Everyone has a first time. In New York, that is. I wrote this wide-eyed diary for the now-defunct Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, in May 1988. In the second of a three-part story, I hop on a bus to New Jersey, not to catch Springsteen, but to see Frank Zappa on what turned out to be his final tour. And I fail to mention the main reason I was in the city: to cover Michael Jackson’s Bad album launch at Madison Square Garden for pop magazine RTR Countdown. Part 1 is here and part 3 is here.
BY GARY STEEL
A VISITOR COULD feel at home in but never comfortable with New York.
Beneath street level, a $1 token buys a fare to wherever you may care to go in the Manhattan area; beggars flock to the paying customers. A blind beggar shuffles through the moving train units, rattling his tin can. At Greenwich Village, the visitor is met by yet more beggars. Rats scuttle under the tracks, and an aura of decay permeates the environment.
Out on the street, a young woman stands with a sign hanging from her neck, a desperate scrawl claiming homelessness, joblessness and a young family to look after. Every day, without exception, the visitor has noticed people talking to themselves; the desert could be less lonely.
On New York television the news channels spew gang violence in America, international politics as they affect America, electioneering in America and Aids as it affects America; New York is ridden with Aids fear. With a large junkie population, the danger of transmitting the disease through dirty syringes is taken seriously. It just takes one non-addict to have sex with the HIV-positive addict, and the virus is on the loose. With Aids now the number one cause of death in women between the ages of 18 and 30 in New York, everyone’s running scared.
FRANK ZAPPA is one American who is being taken seriously in both the political and musical arenas. The 47-year-old composer and social critic appears regularly on television and in print. Zappa’s views extend to the lyrics of his songs – ‘Promiscuous’ addresses itself directly to the Aids issue:
‘Surgeon General? What’s the deal? Is your epidemic real? All that blabber, all that blubber/Who makes out when we buy that rubber? Are you leaving something out? Something we can’t talk about? A little green monkey over there/Kills a million people? That’s not fair! Did it really go that way? Did you ask the CIA? Would they take you serious? Or have they been promiscuous?’
Unsurprisingly, the American news media is following the election year campaigns of its various presidential candidates, and so is Zappa. Over the past two years, he has appeared regularly on the box with his savage diatribes against the televangelists and religious right that is such a force in Republican politics.
Zappa was recently asked to stand as a presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, but he politely declined the invitation. The mind boggles at the prospect, but as far back as the mid-‘60s when he began attacking the establishment with his freakish Mothers Of Invention, Zappa has showed an unusual flair for rational, eloquent and astute dissections of the political circus.
Back then he advocated an internalised revolution utilising education, intelligence and the basic fairness of democracy through the rules of the Constitution, and his basic approach hasn’t changed much.
Zappa is on the road for the first time in four years with a show called Broadway The Hard Way, which acts as an effective showcase of the Zappa musical history, and a provocative statement about the dangerous state of American politics in 1988.
In co-operation with the League Of Women Voters, Zappa utilizes the half-hour break between sets to exhort the audience to register to vote.
A pulpit is also erected at the concert so that State candidates can give their speil to the audience, and the audience can react according to their Impressometers.
The show itself, which mixes and satirises elements of vaudeville and theatrics and craziness along with a dazzling, virtuoso performance from the 12-piece ensemble, has been attracting saturation media coverage and rave reviews, and capacity audiences.
At last, the time is right for Zappa. With his old Mothers albums finally released on compact disc, the critical establishment is listening with renewed awe to Zappa’s astonishing catalogue, which sounds as clever, innovative and fresh as it did 20 years ago.
Back then, the composer had problems getting orchestras interested in performing his works. Now his work is performed and studied at music academies like Juilliard and others across America – and his albums win Grammies.
Of his voter drive he told David Turner: “I like to tell people that if you don’t register to vote you can’t vote, and if you don’t vote you have no right to complain.”
