Wednesday, October 15, 2008

flower power sucks!

Freak Out * We're Only In It for the Money 

Some listeners find Frank Zappa's music to be cold and overly intellectualized. There's certainly something to be said for this in those numerous instances where he makes a fetish of compositional complexity and substitutes abstruse musical theory for passion and feeling.  At the same time, though, you can't hear albums like Freak Out! or We're Only In it for the Money without being struck by the (albeit controlled) anger fueling Zappa's overall approach to social commentary, nor can you ignore his passionate commitment to making incredibly intricate and thoughful music. ...After Zappa's early days in the mid 60s as something of a fringe figure in the Los Angeles pop scene with his Mothers of Invention, he became a fierce critic of the counterculture, often offering his acidic analysis of things from a decidedly Libertarian perspective. But he was also a countercultural trailblazer and one of the truly inventive forces in rock, especially during the five-year stretch from 1966 to 1971.  I think it's this chasm between Zappa as 60s icon and Zappa as 60s naysayer that throws people for a loop. Perhaps that was his intention all along.

Freak Out!, released in 1966, is supposedly the first double-album in the history of rock.  It's  also notable as an album Paul McCartney is said to have listened to intensively in the interstitial period between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's.    ...My friend Drew Carolan, whom I've written about on this blog before, turned me on to Freak Out! in the summer after I finished 10th grade.  Freak Out! is one of those rare albums that becomes deeper and more meaningful every time I return to it.  When I was 16, I dug the record's great doo wop flavored pop and amazing orchestral arrangements.  Back then I really identified with the album's love songs, each seeming  to be about the chick doing the guy wrong ("I Ain't Got No Heart," "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder," "How Could I Be Such A Fool?," "You Didn't Try To Call Me," etc.), as well the album's Holden Caulfield-ish perspective on life.  ...Freak Out!, staggeringly enough, was the first album for The Mothers of Invention, and already Zappa can be heard adopting a position beyond the generational divide, pointing to the phoniness of both the straight suburban parents and their beatnik-hippie children.  In the end, Freak Out! is nothing short of a relentlessly thoroughgoing critique of American Society, starting with the album's stinging opening track, "Hungry Freaks, Daddy."

Mr American, walk on by, your super market dream,
Mr. America, walk on by, the liquor store supreme,
Mr. America, try to hide, the emptiness that's you inside,
But once you find that the way you lied, and all those corny tricks you tried,
Will not forestall the rising tide, of hungry freaks, daddy!

As would continue to be the case throughout his career, Zappa seems committed on Freak Out! to the preservation of personal liberty ("It Can't Happen Here") and absolute freedom of expression ("Who Are the Brain Police?").  The most poignant moment on the record is "Trouble Coming Every Day", which is Zappa's impression of the Watts riots.

There 'aint no Great Society, as it applies to you and me,
Our Country Isn't Free, and the law refuse to see,
If all you can ever be is just a lousy janitor,
Unless you uncle owns a store,
You know that five in every four,
Just won't amount to nothin' more,
Gonna Watch the rats go cross the floor, and make up songs 'bout being poor

What I find most fascinating about Freak Out! these days is that, in adopting a detached point of view, outside the counterculture and its enemies, Zappa seems to understand that the upheavals of the 60s are bound to end badly, or at least they are bound to have negative consequences.  His perspective becomes even more critical with We're Only In It For The Money, an album that can be interpreted as the Great Collapse put to music.  Listening to the record is like hearing someone from another planet describe two sharply divided generations, each refusing to meaningfully communicate with the other.  'I will love everybody,'  Zappa says, mocking the Summer of Love, 'I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street.'  But he casts an equally rational glance onto the Greatest Generation and asks, 'Ever wonder why your daughter looks so sad?  It's such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad.'  It's not feel good stuff, that's for sure, but Zappa's perspective is prescient, fiercely original, and represents a set of ideas and perspectives with which it's very difficult to find fault.  The only real criticism I have is that Zappa's point of view is so steely and sober that it leaves you wondering if there's any joy in Zappa's world at all.  His use of humor makes up for this a bit - even if the humor is usually bitterly cynical - as does the tiny bit of hope he gives us at the very end of the album when he sings that, 'There will come a time when everybody who is lonely will be free to sing and dance and love.'  Still, based on the rest of the album, we're left wondering when that time will be. 

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