Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart
"Bongo Fury: An Absurdist Discussion and Appreciation"
By Tom Rodwell © 1999
I am not a vinyl fetishist. But the LP version Bongo Fury is, it must be said, pretty fucking sexy, and there is a certain something about the closeness and weight of the sound on the Lp version that is intriguing. Almost... ...uh,...sensual. The best way to play the album is to dispose of a bunch of beer on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, put the LP on an inexpensive stereo turntable, (which has the speakers sitting right next to it), and turn the volume up to the edge of feedback.
I can almost understand the product fetishism that does occur among the vinyl community: my copy of the album is a second-hand, 1975, New Zealand-pressed one. It is dusty, has a couple of prominent scratches, and turns every sibilance into a terrible lisp. The cover is very faded. Even the plastic wrapper from the record shop is dull from years of being lifted out of the 'Zappa rack,' and then dropped back in with a perfunctory snort. The package speaks of the ignorance unjustly surrounding this album.
Zappa fans too often dismiss it as a messy jumble, an oddity in the midst of sleek high production 70's albums like Apostrophe (') and One Size Fits All. Beefheart fans perhaps get a little indignant at Don being 'merely' a member of Zappa's Mothers, and get put off by FZ's political-absurdist facetiousness. To clarify my point here: it could be argued that all of Zappa's '70's albums 'use' the '70's against itself, in precisely the way that his albums from previous and subsequent decades do. Overnite Sensation, for instance, may be obnoxious, but it functions in precisely the same way as We're Only In It For The Money or Thingfish.
Bongo Fury works well because of the context that Zappa provides for Beefheart, and indeed vice versa. There is a palpable tension in their relationship: Zappa structures and edits, while the Captain injects some welcome anarchy and surrealism. Accounts differ as to the feel of the tour. Apparently relations degraded as time wore on, and there are reports of some icy moments. But then Beefheart is quoted as saying that he "had an extreme amount of fun on this tour." What was their relationship? Who knows? At least the live stuff on the album sounds in good humour, and some of the audience recordings from that 1975 Mothers tour reveal other moments of good humour onstage. And some awkward moments. Who cares? The band interaction (tension, humour, jamming), whatever it was, was crucial to the tone of the pieces.
However, the relationship we are concerned with here is not interpersonal, but rather musical. A general listen reveals two key aspects: Beefheart's expression, and Zappa's contextualisation. Beefheart's renditions of Zappa's lyrics are sublime, and generate nuances and references that swell beyond the original text. FZ's conduction and edits, and the band's improvisations, provide some of the best, most responsive and revelatory accompaniment to Don Van Vliet's poetry (with the possible exception of Bruce Fowler's live trombone improv when he was in the Captain's band). Note that here I make the distinction between Don's poetry and his songs. Vliet's tracks on Bongo Fury are poems, not song lyrics. They benefit from this suggestively unformed state. Although some musical events are occasionally glib or fatuous (FZ's guitar line after "opaque melodies that would bug most people" is gratingly obvious), some are simply delicious (Bruce Fowler and George Duke).
Beefheart does function as part of a group of figures, even 'characters' on Bongo Fury. It is interesting to hear him 'deployed' by Zappa, in a similar way to his use of Brock or Walley. For Beefheart fans, this is obviously problematic: is the Captain used as a kind of 'symbol meaning weirdness,' in the way that Walley's slide 'means' blues, or Brock 'means' funk? Beefheart does operate in contexts orchestrated by Zappa, but he is also supported in ways that perhaps none of his own ensembles matched. In the way that Zappa's songs were enlivened by Beefheart's voice, so Beefheart's poetry was pushed and challenged by the Mothers' interpretative expertise. To my ears, Bongo Fury's orchestrations provide Beefheart with possibilities for extrapolation and absurdism unmatched by his own bands. Indeed, one could argue that he tried to emulate parts of the sound and instrumentation of Bongo Fury on records like Shiny Beast, and on his later tours (George Duke-esque synths, Bruce Fowler's surrealist trombone and occasionally Denny Walley's "aluminium finger" guitar).
But it was a two edged sword. Zappa may 'deploy' Beefheart, but the Captain significantly alters the structure and aesthetic of the Mothers. Vliet's presence provokes a rare looseness in Zappa's band and enflames a finer and more complex sense of dada, (often missing from the Roxy and Elsewhere group). I believe that Zappa enjoyed this anarchy, and used it to his advantage.
But why, given the uber-musician personnel, and precision of the studio tracks, (especially "Cucamonga"), is there such an anarchistic edge? And why an album almost entirely of apparently jammed weirdness? Were the recordings destined for fragmented future release (one excellent Beefheart vocal track from the Armadillo gigs, "The Torchum' Never Stops," appears on FZ's You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, volume four), or toured rehearsals for more studio sessions? (Beefheart plays harp under the name "Bloodshot Rollin' Red" on Zappa's One Size Fits All and also appears on Zoot Allures). Zappa could easily (and did) edit and overdub, but there are wider reasons for releasing the loose recordings.
