I saw the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in his Own Words the day before yesterday and I thought it was a generally good representation of Zappa the social critic and Zappa the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career, as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was extremely intelligent, actually iconoclastic and gifted as a composer, but like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get the feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best talents. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants, and excoriations, a set of notions that he honed and delivered continuously over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the end of the film. Still, despite the repetition, you do marvel at the way in which he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is the pulse of consumerist culture. But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was very happy, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort. Even die-hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn’t challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire, in turn, gave way to stark cynicism where disdain, undistilled or leavened with much in the way of wit, ceased being funny or witty in large measure and was, for a good number of records released through the Seventies and even though much of the Eighties, merely mean-spirited. The manner he chose to make audiences to laugh, if they did at all, was to position himself as the narrator who knows that the world is composed of willful idiots and that the audience buying his records and concert tickets are among the cognoscenti who are likewise aware the world of man is doomed to collapse under centuries of hubris and bad faith. Even the most critical amongst his fans would have to admit that listening to his verbal riffing found them nodding more in agreement and laughing less and less the more scorn he poured onto the world. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration, likely because he realized that he could make money by being this cartoon character “Frank Zappa”, becoming the man his fans wanted him to be. It was about making money in order to finance his larger orchestral projects and the irony that he needed to compromise his principles and act the way new fans with disposable income expected to behave was likely not lost on him.
Orson Wells had a similar situation, the story goes, as he took a good many demeaning roles in whatever variety of Hollywood schlock came his way so he could finance his own projects. It's an odd curse, I suppose, a problem the working world would have considered a bother at all. How would one have challenged Zappa, though? His comfort zone was a strange amalgamation of influences --Lenny Bruce, Stravinsky, Sun Ra, Edgar Varese, Lord Buckley, Musique Concrete-- that it's probable that few would know what to suggest as a way for him to diverge from his rut. He created his niche, proud that he wasn't dependent on grant money, gifts from government agencies and the like. He was something like a homeschooler, nearly irrational in his belief that government couldn't do anything good for the population. There are times when I have to filter the rants I agree with in principle-and turn up the on this music, a body of work that's confused, amused, confounded, entertained and thrilled me to the marrow since I came across in the 60s.Zappa's work as a serious composer already has a fairly full catalog; one could, I suspect, produce a week or two of special concerts featuring Zappa's "serious " work. But I agree that there was much in the seventies I disliked from the man in the 70s. "One Size Fits All" was actually a solid album, firing on all cylinders, but commencing with "Apostrophe", featuring the egregious "Yellow Snow" and onward, his satire degenerated into a species of juvenile smut. What would have been interesting would have been if he had collaborated with artists of similar stature, on smaller projects, in different musical areas. Not the Elvis Costello grandstanding collaborations, but rather real efforts to work toward the best virtues of another artist. That would have been something had he wanted to make the effort, but his personality was controlling, ironically, despite his diatribes about freedom. There was something of Howard Roark in him that his work would be presented to the world on his terms solely, uncontaminated by meddlers, sycophants and their like. The downside of Zappa's libertarian attitude about his music--my art, my way, at the price I said, or nothing at all--is that much of his output is a remarkably eccentric selection of self-invented cliches. As much as he deserves to be praised for resourcefulness and achieving a crazy amalgam of jazz, classical, comedy and rock, there are go-to moves he never strayed from, bits of business that seemed more treading water than an expansion of established themes. I do wish he'd found time and interest in collaborating with other musicians on equal footing--singers, lyricists, musicians, other composers.. The results might have been interesting and gotten the late FZ out of his comfort zone and lightened the lid on that vacuum packed cynicism that ceased to be amusing long before he passed on.