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Three days ago, Jim Fitzgerald, my good friend and senior editor at St. Martin's in New York, sent me sent me the uncorrected proof of Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play hoping to elicit a favorable comment, a back cover blurb for use in its commercial exploitation here in the States. As the prime American Zappographer, I had no problem with that, especially since you quoted me in appropriate places and even corrected a long-standing factual error which I missed in the 1980 revision of No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa Then and Now (E.P. Dutton: New York, 1980). It was quite an "experience" to see FZ's music so exhaustively glossed, delineated and analyzed with all the secret candy rock goodies intact and laid bare. Obviously you've more than done your homework, you've lived it I know. In sum, I think Frank got the kind of treatment he deserved from someone who cared. That much I'll tell Fitz though whether it helps, is another question entirely ---solidarity forever.
Though you probably aren't expecting to get a letter from me, I'd like to convey some thoughts about your book, the nimbus that surrounds it, and FZ himself. Indeed, I would be less than honest if I didn't share some of my criticisms as well as my praise for your unique and difficult work. I've spent the better part of three days going through your material and drafting this letter why not? Zappographers and Zappologists are an enthusiastic and industrious bunch, quite familiar with obsessional states. Surely you're owed that.
Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play is shot full of intentional and unintentional ironies for this Zappographer, some minor, some not so. The first one that struck me was that in your discussion of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. synchronicity you neglect to mention that I dedicated my book to him. "To Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., all who believe, and Mother People everywhere." Why he used Zappa's name as a literary device subsequently is beyond me though he did like my book and wrote a letter to that effect.
I'm amused of course that a such uniquely American artist and a product of Southern Californian culture is profiled by someone who is not an American and not familiar with all the uniquely Los Angeles cultural shorthand. It reinforces your expertise if you know how notorious a groupie Rodney Bigenheimer was, every bit as infamous as the GTO's, only then does one truly grasp the encyclopedic nature of the pop sociology of Permanent Damage presents. Along those lines, it's unfortunate that you cursorily dismissed Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, two seminal figures in American cultural history who played a great part in the genesis FZ's cultural world view. (My proof didn't contain any graphics or a substantial bibliography which I'm sure will be remedied when the book does come out here; the discography was absolutely inadequate considering FZ mania for correct documentation too.)
I find it ironic that in your attempt to loft a kind of unified field approach to FZ's music, you enveloped it in a Critical Theory of Bogus Pomp (whether by accident or design) which apparently Frank didn't really understand. I know Zappologists feel it's incumbent on them to do so, but it marginalizes and further inhibits understanding for the world at large, the audience I assume you hope to convince. That sort of approach works in the small circulation specialized 'zine world only. It must have distressed you when you started with your Adorno analysis there in the den and he tuned out, failing to fully appreciate your intricate intellectual dance steps. Furthermore, it must have been disheartening when you finally learned that Frank didn't really read much, had no abiding interest in philosophy, never really delved into Joyce, etc, especially since his music evoked those associations in you like me. Not so unusual when you consider that here was a man who read for information, not pleasure, that when he wasn't composing or making music in his den, he was on the road, where and as it is said, " Touring can make you crazy" and that significantly circumscribes one's world view.
I think your book would have been stronger had you concentrated more on his music (and that analysis is really first rate!) and had been less intent on showing everyone how clever your own Critical Theory was in contextualizing it. In the end, the music remains long after the critics and their critical theories have died; ultimately one cares less about how a piece of music gets to be and more about whether one "likes" it or not, that variation on the hoary dictum, "Can you dance to it?", however one defines "dancing".
To be honest, I've never been a great fan of Adorno or the Frankfort School or any of that tin-eared intellectual Marxist analysis. It seems to become an end in itself regardless of the material being examined; a dialectical meat grinder it overpowers and ultimately trivializes the material it seeks to analyze. But then again, was that your intent? It's not that I can't deal with or follow it, it just makes my head hurt and inevitably after a while I entertain visions of sliding down the world's sharpest razor into a bowl of peroxide for relief. Knowing that FZ had even less patience with that kind of totalitarian analysis (though he satirized it), it is indeed ironic that FZ's last word musicological biographer should be steeped in that tradition, unless he too (and his audience) truly enjoys those kinds intellectual S&M games.
