The Secret Meaning of 'Arf': Canine Continuity in the Output Macrostructure


Dominique Jeunot

paper addressed to ICE-Z (International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology) 16 January 2004 at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road, Camden Town, London


In the great Zappa menagerie, a special role is assigned the dog, and in particular the poodle. Zappa said to New Musical Express in 1976:

If they think I have a fetish about dogs, they are sadly mistaken. It's not profound - it's entertainment. Poodles serve as a convenient mechanism for conveying certain philosophical ideas that might otherwise be more difficult. (NME 17 April 1976)

In 1988, Bob Marshall asked him "why the dog image?". Zappa replied:

I don't even know how that got started. There are some absurd things about the poodle as a species unto itself. What especially women have decided to do to poodles is probably something that if there were a Big Guy on a cloud who meted out punishment at the time of our demise, there would be a lot of women that would be tortured forever in the Lake of Fire for things they have decided to inflict on poodles. So there's a pretty good metaphor there if you really think about it. In the beginning the poodle had hair evenly distributed all over its small, piquant, canine-type body. Figure it out. They don't start looking weird until some woman decides that she wants to shape all that stuff to make it look like a walking shrubbery. Now, that tells you two things: that the dog's co-operative and that the woman's got some problems.

The tale of the poodle is above all a story of the vicissitudes of the life of a dog. You've got to let yourself be clipped and combed by a hysteric, for example. Or serve as a slipper-carrier for a master with Stink-Foot.

The material history of the poodle is that of the transformation of a hunting dog, a retriever which swims in the water, and was first bred in Germany. Its name derives from the German for a stretch of water, Pudel. Its vile transformation onto an ornamental monstrosity was something achieved by the French - hence the term "the French poodle". This mutation is the expression of an aesthetic which tries to turn the poodle into a symbol of ultimate beauty at dog shows. The poodle is judged by its "look". The poodle, Zappa has taught us, is a divine creature, and therefore a mistake, an aberration, a catastrophe. This story is told in "The Poodle Lecture", which can be found on volume five of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. After His first two mistakes - the creation of Man, and that of the Wo-man - God wanted to create a regular dog, a Schnauzer, but he fucked up! The result of his error, the poodle, is a misbeggotten travesty, whose long hair displeased its mistress. She therefore decided to clip him, to make him more cute and pleasing - more "mod". As an accomplice in the aesthetic fantasies of his mistress, the poodle is therefore the aesthetic manifestation of animal subjection: "Beauty knows no pain!". A perfectly docile animal, the poodle allows itself to fulfill the apex of its figurative potential with the aid of a variety of accessories: scissors, clippers, and of course the ever-popular - hitherto unknown in Somers Town, but destined to become a favourite item for the denizens of this area - zirkon-encusted tweezers.

Of course, the poodle is also valued as a pet, and for the many little services it can supply. In The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, Ben Watson observed that "Poodles seemed to arrive with Overnite Sensation, but they had been around in latent form before ... on the sleeve of Absolutely Free a dog collar appears on an advertisment hoarding above the slogan 'BUY A FYDO fits swell', a phrase which later evolved into the album title One Size Fits All" (p. 235). With its accoutrements advertised all over American cities, the dog has become a stake for vast and sinister commercial interests. Zappa exposed the society of consumerism in one of his most outrageously trivial pieces of dialogue. In "Eddie, Are You Kidding?" from Just Another Band from LA, Mark Volman asks "Where can I get my poodle clipped in Burbank?". To Bob Marshall, Zappa said "Everyone wants to save the whale, but who cares about poodles?". Actually, the maufacturers of scissors and other chic accessories for poodle-grooming are laughing all the way to the bank: the poodle's has commercial potential.

