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Can you be a fan of Frank Zappa but not his music?

Photo: Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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The assignment: Frank Zappa

“I hate to see anybody with a closed mind on any topic. I just feel sorry that they’re missing out on a lot of good stuff that’s happened since 1967.” Frank Zappa said this once in a TV interview, calling out, with usual Zappa-ian disdain, the fickle audiences who had once so embraced his group The Mothers Of Invention, but were now indifferent to—even openly hostile toward—his more experimental solo career. It was a typical Zappa gripe, blaming any criticism not on some actual estimation of his music, but rather on a deeper psychological hang-up or maybe even a broader sociopolitical ill. “I do my music for people who like music,” Zappa said on another occasion, haughtily throwing down a bigger gauntlet. There’s nothing wrong with Frank Zappa or his music, his basic philosophy went. If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you.

Zappa’s lament could well serve as the epigraph for this entire column, but more specifically, it speaks to the fact that I, too, have shrugged off Frank Zappa. Not just his post-1967 work, but all of it. I’ve even used “Zappa” as a kind of mocking shorthand for the sort of music I usually don’t like (noodling, zany, self-indulgent) despite never giving his records much in the way of close study to confirm whether that prejudice even rings true. Zappa was right: That’s my failing, not his. I haven’t just approached his stuff with a closed mind—I haven’t really approached it at all. And who knows, maybe somewhere inside his enormous, intimidating discography, there’s something I’d like if I just gave it a shot. After all, I like music.

What’s more, I even like Frank Zappa—at least, in theory. He was the exact kind of defiantly experimental, delightfully cranky iconoclast that I admire. He was not only a virtuosic talent but also a versatile composer, one who drew no high-minded distinction between avant-garde symphonies or syrupy doo-wop. Even though he professed to hate doing them, he was also a born interview subject—a smart, funny prick who always had an articulately caustic quip at the ready. As a man, he was a fascinating bundle of ideologies: A self-proclaimed conservative who hated Reagan but loved capitalism, he spent his career openly railing against organized religion and government authority, while also serving as one of music’s most eloquently passionate opponents of censorship. Zappa, as an example of the all-American ideals of artistic freedom and regularly sticking it to the man, is rightfully regarded as a hero, and I’m certain of this whenever I read about him or hear him speak.

But from the limited snatches I’ve heard of his music—most of these in record stores that smelled like incense and cat piss, or in the equally stank dorm room where I smoked pot with a friend under his roommate’s black-light Zappa poster—I’ve always found something off-putting and impenetrable about it. Despite my theoretical appreciation of the man, I’ve never made the effort to find a way in. It certainly doesn’t help that there are something like 100 Zappa albums—none of them regarded as definitive, all hotly debated by fans as to what “good Zappa” is.

Like anime fans, Zappa-colytes are an intensely opinionated, fiercely protective bunch. As I found out by canvassing the Onion office to find some, they also have a sort of preemptive defensiveness, one that surely comes from having to argue for the genius of a man who titles his albums goofy stuff like Burnt Weeny Sandwich or Sheik Yerbouti. Nevertheless, they seem to have heard them all. “There are very few casual Zappa fans,” John Semley wrote several years ago in our Gateways To Geekery on Zappa, positing that most regard listening to Zappa as a proud character trait. The comments on Semley’s piece definitely bear out that obsessiveness, as did the comments and Twitter replies I got after my last article from people recommending what Zappa albums to start with. By the end, I was probably told to “start” with just about all of them.

Notably—and slightly contradicting Semley’s theory—many of these people also prefaced their remarks with “I’m not a huge Zappa fan, but…” One of these was my coworker and friend Jamie Levinson, an Onion product manager whom I also knew in a previous life as the drummer for the very good band White Rabbits. Jamie and I have pretty similar tastes in music (and not just for his own), so I was a little surprised when he told me he liked Zappa. “Definitely not the whole catalog, but there are some gems in there for sure,” Jamie said, before quickly adding, “No doubt Zappa is embarrassing. There’s so much bad Zappa. Mountains of bad Zappa.”

