I’ve been thinking about Frank Zappa lately. Why? A few days ago, writer and critic Steve Smith wrote a little post (and some tweets) about seeing The Zappa Band, and mentioned he used to be a fan, then went through a period where he wasn’t, but has sort of come around a little. And it got me to thinking about how I, a trans woman in her mid 30s, thinks about and tries to enjoy the music of one of classic rock’s biggest misogynists, when I’m the kind of person Zappa would have enjoyed pissing off.
Zappa’s music career started in the early 60s, and his first record came out in 1966, the double-LP Freak Out. It’s a mixed bag, like most debut records, and there’s some filler among the highlights. But maybe it’s with 1968’s We’re Only In It For the Money that’s where Zappa’s talents came out in full bloom: with a mix of studio trickery, hard edits and musique concrete, We’re Only In It...was a dark counter to the summer of love. It opened with a song sending up San Francisco hippie naivete, had conversations about phones being tapped and ended with a musical tribute to Kafka, the sonic blast of “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” Well over 50 years later, it’s a heck of a statement, even if it’s the kind of record you only put on once in a while - it’s not conducive to passive listening and there isn’t exactly a hit single to pull from. But as far as Zappa’s music goes, this is where everything clicked for the first time, and maybe the last, too.
We’re Only In It was also my introduction to Zappa, on a cassette my dad gave me back when I was in high school, maybe around 2001 or so. With it’s songs that called out the police (“Your child was killed in the park today / shot by the cops as she quietly lay,” sang The Mothers on “Mom and Dad,” written a few years before Kent State), phony people (“Flower Punk”) and glorified outsiders, it’s the kind of music that a weird, loner kid could easily get into. Especially one who was straight edge - Frank was famously anti-drug, the kind of person who drank like six cups of coffee a day instead of smoking a joint or two. Needless to say, I quickly grabbed whatever Zappa records I could get my hands on, no easy feat in a small town and in the days before Napster was a thing.
For a while, I was a huge fan. I knew all the lyrics to “Inca Roads,” even the tricky little ones (Armadillo queen, etc, ad infinitum), I had bootlegs I got by trading with people through the postal system. I even had most of the records, including Civilization Phase Three, which was then out-of-print although I found a copy somewhere. But by about 2004 my fandom started to cool a little bit. Partly it was because I was going through what I’d now call dysphoria, but also I was getting turned on to a new crop of bands: the Strokes, The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Flaming Lips. They made music that was cooler, sure, but in some ways it was more life-affirming. Where Zappa was cynical and snide, Wayne Coyne was singing about the wonder of the universe; where Zappa was doing seven-minute guitar solos, Jack White was sending out punishing guitar riffs at light speed.
Mostly, though, I think it was because I was growing up.
The thing Zappa fans never tell you is how regressive Zappa’s music is. For every song about police brutality, there’s two where he reduces women to sex objects. For every insight into society’s flaws, there’s one where he savages people who are different then him. And running counter to Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, there’s a record like Thing Fish which even Zappa fans find hard to defend.
By the time I was in college, I was actually hanging out with people (mostly with women), and finding my guy friends tiresome. Zappa’s music was dragging on me, too. It’s hard to defend a song with a title like “Jewish Princess” to brash young feminists, and honestly, I was finding it harder and harder to get through those songs, too. And eventually it kind of struck me: Zappa was an asshole. Like, a grade A Asshole, the kind of person everyone knows and never invites to parties. He sang about sex like he was owed it, he complained about gay people like they were aberrations to society and he mostly didn’t seem to like anyone but himself - who, of course, had all the answers. I mean shit, the Libertarian Party tried to get him to run for president. This is not exactly Bernie Sanders we’re talking about.
And the more I looked, the more I found this mean streak throughout all of his music. As far back as We’re Only In It he was mocking people who chose to be different than him: the San Francisco scene, which he wrote off completely (didn’t seem to have any problems with playing the Fillmore, though). And even through his so-called golden period of 1972-75, when he played with a band that was tight, melodic and talented (not to mention racially and sexually mixed), he was playing tripe like “Dinah-Moe-Hum,” a porno of a song about finger-fucking someone or “Cosmik Debris” where he casually brags that someone’s “has just gone down” on him.
Between this attitude towards women, later songs where he mocks gay people (“Bobby Brown,” “He’s So Gay,” etc) and his general attitude towards people who he thinks were part of cultural trends - maybe it’s a stretch, but I can see this free speech warrior posting on Parler - it’s hard to defend him, let alone be a fan of his music. Like, this is someone who I can easily see adopting a gender-critical stance. This is someone who made it clear in their lifetime they never liked people like myself; it’s not like he’s alive to change, so we’re forever left with these statements and songs.
Still, though, for all his faults and problems, I still occasionally listen to him. What is it about this guy who’s gotten into my brain so much?
Partly, I think it’s got something to do with the age I first started listening to him; the stuff you first fall in love with, the music that guides your formative years when everything is new and exciting, that music will last with you forever. It brings back special times and emotions, ones that can’t be replicated. My teenage years weren’t the happiest, but I won’t be able to recapture how happy a record like Roxy and Elsewhere made me when I was 15.
I think another part is because Zappa is a problematic, yet talented musician. Like how Wagner was anti-semitic, Zappa didn’t respect women very much. But like Wagner, Zappa left behind a body of music that’s occasionally messy and hard to defend, but also moments of beauty. It’s hard for me to deny the spontaneous creativity at work in a live-to-tape guitar solo like “Pink Napkins” or the bombastic beauty of “Regyptian Strut.” Albums like Hot Rats or The Grand Wazoo hold their own against their peers, while his classical works (I’m thinking of the 200 Motels: The Suites record, his ones with the Ensemble Modern, and to a lesser extent, Jazz From Hell) show a creative, if irreverent, mind at work, one who toys with convention, mixes styles and idioms (like him getting a classical soloist to improvise a solo) and has a way with a melody (compare something like “Night School” with contemporary records by Nonlocal Forecast, for example). I don’t have to like the guy, but it’s unfair to deny he was good at what he did.
And, I suppose, in context, he wasn’t really that far outside the mainstream. The Faces and Rod Stewart also sang about sex like it’s owed to them, while Eric Clapton expressed far worse opinions on stage; Led Zeppelin did far worse in private. He didn’t respect women, but a lot of his peers didn’t either - I mean, just read Miles Davis’ autobiography.
It’s hard to think about music and myself. I don’t think Zappa can be excused for something like “The Jazz Party Discharge Hats” or “The Illinois Emema Bandit” but there’s a part of me that’s like, hey look, he did a bunch of other stuff, too. Does one excuse the other? Is it possible to separate art from the artist, especially in a case where the art is problematic, too? I’m not so sure. Answers that seem easier for other people whose music means a lot more to me don’t work here.
I read a book about Zappa a while back called The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, and the book was a mess, the kind of thing I was barely able to read and abandoned about halfway through. But it made me realize something: Zappa’s music wasn’t always nice, and a lot of it was about sex. Some of it also had social commentary, and others had tasty guitar soloing. But there’s a mean streak running through it, right from the get-go up until his last records, that’s hard to ignore. And the more I think about it, and the way it meant a lot to me back in my teenage years, I wonder: was I mean, judgemental… angry? Was that what was speaking to me so much back then?
I don’t know, but I’d like to think I’ve changed, become more compassionate and aware of people’s differences. That I’m a better, more well-rounded person than I was when I lived in a small town and gay (let alone trans) people were an abstract concept. And then I look at my reviewing history, which includes writing about more than a few of Zappa’s records, and I wonder. Have I really changed at all? Because Zappa and his music haven’t.