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Zappologie à Liège, Mardi 3 Avril 2001: a Conference Report

Ben Watson


Zappology continues to plague the suave postmoderns who fondly believe they can make Rebel Subaltern Art an opportunity for patronising exegesis. The Musique et Poèsie conference held at the Université de Liège (1-4 Avril 2001) included un atelier simultané devoted to "The Poetics of Zappa and Beefheart". Having ripened into a Biggish Cheese in the Bogus Pomp that is Hermeneutic Zappology, Ben Watson, author of Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, was invited to give a paper. He managed to persuade the organisers (Christine Pagnoulle and Michel Delville) that he deserved a "plenary" (the term for a speech at a conference which everyone attends), thus ensuring that the case for Zappa and Beefheart would be not be ghettoised in the atelier simultané.

To make the work of Frank Zappa an occasion for academic discourse - to try and tame its "petulant frenzy" and suppress its funky "zoot allure" - is a deeply paradoxical undertaking. After all, Zappa prefaced his book Them Or Us (helpfully subtitled "[The Book]") with the warning that it was "not for intellectuals or other dead people". Watson's paper, "Performance VERSUS Art: Contingency & Improvisation as Plops in the Platonic Supreme", did not so much "intellectualize" Don & Frank as polemicise versus the post-war canon in Anglo-American cultural studies. How can the high-Tory T.S. Eliot and the fascist Ezra Pound be equated with scurrilous anti-bourgeois muckrakers [Didier, this is a word for satirists and those who deal with the dirty secrets of the rich and powerful, literally "those who ratissent la merde"] like James Joyce (whose name, unlike those of Eliot and Pound, appears in the list of "influences" on Freak Out!)? How come the Genuine Giants of post-war culture - Elvis, Coltrane, Hendrix, Zappa, Eek-a-Mouse - are ignored in favour of defused, academic recyclings of a formalised, depoliticised Dada ("L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" poetries)? As a way of directing delegates to the atelier simultan‚ on Zappa and Beefheart, Watson concluded in situationese:

"Anyone who talks about culture today without refering explicitly to the difference between freaks and hippies, without adoring the irrational metrics of Captain Beefheart and the perverse interpolations of Frank Zappa, without attempting to explain what is fascinating about poodles, and without mentioning demonstration dirt and theater piss and sinister midgets with buckets and mops, such people have a Pachuco Cadaver in the mouth. If we in the Zappa camp are accused of having no sense of proportion, we reply that society today is disproportionate to our desires, and we will have no truck with a reason that denies both our instinct for play and our passion for justice."(1)

The atelier simultané was addressed first by Marco Maurizi, an emissary from Rome. He criticised the way that superficial rock critics describe Zappa as a "surrealist" and Trout Mask Replica as "Dada Rock". In fact, Zappa's idea of disjunct continuity and subversion of media cliché is dada (at the end of his life, he called the evenings of performance and discussion he held on Woodrow Wilson Drive "soirées", a word borrowed from the Dadaists), whereas Beefheart's attempt to access the precivilised world of dreams and our unmediated biological substructure follows the programme of André Breton's surrealism. My God, somebody thinking for themselves at an academic conference, how bizarre! Maurizi used the blackboard to analyse the parody of conventional chord changes in "How Could I Be Such A Fool?". This could have led to some useful musicological discussion of Zappa's art (unfortunately, there was little time for constructive exchanges, which were dominated by uninformed, "outsider" questions like "what about Zappa's sexism?" and "isn't Beefheart all about drugs?"). In a fighting conclusion, Maurizi claimed that Zappa's emphasis on scenarios that collapse (200 Motels and its "semi-fraudulent" overture and "fake nightclub"; Joe's Garage being "sort of like a really cheap kind of high school play") is a demand to "take down the scenery": "a materialistic and dadaist statement at once".(2)

There followed a paper delivered by two speakers - Andrew Norris and Michel Delville (the Zappa fan among the organisers was exposed!). Norris taxed the patience of the audience with a detailed phenomenological analysis of eating, his verbals coming across like a bizarre cross between early Samuel Beckett and Bongo Fury-era Zappa:

"Think of the many-tired wedding cake, symbol of the sweetness of consummation to come, we cut it into workable slices, the cream smears and the sponge crumbles, we force it down and wash out our cavities with champagne, the visual treat is already turning brown, the ritual form whimsically heightened by the fancy of the master-baker is already undergoing the acidic preparation, the slow sausage-meat slippage into the predestined first-and-last inevitable form. Excretion seals the deal."

You can tell Norris is a guitarist who loves those low notes which would irritate an executive kind of guy! Some of the pair's references - Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Tom Philips - would have been challenged by the Hard Left of the conference (Watson, Maurizi, Leslie), but the need for solidarity versus the zappa-sceptic philistines in the audience gave little room for speculative or nuanced discussion. Delville cited a reference to "Montana" in the work of Ed Dorn (poet and pupil of Charles Olson)(3), thus proving that Anglo-American Poetic Studies and Frank Zappa do occupy the same universe. An exciting but dangerous discovery, Michel!