With Jamie’s help, I carved that mountain down to three albums deemed the most essential/accessible introduction to Zappa’s work, with the implication being that, if I didn’t find anything to love about these three records, I wasn’t going to like much about the other 90-something. “I think you’re probably gonna hate Zappa,” Jamie offered by way of inspiring benediction. And so I was off.

First course: We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)

In his column, John Semley recommended starting at the beginning with Freak Out!, the 1966 debut from Zappa’s name-making, psychedelic prankster outfit The Mothers Of Invention. But Jamie, along with a majority of tweeters, stumped much harder for the Mothers’ third album—possibly because it’s regarded as the pinnacle of that band’s work; possibly because everyone, quite generously, didn’t want to assign me a solid hour of Zappa right off the bat. So my first full Zappa listen was this, his send-up of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, pretentious psychedelic rockers, dirty hippies playing dress-up, and everything else people were taking way too seriously in that lingering hash haze of the Summer Of Love.

From what I can tell, most of We’re Only In It For The Money’s reputation as cutting, hippie-mocking satire seems to be tied up in a handful of songs—“Who Needs The Peace Corps?,” “Absolutely Free,” and “Flower Punk”—all of them calling out fakers dressed in beads and bells, making pilgrimages to San Francisco to “play my bongos in the dirt,” with no political opinions nor any greater aspirations than just getting stoned and becoming the road manager for a psychedelic rock band (or worse, playing in one).

Still, as far as comedy goes, “Peace Corps” and “Flower Punk” are basically New Yorker cartoons; any square in America could have written these same gibes about long-haired, barefoot freaks catching crabs at their love-ins. “Peace Corps” does have a pretty good line about loving everyone, even “the police as they kick the shit out of me in the street.” But mostly they’re just a taunting rundown of ’60s stereotypes that today feel as novelty-song-dated as Zappa’s similar ’80s pop screed “Valley Girl.” A lot of the “satire” seems to be just describing things.

“Absolutely Free” is a little subtler—so subtle that it barely registers as satire at first, its psychedelic music-box reveries about “velvet valleys and sapphire seas” coming off just as banally “trippy” as every other hippie song, until you realize that this is intentional. In context, when everybody was making drippy acid poetry like this, it was probably a lot funnier. Comedy-wise, there’s also “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” a goofy, Sesame Street singsong inspired by Zappa’s childhood acquaintances of two boys who enjoy lighting their farts. It’s a brilliantly subversive commentary on the fact that, uh, most songs aren’t about that, I guess.

Not surprisingly, I liked the album’s serious songs a lot more. “Concentration Moon,” which puts its paranoid, hippie internment camp fantasy over a faux-TV commercial jingle, is starkly effective, and its breakdowns have a ramshackle punkishness that reminded me of The Monks. And my favorite track was probably “Mom & Dad,” whose slightly maudlin, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” strains conceal some pretty lacerating observations about all those drunk, distant boomer parents who drove their kids into the hairy arms of bohemia.

I also liked the album’s pure musique concrete moments: the cut-up, delay-laden samples of voices in “Are You Hung Up?” and “Telephone Conversation,” which evoke Zappa’s media prankster descendants Negativland; the distorted, proto-industrial noise of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music”; Zappa’s sarcastic “Boy, this is so exciting, making a rock ’n’ roll record” monologue on “Flower Punk.” Overall, I liked the band’s general willingness to fuck with the listener and call attention to the studied artifice of pop music—and in that sense, I get why it’s revered. We’re Only In It For The Money was snotty and irreverent and self-deprecating, at a time when music was puffing itself up as the thing that would save the world.

