Lounge room, Warrandyte 1975
I had less pocket money than most kids. Or so I believed. I had to save and save before I could walk spindly and proud into Brash’s, pull a shiny new slice of vinyl out of the racks and place it and my assembled notes and coins on the counter to purchase. I had mates who seemed to me to be able to buy their discs on a whim. And have money left over for the school canteen. Not me.
It seemed better value to read about music. I had a large, folio-sized paperback titled The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a Christmas present, I think, full of rich prose and shiny tabloid size black and white photos of some of the most amazing looking people on the planet. So when the money was scarce I’d sit and read about bands and songs I’d never heard and dream up what I thought they might have sounded like. I heard the music – composed and carried by an excited teenage imagination, via the photographs and the critiques from inside this big book of hairy fairy tales.
I bet that Frank Zappa sounds really weird! I mean, if he’s anything like he looks. What a moustache! Lower lipped, black fuzz rectangle. Frizzy hair, boots and braces, and a look that meant something. (Wish I had a look that meant something). And you oughta read what they say about him. My sacred text trumpeted: ‘Frank Zappa was one of the first to try tearing down the barriers between rock, jazz, and classical music. In the late Sixties his Mothers of Invention would slip from Stravinsky’s Petroushka into The Dovells’ Bristol Stomp before breaking down into saxophone squeals inspired by Albert Ayler’.
I didn’t know who Stravinsky, Ayler or the Dovells were, but I can tell you I was mighty impressed! I dreamed of auditory chaos, of cataclysmic sheets of sound, of wild and impetuous improvisations, before reading that Frank was a highly ordered technician, strict band leader, teetotaler and drug abstainer. I was utterly intrigued. I had to find the dough to hear this stuff for myself.
But I drew a blank at Brash’s Eastland record store. The fools there had everything else it seemed, including lots of condescending attitude. ‘No, we don’t stock that sort of music here.’ I was then informed by the bored girl with the longest fingernails in the world that Brash’s, could, possibly, try and order it in, but, I lost my nerve and retreated from the racks. I went back to my sacred book.
A few months later I wandered into a tiny record shop in Donvale and was flicking through the sale bin when I came across an LP in a plain white sleeve. The cover was a replacement for the lost original disc housing, I guessed, and the store owner had scrawled across it Frank Zappa / Grand Wazoo (in a style that unconsciously mimicked Calvin Schenkil’s cover for Zappa’s live Fillmore East – June 1971 album). Paydirt! The record store man smiled broadly as I bought it, pleased he had finally got this off his hands.
My inner ear quivered like a Jack Russell on heat as I rode home on the bus. I slid out the disc, looked at the warm, mustard-coloured Reprise record label and lowered the needle onto the outside groove.
I felt deceived by my expectations. Zappa was supposed to be brilliant. And to these tender, Top 40 ears, this was woeful. Really woeful. Grim-faced, I moved the stylus from the slow and mournful opener, For Calvin (and his Next Two Hitchhikers), to the more up-beat, but no less edifying title track. I took the needle off the vinyl. Imagination 1. Zappa 0.
The disc only emerged again when I attempted to soundtrack some form of adolescent self-deprecation to a mate.
‘Have a listen to this rubbish,’ I said.
‘I like the cover,’ he noted sarcastically as I slipped on the disc.
‘The original artwork is the best part of the purchase,’ I chortled. ‘Stand by to clear the room’.
Without looking I cued up the as yet unheard second side and dropped the needle on Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus. My lug holes started spinning.
Triumphant art-pop blasts forth. Off-kilter and declaratory. Pomp-a-pomp-preposterous! It swings, tosses and throws rambunctious somersaults. A Young Person’s Twisted Guide to the Orchestra, Chorus, and Large Ensemble. The most perfect entrance music I have ever heard. A fanfare for the uncommon man. It was funny, too. Its silent punch line is that someone once saw fit to issue it as a single.
It sounds exactly like someone ‘tearing down the barriers between rock, jazz, and classical music.’
I played it and played it. Purposefully embarrassed myself playing the main theme, (on mouth trumpet and vocals), on the school bus to ears as bemused as mine when I got my first taste of Zappa. I became intrigued by the track. How did he do it? What’s he trying to say? Where had he come from? I wanted to crack the code but knew I never would. I let the turntable spin past this gem and soon found that there were some delicious tracks on the rest of the disc, even on the originally rejected side one. Cletus lead me to the rest of Grand Wazoo and then on to many rewarding wanderings through Zappa’s vast and often magnificent catalogue of twentieth century music.
Best of all, this song formed part of the existential soundtrack of my high school years. That no one else seemed to get what I heard in these grooves was no bad thing. In a lad whose self-confidence was pitifully low, my solo understanding of Zappa’s sounds deposited a much needed smidgen of smugness. I was on to something. Didn’t quite know what, but I was on to something.
© Stephen Andrew.