Paul Carr Frank Zappa And The And (Ashgate, 2013) £52.25
a review by Ben Watson
So Paul’s got it together! “The first academically focused volume” on Frank Zappa, it says on the back. Now, Paul is an academic. At the University of Glamorgan in Cardiff he is ‘Head of the Division of Music and Sound’ (I know, it sounds like he’s one of those sinister lab-technicians holed up in the Arctic in The Golden Compass, intent on separating the music-dæmon soul from the sound-child … but bear with me …). On top of that he’s also ‘Reader in Popular Music Analysis’. Now, we all know the, um, disfavour Zappa and Zappa fans harbour for academics and intellectuals and all such po-jama-type people … But, I gotta say it, despite his sinecure, Paul IS one of us. He was good company at Zappanale #22; and the essay he started working on in 2009 (‘An Autocratic Approach to Music Copyright?’) is probably the most articulate, convincing defence of Zappa-tribute bands yet. Carr shows that Gail Zappa’s “cease and desist” writs against bands and venues are morally reprehensible, legally dubious and — worst of all — harmful to Zappa’s legacy. When in 2011 the essay appeared in a refereed journal (i.e. a journal whose advisory panel includes bigwigs from universities all across the globe: Contemporary Music Review, 21/3 (2011) pp. 302-316), Paul struck a blow for all of us. His pro-play-Zappa statement could be referred to in a court of law. Paul’s essay is something overground and official and respectable — not some gasbag garbage lurking on a website called “Idiot Bastard”, not some dubious, scummy, semi-Samizdat fan-rip-off piece of smelliness which gives Gail Zappa apoplectic fits. But, it must be admitted, despite lacking that kind of funky allure, Paul’s piece still said what us fans all know: Gail is wrong, wrong, wrong. Hooray!!
The preceding by way of a preamble to reviewing the somewhat pricey book from Ashgate Publishing here on my desk: black hard-cover with silver print on the spine, all wrapped in a glossy lilac dust-cover sporting a Geoff Wills sketch of a Zappa photo, one I know from the Dutch pre-Mothers Zappa compilation For Collectors Only (Pure Gold, 2002). The drawing is skilful in a commercial-artist kinda way, although I find the idea of Zappa fans gazing into Zappa’s over-promoted face expecting some kind of revelation a little .… creepy. Enough about the cover, though, back to the editor …
So, given his entry in the lists as an anti-Gail protagonist, Paul Carr is something of a hero in the Zappa universe, but (and I know you’ve been waiting for the “but”), that doesn’t mean everything he touches necessarily turns to gold lamé hoof covers. Academia is not (despite average audience misconception) a holy cathedral devoted to truth, scholarship and objective thought. It’s a power structure in which brown-nosing the guy-with-the-mortar-board just ahead of you on the career ladder — or, conversely, staging some kind of faux palace “rebellion” — is of major strategic importance. These political issues far outweigh any other considerations, such as pertinence to the thing being studied, relevance or scholarly excellence. On top of that, academia is swept by waves of fashion. It echoes the needs of the moment. Academic publishers like Ashgate (Paul’s imprint) are not experts in any field except guessing which way the wind blows, i.e. which topics will sell to staff, libraries and students. Academia is not the “haven from commercialism” people assume it to be, but yet another example of the iron laws of the market. Okay, that said, what do we have here?
Frank Zappa And The And owes its peculiar title to Paul asking his contributors to write about “Frank Zappa and …” something else, like “Horror” or “Satire” or “Death” (I’m reliably informed that “Alchemy” was offered — and refused … shame!). According to Professor of Critical Musicology Derek B. Scott (University of Leeds) in his General Editor’s Preface, the volume appears in a series aimed at music departments which have ditched Twelve Tone orthodoxy in favour of a “relativistic outlook”. Other volumes in the series are devoted to Prince, Springsteen and Grunge. This brand of “popular musicology” means we don’t get the nuts-and-bolts analysis which talks key signatures, chords and rhythmic subdivisions in And The And, apart from Martin Knakkergaard’s analysis of the chords of Brown Shoes Don’t Make It (one of the more useful essays). What we do get is “methodologies and theories developed in cultural studies, semiotics, poststructuralism, psychology and sociology”, i.e. the ragbag of confusion which marks a person as “educated”. So, not real musicology at all, and nevermind that Zappa persistently ripped the piss out of such educational pretentions at every opportunity. Luckily, four non-academics have been smuggled in (James Gardner, Nick Awde, Kevin Seal and Geoffrey Wills). They duly write the best pieces — but, like Carr himself, they are musicians. They’re not going to whistle-blow the charade: they’ve neither the intellect, knowledge or the required command of theory. I mean, they’re musicians, know what I mean?
