Zappa’s 'Cheepnis' & the Poverty of Philosophy


Marco Maurizi

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



In 1968, Zappa released the do-wop phantasmagoria of Ruben & The Jets, an attempt to commemorate the "cretin simplicity" of the 50s, while the Parisian barricades were still on fire. Anyway, do-wop was not the only feature to appeal to Zappa about the 50s. One should also remember the monster movies fashion, celebrated with an explicit song in the Roxy & Elsewhere album: ‘Cheepnis’. In his introduction to the song Zappa explains: ‘Cheepnis in the case of a monster movie has nothing to do with the budget of the film, although it helps, but true cheepnis is exemplified by visible nylon strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider’.(1) The importance of these lines can hardly be overestimated. The song itself is a tribute to the cheap aroma of B-movies: "Can y'all see now?/The little strings on the Giant Spider?/The Zipper From The Black Lagoon?" (2) It is as Zappa was only interested in the active role of movie-goers that can spot technical mistakes and make fun of them. Zappa goes so far to declare that "that’s all he really wants to know" about those films. He is attracted by their innocent fraudulence, the way technical limitations have an estranging, Brechtian effect on the audience. The zipper from the Black Lagoon produces an undesired crash in the crystalline sphere of aesthetic representation, making it suddenly collapse. The Sleep Dirt album included songs from the sci-fi musical Hunchentoot, apparently a sort of mutant blending between Ruben’s attack on love song stupidity and Zappa’s weakness for Cheepnis. In ‘Flambay’, which develops Uncle Meat’s love affair between the girl and the monster (although the female character here ends up manipulating the monster), we read the lines

Here I stand,
All alone:

And we'll have ECSTASY

Although the song’s finale is a summary of love songs clichés, the satire of these lines works connecting rhetorical hyperbole and an imaginary alien relationship. The same critical attitude towards fraudulent expression is shown in the very title of ‘Spider of Destiny’. As a matter of fact, boastful words like ‘ecstasy’ and ‘eternity’ have an involuntary mocking effect even in so-called ‘serious’ love songs. Exaggeration is the shibboleth of falsity, the smokescreen of a merchant’s persuasion. Similarly, the ‘strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider’ are nothing but the cheesy visual version of the phony cascade of strings that infest songs like ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. The first openly reveal the fraud of the latter. Alban Berg was right saying "beauty is when you can’t see the glue and the nails", but Zappa was even more right pointing out that therefore "beauty is a lie".(4) Nylon strings are the very matter the whole culture industry is made of. Thus, if you can see the nylon strings, you lose beauty but you’re possibly approaching the truth behind the lie. In 1961, writing in defence of anti-subjectivism in modern music, Theodor Adorno pointed out that the first task of critical art is to come at end with ‘fake’ subjectivity.(5) Surely, Zappa composed music in which modernist abuse of cliché seeks to re-establish a trace of authenticity within mass culture. Unlike modernist elitism and post-modernist populism, though, Zappa was able to see the double, dialectical nature of culture industry and therefore his approach to mass music can hardly be described in terms of mere ‘satire’ or ‘intelligent use’ of degenerated cultural forms. Zappa went far beyond such foreseeable exercises in critical vigilance. Conscious satire as ‘intelligent’ self-defence against the ‘dull’ indoctrination of culture industry can hardly have a liberating effect. Zappa does not use humour as much as he let laugh explode with impatience throughout his works. It may not be a difficult task after all, as stupidity is the basic element of universe, but Zappa’s real intention is to discover laughter where it was not supposed to be. Under this respect, even the originals that Zappa was supposed to criticise, couldn’t be taken seriously. In a way, they are parodies of themselves. Zappa described this experience in Rubens and made it the crux of his ‘Cheepnis’.


