When you’re a music fanatic, it’s difficult to broach the “favorites” issue. There are some areas, however, where I have the question nailed pretty much down.
Favorite Led Zeppelin song: It’s taken me decades, since I first heard Led Zeppelin in junior high school, to figure this one out. But when I get a Zeppelin sample going in my auditory cortex, 9 times out of ten, it’s “The Ocean.” This song in my book is Zeppelin perfection.
But I haven’t ever had any problem nailing down my favorite performance(s) on a Frank Zappa album(s). It is (pair of) performance(s) that I make sure to highlight every Zappadan. It is, in my opinion, the most brilliant musicianship ever to be exhibited on a Frank Zappa project, or, perhaps, anywhere. And we know that’s a statement that stretches from here to the moon Europa.
It is actually a set of two performances: The performance of Don “Sugarcane” Harris on “Directly From My Heart” on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and of Don “Sugarcane” Harris in “Little House I Used to Live In” on Lumpy Gravy. Number one in my book. Always and forever.
I always write about “Directly From My Heart” on December 5, the second day of Zappadan. Because December 5 is the birthday of Little Richard, the man who penned this amazing song. His performance of this song invents the visceral soul that this song invokes. Listen for the most brilliantly performed syncopation you have ever heard.
This song drags its hideous left foot. But it does it gracefully somehow, making it beautiful. And Mr. Penniman’s lilting voice shoots out over it and drags you in like an undertoad. Undertow. Whatever.
So. The source material is sublime. I love this song.
Then, I always haul out the Fenton Robinson version.
How could one not? Fenton, I think, lends the song considerable gravitas.
Then, there’s Sugarcane.
Don “Sugarcane” Harris, the “Don” of Don and Dewey of the mid-1950s, signed to the Specialty label, but the band did not score a hit. He was named “Sugarcane” by none other than Johnny Otis, the man who inspired Frank Zappa’s killer mustache. Funny how the dots connect in the Zappa cosmos.
Harris’ better known Zappa contribution was likely his part on driving “Willie the Pimp” on Hot Rats. Most people really like this song. I find it to be an annoying interruption on an otherwise brilliant album.
Regardless: Both the other contributions the one from Weasels Ripped my Flesh and Burnt Weenie Sandwich came out of those recording sessions. These are inspired, driving, passionate performances: The sound Charlie Daniels actually needed but sorely lacked on “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Here’s an early example of Mr. Harris’ soulful fiddle:
Go ahead; have a listen. Then a few examples of Mr. Harris’ solo work follow.
“Song For My Father” is one of those that you probably know but don’t know you know.
If I could someday shake this gentleman’s hand I would probably become a puddle on the floor. I would be more cool meeting Frank himself. But Don Harris. He is to the Zappa cosmos what Billy Preston* was to the Beatles.
I’ll never get the opportunity, sadly. Harris died in November 1999. But what amazing recordings for him to have left behind.
*Another one of my very very favorites. Billy was the shiznit. I am astounded that Mr. Zappa never snapped him up.
The lyrics of the song tell a true story: on 4 December 1971 Deep Purple had set up camp in Montreux, Switzerland to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio—referred to as the “Rolling truck Stones thing” and “the mobile” in the song lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as “the gambling house” in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino’s theatre. In the middle of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong”, the place suddenly caught fire when somebody in the audience fired a flare gun into the rattan covered ceiling, as mentioned in the “some stupid with a flare gun” line. The resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers’ equipment. The “smoke on the water” that became the title of the song (credited to bass guitarist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he suddenly woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Deep Purple watched the fire from their hotel. The “Funky Claude” running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.
A week later on Dec. 10, Trevor Charles Howell charged the stage and shoved Frank into the orchestra pit. The attack left Frank’s voice lower and one leg shorter than the other for the rest of his life.
Of course, Dec. 4 of 1993 sucked for Frank even more than that. This was the last day he refused to die. We of course call it “bummernacht.”
My favorite version of the song was not recorded by Deep Purple. My favorite version of the song was recorded by these Asians.
At my job, they have declared the entire month of December as a “free jeans” day. This greatly relaxes the usual dress code, which requires men to wear trousers and a tie and women to wear whatever they fucking please.
This however means that for the entire duration of Zappadan, I get to wear Zappa gear. I had lots of Amazon points, so I ordered some Christmas presents and also several Zappa t-shirts. I already own three. Now I’ll have a whole week’s worth.
Today it’s the Bummernacht shirt. Just a black shirt with a big Zappa face. Frank Zappa would have been 72 this year had he not quit refusing to die. Imagine what he would have done with the time.