Faithful companion reduced to a passive, uncomprehending vehicle for various industrial products aimed at pets, the dog is also the victim of uncontrolled experimentation. One example is "Evelyn, A Modified Dog", who we meet in One Size Fits All. In Them or Us [The Book] (pp. 155-8), we learn that Evelyn is a collie belonging to Jimmy, a seven-year-old boy. His father, Barney, did special effects on the last big Kiss tour, and claims to be "the most important show business figure in the entire Southern Californian area". His mother, Florence, used to sell cosmetic products to her neighbours (something Captain Beefheart's mother did at one time). All four characters - dog, Jimmy, Mom and Dad - have their heads and feet encased in canvas bags like the Elephant Man - they're so monstrous they need to be kept covered up. After using some fennel shampoo sold by Florence, they all became "UGLY AS FUCK".

The pooodle is an object for laboratory experiment, like the ponies of Them or Us [The Book] which a mad professor places inside a space capsule which will explode in flight. But the trials and tribulations of Evelyn don't stop there: having removed its face-bag and using a cardboard tube, Barney makes the dog sniff an ounce and a half of cocaine. The torture never stops for the dog-slave, victim of Man and his instinct for domination.

This experimentation leaves no domain of research untouched. It extends as well to sexual activities. Having exhausted her aesthetic fantasies, the Wo-man decides to transform her modified dog into a sexual partner, saying, in a lascivious manner:

Give me your dirty love ...

The fabulous adventures of poodle aesthetics could not remain the privilege of the few. On the contrary, it had to encounter and penetrate mainstream culture. The zirkon motif is Zappa saying to us "Modern America is a fake". "Zirkon-encrusted tweezers" become the ultimate horizon of the Work of Art. Art & Commerce, no foolin' .... Frank exposes the far-out destiny of the poodle in his text "Say Cheese". This article was written at the request of Newsweek, but the editor rejected it as "too idiosyncratic". It ended up as "decorative filler material" on the You Are What You Is album. Zappa asks us about the "Quality of our Lives", measured according to "How much of what we individually consider to be Beautiful are we able to experience every day?". The answer is obvious: an insufficient quantity, since "Works of Art ... Taste and The Public Interest" are "all tied like a tin can to the wagging tail of the sacred Prime Rate Poodle." [on the 2LP original release the words "Prime Rate Poodle" were printed, uniquely in the document, in red ink - Ed] The incessant wagging of the tail of the Prime Rate Poodle derives from the volatility of the rate of profit under capitalism, and explains the aesthetic, economic and political blunders of the United States today. Set up as a regulator of artistic activities and canon of good taste in the US, the poodle puts the arts to death and destroys public life and liberty.

This threat of death and destruction which hangs over American society does not spare the poodle himself. Whilst it displays gigantic adverts for pet products on the walls of its cities, American industry actually works towards their extinction. Zappa's text for "Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America" on The Yellow Shark album goes:

When the last decrepit factory had dumped its final load of toxic waste into the water supply and shipped its last badly-manufactured, incompetently-designed, consumer "thing", we gaze in astonishment as the denizens of New Perfect America dine on rats, poodles and styrofoam packing-pellets all floating in a broth of tritium-enriched sewage.

Like a lot of the animals in Zappa's universe, dogs are also rebels. In "Nanook Rubs It", the death of the baby seal is avenged by the terrible "defliction" visited on the beady little eyes of the fur-trapper by Nanook's application of the Extract of the Northern Dog - the famous sledge-dog urine or "huskie wee-wee", which makes him blind. Frunobulax, the poodle monster of "Cheepnis" on Roxy & Elsewhere becomes Enemy Number One in a low-budget science-fiction film. "DON'T LET THE POODLE BITE ME! WE CAN'T LET IT REPRODUCE!" expresses the dominant emotion: terror. A full-scale war is launched against the scourge, with soldiers from the National Guard and the deployment of napalm. The zappistical dog knows how to bare its fangs, like the poodle of "Dirty Love" and "Stink-Foot": "The poodle bites, the poodle chews it ...". Even the aimiable Patricia, the Schnauzer in the high chair on the cover of The Perfect Stranger (and the Francesco Zappa album), doesn't exactly appreciate the vacuum-cleaner salesman's licentious cavortment in front of her mistress, and pulls a face. In real life, Zappa's pet dogs demonstrated an astonishing ability to sniff out fishy characters, as shown by the behaviour of Fruney, the Zappas' family dog, one evening when Bob Dylan visited. Bob, recently a convert to Christianity, had called to play Zappa demos for his next album [Infidels - Ed]. Zappa explained the persistant growls coming from the dog: "he doesn't like Christians!".

