038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

Posted by jeff on Feb 12, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

This week we’re back to the legendary summer of 1968, treating ourselves to one of the finest albums we’ve had the great honor and pleasure to embrace – Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Laura Nyro’s “Eli & the 13th Confession”. I spoke about it as a desert island album for me. I understand that that’s a personal choice, and a rather quirky one, even though “Eli” commands immense respect in certain circles (after I wrote about it I saw Elton John on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle”, where they were singing the praises of “Eli” like they were Laura’s mothers, in almost embarrassing hyperbole). “Astral Weeks”, on the other hand, is universally recognized as a masterpiece. You can find the record on every single serious desert island (quite an image—an archipelago of babyboomer Bali Highs) and on every list of the peaks of popular music in the last half century.

In my mind, “Astral Weeks” was always “Eli”‘s soul-brother–not the ‘blue-eyed soul’ of The Righteous Brothers and Mitch Ryder, but of serious white artists plumbing the blues roots of rock and roll, melding it with the Tin Pan Alley tradition, and forging a young, vibrant, breathtakingly transcendent idiom.

I shared an apartment with these two albums when they saw the light of day (hell, when they shed the light of day) in the heady days of 1968. Both albums clock in at an unusually long 46+ minutes, so they were back-to-back on a well-worn 100 minute cassette of mine in the 1970s and 1980s. And in the last 20 years, I have continued to revisit them frequently, perhaps more than any other aural scene from those years. I know them like I know the inside of my soul.

Remarkably, neither has changed much. Both are spiritual fountains of youthful vitality, their waters magically smoothing out the wrinkles. The record companies’ attempts to feed the market demand for new nostalgia has had little impact. They added a few solo demo tracks for “Eli”, which really were a bonus if you don’t confuse them with the real thing. And no bonus tracks for “Astral Weeks”. It was born perfect and complete, and the ravages of the decades haven’t diminished it a bit.

The only sacrilege performed on “Astral Weeks” was by the creator himself. Van Morrison decided, 40 years after the fact, to revisit the album–two performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the original guitarist, yadda yadda, the whole “The Unique Event, Part II” syndrome. I haven’t listened to it. It’s on my computer, and I’m managing to restrain myself. I heard 10 seconds of it on the radio before I could tear my ears away from it, much like the morbid fascination with roadkill. “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” 2009 can only demean and diminish the original, and I’m not going to willingly sully my ears. Van himself said that he entered the project only because he never had a chance to perform the “Astral Weeks” song cycle. Well, that’s what he says, but he also said that “Madame George” isn’t about a transvestite, so you want to be a little careful about his comments after the fact.

As opposed to what he sings, which should be embraced unguarded.

Van Morrison was born (1945) and raised in Belfast, Ireland, the scene of most of the songs on “Astral Weeks”. He grew up listening to American jazz and blues, his idol being the Louisianan bluesman Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter, d. 1949), convicted murderer, cohort of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and lecturer/performer at Harvard and Yale in the 1930s. Here’s Van’s favorite Leadbelly cut, ‘Easy Rider‘.

In 1964, Van wrote and sang with the band Them the iconic garage band classic ‘Gloria‘ (replete with non-Ed Sullivan lyrics). Moving to New York, he was washed and tamed, and wrote the incomparably joyous ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ (sorry, no Van Morrison on YouTube, but I’m guessing you know the song by heart anyway). It was released on a lackluster album, “Blowin’ Your Mind”.

Then, in 1968, out of nowhere, “Astral Weeks”. It sold poorly, like “Pet Sounds”—a masterpiece but the poorest selling album of a major artist, too refined for the AM Top 40 market of the late 1960s. Then came the ebullient song and the LP “Moondance” (1970), perhaps his most popular album. It was the first of a wondrous series of albums including “His Band and the Street Choir” (1970), including ‘Domino’; “Tupelo Honey” (1971), including the magical title track; “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (1972), including ‘Jackie Wilson Said’; “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” (1974), a respected double live album I’m less fond of;  and “Veedon Fleece” (1974), a gem I just really got to know very recently and am totally enthralled with. Van’s still going strong today— new contexts, new styles, very much the same irrepressible Irish folk/soul poet. But that 1968-1974 run was his Golden Age.

What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable.

Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible. Those of you who like homework assignments can check out the long Wikipedia entry.

