love. The liner copy included an idiosyncratically overemphasized essay, originally written for Newsweek (which declined to run it), in which the present-day composer railed against TV, politicians, unions, and bean counters, sounding more like the small business owner he'd become than the social nonconformist he'd started out as.
The album didn't sell, in spite of Zappa's 1981 Halloween show at the Palladium in New York City being televised on MTV -- after the network refused to air a video for the song "You Are What You Is" on the basis of its depiction of a Reagan lookalike in an electric chair, not to mention some egregious racial stereotypes. (The performance has since been released on DVD as The Torture Never Stops.)
To these feedback-scorched ears, YAWYI is the high point of Zappa's work between the magnificent, unreleasable-in-its-time sprawl of Lather and the unashamedly retrospective, aborted 1988 tour, with the possible exception of his 1985 testimony before a U.S. Senate committee that was considering mandatory labeling for recorded music based on lyrical content.
I'd lost the Zappa thread after moving to Texas in '78, but for three or four years prior to that, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Zappaphile who regularly attended Frank's Halloween extravaganzas at the Palladium (and once, I think, at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden), including one of the shows recorded for the Zappa In New York album (which collected all the live tracks originally intended for Lather) but not the ones filmed for Baby Snakes (had a ticket but had to work).
I was underwhelmed by Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garages 1-3, which confirmed all my worst suspicions about FZ's propensity for the lowest common denominator, some foreshadowing of which had appeared on his albums from Overnite Sensation through Zoot Allures -- the crass, vulgar, "stupid funny" songs that only seemed in later years like a utilitarian way for the composer to finance his more artistically worthy projects.
So I dropped FZ in favor of punk and free jazz until around 1990, when I was an instructor at the SAC NCO Academy and officed with another guy who self-identified as a former "head," and was a Zappaphile to boot. (You could always tell guys in the military that used to have long hair by the way their ears stuck out from pushing now-shorn hair behind 'em.)
I first heard songs from YAWYI -- the '81 Palladium versions of "Dumb All Over," "Heavenly Bank Account," and "Suicide Chump" -- on 1988's You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 1 compilation. Then, my office mate let me hear the whole album (and Them Or Us) on homemade cassettes. In spite of my general preference for vinyl, YAWYI remains best heard on CD, since the songs all run together and the listening experience is more seamless in that format.
From the opening "Teenage Wind," it's clear that the 40-year-old Zappa, who'd once been touted as a generational spokesperson for "the kids" by no less an authority than Life magazine (which, in 1968, ran a Zappa-penned essay under the title "The Oracle Has It All Psyched Out"), was on the wrong side of the big generational divide: "FREE IS WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY FOR NOTHING OR DO NOTHING / WE WANT TO BE FREE / FREE AS THE WIND."
The fan's amusement of hearing Frank lampoon a hapless Deadhead is undercut by the knowledge that we're all really in the same boat -- Zappa fandom is a subspecies of the same idiot consumerism he derides, even though it's also the mechanism that pays for his "project-object." The claim that all entertainment artifacts are not created equal is a tenuous defense. (For your humble chronicler o' events, the lyrics to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Prevention's "We're Turning Again" hit even closer to home: "Now Jimi gimme some feedback...You can feed back the fuzz tone from your wah-wah / While you bend down / And set your stuff on fire" makes the iconic seem ridiculous.)
Original Mothers "Indian of the group" Jimmy Carl Black appears to reprise some 200 Motels shtick before Frank and his ensemble (including the double-barreled vocal power of Ray White and Ike Willis, the best singers he'd employed since Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson graced One Size Fits All) demonstrate that he still had the musical goods, starting out with a histrionic doowop ballad in prog-rock clothes ("Doreen"), following it with a leering groupie observation as reggae parody ("Goblin Girl"), then overlaying one on top of the other, adding some sprechstimme vocal meltdown and a tossed-off, face-melting guitar solo.
Even more amazing, instrumentally, is "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear," in which 21-year-old Berklee refugee Steve Vai transcribes a hot Zappa guitar solo and plays it back against the original in unison with tuned percussion and bass clarinet, over a different rhythm track than the one that accompanied the original solo (an effect Zappa called "xenochrony"). While Zappa's '80s bands lacked the personality of the original Mothers or the lineup with Flo and Eddie, they gave their leader more musical options.
Lampooning ladies who lunch ("Society Pages") and yuppies who want to live forever ("I'm a Beautiful Guy") might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but Zappa demonstrates that he still has a keen observational eye on "Beauty Knows No Pain": "Beauty is a bikini wax 'n waitin' for yer nails to dry / Beauty is a colored pencil, scribbled all around yer eye / Beauty is a pair of shoes that makes you want to die / Beauty is a...Lie."
What's missing from Zappa's '81 vision is the compassion he occasionally showed for his '67 audience even as he mocked them. Compare Money's "Mom & Dad," "Absolutely Free," "The Idiot Bastard Son," and "Lonely Little Girl" with the portrait of the vapid drug casualty in "Charlie's Enormous Mouth" and "Any Downers?"
After paying a visit to the "Mudd Club" that almost sounds as if he's _enjoying himself_ ("You can take it from me / I should know / 'Cause I go / Every time I'm in town"), Zappa has some fun at the expense of the religious right. (One wonders what he'd think about the way things have gone here since the '80s.) While he sounds a little smug and self-satisfied, it still makes for some powerful music, especially when he follows what's basically a spoken word performance on "Dumb All Over" with yet another steaming guitar solo (better on the record than at the Palladium).
Ugly misogyny disguised as sociological observation returns with "Jumbo Go Away," followed by the Doors pastiche of "If Only She Woulda" (with a solo that rubbishes everything around it like a movie monster trashing a Tinkertoy city) and a reprise of the 1980 single "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted" that was indicative of Frank's misunderstanding of the new political dynamic: it's more expedient to conduct overseas military adventures with an all-volunteer force. (One also wonders what his take would have been on post-9/11 fear and xenophobia.)
All in all, YAWYI is what it is: a snapshot of the passing scene from a highly individuated observer. As irritating as Zappa could be (and I'm a _fan_), we won't see another one like him. Our loss.