My theory is that so long as FZ figured your work would only be disseminated among the cognoscenti, he cooperated so long as you got the "facts" right which you did for the most part. I don't think he figured your efforts would be more widely disseminated, for it they were, if he had the energy (and was still into total control of output mode), he would have made some suggestions himself....maybe.
I find it quite ironic that your work, though magnificently detailed only reinforces Z's own insularity and estrangement from the two worlds he sought to combine in the creative contexts of his life. Instead of the light which accurate and insightful critical analysis brings, there is more darkness and confusion and hostility, and that's really too bad.
Of course, for me the capping irony of your book is that near the end you observe, "How much in common can a SWP member have with a millionaire rock star in Laurel Canyon?" (p. 552). Rock star indeed! but maybe you were just being ironic yourself for all I know though still that negates the thrust of your previous reasoned and intricate arguments to the contrary. Even when I was most distressed by him, I always viewed him as a classical composer who happened to work within the confines of the music business. That much you allow: FZ used rock and roll to feed his classical habit, much the same as a writer will sometimes write a potboiler or two to finance his novel writing habit or composers score films to finance their chamber music habits. I know some critics had a problem with that, I didn't and certainly you don't. He wrote what he wrote and since it's published, it stands, the good (and brilliant) along with the bad and the garbage...lots of "stuff" which he had to own which in the end your analysis most emphatically does.
To close on an infinitely lighter note, I was gratified to hear from The Cheese again though I'm wondering whatever happened to her and where she is now; Pamela was a really delightful women. It's too bad you never knew "H" Parker who was long ago Jimi Hendrix's English road manager and a Zappa intimate before his untimely death in the early '70s, he had many insightful things to say. I was also happy to see you quoted Dan Forte, John Swenson and Urban Gwerder, friends of mine, colleagues from way back when and perceptive thinkers. Urban published Hotcha! and The Hot Ratz Times in either Swiss German or Dutch or some combination of the two, a fine early Zappa 'zine.
After a number of years, I gotten my head back into his music, for if the truth be known, I was always more drawn to his classical than his "comedy" music and still am. I've been absorbing The Yellow Shark and am looking forward to hearing Civilization Phaze III. Now that I don't have to write about him, I can enjoy him more I guess.
Enclosed is an obit I wrote which was supposed to appear in The New Yorker Magazine, but which got bumped. It sums up my feelings as well as anything else I've written to you and will give you yet another perspective.
Good luck with Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
David G. Walley
Thanks for your letter, great to hear from you. I was in trepidation when I saw that Jim Fitzgerald had sent you galleys-and pleased when you declared me a kosher fan (Den Simms of Society Pages, you will recall, told me I was mad to attempt verbal exegesis, especially not being an American). And I'm glad too that you've aired your criticisms to me, though I could've guessed a lot of them from the approach you took in your book and the 1980 update.
Small points first. I didn't think I'd "cursorily dismissed" Lord Buckley; I rate him very highly, traced his influence on both Zappa and Beefheart and had a section on him (pp 69-70). With Lenny Bruce, I don't so much "dismiss" him as declare his routines impenetrable to me. Too much rock writing relies on myth,"the legend of Lenny Bruce" etc, so I thought it better to register my own disappointment with the material rather than reconstruct a supposed sociological importance (someone who was there would do that much better anyway). The way people couple the names Buckley and Bruce (eg Harvey Kubernik) you'd think they were comparable, but their agendas were totally different. I think criticism should talk about what's actually on records rather than kow-tow to "probably must have been amazing gigs" rumor- in other words, I suppose, I'm more interested in me listening to records than the "true story of rock 'n' roll". I studied history for two years and decided it was impossible-why I became a critic!
I like your term Critical Theory of Bogus Bomp (the Orch Fav. reference removed the sting), and indeed it had occurred to me to circulate the rumor that the whole book was a hoax. Maybe it is. That evinces precisely the ambivalence you object to in Zappa- but which I find fascinating and liberating. The bourgeois had all these problems with Dada in the 20s and then with Punk in the 70s- are you serious or not? Yes/no/yes/no-oh NONE OF THE ABOVE!!! In your obit you accuse him of "not being honest enough to choose" between pop and classical- I think Them or Us shows that he chose ROCK (just listen to the sheer blasphemous affront of the guitar sound on the title track!!). If you read my last paragraph you'll see that what inspires me in Zappa is his dissatisfaction with the class society that forces us to make such "choices". I find it strange that a liberal humanist like yourself should be drawn towards Zappa at all.