Because of repeated visual and sonic representations, the poodle as such is a privileged object of observation in Zappa's work, but its most important aspect is that it gives us the key to the zappatistical aesthetic.

On the most basic level, the message is "cheap is beautiful". As Zappa once said: "if you can't be free, you can at least be cheap". The song "Cheepnis", with its nostalgia for trash B-movies and their inexpensive virtues, echoes Zappa's own budgetary preoccupations. It also affirms his personal aesthetic: the beauty of a film does not derive from its budget. The beauty of the dog, if it exists, doesn't rely on the sophisticated treatments of the high-grade poodle parlour.

Zappa's aesthetic is his concept of art, one revealed to us by the talking dog in "Stink-Foot" on Apostrophe('). Asked to define his "conceptual continuity", Fido replies "the crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe (')". In English punctuation - and in French, incidentally - the apostrophe indicates a missing letter, as in the phrase "Rock'n'Roll". Apostrophe(') is the name of Zappa's album where the title tune is the only track without words. The apostrophe points to something which is neither visibile nor audible - to something hidden. This engigmatic manoeuvre transforms the poodle into a sphinx, expressed in the phrase: "what really matters is kept from view". This leads us on to the paradoxical blue-print for Zappa's life-work, the famous "conceptual continuity of the group's output macrostructure", otherwise known as the "project/object".

Simultaneously a means of communicating Zappa's critical project and an object of mockery, the poodle is the perfect symbol for the zappatistical aesthetic. It gives us a clue to the hidden macrostructure, but it also allows us to appreciate its textural content. The macrostructure is the ensemble of heterogenous elements in Zappa's oeuvre which are given context and overall shape by a "continuity" which, more than in any other band's musical oeuvre, we're continually reminded of. It includes:

Life on the road, which has furnished material for many lyrics or "routines". To take just one example, there is nothing in the annals of rock equivalent to Playground Psychotics in the way it plumbs the depth of confession and gossip.

The audience - with whom Zappa had a special rapport on stage - was granted special explanations of songs, and also invited to participate. This duplex problematic was best expressed on Roxy & Elsewhere, with Zappa's "preambles" to each of the four sides of vinyl and the "audience participation" of "Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzman's Church)".

Technical procedures for recording and processing the music, with a particular emphasis on recording materials and editing: more than anyone else in rock, Zappa gives very precise technical data, with extremely detailed and pertinent sleevenotes. This logic reached its ultimate flowering in Sheik Yerbouti: the inner gatefold of the double album showed us a mixing desk, on which you can see a packet of cigarettes and a cup of coffee - which were also essential tools for Zappa's work practice.

God (as energy).

There exists outside the limits of the visible and audible a cosmic connection which draws us beyond space and time, and which nevertheless brings us closer to actual history. In a bogus self-interview concocted for Warner Brothers sales executives in 1970 - for the 9-disc History & Collected Improvisations of the Mothers of Invention, a project which was never released - Zappa explained:

There is, and always has been, a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance, and interview.

What I'm trying to describe is the type of attention given to each lyric, melody, arrangement, improvisation, the sequence of these elements in an album, the cover art which is an extension of the musical material, the choice of what is recorded, released, and/or performed during a concert, the continuity or contrasts of material album to album, etc., etc., etc. ... all of these detail aspects are part of the Big Structure or The Main Body of Work. The smaller details comprise not only the contents of The Main Body of Work, but, because of the chronology of execution, give it "shape" in an abstract sense ...

To conclude this analysis of the dog in Frank Zappa's oeuvre: can we take it seriously if humour is one of its essential characteristics? Let me finish by observing that, read backwards, the dog's bark, transcribed as "arf", gives us the first three letters of Zappa's first name: "F R A". Let's also note that the dogs Fydo (with a "y"), Fido (with an "i"), Frunobulax, Frenchie and Fruney all have the same initial: "F". Just like their master and creator.



(this paper was rendered into sort-of-English by Ben Watson)


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