But to me, today, as someone with zero investment in hearing hippies and Peter Paul And Mary taken down a peg, what I’m mostly left with is a batch of songs that largely seem designed to be irritating, a sneer directed at a culture that mostly stopped existing a year after its release. While there’s an impressive jumble of unconventional instrumentation here beneath all the dialogue snippets and backmasked squalls, with the sole exception of the silly doo-wop earworm “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?,” it almost completely eschews memorable melodies—and, you know, enjoyable songs. I just can’t imagine revisiting We’re Only In It For The Money for any sort of listening pleasure; it seems to scoff at the very idea. So... the joke is on me?

Second course: Hot Rats (1969)

I have a friendly acquaintance (a rock critic—Zappa would have hated him) who once joked about having a shirt made that said, “YES, EVEN HOT RATS.” It’s the standard line that, if you find Funny Zappa annoying, then you should try his largely instrumental first solo album, particularly if you’re a beginner. In addition to Zappa’s shit-hot guitar playing, it’s got all these other world-class musicians—bassist Shuggie Otis, drummer John Guerin, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty—jamming on some incredibly intricate, jazz-fusion arrangements, augmented by Zappa’s truly pioneering use of 16-track overdubs. It’s a real musician’s album. Sure, a lot of Zappa’s stuff is a little juvenile and obnoxious, but what about Hot Rats, man? You can’t deny that.

You certainly can’t. As with We’re Only In It For The Money, Hot Rats really is a marvel of skill. Zappa—who mapped everything out on honest-to-god sheet music, then ran his groups like the gruff, taskmaster classical conductor he was—shepherds his all-star ensemble across the sprawl of these adventurous instrumentals that zig and zag unpredictably across great melodic leaps. Despite that rigorousness, they still manage to sound fluid and free-form, while the recordings are all subtly tweaked to bring out unusual, spontaneous bursts of tone and color. Hot Rats is a testament to Zappa’s mad genius and his deliberateness as a composer, which echoed his heroes like Varèse and Stravinsky in making every note count.

Most of it also sounds like ’70s porn music, played at a boner-deflating level of self-consciousness. Jamie—a talented and unconventional drummer himself—told me he loves the complex rhythmic exchanges of this proggy era of Zappa, particularly the Phish-endorsed flurry of its signature song, “Peaches En Regalia.” And that tune is indeed a structural wonder, an elegant flow of baroque melodies and superhuman woodwind flutters that suggests Mozart on mushrooms. It’s sprightly and lovely; it would make for a fine and pleasant theme for a TV chat show (the BBC agreed). Even better, it’s only three and a half minutes long, which casts into stark relief just how often the songs that follow overstay their welcome. Throughout Hot Rats, it seemed like whenever I was finally getting into something—the hot sax skronk of “The Gumbo Variations”; the spiraling “Son Of Mr. Green Genes”—I’d look down and realize that there were still six goddamn minutes left.

For “people who like music”—who, specifically, regard music as some sort of competitive sport—there is obviously a lot to love about Hot Rats in all those blitzkrieg, Guitar Center-wowing note flurries. But to my ears, it’s more technically impressive than actually enjoyable. I have my own issues with Zappa’s fellow avant-garde hero and high school pal Captain Beefheart, failing numerous times over to really “get” him as well. But I far and away preferred his guest spot on “Willie The Pimp,” a big, honkin’ blues-rock groove that is Hot Rats’ only vocal track and the only one that feels like it has any genuine soul. So yes. Even Hot Rats.

Third course: Joe’s Garage (1979)

This was presented as the end-all endurance test for whether I could learn to like Zappa: his three-act rock opera magnum opus, possibly as grand a summation of Zappa’s musical versatility, lyrical themes, and comedic sensibilities as he ever recorded. Joe’s Garage is a quasi-autobiographical concept album about a guy who joins a rock ’n’ roll band, only to run afoul of an oppressive, dystopian government (represented by Zappa’s hissing narrator character, The Central Scrutinizer) who’s out to make music illegal. Over the course of its movie-length two hours, Joe’s Garage touches on most of Zappa’s fixations, from censorship to record industry frustrations to his own dick. Meanwhile, the compositions swing confidently from classic ’50s R&B to big orchestral swells, from chugging jazz fusion to the kind of swingin’, sleazy Las Vegas lounge lizard stuff Zappa tended to trot out at his most unctuous. It’s all there inside Joe’s Garage—the full scope of everything Zappa was capable of and everything he believed in.

