As you can see. . . girls, music, disease, heartbreak. . . they all go together. . .
About three months ago, I was asked to give one of those “four recommendations” type interviews for an eminent publication (an old buddy’s blog) in the old country. They asked me to recommend a book, a film, an artwork, and an album. Well, easy enough to recommend books, films, and visual art, but an album? How quaint.
I am on the youngish side, all things considered, and I’ve enjoyed music mostly song by song — and indeed, having albums is probably a relic of the time when music had to be physically printed on records, cassettes, and CDs. Why not just put the song up on the music services — in fact, this way you can have nothing but hits, none of the lame old filler songs which were needed to justify the printing costs. So, I thought long (2 minutes) and hard (had to pause my marathon session of Crusader Kings II). And lo and behold, our strange age still has room for albums. I picked Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.
Thinking deeper about Joe’s Garage, and more generally about the creative opus of Frank Zappa, it dawned on me that Frank Zappa was the last Western musician we can properly call Wagnerian — and Joe’s Garage is the album which best exemplifies this Wagnerian quality of Frank Zappa.
Now, before we delve into Joe’s Garage, let’s define our terms. What do we mean by “Wagnerian”? Groundbreaking? Popular? Awe-inspiring? These are all epithets that apply to Wagner, as well as to Zappa, but to many other musicians of the 20th century as well. No, I contend that the Wagnerian is that which is a complete and self-contained art form in every aspect of its production while simultaneously fitting seamlessly into its surrounding Zeitgeist; what the master himself would call a Gesamtkunstwerk. And as Wagnerian opera captured the awe-inspiring and heroic at the core of German being, while meshing perfectly into the Zeitgeist of the Kaiser’s Reich, so did Joe’s Garage capture the paranoia and deconstructionism at America’s core, while fitting seamlessly in the post-war era of sex, rock and roll, religious cults, and technological alienation. Even the general tone, tragic and somber in Wagner, witty and irreverent in Zappa, reflect the emotional cores of their respective nations and periods.
The term Gesamtkunstwerk translates to total or complete artwork. Wagner’s initial goal was to utilize the theatre in order to effectuate such completeness through the synthesis of the dramatic, poetic, visual, and the musical as an overreaching, unifying superart, something which has been attempted in the future with film rather than theater, with varying degrees of success. Wagner, with typical German concreteness and control freakery (although we prefer the term control enthusiast) constructed his own Festspielhaus in order to have maximum control over his work. But as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, the very idea of art began to develop in strange directions. The 20th century was the century of mass man, of modernity and machinery, of industrialized warfare. The Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk left the theatrical stage, brushed past the silver screen, and entered the realm of politics.
As entire nations became enervated with life-or-death questions (the political in a very Schmittean sense), art could no longer afford to be apolitical, if it ever was. One of the most common complaints from moderns is that entertainment and art have become politicized — in truth, most forms of entertainment which are apolitical serve very little purpose in the edification of the human animal. They are fodder for slaves, serfs, and NPCs — people who do not concern themselves with questions of life and death. The most vigorously energetic and inspiring art is political in the extreme, and therefore, in the 20th and increasingly the 21st century, art has to step out of the museum, the theatre, and the conservatory, and indeed, fly clean off the silver screen and square into the political as the only authentic performance.
The Nuremberg rally as captured by Leni Riefenstahl in her masterpiece known as Triumph of the Will was one such artistic-political performance, a demonstration of supreme might — politics as performance art is indeed the only form of art worth appreciating at this late and decadent juncture of our civilization. We may have soured on Donald Trump, but the 2016 election and his presidency were first monodrama and then Greek tragedy, with us in the Dissident Right in the thankless role of the chorus. The devastation of American cities for the glory of St. George Floyd is likewise an act of atavistic artistry — no less offensive to bourgeois sensibilities than Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, no less alienating and disgust-inducing, no less necessary in the long saga of the twilight of the West. The element now missing from the performance are Right-wing death squads swooping in to crack heads, restore order, and take names. As usual, the Republicans just don’t get art and mumble about all lives mattering.
