Perfect Sound Forever

Frank Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay"

Or, This Is My Frank Zappa; Show Me Yours
Part II By Kurt Wildermuth

5. The Watermelon in the Easter Hay

"Broken Hearts Are for Assholes"--how's that for cynicism and condescension?--appeared on Sheik Yerbouti (1978). This two-LP technical tour-de-force, the inaugural release on Zappa's own Zappa Records, also included the irresistible yet disposable radio hit "Dancin' Fool," the extremely mean-spirited European club hit "Bobby Brown" (aka "Bobby Brown Goes Down," pun intended), and such charmers as "Jones Crusher" ("My baby's got / jones crushing love") and "Jewish Princess" ("I don't want no troll / I just want a Yemenite hole"). Zappa sounded like he was having a lot of fun concocting and delivering these ditties, but he had essentially harnessed his resources at the service of glorified, foul-mouthed, deliberately offensive "Weird Al" Yankovic material. For many long-time Zappa listeners, this album represented the end of the road.

Zappa's next official releases, Joe's Garage, Act I and Joe's Garage, Acts II and III (both 1979), at least attempted to be significant in presenting a celebration of music and a dystopian vision of societal repression. Music has been declared illegal, and Joe, a guitarist in a garage band, is incarcerated. Unfortunately, Act II spends more time contemplating the possibilities for anal sex in prison than it does examining the dynamics of censorship and totalitarianism. In assembling these concept albums, Zappa brought together otherwise unrelated compositions. By Act III, the narrative has basically fallen apart, and the music drifts into instrumentals and other pieces only marginally related to the concept. Thus, if you have enjoyed, endured, or fast-forwarded your way through, say, "Stick It Out," "Sy Borg," "Dong Work for Yuda," and "Keep It Greasey" (sic), you encounter one of the most extraordinary pieces of music that Zappa ever concocted: "Watermelon in Easter Hay."

Why that title? Why not? Dada and surrealism always seemed to play a part in Zappa's working methods. Sometimes he seems to have spun some magic wheel of words and simply used whatever phrase or catchphrase the wheel stopped on. A liner note for Uncle Meat tongue-in-cheekily lays out the method, at least circa 1968:

The words to the songs on this album were scientifically prepared from a random series of syllables, dreams, neuroses & private jokes that nobody except the members of the band ever laugh at, and other irrelevant material. They are all very serious & loaded with secret underground candy-rock psychedelic profundities. (Basically this is an instrumental album).
Ten years later, Zappa had reached the point of inexplicably titling an instrumental "I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth." Um, thanks, Frank. Perhaps the title "Watermelon in Easter Hay" signals that this music represents a kinder, gentler version of the man and his music. Perhaps it kindly, gently nods back toward another of Zappa's instrumental masterpieces, "Peaches en Regalia" (1969; also, just for the record: I don't love the title "Watermelon in Easter Hay," and it makes the piece very difficult to discuss with people who've never heard it--they have trouble understanding what you're saying and why you're saying it, and they have trouble taking what you're saying seriously. Still, I'm not sure that if "Watermelon in Easter Hay" was instead called "I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth" or something along those lines, I'd be so keen on telling anyone about the piece).

As a plot element in the Joe's Garage story, "Watermelon in Easter Hay" is Joe's final guitar solo. Having been released from prison, Joe has been trying to evade the ever-watchful Central Scrutinizer by creating music in his head. Now, as the Central Scrutinizer explains in his role as narrator, Joe "knows the end is near. He has realized at last that imaginary guitar notes and imaginary vocals exist only in the imagination of the imaginer." In his "ugly little room," Joe dreams an instrumental that Zappa seldom, maybe never, equaled in concision, emotional directness, and majesty.