But of course it's the music you like (just as the art world had come to terms with the technical innovation and creativity of Dada). This is Michael Gray's position- seeking to skim the cream off the cesspool of excitement where Frank Zappa stood. I'd argue it can't be done-the cream is sour with doggie wee-wee.
I think you're misinformed when you say my approach will restrict me to "the small circulation specialized 'zine world" I'm aiming for the journals, the heavyweight leatherbindings in the institutional archives. I don't think St. martin's Press have grasped this, but I'm hoping to stink up the groves of academe, not provide entertainment for the Zappa-coterie. How can you possibly "explicate" Zappa in "reasonable" terms?- that indeed would be putting him through the "meat grinder" (of respectability)! Zappa appeals to people who have been rejected by the ruling discourse whether through illiteracy, over-intellectualism, the pursuit of poetry of everyday life, politics, drugs or sexual rebellion - so you can't use that discourse to propagandize for him. Like Finnegan's Wake, Zappa appealed to the transgressive infant in me- leaving out the smut would destroy half the fun!
You're absolutely wrong to say Adorno has a tin ear (though you could cite a dozen other Marxists with this defect). Play the opening of Mahler's First Symphony and then read this:
The First Symphony with a long pedal point in the strings, all playing harmonics except for the lowest of the three groups of double bases. Reaching to the highest A of the violins, it is an unpleasant whistling sound like that emitted by old- fashioned steam engines. A thin curtain, threadbare but densely woven, it hands form the sky like a pale gray cloud layer, similarly painful to sensitive eyes.
If that's not poetry, I'm Loud Reed. I think Adorno's ability to write about music is unparalleled, and it was discovering his writings on music that led me to Hegel and marx. You may not like that tradition, but I'm convinced that real hard thoughts about the world penetrate the smogs of journalism like bullets through jelly.
Did you have time to read the whole thing? You conclude things I explicitly deny, such as being "disheartened" that Frank couldn't follow Adorno. I knew Frank hated intellectuals and never read books- why I resisted the idea of interviewing him for so long. I'd refer you back to page 522: I'm convinced it was the preposterousness of my ideas that entertained him, laughing at the Plato/Shakespeare/Coleridge connections- I remember having a cigarette on the terrace after he's been painfully towed w\away for his nap and tears coming to my eyes as I realized that he was dying and he actually liked me. If FZ figured the book "would only be disseminated among the cognoscenti" why did he suggest a college lecture tour? hardly the site of most of his fans, who he claimed mostly couldn't read (and wouldn't know what an index was)? For al your liking of Frank's music, I think you've got a very blurred idea of the resentment against educational privilege and middle- class repression that fired him. It was as if we were organizing a scam, a revenge on the nerds of higher education (see his last words on p. 551)...maybe such Punk ideas of subversion aren't your agenda.
I designed the book to be a cornucopia for the hardcore fans (unlike the Miles books, which just circulates what any completest knows), with transcriptions of unintelligible lyrics, unreleased material etc It might also get some fans to try out some relevant books and records- but it's really aimed at the tin-earned denizens of high culture who pontificate about cultural value without knowing what music is even when it bites them on the ass, the people who allowed a few four-letter words to lid them to such outrageous musical invention. What passes for culture in the English-speaking world could do with an injection of Zappa's spleen and vitality. I hope undergraduates get the bug and irritate the fuck out of their college lecturers.
Well I write from where I've come and you write from yours. I can see good things in your book and vice versa. It was the dangerous, conflictive, upsetting, chaotic, baffling aspects of Zappa that drew me to him and I'm afraid I'm only proud if I've perpetuated all that rather than saved his soul for the politically correct (although I feel I have done that- in a different way- by showing how his art can generate progressive insights whatever his political zig-zags).
I don't know what's happened to Pamela Zarubica, but Miss Pamela has surfaced in London as a New Age guru, apparently.
You see, I think we are all "walking contradictions" (ref conclusion to your obit)- I don't think the integral personality can cope with capitalism's split between manual and mental labor. That's why I think your approach-and that of miles and Michael Gray- is inadequate, because you're still looking for the "good man", the saint, who we can revere. I'm interested in artists who produce the objects that can tell me about the world- and in the politics than can help me change it for the better. Unlike Frank, I'm not cynical about socialism,the possibility of action by the working class. I was reviled in The Wire review for asking Frank if he's join the Anti-Nazi League, but I was overjoyed that this month 130,000 people marched in a carnival Against Racism (what? not covered by CNN? how surprising...) I don't think it's worth attempting to persuade liberals to consume Frank's music, but I will argue with comrades- here's the obit I wrote for the magazine of the political organization I'm in, the Socialist Workers Party.
