Perfect Sound Forever

Frank Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay"

Or, This Is My Frank Zappa; Show Me Yours
By Kurt Wildermuth
(June 2012)

"My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only--not to be taken internally. Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid and a few of them are sort of funny. Apart from the snide political stuff, which I enjoy writing, the rest of the lyrics wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for the fact that we live in a society where instrumental music is irrelevant--so if a guy expects to earn a living by providing musical entertainment for folks in the U.S.A., he'd better figure out how to do something with a human voice plopped on it."
--from Zappa's The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989), written with Peter Occhiogrosso

Do you love it?
Do you hate it?
There it is
The way you made it
--from Zappa's "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," originally recorded with the Mothers of Invention on Absolutely Free (1967)

1. The End Credits

During the end credits of the very sexy and very sad Mexican movie Y Tu Mamá Tambien (2001), a very beautiful and very powerful piece of music plays. It's a guitar-based instrumental called "Watermelon in Easter Hay." If you don't know the piece, you'd probably never guess that it's by the late iconoclast and controversialist Frank Zappa. Even if you're familiar with some of Zappa's music, you still might not recognize what you're hearing. But if you know the track--if you've spent any time absorbing it--when the credits roll and you hear the first note, you probably feel like leaping out of your seat. "Yes!" you're thinking. "Someone has finally done justice to the mighty 'Watermelon in the Easter Hay'!"

I've now spent three decades, on and off, trying to understand how a musician as smart as Zappa--a genius, according to his father and countless fans--could create a piece as emotionally and intellectually bare as "Watermelon in Easter Hay" and then not do justice to it. This article is about how I came to terms with Zappa's handling or mishandling of this masterpiece. It's also about how, after decades of agonizing about him, I've come to terms with Zappa--and perhaps how you can too.

2. The Descent into Offal

The rock critic Lester Bangs could be caustic. In untitled, posthumously published notes from 1981, he labeled Frank Zappa "a despicable wretch morons actually call 'composer' instead of 'rip-off artist,' walking human offal if such matter ever lived." Yikes. Tell us how you really feel, Lester. On the very next page, though, Bangs reveals his knowledge of Zappa's mid-1960s work as leader of the art/jazz/noise/rock innovators the Mothers of Invention. For example, Bangs refers to Zappa's liner notes for the Mothers' debut album, Freak Out! (1966). He seems to be paraphrasing the notes from memory. Clearly, Bangs had spent time absorbing that record and the band's subsequent releases, including Absolutely Free (1967), We're Only in It for the Money (1968), and Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (1968).

In fact, in his Rolling Stone review of Zappa's solo album Chunga's Revenge (1970), Bangs actually called the name Frank Zappa "worthy of much respect. The original Mothers of Invention were a significant force in the music of our time." So in 11 years--in Zappa years, that's the journey from Chunga's Revenge to the double whammy of Tinseltown Rebellion and You Are What You Is (both two-LP sets, both released in 1981)--Bangs's estimation of Zappa nosedived from "worthy of much respect" and "significant force" to "despicable wretch" and "walking human offal." It's not hard to picture the trajectory.

In panning Chunga's Revenge, Bangs was puzzlingly dismissive of Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970), the Mothers of Invention albums that Zappa had assembled after breaking up the band. Bangs was spot-on about the strengths and weaknesses of the Mothers' Uncle Meat (1968) and Zappa's Hot Rats (1969). Most astonishingly, as if in a flash, his critical skills enabled him to detect in Chunga the "cynical condescending attitude" that Zappa's detractors often cite as wrecking vast tracts of the man's catalog. By 1981, that attitude had hardened into a shell. Often though, Zappa's descent into offal--his donning of the carapace?--is seen as starting later than Chunga.

An odd hodgepodge, Chunga mixes captivating, relatively challenging, sometimes glorious instrumentals and easily digestible pop, rock, and pop/rock tunes. In terms of Zappa's body of work, it is a fascinatingly contradictory puzzle. The craftsmanship of the arrangements, the fullness of the production, the spiritedness of the performances, and especially the sharpness of Zappa's guitar tone and the ferocity of his playing suggest total commitment. Yet Bangs wondered why Zappa bothered recording the pedestrian "Road Ladies," about the woes of being a musician on tour. Even harder to understand is Zappa's writing the fratboy singalong "Would You Go All the Way?" and especially the power-pop nugget "Tell Me You Love Me." On the surface, there's no dark side to lines such as "Tell me you love me / Like I want you to." There are also, seemingly, no layers beneath the surface. Could the cerebral, deeply unromantic Zappa possibly have meant this song? Was that question the source of Bangs's negativity? For a purist such as Bangs, the question of "meaning it" was--as Zappa put it in a different context--the crux of the biscuit. To make music and not really mean it was, at best, cynical and condescending (the fact that Zappa thought enough of "Tell Me You Love Me" to cover it on the irony-heavy Tinseltown Rebellion doesn't answer the question of Zappa's sincerity. But it raises the question of whether Bangs knew about the version and whether that knowledge contributed to his 1981 comments. In other words, was Bangs thinking "Who but a despicable wretch would not only record a love song he couldn't possibly care about, but also rerecord it 11 years later?").

