In Which I Blame Frank Zappa For Everything: Part II

Let’s see where was I…if only I could remember what I wrote yesterday.

So it’s 1974 or ’75, my hair is Jimmy Page and my shoes are Elton John.  As noted in the previous post, however, my small town Texas brain has just been blowed up by its introduction to Frank Zappa.  Not only have I been alerted to the possible interpersonal and social ramifications of malodorous appendages in “Stinkfoot,” but I have also been introduced to a sinister world in which jazz and 20th Century classical influences can exist in rock music.

In addition to my residence in the largely Southern Baptist sticks of musical nowheresville, I also had zero musical training, outside of hitting a drum or two at some kid’s house whose parents must have had far more money that mine did.  So hearing Mr. Zappa, and then stretching out into some of his other work at the time (e.g., “Just Another Band From L.A.”) via 8-Tracks (yes, that’s right…8-tracks), opened some musical dimensions that I wasn’t really equipped for on a level of more than:  “this is music that irritates everyone around me, and thus must be good.”

I’d love to say I understood “Billy the Mountain” or any level other than the middle school humor at its core, but, then again, it just so happened that FZ was going through his lyrical age 14 stage at the same damn time I was living age 14.  We were perfect for each other, even if I didn’t know a 7/8 time signature from a tree growing out of a mountain’s shoulder.

The problem became, as I see it now 35 years or so later, was my next, and still all-time favorite FZ record “Bongo Fury,” recorded live at the oft-mourned “Armadillo World Headquarters” in Austin, Texas.  “Bongo Fury” is the true apex of FZ’s decision to combine the world’s greatest band with the world’s stupidest lyrics.  And just for grins, he also throws in his old friend, Captain Beefheart, to recite some typically incomprehensible poetry in a quite obvious, at least now, attempt to make everyone understand that lyrics were for losers.

I loved and still love “Bongo Fury,” and I wonder where my old vinyl copy has wandered off to (yes, I’d moved up in the world and gotten a Sansui turntable and amplifier to replace my Soundesign 8-Track “system”).   But now comes the bad part.  I fell into FZ’s trap, loving the inanity of the lyrics, while not really understanding what was going on musically, and/or being unaware of where to go as a listener from Zappa.

In my defense, we are talking the musical wasteland of North Central Texas here, there’s no Internet, and I’m not even aware, at the time, that an hour away in Denton is this fabulous jazz school training folks like Lyle Mays.

Besides, and perhaps more importantly, Zappa’s sex jokes and depravity were really, really funny when you’re 14.

So, instead of really listening to Frank and exploring more jazz and 20th Century music (which I did a bit, but let’s face it, the mid/late 70s appeared musically to be a very dead time in both genres), I just read more National Lampoon and Vonnegut, and watched more and more and more Monty Python. Funny trumped the music, and it largely has now for another three or so decades.

Of course, that’s not really Frank Zappa’s fault, but I do wonder what would have happened if the following scenario took place.  Just the other evening, I was going through the forums at “All About Jazz” and ran into this mention of a 1972 release featuring Charles Tolliver, a trumpeter I vaguely (remember, memory is not my strong suit) recalled as playing with Jackie McLean, who I spent months last year listening to over and over and over again.

Well, I listened to “Impact” this 1972 Charles Tolliver record just the other night, and I’ve listened to it another ten or so times in the last 48 hours.  The players:

Charles Tolliver:  Flugelhorn (yes, that horn made famous by Chuck Mangione)
Stanley Cowell:  Piano
Ron Mathewson: Bass
Alvin Queen: Drums

Fantastic stuff, featuring many of the time changes and technical precision demanded in FZ’s work, while also having energy and immediacy found lacking in, uh, much of the 1970s in general and music in particular.

Now…what if Frank Zappa had somehow led me to this Charles Tolliver record way back in ’75?  What if somewhere in the lyrics of, say, “Muffin Man,” FZ had thrown in:

“Girl, he thought he was a man,
but he was a muffin.
He hung around till you found out
that he only knew about this new recording by trumpeter Charles Tolliver leading a post-post-bop, just enough free jazz to remind one it’s 1975 and smoking in ways that are both musically interesting and never dull to the casual listener if they just give it a chance………nuthin’.  

Well, maybe the whole Chuck Mangione thing could have been avoided.  Altogether.  By each and every one of us.

Maybe more on that, including a story involving a blowout of a front left tire on a VW microbus, later.  Maybe not.  I might also throw in a few words on Steely Dan and why they’re equally to blame.  Or maybe not.


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