But back to Zappa. We mentioned the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, constructed by Wagner for the performance of his work. In the Wagnerian universe, which is to say, the totality of the world inhabited by the works of Richard Wagner and all their attending and allied epiphenomena, Bayreuth is the Schwerpunkt of the world, Mircea Eliade’s Cosmic Center, an Irminsul, or Yggdrasil — the world tree. In the self-contained universe of Joe’s Garage, there are locations, but no fixed center, or even geographic determinism. The entirety of the album, the rock opera, happens in America — an idea of America. Every location is Anytown, America, identifiable to whomever it may concern. When Mary, the eponymous Crew Slut, is asked where she’s from, she replies: “. . . the bus, y’know. . . leather.” This may be a more honest answer than the name of her town. All crew sluts — indeed, all vectors and manifestations of modernity — come from the bus.
Joe’s Garage is a rock opera in three acts. It is presented as a moral story warning young men to keep away from music, narrated by a figure known as The Central Scrutinizer (voiced by Zappa), who provides us the story by whispering through a plastic microphone, in a dystopian society where music has been banned in order to feed the government’s appetite for ever more criminals. In an album replete with profanity, crude humor, and vivid descriptions of lewd sexual acts, the first track narrates the surprisingly wholesome tale of how Joe and his friends form a garage band and play in his garage.
Joe is arrested, but let off with a warning and instructed to seek out church-centered social activities (“Catholic Girls”), where he finds a girlfriend who later dumps him to become a crew slut (“Crew Slut”) for a rock-and-roll band, but is set aside and must win her bus fare back home in a wet T-shirt contest (“Fembot in a Wet T-shirt”), which she wins, and then goes back home (“On The Bus”). Meanwhile, a heartbroken Joe has caught a venereal disease from a Jack in the Box waitress (“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee”), but he still has feelings for her (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up”). Thus concludes the first act, which is a straight rock performance with some masterful guitar and vocal work. The descent from wholesomeness to sleaze and finally, desperation and pain is quite palpable.
From here, the album takes a turn for the weird. In the second act, Joe attends a service at the Church of Applientology ministered by L. Ron Hoover, who instructs him to satisfy his sexual urges with appliances (“A Token of My Extreme”), whereupon Joe learns German, dresses as a housewife, and goes to a bar called The Closet, where he meets a Model XQJ-37 nuclear-powered pansexual roto-plooker named Sy Borg (“Stick It Out”), whom he later shorts out during a golden shower orgy (“Sy Borg”), for which he is sent to prison.
This section of Act II is synth-heavy and electronic. The second part of Act II happens in a prison for music offenders, who, according to the Central Scrutinizer, spend most of their time snorting detergent and “plooking” each other. Joe runs afoul of Bald-Headed John, a former promo man for a big record company and King of the Plookers (“Dong Work For Yuda”). Poor Joe is then on the receiving end of a major orgy (“Keep it Greasy”). However, he manages to escape the horror of his prison experience by withdrawing into his inner self and playing imaginary guitar notes which would irritate music executives until he is released from prison (“Outside Now”).
This section has a prison-blues feel, though Keep it Greasy has that funky bassline and Middle-Eastern sounding guitar solos characteristic of Zappa, whiplashing us into the melancholic and sitar-tinged “Outside Now,” with Ike Willis’ wistful vocals drifting over a musical dreamscape, interspersed with guitar improvisations.
This dreamy style carries over into Act III, as Joe tries to readjust to civilian life. Still, he dreams of guitar notes and is forced to play them within the safety of his own inner world, but is terrified that his neighbor will hear them, and even hears her voice in his head (“He Used To Cut The Grass”). Unfortunately, this leads to further disassociation from reality, as he hallucinates (or does he?) Mary, “the girl from the bus,” who delivers a lecture — what we may consider to be the album’s intellectual core:
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is the best!
