When the croci in my mind are blooming, then Frank Zappa’s whimsical and colorful genius must be in full flower. I see you in the back of the class, looking out the window while all this wondrous music plays on. Well, wake up! Thirty years on, your grandchildren may quiz you on Frank Zappa and Where were you when it all happened. Do you want to be the doddering old fool who pulls out a picture of the sofa bathed in the blue light of the television and point saying “There?” No you don’t. You want to tune into Hot Rats. The wonderful thing is, there’s still time. Oh, the good seats on the ground floor are already taken, but there’s plenty left in the mezzanine, as good a place as any to witness the miracle of “Peaches En Regalia” or “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” where the composer turns our concept of classical music on its head and gives it a much-needed spanking. Or, if that doesn’t push your button, than surely the sweaty and buck nakedly brilliant blues rock of “Willie The Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” must. I’ve spent some two-cent words and a coupla ten-dollar ones trying to sell folks on Frank Zappa’s music, but Hot Rats sells itself. If no other work from Zappa should survive (and somewhere in a conservative cabal sick with the smell of cigars, the possibility is probably being discussed right now), Hot Rats alone would keep the flame alive through the ages. The composition, the arrangements, the musicianship, the sheer entertainment of it all is initially too much to comprehend, but in time it sinks in, and gestates, and first it’s a little blue crocus, and then a white one, and a pink one, and before you know it you’re trading bootlegs with some guy in Holland who says you have to hear this killer version of “Valarie” with an alternate ending (or something like that). Stepping back from myself a bit, I’m sure that jazz/classical hybrids like “Little Umbrellas” could trace themselves back to Duke Ellington or some other modern composer without a trail of bread crumbs, but I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff, so for me Zappa’s the gateway to this new musical world. And, honestly, your grandchildren will probably be asking you stuff like “Ew, how could you have had a crush on Eminem (or Britney Spears)?,” so I wouldn’t worry too much about the Zappa shakedown from future generations. But if they do ask you about Zappa, start putting money away in a trust fund so they can go to Yale and eventually become president. I’d like to hear “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” played at least once at an inaugural ball in my lifetime, and I don’t see any other way to do it.
A mishmash of musical grotesqueries, or yet another example of Zappa’s calculated dementia as art? I’m not asking you to decide, since Burnt Weeny Sandwich is probably both. It starts off innocently enough with the Cruising-compatible “WPLJ” and closes with another disarming doo-wop send-up in “Valarie,” but it’s what’s in the middle of Burnt Weeny Sandwich that merits attention. Quasi-orchestral lounge music, searing guitar solos, classical jazz, dissonance, deliberate destruction of music’s smooth facade. This is “serious” music filtered through Zappa’s unique sense of humor, iconoclasm on a surprisingly intimate scale. Selections like “Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown” and “Little House I Used To Live In” belong with most of Hot Rats in the hall of great instrumental moments. But where Rats was focused more on jazz/rock fusion, Weeny fuses together the wildly divergent aspects of Frank’s muse into a complex stew (Weasels would repeat this experiment). Underneath the chaotic haze, great ideas are afoot. “Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and the brief “Ivor’s Boogie, Phase One” are carefully contrived to combine ugliness and art, the band sounding on the verge of careening off the printed score into noisy oblivion, riveting the listener like a high-speed car chase where we wait breathlessly for the inevitable crash. Not being familiar with Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, the Mothers’ most avant-garde outings to date, I can’t tell you where Burnt Weeny begins and they end. However, according to Zappa’s project/object theory, this clearly belongs to the same object as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and perhaps to Hot Rats as well, forming at least a contiguous trio of orchestral/jazz/rock efforts that put Zappa’s compositional genius to the test. The Flo & Eddie follies effectively ended this chapter, only to have it resurrected by (in part) 200 Motels, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. From these two trios come some of Zappa’s most brilliant and ambitious music, with Burnt Weeny in the top half of that group, and thus one of Zappa’s essential recordings.
A cleverly staged car wreck between Zappa and Captain Beefheart that, despite the creative velocity of the pair at the time, wasn’t the big bang some had hoped for. The disappointment of Bongo Fury might be that both artists weren’t looking to do something new together, but simply do what they do together. There are songs that represent an even union of sorts, where Beefheart takes the lead and Zappa’s band lays down the groundwork: the twisted “Debra Kadabra,” the sort-of-a-cowboy-song “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” and “200 Years Old” (the last two forming a kind of a bicentennial medley). These may be a little grittier and bluesier than Zappa’s usual work, but fans should eventually warm up to them. Beefheart also presents his greasy, look-what-I-found-under-the-refrigerator poetry on a pair of tracks: “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” (which introduces the “bongo fury” theme) and “Man With The Woman Head.” Frank even answers in kind with his own story, “Muffin Man,” that starts like a carbon copy of “Evelyn, A Modified Dog” before launching into a brilliant guitar solo. Zappa fans will take solace in the tracks that sound most like his usual work from this period: “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” (cut from the same cloth as “Camarillo Brillo”) and “Advance Romance.” However, those fans would do better to pick up Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All… well, you get the point. For the best blending of Beefheart and Zappa, seek ye Hot Rats. Two heads are better than one in the world of bongos, but in the live/studio world of Bongo Fury maybe not so much.