The Zappa Reviews, #5 – Cruising with Ruben and the Jets

The third part of No Commercial Potential, and the first to find itself outside the Lumpy Gravy canon, is a decided departure from previous efforts, not that people at the time knew. Or did they? The mystery surrounding the identities of Ruben and friends is on the one hand cited as the reason for the album’s unprecedented level of airplay compared to previous Mothers records, yet the cover featured a caption which, though phrased as a question, stated that it was indeed The Mothers of Invention, and Zappa himself would later dismiss the idea that it fooled anyone as pure nonsense. Ruben and The Jets were actually a fictional (later real, adding to the confusion) doo-wop group, conceived as part of a narrative involving the sinister character of Uncle Meat, who turned them into the bipedal dog creatures they appear as on frequent collaborator Cal Schenkel’s cover art.

Here The Mothers seem to be taking a break from themselves, making fun of their image, playing a practical joke at the expense of the listener, but there is also some sincerity beneath the vapid lyrics and overly simplistic tunes. Many Mothers genuinely enjoyed the doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll stylings that form the basis for the album, including, perhaps begrudgingly, Zappa himself, and there is at first glance a kind of bittersweet paradox running through all the songs, where fondness and sarcastic irreverence sit side by side. This is of course not exactly true when tempered with further listens, as it becomes clear that the music itself is loved and often lavished with a kind of restrained caress, but the lyrical content is almost always deliberately idiotic in a satirical way. The tracks were recorded at the same time as those of Uncle Meat, and there are obvious similarities between, for example, that album’s The Air and this one’s Love of My Life, although they are lyrically set apart from each other, Zappa opting in the former to discuss more adult themes, even to reference indirectly the police bust on Studio Z; in the latter (co-written by Ray Collins) to focus on ridiculous clichés, e.g.: “stars in the sky, they never lie, tell me you need me, don’t say goodbye.”

The proceedings kick into high gear right from the get-go with Cheap Thrills, one of the more upbeat tracks on the record. The lyrics begin with “darling, darling, please hear my plea”, directly referenced in Uncle Meat, but soon enough get straight to talking about having sex in the back of a car. Usually the oft-mentioned curtain pulling in Mothers albums is kept in reserve for the end, but, perhaps knowing that they would be heading in new directions from this point on, decided to subvert expectations and lay it all out right away. It also lets you know right from the start that it’s totally self-aware, and in true Zappa style just keeps laying on thick the intentional stupidity. Now’s as good a time as any to discuss that particular issue, ain’t it? For those of you who don’t know, there are a lot of people out there who absolutely loathe Zappa, seeing him as some kind of self-contradictory Pagliaccio of the absurd, who on the one hand says exactly what he’s about, and on the other never says anything sincerely. He has, for those people, managed to embody Gore Vidal’s paradox (“the writer must tell the truth as he sees it, and the politician must never give the game away”) transposed to the fields of music and lyrics. By the way, paradox really is an overused word, if I say paradox one more time I’ll be just like all those smarmy internet critics who unnecessarily overuse words loaned from dead languages in order to look smart. Hmmm. This serious or perhaps not-so-serious problem is exacerbated by the schism between his often jovial presence on record and on stage, and the serious, straight talking demeanour he displayed in many interviews. To look at one and then the other, were it not for the iconic facial hair and that big ol’ schnoz, one might mistake them for two different people, yet Zappa did naturally have the capacity to be serious and jokey, both perhaps to a fault, and the people who can’t tolerate that may be the same people who expect music to be serious all the time. Yet it is, they say, the fact that he is jokey while suggesting that the jokes are actually subverted by being designed to be laughed at by stupid people which makes him so detestable, because he is being deliberately antagonistic and putting himself upon a pedestal. Or is he? Well, at least in this instance, it seems that he is. Of course, this is the natural position of the satirist, for it is impossible to satirise without also assuming a higher vantage point than others. It’s a precarious tight rope act that is frankly wondrous whenever someone manages to pull it off.

Several tracks from Freak Out! are given a makeover on the album, generally with stripped down instrumentation, simplified compositions, and even some lines cut here and there. The most obvious case of the last of these is I’m Not Satisfied, which drops a lot of Zappa’s sung lines from the original. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that these new versions are not tastefully done, as they place emphasis, in the mode of doo-wop, on graceful and saccharine vocal harmonies. It’s hard not to be won over by Collins’s reimagining of the vocal lines here, with the rest of the Mothers taking the raucousness down a notch on their backing and playing it straight. The dropping back of the instrumentation in favour of sung melodies is actually quite refreshing coming after three densely and often complexly scored Mothers records, and it seems as if the band is taking a breather between We’re Only In It for the Money and Uncle Meat, both of which are huge undertakings in terms of studio work in the case of the former and advanced musicianship in that of the latter. You Didn’t Try To Call Me is also very well done, and is a fine companion piece to its original incarnation. It is actually among the more structurally complex tracks on the album, its tempi and rhythms shifting in subtle ways to create a fluid motion while keeping the track interesting under the hood as the group harmonies take centre stage. The other two returning songs, How Could I Be Such a Fool and Anyway the Wind Blows are far less inspired, and speak more of the laid back vacation like quality of the album as a whole than their predecessors.

Among the brand new tracks, Ray Collins’s own Anything, one of the few pieces on any Mothers record that is not even in part credited to Zappa, is a standout. Though it is very simple and doesn’t begin with much promise, it is the short, light, and sweet sax solo from Bunk Gardner, and the velvet group vocals that follow it, that wins the day. One of the best slow tracks on the record, it comes after the soda pop frivolity of Jelly Roll Gum Drop, the title of which is not actually a dumb euphemism for the female nipple, but rather “jelly roll” was often used to refer to a desirable woman, perhaps one who, as in this song, could perform the latest dance crazes with great proficiency and grace. It is perhaps the most direct attack on stupid pop lyrics, their approximation here amounting to the enumeration of popular dance routines delivered in monorhyme, and particularly taking to task novelty songs which are entirely based around commanding the audience to do the Mashed Potato, or the Locomotion, or the Twist, or more recently the Cha Cha Slide. More of these soda pop songs appear throughout the album, such as Deseri, which is again about a girl who dances often and well. It’s fun and silly and laughably simple, but as I’ve noted so many times, it is once again the group vocals that make the music really worth hearing. They’re a mile away from The Beach Boys, and the lines tend to be more metrically independent, indicating a textural approach which Zappa likely would have derived and transposed from his experiences with modern classical music.

Overall, Cruising with Ruben and The Jets is a fluffy pop record featuring a band essentially on holiday, a moment of rest and recuperation before the next big one, and yet there is something there, some lingering doubt carried over from its predecessors which hangs out just on the periphery of its sunny disposition. The final track, Stuff Up the Cracks, is a nonchalant walking blues about emotional blackmail, in which the narrator delivers an ultimatum to his jelly roll. “If you decide to leave me, it’s all over […] nothing left for me to do but cry […] stuff up the cracks, turn on the gas, I’m gonna take my life.” It’s just the right combination of pop theatrics and undertones of pathological uncomfortability to confirm the statement of self-awareness with which the album began, and the slow walking beat seems to take on a sinister quality in its image, hinting at small enclosures and an encroaching haze of lethal smoke. Make no mistake: had Ruben been conceived as a movie, it would have been called The Mothers Go To The Beach, and that beach would have been the one I submitted as the ending of Lumpy Gravy.

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