Frank Zappa: The Myth Of 'Joe's Garage'
By John Swenson
Rolling Stone, December 13, 1979
I'm standing on the loading platform at L.A. International Airport at 2:30 in the morning, listening to a prerecorded voice that keeps repeating "...the white zone is for loading and unloading only..." – a refrain heard throughout Frank Zappa's latest effort, Joe's Garage.
Despite the ungodly hour, Zappa wants me to come over now. Dogs bark wildly as I arrive at his house, located on a twisting back road in Laurel Canyon, and as I open the back door, an earsplitting burglar alarm is triggered. Zappa, who's been fiddling with the final details of the album on a twenty-four-track mixing board in the basement, bolts upstairs to shut it off.
It's not hard to tell that this studio is where Zappa spends most of his time. The huge mixing board faces a couch and a set of speakers. Boxes of tapes fill one side of the studio and an adjoining room. The collage from the cover of Burnt Weeny Sandwich hangs slightly askew on one wall; on another is a giant poster from Richard Nixon's unsuccessful campaign for governor of California. An oil painting of Jimi Hendrix rests on an easel in the corner.
Before I arrived, Zappa had been playing tapes of Joe's Garage. I mention that I've only heard the first volume of the story, up to where Joe joins the First Church of Appliantology and goes to a bar called the Closet to find himself a n appliance lover. "You haven't heard the part where he 'plukes' the appliance to death," Zappa notes, and proceeds to play the rest of the piece. It turns out that after escaping from a special jail for musicians and record-company executives, Joe ends up at the airport, where he imagines a long guitar solo. The solo is breathtaking, some of the best guitar playing Zappa's ever recorded. When it's over, I whistle softly. "Not bad for a comedy record," Zappa cracks.
Two and a half years ago, after he ended his long association with Warner Bros. and manager Herb Cohen, Zappa filed a whopping suit against both and declared himself a free agent. In the suit, which has not yet come to trial, Zappa claims that the company was not promoting him properly and his point seems to have been substantiated by what's happened since Zappa signed with Phonogram/Mercury Records and began to sell albums like never before. Last June, Sheik Yerbouti peaked at Number Twenty-two on the Billboard charts, and now Joe's Garage Act I is selling faster than any previous Zappa album. The project was originally scheduled for release as a triple set, but the list price would have been too high, so it was split into two separate packages: Act I and a two-record finale, which was released in November.
Zappa has a history of working on lengthy pieces that are eventually scaled down or released piecemeal, but with Joe's Garage, he's finally caught up with his production schedule. "I've always got too much material," he explains. "But aside from putting out four-disc boxed sets every time, there's no way to do it except to string it out. So usually the material is years behind where I'm at when the thing comes out, with the exception of Joe's Garage. That was started off April 11th, so it's pretty much up to date."
The album was assembled like Zappa's other large projects. "Take this album as an example of continuity imposed on a series of events that were never meant to be contiguous," he says. "When we went into the studio to cut "Joe's Garage" as a single and "Catholic Girls" as the B side, we stayed in there and cut about sixteen tracks. Then I figured out a story that would hold 'em together. It's all exercise. It's like doing crossword puzzles. In looking at it, I saw that not only did it make a continuous story, but it made a good continuous story."
Joe's Garage is set in a future when music is outlawed. It centers on a musician who gets screwed by his manager and record company, thrown in jail, humiliated, misunderstood, and finally left with nothing but the music in his imagination. Which, it turns out, is incredibly moving. Could it be autobiographical?
"No, not really," Zappa says. "There's only one part in there; that's the part about the guy from a company we can't name saying we ought to take his pen and sign on the line and have a good time.
But what about the garage?
"I've been in a garage, but so have a million other people. That's a highly romanticized, fantasy garage situation, you know, where the teenage girls all walk in and clap their hands and dance and stuff. Well, it ain't like that in a garage. No matter how much beer you drink, it's still out of tune, and there's only so many hours a day you can strum that E chord. That's an idealized garage that is probably more accessible to other people's idea of the garage. If I wrote a song about the way it really was in the garages I played in, it would be totally disgusting."
Yet Joe's Garage is the most personal statement Zappa's made since We're Only In It For The Money. Why the twelve-year wait?
"After I did We're Only In It For The Money, there as this general media response to things of a protest nature. All kinds of groups started doing protest-type material, and they were doing it really bad, and it was really stupid, and they were doing it for bucks. I didn't feel like going into competition with people like that. I had other things to say. Besides, those early records still stand. I've done it. I've said it, there it is. But the albums that came in between ... for instance, 200 Motels, which is a pretty neglected piece of work and no longer in print, also is very real, and so is the Fillmore album. Songs in there are based on actual occurrences. If you're a musician, and you've been on the road, you know exactly how close to reality that stuff actually gets."
Zappa says he works "like a journalist," which is ultimately why Joe's Garage is not autobiographical. I'm talking about a character named Joe," he insists, "and there are a lot of Joes out there who have trouble with record companies and run up against bullshit every day. Maybe I do more interviews than they do. Maybe they don't want to talk bout it because they're scared that the record company will withdraw tour support, or whatever. Maybe they're just not the writers to come up and say something like that. One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people's minds. If you already suspect that's what's being said in Joe's Garage is true, then you will agree with it and like it."
Isn't that a rather cynical view?
"I think that cynicism is a positive value," Zappa says. "You have to be cynical – you can't not be cynical. The more people that I can encourage to be cynical, the better job I think I have done."
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