Frank Zappa – Joe’s Menage [Vaulternative Records, 2008]

Frank Zappa - Joe's MenageYears ago I read a biography about Frank Zappa by one Michael Gray, entitled “Mother! The Frank Zappa Story“. In the final chapter Gray went through a litany of complaints and grievances about my favorite freak, including the opinion that the only kind of freak Frank Zappa ever was, was a control freak. He explained that Frank’s need for control extended beyond his music and into his family life, where Frank was the one who named all of the pets. The notion that maybe the kids liked the names Frank called the pets seemingly escaped him. A parrot named Bird Reynolds? What kid wouldn’t find that hilarious? Anyway, Gray went on to say that Zappa was a man who was so afraid of letting go that he wouldn’t even smoke pot. Now, as a confirmed pot head, I found this argument idiotic, pure and simple. Seemingly, the fact that Frank just didn’t like the effects of marijuana wasn’t a good enough explanation for Mr. Gray. When I finished the book, I was so irritated by Gray’s opinions that I began writing an article tentatively titled, A Diatribe Against The Zappa Dissident, Michael Gray. It never got too far beyond the title stage, but it serves as an illustration of my devotion to Uncle Frank.

In my opinion, Frank Zappa was conceivably one of the most astute, eloquent and provocative rock stars the world has ever known. At least in his interviews. I still find myself captivated any time I find an interview with him that I’ve never read or listened to before. Which leads me to ye olde crux of the biscuit: For a man who was such a sharp social critic and saw so clearly through the bullshit of modern society, he sure did produce some inane horseshit throughout the 1970’s. Like the first track on Joe’s Ménage – the world premiere of Honey Don’t You Want A Man Like Me? It’s a different version than what we’ve heard before on any official Zappa releases, which is cool in it’s own way, but the lyrics to the song itself are, to use one of Frank’s own expressions, sub-mongoloid. It’s misogynistic, trite and just not funny. It’s lowest common denominator comedy, the kind of shit that made Howard Stern the shmuck he is today. It all began when Frank disbanded the original Mothers Of Invention and hired all new members, including Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles. Throughout their various early line-ups, The Mothers Of Invention had always retained their satirical, innovative and musically challenging edge. All of that changed overnight with the recruitment of Volman and Kaylan. The focus became groupies and sex, hysterically delivered by Flo and Eddie, yet rarely hysterically funny. For all his talk about chronicling the “folk tales” of the band and serving as some kind of underground anthropologist, Frank’s lyrics became inside jokes about venereal diseases and groupies. It’s no wonder so many of his fans became disillusioned with this new direction, yet Frank never missed an opportunity to bemoan the fact that so many people thought that his material from the 60’s was the best work he ever produced.

After a couple of years of Flo and Eddie, Zappa fell out with those two shrill goofballs and took on new and ever-changing conglomerations of Mothers. On Joe’s Menage the lineup features good ole Roy Estrada, Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Andre Lewis and Norma Jean Bell yet the puerile sex-talk and misogyny remain. The first 2 songs of the show basically serve as a subtly hostile back-lash against women’s liberation. We get yet another early version of The Illinois Enema bandit, with an almost creepy intro rap from Frank, chronicling Michael Kenyon’s modus operandi with those hi-larious enemas of his. What it was exactly that Frank found so amusing about forcing enemas on innocent women never was truly explained to my satisfaction. And I’m a sick fuck myself!

Frank liked to consider himself a journalist of sorts, a kind of musical reporter whose objective often involved revealing society’s sexual detritus and satirizing it, but many of these songs feel less like satire and more like celebration. Like the next song on Joe’s Ménage, Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy, a “reportorial” romp through the land of S and M, with no actual point to it that I can decipher. Which raises the question; can satire truly exist without a point? Maybe I should have studied Ben Watson’s book more carefully…

Following Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy we get Napoleon Murphy Brock singing Lonely Little Girl. Now, I can’t explain this rationally, but sometimes I find Brock’s vocal delivery a real pain in the ass. Maybe it’s his almost childish delivery, like he’s sticking his tongue out while he sings. Who knows, it just irks me. Jesus, I’m beginning to feel like a Zappa dissident myself here friends. Anyway, Zappa’s guitar solo on Lonely Little Girl is a soaring, rather stoned sounding offering. With its regal majesty, I’m sure more than a few of those audience members who were zonked out on downers and wine nodded off to numbs Ville while he played this one. After Lonely Little Girl, we get a scrappy reggae version of Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance. But the next track is probably my favorite of the whole album – a Ruben and the Jets-style version of What’s The Ugliest Part of Your Body, which ends with Frank singing “It Can’t Happen Here”. It’s a pity Frank didn’t have this band deliver a powerhouse version of that song too, but I guess that’s just my tough shit..

Chunga’s Revenge is up next, with the saxophonists providing the intro theme which leads into a vocal and saxophone solo by Norma Jean Bell, followed by a melodica solo by Andre Lewis and a jazzy “rhythm guitar solo” from Frank. But the real treat on this little number is the drum solo by Terry Bozzio, which is simply mahvellous. That guy went fucking postal on those poor things, working his way up to a demonic hurricane roar before finally repossessing himself. It’s no wonder why Frank would have him dress up like the devil…Terry was the Tasmanian Devil of percussion.

For the finale we are served up an unusually conservative portion of Zoot Allures delivered in a particularly restrained fashion, which fades out and returns with a slight twist, truly, some awesome “air sculpture”.

This concert comes from a tape Frank gave a fan in 1978, who in turn sent it to Gail Zappa in 2004, who then had it restored and mastered by one John Polito. The sound quality is reminiscent of some of the offerings on the Beat The Boots series, only just a little less shitty. All I know is that if I have to hear another version of The Illinois Enema Bandit, somebody’s gonna get a slap… and it won’t be Jumbo.

Joe Pickell

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