Off to work soon. I’ve called in late for the first time in ages. Bygones. It’s the holiday.
As I have no real talent for drawring or creating mashups, I have taken to creating short essays, with 2012 as no exception. I would like this year to appreciate some of the fine, fine people in the Zappa universe besides the Man with the Iron Mustache.
Starting with Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood.
Of Sherwood, one of Frank Zappa’s oldest friends, he said, “He’s one of those guys you say, ‘I know this guy who’s really weird and I want to show him to you.”
Sherwood, like me, was a Kansas boy who likely rarely ever went back once he escaped. Euclid James Sherwood, born May 8, 1942 in Arkansas City, Kan. He died last Christmas. Just days after Zappadan. So we didn’t really get to mention it.
Motorhead first met Mr. Zappa in 1956 at Antelope Valley High School in California. Sherwood was in the same class as Frank’s brother Bobby. Zappa and Motorhead had a fondness for blues and R&B. Zappa, at the time fronting a band called The Blackouts and Sherwood would regularly jam with Zappa.
A few clips, from the BBC show “Colour Me Pop.” Motorhead is on baritone sax and also brings the phrase “I gotta have more tambourine” to mind.
Also, here’s an excellent clip of the Mothers: 1968-10-23 Paris (embedding disabled).
(Other personnel apparently includes: Art Tripp and Jimmy Carl Black on drums. Roy Estrada on bass and vocals. Don Collins on keys. Bunk Gardner and Ian Underwood on saxophones.)
As you can see, Sherwood was a dancer, a performer. He always was. It’s how he started in the band, then known as the Black-Outs:
From the Barry Miles biography:
He did “The Bug” in which he attempted to shake off some horrible creature that was tickling him; he twitched and shook and rolled around the stage trying to get it off. Eventually he managed to trhow it into the audience, hoping that some of the girls would pick up on it.
A personal note I dug up from Zappa sister Candy:
This time of year always brings good things and sometimes very sad things. a very sad thing for us, we lost another member of the Zappa troup, Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, one of Frank’s longtime friend and early Mother’s member, passed last night around 10pm, on Christmas. i remember when Jim and Frank would come over to our house in Montclair, CA, when i was about 11 and of course, Frank would have his coffee black, and when i asked Jim how he wanted his coffee, he said “Just pour sugar in it till it comes over the side” which today still makes me laugh to tell it. his wife Lynn, Jim’s son and his wife were with Jim when he left. say some healing prayers for Lynn and Jim’s family today, they need them.
So a year later, we say “thanks” to the Sherwoods and start out our Zappadan adventure in remembrance.
Sherwood ain’t the only talent from his earliest days that Zappa used to tap. There’s also Denny Walley.
Walley moved to Lancaster, Cali., when he was 12, by which time he was already somewhat of an accordion master. He met Frank Zappa (and Motorhead) via brother Bobby at 14-ish. He went on to become a bitchin’ slide blues player, just in time to ride along on the Bongo Fury tour.
I cannot help but think that the convergence of the end of the world as fortold by the Mayan calender, which is, of course, absolutely true, and the first day of Zappadan, which falls on the 21st, is no mere coincidence.
By way of quick, obligatory exposition, via the FGAQ—Welcome to Bummernacht, the first day of the Zappadan holiday, a time of remembrance and Freak-Out-Ology that lasts from Dec. 4 to Dec. 21, the day he died to the day he was born, blah blah blah:
The first (or 17th) day of Zappadan was originally known as Enttäuschung Nacht – German for ‘bummer night’ – but over the years it has been Americanized to the much simpler BummerNacht. This being the anniversary of Mister Zappa’s death, the original meaning is rather obvious, and we shall not delve further into it here.
Far from being a day of mourning, however, it is a day of great joy, for Zapptists know that a mere seventeen days later, on December 21st (Zero Day), Frank Zappa was born.
Usually, my friends, we merely count upon Zappadan miracles to buoy our spirits during this wonderful time. This time, I am convinced we are coming upon the Zappadanapocalypse*.
It may, I think, begin with some stupid with a flare gun. Or, it may begin with the efforts of a simple Eskimo, armed only with a handful of goopy yellow snow in his efforts to protect his favorite baby seal. Why, Rance Muhammitz himself may very well surface from the charred embers to server you a beer! It shall certainly be a well-scrutinized event, and it shall be strictly commercial.
Regardless of how it starts, friends, I see no way around it. This convergence is no coincidence. There is no way to delay. Zappadanapocalypse* is coming every day.
