Thinking about Zappa — and, to a lesser extent, Lou Reed

I’ve just spent a ludicrously long time writing an article about Frank Zappa for the website of the listings company I work for — so long, in fact, that all the things that would have been timely about it had I delivered it after a few weeks, namely the 20th anniversary of his death, the London production of 200 Motels and the Glasgow show by Zappa Plays Zappa have long since passed. I’ve never been able to master the journalistic craft of saying any old thing as long as you say it quickly enough. –That’s not true. I have been known to whip the odd thing up in half an hour, but basically, if I don’t have a deadline, I’m screwed, and since the Zappa article was commissioned on a send-it-when-it’s-ready basis, it took ages. It doesn’t help that I’m currently studying, or that my only regular writing time is between 10pm and 1am.

But I’m not moaning. It was fun listening to a lot of Zappa, and I came across and in some cases adopted some interesting opinions, among them that Joe’s Garage is one of Zappa’s masterpieces.

Here are some isolated reflections that didn’t make the final article:

You sometimes get inspired by people with whom you violently disagree. Much of my article was inspired by a 1995 article by Ian Penman called ‘Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore’, which apart from being a couple of thousand words of an attempt to turn people off listening to someone — which in itself is not a great use of anyone’s time, least of all Penman’s — served as a model of how not to write a negative article. Penman can’t really decide whether he hates Zappa or just people who like Zappa, but insofar as he tries to grapple with Zappa’s work, he fumbles:

‘When you’re a Zappa fan, you’re supplied with a number of get-out clauses from the idea of simple plain fun most of us plain simple folks get from popular culture.’

The problem here is that our relationships with the music we love tend to be fraught with all kinds of contradictions and resentments and more-or-less suppressed quasi-masochistic feelings that would have had Freud groping for a notepad. To be blunt about it, unless you’re a pre-teen, there is no ‘simple plain fun’ to be had in popular music, and maybe not even then. There’s fun, of course, always; but it’s always complex, contradictory, qualified, inflected by this or that effort towards self-fashioning.

When we, in relatively prosperous societies where music is regarded as most of all an object of aesthetic enjoyment, react to music, our reaction involves a certain amount of liking or not liking the music; but in the way that we articulate our response to other people, there’s also a certain amount of tweaking how one wants one to come across to them, which may or may not involve pretending to like music you don’t really enjoy, or pretending not to like music that actually moves you. In brief, most of us will pretend to like all sorts of music if we think that to do so will help us become more popular.

This reaction, which is pretty much the raison d’être of pop music, is something that Zappa seems never to have been taken in by, which is a reason why a critic like Penman found Zappa utterly inexplicable and therefore annoying. Zappa just loved music, and was indifferent to the fundamental yardstick of quality in the evaluation of popular music, which is to do with ‘taste’. Penman is all about taste; read the list of people he’s interviewed, and there’s basically nobody there who might not have graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Zappa is an insult to taste, and Penman was insulted, but being a hipster he found it impossible to admit that he’d been insulted. Instead, he had to resort to pretending that Zappa was inept:

‘The classical pieces? About as desiccated as bourgeois formalism gets.’

My guess is that Penman heard the phrase ‘bourgeois formalism’ somewhere, thought it sounded cool and decided to apply it to Zappa, without ever bothering to discover that it was the phrase with which the Stalinist cultural establishment condemned Shostakovich. The alternative, that Penman knew well what he was doing when he applied that phrase to Zappa, is surely to do Penman an injustice — I mean, surely he didn’t mean to make himself out to be an authoritarian prick?
And yet, apart from its stilted tone, the entire passage from that particular issue of Pravda might be straight from Penman’s article:

‘The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.’

Fashions come and go, and the great music of one era is usually very different from the great music of a different era, but mediocrity always sings the same songs; totalitarian stooges echo each other across the decades.

David Byrne, in his excellent book How Music Works, talks about how you have to put a frame around music before you can hear it properly. Pop music journalists have routinely placed Zappa in the wrong context. He was a rock star, but he wasn’t a rock musician. We like our first-generation classic rock musicians to be romantic heroes, barely holding it together from the quantities of chemicals they shovel into themselves, pumping out works of genius on something approaching blind instinct.

The downside of this is that a certain sort of rock musician tends to produce more crap than good stuff. It was beautifully fuckin’ illustrated by Sick Boy in Trainspotting:

I too like Lou Reed’s stuff, or at any rate some of it, but he’s the most glaring example of a talented rock musician for whom extravagant dissipation was both essential to his genius and also the breaking of it, insofar as for decades now he’s been both sober and boring.

Note written in February 2014: the above words were written in September 2013, at a time when Lou Reed was not yet dead. I stand by them, although I can’t help thinking that Reed died much as John Cleese said Graham Chapman died — ‘before he’d had enough fun.’ For the past three decades, which is to say for most of my life, Lou Reed had seemed like he was having a really crappy time. At this point, we’ve all read the stories about his less-than-lovable behaviour towards people working in the service industries, or for that matter professors of humanities at Stanford University, and supposedly we should forgive this behaviour on the grounds that the artist’s private behaviour doesn’t matter, only the work matters. The trouble with that is that rock musicians of Lou Reed’s generation were almost all Romantics, with a Romantic disdain for clear boundaries between the art and the life, and Lou Reed was one of the biggest Romantics of the lot. I mean, come on, even if it weren’t beautifully documented in Lester Bangs’ 70s writings about Reed, which as Bangs himself pointed out were mostly better art than the music Reed was making at the time (take that, Metal Machine Music!), there’s the music itself as evidence. Reed never, ever believed that his private grudges and disappointments shouldn’t feed into his music, so I don’t see why we should keep politely silent about his personal behaviour, seeing as he didn’t, even if he wasn’t exactly wholly honest about it.

As I write this, I’m listening to ‘Junior Dad’ from the last album Lou worked, the largely unloved Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica. Of all the people Lou Reed could want to collaborate with, why in the name of John Cale did he want to get into a studio with Metallica? Lou Reed was essentially a writer with a certain knack for plodding garage riffs, and to collaborate with the most meat’n’potatoes metal band out there was never going to be a good idea. I gather that ‘Junior Dad’ is regarded as one of the better songs on the album. To me it sounds like Lou playing with his new synth — that is, when it doesn’t sound like U2 unwillingly jamming with someone they feel intimidated by. As for what it’s about? Once again, Lou’s literary tendencies hobble him (as Lester Bangs said to his face, and only partly out of drunken bravo, ‘In your worst moments you could be considered like a bad imitation of Tennessee Williams’); ‘Junior Dad’ has the literary virtues of an OK short story, in that it’s clearly about a middle-aged middle-class protagonist vaguely realising something or other, but there isn’t enough here to fill the 19 and a half minutes that the track actually takes to hear.

Ah well. I never mentioned it in the article, but according to the Zappa family, Zappa really did admire Lou Reed’s songwriting (I forget where I read this), especially ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ — but of course, anyone who doesn’t love ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ has a tin ear. It’s just a shame that Lou Reed never had the balls to express his admiration for Zappa while Zappa was alive.

Thinking about Zappa — and, to a lesser extent, Lou Reed