“Astral Weeks” consists of 8 songs. They contain lots of autobiographical details blown up to mythic proportions as only the Irish can get away with. Each one is an odyssey and an oracle unto itself. The plaintive narratives of days past: ‘Beside You’, ‘Cyprus Avenue’, ‘Madame George’. The jazz-informed, upbeat title song, ‘Young Lovers Do’ (maybe my favorite–try counting the beat from within in the chaos), ‘Sweet Thing’. The love song ‘Ballerina’ (conjuring for me W.B. Yeats’ dancer). The ghostly ‘Slim Slow Slider’. They’re very simple musically—just a few basic chords, mostly in 6/8, evocative but amorphous lyrics, very little song structure to hold him back. It’s folk/rock jazz.

“Astral Weeks” is an acoustic album—Van on a very forward, present, insistent rhythm guitar providing the heartbeat of the cuts; a tasteful flute, vibraphone, an amazingly dynamic small string section. And then there’s Jay Berliner (nylon-stringed guitar), a studio musician who has played with everyone from the Metropolitan Opera house orchestra to Debbie Boone, including along the way Charlie Mingus on “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”; and Connie Kay, the ultra-refined drummer of the Modern Jazz Quartet (not playing the shakers on our SoTW). And the other star of the album, the one who drives the magic carpet, Richard Davis, for my money one of the two finest acoustic bassists in jazz (alongside Ron Carter). Oh, yes, and the singer. Van Morrison.

We’re going to focus on the title track here. To tell you the truth, I looked at the lyrics for the first time just now. There were a number of phrases I’ve been transported by for42 years without ever understanding–”immobile steel rims”, “talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter”, “puttin’ on his little red shoes”. Those go alongside the images I did hear correctly: “If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream”, “standin’ with the look of avarice”. I don’t mind that I never caught some of the lyrics. They’re less important than “she come up to my room” in ‘Gloria’, believe me. They’re the paints that Van the Man uses to create this masterpiece. They’re just colors.

The song ‘Astral Weeks’ is over 7″ long, but has only 3 short verses (they start “If I ventured”; at 0:55 “From the far side”; and at 3:35 the first verse repeats.) Most of the song is embellishments on this structure following the second and third verses. Van’s rhythm guitar plays two chords over and over, I and IV. Richard Davis’s bass propels it all forward. And Van’s singing. I’m not even going to try to describe it. It’s a miracle. Just take a listen.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

116: Van Morrison, ‘Tupelo Honey’

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212: Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), ‘Towers’

Posted by jeff on Feb 6, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

06-02-2015 13-09-12Bon Iver — ‘Towers’ (Live at Austin City Limits)
Bon Iver — ‘Blood Bank’ (Live at City Limits)
“Bon Iver, Bon Iver” (full album)
“For Emma, Forever Ago” (full album)

What makes a good week? That’s easy – falling in love with new music.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Bon Iver!

I’d been listening to him (the band is the instrument of one Justin Vernon) casually for a couple of months, casually enjoying the ghostly, androgynous vocals, and elusive harmonies.

He reminded me not a little of a number of young artists I’ve been enjoying –faux Cockney James Blake (with whom Vernon has collaborated), Detroitian Subud (that’s a religion) Sufjan Stevens (to whom he’s apparently been compared), the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (with whom he shares a bleak acoustic northern sonisphere), the Danish band Choir of Lost Believers, even the genus-defying Antony and the Johnsons.

I’m sure there are a myriad of others out there in Indie-apolis, but those are the ones I’ve tripped over.

06-02-2015 13-23-31I do spend some effort trying to figure out the mindset of young ‘uns circa 2015. I’se thinking these falsettos and acousticness and bleached sound palettes are the sonic correlative of an underlying social reality — together with the flagrant asexuality, the organic cool, the disdain for flash, the enthrallment with gadgets – I think we’re in the Age of Disengagément: it’s the year 8961 (that’s 1968 upside down). Climb down off those barricades. Open the Administration Building at Columbia University. Close the road to Yasgur’s farm. Unplug Jimi Hendrix’s guitar before he burns it.

Walk down to the compost in the middle of the morning to throw away the organic eggshells from the freeroaming chickens. Take a year off work at the age of 30 to bicycle to Guatemala. Record an album in your bedroom. Google the answer to whatever’s puzzling you. (I just tried it on “Meaning of Life” – 383 million hits, including a Wikipedia entry; I’d better start reading!).

So I’m listening to this Bon Iver – yeah, gentle on the ear, intelligent, indecipherable lyrics and harmonies. And then I took a look at this video, Bon Iver in concert on the Austin City Limits TV show. And I was blown away, as we used to say.

