Frank Zappa "Joe's Garage, Act I"

By Parke Puterbaugh

Rolling Stone, January 17, 2002

Frank Zappa
Joe's Garage, Act I

Zappa Records, 1979 / Rykodisc, 1987

IN THE LATER PART OF HIS career, Frank Zappa's work grew voluminous and inconsistent. Yet Zappa possessed a brilliant musical mind until the end, and some of his post-Mothers of Invention albums were genuinely witty and well-conceived. Joe's Garage, Act I is a case in point. An uncommonly succinct (for Zappa) single-album endeavor, Joe‘s was an eight-song musical play about an amateur rock band, a good girl gone bad, a Big Brother-like arm of government, the corrupting influence of rock & roll, the comic inability of organized religion to hold horny teens in check and what groupies do to hang out with rock stars or their road crews. Think of Joe’s Garage, Act I as Almost Famous as plotted by someone who had not a sentimental bone in his body for the music biz.

The closest Zappa comes to allowing himself a fond recollection is the title track, which recalls the music of his Fifties rock & roll homage, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. Set to classic I-lV-V chord changes, it tells the tale of a teenage band’s progression from garage rehearsals (complete with a mother shrieking, “Turn it down!”) to go-go bars. It's all downhill from here, however, as Joe learns that “Girls, music, disease, heartbreak/They, all go together,” to quote the album's closing narration. In all fairness, Zappa does not single out any one group – government censors, libidinous rockers, liberated Catholic girls, debauched roadies – for criticism on Joe’s Garage. In his view, they’re all full of shit. The priest who chaperoned the CYO parties in “Catholic Girls” is defrocked, only to resurface as the strip-club MC in “Wet T-Shirt Nite.” Zappa operatically arranges “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” as a heavy-metal aria about venereal disease. Mixed among the social satire is some fine playing, especialiy on the bluesy, bopping “Crew Slut” and the solo-guitar showcase “Toad-O Line” (retitled “On the Bus” for the CD rerelease).

After the focused humor and laser-sharp playing of Joe's Garage, Act I, Zappa went over-board on the double-album Joe's Garage, Acts II and III, wherein the plotting grew incomprehensible and the sexual lampooning more pointlessly perverse. However, even that bloated follow-up had its moments, especially “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” featuring one of Zappa's most majestic guitar solos, and “Packard Goose,” which takes potshots at music critics: “All them rock & roll writers is the worst kind of sleaze.” (Thanks, Frank!) All three acts of Joe's Garage, incl. dentally, were packaged as a double CD by Rykodisc in 1987 that remains in print.

Further listening:
We're Only in It For The Money (Verve 1968) ★★★★★
Uncle Meat (Bizarre 1969) ★★★★½
Tinseltown Rebellion (Barking Pumpkin, 1981) ★★★★