Zappology

  LOOKING FOR THE LINKS BETWEEN "FREAK OUT!" AND "FINNEGANS WAKE."
  
   By Peter Keepnews
   New York Times, June 11th
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   "My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only - not to be taken
   internally," the rock composer, bandleader, guitarist and singer Frank
   Zappa (1940 - 93) once wrote. "Apart from the snide political stuff,
   which I enjoy writing, the rest of the lyrics wouldn't exist at all if
   it weren't for the fact that we live in a society where instrumental
   music is irrelevant."
   
   Ben Watson, a self-described "Zappologist," begs to differ. "Frank
   Zappa: The Negative Dialecticts of Poodle Play" is his impassioned
   attempt to demonstrate that Zappa was not just a musical innovator but
   a wordsmith on a par with James Joyce and a philosopher on a part with
   Theodor Adorno. He doesn't quite achieve his goal, but he has fun
   trying.
   
   Mr. Watson combines analyses of Zappa's recordings - all of them,
   including some that were never officially released - with snippets of
   biography, excerpts from previously published interviews and huge
   guests of opinion (the subject of which is usually, but not always,
   Frank Zappa). His book is by turns in formative, provocative,
   perceptive, reverential, ponderously argumentative (hence "Negative
   Dialectics") and deliberately silly (hence "Poodle Play"). Sometimes
   it is simply wrong - especially at those moments when Mr. Watson, who
   is English, wrestles with a reference to American politics or popular
   culture and just doesn't get it. And sometimes it is distinctly off
   the wall: Mr. Watson goes to excruciating lengths to explain why the
   album "Apostrophe(')" best known for the song "Don't Eat The Yellow
   Snow," is Frank Zappa's 'King Lear.'" But it is the closest reading
   Zappa is ever likely to get, and as such it is welcome.
   
   Zappa's work certainly deserves serious attention. He is by any
   reckoning a major figure in the rock pantheon, although he was both
   too iconoclastic and too idiosyncratic to be embraced wholeheartedly
   by the rock establishment. His music deftly synthesized influences as
   diverse as Stravinsky and doo-wop, and his lyrics - often acerbic and
   often tasteless, but seldom less than clever - obliterated a wide
   range of targets, including the rock establishment itself.
   
   But was he another Joyce? Mr. Watson, the author of two books of
   poetry, thinks he was, and isn't afraid to say so - over and over and
   over. "If Zappa were not in rock music," he writes at one point, "his
   poetic clusters would be generating Cultural Studies theses at the
   rate of 'Finnegans Wake.'" Elsewhere he observes that "like Joyce,
   Zappa mixes his own life into his work."
   
   Even the most devoted fan may find this sort of thing a bit much. And
   yet there is something strangely appealing about the enthusiasm with
   which Mr. Watson keeps hammering home the analogies to Joyce, as well
   as to Adorno, Shakespeare, the Dadaists and the Situationists, in the
   process of delinieating what Zappa himself called the "conceptual
   continuity" of his recorded output. Late in the book Mr. Watson tells
   us that the cartoonist Matt Groening, who was a friend of Zappa's, has
   called his approach "demented scholarship." That seems about right.
   
   Ultimately, through, Mr. Watson does a disservice to Zappa's art by
   focusing on the lyrics at the expense of the bracingly original music.
   He discusses the music, of course, but without much insight; he is
   good at telling us who influenced Zappa but not so good at explaining
   how. And all too often he falls back on banalities like "the tune is
   strained and scraping" or "It's a turgid, knotted song with boiling
   rhythm guitar," which tell us nothing at all. A musical force this
   powerful deserves better.

Frank Zappa:  The Negative Dialiectics of Poodle Play
by Ben Watson
597 pages
New York
St. Martin's Press
$27.50 (USA)

   
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