In a way, needing to "believe" in Frank as a person- I'd watched fans on the NME payroll being trounced by him about punk, I knew what musicians said, your experiences, ridiculous lawsuits about copyright, his line on unions etc etc-enabled me to face him, and ai was surprised by how kind and careful with people he was. That came as a plus. But in my experience, some of the best artists in the world can be pretty fucked-up people, but so what?
You say, "For all his brilliance as a composer and an arranger, in truth he was a shameless user of ideas and people"- you find cultural theory torture, but really this ideas of "originality" is a hopeless, theoretically-bankrupt illusion;' it could never explain floating blues lyrics, rap or even Duke Ellington. The idea of a few favored geniuses who "invent" art is a myth that oppressed all of us out here who only improvise and mix-n-match- I'm convinced that's all anyone ever does. Some though, point to the tawdriness of the illusion, whereas the other ear the emperor';s clothes. I'm on Frank's side...are you?
Well, you didn't expect me to keel over and expire at your critique, did you? Maybe they'll print our correspondence in Society pages, introduce a mature note among all the you're-wrong- ha-ha/spot-the-detail myopia.
Great letter, superb. Of course, we can go back and forth about FZ's ambivalence. The seat of my own was that it came down to the fact that I started my book thinking of FZ in one way and in the process found that although I acknowledged his "genius" for want of a better word as a composer and social commentator, I was repelled by his arrogance and his parochial world view, too dark for me and too insular to view the world from within the confines of the music business universe. Having been part of it myself as a critic, I was well away from it and glad to be. His excremental vision was no longer delightful, meaningful or germane to me personally, and I no longer had the patience (or the strength) to deal with his ideology (or lack thereof). I was tired of being assaulted intellectually and aurally, like I said in the 1980 version of NCP, there's only so much a chela can take before he finds his own way. And I have, and you will if slowly, painfully kicking and screaming (which I of course will help you do).
Small points first: Well, you still haven't answered the Vonnegut question, howcum? I wrote about FZ because as a history major at Rutgers University I was fascinated by contemporary American cultural history. At the time, rock and roll was going through an incredible period where cultural issues were being raised in the media (Dylan, etc.), and it was a natural field for me to go into. Anyway, it beat working as I was getting paid to listen to records, talk to musicians, hang out in recording studios and clubs, write criticism working out my Boswell, Johnson, Swift, and Pope (it's a good way to learn about how to write by writing, no?) as well as getting paid (not much) and fed if you could call those cocktail hot dogs food. It was a fun way to spend a few years and learn about life in the fast lane, it had historical resonance to it as place where the bogus world of fame presented itself for study to one as earnest as I was (and I suppose still am). In short I was drawn to the world of FZ by what he said about America and how he musically explored and exploited all the contradictions using his extraordinary control of uniquely American musical idioms to do it. And he was also his own form of elitist pig if you must know, and so are you....and so am I, and I make no bones about that nor should you. FZ like me , like you was no a big fan of institutionalized stupidity whether it's called Americanism, or Empire (or Socialism or Communism....). Now what the fuck to we do with that one, eh?
But you see, what's really fascinating is how FZ drew two diverse types as you and I to him to champion his cause, and why his music and stance appeal to disaffected and educated persons like ourselves (ironic that he was not educated in the formal sense, his cross to bear surely), that more importantly his need to create was motivated by revenge against those who savaged him as much as anything else, those jocks and jockettes and cheerleaders. Equally angry at the educational and musical "establishment", he couched it in another form of absurdity. But again, I don't buy that concept you have of him being some sort of working class hero- he was not, he was a product of the middle class, his father was a rocket scientist, he didn't live in shit (maybe inside he did, but that's something else, isn't it?). Alienation, where is thy sting! What is fascinating is that his public persona and music is a kind of funhouse mirror where minds like ours can get some food before moving on to our "real work", like my mother is fond of saying ....just kidding. Though again I think he really didn't give a damn what we or anyone else thought per se.