Frank Zappa And The And’s resort to such trendy “methodology” is a pity, because if straight musicologists who can talk about the nuts-and-bolts stuff bother to look into Zappa’s music, their observations cream my jeans (my prime example is pretty arcane, and it’s in French, but that’s where the gold is hid, oh my lovely alchemists: Louise Morand on Dio Fa in Circuit: Musiques Contemporaines Vol. 14 No 3 (Quebec, 2004) pp. 73-89; and, somewhat less spectacularly, Knakkergaard’s piece here). And the trends, of course, are ageing (the aeons are closing). The 80s postmodern “turn” to psychology and sociology greeted by Ashgate is now stale and shop-worn (the leading disciplines in the academic humanities are now all agog to restore “science”). But never mind. Paul Carr grounded his titan-clash with the Zappa Family Estate on academic authority, so now we must eat the bitter fruits: an “academically focused volume exploring the creative idiolect of Frank Zappa”. Oh no! (to be said as in I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted rather than in Oh No I Don’t Believe It). A usual, clever old Idiot Bastard Son has found his own personal way out of the disaster: your old chum Ben Watson has to actually eat the sour & pustulent orange, while all you have to do is … watch my purbulent lips.
Now, the old Zappanale-attending, gregarious, joke-cracking Paul Carr (the one we like) hasn’t quite been silenced in this academic re-incarnation. In his introduction, he analyses the imagery of various album covers (Boulez Conducts Zappa, Boulez Conducts Webern Vol. 2, Over-Nite Sensation) in a manner that no-one but a genuine Zappa-freak could do (what I hate about classically-trained people is that they never talk about the album cover): genuine paranoiac-critical notice-the-detail expressive never-before-said … poetry! Yes, poetry, if that means words which are true and resound and inspire. But then (and I know you’ve been hanging on for the “but then”, gentle foreskins …), Carr suddenly interrupts himself, like someone popped out of a dope-induced reverie into the raw paranoia of a real-life situation, and starts citing Richard Middleton, big cheese of Pop Musicology and founding editor of the refereed journal Popular Music: “According to Richard Middleton, popular music analysis has a tendency to focus on connotative as opposed to denotative meaning …” (p. 11). Never mind that these terms aren’t used again in the entire book, never mind that they are pretty useless in linguistics let alone musicology, the point is to curtsy before the Fromage Grande constituated by Emeritus Professor Richard Middleton. Which is why, of course, Idiot Bastard gave me the job of reading this book — it’s stuffed with these balls-aching rituals which really should bother no-one outside the academic racket.
The connotative/denotative couplet reminds me of the lectures I had to endure as an undergraduate: “the all-important distinction, according to Jakobsen, is between metaphor and metonymy …” and, try as you might, you can never hold the distinction in your head, because the distinction does not emerge from anything really existing in the world, but has plopped out of the fevered brain of someone trying to get famous for a “theory”. Metaphor/metonymy duly emerges later on in And The And (a blemish on Knakkergaard’s otherwise valuable article (p. 171)), as well as various other imported distinctions such as “proactive/reactive” (p. 185) and (useless as regards Zappa, anyway) “dada/surrealist” (p. 188). This is jargon: a uniform you try on for a while, parade around in, then unceremoniously dump when you really want to talk. As someone who once co-edited a volume by a bunch of Zappa fans who really wanted to talk (Academy Zappa, SAF, 2005), I think I’m entitled to complain.