In any case, Chunga's Revenge might be inconsequential, but it is altogether a far more benign set of statements and sentiments than Zappa would issue in the coming years. Consider Chunga's "Sharleena":

I'm crying,
I'm crying,
Crying for Sharleena.
Don't you know?

I called up all my baby's friends
And asked them,
Where she done went.
But nobody around here seems to know,
Where my Sharleena has been.
Where my Sharleena has been.

Those aren't good lyrics, but the song is a pleasant homage to classic soul/R&B, and the performance has what you could--if you didn't know Zappa better--mistake for real feeling. (The Mothers' precisely painful parodies of, seemingly heartfelt tributes to, and downright brilliant covers of R&B and group vocal harmony complicate rather than clarify Zappa's relationship with songs based on those forms, such as "Sharleena." Does he love this music? Does he hate it? Is he one of those fans who finds himself embarrassed by his love but can't break away from it?) Zappa thought enough of this little Blood, Sweat & Tears–like number to end the album with it. He thought of enough of it to include a nearly twelve-minute alternative version as the closing track on his career-spanning rarities compilation, The Lost Episodes (1996).

Now contrast that ditty with "Dinah-Moe Humm," from Over-nite Sensation (1973):

I couldn't say where she's comin' from,
But I just met a lady named Dinah-Moe Humm
She stroll on over, say look here, bum,
I got a forty dollar bill say you can't make me cum
(Y'jes can't do it)

She made a bet with her sister who's a little dumb
She could prove it any time all men was scum
I don't mind that she called me a bum,
But I knew right away she was really gonna cum
(So I got down to it)
I whipped off her bloomers'n stiffened my thumb
An' applied rotation on her sugar plum

It's your call: "truly stupid," "slightly less stupid," or "sort of funny"? "Mean-spirited sex songs" is how Tom Sinclair sums up this material, in his Zappa career overview at "Mean-spirited sex songs" are pretty much what Zappa is now remembered for in the public consciousness.

Bangs saw it coming. He probably started out as a Zappa enthusiast. Like so many fans of the early social commentary, sonic experimentation, and boundary-pushing, he ended up feeling betrayed by these crowd-pleasing hijinks. In music appreciation as in life, it's often the former lover who holds the ammunition to deliver the harshest attack.

3. Adolescence

A few years before Bangs wrote his "human offal" comment, maybe in 1979 or '80, I was one of those sad but happy misfits: a junior high Zappa enthusiast. One day, I walked into English class wearing a black T-shirt with Zappa's likeness on the front, and the teacher was baffled, incredulous. He asked something like, "Frank Zappa? I listened to him in the '60s. Are people still interested in Frank Zappa?" The consensus among my fellow students was that, no, the kids were not into Zappa. Only weirdos like me were interested. At that point, the mainstream kids might have known the silly, harmless FM-radio staples, such as 1974's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and 1975's "Muffin Man." They certainly had no sense of Zappa as a composer, an artist, a significant figure.

Not every longtime fan had given up, of course. Diehards know the details of every release, from the pre–Freak Out! stuff to FZ's final work, Civilization Phaze III (1995), to the posthumous collections put out sporadically by the Zappa Family Trust. Oh, and let's not forget the bootlegs, many of which Zappa co-opted and released in official versions.

One early devotee who did give up is David Walley, a Zappa biographer. On my music-books bookshelf, the Lester Bangs collection that includes Bangs's "human offal" comment, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), sits next to Walley's book. With Bangs's derision as a mental segue, I placed the volumes together. No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa Then and Now is Walley's 1980 revised edition of the bio he first published in 1972. By the time of the original edition, Walley saw the former Mother as potentially leading a social/aesthetic revolution:

Frank Zappa can do anything he wants. He is a man of knowledge. He has many options open--he can write more complex music without regard to commercial potential (though he fervently hopes to be commercial), he can write more visceral music to bring along and educate a younger audience (or pander to their tastes to pursue feverish success), he can branch off into experimental films, he can publish all his tapes to make a public show of his struggle--any number of things equally valid to his mind...