06-02-2015 13-45-31It’s a rock band of a new era. You have nine guys on stage switching off between a myriad of instruments. At any given moment you might find a bass saxophone, two violins, two trumpets, a trombone, a flugelhorn, a French horn, some sort of xylophone that looks like a big Hanuka menorah; one guy who plays drums with his right hand and keyboards with his left; another who plays trumpet with his right hand and keyboards with his left. They rotate singing very tricky harmony vocals.

But front and center it’s all Justin Vernon on guitar (or keyboard or knobs), his distinctive falsetto tweaked and processed so the words are way beyond discernment. Then you read the lyrics and find they’re still incomprehensible (he writes wordless melodies, then writes words according to the sound of the syllables of the melody), making a whole lot more sound-sense than logic-sense.

06-02-2015 13-31-20At the low-key dramatic end of a song, he may drop to his knees – not James Brown agony shtick or Jimi Hendrix in acid prayer – but to fiddle the knobs and switches on his gadgets. Oh, it’s a brave new world, Jeff.

The whole caboodle is all perfectly under control, fully orchestrated yet utterly alive. Inspiration and perspiration hand in hand, in perfect (if bewildering) harmony. All nine guys casually displaying a virtuosity that boggles my age-encrusted ears.

I’ve been listening to Gil Evans’ last recordings, when he was dabbling in Hendrix and Sting. I think perhaps Bon Iver is what Gil Evans might be doing today if he were with us.

Justin Vernon (b. 1981, Eau Claire, Wisconsin) moved his high-school band to North Carolina. After a year and two DYI CDs (see, I can walk the walk/talk the talk), his band broke up, his girlfriend broke up, and his liver contracted mononucleosis. He moved back to Wisconsin (“I wanted to be where it was cold”), spent a monastic winter drying out his senses in his father’s cabin, recuperating in bed, not speaking for weeks at a time. He also wrote and recorded all by his little lonesome self almost the entire album “For Emma, Forever Ago” on a bunch of old equipment that was lying around.

06-02-2015 13-43-26While hibernating in the cabin, he was watching Northern Exposure. When the townsfolk of Cicely emerge from their homes into the first snowfall of the winter, they greet each other “bon hiver” (‘Good Winter’, which Vernon transcribed as “boniverre”, and decided to stick with a misspelling, as “hiver” reminded him too much of “liver”.

The album drew no little attention in the Indie scene, then caught on commercially. His songs were drafted into a dozen TV shows and movies, he appeared on Letterman, gave shows geared for audiences of different ages (same music, different ugly clothes, wholly different vibe reflecting the nature of the crowd) and collaborated with Kanye West.

bon-iver-bonnaroo-6Then in 2011 he released “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” on an Indie label, self-engineered and self-produced. It was recorded in a remodeled veterinarian clinic in Fall Creek, Wisconsin that Vernon built over a defunct swimming pool “only three miles from the house I grew up in, and just ten minutes from the bar where my parents met.” “I built the record myself, but I allowed those people to come in and change the scene.”

The band toured worldwide with great success, they became darlings of the Indie scene, and the album earned four Grammy nominations, winning two for “Holocene”. Then Vernon disbanded them: “We’re winding it down. I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering. There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that.”

06-02-2015 13-32-37Huh? Did I just read a definition of sorts of ‘disengagément’?

Young Mr Vernon is a member of a few bands, including (at time of writing) Volcano Choir, Gayngs and The Shouting Matches (guess what my next research project is), collaborating with and producing a bunch of others. Did someone mention a whole new attitude toward ‘commitment’?

Justin Vernon is hands-down the worst-dressed rock star I’ve ever seen. I don’t think everyone needs to emulate Sly Stone. But, c’mon guy, a dirty tank-top revealing your less than Greek figure? But all the audiences – which seem to range from 17 to 37, each show somehow reflecting the vibe from the particular venue – know his music well enough to sing along.

He’s been known to hand out printed sheets of his lyrics at concerts because he likes the audience singing along. “I don’t want to be the guy with an acoustic guitar singing songs, because that’s boring for the most part. The song actually needs 80–500 people singing or whatever the vibe is of that room, it needs that fight”

His output as Bon Iver is meager – a measly two LPs and an EP. And it’s more or less of one chromatic theme. But watching the live shows, those nine guys purposefully switching instruments during the course of a song, the brushstrokes and shadings all come into focus. The composition isn’t casual at all, despite the disheveled image he chooses to project. The guy’s an artist, an accomplished, serious artist.