Freelance composer James Gardner writes far and away the best piece, on Zappa as tape-splicer (“Zappa and the Razor”), contrasting his use of “environmental bullshit” in the dada-style audio collages of Mothers of Invention LPs to the smooth edits in pursuit of accurate performances of the late years. Valid point, though I still think that the fact of releasing “classical music” one minute (The Perfect Stranger) and full-on rock (Them Or Us) the next, with Donald Roller Wilson dog paintings providing continuity, is still “dada collage”, but at a higher, more effective level. And the fact that certain tunes re-occur in both styles makes them all aspects of Zappa’s “combined and uneven” whole (to use Trotsky’s description of global capitalism). Also, Zappa internalised tape-splice jumpcuts to the point where they contributed to his formal composition. Some rock-fans say late Zappa became pretentious and fancied himself as a bourgeois composer, but when I asked Frank where the “art” was — score or mastertape — he replied “the final artistic result is the mastertape” (Poodle Play, p. 545). Composers fetishize the score because they dream of their works being reinterpreted afresh by successive generations of trained musicians in fine concert halls. For them, LPs, CDs and MDs are just gimcrack novelties which vibrate cardboard in speaker cones. In contrast, Zappa was always a record man, committed to mass-market populism (even if he refused the boring compromises most make to get there). Unfortunately, Paul Carr doesn’t seem to have read Gardner’s piece, still equating the seamless edits of On Stage to the jumpcuts of Money (p. 139). Gardner’s correct: there’s something qualitatively different going on.
Anyone attempting “definitive” analyses of Zappa’s songs makes me laugh. Zappa’s music generates ideas faster than you can listen to it. So it’s annoying and tedious to read people playing the academic game, where the method is to import a single idea from the canon of acceptable “theorists” (Richard Middleton, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Charles Bernstein, Umberto Eco etc), and then proceed to organise Zappa’s work around it. And despite being “academically focused”, And The And is riddled with errors: “Do-Wop” (p. 11); “while the man makes a phone call the woman performs fellatio on him” (Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me) (p. 26); “200 Motels portrays a society where the government has built a concentration camp for musicians in order to avoid demonstrations of dissidence” (p. 35); “Bruce Bickford, an animator who provides images of Zappa’s fantasy world with clay figures” (p. 36); “the Sandino harbour in Nicaragua was bombed” (p. 45); “C.A.S.H.: the Church of Secular Humanism” (p. 52); “a book of Indian lure” (p. 61); “Rat Tomaga” (p. 243, an error which also enters the index); a quote about the Synclavier applied to UMRK (p. 141); “A number of the images created by Schenkel that appear on the covers of Zappa’s discography have become virtually totemic — once seen, who can forget the self-abusive shaving motif on Weasels Ripped My Flesh” (p. 155); “the miniscule and technologically near-prehistoric studios” (p. 159).
Now, I’m aware that Poodle Play was lampooned by American “hardcore” Zappa fans for its factual errors (many more than that, I can tell you), and I’m sure some will accuse me of doing the same thing here. I’m not. When I wrote Poodle Play I was working on my own, unsubsidised and without the benefit of an academic institution. When I made mistakes, it was generally during the really inspired writing, when I allowed Zappa’s records to invent ideas in my brain. The more pedestrian sections of the book are error-free — but actually somewhat boring. When Mike Keneally published his gigantic list of my errors online (all duly corrected in the fourth edition), none of them impacted the thrust of my arguments. In fact, Mike told me he got so annoyed by the way “hardcore” fans used the list as a reason to diss Poodle Play (which he liked), he took the list offline, acknowledging that in the fourth edition I’d thanked him for “proof reading beyond the call of duty” (but, as is the way of these things, you can still find Mike’s list if you want). No, the reason I’m emphasizing And The And’s blunders is because the blurb on the back claims that it “represents the first academically focused volume exploring the idiolect of Frank Zappa”, and I want to point out how shoddy postmodern academia actually is.
So, anything good in the book? I’ve already mentioned Gardner on Zappa as tape-splicer and Knakkergaard on Brown Shoes. Knakkergaard manages to get to the acutely self-conscious nature of Zappa’s art: Zappa functions “not just as the reader of objects that are embedded in his work but also as his own reader” (p. 171). Kevin Seal is likewise perceptive on the climax of 200 Motels, making the kind of observations hardcore Zappa fans rarely attain the perspective to make: “As the song (Strictly Genteel) reaches its conclusion, the tone shifts from benediction to complaint, as the musicians and cast members express anger at the control their autocratic boss, Frank Zappa, exerts over the movie as a whole. The effect is that of a cynical splash of water in the face of sentimentality, as the ostensibly well-intentioned prayers of the people are overridden by the reality of their servitude to their employer.” (pp. 52-3) Because of his clear-eyed view of the social realities of a money-driven society, I’ve frequently written about Zappa as a “Marxist without knowing it”, but I’ve never seen it quite so clearly put.