Man, did I hate it. Joe’s Garage may be the most singularly grueling listening experience I’ve ever ruined several commutes with, a series of sunsets and sunrises over which I grew increasingly bummed about having to return to it. Still, it’s apparent why everyone insisted I give it a shot, as it most crystallizes what may be the central obstacle to Zappa: getting over the idea that you’re listening to someone so immensely, idiosyncratically talented expend all his genius jacking off in your ear. Most egregiously the album’s “skits” are interminable—even this guy’s jokes go on way too long!—turning the occasional inspired bit of silliness into a nine-minute slog Lorne Michaels would balk at. Meanwhile, whatever musical merits each song has are largely drowned out by their endless lyrics about fucking: fucking “Catholic Girls”; fucking groupies; fucking STD-ridden Jack In The Box employees; fucking gay, blowjob-dispensing sex-bots; prisoners fucking each other in the ass with “a sausage that’ll make you fart.” It’s enough to make you celibate. Walking around with it in my earbuds, I mostly just felt embarrassed.

Some critics have charitably characterized Joe’s Garage as a sort of ironic confession—the mental wallowing of a guy who realizes he’s wasted all his pure artistry on a business that only wants slick prurience, and whose only rewards are the adulation of idiot sex-obsessed kids. And somewhere beneath all those tedious tits-and-dick gags, there’s definitely a thematic through-line about the utter emptiness of it all, one spiritually descended from those same, sarcastic spoken monologues on We’re Only In It For The Money. I’ll even grant that there was some perverse pleasure to be found in how it takes the piss out of all its self-serious “concept album” contemporaries, like that same year’s The Wall. Like The Mothers’ anti-hippie screeds, there is clearly some parodic value in that.

But again—to me, today—listening to it just feels like hanging out with your grossest uncle in his musky, vintage Hustler-papered basement apartment watching Fritz The Cat. It’s like the musical equivalent of a “Free Mustache Rides” T-shirt. And I found myself at a loss as to what anyone would actually be getting out of it or under what circumstance they’d decide to put it on their stereo. Do you put it on to laugh? To groove?

“I can’t defend it,” Jamie tells me, once again citing the album’s larger musical ambitions, its stacked “clown car” cast of supporting players, and a dynamic rhythmic interplay he even likens to Can, in a blatant attempt to hornswoggle me. But then he gives me the truth: “The thing is, I don’t ever really listen to the lyrics in songs. So I don’t even really notice.”

I actually don’t place that much value on lyrics either; hell, my favorite band is The Fall, and I have no idea what that guy is saying half the time. But I do look to music to make me feel something, whether it’s energized, soothed, angry, wistful, or intangibly “cool.” Throughout my two hours with it, all Joe’s Garage seemed to want to make me feel was impressed—by Zappa’s skills, sure, but also the balls he has to waste them on something so moronic. Cool, great. Now that that’s established, I’m glad to never have to listen to it again.

Extra credit

I’ve had more than one ambivalent, occasionally antagonistic opinion of a musician changed by watching documentaries about them. (I gained new appreciation—if not genuine love—for both the Grateful Dead and the Eagles this way.) So for my extra credit assignment, I watched the 2016 film Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, a montage constructed entirely from archival footage of interviews, performances, and other appearances. If his albums take on greater resonance when I put them in their proper historical context, maybe I could do the same with his whole career?