I just hope he finds a groove (or grooves) to commit to, to thoroughly work through and develop and refine and expand. And to draft all that laid-back talent and craftsmanship, and forge it into coherent, engaging personal artistic statements. You can impale an earworm on a melodic hook. But you still have to catch the big one.

Recommended Listening/Watching:

‘Towers’ – Austin City Limits (watch the whole hour-long show if you can find it!)

Entire live concert (despite ugly tank-top)

Studio Performance – half-hour, two pianos, two voices

Full live concert (good visuals, poor audio quality)

‘Holocene’ – TV performance

‘Hinnom, TX’ (at 5’20”)



For the love, I’d fallen on in the swampy August dawn
What a mischief you would bring, young darling
When the onus is not all your own
When you’re up for it before you’ve grown

From the faun forever gone
In the towers of your honeycomb
I’d a tore your hair out just to climb back, darling
When you’re filling out your only form
Can you tell that it’s just ceremon’?
Now you’ve added up to what you’re from

Build your tether rain-out from your fragments
Break the sailor’s table on your sacrum
Fuck the fiercest fables, I’m with Hagen

For the love, comes the burning young
From the liver, sweating through your tongue
Well, you’re standing on my sternum don’t you climb down, darling
Oh, the sermons are the first to rest
Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed
Out the hollows where the swallow nests

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045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

Posted by jeff on Jan 29, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Julie London, ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’

For a goodly number of years now, I’ve been singing modern a cappella, a young genre of mostly young music for mostly young singers and listeners. I sing mostly the contrabass part—you know, the real low dum-dum-dum underneath everyone else that you can’t really hear but it looks funny and fun and is kind of endearing and cute, even if not many Caruso’s begin their careers there. And I’d like to share with you this week how I decided to become a bass.

The ones who get the spotlight are those prima divas, the sopranos. They sing the melody, draw everyone’s attention, they a priori get first crack at all the solos. And, singing the melody, they don’t need to be too smart. So I tried that; and, cute as they were, I got tired of the inner blonde vapidness of singing melodies.

17-year old Julie London in 1943, adorning GI barracks worldwide

So I tried the altos. Challenging? Always. They get the trickiest parts to sing. They’re outside the spotlight, but they’re really the crucial element in the harmonic brew. I would have loved to be an alto, but to my great chagrin they didn’t want me. They said I’m no fun in rehearsals, all I do is sing.

So I tried the tenors. Well, no one would accuse them of being the sharpest pencils in the box, but they’re good guys, and they get to sing pretty neat parts sometimes. But I found that every time we did a song they sang a different part, which was a bit frustrating for me. And besides, I couldn’t keep up with their drinking.

So I slipped down to the basses. Good guys, never met a bass I didn’t like. But how long can you sing the tonic of the chord without going brain dead? And by the time the other voices learned their parts, I was ready to pack it in and go home.

Then I saw this clip. And I knew I wanted to be a real bass, a dum-dum-dum contrabass. So I did. It’s been fine, but reality is never quite the same as the dream, is it?

Julie London (1926–2000) is today best remembered for 3 things:

  • The original and best known recording of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me a River’ (written by her high-school buddy Arthur Hamilton). She performs it magnificently as Tom Ewell’s fantasy in the Jayne Mansfield cinematic masterpiece ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’.
  • Her role as Dixie McCall on the TV series ‘Emergency!’ (sorry, I’ve never seen it, and there’s a limit to how far I’ll go to research SoTW).
  • The generous cleavage she contributed to her album covers in the 1950s.

Julie wasn’t a great singer, but she was certainly a competent one, reserved and controlled, a member in good standing of the bevy of excellent cool white chick jazz singers in the 1950s, including Blossom Dearie (that’s her real name), Chris Connor, June Christy, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), Sheila Jordan, and Helen Merrill. Julie’s niche was the slow, sensual and sultry. The word ‘smoky’ seems to have been created especially for her. Here’s a ton of clips of her singing. And here’s a ton of pictures of her.

She was good enough for Billboard to name her the most popular female vocalist for 1955, 1956, and 1957. The covers certainly didn’t hurt the albums’ sales, but her reputation as a vocalist has remained quite respectable.

She seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards her ultra-sexy image: on the one hand, if you look at the clip and the album covers, she’s clearly very comfortable (and successful) in the role of sexpot. On the other, she seems to have been a shy person, whose film career was limited by her refusal to do nude scenes.

But she did make lots of movies and TV shows, and a whole pile of pretty respectable LPs. Still, I like to remember her for a few less-known nuggets:

Her first husband was Jack Webb. Yup, Sgt Joe Friday himself. They were married from 1947–1954. They were both ardent jazz fans. And they met when Julie was 15!!