Beneath the Central Scrutinizer's narration, Arthur Barrow's bass and Vinnie Colaiuta's drums have been rumbling. Warren Cucurullo's rhythm guitar and Peter Wolf's keyboards have been repeating a simple pattern. A "whooshing" echo on the drums acts like set design, laying out the emotional territory. Taken further, this effect could be New Age cheese. Here, used with restraint, it evokes wind-swept sands. The guitar playing complicates that territory considerably. When the talking stops, Colaiuta plays a short, slow roll--ah, the rich sound of a real drum kit, recorded precisely!--that leads straight, as though they're the same instrument, into Zappa's first guitar note. The note is uncharacteristically high for him. Zappa's guitar playing tended to be sharp, gruff, and angular. He could riff or draw out a melodic line or focus on flurries of notes, but he didn't often let his guitar sing. Here that first note sounds like a cry. It rings out, lingering briefly--again, uncharacteristically for Zappa, who follows it with four descending notes.

That hook catches you. Where will Zappa go from there? He repeats the four-note pattern, then follows it with three similar but ascending notes, the last of which seems to ring into infinity. So he briefly brightens the stark, sad cry of the opening. Then he repeats the opening pattern, but puts a little spin on the first note and replaces the three-note ascension with an exploration that goes on slightly longer than you expect it to and makes clear that this piece is not based on repetition. A spitting, sputtering, tongue-sticking quality makes the notes sound even more like the product of a human voice.

This music is melancholy but not despairing. It veers off the road to despair by driving into a wide-open range of contemplation. Something--it feels like existence itself--is being not just pondered but chewed over.

Zappa returns to the opening riff, then repeats it with the uptick from the opening. The other instruments' simple rhythmic pattern has become more pronounced. Zappa delivers another exploratory guitar line, this time with less sputtering, as though the statement is beginning in earnest. Then he detours into an aside of low notes: a variation on the previous explorations, played as though some other ideas have occurred to the speaker. They're not main points. They're a bunch of "oh yeah"s and "by the way"s and "I should mention"s, head held down. Then, after another exquisite little drum fill, Zappa returns to that main theme. This time, bells start to accompany it, adding punctuation (Ed Mann is the percussionist). Zappa reaches a particularly articulate flurry of notes, he pauses, and he unironically taps out a lone note, the tasty-guitar-solo equivalent of shouting "Hey!" Then he shoots off into outer space.

With the press of a pedal, the guitar texture has shifted from lean and sinewy to thick and sizzling. Here I have to suspend my attempt to describe Zappa's playing. He famously described writing about music as being like "dancing about architecture," and while I'm hoping this piece will encourage you to discover "Watermelon in Easter Hay" for yourself, I'm not going to jiggle my limbs about FZ's intricate edifice. I'm going to trust in the power of my enthusiasm to lead you there.

For about two minutes, starting at about four minutes into the piece, you're going to hear guitar playing as expressive as anything Jimi Hendrix ever accomplished. Neil Young's playing on "Like a Hurricane"--Young's finest recording?--might be another helpful comparison. In single notes and cascades, movements up and down and across the fret board, repetitions and variations, pulls and stretches, Zappa's guitar says all the things about life that he never said, never even attempted to say, in his lyrics. Hell, one tapped note thrills me so much, every time I hear it, that I'd trade it for the rest of Zappa's entire catalog. Broken hearts may be for assholes, but this music sure sounds like or wounds like a broken heart.

Then Zappa returns to the opening riff, with all the accompanying parts even higher in the mix and the riff having new significance. In other words, the guitar has established the theme, used that theme as a springboard into a series of detours and flights, and now returns to the theme because it is so important to say this wordless thing. But now all trace of sputtering hesitancy is gone. The player knows his terrain, and he has brought back to it whatever he found during the movements in space.

Marimba now becomes prominent in the gaps between guitar phrases. Imagine a small group of penguins nodding their heads in unison or maybe monks chanting "yes yes yes" in affirmation of what Zappa has just played or is still playing (sorry, Frank, I can't avoid a little dancing). A bell plays its own upward sweep. Drumbeats are pouncing between guitar notes--in fact, Colaiuta is nearly Zappa's co-star in this show. Then a very heavily textured rhythm kicks in, like a truck starting up.