Ultimately, the film only reinforced my original opinion: I’m a fan of Zappa the acerbic, unapologetic crusader for artistic freedom, even if I don’t really like the actual art he created with it. (It’s like the reverse of every “separating the art from the artist” argument.) Eat That Question does an excellent job of laying out why he was so singular, tracing his journey from the lanky lad playing a bicycle on The Steve Allen Show to the snarky thorn in the side of Tipper Gore. It shows how his early struggles with overzealous censors—those prudes who blushed at the word “brassiere” or cut a lyric about a waitress’ “pad” because they were sure he meant “sanitary napkin”—fed that desire to push the limits as a matter of principle. There’s some fascinating insight there into the joy he found in his relentless work—the pragmatism that saw him running his band like a business, right down to its strict no-drugs policy, and the vision he had for being an all-encompassing “entertainer,” whether it was making albums, putting on live shows, or directing movies like 200 Motels. And above all, it captures Zappa as a brilliant man who knew a hell of a lot about music: how it’s made, how it’s packaged and sold, how it impacts the larger world, and how its mathematic structures have the unique ability to be endlessly combined into something transcendent and ever-evolving.

But again, it also captures how all that intellect, philosophy, and painstaking craft went into a bunch of dudes singing about the “Penis Dimension.” And especially as his career enters its 1980s political crank stage and his songs become largely listless show tunes about clueless record execs and top 40 radio, Zappa comes off like the rock equivalent of his early hero Lenny Bruce, in those years when he would just stand onstage and read his court transcripts. The whole artistic crusade thing just comes off a bit shallow when it’s for the right to wear “Titties And Beer” shirts and sing about cunnilingus.

That said, as Eat That Question moves into the last years of Zappa’s life—when he’s retired to composing classical music in Germany, and time and cancer have robbed this erstwhile “force of cultural darkness” of most of his bite—the film makes the compelling argument that Zappa’s greatest contribution is in showing how total, uncompromising individualism can be its own reward. “I write my music to please myself,” he says in one interview, while in another, he’s given several common descriptors—“genius,” “funny guy”—and shrugs them off with, “Only to a few.” Zappa was aware of, and completely indifferent to, the fact that not everyone was going to like his music, and that most people probably wouldn’t. And he did it anyway. You have to respect that. It’s enough to make me wish I were one of the people who do.

Final thesis

Brian Eno, an artist I very much do like, once said of Zappa, “I did not like his music but I am grateful that he did it. Sometimes you learn as much from the things you don’t like as from the things you do like. The rejection side is as important as the endorsement part. You define who you are and where you are by the things that you know you are not.” I would definitely agree. I went into this assignment thinking I didn’t like Frank Zappa for shallow reasons—jam band-y, dirty hippie, purely aesthetic reasons—and I was chagrinned to find that I was wrong, both about his musical approach and its philosophical intentions. That said, I also found I don’t like his music for other, more personal reasons: I don’t think it’s particularly funny, and it doesn’t make me feel anything. And it reinforced what it is about music that matters to me the most.

But like Eno, I’m glad for the fact that Zappa’s music exists. I’m glad that there was a brief window in American culture that allowed a bizarro maverick like him to break in and go buck wild, indulging his eccentricities for as long, and for as successfully, as he did. You can talk a lot of shit about Frank Zappa, but you can never accuse him of phoniness. And our world needs that more than anything. Definitely more than another trend-follower regurgitating three chords of the same old shit.

Another musician I love, Lou Reed—who spent decades locked in a mutual grudge with Zappa, as two guys who thumbed their noses at hippies and played for the true “freaks” but from completely opposite poles—probably summed it up best when he set aside those feelings to posthumously induct Zappa into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. “Musicians usually cannot speak. That’s why they speak through their instruments. But Frank could,” Reed said. “When Frank spoke, he demonstrated the power of purity.” That purity was vital and inspiring, and it’s something to be celebrated. But in keeping with my own pure, individual spirit, I’d just rather listen to something else.

Next time: I’ll roll the 12-sided die and enter the world of roleplaying games to see if that hacky joke is even accurate or still relevant!