Thursday, April 12, 2012

Notes From the Dangerous Kitchen

This summer is the 10th Anniversary of the publication of my book Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, a work that (looking back) was written in a danger zone not unlike its title. While fending off neighbours who seemed to love making excessive noise until all hours of the early morning, Dangerous Kitchen was written sometimes one sentence at a time. Often I was interrupted because of some melee in my building (usually someone trying to kill someone else) that I had to attend to. Nevetheless, my publisher ECW Press gave me the freedom to write a 600-page book about American composer Frank Zappa that allowed me to go beyond the misleading perceptions of him as this deranged freak who warned us not to eat the yellow snow. I was able to attempt a fascinating study that tied serialist classical music, blues, R&B doo-wop and rock & roll to an artist who fused all of those elements into a satiric artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism. So in this act of shameless self-promotion, here is an excerpt from Dangerous Kitchen (which has continually gone in and out of print in the decade since its publication) that focuses on Frank Zappa's first LP in 1966 with the Mothers of Invention called Freak Out!

When Edgard Varèse died on November 6, 1965, Frank Zappa seemed bound and determined to pick up his fallen torch. Michael Gray writes in Mother! The Frank Zappa Story that Varèse's death "galvanized Frank into a stronger-than-ever determination that he was not going to just make records, but change the face of music." Freak Out!, a two-record set released in July 1966, didn't exactly change the face of music, but it had an incalculable influence on the pop scene. Until then, the only rock double-album was Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (which had come out only two months earlier). Yet, unlike Blonde on Blonde, Freak Out! was designed conceptually. The songs weren't randomly gathered in the traditional manner of making an album. There was a strategy at work on this debut. Zappa was presenting a whole new gathering of diverse compositions that hadn't been heard all in one place in American pop.

The fundamental difference between the current rock scene and Zappa was that he considered the Mothers of Invention the ugly reminder that railed against the optimistic wave of hippie idealism. "We were well on our way to becoming the most despised musical group of all time," Zappa summed up in his liner notes to Mystery Disc, a historical collection of unreleased tracks, "partially for making noises like an era when everyone was stuffing flowers in the ends of policemen's guns." Freak Out! was far less solemn than those albums that promoted the dispensing of bouquets, and it was more lavishly deranged, too...Inside the album's gatefold was a short biography of Zappa, plus some "relevant quotes." These words of wisdom included Varèse's "The present day composer refuses to die!" and Zappa's closing message to tourists at the Whiskey A Go-Go: "If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they'll murder you in your sleep."

Each song came with background notes, above which was an enormous list of people "who contributed materially in many ways to make our music what it is. Please don't hold it against them." The figures formed a broadly based lexicon: Igor Stravinsky, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Richard Berry, Charles Ives, Lenny Bruce, Johnny Otis, and Anton Webern. Zappa also included old pals from his early days like Vic Mortenson and Johnny Franklin, his old high school teacher Mr. Tossi, and his ex-wife, Kay Sherman. No rock & roll album had ever claimed such a varied catalog of influences, or promoted an image that most advertisers wouldn't dare try to market to the public (at least until the following summer when The Beatles would replicate Freak Out! with their own cover art featuring a wide assortment of influential people on Sgt. Pepper). But unlike The Beatles, Zappa was announcing that these sundry individuals were alive in his music.

Freak Out! opens with a prophetic anthem that sets the tone for both the record and Zappa's career. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" begins with the inverse of the guitar chords that began The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." While ingeniously turning Bob Dylan's nowhere man, Mr. Jones (from "Ballad of a Thin Man") into Mr. America, Zappa launches a full-frontal attack on America's moribund culture, challenging the education system with its "schools that do not teach" and "the minds that won't be reached," and confronting the desire even among counter-culture types to find an appealing group to conform to. But the ideas at work in the song are much larger that any one group's theme song. As great a record as "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is, it speaks basically to a state of alienation in the listener. Mick Jagger is frustrated at having been betrayed by the promises of consumer culture. He feels cheated because conforming to corporate ideals doesn't make him happy. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," on the other hand, speaks directly to the disenfranchised listener rather than the alienated one. The singer isn't betrayed by the false blandishments offered by the culture because he's already rejected them ("Philosophy that turns away/From those who aren't afraid to say what's on their mind/The left-behinds of the Great Society').

The Great Society (a term invented by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to define his war on poverty and to describe his ideal America) is already deemed false, so there's no reason to feel forsaken. Which is why today, when The Rolling Stones, who are (at least) financially satisfied, perform "Satisfaction," it's a mere echo of a once great rock song. "I don't think it's any accident that the educational system in America has been brought to its current state," Zappa told Spin in 1991 during Desert Storm in Iraq. "Because only a totally uneducated mass of people will be baffled by balloons. And yellow ribbons and little flags and buzzwords and guys saying 'new world order' and shit like that. I mean, only a person who has been dissuaded from any kind of critical thinking and doesn't know geography, doesn't know the English language    I mean, if you can't speak English, then this stuff works on you."

In fact, the minds that were denied by the Great Society were left even more estranged in the New World Order of the Nineties. "One of the things taken out of the curriculum was civics," Zappa went on to explain. "Civics was a class that used to be required before you could graduate from high school. You were taught what was in the U.S. Constitution. And after all the student rebellions in the Sixties, civics was banished from the student curriculum and was replaced by something called social studies. Here we live in a country that has a fabulous constitution and all these guarantees, a contract between the citizens and the government  nobody knows what's in it...And so, if you don't know what your rights are, how can you stand up for them? And furthermore, if you don't know what's in the document, how can you care if someone is shredding it?"

The Mothers of Invention in 1966

There hadn't been a pop album   until Freak Out!  that demonstrated such a range of musical diversity combined with such audacious impiety. Unlike other musical artists, who searched for a single unified sound to create a foundation for their audience appeal, Zappa continually pulled the rug out from under the listener. Just as you got comfortable with the style of one song, he'd suddenly confront you with something new. What followed "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" on the album were Fifties doo-wop songs ("Go Cry on Someone Else's Shoulder," "Wowie Zowie"), abstract psychedelia ("Who Are the Brain Police?") sexual satire ("Motherly Love") blues protest ("Trouble Every Day," about the 1965 Watts riots), a cappella ("It Can't Happen Here"), and the musique concrète tribute to Stravinsky's ballet score The Rite of Spring ("The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet") which took up the entire final side of the album. The music on Freak Out! didn't offer listeners a safety net to experience the multitude of new sounds. You either embraced it or you didn't.

Abandoning stylistic unity, Zappa went after the much larger ambition of building a whole album around a unified idea. The Utopian idea behind his music could be stated simply: one size fits all. Yet the ambiguous portrait he paints of himself as a pop artist satirizes any desire the listener might have to identify with him. Even in the liner notes, Zappa is described mockingly as having a "personality so repellent that it's best he stay away...for the impressionable minds who might not be prepared to cope with him." In Zappa's world, the listener is left with nobody to identify with but himself.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. Thanks.
    Reading your article I finally understood why so many of the Americans see their Government as 'something else':

  2. We would get on very well,enjoyed thank you