Julie was apparently quite a looker at a young age. In 1943, GIs were pinning up on the walls of their barracks and tents all over the world the rather amazing picture above of 17-year old Julie from Esquire magazine.

After she divorced Sgt Friday (“Just the facts, ma’am”), she married Bobby Troup, composer of the jazz and pop classic ‘Route 66’. They stayed married for 40 years. In Hollywood.

But mostly what I remember Julie for is this rendition of ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’, a staple of the Great American Songbook, written in 1926 by Ray Henderson (music) and Mort Dixon (lyrics). I was quite surprised to read that the song has often been understood to describe a prostitute’s resolve to leave the business (thus a mirror-image song of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’).

No one here can love and understand me
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me
Make my bed and light the light
I’ll arrive late tonight
Blackbird, bye bye.

While there may be more revelatory versions of the song (Miles Davis’s is probably my favorite), and more famous ones (Keith Jarrett, among a myriad of others), I sure do appreciate Julie’s version.

I’ve done some looking for other efforts in this format. The divine Sarah Vaughan has 2 excellent albums with just bass and guitar, which are pretty close to this idiom, ‘Sarah after Hours‘ and ‘Sarah + 2’. The unique Sheila Jordan has made a number of really interesting albums with Harvie Swartz or Cameron Brown, but she’s a lot more intellect than libido.

But for all the wonder of Sarah’s voice and Ms Jordan’s intelligence, it’s Julie London that’s engraved into my very male brain. It’s so elemental, torch singer and bass, female and male, yang and yin, one on top one underneath.

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to discover who the bassist is in the clip. But it doesn’t really matter. In my imagination, it’s me.

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211: Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (“Freak Out!”)

Posted by jeff on Jan 23, 2015 in Rock

frank_zappa_and_the_mothers_of_invention_album_art-27984The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 1)
The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 2)

Dear Mr Meshel,

I read your Song of The Week somewhat regularly, and I do enjoy it on occasion, especially when you talk about The Good Old Days. I heard a rumor that you met Frank Zappa back then. Is it true??? I’d sure love to hear about that. He’s the greatest musician of our times, I think, even more than Taylor Swift.
Yours truley,
Suzie Shamenet, Philadelphia

Well, Suzie, it’s true. I did buy The Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out” the week it was released (June 27, 1966), way before anyone else in Ohio had heard of them, and was an early proponent. And it’s true that I saw them in concert at Taft Auditorium in Cincinnati in April, 1968. And it’s true that I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Zappa before the show.

Freak_Out!_back_coverThe reason I’ve refrained from sharing those experiences and thoughts is that the cult of his devotees has grown so in breadth and depth that I feel I’ve been left far behind by the armies of sophisticated young ‘uns for whom Zappa is a cultural icon and musical point of reference. Swing your Fender Stratocaster today and you’ll hit half a dozen fuzzy-cheeked wunderkinder who get him much better than I do. But since you asked…

My perception today is that Things (i.e., music and the cultural revolution it expressed) happened from The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964 to Altamont (August 1969) or the release of “Let It Be” (May 1970), take your pick. Everything before was preparation. Everything after was aftermath.

I graduated high school in Cincinnati in June, 1966, smack in the middle of The Golden Age, smack in the middle of Middle America. It was still a singles market in those days. FM radio was still the provenance of classical music. The Top 40 from the week of June 27 still looks pretty good in retrospect:

  1. The Beatles
Paperback Writer
  1. Frank Sinatra
Strangers In The Night
  1. The Rolling Stones
Paint It, Black
  1. The Lovin’ Spoonful
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?
  1. Simon & Garfunkel
I Am A Rock
  1. The Cyrkle
Red Rubber Ball
  1. Robert Parker
  1. The Capitols
Cool Jerk
  1. Dusty Springfield
You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me


Frank-Zappa-CreativityBut I was already looking beyond singles into the 12-track LPs. I’d simply plant my feet in front of the racks of the biggest record shop and rifle the stacks for hours, plucking out everything that looked faintly promising, my only source of information being the flimsy web of data I could glean from the record covers themselves. The albums released that month included:

Elvis Presley Paradise, Hawaiian Style
The Temptations Gettin’ Ready
The Beatles Yesterday and Today
The Mothers of Invention Freak Out!
The Animals Animalisms
Jack Jones The Impossible Dream
The Incredible String Band The Incredible String Band



Suzie, you have no idea how off the charts “Freak Out!” was. The word ‘freak’ was strictly a pejorative in those days (that means ‘a bad word’). The hippie scene was nascent, hardly mentioned in the white boxer-short media. My grandfather saw me, the harbinger of fashion, in cut-off jeans, and asked why I was wearing torn clothing. “It’s the fashion,” I replied. “Oh, the fashion,” he nodded, lighting his pipe, comprehending yet bewildered.

