I saw the documentary Eat That Question :Frank Zappa in his Own Words the day before yesterday and I thought it was a generally good representation of Zappa the social critic and Zappa the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career , as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was extremely intelligent, actually iconoclastic and gifted as a composer, but like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get he feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best talents. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants and excoriations, a set of notions that he honed and delivered continuously over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the end of the film. Still, despite the repetition, you do marvel at the way in which he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is pulse of consumerist culture.
But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was very happy, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort. Even die hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn’t challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire, as well, ceased being funny or witty in large measure and was, for a good number of records released through the Seventies and even through much of the Eighties, merely mean spirited. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration , likely because he realized that he could make money being this cartoon character “Frank Zappa”, becoming the man his fans wanted him to be. It was about making money in order to finance his larger orchestral projects, and the irony that he needed to compromise his principles and act the way new fans with disposable income expected to behave was likely not lost on him.T
Orson Wells had a similar situation, the story goes, as he took a good many demeanng roles in whatever variety of Hollywood schlock came his way so he could finance his own projects. It's an odd curse, I suppose, a problem the working working world would have considering a bother at all.How would one have challenged Zappa, though? His comfort zone was a strange amalgamation of influences --Lenny Bruce, Stravinsky, Sun Ra, Edgar Varese, Lord Buckley, Musique Concrete-- that it's probable that few would know what to suggest as a way for him to diverge from his rut. He created his niche, proud that he wasn't dependent on grant money, gifts from government agencies and the like. He was something like a home- schooler, nearly irrational in his belief that government couldn't do anything good for the population. There are times when I just have to turn off the rants--truth telling is never the same as music--and crank up his tunes, which has floored me for decades.
Zappa's work as a serious composer already has a fairly full catalog; one could, I suspect, produce a week or two of special concerts featuring Zappa's "serious " work. But I agree that there was much in the seventies I disliked from the man in the 70s. "One Size Fits All" was actually a solid album, firing on all cylinders, but commencing with "Apostrophe", featuring the egregious "Yellow Snow" and onward, his satire degenerated into a a species of juvenile smut. What would have been interesting would have been if he had collaborated with artists of similar stature, on smaller projects, in different musical areas. Not the Elvis Costello grand standing collaborations, but rather real efforts to work toward the best virtues of another artist. That would have been something had he wanted to make the effort, but his personality was controlling, ironically, despite his diatribes about freedom. There was something of Howard Roark in him that his work would be presented to the world on his terms solely, uncontaminated by meddlers, sycophants and their like.
The downside of Zappa's libertarian attitude about his music--my art, my way, at the price I said, or nothing at all--is that much of his output is a remarkably eccentric selection of self-invented cliches. As much as he deserves to be praised for resourcefulness and achieving a crazy amalgam of jazz, classical, comedy and rock , there are go-to moves he never strayed from , bits of business that seemed more treading water than an expansion of established themes. I do wish he'd found time and interest in collaborating with other musicians on equal footing--singers, lyricists, musicians, other composers.. The results might have been interesting and gotten the late FZ out of his comfort zone and lightened the lid on that vacuum packed cynicism that ceased to be amusing long before he passed on.