While he acknowledges the choice of presidential candidates is dire, he still believes that some choices are infinitely better than others. His personal favourite presidential nominee is New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who refuses to run, and least favourite is George Bush, as testified by the Let’s Lick Bush banners waving around at his concerts.
Of the various candidates, Zappa refers to Gary Hart as “an empty plastic yuppie”, Pat Robertson as “a menace” and Jesse Jackson as “a demagogue who’s interested in only one thing… Jesse Jackson.” Others fare slightly better.
Zappa became directly involved when he testified at a Senate Committee against a Parents’ Music Resource Centre submission that rock records be labeled according to the explicit nature of content or lyrics. The PMRC, which is run by “Washington wives” like Senator Gore’s wife Tipper, is now, says Zappa, being used as a campaign coffer for Senator Gore himself.
Of politicians, Zappa told David Turner: “They work for you, they live and die by your vote. They spend your tax money. That’s what they eat from. They are yours, buddy, you’re not theirs. They have duty to perform on behalf of you, the citizen. This is not like the royal family here, these are former used car salesmen with fancy suits on that are sitting in Washington DC, so what’s there to be afraid of?
“I don’t want any hint of religion of any description infecting the laws of this country. Government is a business. It is not the way Robertson or Jackson try to describe it like the opportunity to wage some moral campaign to suddenly fix everybody up. What they’re talking about is one specific brand of morals that I don’t ascribe to. I’m not happy with the idea that particular sets of rules will be turned into a law, and then enforced with a gun, later.”
Zappa has fielded criticism in the past for his eclectic mix of styles, and his insistence that sad songs just don’t figure.
“My song ‘The Dangerous Kitchen’ is my true feelings about a kitchen”, he says. “I would certainly consider it humorous but I’m not hiding behind anything. The fact is that I have an aversion to the sensitive singer-songwriter types who only want to sing about their personal hurt. I find it reprehensible that a person should make their living by sharing their misery with the rest of the world. If I’ve got an emotional problem , or a broken heart, why spread it around?
“My sarcasm is straight from the heart – it’s heartfelt sarcasm. Not veneer sarcasm; the hardcore stuff. Love songs are not my forte; I’ve written a few of them, but basically the way I feel about it is that love songs contribute to bad mental health in America – by creating expectations that can never be met by mortals.”
The New Zealand visitor hops on a bus bound for Hackensack, New Jersey, where Zappa will play one of many shows in the New York area. The Rothman Centre is a wooden hangar on campus with horrible acoustics, and when Zappa and band take the stage dead on time he apologises in advance for the sound quality, the fact that singer Ike Willis has a sore throat, and that, due to a hand sprain, the bass player won’t be making any fancy runs.
It’s the first time Zappa has played with a four-piece horn section since 1972, and it adds power and a jazzy edge to the music throughout.
Two songs are specifically for Zappa’s arch-enemy Pat Robertson. There’s wacky humour in a broadside at Michael Jackson and a swag of stuff form the early Mothers catalogue.
The latter, and better, half gets really weird. Just when you expect the guitar solo in ‘Packard Goose’, you get excerpts from Bartok and Stravinsky. ‘The Torture Never Stops’ gets fractured by themes from Perry Mason, Bonanza, Zappa’s own 200 Motels country song ‘Lonesome Cowboy Burt’.
Zappa claims to have never heard Led Zeppelin’s odious “rock classic” ‘Stairway To Heaven’, but the band manage a note-perfect rendition.
The current Zappa show is different every night, and during ‘Stairway’, the horn section is wont to render a perfect version of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo. Tonight, Zappa played the solo himself, and it put Page to shame, not to mention out to pasture.
The man encores with one of his most beautiful, transcendent guitar compositions, ‘Marshmallow In Easter Hay’, a number sure to warm the hearts of all those who find the Zappa musical crash-collisions too confusing to contemplate.
NOTE: Thanks to Dave Turner, whose great 1988 interview transcript with Zappa I very naughtily ransacked for this piece.