Zappa/Mothers – Roxy & Elsewhere

It doesn’t even smell funny

April 20th, 1980, Atlanta, GA, The Fabulous Fox. That’s the first time I went to a Frank Zappa concert. It was during my year as exchange student and luck (good and bad) had it that I was spending it all the way in the north of Georgia, right on the Tennessee border. Not exactly the kind of place that would appreciate the kind of thinking Zappa and the Mothers were representing, much less the lifestyle they were known for. It was a little bizarre living in Bluegrass country listening to the Mothers.

But at least no one really objected when I said that I would love to go to one of their concerts. Not without adult company of course, but we did find someone that was happy to flee the narrow confines of rural life for a day in Atlanta.

The whole thing happened at a venue that wasn’t exactly fitting the purpose. The (truly) Fabulous Fox is a totally posh former movie palace designed in a mix of Islamic and Egyptian architectural styles and was laid out like an amphitheater with everyone sitting. Might make sense if you watch a movie but seems weird when you go to see the Mothers play. I remember how surprised I was to see fireplaces in the entrance to the men’s room.

Thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I can now look at the set list of that concert and even listen to it again in its entirety on YouTube. It was an entertaining evening and I was totally happy to be there – but it wasn’t as magnificent as what we can hear on “Roxy & Elsewhere”.

It was their third live album and the two albums before this one had not really been received all too well – both because of suboptimal sound quality and a perceived imbalance of theatrical bits and music being played. Regarding the sound this album is a huge improvement compared to the two preceding live albums – largely thanks to a lot of work being spent in the studio to mix, edit and overdub. At least of the guitar solos on this album was even combined from different concerts on that tour. Regarding the theatrical element: some critics of the time spoke of lots of wasted vinyl time on any Zappa record, but this album clearly wouldn’t be half as great if Zappa’s comments, stories and general stage fun had been cut out. It clearly is part of the greatness.

After all, this album includes one of his most epic sentences: “Jazz is not dead. It just smells funny.” A sentence that belongs on the really very short list of timeless truths. Or that moment right before the band starts into “Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church)” when he finishes his introductory words by saying: “And this is a hard one to play.” If you look at what scholars have written about this particular piece you get an idea of just how hard it is. Here’s what one of them has to say: “During this solo various instances can be noticed where Zappa is applying the whole-tone scale. It stems from Indonesian gamelan music. By western standards this scale sounds awkward. It has a tritonus and an augmented fifth, but no natural fifth.” I’m sure you noticed that as well, right?

This is not just a hard one to play, it was a hard one to grow on me. Its more than 15 minutes are more representative of the side of Frank Zappa lots of people point at when they say they don’t like his music, and they’re sort of the same people that point at Free Jazz when they say they don’t like Jazz (without ever having given either of them a real try). You need to have come to enjoy Jazz to appreciate what George Duke, Bruce Fowler and Zappa himself are doing on the “Be-Bop Tango”. On the other hand, you don’t need this appreciation to understand just how masterfully Zappa was at working a crowd.

For most of “Roxy & Elsewhere” we get that other side of Zappa – the entertainer, displaying his ironic and intellectual sense of humor in great style, and the more jovial band leader that lets the amazing talents of his band shine while giving the audience some of the more funky and rhythm oriented stuff. Working with two great drummers (Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey) and one of the greatest percussionists ever (Ruth Underwood) contributes to the widely held opinion that this is the best ever version of the Mothers.

Listening to what Underwood does on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” just leaves you puzzled and amazed, and as much as this song and “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” are probably even harder to play than the “Be-Bop Tango”, the ease and funkiness that the band displays on these tracks is fascinating. Zappa may have been pretty anal in his perfectionism – but the result sounds almost effortless, and you can clearly hear the joy the band has even on these super tricky tracks.

My favorite side of this double album has always been the third one, always loved every minute of it. The intro to “Cheepnis” is just totally hilarious and so well told, Zappa talking about really super cheap and badly done monster movies to exemplify what cheapness is. The song is about a monster that appears to be a very large poodle dog called Frunobulax (the name was taken from a drawing by five year old Moon Zappa) and is a great example of how Zappa could tell a weirdly funny story while playing some very sophisticated music.

