Friday, February 5, 2016

Frank Zappa 28: Joe's Garage

Like many of Frank’s grand statements, Joe’s Garage has a lot to say, but its message is spoiled by his overall delivery. It didn’t take too much of a stretch of his own imagination to take the seed idea of a garage band playing simple music into a dystopian future where music was banned, and record executives sodomized each other as well as anyone or anything in the vicinity of the internment camp where they were housed. And Frank’s view was that if you couldn’t handle the story, then you’re part of the problem.

Anyone who reads this blog will likely agree with Frank that music is the best, just as they would agree that suppression of music is a tragedy, particularly when enforced by so-called elected officials. We also use music to escape reality, and you can’t always do that when listening to the vocalization of “a cross between an industrial vacuum cleaner and a chrome piggy bank with marital aids stuck all over its body” subjected to urophilia. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as that doesn’t happen until Act II. Huh? Let us explain.

Joe’s Garage was issued in two parts: Act I, a single disc followed a few months later by a double album, Acts II & III. Since the dawn of the digital era, they’ve been packaged in a two-CD set, with the only notation of where successive acts begin found in the liner notes, so the story can be ingested all at once.

“The Central Scrutinizer” makes his entrance in something of an overture, delivering the first of many commentaries in a loud accented whisper through a megaphone. The title track stands very well on its own, not just for the wonderful illustration of the repetitive limitations of a garage band, but for the debut of Ike Willis, who would voice many of Frank’s lyrics for the rest of the man’s life, and quite soulfully, too. Speaking of which, Dale Bozzio (later of Missing Persons) makes her tuneless debut on “Catholic Girls”, a dirty joke that would have fit in the context of Sheik Yerbouti, musically even. Here, it’s a setup for “Crew Slut”, essentially an update of “Road Ladies” but with more descriptive directions and a lot nastier overall. It’s an ordinary blues shuffle, contrasted with the disco pop of “Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt”, featuring Frank at his most lecherous. (In case you were wondering about the plot, Joe’s girlfriend Mary stood him up at the CYO dance, ended up with the roadies of a band in town, who used her up and left her at a bar where a wet T-shirt contest could potentially earn her money to get “home”. Because, in Frank’s world, that’s what girls do.) What was originally called “Toad-O-Line” on the LP has been changed to “On The Bus” since, though the first three notes of this extended solo still seem to quote “Hold The Line” by Toto. The Scrutinizer informs us that news of Mary’s adventures upset Joe so much that he responded in kind, his experience leading him to ask the immortal question, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, which otherwise taints a decent backing. This gave Frank an excuse to finally include “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” on an album, albeit in an inferior reggae version.

Act II begins in the Church of Appliantology, led by L. Ron Hoover, which is still pretty clever. Hoover and Joe’s dialogue makes up the lyrics of “A Token Of My Extreme”, which had been an instrumental piece for about five years. While he’s at it, Frank revives “Stick It Out”, an old Flo & Eddie routine sung in German, then in English, and just as obscene in both languages. He also introduces Sy Borg, the appliance mentioned in the second paragraph above, whose demise comes at the end of a nine-minute jazz-reggae groove. Slightly less excruciating is “Dong Work For Yuda”, an inside joke about a Zappa roadie who mangled the English language. Here it’s used to illustrate the type of deviants Joe met in the prison where he was sent for destroying Sy, and sets up “Keep It Greasey”, the furthest thing from vague, but ending in a fantastic five-minute solo. In the realm of Joe’s story, these guitar solos are the only things that keep him going while he finishes his sentence, looking forward to life “Outside Now”.

Act III is arguably the best portion, consisting of four long tracks and a lot of soloing. “He Used To Cut The Grass” informs us that Joe is out of prison, but music is now illegal so he can only continue imagining the sounds in his head. Luckily for us, not only are the solos worthy of posterity, but the band, which now included Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, could keep with Frank. They get a lot of room to stretch on “Packard Goose”, an angry diatribe against journalists (with a couple of birds flipped to “Joe” and “Mo”, who we read as two of the executives who’d signed him to Reprise Records way back when). Now we have arrived at perhaps the greatest nine minutes in Frank’s career, the positively gorgeous “Watermelon In Easter Hay”. Over a sleepy 9/4 rhythm, trilling vibraphones, sitar-like guitar and strolling bass, Frank bends his strings in a way that’s alternately crying and triumphant. The album could have ended there, but he needs a “stupid song” for the closing credits; hence “A Little Green Rosetta” is the literal icing on this cake.

Obviously, Joe’s story was very important to Frank, who felt sodomized (symbolically, anyway) by a cruel world where his music was misunderstood and censored. What sinks Joe’s Garage and keeps it from regular rotation are the lyrics. Most of his guitar solos were transferred in via xenochrony, which helps boost the second half of the program considerably, were it not for the story. If he had only let the songs he had stand alone, without stringing them together with a theme and narration, there’s a chance it would have been better than it is, and worthy of the praise people heap on it.

Still, we do crack up every time that canned police siren appears in the mix.

Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage Act I (1979)—2
Frank Zappa
Joe’s Garage Acts II & III (1979)—2

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