There is a strong anarchist subtext in Zappa, and perhaps the release of this album was an attack on the upwardly-mobile aspirations of fusion, (of which he was almost part with One Size Fits All). Bongo Fury is like Motorhead Sherwood's anti-skill sax solo on "King Kong," or FZ's dada piano on "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet." This anarchic music is political / conceptual in nature, and indeed I would argue that this record is one Zappa's great political (even polemical) productions, of the same category as Freak Out, We're Only in it for the Money, and Thingfish. This is freak-out blues as politics. But this record is also one of his most sonically experimental.
The funky brutality and shock of the recorded sound is the key to the importance of Bongo Fury. Zappa's policy of sonic closeness is perhaps unprecedented, and is undeniably influential, perhaps especially on close-miking specialists in the contemporary free improvisation field. The close-miking recording tactics make the music fantastically heavy and dirty. FZ's guitar, (a tremolo-bridge Gibson SG, probably with a Barcus Berry contact pickup on or in the body), is devastatingly big. His playing may not be as technically proficient as recordings from 1978-1982 can testify, but it sure is good! Beefheart's voice is excellently recorded: deep, breathy, 'squeally', it sounds like he has the microphone inside his mouth. (Interestingly, Zappa seemed to have admired this sound, for his next album -Zoot Allures- uses close-up vocal miking to the nth degree. 'The Torture Never Stops' sounds like he's trying to cram the mike down his own throat). Beefheart's harmonica is also perfect, first sleazily breathing and pumping, then joining Napoleon Murphy Brock's sax in stratospheric searches, almost like tributes to free horn players like Albert Ayler and Ornette. Beefheart's jamming on "Advance Romance" is crucial: during his solo he hollers, he squeaks, he mutters through the harp itself. This low-rent filtering of his own voice points to the transformative nature of Bongo Fury. Blues as exploration, experimentation, change.
Zappa's attention to sonic closeness also allows specific musical moments to come into focus: his production is the real composition activity on Bongo Fury. The active production adds a shockingly heavy velocity to musical events. I think of Tom Fowler's greasy and punishing bass part at the very end of "Advance Romance," Vliet's "GIVE ME BAS RELIEF," Zappa's own fretless guitar on "200 Years Old," (and George Duke's piano part right at the end); Terry Bozzio's snare roll underneath "As a straw fell out of a Coke" during "Man With the Woman Head." It doesn't matter if there were overdubs or edits or rearrangements, because it works -both as a blues record, and as a sonic experiment. When you hear George Duke's "oh!" after Denny Walley's first note during his "Advance Romance" solo, you can't help but feel it. This record is a sweaty unification of shock and funk. There's a similar sensation when listening to "The Floppy Boot Stomp" or "You Know You're a Man" on Shiny Beast, or "The Gumbo Variations" on Hot Rats -Sugarcane Harris and Ian Underwood should have been on this tour (plus Artie Tripp on marimba).
Blues has always inspired musical and sonic experimentation, (Buddy Guy playing quintuplets, Son House's slide weirdness, Robert Johnson's polyrhythms, Skip James hammering his feet on wooden panels while thundering away on the piano -30 years before Phil Spector), but it is also a way of analyzing and understanding the world. Both Beefheart and Zappa drew on blues methodology in their lyrics. On Bongo Fury, Zappa employs absurdist individualism, often with very little extrapolation from blues methods. "Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy," while parodying 70s 'weird-sex', is basically not too far removed from some of the song-stories of Son House, Skip James, or Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, (or George Clinton). "Advance Romance" is similar in tone to the stories of hedonism in blues like "Bad Whiskey," "Illinois Blues" or "Drunken Spree" by Skip James. Other songs, ("Debra Kadabra," "Advance Romance") are localised 'tall tales', while "Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead" and the mighty "200 Years Old" are social commentaries, like the bluesman's 'state of the union address.'
Beefheart's own contributions really connect to the underclass violence and disgust of the blues, rather than draw on its forms. Zappological writer Ben Watson made the connection between surrealist experimentalism and blues in Beefheart: ""Man With The Woman Head" sounds like a grotesque from Trout Mask Replica, but Beefheart's closing line 'so this was a drive-restaurant in Hollywood' places it as a realist response to the squalor of modern America."
Bongo Fury is also one of the sheer funkiest records either Zappa or Beefheart ever appeared on. It is not funky in the teenage fast wah-pedal sense, but in the slow, smelly, sexual sense. This funky blues is the ideological centre of the record, and the setting of Austin, Texas intensifies the tension in the songs / stories. Texas provides a kind of focal point: when Zappa says "Goodnight Austin, Texas, wherever you are!" he is pointing to both its black blues wealth and its status as an emblem of American-ness. Beefheart and Zappa deploy their influences, and personal transformations of them, as weapons against commercial, denim-wearing, "wrinkled-pennant"-waving, white blooze-rock. Blues, via England, has come to be a sanitized soundtrack to beer and football (culminating in the hideous BLUES BROTHERS 2000). Zappa had talked about using the "weapons of an unhappy society against itself," and here the blues of black Texans like Albert Collins, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, meet the politicised absurdism and transformative surrealism of Zappa and Beefheart respectively. Fuck these white rock guys, get an Albert Collins record!