The Poodle dog is ‘snappin’ off the trees like they was bonsai’d ornaments on a dry-wobble landscape’ (6) This is precisely an account of what usually happens in the ‘making’ of a monster movie, save that the low-budget of a monster movie, makes it difficult to tell the difference between the ‘making’ and the final result. As a matter of fact, those lines are a faithful account of what one would normally say if he/she was ever going to meet a 15 feet tall Witch on the freeway.(7) Characters in monster movies usually don’t say stuff like that, because that would pathetically reveal the trick and spoil the cheap thrill of the audience. Yet, is precisely this nice interplay between fiction and reality, that excites Zappa’s phantasy. Of course, those are not ‘real’ trees and you can tell the monster has just put its mask on before shooting the presumably ‘scary’ scene. That only goes to show you that low-budget productions are asking you to give them a chance to be taken seriously. You have to participate in order to make them real, otherwise you’ve got just ‘an inverted ice-cream cone’. Looking at the whole culture industry from this perspective, you can see through its gears. Isn’t it just the same for ‘cool’ productions, too? Isn’t this the emotional structure of ‘standardisation’ and mechanical reproducibility? By bringing up ‘the Spargel for discussion’(8), Cheepnis unmasks the libidinal investment employed by culture industry to give its goods the aura of reality. If audience’s libido is itself part of the culture industry - as Adorno & Horkheimer recognised in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (9) - Cheepnis opens a vulgar crack in the circularity of production and consumption. Realising how capitalism administrates desire, Zappa learned his lesson from Cheepnis. Though basically mass-deception, culture industry is a belle dame sans merci and Zappa found his own way to cause her some dismay. In so doing, Zappa’s music resembles Adorno’s gloomy realism on mass manipulation, a necessary step to find appropriate weapons to beat capitalism, not a sad way to give up the fight because it’s all over now, baby blur. Zappa’s entire oeuvre is an attempt to make the listener conscious of his own libidinal involvement in the productive machinery.(10) Anyway, it’s not what Zappa thinks or says about this that is interesting, rather the way his art entertains our id and produces activity from the part of the listener. If beauty is the trademark of oppression and order, deformity is the esthetical precognition of revolution as shown by the Latin word monstrum, which originally meant ‘wonder’, no less than ‘horrible shape’. Monstrosity under capitalism is a logic of disgregation (Logik des Zerfalls(11)) and way of naming the ‘new’, something both critical thought and action can’t do without. That’s why revolution can find appropriate expression only in the open shape of monstrosity (i.e. a polemical overturn of manipulation), rather than depressive paranoia. Thus, the critical thinker who doesn’t want to know about the monster inside his own soul, is not only deluding himself, but also castrating his hidden wonders. From his part, Zappa cunningly describes the sad impotence of the critical theorist unable to take part of the event criticised. In Uncle Meat Don Preston is worried about Phyllis’ weird love for the monster and works out some cheap psychoanalytical explanation, looking for some trauma in her childhood: ‘It must be uh, her mother and father probably told her that she's real ugly and awkward and dumb and everything...And so she relates to people that are ugly, dumb and awkward’. After that, Don is driven to sociological conclusions: ‘Don: And our young society today goes to all these monster movies and they see them on television night after night. (Phyllis: It's so terrific to be with the monster) Don: We're raising a new generation of monster lovers’.(12) As a matter of fact, real sociological explanations of this phenomenon had been finely and cynically proposed by Adorno years before. As he pointed out in Minima Moralia, giant creatures are ‘collective projections of the monstrous total State. People prepare themselves for its terrors by familiarising themselves with gigantic images. In its absurd readiness to accept these, impotently prostrate humanity tries desperately to assimilate to experience what defies all experience’.(13) The desire to see those prehistoric creatures in action once again, reveals the secret hope ‘that animal creation may survive the injustice Man has perpetrated on it and produce a better species who could finally make it’.(14) Adorno’s insights get very near to those of the Japanese artist Go Nagai - who was also inspired by 50s science-fiction. In his stories, Planet Earth is attacked by monsters that embody the revolt of repressed nature against culture.(15) Also alluding to our chemical origin, ‘The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution’(16) similarly presents the extermination of human race as negative image of redemption on the Earth, while the connection between fear of Otherness and hidden desire of self-destruction is immortalised in the aftermath of ‘Spider of Destiny’:


Here Drakma shows the inner mechanics of Identity-Thinking: the very idea of Otherness generates the desire to destroy it, because Identity can only find satisfaction in reaching its totalitarian goal, fulfilling its demand for absoluteness, annihilating every residue.(18) here must be no ‘outside’ if Identity-thinking has to perform its ‘circular motion’.(19) Under this respect, monster movies are indeed a sort of second-hand ‘mythology’ that articulates, like any mythology before did, the dialectic of fear and desire.