A quick note for Bill Tchakirides, blogger at Under the LobsterScope, where he often celebrates Zappadan with the rest of us. Bill’s blog currently documents an apparently exhausting round of brain surgery he’s undergone. Just thought I’d mention it.
The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.
At the time they were interviewed for the Yellow Shark liner notes, Ensemble Modern Director Peter Rundel was not aware that the “Dog Breath” set had words.
Primer mi carucha, chevy 39
Going to el monte legion stadium
Pick up on my weesa, she is so divine
Helps me stealing hubcaps, wasted all the time
Fuzzy dice, bongos in the back
My ship of love is ready to attack
“It’s interesting what you say about it having text, the words,” Rundel said. “Very often you really have the impression of a speaking quality of his music, even if there are no words. The music speaks very much.”
The Dog Breath theme is fairly universal in the project/object. Frank Zappa albums on which it has appeared include: Uncle Meat, Electric Aunt Jemima, Disconnected Synapses, Just Another Band From L.A., Swiss Cheese/Fire!, Live In Melbourne, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2, Bubble Cream Cheese in Dog Meat, The Dub Room Special, and, of course, The Yellow Shark.
I love this arrangement. People say Zappa strikes them as a Stravinsky. In this arrangement, I hear Berlioz; I hear the start of Symphonie Fantastique, which also starts out as a ride on a swamp boat but then shoots a flare into the sky it brightens so dramatically. This may very well be the most bright, beautiful arrangement in this collection.
It might of course be helpful to listen to the source material. That is one nice thing about spending some time with The Yellow Shark if you never have. It can be tangential, causing you to need to listen to many other parts of the object. For instance, before 2011, I am ashamed to say, I was not much familiar with Uncle Meat. But to listen to and appreciate The Yellow Shark, Uncle Meat was certainly a necessity.
Here’s a really nice recording from 1973, which starts with Exercise 4, which, yes, we will be considering later. This is gorgeous, though:
It is also interesting how similar the arrangement is to the one some 20 years later. It is nearly the same performance, but with different instrumentation.
By the way. When these kids these days are looking for a bit of a challenge, guess what they seem to pick? Lookit these youngsters nail this piece. I love this.
The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.
::applause:: Thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank you. I understand there is a sign in the audience that once again says “what’s the secret word for tonight?” The secret word for tonight is: ::sound of toy laser guns::. Now, let’s get serious, ladies and gentlemen. I know you came here to see really fine performances by a really fine modern music ensemble conducted by a really fine conductor. And here comes the fine conductor now: Peter Rundel, ladies and gentlemen!
And if you feel like throwing underpants onto the stage, put ’em over there.
The first thing the liner notes of Zappa’s The Yellow Shark discuss is the genesis of the project’s unlikely name. It emerged from a piece of art an L.A. artist had mailed to Zappa in 1988, a surfboard carved into a shark that had, apparently by the bloodied mouth, been caught. Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, Manager of the Ensemble Modern at the time, latched onto the object.
…For me it was completely clear that it must become the symbol of our event, of our tour! Because the yellow shark, he’s so pregnant with some of Frank’s characteristics. He’s very hard and a little poison, but on the other hand, he’s very friendly and charming. Two things which Frank can be very often: poison for bad people, charming for good ones! Of course, also it’s such a good logo.”
Page 140 of The Real Frank Zappa Book has one of my most favorite Frank Zappa ruminations of all time, ever. It says:
The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively—because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.
You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?
The frame. Context. Naming things. In his family, Zappa was the namer of things, and, quite nefariously, of the people he brought into the world. Yes, he named her “Moon Unit,” get over it. For the record, Zappa addressed this directly on Arsenio Hall in February 1989: “Unit” is about Zappa’s family values, everybody. Get over it.
So how appropriate and synergistic was it that Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser saw this ridiculous sculpture, he was struck by it and adopted it as the frame? The Yellow Shark. It’s perfect, because it lives right in the middle of the Venn diagram of all the places this music can live. Some of these pieces are incredibly straightforward. Others are laugh-out-loud farce. While the rest of the pieces, in fact, most of the pieces, are abstract and challenging.
Sorta like a yellow shark carved out of a surfboard. I guess. Either way, regardless, whatever. The yellow shark is the frame.
We’ll start listening tomorrow, and I’ll write down some observations of my own as we go (so much for dancing about architecture) and please, leave comments if you like. Any writing I do here is by no means a conclusion. I have only scratched the surface, and I am well aware of it. The answer to the question down there is steam, by the way. So please. Discuss.
In the meantime, you can warm up with this: The Perfect Stranger. (Wiki is here.)