Dweezil’s Ripped My Flesh!
The other night, PBS was screening the live DVD, Zappa Plays Zappa.
The SG doesn’t fall too far from the tree…
(Frank left, Dweezil right.)
I had DVR’d it so I could fast forward through the pledge drive parts – am I bad? Anyway, I was really curious about this show because I had missed the tour and had been told that the presentation was awesome and that as a musician, I would be impressed. The verdict was: WOW. (FYI I realize that if a jury had just said WOW in, say, a murder trial then we would probably have grounds for a mistrial, but in rock critique circles Wow is a winning verdict. So WOW your honor! Wow!.
Zappa Plays Zappa is the ensemble touring show put together by Dweezil Zappa, son of the late, great Frank Zappa. Frank was a man who defied easy categorization. He was a rock and R&B band leader but with a 20th century Avant Garde composer’s heart. He was one of the smartest most intelligent social commentators America has ever produced and yet he also wrote songs like “Jewish Princess” or “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”. He was so out there musically that he should have been European, and yet he was so AMERICAN in his vision and sound that I often think of him as the next logical step up from George Gershwin (who similarly married African American blues idioms to large scale European symphonic pieces) And of course, Zappa famously wrote a teenage “fan letter” to composer Edgar Varese. I found it fitting and touching that it was Father’s Day when I tuned in to watch Dweezil put new flesh to the music of his father. What separates this “son takes on spirit of the father” trip from say Frank Sinatra Jr (or Hamlet) is the amount of sheer dedication on the part of Dweezil to wear his father’s prodigious size nines. As Dweezil explains to the packed and appreciative house in the DVD, he took two years to study his dad’s complex musical scores and refine his own rather prodigious guitar skills to master the master’s tone – squawk for squawk. And then he assembled a blend of new musicians who would have passed Dad’s rigorous standards and a bunch of folks like Napoleon Murphy Brock, Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio – who actually had passed the audition back in the day. (Vai famously sent Frank scores of self-transcribed Zappa guitar solos to show how well he had mastered FZ’s melodic blueprint, he was hired shortly after).
Here’s a clip of Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” (feat. Steve Vai) from the ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA DVD.
Here’s a confession: I sometimes wince at the thought of prog rock muscularity and noodling, even though on a technical ecstasy level, or perhaps an Olympian athlete level, I get it. But I think the problem has been that, most of the time — and I’m looking at you Kansas — there’s a sense that muso bands are trying too hard to create sound and fury signifying nothing. I sometimes call it “drum clinic” music – as parodied by Fred Armisen in his Jens Hannemann “Complicated Drumming Technique” - but you can substitute “bass clinic”, “synthesizer clinic” or “guitar clinic” where applicable.
But here’s where Frank Zappa, in my opinion, was different. Just as Lenny Bruce was the first to say something about the nature of decency and language while George Carlin wasn’t first, although he took it farther and longer than Bruce, Zappa’s complexity was the source and he was always in service of pushing forward the overall shape of music rather than just about “showing off”. Ironically, if you can play this stuff – and I’m going to fold and say I don’t really think I could – you can’t help but show off.
If you’d never heard Frank, Dweezil would seem like a fresh, original and jawdroppingly great guitarist. Yet, even knowing the original, I still think you’ve got to give it up for Dweezil. The band is fantastic and the music has not been matched or surpassed since Zappa wrote it all. There are times when it sounds like the F word, FUSION, but there are just as many moments where it resembles that other, more desirable F word, FUNKADELIC. That’s probably the biggest variant on your standard prog rock show off trip, this stuff GROOVES. Sometimes eight different grooves in one “song”. Lyrically, this DVD had a couple of poignant moments that are still as true or truer than when Frank wrote them over thirty years ago. “I Am The Slime”, a scathing call out to television’s unchecked power to trivialize and cheapen our intellectual discourse is still relevant in different way (he was only speaking about TV but maybe he would write something similar about YouTube) and finally as Napoleon Murphy Brock sings “The Torture Never Stops” – you gotta wonder what Papa Frank would have written about the national debate, or lack of it, about Waterboarding and “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”.
We’re witnessing the third and fourth generations of the rock icons. Jakob Dylan, kinda looks like his father Bob (although he sounds more like Bruce Springsteen) Dhani Harrison looks exactly like his father George (but sounds only vaguely like his dad, in a post punk way) but Dweezil (who would look exactly like his dad if he grew the moustache and goatee) SOUNDS exactly like his dad. And that’s a good thing, I think. He’s doing something we’ve never really seen before (or have we? let me know) He’s keeping the family business alive – in 9/8 time.