The album uses blues -the pasteurised version of which is often the soundtrack to beer-ads, superbowls, presidential inaugurations- against the passivity, immaturity, and ugliness of bicentennial USA. "Debra Kadabra" begins with references to TV culture, and the specific instances function as surrealist disruptions of that coach-potato ethos. The nostalgia is rendered violent and horrific by Beefheart's voice (remember Don's teen-age 'skin problems'). The apparent nostalgia of "Cucamonga" is distorted by the actuality of history -FZ fans will recall the police bust and the racist locals: the odd time-signature phrases disrupt nostalgic daydreaming.
The two bicentenary-referential pieces, "Poofter's Froth, Wyoming Plans Ahead" and "200 Years Old," are direct parodies of American self-importance. In the latter, Zappa laughs at the immaturity and confusion of contemporary Americans: too mean to grow a beard. He laughs too at the 'America' figure's desperate-to-be-cool moves in front of the juke box: "Squattin' down and poppin' up, front of the jukebox just like she had true religion," (perhaps "Dancin' Fool" isn't just about disco dorkyness). The pathetic figure with tiny lips, no stubble, worshipping recorded music, who can't dance: an image in contrast to the 'adult-funk' of the blues shuffle (with the added surrealist bonus of the fretless guitar). This cheesey teen-age figure, (a subject FZ later focused on in Lather), is simply a version of the moronic salesman of "Poofter's," drunk and dancing badly- an image that almost previews "Love Story" from The Perfect Stranger, which "features an elderly Republican couple attempting sex while break-dancing".
Beefheart's contributions are more localized, and are tinged with a kind of quiet desperation and disgust ("Are you with me on this people?"). "Sam with the Showing Scalp Flat Top," as Ben Watson has noticed, is "one of a series of close-focus vignettes of Californian life which pepper Bat Chain Puller." It works as a connection, the kind made by a young blues fan and musician when coming across someone for whom the blues is not music, but the emotion of real life. Beefheart's words and vocalising are sublimely one: the image of the legless Vietnam vet is pitiful, and the weight it adds to the music he liked as an adolescent is intense.
(A brief personal interlude: When I was younger, I was in a music shop, trying out an amp and guitar that I couldn't afford, when a taxi driver brought in a tall thin guy, who was obviously homeless -or close to it- and completely blind. For some reason the staff set him up with a bass and sat him in front of the amps. We jammed blues bits and pieces for about half an hour. We did not speak. Eventually, the driver put his hand on the man's shoulder, and they left.)
"Man with the Woman Head" continues in the same dirty, drunken-sociology vein as "Advance Romance." Here, however, the dynamics of Beefheart's too-fast reading works like an improvising musician. Beefheart constantly messes with 'normal' emphases and sentence structures. The first sentence is the title, but it is read as if part of the next line, which makes for a confusing start! We have no time to catch up with the observations, instead the images flow into each other, and coherent details flip out randomly in xenochronous interaction with the music behind it. (N.B. I believe that the vocals were dubbed over the music, since the sax sounds extremely like the Captains'). It is a description of a man (an elderly drag queen?) at a drive in restaurant, his profile created by the wallpaper behind him and the junk he carries. Again it is a study in the surreal details of misery and poverty, and reads like drunken dictaphone notes.
Zappa's "Muffin Man" finishes the disc, and it functions as an odd summary of the album. While the guitar-solo is a fittingly absurd signpost to FZ's future intentions, the real focus is on the lyrics and introductory section. In Joe's Garage, the hero ends up 'decorating muffins', (as opposed to, ahem, 'decorating the cookies'). In later versions of the song, Zappa would add an extra line at the end: "he shoulda been stuffin' it in." Thus "Muffin Man" parodies work, and official, 'legitimate activities,' instead proposing an explicitly absurdist solution in sex. This is like the blues as an activity: the classic, Robert Johnson-like image of the drifting musician and 'ladies man.' "Muffin Man" is also an image of Zappa the producer / editor, with 'other things' on his mind. This relates to the deliberately urgent, brutal, almost unfinished sound and appearance of the album. Bongo Fury is a physical object that is a recording of a live event. It is thus a curious balance and confluence between the violent actualities of production, (guitar strings, amps, mixing desks, tape, pressing plants, shops, turntables), and the liberating absurdist-hedonism of live music, (music, dancing, drink, sex). These two overlap, especially during hedonistic record-listening experiences, and production-aware live situations.
Bongo Fury shakes and thuds and wheezes: its roots lie in the blues guitar as experimenter and liberator. The blues is the crucial force in contemporary music, and Zappa and Beefheart recast the texture of its raw elements (percussion, guitar, harmonica, voice) as music's most radical and experimental resources. It is no accident that the best experimental and free music of today is informed by older blues experimentalism. It is also no accident that the blues is the most entertaining and meaningful music.
COPYRIGHT 1999 BY TOM RODWELL. All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced, copied, or transmitted except with written permission.
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