The Neglected Canon #2

by Billy Brooks

Calvin Ahlgren is such a little known poet that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. However, he was friends with Frank Zappa. In Zappa’s ’84 live video, Does Humor Belong in Music? he puts it thus: “I am Frank-Zappa-as-imagined-by-the-editor-of-a-famous-rock-n-roll-magazine. I am an anachronism who makes the ugliest music on the planet. I have no right to call myself a member of the human race. I am tasteless, untalented, pompous, arrogant, cruel, insensitive, vulgar, and not a fun guy because I don’t do drugs.”

To many members of even the most cultured and widely listened rock’n’roll audience, this may seem to hit the nail on the head. Although, as the man himself took pains to point out, he was not really a rock artist, even if he happened to appeal to a rock audience. Zappa was as obviously into Stravinsky and Webern as he was into the blues; he didn’t much care for the Beatles; he distanced himself from prog rock, despite MTV’s efforts to lump him in with the likes of King Crimson and Procol Harum, who in turn had obviously loved Zappa’s debut album, Freak Out. Zappa eludes categorisation to this day, which is perhaps one reason why the name Zappa may mean a little to some people, but more likely than not, it’ll put them in mind of Valley Girl, the 80’s classic by his daughter Moon Unit.

The first time I came into contact with Zappa, I was as an impressionable lad of thirteen, in the springtime of my adolescence, which was characterised by an obsession with learning the guitar. Around this time, Guitarist magazine launched a countdown of the ‘top 100 guitarists’, but unlike similar countdowns by Rolling Stone or NME, they didn’t just approach some well known guitarists and get them to name some musicians, thus compiling a list of influential names. They instead got a group to rank a hundred strong list of guitarists by a series of knockout stages, which seemed to me much fairer.

I know, I thought it too. Hendrix was a shoe-in for the top spot, as always. Well, picture my surprise, when he was beaten at the final hurdle, by one, Francesco Zappa. Who was this guy? Cock of the walk with his passé handlebars and comically hawkish nose. I went home (I didn’t buy the magazine), and after some digging, found that Hendrix himself lauded Frank as one of his few superiors, to whom he gifted the charred corpse of the famous Astoria strat at the Miami Pop Festival in ’68. John and Paul had heaped similar praise on him. Freddie Mercury stole a lyric from the Freak Out album for Bohemian Rhapsody.

I was astounded, when, making my first timid excursion into Zappa’s mad world of gigantic talking poodle dogs named Fido, or Frunobulax, and cowboys procuring dental floss from farmable crops a la the BBC’s April fool’s day spaghetti trees, I found I recognised the opening tracks of the Yellow Snow Suite (“watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow”) from Christopher Walken’s brief cameo appearance in Pulp Fiction, as the courier of future-Bruce-Willis’s birthright, his father’s watch. A suitably weird musical accompaniment to match a weird moment in the oeuvre of Tarantino, who, love him or hate him, can assemble the bejesus out of a soundtrack.

The Yellow Snow Suite offers a narration of a dream sequence, which is astonishingly realistic in its randomness, in subject matter, mood, and genre. Although it begins with Zappa ‘dreaming he was an eskimo’, it ends up in the ‘parish of St Alphonso’, whose leprechaun votaries choose pancake consumption as their primary method of worship.

The suite’s highlight is the Rollo Interior, an interlude in St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, so fast and complicated that even Zappa’s hand-picked, revolving-door cast of multi-instrumentalists, revered in the toughest jazz circles as virtuosos, no doubt struggled with it. Indeed, at the end of the suite, Ruth Underwood plays the first ostinato of the Rollo, only for Ralph Humphrey to laugh as she stumbles, commenting, “that shit is fast!”

The Apostrophe album began as it intended to continue. Cosmik Debris (which narrates the rejection of a travelling salesman hawking his services as a guru) and Stink-foot (the lament of a victim of what scientists call bromhidrosis) are the standouts of the remaining tracks. However, picking highlights from an album like Apostrophe is like surveying a set of Fabergé eggs. It’s doable, but it comes with a guarantee that whatever you pick will be intricate, masterfully designed, ambitious in its intention, and impressive in its execution. With an incredible intro, a fantastic exit, and girdled with a belt of unforgettable oddities, truly, this is an unjustly neglected gem, and only a springboard into an extensive back catalogue, including the universally hailed Hot Rats, Overnite Sensation, One Size Fits All, and Zappa’s collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!