Likewise — and such revelations are the reason I return to Zappa again and again — it has never occurred to me that ‘Joe’ in Joe’s Garage could be short for Joseph, so that, coupled with Mary, we are dealing with a rewrite of the Nativity Story (p. 54)! Gardner points out how Mom & Dad, Zappa’s “most poignant song”, is made still more telling by being a straight vocal recording in the midst of chipmunk varispeed, overlaid and jumpcut vocals (pp. 72-3). I’ve long thought Excentrifugal Forz to be the vortex of Zappa’s Project/Object, but Gardner explains why: crossing the line between the “future” and “way back when” is all about what sound recording does to time (p. 78).
Claude Chastagner from Montpellier University also contributes a fantastic observation, one that saves us from Kelly Fisher Lowe’s strained attempt to conjure a politically-correct Zappa: “Do You Like My New Car? spells out his politics, which could read like: I do not need you to endorse, nor imitate what I do; I will even do my best not to be endorsable; but start working on your own space too.” (p.114) Because Zappa is gone and his oeuvre a distant rock “classic”, people forget how hard it was to justify his records to hip, anti-sexist friends when they were freshly released. Chastagner’s right: Zappa breaks the idea that you need to “subscribe” to the politics of the musician whose work you adore. Zappa makes an audio object we can entertain (which entertains us) without subjugating ourselves to his programme; he forces us to develop our own system. Zappa was the new William Blake!
More actual discoveries in And The And? A few. Kevin Seal again (what is it about academia which guarantees the writer will not say anything either original or real?): the chord sequence of Watermelon In Easter Hay is a “plagal cadence”, “colloquially entitled the ‘Amen cadence’ due to its frequent use as the final Amen in hymns and other religious music” (p. 57). Allwreety allrighty!! This simple observation adds an important dimension to the discussion started by Stuart Calton’s contribution to Academy Zappa, in which he argued that if Dweezil Zappa is right, and Watermelon represents the apex of Zappa’s music, then this effectively negates everything else he did, which inverts the ugly/beautiful dichotomy and finds infinitudes of fun, diversion and fascination in the gnarly knots of unvarnished reality. For a long time, I have been thinking about segueing The Campbell Brothers’ End Of My Journey from Pass Me Not (Arhoolie, 1997) to Watermelon on my radio show. Like a religious pamphlet using a colour photo of a glorious sunset, the Campbell Brother’s paean to death as sublime release is simultaneously emotionally overpowering and queasy-making. I stand with Boethius in believing that a stoic, no-nonsense attitude towards death is the ultimate achievement of a life lived right (something Zappa achieved, by the way), but I find the Christian vision of death as ecstatic release from the mortal coil into the arms of divine bliss … creepy. Watermelon is all about this. As usual, a simply historical-materialist musicological point - it’s the Amen cadence, innit - brings the discussion into focus. In postmodernist academia, however, applications of “theory” simply blur the picture.
Any more actual discoveries? I thought maybe that Sofa coming from Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself — “I am large, I contain multitudes” — was a revelation (p. 62), but once I’d tracked down the actual passage in Whitman, the connection seemed forced and tendentious. The biggest clot of actual discovery comes in Geoffrey Wills’ “Zappa and the Story-Song”, which investigates the comedy voices Zappa heard on the radio as he grew up. Unlike Michel Delville’s citations from Charles Bernstein (apparently “one of the most influential representatives of the post-war American avant-garde” (p. 185) ... whaaat? the guy is a complete ninny, get your nose out of Bernstein’s behind, M. Delville!) about the “false authenticity” of the voice, Wills’ delvings into Lord Buckley, Lenny Bruce, Victor Borge, Tom Lehrer, Shelley Berman, Ernie Kovacs, Ken Nordine, Phil Harris, Frank Crumit, Jimmy Durante, Verne Smith, Mart Robbins, Danny Kaye and Stan Freburg reveal the actual roots of Zappa’s hipster delivery, and in so doing demonstrate that Zappa’s art is an astonishing collage of pop-cultural motifs. You can stare into his fizzog all you like, fans, but it’s when you stumble over one of his motifs in its original place that the real uncanniness starts. You realise that we live in a universe constructed by … ourselves.