In those days good was good, bad was bad. Good kids wanted to be good. They certainly didn’t want to be freaks. Me? “Freak Out!” entranced me. My parents, who really were not members of the Brain Police might have confiscated the album, had I not hidden it in a plain brown rapper. It was that outrageous. Thirty years later it was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and voted among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘You Didn’t Try to Call Me’

zappaSo there was Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and his band rubbing my face in a new reality – playing off doo-wop and 1950s teen clichés, but with a whole lot of nastyisms: “Wowie zowie, your love’s a treat/Wowie zowie, you can’t be beat/Wowie zowie, baby, you’re so neat/I don’t even care if you shave your legs.” “You’re probably wondering why I’m here/And so am I.”

For a 1966 17-year old, that was really edgy. I admit, it seems just a bit adolescent fifty years on. But what for me was the pièce de résistance of the album was the pentultimate cut, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’. On the original release it was a single 8:37 cut: Help, I’m a Rock (Suite in Three Movements)
I. Okay to Tap Dance
II. In Memoriam, Edgard Varèse
III. It Can’t Happen Here”
Later releases broke the last section into a separate cut.

It’s hard for me to sell a piece like ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (purportedly dedicated to Elvis). It predates John’s ‘Revolution #9’ by over two years and surpasses it by 20 leagues. John’s is a self-indulgent, meaningless waste of wax. Frank’s is a bold, groundbreaking composition of seditious non-sense.

tumblr_m4agecXzCU1r8q2hao1_500Here’s ‘Ionisation’ by Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), Zappa’s musical guiding light. He believed in “organized sound”, “sound as living matter”, and “musical space as open rather than bounded”, “sound-masses” likening their organization to crystallization. “To stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise”, and he posed the question, “what is music but organized noises?”

Here’s Frank’s answer, and to me – now almost as much as then – it’s thoroughly convincing. I don’t know the conditions under which ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ was conceived, recorded and edited, but the result is (for my ears) a coherent artistic statement. Admittedly, the piece is exhorting the listener to participate in a revolution that’s long been fought and won. The world is full of freaks. Anything goes. I filled out a form for Amazon.com which began by requesting my Name, Address and Sex. The dropdown for the latter offered the choices of “M/F/Other”. Zappa 1, Barry Goldwater 0.


Mr & Mrs Zappa, son Frank

Can I convince you that ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ makes ‘sense’? For sure not. It makes non-sense, but it does so in a manner that convinces me. And a lot of other people spanning a whole bunch of generations, geographies and cultures. If Zappa had come to my door in 1966, the neighbors would have called the cops. Today he, the term ‘freak out’ that he coined and the aesthetic it engendered snuggle up on the living room couch watching network TV.

But Suzie, I promised you a story, didn’t I? Well I went to Taft Auditorium in April 1968, with the Mothers’ first three albums in my head. I walked into the interview with no little trepidation, fully expecting Frank Zappa to bite my neck, suck out all my blood, and turn me into a real (California) freak (I was already an Ohio freak, but that’s something wholly other).

He stood up when I walked in, walked towards me smiling, extended his hand, shook mine firmly, saying with disarming warmth, “Hi, I’m Frank Zappa, what’s your name?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the interview I wrote up. The only specific I remember is his maintaining that high schools are derelict in not teaching students the basic skills of coping with life, such as fixing refrigerators (his example).

I remember more about the show. They played ‘Louie, Louie’, with Zappa doing a 5-minute guitar solo on a single note. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to sing a chorus. A young guy with a butch haircut and US Marine written all over him jumped up and grabbed the mike. While he was mumbling it out (if you don’t know the history of trying to decipher the lyrics to ‘Louie, Louie’, you’re missing the Rosetta Stone story of the 1960’s), Zappa tossed him a doll, which the lad proceeded to joyfully dismember. This was a month after My Lai, well over a year before the story broke. What was the audience thinking as we watched? God only knows.

What I do remember clearly was the Mothers’ show-stopping rendition of The Supreme’s ‘Baby Love’. I’ve never been the same since. But I guess maybe you had to be there.

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