We're not listening to jazz, people. The piece may have a jazz structure, but the music is rock. It's not rock and roll, but the power of all those layered parts can provide the same kick as a great rock and roll song. Vast washes of sound rise from rhythm guitars and cymbals, with the lead guitar line riding and singing, repeating the opening riff. Then, just as quickly, after the crescendo, drum beats fall like a series of stones into water. The layers drop away.

The guitar has nothing left to say, and Zappa lets it say nothing more. He adds no further flourishes. He just takes a few desultory drags at the strings. As the tempo slows, as the piece settles into the earth or the dirt or the dust or the sand--or even, though I doubt it, the Easter hay--Zappa plays a ghostly approximation of the opening riff. A final, extremely quiet note rings.

On YouTube, as of this writing, people have posted videos that are simply still images with the original recording. Many other videos are of Zappa performing the piece live. The live versions don't have the hypnotic expressivity of the original. Zappa's variations on his own material can be like that: sometimes interesting, often pale imitations. Here, he doesn't quite convey the riff. There, he overplays during the variations.

He was a tinkerer, an assembler, an inventor who made new stuff out of materials at hand. As a guitar soloist, he composed on the spot. Consider the space-exploration solo on the studio version of "Inca Roads" (1975). It feels crystalline and timeless, yet Zappa spliced it in from a live recording. Was it truly not possible to re-create that series of notes while in the studio recording the One Size Fits All album? Maybe not. Maybe he was constitutionally incapable of crossing the same solo-guitar river twice. Whether the source material for "Watermelon in Easter Hay" started life as a live improvisation or a studio composition, Zappa clearly spent a lot of time sculpting the basics into a textured meditation.

YouTube commenters have provided documentary evidence of the piece's effects on them:

"Thanks Frank for so beautiful a song. Always make[s] me cry."

"Simply beautiful. Tears, joy, death and birth in one solo."

"i used to be a total zap-head back in my teens, nothing else came close for me. later on i moved away a bit as i found the underlying vibe just somewhat cold, self-referencing and too knowing, especially the later stuff, maybe too postmodern? . . . this song however is so heartfelt, moving, open . . . no trace of cynicism."

"this is beyond imagination, beyond any form of perfection, beyond anything that a man can say with words."

"People, when I die, please play this at my funeral."

6. Stranded in Joe's Garage

Let's say that Joe's Garage, Acts I, II, & III stands as Zappa's mashup of George Orwell's 1984 (1949) and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). Toss in a very unhealthy foreshadowing of the teenage sex comedy Porky's (1982), which was hilarious, and its sequels, which were dreadful. In the midst of all that, "Watermelon in Easter Hay" is the eight-minute sonic equivalent of Paul Bowles's desert epic, The Sheltering Sky (1949). The prose is taut, but the goal of that tautness is ravishment. The mood is of profound despair so firmly controlled that it feels like day-to-day living but with the slow burn of philosophizing about mortality.

So what is this magnificent, deeply moving composition doing on Joe's Garage? Why did Zappa squeeze this crowning achievement in with all these lesser works, these odes to the sexual proclivities of Catholic girls, to VD, to sex with appliances? Why did he bury it--strand it in the fetid swamp? I won't begin to speculate about the man's psyche. The image I have of Zappa in the late seventies and the eighties is of the man seeking to hide all the beauty, sometimes ugly beauty, he had once proudly revealed, a man wrapping himself in protective layers of metal and plastic and raw meat.

One of the YouTube videos of Zappa performing "Watermelon in Easter Hay" comes from the May 9, 1980, concert at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. It was the first song of the show. I was there and must have been ecstatic, because at the time I was a Joe's Garage fan. I stuck with Zappa through his next few albums, but by 1982 I'd had enough--enough with the smut and the cynicism and the disposability.