Matthew Isom's paper "The Cultural Poetics of Musical Satire in Greggery Peccary, Zappa's Cartoon Opera" was a dogged inventory of the piece's ingredients, with the "hippie riff" ascribed to the Mamas & the Papas. For this listener(4), Isom's explanation of the little swine's name - after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced our presentday "Gregorian" calendar in 1582 - was a blinding revelation. Yes, "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary" is about power and manipulation and social constructs (the calendar) made to appear timeless and natural. Isom also pointed out the commodity fetishism of thinking that even natural phenomena like "those new brown clouds" must be manufactured. Despite these Marx-friendly insights, Isom was evidently alarmed by the polemics of Watson and Maurizi. In a recent e-mail he called them "American-bashing", pointing out that Zappa actually fits into a distinctly American satirical tradition (Mark Twain, Spike Jones, black slang, B-movies).(5)

A resounding finish to the Zappa/Beefheart atelier simultané was provided by Gene Nichols from Maine, with his "The Fourth of July Invites the Dust: American Streams with Don and Frank and Sense and Mirth and Bongoes the Weasel". A promising enough title, but nothing prepared us for the sheer extemporaneous musicality of his performance. A reminder that verbal discourse leaves out 95% of perception! Reading from hand-written notes scrawled in biro, Nichols wished he "had a pair of bongoes", and suddenly, there were two of the little suckers on his knee (he also played a saw with a bow). A fantastic intuitive musician and raconteur, Nichols treated us to his reflections on the dialectic between Zappa (Apollonine) and Beefheart (Dionysian), peppered with superb evocations of snatches from the records: hitting the right notes of "Take You Clothes Off When You Dance"; tapping out the exact rhythms of "Charles Ives" (the Mothers track playing during the événement of "The Blimp" in the Trout Mask studio). Nichols' evocations of Lord Buckley and Wild Man Fischer were especially radiant, emphasising the fact that Zappa and Beefheart invented a completely novel integration of text, spoken word and music. A conference on Musique et Poèsie couldn't have had more graphic proof of how the humanist materialism of Zappa and Beefheart centres all expression in the animated body, and thus allows all kinds of supposedly separate pleasures (from Darmstadt modernism to Chuck Berry, stand-up comedy to Free Jazz) to co-exist. Nichols is adept at Lord Buckley's trick of keeping you entertained with one process whilst preparing a complete gear-change in the next, something jazz soloists and composer could all learn from: the need for surprise!

In short, Gene Nichols' monologue was the "PERFORMANCE versus art" Watson had merely talked about! Invited to a Free Improvisation that evening in Les Brasseurs - a Conference All-Stars omnium gatherum that involved bassists Simon H. Fell and John Lindberg, Pence Eleven's guitarist Stu Calton on dictaphone, Garrett List on trombone and the redoubtable Domgu‚ on saxophone - Nichols became a Dada MC, conducting with his bow and scraping the walls with his saw.

The "brainiac wing" of Les Fils de l'Invention have always honoured the Zappa fans who would rather drink beer than listen to academic papers. These are the people who give us our best ideas (and our best headaches)!(6) However, whatever your attitude towards academia, it was a shame if you weren't in Liège on 3 Avril, because it was a lot of fun.(7)

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(1) Ben Watson's paper has been published in Quid (no 7c), available for £3.50 from Keston Sutherland, Gonville & Caius MCR, Cambridge, CB2 1TA, United Kingdom.

(2) Maurizi is one bright cookie. I just hope his dedication to Zappology is not going to have the devastating effect on his academic career it had on mine. He is contactable via e-mail (

(3) "Moving to Montana soon/going to be a nose spray tycoon" appear on the penultimate page of Gunslinger, Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1975.

(4) Though not for Zappologist Jonathan Jones, who claims he sent this one to me by e-mail, oh, six years ago.

(5) Isom has a point, though it should be noted that the Watson/Maurizi political line is more "Johnny 'Guitar' Watson versus the Republican Party" than "European Mandarins versus Rock'n'Roll". Isom, an expatriate American in full-time work in Dortmund, has registered at the University to write a dissertation on Zappa - yet another zappological para-academic! (Maurizi, pace Gramsci, terms such singular individuals "organic intellectuals"; Watson, pace Zappa, calls them "freaks"). Those wishing to pursue this piquant discussion should e-mail Isom and ask to be put on his mail-shot list (, starting with his initial communiqué of 11 April 2001 09:30.

(6) Andrew Norris and his sidekick Eriks were the conference drunks, who expertly showed us where we could sample the local Belgian beers. Zappologists are for an unapologetic intellectualism that does not repress the pleasure centres!

(7) It was also regrettable that an oversight on the part of the (very harassed, hardworking and well-meaning!) organisers meant that Kiki Benzon from Montreal did not appear, even though she was expected, and her abstract as printed in the programme ("[in 'Jumbo Go Away'] Zappa introduces a certain premise and, through melodic deterioration and 'poetic' degradation, he goes on to divulge the dirty underpinnings of this premise") looks most interesting.

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