Been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa lately. I tend to do that in the warm months – don’t ask why. I think the tradition started in Teacher’s College. I’d recently got my hands on a copy of Sheik Yerbouti (sic), which I’d not heard in its entirety before. There’s not much I can say about Zappa here that hasn’t already been said before, so I’m not going to go too much into how amazing instrumentals are sometimes stuffed into lousy songs, or how much more pronounced the keyboards seem to be. I don’t need some student of Zappa studies pointing out all my errors of fact or omission. Doubtless there will be contrary evidence to everything I say. But there was something that struck me that I wanted to comment on.
No doubt, Zappa was a paradoxical, contradictory figure. He was known for taking music more seriously than just about anybody in the business – a notorious workaholic, more dedicated and disciplined than any mere mortal should be (and no one who heard him take on the PMRC could doubt he was a serious thinker as well). And yet, he could not write a single song lyric that wasn’t a joke. Or would not more likely, as I don’t imagine there was anything Zappa couldn’t do. He never wrote a sincere ballad, or straightforward rock song. For all their deeply subversive qualities, out-and-out protest songs weren’t his bag either (“Trouble Every Day”)? No, sarcasm and ridicule were his weapons of choice, lifting the lid on life’s absurdities with bemusement/amusement rather than outrage, let alone mere human emotions like happiness or sadness.
Yet, there are times I wonder. . .
As I said, the music itself was never a joke. There are countless moments of genuine feeling all over the catalogue. Only when he put words to it, did it become silly. Think “Sofa Number One”, a bittersweet little ditty that almost grows cosmic at the end. But when he added lyrics to the exact same tune for “Sofa Number Two”, what we get is nonsensical German, uttered in an exaggerated guttural dialect. Sure it was funny, but was that really what he was thinking when he composed the piece?
Or how about the closing chorus to “Tryin’ to grow a Chin” off Sheik Yerbouti? The melody’s inspiring, the song builds up to it in a beautifully executed crescendo. For any other artist this would be an anthemic moment, or a denouement of a stage musical. For Zappa, a novelty suicide note:
I wanna be dead,
I wanna be dead,
Please kill me,
‘Cause that would thrill me.
Doesn’t it feel great belting out those words?
The song itself is a spoof of pimply teenaged angst, but one never gets thinks for a second that Zappa has any genuine sympathy for such issues (true enough, angst can be insufferable, but let they who’ve never indulged in it cast the first stone). I can’t help wondering though, was this really all he had in mind when he wrote the song? Was that much energy really expended just to give us a joke chorus?
Zappa was the sort of guy who knew what he was doing. I very much doubt anything was done by accident, and I doubt he’d have anything but contempt for this kind of speculation. And yet. . .the incongruity is there. He was the sort of artist who chose not to express himself through words, which weren’t his natural medium after all, but I can’t help but wonder. . .could he have done so?
Was he capable?
There are some folks who have difficulty showing genuine emotion. Who need to hide behind a stoic sheen or sardonic mask. Some folks just can’t put it into words. I wonder if Zappa was one of these. He felt plenty – you can feel it in his notes. But when it came to words – to attaching concrete meanings to abstract sounds - he needed to infuse it with nonsense. Maybe using sincere words would have let the world in too close, or maybe it would have been telling. Or. . .
Zappa admitted he had little patience for books, so it probably shouldn’t surprise us he had little aptitude for poetry. Maybe language was the one instrument he couldn’t master.
Speculating about genius is a mug’s game. I’m probably wrong. All the same, when I listen to “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin”, I can’t help but wonder. . .