But this is just one side of the story, the negative, depressing one. To see this obscure mythology turned into critical Enlightenment, as negative dialectics indeed requires, we should take a look at Zappa’s personal theology, as exposed in the cover of One Size Fits All and related songs. Although I think Zappology has a better chance to grasp conceptual continuity if one’s not too worried about Zappa’s ‘real’ intentions, Frank himself established a connection between his philosophy of Cheepnis and the Sofa routine, for example, in ‘Time Is Money’ (where Drakma the Queen of Greed sings to the Earth People from her ‘Couch-In-The-Sky’), in ‘The Radio Is Broken’ (dwarf-nebula) and in the aborted project of a film that was going to tell the story of God, his Girlfriend and the Magic Pig and Billy the Mountain. Also, Phyllis taking the apple from the monster in Uncle Meat romanticises about "Adam & Eve". The concept of ‘outer space’ is linked via ‘nothingness’ and ‘annihilation’ to the idea of ‘emptiness’, another important element in Zappa’s conceptual continuity since Freak Out!. The ‘emptiness’ attacked in songs like ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’, ‘Baby Snakes’, ‘Beautiful guy’ and ‘We’re Turning Again’ is clearly the moral and intellectual vaporisation of American culture. It implies the idea of something that’s been emptied, while the ‘vacuum cleaner’ is the perfect visualisation of an emptying force. It’s with the Sofa routine, though, that ‘emptiness’ is attacked as cosmological illusion, giving Zappa’s moral disappointment its materialist urgency. In Philip K. Dick’s Eye In The Sky, God is figured as a giant eye at the core of a Heliocentric Solar System, according to a vision produced by the distorted Mind of a religious fanatic. In a more funny way, Zappa’s speculation on God’s sofa performs a critique of idealism, assuming that the religious inversion of Matter and Spirit, i.e. the idea that Matter is itself a product of spiritual activity, is an ontological perversion of truth. Putting a sofa - a manufactured object, the very symbol of middle-class intimacy - in the midst of a primordial nowhere is a cunning reminder of the actual thinker behind every metaphysical speculation. Far from being an innate, natural idea, this nothingness is manufactured by human mind - no less than the sofa; it’s nothing but the persistent, active negation of the sensuous world. Although Zen Buddhism may have led Zappa out of Catholicism(20), he was aware that repressive ‘emptiness’ is something religion can’t do without, even if it doesn’t force you to believe in ex nihilo creation. As already pointed out by William Blake in his prophetic work Urizen, this primordial emptiness is ‘unknown, unprolific, self-clos’d, all-repelling: what Demon hath form’d this abominable void, this soul-shudd’ring vacuum?’.(21)

Sensibly sung in German, ‘Sofa’ works like a materialist critique of Idealism, as cleverly pointed out by Ben Watson.(22) It has to be said, that Adorno, though being a German philosopher, refers to this sterile activity in his Amnerkungen zum philosophischen Denken using an English phrase: ‘armchair thinking’.(23) It is precisely the absurdist interaction between abstract ‘emptiness’ and the banality of the sofa-object that gives Zappa’s song its critical effect. It begs comparison with Hegel’s Science of Logic, notoriously an account on God’s thoughts before the Creation of the World. In his attempt to describe the becoming of reality as a consequence of God’s mental activity, Hegel starts with utter emptiness reaching out for the determination of solid things through a conceptual method known as ‘speculative dialectics’. The very beginning of Hegel’s Logic presents us the idea of pure Being, which soon reveals itself as a void, empty concept: in a word, Nothing. From its part, pure Nothing ‘is simply equality with itself, complete emptiness, absence of all determination and content […] it is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as pure being’.(24) This dialectical overturn of pure Being into Pure Nothing is, as a matter of fact, an attack onto the idea of pureness and immediacy, as well as that of Beginning. That’s why Marx took the Hegelian argument so far in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, to condemn philosophical ‘abstraction’ and the necessity of divine creation altogether.

