Frank Zappa. Joe's Garage.

By Larry Birnbaum

Down Beat, April 1980

JOE’S GARAGE (Act I) – Zappa Records SRZ-1-1603: The Central Scrutinizer; Joes Garage; Catholic Girls; Crew Slut; Wet T-Shirt Nite; Toad-O Line; Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?; Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.

Personnel: Zappa, lead guitar, vocals; Warren Cuccurullo, rhythm guitar, vocals; Denny Walley, slide guitar, vocals; Ike Willis, lead vocals; Peter Wolf, Tommy Mars, keyboards; Arthur Barrow, bass, vocals; Ed Mann, percussion; Vinnie Colaiuta. drums; Jeff, tenor sax; Marginal Chagrin, baritone sax; Dale Bozzio, Al Malkin, vocals; Craig Steward, harmonica.

★ ★ ½

JOE’S GARAGE (Acts II & III) – Zappa SRZ2-1502: A Token Of My Extreme; Stick It Out; Sy Borg; Dong Work For Yuda; Keep It Greasey; Outside Now; He Used To Cut The Gross; Packard Goose; Watermelon In Easter Hay, A Little Green Rosetta.

Personnel: as above, with Patrick O'Hearn, bass (cut 6).

★ ★ ½

Frank’s longstanding gripes with Warner Brothers seem to have been justified, judging by the record sales figures of Sheik Yerbouti and now the rock opera Joe’s Garage on the Zappa label. Abandoning his middle period flirtations with jazz improvisation and contemporary orchestration, Zappa has reverted to the conceptual doo-wop format he last employed on the Mothers’ Kafkaesque exercise in cosmic paranoia We’re Only In It For The Money. Joe’s Garage is similarly premised on the imminent prohibition of music (not such an absurd notion when one considers Iran) as it traces the journey of protagonist/guitarist Joe through the travails of the robot age.

Unhampered by company pressure, Zappa has stretched his operatic nightmare over three LP’s, although the greater portion of this extravaganza is of no more substance than hamburger helper – can record execs be all bad? Frank certainly thinks so, and his purulent invective oftener-than-not degenerates into the most putrid scatological doggerel, lacking, however, the power to shock that his comparatively tame satire originally had. Between occasional thrusts of barbed humor and even rarer bursts of creative music, Zappa bogs down in a bilious quagmire of obscenity, misogyny and self-pity, raging with equal incomprehension over the demise of psychedelia and the recent emergence of the new wave. From enfant terrible he has become the old pooperoo, a cynical guru whose teenybopper minions are unlikely to be daunted by his latest cautionary fable on the. pitfalls of a musical career.

Vocalist Ike Willis, as Joe, carries the ball through much of the tedious chronicle in a syrupy baritone that mimics opera only in its studied alienation of music from lyrical content. Thus the scabrous Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?,, for example, is intoned in the manner of a funkadelic Tony Bennett, as though Willis were sight-singing some commercial jingle off a lead sheet. Zappa himself plays the Central Scrutinizer, a sardonic computer whose mock-sinister fulminations provide much of the continuity between otherwise unlinked compositions.

Joe’s saga begins with the primordial garage band, depicted in ploddingly stereotypical fashion on the title track and enlivened, as it were, by a dippy guitar break that can only be excused on the dubious ground that it is a parody. There follows a lengthy descent into sexual bigotry comprising no fewer than three consecutive tunes plus filler, detailing the (mainly oral) peccadillos of Mary, played by Dale Bozzio, as she passes from the parochial sins of Catholic Girls to the hard-core ecumenicity of Crew Slut and on to the amusing japes of The Wet T-Shirt Contest (one awaits the inevitable diatribe against Protestant girls to complete Zappa’s trilogy of All American Judeo-Christian sexism). After a heavy metal reverie of Hendrix-cum-Santana nostalgia, it’s right back to woman-baiting on the aforementioned Why Does It Hurt and the lugubrious Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up, before the Central Scrutinizer takes it out with a teaser apparently intended to induce purchase of the concluding double album package.

Act II finds our despondent hero (this is the future now, I think) at the gates of L. Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology, where Joe is steered into a bizarre tryst scene with a polymorphously perverse mechanical gadget and a motorized Gay Bob doll. Here, as elsewhere, Zappa’s toilet repartee is rendered with deadpan solemnity over a turgid score, although the dying words of the ravished robot – “You’re plooking too hard, plooking on me,” – are seedily risible. From there, Joe is sent to musicians’ prison where he is raped by various record executives and then released into the now music-free world where he takes solace in imagining some hot guitar licks that would have been quite an item ten years ago if only Zappa were able to play them then.

Heading down the stretch, Frank pauses to sling some manure at the journalistic profession – “the government's whore" – a characterization to which, not being one of “them rock ‘n' roll writers," this reviewer feels no need to respond. Another ersatz Hendrix interlude paves the way for the mawkishly plaintive guitaristics of Watermelon In Easter Hay, which in turn gives way to the grand finale, an endless round of Tin Pan Alley hokum that features a few parting gibes at foreigners and the obligatory self-praise for the band's musicianship (compared to what?)

To Zappa’s credit it can be said that, after years of-hobble-gaited rhythms, he has finally found a drummer that can swing in Vinnie Colaiuta. Other than that, his current magnum opus is a vulgar bore. Perhaps a stage mounting might distract audiences from the humdrum music, but the recording alone is not sufficient to sustain the attention of any non-PCP user over the age of 16, which is of no moment to the bulk of Zappa’s following anyway. Meanwhile, old Uncle Frank has released his new movie, Baby Snakes, which promises at least some sort of visual diversion from the soundtrack – all you kids be sure to go and see it.