Oh he liked it when we spelled his name right, and brought an informed appreciation of what he was trying to do to a larger audience or any audience for that matter. ( As for Miles and his slant, know that he and FZ go back years and years, and he's one of FZ's oldest friends) I think he was less concerned with our dogma than his own. I knew him as well as anyone for back in '69 he told me at the Newport Jazz Festival after he saw my piece of Uncle Meat, "You're one of the few people who understand what I'm trying to do," and offered me a job as an editor but I wanted too much money. However looking back, if I'd done so when I was 24, I'd have been destroyed because his world view was so overpowering, and then I would have become an employee and lost my own powers of observation. my own voice. Of course he had great gifts and talents, but he never knew when to leave something alone, he always had to rub your metaphorical nose in it, but I forgot, you like that about him, you find that refreshing and liberating. I just got bored with it, and that's as it should be.
As for your contention that what's inspirational is FZ's ".... dissatisfaction with the class society that forces us to make such 'choices'", not only don't I see that, I think it's really besides the point. That's what you read into him by using your own "meat grinder" theories and naturally I respect your intellectual probity and acumen. You're the one who's interested in what's in the grooves rather than "... the "true story of rock 'n roll", funny I didn't hear that in there. But I suppose that's why we're trans- Atlanticly wrestling with this one, Zappographer and Zappologist, toe-to-toe while Frank's giggling from some hot or not so hot place.
It's more about subversion, isn't it? and I found Terry Gilliam's Brazil far more subversive because it was more focussed. Sure FZ is subversive, but in truth, THINKING in this culture is subversive, thinking for yourself, and that's what I try to do with my work (see below), encouraging people to think for themselves is probably the most subversive act an artist can do. That's why I'm not such a great fan of political dogma of any stripe...you know "Question Authority"?
So I'm a "liberal humanist" by your lights, what's that mean? Enlighten me. For a guy who wants to tear down boxes, who is enamored by one who does, you sure ready and willing to put other people in theirs quick enough when it suits you. I'm not a particular fan of political correctness either, but then again maybe I'm supposed to be, am I? I'm so confused. Really, Ben, you live by too many rules for how people are supposed to act, it's way too mechanistic. For myself I try to let people be whatever they want to be and leave me the fuck alone. Well, maybe I'm what they call a Libertarian. Whatever I really am, I'd prefer to be an individual, perhaps if I'm lucky gain the title in the Sioux Indian language of a "Human Being".(viz. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man) But what do I know? I'm not living in Leeds, and a card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party. I have no card to carry, merely, in your light, a "Liberal humanist". Which is funny because my merchant banker friend down the road swears I'm a Republican. But really, I'm trying to be just who I am, no labels, it's hard enough just trying to write and raise my kids and fight the publishing establishment without getting into the label business. There's no right answer, that's one thing I know, just paths.
So you wrote your book to tweak the disturb, "...the tin-eared denizens of high culture who pontificate about cultural value without knowing what music is even when it bites them on the ass", but that's just why I wrote mine though hardly as exhaustively and ideologically wigged-out as yours. I was content to let Frank speak for himself alone. However now that you have written yours, you can step out from behind him and stand on your own, you've earned that right. Obviously you've much to say without using FZ's musical- cultural-sociological-ideological-non-ideological persona to do it. It's a daunting prospect, isn't it? not to be singing the chorus from "The Ballad of the Jes' Plain Folks". Still in all, FZ's ideas cast long shadows and inspire many things in people like ourselves.
(snip, snip discussion of Teenage Nervous Breakdown, known in '94 as Play School)
In closing let me observe that whether you're ideologically constrained from believing in "genius" they exist, but rules don't. Fuck rules, and fuck games. I don't think that genius is a myth "...that oppresses all of us out here who only improvise and mix- and match." (Your work was hardly a work of "mix-and-match", and you're lying to yourself if you think it is.) I think we all have a spark of genius in us, we just have to find a way to let it out to manifest itself, but that's my Sixties self speaking. And whatever else I am, I'm a creature of that Light, and really so are you if you give yourself half a chance and take off those Adorno- ite spectacles (and you're right he writes marvelously about music). As to whether I believe in "the tawdriness of the illusion (of genius- ed note) or wear the emperor's clothes", you'll have to ask my wife since she dresses me. If it weren't for her, I'd wear the same pair of jeans and work shirt until they fell off.
Cheers to you!
Any comments? E-mail 'em to me!