Gift of Lithuanian sculpture inspires one to zip through a little Zappa music

May 18, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Earlier this month, the city of Baltimore accepted a generous gift from the Republic of Lithuania: a 15-foot statue of avant-garde rock legend Frank Zappa. Because of that country's love of classical music, the artist's symphonic, idiosyncratic compositions are highly regarded there. His Lithuanian fan club calls him a "voice of freedom."

But it's a safe bet that most mainstream American pop fans probably can't name one song by Frank Zappa, who died in 1993 of prostate cancer at age 52. And it's an even safer bet that few know the musician was born in Baltimore, where he didn't stay long. At age 10, he moved with his family to California.

I must confess: Until this month, I knew next to nothing about Zappa's music. I've long recognized his image: a thin guy with sharp features, a thick mustache, a soul patch and dark shoulder-dusting hair in the early years of his career. I had heard of Zappa's group, the Mothers of Invention, and had read about its influence on modern rock. But I had never spent time with any of the records.

Now that there's a statue coming to honor his Baltimore roots, I figured I'd explore Zappa's vast catalog, which includes more than 60 albums. It seemed logical to start at the beginning, with his first two masterstrokes with the Mothers of Invention: Freak Out!, the 1966 debut, and We're Only in It for the Money, perhaps his most acclaimed LP, released in 1968.

The albums, which were remastered and reissued on CD by Rykodisc in 1995, are easily available. But the music - bristling with satirical humor and swirling with odd compositional touches - isn't immediately accessible. Forty years after these LPs first hit record shops, they are, in many ways, remarkably transcendent. Yet Freak Out! and We're Only in It for the Money are also very much of the era. They remain dazzling distillations of the late 1960s.

Of the two, Freak Out! is probably easier to absorb. But we're talking about Frank Zappa here, so the songs are still weird, teeming with tricky time signatures, off-kilter lyrics and kazoo solos. From the beginning, the artist's music was incredibly ambitious, refusing to neatly settle in any way.

Originally, Zappa's debut album came out as a double LP, something that would probably never happen in the iTunes pop world of today. In 1966, though, folks actually sat and listened to albums. And Zappa and the Mothers of Invention apparently had a lot to say on their first record, which featured 15 eclectic cuts.

After opening with the grooving, nonconformist anthem "Hungry Freak, Daddy," the band sneeringly mocks romantic teen pop on such cuts as "I Ain't Got No Heart" and "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder." The former is a rather ghoulish anti-love song that presages punk rock and the freaky ballads of Funkadelic. The latter lampoons the syrupy sentiments of doo-wop tunes with MOI members Ray Collins on lead tenor, Roy Estrada on falsetto and Zappa on bass. Silly, kitschy but well-crafted, the song would sit well on a soundtrack to a John Waters flick. The director and Zappa, both famed Baltimoreans, share a similar quirky, wicked sense of humor.

But the musician had a social conscience, as heard on "Trouble Every Day." The blues-suffused tune, featuring Zappa on lead vocals, addresses the 1965 Watts riots. But the artist could have been singing about any racially charged act of civil unrest in the past 40 years. Mid-song, Zappa stops singing and says, "You know something, people: I'm not black, but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I'm not white."

The stinging guitar lines and echoey mix of the recording suggest the social paranoia of yesterday - and today. The improvisational feel of the music, raw vocals and subtle orchestral sophistication of Freak Out! set the precedent for Zappa's 30-year career. He released two albums in 1967 - Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy - before delivering what some consider his all-time masterpiece: 1968's We're Only in It ior the Money.

I found this record harder to digest. The flow of the album is interrupted throughout by weird studio effects and bits of nonsensical dialogue. Zappa's satire is pointed as he shoots flaming arrows at the superficiality of '60s pop culture. On the album jacket, the artist takes a swipe at the Beatles, the era's most lauded act, by parodying the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Most of the 19 cuts are abbreviated, dropping off into dark musical holes where voices are sped up. The music fragments and odd noises - bleeps, radio static, manipulated laughs and God only knows what else - multiply. Originally, the album was heavily censored because of a few expletives sprinkled here and there. By today's standards, they're rather mild. But the music still sounds like something from another planet. In 2005, the Library of Congress added We're Only in It ior the Money to the National Recording Registry.

Although Frank Zappa didn't spend much time in Baltimore, the city's penchant for kitsch and wild eclecticism must have rubbed off on him early on. It's evident on his first two masterpieces, where the music evokes the era from which it sprang, but strangely manages to defy any sense of space and time.

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