Over My Shoulder #46: On Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand). From Richard Kostelanetz, Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian (2008)

Here’s the rules.

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

And here’s the quote. This is from a section of profiles in Richard Kostelanetz’s Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. This was home reading from earlier this week.

A radical from his professional beginnings to his premature end (on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52), Zappa won the respect of some, but not all, of his colleagues in both pop and highbrow composition. Indeed, his popular music had as many enemies as ans, but because of the loyalty of the latter he survived. Admirers of his extended serious compositions included the French music mogul Pierre Boulez. Zappa was once invited to give the keynote address to the American Society of University Composers; the 1995 meeting of the American Musicological Society included an extended paper on Zappa’s work. My own opinion (as someone who has written more about classical music than pop) is that the best of his music appeared before 1973, as many of his later concerts and records disintegrated into extended vamping jams in the tradition of pointless jazz.

Though Zappa was often a vulgar pop musician, he could be courageously critical of pop music vulgarity, at times functioning as an acerbic critic of the music business and eventually of world politics. It was not for nothing that his dissonant records were particularly treasured by Eastern European dissidents. Having influenced the man who became president of a new Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, he thought about running for the American presidency, and might have done so, had he not been hit with terminal cancer.

He was present in some form or another for a quarter-century, if not as a performer, then as a record producer, sometimes as a cultural commentator. In contrast to other pop stars, he did not lapse into silence or absence; he did not, for instance, let putatively savvy managers ration the release of long-awaited albums. Indeed, in a courageous twist, he took several bootleg recordings of his own music, improved them technically, and released them under his own label. Nobody else involved in rock music, very much a business for the short-lived, could produce so much and such richly continuous cultural resonance.

Printed on the cover to his first album, Freak Out (1966), is an extraordinary list of These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them. With 162 names, the list reflects Zappa’s precious intelligence, polyartistic literacy, intellectual integrity, and various ambitions. Among the names are the writers James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bram Stoker, and Theodore Sturgeon; the highbrow composers Arnold Schoenberg [by then dead only fifteen years], Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Leo Ornstein, Alois Haba, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roger Huntington Sessions, Vincent Persichetti, Mauricio Kagel; the music historian John Tasker Howard; the blues singers Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Willie Mae Thornton; the record producers Tom Wilson and Phil Spector; the jazz improvisers Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus; the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein [but not the Beatles], the off-shore disk-jockey Wolfman Jack, the perverse painters Salvador Dalí and Yves Tinguy; the pop singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Tiny Tim; the sexologist Eberhard Kronhausen; the earlier rock singers Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis; the Italian-American martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti; the comedian Lenny Bruce; he oversized actors Sonny Tufts and John Wayne, all of whom indicate not only that Zappa knew what he was doing professionally but that he also could credit the sources of his learning. Though Zappa could be an ironist, all of these acknowledgments were apparently serious (even Wayne and Tufts, whom I take to represent strong performers who could stand out from any group). While Zappa’s formal education ended at a local junior college, mine included college and then graduate school. Nonetheless, as a self-conscious intellectual born in the same year as Zappa (1940), I would have identified many of the same names on my short list at the time.

Even at a time when record albums (not to mention performing groups) began to have outrageous names, Zappa should still be credited with some of the most inventive coinages, beginning with the name of his group, but also including Freak Out, Absolutely Free, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All, Joe’s Garbage Acts, Baby Snakes, Jazz from Hell, Freaks & Motherfu*%!!@#, ’Tis the Season To Be Jelly, Piquantique, Electric Aunt Jemima, Our Man in Nirvana, The Yellow Shark, etc. If inventive titling isn’t a measure of literary talent, I don’t know what is.

It seems curious in retrospect that a man who apparently had no loyal friends outside his family, who surrounded himself with paid retainers, who terminated most of his professional relationships with firings and law suits, hould still have an audience. Unlike most culture heroes who create the impression, however artificial, of someone you’d like beside you, Zappa was someone that most of us would sooner watch than know (or want to know). It is common to attribute his continuing success to his appeal to different audiences, some appreciative of his musical inventions, others of his taste for obscenity.

My sense is that his advanced pop has continuously attracted sophisticated teenagers who, even as they move beyond him, retain an affection for his work. Immediately after his death, the Columbia University radio station, WKCR, presented a marathon of his work, its regular disk-jockeys for jazz and avant-garde music speaking knowledgeably about his work. Many announcers at many other university radio stations elsewhere must have done likewise in December 1993. In this respect of influencing bright youth who grow up (e.g., the sort who become public radio disk-jockeys), he reminds me of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand, whose commercial potential was likewise surprising. Just as her eccentric work has survived her death, so will Zappa’s.

What should not be forgotten is that Zappa lived dangerously, doing professionally what had not been done before and others would not do after him, at a time and in a country where such adventurousness was possible, even as he was continually warning that such possibility should never be taken for granted. For all the continuing admiration of his example, there has been no one like him since.

— Richard Kostelanetz (1997/2008), Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand), Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. 300-302.

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2 replies to Over My Shoulder #46: On Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand). From Richard Kostelanetz, Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian (2008) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Richard Kostelanetz

    thanks for your appreciation of my Zappa piece that I always thought speical,tho no one else to my recollection cited it.

  2. Aster

    Richard-

    Thank you for taking the time to write it.

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