On the trail of Frank Zappa, one of rock's great eccentrics.
by Richard Abowitz in Rolling Stone
rank Zappa had a personality as complicated as any of his compositions: He was a musical genius, a guitar hero, a First Amendment activist, a lover of groupies and a family man (albeit a deeply eccentric one). Zappa, who succumbed to cancer in 1993, was also an object of endless fascination for journalists, hard-core fans, bootleggers and critics (all groups he took pleasure in loathing), so the outlines of his life are already well known.
British writer Barry Miles collects the available details in Zappa: A Biography (Grove Press, $17.00). Zappa was born in Baltimore but raised in various suburbs in California. The family moved frequently, as Zappa's father, a chemist working for the military, continually changed jobs. The teenage Zappa was a remarkably eclectic music geek who dug R&B, doo-wop, blues and even Modernist music (enough to aspire to classical composition). Zappa was also obsessed with recording technology. Among his earliest ventures was a studio in Cucamonga, California. In 1965, Zappa, then twenty-four, was busted after being commissioned at his studio by an undercover police officer to make a sexually explicit audiotape. Zappa was tried, convicted and forced to serve ten days in jail. Miles sees this as a defining moment for Zappa, noting "In many ways he spent the rest of his career shoving his pornographic tape down America's throat."
Miles, who knew and interviewed Zappa back in the day, is best at capturing the rise of his band the Mothers of Invention -- their evolution from standard L.A. rockers into counterculture heroes. But Zappa is conspicuously lacking in terms of access to the people and material from Zappa's later years. Zappa's obsessive taping and filming mean that there are mountains of material still in the hands of his family; Miles, an unauthorized biographer, doesn't even quote song lyrics. Though it ably tells the tale, Zappa has little to offer serious fans, and it will hardly be the last word on Zappa's life.
Forget 'Rubber Soul' and 'Tommy'. Downloads and iTunes have
by David Browne in Entertainment Weekly
ere's an irony for you, with a pop twist. Despite the rise of downloading, CD sales have inched up: In 2004, about 2 percent more discs were sold than during the previous year. A few more people, at least, are buying albums.
Yet, in spite of that statistic, the album itself -- that revered, long-standing way of absorbing music -- has never meant less in the culture. And I have to admit that I'm of two minds -- or should I say "sides" -- about the situation.
You remember albums, don't you? I'm being cheeky, of course, since truckloads of new releases arrive every week. By "album," though, I don't mean just the concept of a cohesive set of songs by a band or a musician. I also mean something -- LP, cassette or CD -- that gives you the experience of being engaged from beginning to end. In the MP3 era, the long-playing format, which begat everything from Rubber Soul to Blood on the Tracks to 3 Feet High and Rising to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, feels like a primordial beast from an unnamed prehistoric era. One current exception is Green Day's American Idiot, a story-driven disc that self-consciously harks back to the days of Tommy and Quadrophenia. For its effort, the band has been rewarded with a million-seller and six Grammy nominations (including one for best "album," appropriately enough). But American Idiot feels like a last stand, an homage to a now-discredited way of making a grand statement. Those who champion it sometimes seem like citizens cheering on doomed soldiers in an unwinnable war.
The downfall of the album isn't another tiresome example of boomer nostalgia: Gen-Xers curled up with their Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails CDs with the same relish that an earlier generation had devoted to Blonde on Blonde or Running on Empty. Instead, the decline is part of a new, larger trend in the culture -- the customization of everything. "On demand" is no longer a term that applies solely to ordering up movies or Curb Your Enthusiasm on cable. Thanks to TiVo and movie channels, we can watch whatever TV shows or films we want, whenever we want. Satellite radio lets us tune in to the specific genre we want. On certain cars, we can select our favorite colors on different panels. With iTunes, we've become our own DJs, with the implication that we no longer trust musicians, producers and record companies to make good albums -- and that even if they do, we're going to mess around with them as we see fit. On demand: It's Patti Smith's old social-consciousness rally, "People Have the Power," with a consumer-culture spin.
Granted, I'll be the first to admit that the album brought about this plight. With CDs, my patience is tested again and again as I wade through 16...18...20 songs by singers or bands lucky enough to have a few decent tunes in their pockets. (As both critic and fan, I generally feel sated with the old vinyl standard of about 12 to 14 songs per album -- thank you, the Strokes, Weezer, and other masters of your digital domain.) The standards have dipped so low that friends now tell me they expect a CD to contain only three or four good songs. As Entertainment Weekly's music critic, I have to ask myself how to now rate an album: Do longheld criteria -- like expecting most of the albums songs to be first-rate -- matter anymore? I devour full albums as part of my job (as well as hobby and love), but does anyone else have the time or energy to do that? Do albums matter anymore?
Given all this, of course the iPod and its peers are appealing; iPodders disdain the album and embrace the single by shuffling their playlists. Like many of those people, I agree that a magnificent single remains one of life's untainted joys. Whether it was the Killers' "Somebody Told Me" this year or ABBA's "Waterloo" when I was 14, I'm still transported by three or four wham-bang minutes, an audio sugar rush that seems to last for hours after the song ends. And sometimes I agree with Good Charlotte's Benji Madden, who told me that while his band are "album guys" (as demonstrated by the clearly thought-out The Chronicles of Life and Death), not everyone is: "Some people are talented enough to make an entire album, and some people aren't. Because it's not easy. It's hard work."
Yet as much as I can see how the album experience may no longer have a place in a BlackBerry world, part of my doesn't want to see the single reign supreme, either: It's hokey -- and, okay, very boomer -- to assert that the album transformed pop music into art, since plenty of discs I return to over and over -- Beck's Mellow Gold, The Best of the Spinners, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..., Richard and Linda Thompson's Pour Down Like Silver, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, Madonna's Ray of Light -- aren't rock operas. The album is where we get to settle into a musician's brain and let him or her take us on a journey. When compiling my 10-best list of 2004 for Entertainment Weekly recently, I took into account the voyage each album sent me on: the adventures in sampling of Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, the glimpse into Elliott Smith's psyche on from a basement on the hill, the endlessly inventive byways of Kanye West's The College Dropout, the vibrant vision of a probably imaginary South in Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose. Then there's Brian Wilson's resurrection of his long-abandoned song cycle SMiLE.Each album was an adventure -- sometimes fun, sometimes dark, sometimes daunting - that you couldn't have experienced via downloads. Even near misses like Wilco's bipolar a ghost is born strove for weightiness in ways I admired.
I'll admit I was wary of this disc from the start: SMiLE has become the last '60s monument that boomers can hoist over the heads of subsequent generations to boast that theirs was truly the greatest musical generation. But after staring at its frilly white slipcase cover for weeks, I decided the moment had come to spend quality time with SMiLE and see if I could get past the nostalgia and revel in a supposed masterpiece.
I was equally impressed and aghast. The sound of this older, creakier version of Wilson re-creating his four-decade-old self was beyond eerie, and sorry, fellow critics, but the remakes of "Good Vibrations" and "Surf's Up" don't touch the Beach Boys' versions we already know and love. And yet the album took me places I hadn't been, not all of which were unsettling. The lyrics were pretentious; the filler ditties were grating; but the way in which Wilson tried to cram a century's worth of American music and motifs into his own eccentric framework was, at the very least, noble. When the CD wrapped up, I realized I'd experienced something rare -- the album as a sprawling, ambitious artistic endeavor. I'm sure there well be more such aural encounters ahead. But I wonder how many.
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