Wisdom is the domain of the Wis (which is extinct)
Beauty is a French phonetic corruption
Of a short cloth neck ornament
Currently in resurgence
If that sounds like a load of bollocks, you’ve either not been paying attention for the past 80 years, or you’ve been marinating in Right-wing esoterica for too long. That there is the philosophy of every smart person in America, at least before 2012: Radical skepticism saved from the jaws of nihilism by the grace of the physical manifestations of the human response to art. The notoriously tee-totaling Zappa finds in music refuge from the all-devouring nihilism of his age, which he, as a radical skeptic, ironically enables. This lecture is followed by yet another dreamy — though more upbeat — instrumental bit, and then Joe just plain crashes through the fourth wall to assure the audience that the band loves them and to invite critics to “sit on the Cosmic Utensil” (“Packard Goose”).
The album then finishes with Joe’s final imaginary guitar notes (“Watermelon in Easter Hay”), which in our reality represent some of Zappa’s finest guitar solo work. Joe then gives up on music for good, and The Central Scrutinizer discards his plastic microphone in order to sing a merry song about Joe’s job as a productive member of society, squeezing icing rosettes onto muffins, a banality symbolic of the bourgeois hellscape of a world without rock ’n’ roll.
The world of Joe’s Garage is a world frozen in time, where culture has been stamped out and replaced by Applientology, plookery, and rosettes. It’s not even cyberpunk — it’s drab, pastel, and dead inside. It’d sound like heaven to many of the Right, but it is listless and lacking in anything but the dullest diversions. Unable to integrate the chaotic factor of the artist, and all the attendant dysfunctions and degeneracies, society has ripped its heart and soul out, shambling on, ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Well, that was the fear.
America was born in paranoid conspiracy theorizing that’d make Alex Jones blush. American liberalism, both Left and Right, is in many ways a creed of paranoid cranks who are convinced that they are surrounded by enemies. The Democratic party spent the better part of the past 4 years looking for Russians under the bed after spending 70 years hunting for imaginary fascists. The overarching fear at the back of the American liberal’s mind is that someone might come for his precious freedoms. In reality, as disturbing the thought of the American Mittelstand imposing its pastel and mind-numbingly boring cultural hegemony on the North American continent and later the world may be, it was never a serious possibility. The Central Scrutinizer is supposed to be a parody of Bill Buckley or another dull moralizer of the era, but one of our chief complaints as Dissident Rightists is that these sorts of people are impotent in the face of hegemonic liberalism.
And here we see the Gesamtkunstwerk in all its splendor. Listening to Joe’s Garage isn’t just good tunes (although the tunes are unbelievably good). It’s great music for driving, cooking, and fucking, but that’s not the point. Listening to Joe’s Garage is a revolutionary act! By listening to this album, you are helping fight back the moralizers and muffin-eaters that seek to ban music. The act of putting a vinyl record onto a player is now a political act — through what is seemingly mere art, Zappa has made a life-or-death decision for you. You will fight to keep music legal, and rock out to “Keep It Greasy” at the same time. And this album will get you laid, believe you me, reader. You can throw your Barry White records out.
Joe’s Garage is a synthesis of modern music, and a synthesis of the dramatic, lyrical, and musical — topped off with hilariously irreverent album art, a Gesamtkunstwerk in the internal and external sense. It is the soul of postwar and Cold War America, but also of America as she was at the time of the Revolutionary War. It is music for the quintessential and eternal America, ever the thirteen-year-old boy in perpetual rebellion against the world, the end-cycle of Faustian civilization. Frank Zappa was an antenna of his race and time and one of the greatest guitar soloists on the planet. If his art is decadent, or even degenerate, it was because he was an artist in a decadent and degenerate time, and woe betide the man who tries to live outside time (we call them trad LARPers on twitter dot com). Civilizations cannot live forever; at some point they must die. Artists announce their births, artists herald their deaths, and artists bury them, but a dirge for a civilization is rarely solemn.
There is a certain homeless Austrian painter and devoted Wagnerian who famously claimed that “whoever wishes to understand National Socialism must first know Wagner.”
Well, therefore, let me make a very bold claim: Whoever wishes to understand American liberalism must first know Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.
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