When you ask about the creation of nature and man, you are abstracting, in so doing, from man and nature. You postulate them as non-existent, and yet you want me to prove them to you as existing. Now I say to you: Give up your abstraction and you will also give up your question. Or if you want to hold on to your abstraction, then be consistent, and if you think of man and nature as non-existent, then think of yourself as non-existent, for you too are sure nature and man. Don't think, don't ask me, for as soon as you think and ask, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man has no meaning. Or are you such an egotist that you conceive everything as nothing, and yet want yourself to exist?(25)

Hegel’s argument clearly goes far beyond his intention, as it turns against the very idea that the world can be understood through a gradual self-determination of thought, that its structure can be disclosed by thought alone. This led to the famous Theses on Feuerbach where Marx argues that philosophical thought is incapable of proving the reality of its concepts without recurring to political praxis, without actualising its ideas. The eleventh thesis is commonly misunderstood and trivialised as banal pragmatism, although Marxism is indeed a practical demonstration of a theoretical mistake. It was Adorno that later made clear the difference between Marxist Theory and Stalin’s repressive pragmatism. Adorno corrected Hegel’s methodological mistake, suggesting that dialectic should begin with the turgid ‘thing’ rather than the pure Being, if it was not willing to idealistically misinterpret the world as a product of subjectivity before even starting to interpret it.(26)

The core of such dialectic is materialism: there can be no Bestimmung without the position of an existing, material World. The concrete is already there and every effort to jump to some pure origin is a hidden negation of the world, a pointless attempt to deny it. Adorno learned his lesson from Marx and recognised ‘the poverty of philosophy’, its desperate attempt to grasp the ‘World’ as a mere logical category.

Is it surprising that everything, in the final abstraction […] presents itself as a logical category? Is it surprising that, if you let drop little by little all that constitutes the individuality of a house, leaving out first of all the materials of which it is composed, then the form that distinguishes it, you end up with nothing but a body; that, if you leave out of account the limits of this body; you soon have nothing but a space — that if, finally, you leave out of the account the dimensions of this space, there is absolutely nothing left but pure quantity, the logical category? (27)

Marx laughs at those "metaphysicians who, […] the more they detach themselves from things, imagine themselves to be getting all the nearer to the point of penetrating to their core".(28) On the contrary, the more philosophical abstraction proclaims it’s discovering some ‘essence’, the more it is just crawling on the surface of the world, unable to see the real processes involved in it. Having conceived the world as a product of logical abstraction, it’s no mystery that thought may find infinite satisfaction in thinking itself, as suggested by Aristotle’s Metaphysics.(29) That’s why the mystery man want us to ‘reach Nirvana tonight’(30): ‘he ain’t really made for being out in the streets’.(31) The result of abstraction is inanity, as shown by another poem by William Blake: ‘The Human Abstract’.(32) And now: the philosophical Mumbo Jumbo you all were waiting for! If emptiness is no neutral space, rather an active, ontological negation of reality, so immobility is no neutral moral choice, rather a political negation of human praxis. Materialism is negation of Idealism, which from its part is negation of the World, dressed like scientific observation. That’s why materialism, being the negation of negation, has an affirmative, practical charm.