And then there is “Son Of Orange County” featuring one of the most iconic guitar solos Zappa ever provided. I remember that once someone posted something on Facebook asking his friends what they thought were the ten best guitar players ever, and the list was as expected, unreflected and dull as they always are. You know the names that made the list, Clapton (why?), Hendrix (of course), van Halen (may he rest in peace), Vai (raised by Zappa), Malmsteen and a few other obvious choices. Usually I don’t react to this kind of stuff, but that day I just had to remind these experts about Zappa. To their credit they did admit this was an omission.

Like a lot of other people, I love the lyrics of “Son Of Orange County”, along with the way Zappa approaches the topic of Richard Nixon (born and raised in Orange County) whose politics Zappa obviously didn’t appreciate. The lyrics are anything but angry or voicing protest but rather describe disappointment (“I just can’t believe you are such a fool”), mainly at the naïveté of thinking he could get away with his unlawful activities by simply saying the famous words quoted here: “I am not a crook.” Old pictures taken at Zappa’s home show lots of stuff hanging on the walls with a Richard Nixon election poster right in the middle. Just my kind of humor.

Nixon was one of Zappa’s favorite objects of intellectual ridicule in those years. The Mothers once had a t-shirt made with a Nixon quote on it: “There is no undertaking more challenging, more rewarding than the responsibility of being a Mother.” That’s a good one too. Less subtle were some of Zappa’s song titles dedicated to Nixon such as “Dickie’s Such An Asshole” or “That Arrogant Dick Nixon”. Compared to that, “Son Of Orange County” is almost graceful.

The song seamlessly transitions into an absolute Mothers classic – “More Trouble Every Day”. It’s a re-arranged version of “Trouble Every Day”, a song that Zappa wrote when he watched the massive riots in Watts back in 1965. It was the song that actually earned Zappa and the Mothers their first record deal. The guy who signed them thought the Mothers were a blues band. But who cares – “Freak Out” turned out to be a legendary album. This live version is even more impactful, the double dose of drums really paying off big time, and it features another one of Zappa’s finest guitar solos.

Listening to the whole album you easily forget the “Elsewhere” part. Most of the material was recorded live during several concerts at the Roxy in Hollywood – but some selections came from shows in Chicago in Philadelphia. Clearly, the shows in Hollywood had a special atmosphere to them, maybe because Zappa was more or less having a home game. The way he relates to the folks in the audience during the introductory words for “Village Of The Sun” are an indication for this notion while the song itself works just fine as a relaxed prelude to the amazing “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)”.

As hard as it may be to enable a listener of an album to fully grasp what is happening on stage when Zappa and his band are performing some of their weirdly funny sketches – it couldn’t really work much better than it does on “Dummy Up” when rhythm guitarist Jeff Simmons is playing the evil dope pusher that tries to make Napoleon Murphy Brock smoke a high school diploma stuffed with a shredded gym sock. When he suggests an upgrade to a college degree stuffed with absolutely nothing at all, the funniest bit of dialogue results. Zappa: “You get nothing with your college degree.” Napoleon: “But that’s what I want.” Zappa: “A true Zen saying – nothing is what I want. The results of a higher education…”

Zappa has another great little monologue when he introduces “Penguin In Bondage”, talking about devices that might be used in creative variations of sexual intercourse – he just loves it when he can use his legendary eloquence to “circumlocute” around a topic that is too slippery to get published. Talking about devices – his solo work on “Penguin In Bondage” is including a few as well, like the good old wah-wah pedal.

The liner notes on the inside of this nice gatefold album clearly say that the parts selected from the shows at the Roxy were treated with overdubs. There was some mild criticism for the extent of these treatments – but that always seemed somewhat hypocritical to me as this was done partly to not get comments about mediocre sound on another live album.

Until today, I haven’t watched that video of the concert I saw in Atlanta back in 1980. All I remember is that it was quite different from what we hear on “Roxy & Elsewhere” (just like the second concert I went to two years later in Hamburg). By then Zappa was mostly focusing on conducting his band, standing with the back towards the audience, and sometimes even playing his guitar solos standing that way. If I had a time machine I would love to just enter December 8th, 1973, and stay for a few days to watch all three shows.

It must have been a ton of fun. And just like the title of a series of live albums released much later said – you can’t do that on stage anymore.

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