What happened to The Zappa Reviews? Same shit that always happens with me: something else came up. In this case it was a kind of assault from all fronts on my ability to continue working on it, at least for a time. Not only did my computer break down, I agreed to join a small team of friends, operating as a writer and a composer, to help create a game. Now, hang on, how did I work on this stuff if I didn’t have a computer? Well, I did, kind of. I had permission to use someone else’s computer for this work until I could get a new computer (mission accomplished on that front), and yes, I could have used it to continue writing The Zappa Reviews as well, but I chose not to because I didn’t feel comfortable hogging someone else’s property to work on what is basically a hobby as opposed to an actual responsibility. I don’t think what I’m doing here is particularly important, but I take the creative stuff I do seriously and I put a lot of time and effort into hopefully making something good out of it, so I hope you’ll forgive the over-seriousness of this opening.
So my computer broke down and I got a job, that’s all fine and well, but I stopped writing the reviews regularly some time before either of those things happened. Why? Well, as the now dropped subtitle of this essay/article/whatever (I’m kind of embarrassed to call my writings essays since that, to me, implies some sort of intellectual rigour definitely not in evidence in my work) says, I “hit the ideological wall.” I went into the project all gung ho about sorting out Zappa’s position in the context of the 20th century and the present day, I talked about “logical lenses” through which I would get at the core of his philosophy and all that kind of stuff. At its inception, it was a project built on lofty goals and ambitious talk, and my desire and determination to live up to those ideals resulted in probably the best writing I’ve ever done. I’m particularly proud of my review of Lumpy Gravy, in which I tried my damnedest to grasp the character of a very complicated album and somewhat succeeded, tying the textual and musical content together on some level with the album’s cultural context, not exactly in a neat fashion, but in a way that seemed to work. The biggest failures so far are probably the reviews of We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. Both times I gave up talking about the content and settled for something less, a negation of my professed responsibility to document and dissect their contents, I excused myself for that intellectual laziness and just said “hey, what can I do?” In the latter case I feel like I came across particularly bitchy, possibly because I had gotten out of the swing of things and had forced myself to write a new entry even though I wasn’t really “feeling it.” I stooped to lazy attacks against people who despise Frank Zappa yet love that album, because I placed my personal taste on a pedestal above attempting any real analysis of the musical content, and those attacks might have had grains of truth to them, but they served collectively as a piss poor excuse to do anything but properly address the album itself. To be fair, I’m no musicologist, I don’t know shit from sugar when it comes to music theory, and there’s no way I could have provided an insightful critique of what’s actually going on from note to note, chord to chord, in the music, but then I never stated musical analysis to be my goal, and I should have looked instead at the musical climate in which the album was released, how it affected the development of jazz fusion, Zappa’s relationship with jazz etc. Instead I just made cop-out after cop-out, and I find that inexcusable when I look back on it today.
The ideological wall. That’s a concept that hasn’t really fully formed in my head. The phrase appeared there two days ago, when I first had the idea to write this, and it hasn’t really explained itself or opened itself up to much in the way interrogation, or maybe I have once again been lazy and just not really contemplated it. I think the initial appeal of it was that it is a phrase that sounds like something a smart person would write, and you know I really want to look good in the eyes of a bunch of near total strangers who might be feeling generous with their time of an evening. As far as I understand the inner workings of my own mind (which is to say not very well) I think the gist of it is that when confronted with reality, an ideologue is faced with the choice of either tempering their ideology, renouncing ideology, or ramping up confirmation bias to the point that only things that absolutely agree with the ideology are taken into account. The last of these is how you end up with people like Ben “Frank Zappa was a Marxist” Watson, whose work in my view is basically the feminist glaciology of music criticism. But I’m not going to trash Mr Watson, at least not too much, because this piece is all about trashing myself, baby, so let’s carry on with that.
Of the above trichotomy, whether legitimate or false, I eventually chose the second option, the rejection of ideology. Prior to this actually quite recent turn of events, I didn’t feel comfortable with continuing the project. I was in a kind of limbo, not knowing how I wanted to approach future reviews, and I felt it was fairly ridiculous to carry on with it under the false pretence of still believing that it was possible to complete it as it was originally intended to be completed. By that, I mean that I don’t feel, neither as I am writing this nor as I have been thinking about the project over the past year or so, that it is possible to see it through to a conclusion. I can certainly work my way from album to album, eventually arriving at Civilization Phaze III and nominally coming to a conclusion, but I can’t work all that into the ultimate service of a point before the fact. I didn’t even get to the 1970s in my chronological progression through Zappa’s discography and I already realised that was a problem. In fact, if you look back through all the reviews I have so far completed, it’s pretty obvious that this approach was never going to work unless I ignored things that didn’t fit into the view I wanted to hold up. That’s not to say I went into it thinking “I’m going to show it this way,” because I like to think I can be more intellectually honest and nuanced in my work than that. I did intend, as I went on into the mid-70s, when Zappa, continuing to do what he had been doing all through his ’60s career, would begin to run afoul of both the progressive left and the religious right, to debunk some of the myths about him as a person, e.g.: that he was a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, and so on. I still want to go through with that, because I think the level of misinformation out there about him is staggering, and it’s kind of insane to think that there isn’t much in the way of a rational backlash against it. Even with those goals in mind, I wasn’t interested in starting with the conclusion and writing everything around it.
So, where to now? First off, as an extension of my earlier apology for intellectual laziness which I make not only to my readers (if indeed there still are any) but to myself, I would like to re-review both We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. I really dropped the ball on those two, and I knew this soon after I had written them. At first, regarding WOIIFTM, I had chosen to press on because I felt that it was better to complete a first draft of the entire series, then go back and take stock of what worked and what didn’t. Now, with so much time having passed, I feel like it’s better to just go ahead and make the change now, and start from scratch. I won’t be replacing my failures in some kind of revisionist history of my work, I’ve always been a warts and all kind of guy when it comes to work and to talking about my work, and I think it’s better for my mistakes to be acknowledged and accessible than it is to pretend they never happened. As for the rest of the series, I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that, as I progressed along the initial run, I became entrenched to some degree in starting work on each review worrying about how I was going to tie it in to what had come before it, it got to the point that I didn’t even enjoy listening to the albums any more (granted, later on that’s going to happen from time to time and for entirely different reasons) and the whole thing became a chore rather inadvertently. I’m going to try from now on to treat each review as its own thing, not to angle for this or that, anticipating only when necessary, rather than as if I’m writing a travelogue about my journeys from place to place.
So there you have it, in case you (yes, you!) were wondering what the hell I’ve been doing. That’s it. Really. There’s nothing else to say. I’m done. Go on, go. Please. Stop touching me.
Fuck joke endings.