It’s only when the writers here allow Zappa to affect them in some way that they lose their cool, shed academic protocol and become interesting. Despite the Bernstein-nosing — a necessary ritual in the field of Anglo-American Studies which provides Delville’s day-job — Thing-Fish sufficiently tweezes Delville to elicit perception. It’s a little annoying having a scene from Poodle Play rehearsed to illustrate my “Marxist-Leninist” prejudices: I was “horrified” — my own, self-mocking stage-direction by the way — to hear Zappa compare himself to Tolkien, not because Lord Of The Rings is “one of the worst kinds of apolitical, conservative and escapist avatars of post-WWII fantasy literature” (this is Delville’s description, not mine), but because Tolkien was a must-read for hippies, whereas Zappa favoured freak-out materialist authors like Kafka and Dick. However, Delville is right: Zappa created an entire world in Thing-Fish, so a parallel with Tolkien is legitimate. As Delville says, Thing-Fish “threatens to render any discussion of Zappa’s connections to any particular for of artistic experimentalism practically irrelevant” (p. 197). In other words, Zappa created something new. He cannot be subsumed under safe academic clichés (connotative/denotative, metaphor/metonymy, proactive/reactive, dada/surrealist, popular/avant-garde, commercial/resistant etc etc) because he made something new under the sun — so we shall have to invent new concepts to deal with him. Zappa deserves to transfigure all our thoughts about music, society and the cosmos. Yes indeedy!
For example, listen to Zappa explode the old stand-off between “composition” and “improvisation” as ways of making music: “If you purposefully generate atmospheric perturbations, you are composing.” (The Real FZ Book, p. 162; quoted by Delville, p. 191). So Howling Wolf and John Coltrane and Derek Bailey are present day composers who refuse to die, whereas John Cage — the most famous avant-garde “composer” in the official pantheon, but someone whose whole philosophy was about avoiding purposive action — ain’t. And that brings me to what is most disappointing about this book. Zappa isn’t just the best record-maker in rock, the best transgeneric composer of our times, the funniest thing in the mass media before The Simpsons (Nick Awde rightly makes this connection at the end of his essay, p. 101) — he also invites a complete rewrite of accepted canons and concepts of value. Zappa can only be embraced uncontroversially by an academia that is “relativist”, i.e. completely compromised intellectually by acceptance of commercial laissez-faire. If you think through Zappa’s polemic about music and society, it demands the total overhaul of every assumption about authority which buttresses the academic mind. He introduces the secret self concealed in fantasy and masturbation into all social commentary; as with William Burroughs, this refusal of conventional private/public distinctions leads to an explosive politics.
According to the blurb, in Frank Zappa And The And “Zappa’s interface with religion, horror, death, movies, modernism, satire, freaks, technology, resistance, censorship and the avant-garde are brought together for the first time”. If “brought together” means shoved into a single volume, that is formally correct, but if “brought together” means internally digested into a coherent vision, then this slapdash collection of hurried papers by various big bods is simply a farce. And that “for the first time” grates. Didn’t all these themes weave themselves throughout Poodle Play? Properly integrated into a coherent polemic? Simply because it was published by Quartet rather than Cambridge University Press and its author was on the dole, not a professor, Poodle Play is disposable poo poo. I’m sure Carr would tell me he doesn’t think so himself — but his publication is nevertheless a solid brick in a fraudulent façade which rewards babbling fools and excludes real intelligence and research.
But perhaps the most damning thing of all about And The And is that it makes Simon Prentis at the Rondo Hatton Report sound like pure genius. Am I mad? No. Go and read what Prentis discovered when he investigated Don Preston’s reference to Little Anthony and The Imperials’ The Empty Room during Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask — and what it tells us about Claude Debussy and Stéphane Mallarmé and sex and the bourgeoisie. You’ll get a taste of what genuine work on Zappa does: not “justify” Zappa before a tribunal of old farts, but freak out their creaking system of hypocrisy, sex-denial and lies — an astonishing illustration of the intricacy and care with which Zappa wove his polemical miscegenation of pop and the classics, always with due attention to the actual sexual suffering induced by straight society <www.rhreport.net/archive/2012-12-21%20edition.pdf>. Paul Carr, man, you may be a worthy soldier in the fight for Zappological freedom, but with this collection, you’re selling our main man woefully short.