“FZ’s Big Stereo,” part three: The Meanings of Boilerplate

I think there are interesting potential reasons why the music of ZPZ takes on a certain “boilerplate” sound. One clue came when I was able to see a ZPZ soundcheck at a venue in Toronto; privilege has its costs, and the fee, added to the already-pricey ticket, seemed undue. However, my wife, whose attitude to performance of any kind is that sometimes you have to do certain things in order to learn, made the ticket a gift for which I’m still very grateful for everything it taught me, so I ended up sitting in with about forty others at a ZPZ soundcheck.

Dweezil ran the band with an almost single-minded focus on precision, note-by-note precision. Every note I expected, I heard. It was at once impressive and disappointing. Where were the jokes, the byplay specific to this band? But then, Dweezil turned to us: “Well, this is supposed to be a party, so what do you folks wanna hear?” People yelled out their favorite tunes; bear in mind that the zappa.com Web site had a special feature for those of us who had, in total Willy Wonka fashion, our magic tickets and wristbands as though from a hospital that indicated we were Special—the list of tunes ZPZ had rehearsed for the tour, from which we were entitled to choose for the band to play so there was no asking for anything out of the blue. Out of the band’s standard norms. I held up my hand like a fifty-something schoolkid.

He pointed at me. “Yeah, go ahead.”

“‘Eat That Question.'” I could hear the second keyboardist shudder. He played the intro in George Duke fashion, but when he started that final run down the keyboard, I distinctly heard him saying “Aw, fuck….fuck….FUCK—” as his fingers struggled with what Zappa once called the “statistical density” of figures like those. Honestly, I felt for him. I couldn’t come near an ability to play that music. And when the band entered, they sounded like a band playing a cruelly complicated score, very proficiently. And yes, there was enormous energy on the part of every player; I was especially taken with Travers, who played with such complexity, control, speed, and power that every drummer in the crowd had to feel humbled.

For some reason, we were escorted out just at that point, Dweezil waving us goodbye in a way that seemed somehow odd. Was it something we said?

The performance itself was much more of the same. It’s clear ZPZ can play a great deal of Frank’s catalogue, even “Night School” from Jazz From Hell, Frank’s Synclavier album of material he felt could not be played by live musicians and now clearly intended as a demonstration of ZPZ’s capabilities (although, as stated earlier, there are many other pieces that band cannot play without leaving themselves open to charges of racism among other things). But capability is not the same as actually having the music inside oneself, not the same as performing it with heart as well as mind and body. To quote Frank, they played “all the right notes”; but is that enough? Where did this attitude come from?

I think it fully flowered through Frank’s always-contentious relationship with the facts of and people involved with classical music. Frustrated by the strictures of rock music, he wrote for orchestras and hoped to show people that he belonged in that world as well; however, he faced indifferent musicians and an environment almost as stultifying as he found in session musicians, who he felt only played in relationship to their pay as opposed to love of music, or rather, Frank’s music in particular. Surely he had the right to expect that musicians would play the notes written for them; but more than that is involved in the making thereof. In a classical setting, he hoped to find engagement and instead found ennui. Not until the end of his life was he taken at all seriously as a composer which, as we all know now, was our loss.

Upon his death, Gail and Dweezil took that notion of “the right notes” to heart—quite possibly too much so. At the above-cited ZPZ show in Toronto, drummer Joe Travers missed a cue to bring the band in with a bass-drum shot; Dweezil stopped the band there and then, as Frank would also have done. Then, however, he said something perhaps more revealing than he’d intended: “Joe’s programmed (emphasis mine) to play the most amazing shit….but a kick-drum eludes him.” He was right. The band sounded programmed. It isn’t just that Frank might not have wanted to hear his “big stereo” in that way (it’s impossible to know, but considering the “soirees” he conducted at home near the end of his life, it’s quite clear he still valued musicianship and individual input); I question whether we should think generally about music in that way.

By contrast, there’s a great deal of interplay in other bands that also play this music. Project/Object, the Grandmothers while they existed, the Muffin Men, Bogus Pomp from St. Petersburg, Florida—you’ll hear notes Zappa probably didn’t intend, but that’s something that separates rock from classical music: the direct input of individual musicians is involved as well. Dialogue, not programming, becomes most important in a rock context. ZPZ is a model of programming excellence, but heart has been replaced in ZPZ by a kind of secular worship, as in an ill-conceived decision on a previous tour to show Frank on a large screen behind the band while Dweezil played his father’s solo, live, in unison with him. I found it technically impressive, and creepy as all hell.

If this is what they mean by “getting the notes right,” then we have a problem—precision, in this case, trumps individual musicianship. Frank had the right to expect that of his players, though he actually expected much more than that; he was known as the toughest taskmaster in all of rock music, and BTW, as such he deserves a biopic as much as any musician. Gail and Dweezil have the right to demand the same of ZPZ. They do not have the right to insist that other bands and musicians do the same, although they have the obvious right to be paid according to standard and mutually equitable contracts. Gail—who is not a musician—seems not to have understood the life her husband actually led, what that work meant, what it continues to mean. It is not a cash cow. As art, it is meant to be performed by as many people as possible for the widest possible audience. That instead there’s so much bad blood is as unnecessary as it is senseless. The situation as it stands is everyone’s loss—ZPZ’s, Project/Object’s, other bands,’ yours and mine.

This never needed to happen. It’s time—long past time, in fact, though not yet too late—for Gail and Dweezil to make peace with these other parties, and work together to create something involving numerous alumni players while they’re still alive. Some sort of genuine and open “legacy project” should have happened years ago. There’s still time, and certainly a large and responsive public audience is waiting.

(In the forthcoming fourth part, we’ll get around to the specific conflict between Gail and Ike, and by connection a consideration of what authenticity means in the current context.)

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About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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