FRANKLY SPEAKING

There's nothing like an early death to prompt critical reconsideration--and the reputation of Frank Zappa, who succumbed to cancer in late 1993 at the age of 52, has gotten a major boost as a result of this phenomenon. At the time of his passing, the music made by this grumpy auteur was heard by few listeners outside the circle of the previously committed. Moreover, a considerable percentage of his records were out of print, and many of those that were not could be obtained only through Barking Pumpkin Records, a label run for the most part out of Zappa's house. Few would have guessed, then, that this artist's demise would prompt worshipful obituaries from media sources he'd spent a lifetime savaging (Time magazine, for instance) and a renewed interest in recordings that only a handful of observers gave a damn about even when they were new.

In an effort to capitalize on Zappa nostalgia, the Massachusetts-based Rykodisc label is embarking on one of the most ambitious reissue campaigns in the history of the record business--the release of 53 Zappa discs over the course of four weeks ending in late May. Of course, Rykodisc is in some ways recycling its own back catalogue; the company has been selling some of these offerings for years now. Even so, the appearance of this massive body of work in a single block is daunting--and so is the hype that's accompanying it. Suddenly, it's become fashionable to view Zappa not as an idiosyncratic rock-and-roller with a keen satirical eye and a penchant for toilet humor, but as a neoclassicist whose accomplishments rival those of John Cage, Philip Glass and the most creative "serious" composers of this century.

Actually listening to these recordings doesn't support such a conclusion, and that's a shame. After all, those of us who admired Zappa for his quick wit and his principled stands against the de facto censorship promoted by the Parents Music Resource Center would like nothing better than to believe that he was also a man making music that historians studying our era hundreds of years from now will see as timeless. But draping Zappa's finest moments in the cloak of respectability saps much of the life from them; his pretensions aside, this stuff works better as anarchy than it does as high art. From 1966 until approximately 1970 Zappa operated at a very high level, making records in which musicality, scatology and nastiness butted heads in ways that still intrigue. And if the albums that followed were infinitely more erratic, and often a lot worse, they remained the spawn of a man smart enough to realize that traveling well-beaten paths can be boring as hell.

Freak Out, from 1966, was the first record by Zappa's greatest group, the Mothers of Invention, and it's still the simplest route into his work. The majority of the songs here are variations on the rock and roll then booming out of a million garages from coast to coast; bottom line, "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "Wowie Zowie" are pop songs, albeit ones in which Zappa and his compatriots often exude a certain smugness and a somewhat distasteful contempt for the form. This attitude can be a drag at times, but it also imparts an edge that gives the tunes a staying power that can't be ignored. Better yet, the cynicism occasionally subsides: On the surrealist lark "Help, I'm a Rock," the musicians actually sound like they're having fun and not holding themselves above the material. At these moments, Freak Out celebrates the cliches of the era even as it tears them apart.

The next Mothers opus, Absolutely Free, largely maintains this balance and manages to come up with some good songs in the process; especially noteworthy is "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," an assault on the suburban mindset that slams tempo changes, mock opera and a genuine blues riff together into an incongruous mass that holds together for no apparent reason. We're Only in It for the Money, from 1968, is even stronger, in part because its various tangents work together as part of a vicious attack on the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is used as a visual and aural model) and everything the misanthropic Zappa felt they represented. "What's there to live for?" Zappa asks at the beginning of "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" a song brave enough to tear up the San Francisco hippie movement while it was happening. In short, the album is mean--and even though we're now more than a generation removed from most of the targets of Zappa's barbs, his ire still burns.

Unfortunately, Zappa never again hit Money's peaks. The Mothers' discs Uncle Meat and Weasels Ripped My Flesh came close; with its free-jazz skronk and collages of sound, "Didja Get Any Onya?" from Weasels was the sort of musical experiment that only a confident performer without any real interest in catering to an audience would have dared. But Fillmore East--June 1971, featuring ex-Turtles Flo and Eddie, is more typical of the period. It's extraordinarily well-played and intermittently amusing (in a junior high school sort of way), but it also caters to the portion of Zappa's audience that saw him as a novelty.

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