Tuesday, October 20, 2015

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part One)

It's taken so long (40 years) for this artifact to make its way to public release that my attitude toward its creator has evolved from fanboy adulation to...ambivalence.

Back in '74, when the double album Roxy and Elsewhere arrived just in time for my freshman year of college, my previous experience of FZ had been as a source of yuks and gateway to "weird" music. My first Zappa album had been a shitty compilation of edits from the first three Mothers of Invention LPs, released as part of MGM's "Golden Archives Series" after label prez Mike Curb dumped all the "drug-oriented" artists -- not just the Mothers, but the Blues Project, Tim Hardin, and the Velvet Underground, too -- from the roster. My best middle school bud and I memorized the lyrics to "funny" songs like "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" and "Concentration Moon" the way we'd later memorize whole Firesign Theater albums. Then I bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh -- and hated it. But I kept going back and listening to the Sugarcane Harris blues and what I later learned were Zappa's conductions on Side One, "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue," "Oh No," and "The Orange Country Lumber Truck" on Side Two, and became so adept at ripping the tone arm off the record to avoid the feedback blast of the side-closing title track that I was prepared to do the same trick with "L.A. Blues" when I got the Stooges' Funhouse.

In the fullness of time, Frank's penchant for making fun of squares and hipis seems lazy and obvious, and his "satire" of the pop styles of the day doesn't hold up as well, 50 years down the road, as the stuff he was mocking. Still, there's stuff that signifies on all of the early MOI albums, including the race riot-inspahrd "Trouble Every Day" (still topical, goddammit), the song "Absolutely Free" (which I now hear unironically; Elvis Costello was right), and all of the doo-wop pastiche Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets (which my bad-acting buddies and I used to sing along with, having grown up surrounded by greasy vocal R&B). On the latter, Ray Collins' voice, simpering on the first two MOI albums, can be heard in its full magnificence, as it was meant to be. Better still are the kludged-together MOI albums Frank released after breaking up the band in '69: along with Weasels, there was Uncle Meat and, best of all, Burnt Weenie Sandwich (the first side of which remains one of my favorite FZ things of all ti-i-ime).

Where the trouble began: once I'd investigated the list of names in the Freak Out! liner notes (since superseded, I suppose, for a younger generation by the "Nurse With Wound list"), a lot of FZ's music became superfluous. Who needs "King Kong," f'rinstance, when you've heard Trane? Or Waka/Jawaka when you've heard Bitches Brew? Or the musique concrete on We're Only In It for the Money when you've heard Frank's idol Varese?

Also, seeing the Grandmothers of Invention play some of my favorite FZ stuff a couple of years ago made me aware of the Achilles heel of all the Zappa concerts I religiously attended for years (usually on Halloween Night in NYC): how much dreck you had to sit through to get to the good stuff -- every time. The best FZ show I saw was probably the one at the Palladium in '76, part of the run that was recorded for Zappa In New York, and even those nights were full of bullshit like "Punky's Whips," "Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me" (a joke Uncle Lou did better on Growing Up In Public as "So Alone"), and "Illinois Enema Bandit," in addition to the usual obligatory "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Camarillo Brillo." The exception would be the '88 tour (which I missed), where the setlists were more uniformly stellar (as though FZ knew it was going to be his last one).

Watch the DVD of Baby Snakes and see the wall-to-wall dumbshits in his rabid Noo Yawk audience ("Zappa! He's a pissah!") -- and hey, I was one of 'em (although I missed the nights that were filmed during that particular run because of work or lack of money, I forget which). After Frank recovered from having his neck broken by an insane fan during a concert in London, 1971, he came back with two albums -- Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe -- that basically pandered to the lowest common denominator of teenage rock fans from my age cohort, and they did their job well.

An extramusical aside: My wife and I used to watch that movie while eating dinner on the floor with our cats, every Thanksgiving. That is, until we got to where we couldn't enjoy the bits with Roy Estrada and the sex doll backstage after reading about the ex-Mothers bassplayer getting arrested for molesting a young relative in our town after serving time in Cali on a similar offense. (He copped a plea and drew 25 years, without parole.) Too creepy. Now I can't even enjoy the "Crying Mexican Pope" routine on Weasels.