Some of the Zappa LPs I'd bought--Hot Rats, One Size Fits All, the all-instrumental Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar trilogy--I deeply loved, still love, and would never get rid of, even if years or even decades went by without my playing them. Others--Joe's Garage, Act I; Tinseltown Rebellion; You Are What You Is--had to go (the best thing on Tinseltown Rebellion, a mainly live album, was a fascinating song called "Brown Shoes Don't Make It." It was a cover of the Mothers of Invention's classic, which I've quoted as an epigraph to this piece. But at the time, how could neophytes know what it was or where it came from? The early Mothers albums were out of print, and used copies were expensive. In those pre-Internet, analog days, some of us teenage Zappa fans had to settle for reading about the music that had established him as a significant figure). The end of the road for me was Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982), which included some really challenging material, some of it so groundbreaking as to be nearly unlistenable, and the novelty hit "Valley Girl," a comedy monologue with no shelf life. But Joe's Garage, Acts II and III left me with a dilemma. Most of it I hoped to never hear again, even to erase from my memory banks, but "Watermelon in Easter Hay" was essential.

I kept the two-LP set just to have those eight minutes. I put them at the start of a compilation tape that included the most moody, romantic, heartbreakingly beautiful music I owned. When I thought about Frank Zappa, I resented him. I deplored him. Yet I knew that at least some of his instrumental music still mattered very much to me.

It turns out that "Watermelon in Easter Hay" meant a lot to FZ. A YouTube commenter notes:

Just swept me away when it came on in the closing titles of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Story is the producer had to beg [Frank's] wife to use it because he'd had it written in his will that this was the one song of his that could never be used for commercial gain after his death. She only gave in when she watched the film and it struck her that he would have wanted it. It was his type of movie.
In 1996, the Zappa Family Trust released Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute. Collected on it were one otherwise unreleased blues improvisation and three of the man's most memorable and expressive guitar instrumentals, each of the latter in its official version and in at least one other incarnation. "Watermelon in Easter Hay" was one of those three honored pieces (the others were "Black Napkins" and "Zoot Allures," both from Zoot Allures [1976]. Both are beautiful; neither is the equal of "Watermelon").

I don't own Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, which now commands (for me) big bucks in the used-music market. I own a couple of the posthumous Zappa releases put out by the Zappa Family Trust, however, and here's why: in 2011, a turntable upgrade sent me back to my Zappa LP's. They sounded amazing, and I was face-to-face with my love of FZ's instrumental music. I wanted more of it. I was willing to wade through some of his "slightly less stupid" and "sort of funny" material, but I wanted to avoid the "truly stupid" stuff.

So I read up and bought up. People, let me tell you, I by no means have an encyclopedic knowledge of the man's work. There are periods, styles, chunks of the vast catalog that I haven't heard yet or have no interest in exploring. But after years of basically fearing and loathing Zappa, I came to a deeper understanding of his work by peeling away layers and looking for one kind of Zappa, the kind I wanted to hear. I didn't expect to find more music on the order of "Watermelon in Easter Hay." Not even within all the stunning fretwork on the Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar recordings or their guitar-solo follow-ups, Guitar (1988) and Trance-Fusion (2006), will you find anything as arresting as "Watermelon in Easter Hay." From its first guitar note, that track announces its singularity. Instead, I wanted to find the impulse that had yielded the thing. You can scrape away all the layers of gratuitous vulgarity and social commentary and dumb humor on the Joe's Garage trilogy and you won't find that impulse. You'll just end up, like the track itself, stranded.