Ain’t this boogie a mess? Claiming to speak from the point of view of God - who presumably knows ‘how things really are’ - Idealism blatantly tells us ‘how things have to be’. Dreaming on his divine divan the philostopher welcomes the world with all its misery and contradictions, as if nothing could change. The priest tells us, a change is gonna come, but not in this life. The artist is currently doing things, but for his own sake. The world has messed they’re mind up...but was it the world, or was it religion? As you see: philosophy, religion, art...‘they all go together’. On the contrary, Materialism assume there’s no understanding without transformation. But ‘action’ is ‘sensuous activity’, as Marx called it, it means changing reality here and now.

Intellectual activity is neither an end in itself, nor the Ursprung dreamed of by transcendentalists. Recognising this, critical thought finds itself always in medias res (as Benjamin would say), with a world that’s already going on. ‘If you’ve been Mod-O-fied, it’s an illusion and you’re in between’.(33) Zappa’s critique of idealistic emptiness works very like the preposterous beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony, itself a musical parody of Hegel’s Logic. The symphony begins with a long pedal of harmonics, like if it was looking for some celestial, not-physical sound. The entire strings-section - again ‘strings’ - is playing a single note, an ‘A’: which is the basic note in German and Anglo-American musical nomenclature and also the first letter of the alphabet. Mahler wrote in the score: wie ein Naturlaut, ‘like a sound of nature’, as if he was, too, describing some kind of primordial birth.(34) And yet, as Adorno recognised in his famous essay on Mahler, the cunning orchestration needed to get that sound gives this romantic interpretation the lie. Itself a product of human technique, the mystical opening of the symphony suddenly slips into the mock banality of a fanfare, a ‘Regyptian Strut’. This eruption, this ‘bursting in’ - as Adorno calls it - reveals the falsity of that cosmic beginning. That’s why Adorno calls it a ‘curtain’, the eternal trick of bourgeois art to hide its ‘nylon strings’. A literary equivalent is Zappa’s narration of Creation in ‘Once Upon A Time’ or ‘The Poodle Lecture’. The resounding words: ‘in the beginning’ are followed by absurdities, lumpy gravies on the smooth canvas of bourgeois cosmic abstraction. Absolute ‘beginners’ are stupid and kitsch. ‘The End of everything that stands’ is notoriously ‘a beautiful friend’ and therefore, a lie. By contrast, Zappa’s music knows no Beginning and no Ending, and yet it doesn’t deny Becoming, Meaning, Hope: i.e. the possibility of action. Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Zappa’s music spoils the yuppie party and the yuppie dream of immortality, not the underclass desire of revolt and change. Darwin’s insight was materialistic and dialectical because it revealed how order, complexity and beauty of the world - which had been always seen as a result of divine intervention - could be originated by the activity of a not-conscious, self-moving matter as well. ‘The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution’ with the irregular twists of the rhythmic guitar and its boiling drum/bass section recalls Darwin’s concepts of Life and evolution as struggle rather than linear, rational development. Zappa’s musical rendition of this idea should be compared with the slow crescendo of Yes’ ‘Würm’ - named after the famous theorist of the glacial era - the closing section of ‘Starship Trooper’ a song that also probably connects science fiction and the origin of Life on Earth in the manner of De Palma’s mediocre Mission To Mars.

The contingency of human race can be a source of desperation and immobility only for those who can’t live their present. Actually, they’re frightened by the idea of contingency rather than that of human race being a ‘cosmic debris’. They want the world to have a ‘meaning’ so that they can contemplate its ‘beauty’. They don’t want to be reminded to the fact that the world is a ‘fucking bloody mess’ and ‘ugly as sin’, because, otherwise, there would be still something to do: ‘They stand still. They Shut up. Then they don’t do nothing out of the nowhere’.(35) They’re the nowhere people. We’re the apes from utopia.


1. F. Zappa, ‘Cheepnis’, Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974.

2. Ibid.

3. F. Zappa, ‘Flambay’, Sleep Dirt, 1978.

4. F. Zappa, ‘Beauty Is A Lie’, You Are What You Is, 1981.

5. Th. W. Adorno, "Vers une musique informelle", in Id., Gesammelte Schriften (GS), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1997, vol. XVI, p. 502.