It's not an enviable position for anyone, even for a catalyst like him. The Seventies need leadership again or they will stagnate in their own media swill.

By 1980, Walley was far less starry-eyed:
Frank Zappa has finally achieved a measure of success commensurate with his desires and is now an accepted part of adolescence. He has his own record company and the ability to draw many talented and dedicated musicians to his service. He has a large audience, although a different and younger one according to his own observations...

In an age where everything seems to be allowed, Frank Zappa still goes out of his way to present gratuitous obscenity, actual or implied. Whether he does this to pander to the taste of his new, younger, and less sophisticated audience or to further explore his own obsessions is the question. . . .

Maybe part of his function as a Twentieth-Century American composer who has chosen to work in the medium of rock and roll is to throw pearls before the swine. It's sort of like being a Zen master with his disciples, his chelas. Keep hitting them on the head long enough, they're bound to catch on. Eventually they learn to become their own masters.

After Zappa's death in 1993, Walley revised the book again. By then, his distaste for Zappa seemed to have turned into loathing, and he dutifully dismissed each post-1980 release.

4. "Village of the Sun" versus "Fine Girl"

Frank Zappa had the ability to create irresistible melodies with built-in hooks. The twists and turns of the tunes fit together so snappily, they could seem both surprising and inevitable. They lodge in your head and never leave, even if you beg them to. Had Zappa been inclined to wed his delicious melodies with lyrics worthy of them, instead of with his idea of dumb "fun," he could rival Beatles-era Lennon and McCartney as a composer of smart, approximately heartfelt, unsticky sweet pop/rock songs. There are moments. Consider "Trouble Every Day," from Freak Out! This song reportedly inspired the album's producer, Tom Wilson, to add the Mothers to the Verve Records roster:

Well I'm about to get sick
From watchin' my TV
Been checkin' out the news
Until my eyeballs fail to see
I mean to say that every day
Is just another rotten mess
And when it's gonna change, my friend
Is anybody's guess
So I'm watchin' and I'm waitin'
Hopin' for the best
Even think I'll go to prayin'
Every time I hear 'em sayin'
That there's no way to delay
That trouble comin' every day
No way to delay
That trouble comin' every day
Zappa thought enough of this bit of Dylanesque social commentary to revisit it, as "More Trouble," on his 1974 live album, Roxy & Elsewhere. The album has a special warmth. It presents Zappa as a witty, down-to-earth master-of-ceremonies, and it documents a band generally considered Zappa's finest alongside or beyond the original Mothers. And it includes the closest thing that Zappa ever wrote to a singer/songwriter confessional, "Village of the Sun." Sun Village, as Zappa explains to the audience, was "this place [near] where I used to live where they used to raise turkeys":
Goin' back home
To the Village of the Sun
Out in back of Palmdale
Where the turkey farmers run
I done2 made up my mind
And I know I'm gonna go to Sun
Village, Good God,
I hope the wind don't blow

It'll take the paint off your car
And wreck your windshield, too,
I don't know how the people stand it
But I guess they all do

Those aren't the most compelling confessions, but they hit the unsuspecting Zappa listener like warm rays within the chilly winds and icy blasts of the Zappascape. "By my admittedly peculiar standards," the composer notes in The Real Frank Zappa Book, the song "strikes me as a sentimental lyric--and there aren't many of those in my catalog." It's touching that FZ even had the impulse to share a personal experience. Imagine if he had spent the next ten years mining that vein instead of offering drivel such as "Fine Girl," the opening cut on Tinseltown Rebellion:
Oh yeah
She was a fine girl
She could get down, with the, get down
All the way down
She do your laundry
She change a tire
Chop a little wood for the fire
Poke it around
If it died down
That's not clever or funny. It's not interesting or particularly provocative. It's "Dinah-Moe Humm" without the sugar plum. It's nothing, really, but a waste--of time, of potential, of intelligence, of all the faculties that go into aesthetic creation. Even if it's a parody of male attitudes, why would anyone want to listen to it? Life's too short.

In explaining the gap between Zappa's technical mastery and the obnoxiousness and puerility of his lyrics, the David Walley of 1980 puts the charge this way:

Listening to his music, we can really see those mental monsters which peer through the leering horn sections, the skittish xylophone passages, the cold and angular serial prongs. But on the whole, all that magnificent structure gets buried way back in the mix while in the foreground multitracked voices are shrieking, "Broken hearts are for assholes."

See Part II of the Zappa article

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