7. The Importance of Being Earnest

Essentially, where can you find the Frank Zappa who is neither the purveyor of gross-out humor and snidely sardonic social commentary nor the composer of modernist miniatures in the footsteps of Varése and Stravinsky? The original Mothers of Invention (1966–70) mixed rock and jazz into forms that are alternately beautiful and ugly, sometimes shifting from one mode to the other in split seconds. The recordings from this period deliver pure pleasure if you're inclined to receive it, but more than anything else, they display Zappa's melodic and rhythmic sensibilities as filtered through the rough-hewn crashes, honks, toots, and wails of the ensemble. Some alternative/indie rock bands--such as Half Japanese, Thinking Fellers Union Local #282, and Primus--have drawn on this aesthetic. Still, the Mothers' music is very much of its time--gloriously so. It has lasting aesthetic value, but you have to understand it in context.

The rock and jazz/rock of Zappa's solo recordings Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka (1972), and The Grand Wazoo (1973) reduce the jump-cut juxtapositions. Here beauty and ugliness coexist in long forms. Ironic distance is greatly reduced. In fact, the seriousness can be quite disarming and disorienting if you're approaching from the direction of Zappa's work during the subsequent decades. Also very much in this serious vein is the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's King Kong (1970), nearly all of which was "composed and arranged by Frank Zappa."

Zappa wrote Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo while convalescing from serious injuries he received when a crazed audience member pushed him off a stage. It's easy to imagine the FZ of the '80s responding to this calamity with an acerbic attack on, say, the stupidity of fandom. Instead, this music is among the warmest and most positive the man ever made. Healing seems to have brought out in Zappa the sense of pure possibility: Hey, I can assemble the ensembles to realize my sounds uncompromisingly.

Take the section of "Cletus Awreetus Awrightus," on The Grand Wazoo, where Zappa and others sing the melodic line. The delivery is the sort of thing you might hear on a demo: "Hrum pum pumpa pum pum parumpa pum pum," for example. FZ doesn't sound like he's just teaching the tune to the band, however. The pomp might be a put-on, but the composer sounds gleeful, as though this moment--the climax of the piece, a triumphal announcement--really matters to him. Here we get down to essentials for FZ: sounds, vocals, no lyrics necessary to convey the melodies.

To play this music live, Zappa assembled two ensembles: The Mothers of Invention/Hot Rats/Grand Wazoo and then, because it was so expensive to tour with 20 musicians, the Petite Wazoo, a mere 10 musicians. In 2007, the Zappa Family Trust issued two live recordings that present versions of what these groups performed. FZ had worked on the tapes, but for undisclosed reasons chose not to release them. Ultraknowledgeable fans--the diehards who'd heard those concerts or at least heard about them--requested releases from the Zappa archive. The ZFT was wise to oblige, because the two-CD Zappa/Wazoo and the single-disc Imaginary Diseases put the man and his music in revelatory and welcome perspectives.

Behold: the modern-day composer as earnest entrepreneur. Maybe he wants to touch listeners' heads, and maybe he wants to touch their hearts, but above all he seems intent on working with his hugely dexterous musicians. By 2007, this Frank Zappa had basically been lost in the swirling dust of pop-cultural history or been buried under his own detritus.

Zappa/Wazoo and Imaginary Diseases are entirely instrumental apart from Zappa's comments to the audience. Other live recordings feature playful banter or wised-up commentary ("Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform. Don't kid yourself," Frank says on Burnt Weeny Sandwich), but here the composer focuses on presenting his music his way. Zappa/Wazoo includes versions of pieces from Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, but it also includes the 20-plus-minute "Adventures of Greggary Peccary", which Zappa eventually threw away on a contract-fulfilling LP, Studio Tan (1979). There the piece has lyrics and an extremely silly narrative. Here Zappa threatens to explain the narrative, but he ends up letting the music speak for itself. The instrumental version isn't necessarily better than the narrative one, but it's easier to respect and less likely to lose flavor over time. Perhaps the closest comparison to Zappa's persona in this period is Philip Glass in the late '70s, performing his groundbreaking minimalist work with the Philip Glass Ensemble--music very much of its time but still worth absorbing.