By the time Baby Snakes was filmed ('77), the original Mothers, where bar band R&B cats (Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black) played alongside old experimental heads (Bunk Gardner, Don Preston) and classical refugees (Artie Tripp, Ian Underwood), were long gone, their places taken by chops-mongering gunslingers who went with Frank to get their tickets punched (as he noted in The Real Frank Zappa Book). While some of the new guys (Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew) had actual personalities, the overall character of the band had changed. From the Dadaist days at the Garrick Theater (which the guy I worked for in high school had actually witnessed), Frank's show had evolved into a slick, professional entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that).

That was the year I got off the bus, after seeing Frank at the Felt Forum in Manhattan on Halloween, then driving 90 mph all the way to see him again in Hartford, where he played the Exact. Same. Show. Things got even worse in the '80s. For evidence, view the DVDs Does Humor Belong In Music? and The Torture Never Stops, if you must. The steely precision of the band's playing is only matched by their self-conscious "zaniness." [NB: A perusal of the Zappa Gig List for the year in question would seem to indicate that my chronological memory is faulty. But I still have the vivid impression of seeing two identical FZ shows in different venues, when the year before, Captain Beefheart had played notably different sets a couple of nights apart.]

What makes Roxy: The Movie the Holy Grail of Zappa fandom is that it captures FZ with what seems, from today's perspective, like his very best band, in an intimate setting, playing for an enthusiastic audience at a moment when his music was reaching a new plateau, before it became rote. The eight piece band is stacked with aces. To begin with, Frank was beginning to find his tone and voice as a guitar soloist. On his earlier stuff, even the highly regarded Hot Rats, his melodic imagination was hamstrung by his technique. Later, he got a lot more facile at note production, but his solos -- always over static rhythm -- took on a sameness that they didn't have in '73, when he was probably jazzed to be playing in front of an audience after two years on the mend, and had agile rhythm players who were more comfortable improvising than the ones in earlier lineups.

His singing voice having dropped an octave following his '71 injuries, Zappa -- who couldn't seem to keep the condescending smirk out of his voice after about '67 -- was wise enough to realize that he needed help fronting the band. Besides the leader, the Roxy lineup had two expressive and very different singers -- the exuberant saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who Frank found playing in a Waikiki bar band, for soul grit, and keyboardist George Duke, a veteran jazzman (Don Ellis, Cannonball Adderley, Jean-Luc Ponty), for falsetto wit. Between them, Brock and Duke developed a humorous onstage rapport that felt a lot more natural than the intentionally comic banter between the leather-lunged ex-Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, that fronted the '71 Mothers. (For One Size Fits All, FZ upped the vocal ante by adding R&B "Gangster of Love" Johnny "Guitar" Watson to the mix, planting his band solidly in P-Funk territory.)

Besides Zappa and Duke, there were two other quality soloists -- percussionist Ruth Underwood and trombonist Bruce Fowler -- whose instruments also gave the '73 band a broader textural palette than the lineups that preceded it. Underpinning it all was the rhythm section of Bruce's brother Tom Fowler (ex-It's A Beautiful Day) on bass, and the twin trap sets of studio pro Ralph Humphrey and the jazzier Chester Thompson. All in all, a formidable unit.

While it's understood that Roxy: The Movie's release was delayed because of a flaw in sound synchronization, for which it took years to find a technological fix, FZ and his Family Trust have certainly wrung a lot of dollars over the years out of fans who were hungry to see video of this band. First there was The Dub Room Special, a 1982 melange of footage from the '74 TV session that produced the basic tracks used for "Inca Roads" and Florentine Pogen" on One Size Fits All, the Halloween '81 NYC show that was broadcast on MTV, and stray claymation from Bruce Bickford, the artist whose work was featured in Baby Snakes. A Token of His Extreme, released in 2013, gives you more from '74, nothing from '81 (now a separate release on its own, the aforementioned The Torture Never Stops), but retains the Bickford. So, f'rinstance, while Frank is soloing on "Inca Roads," you get to see his claymation likeness "soloing" instead. Annoying edits mar the otherwise wonderful "Dog Breath"/"Uncle Meat" medley. An improvement, but still a frustrating release.

To be continued here...


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