6. F. Zappa, ‘Cheepnis’, cit.

7. After that, cars would probably ‘crash all over the place as a result of poeple with Hawaiian shirts on lookin’ up to see her face’. F. Zappa, ‘Drowing Witch’, Ship Arriving To Late To Save A Drowing Witch, 1982. All in all, reality is far more stupid than its pale cinematic copy.

8. F. Zappa, ‘Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously’, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, vol. 5, 1992.

9. ‘The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it’. Th. W. Adorno - M. Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung, in GS, vol. 3, p. 143.

10. ‘People are usually aware when the government’s hand goes in their pocket; they’re not usually aware when the government’s hand reaches for other erogenous zones on their body, or covers their eyes up’, quoted in M. Gray Mother! Is The Story Of Frank Zappa, Proteus Book, London/NY 1985, p. 152.

11. Th. W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, GS, vol. 6, pp. 148-149.

12. F. Zappa, ‘Uncle Meat Film Excerpt Part I’, Uncle Meat, 1969.

13. Th. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, aphorism 74, ‘Mammoth’.

14. Ibid.

15. See M. Maurizi, ‘Ecce Robot: How To Philosophise with an Atomic Punch’, in Soundscapes - online journal on media culture, ISSN 1567-7745, volume 5, February 2003.

16. Curiously enough, the previous title of this song was: ‘One more time for the world’.

17. F. Zappa, ‘Spider of Destiny’, Sleep Dirt, 1979.

18. By the same token, it’s the desire to destroy that manages to find its enemy, according to Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s interpretation of anti-Semitism. See Th. W. Adorno - M. Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung, cit., pp. 192-234.

19. F. Zappa, ‘Nanook Rubs It’, Apotrophe ( ‘ ), 1974.

20. M. Gray, cit., p. 24.

21. W. Blake, The Book Of Urizen, in Poesie, Newton & Compton, Roma 1991, p. Blake’s vision steams with ‘sulphurous foams’ and vile liquids, getting very near to Zappa’s imaginary. He also calls ‘woof’ that ‘infinite labour’ wove round the Void: i.e. ‘science’. The role of apostrophe and zero as images of ‘omission’ and ‘absence’ is brilliantly explained in B. Watson, Frank Zappa’s The Negative Dialectic of Poodle Play, St. Martin’s Griffin, NY 1993, cit., pp. 253-259. For another interesting use of nullity see Lydon’s ‘nothing, a void, zilch, zero, nought, nothing, vacuum’. PIL, ‘Fodderstompf’, Public Image Limited - First Issue, 1979.

22. See B. Watson, Poodle Play, pp. 261-271 and B. Watson, ‘Phänomenologie des One Size Fits All: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel und Frank Zappa’, a paper delivered at Zappanale #14, Kamptheater, Bad Doberan, 25 Juli 2003.

23. Th. W. Adorno, Stichworte, GS, vol. 10/2, p. 603

24. G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, §§ 132-133

25. K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, ‘Private Property and Communism’, 5

26. Th. W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, cit., p. 139.

27. K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, ‘The Metaphysics of Political Economy’, I observation.

28. Ibid.

29. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Λ7, 1072 b 18 - b 30 which Hegel puts as a conclusion of his Encyclopaedia Of Philosophical Sciences, §577.

30. F. Zappa, ‘Cosmik Debris’ Apostrophe ( ’ ), 1974.

31. F. Zappa, ‘Yo Mama’, Sheik Yerbouti, 1979. ‘Pojama People’ and ‘Muffin Man’ are other good examples of imbecile inanity.

32. W. Blake, ‘The Human Abstract’, in Poesie, cit., p. 82.

33. F. Zappa, ‘A Token Of My Extreme’, Joe’s Garage, 1979.

34. G. Mahler, Symphony n. 1 in D Major ‘Titan’, Dover, New York 1998, p. 1.

35. F. Zappa, ‘I Come From Nowhere’, Ship Arrving To Late To Save A Drowning Witch., 1982.


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