On Imaginary Diseases, the composer leads the ensemble but also spontaneously composes on the guitar. These pieces have not been released in studio versions. The combination of dynamic rhythm section, horns, and guitar inventions can be dazzling, and adventurous listeners who might not care for the silliness or ultraseriousness that Zappa normally deals in might go for the straightforward musicianship on display here. The playing is relentless, but the relentlessness comes across as unflagging enthusiasm. For example, "Been to Kansas City in A Minor" delivers as much swinging, crunching bluesiness as the title suggests. On the 13-minute "D. C. Boogie," Zappa grooves his way through a Middle Eastern–sounding melody, his playing evoking the "backwards guitar" effects you hear on psychedelic records. Then the piece takes a heavy metallish pause (but with horns!). Zappa invokes the "democratic process" and invites the audience to vote on how he and the band will end the song. "One at a time!" he jokes. "How many say boogie? . . . How many say ballad?" The audience chooses a boogie, and FZ seems delighted to oblige. So it's 1972, and Zappa appears to be the world's most good-natured guitar hero. He seems far from the offal that Lester Bangs sniffed out in 1970. Zappa comes alive!

Music of this kind frees Zappa from his mean-spirited sex songs, from what often appeared to be pandering to his audience's lowest common denominator, and from perhaps an inability or unwillingness to reveal too much feeling. (Could he have come to fear feeling, even as he came across as fearless?) The clarity of expression--not confession, just pure sound--unites these recordings and "Watermelon in Easter Hay." In other words, on these recordings at least, Zappa's artistic sensibility exists unencumbered. To find material of this kind, you just have to explore his catalog and cherry-pick.

In this sense, the burying of "Watermelon in Easter Hay" on Joe's Garage represents an analogy for Zappa's career. After all, Zappa sometimes embedded beauty and feeling even on satiric albums heavy with sonic collage. We're Only in It for the Money is best-known for its deflowering of flower power, but toward the middle of Side 1 it includes a heartbreaking little narrative:

Mama! Mama!
Someone said they made some noise
The cops have shot some girls and boys
You'll sit home and drink all night
They looked too weird... it served them right
Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion
In between the moisture cream and velvet facial lotion?
Ever tell your kids you're glad that they can think?
Ever say you loved 'em? Ever let 'em watch you drink?
Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad?
It's such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad
Mama! Mama!
Your child was killed in the park today
Shot by the cops as she quietly lay
By the side of the creeps she knew...
They killed her too
"Mom and Dad," too, sums up so much of Zappa's oeuvre. The melody is inviting and instantly hummable. The lyrics celebrate society's "freaks" and skewer hypocrisy and repression. However, uncharacteristically for Zappa, this song celebrates emotion. In its funereal tempo and tragic ending, it verges on melodrama. The sentimentality arrives from out of nowhere; you feel stunned; you can't quite believe what you've heard on a Zappa record ("Ever say you loved 'em?"!); and by then, the music has cut to something completely different.

The selective listening that I'm advocating here goes against Zappa's presentation of his work. Beginning in the mid '60's, he referred to his corpus as the Project/Object and filled it with "conceptual continuity," or links between otherwise disparate parts. But "conceptual continuity" works better as a marketing ploy than as a vehicle for listening pleasure. Keep paying attention! Collect 'em all! Find the links! But since the parts of Zappa's vast catalog include so much crap, why bother? Become your own master. You are under no obligation to collect 'em all or to fill your head with junk. Zappa's official story encompasses all kinds of editing, and that editing continues in his absence. Particularly in these digital days, you have the power to assemble your own version of Zappa's work. In fact, you do the most justice to the wit and wisdom of Frank Zappa not by swallowing his whole megillah but by applying your critical thinking skills to whatever you consume by him or by anyone else. If you find merit in any of Zappa's music, you owe it to yourself to assemble a version you can live with. Let whatever aspect of his work appeals to you serve as your guiding light. If that means sanitizing the product, so be it. You owe it to Frank Zappa to save him for yourself and, perhaps, from himself.

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