Posts Tagged ‘richard nixon’
Here is a visual podcast of the paper I am giving in Bristol later this month. It concerns Zappa’s relationship with Politics, and although it has the occasional mispronunciation – it is hopefully of interest. It is essentially a amended version of the word version I published a while back, but also includes some visuals and the occasional audio clip.
It seens a very long time since I posted anything related to Zappa, so here is an initial draft of a paper I am presenting at Bristol University in April. It still needs work (including around 1000 words taken out!), but I thought I would present it as always in its unedited version. Hope you enjoy it.
In addition to being one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the rock idiom, Frank Zappa was also an astute and outspoken political commentator. Described as ‘the most politically potent musical force since the collaborations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’, Zappa’s music deals directly with a range of subject areas, ranging from trade unions, American presidents, immigration, freedom of speech  and the importance of using the vote. In his autobiography Zappa stated that ‘the only thing that binds nations together is the incompetence of their governments,’ and his distrust of these authority figures manifested itself in numerous non musical ways, two of which included his much publicised confrontation with Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Recourse Centre (PMRC), and his encouragement and facilitating of young Americans’ voting rights. Zappa believed that ‘unless you have people registered so they can participate in the political process, you don’t really have democracy’, and that party officials in some States actually prohibited this process. As Zappa financed the administration of his voter registration campaign himself, it can be seen to display an altruistic aspect of his character. However, his more pervasive ‘anti – authority’ stance was demonstrated in numerous ways, including a number of debates concerning music censorship on American television throughout the late 1980’s, where he described certain sections of the American government as a ‘fascist theocracy’, clearly elucidating that ‘the government does not belong in the bedroom’. Although becoming noted for his stance against what he considered dubious ‘Christian values’ of the above mentioned PMRC, his position against Christian fundamentalism had been apparent for a number of years, obstinately stating in a 1968 interview for Life Magazine that ‘a lot of things wrong with society today are directly attributable to the fact that people who make the law’s are sexually maladjusted’. These positions were also cuttingly portrayed musically in his 1967 song ‘Brown Shoes Can’t Make It’, and 1979’s Joe’s Garage, an eerie prophesy of a fascist government that had banned music, with Zappa’s Central Scrutinizer depicting clear McCarthyistic and Orwellian tendencies. This paper examines the various means through which Frank Zappa’s political convictions are manifested musically by critically exploring two pieces related to American Presidents – ‘Dickie’s Such An Asshole’ and ‘Reagan At Bitzburg’. In addition to musicological analysis, the paper discusses Zappa’s use of the press, TV debates, his written word, in addition to the ways in which his politics were reflected in his studio and live performance practices, and aims to contextualise the resonance of his music on the world of politics and other artists from the popular music canon.
According to David Walley, Frank Zappa’s music ‘inspired Czechoslovakian students in Prague to battle Soviet Tanks with rocks in the late 60’s’, with Soviet secret police muttering the words ‘I’m going to ‘beat the Zappa out of them’ during protest rallies. In an acknowledgment of his ‘debt’ to Zappa, president Václav Havel somewhat naively decided to employ Zappa as Cultural Liaison officer for Czechoslovakia, a gesture which perhaps best encapsulates the impact that Zappa’s political views had on eastern bloc countries in particular during the 1970’s – 1980’s. Not surprisingly this appointment was not well received in Washington, with Secretary of State James Baker informing Havel that ‘if the appointment was not rescinded, there would be consequences’. Zappa was obviously considered an irritant by the Bush administration, with not only a track record of heated confrontations with Baker’s wife during music censorship debates when opposing the PMRC attempted censorship of popular music lyrics, but also an outspoken critic of Bush’s predecessors – Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Walley considered the PMRC debates a unique example of ‘the politics of entertainment and the politics of international diplomacy [being as] close as they’d ever been before or since’,  and this is congruent to Zappa’s comment when describing politics as ‘the entertainment branch of industry’ in his autobiography.
Although Zappa’s early subject matter was to quote Barry Miles ‘a cartoon collage of American life’, his works became specifically focused during the 1970’s – 1980’s on political targets such as TV evangelists, Christian Fundamentalist Groups, the Star Wars’ programme, in addition to presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush. Zappa stated that critics have described his music as a ‘perverse form of political theatre’, and this paper intends to examine this unique blend was manifested when dealing with two American Presidents – George Bush and Roland Reagan.
Zappa’s fascination and distrust of American presidents was a pervasive topic throughout the majority of his career, with presidents Nixon and Reagan receiving particular attention in interviews, the written word, and of course his music. According to Miles, Zappa’s distrust of the American establishment commenced after his 10 day prison sentence in 1964 for recording an illegal sex tape, an entrapment that prompted him ‘to shove his pornographic tape down America’s mouth, time and time again’. Zappa’s negative view of American presidents is possibly best encapsulated in an 1989 Austrian documentary entitled Das Beste von Frank Zappa - 20 Jahre Extravaganza 1969-1989, he stated
The way I look at it, take a look at the people who have been president of the United States so far. Could I do any worse?
In 1991 Zappa eventually decided that the answer to this question was ‘no’, and according to an article in The Boston Globe dated July 10th 1991, employed two political consultants to conduct a feasibility study into the viability of running for office in 1992. Although he never officially offered his candidature, his intentions were clear when informing Charles Amirkirkhanian – ‘if I do it, I would do it to win, not just to go there and be symbolic’. Zappa discussed this topic in numerous interviews, but a combination of ill health and realism prompted him to spend his remaining time focusing on music as opposed to his political ambitions.
Perhaps Zappa’s most controversial presidential artwork was the satirical ‘You Are What You Is’ (1980), his only music video, and banned from American TV due to the portrayal of a smiling Ronald Reagan being executed in the electric chair. When this footage is analysed psycho-analytically, Zappa is not only satirizing one of the most popular American presidents of recent times, but also portraying him as receiving what he obviously considered a just punishment for war crimes. On a 1986 edition of Crossfire, Zappa’s contempt for Reagan continued on American TV, describing him as being responsible for steering America in the direction of a ‘Fascist Theocracy’, where Christian Fundamentalism was deemed to be enforced on the American People. Of particular interest is Zappa’s musical depiction of Reagan’s controversial visit to the Bitburg-Prüm district of Germany in 1985 to observe the 40th anniversary of V-E Day. Unlike other pieces that were composed to oppose the event such as The Ramones ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)’ (1985) and Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘The President’, Zappa’s ‘Reagan at Bitburg’ provides a programmatic instrumental account of Reagan’s ill-advised excursion. Recorded exclusively on the synclavier and conceptualised as an orchestral work, the piece commences with a ‘clumsy sounding’ opening motif played in melodic and rhythmic unison. The piece gradually gains contrapuntal momentum, with the faster tempo and disjointed nature of the middle section’s angular themes symbiotically depicting the criticisms and problems the presidential office faced once they had agreed to sanction a visit that not only was home to American and German soldiers, but also 49 graves of the Waffen SS! This section is clearly influenced melodically by Stravinsky, textually by Milton Babbitt’s electronic work, and harmonically by Edgard Varèse, but above all, in typical Zappa fashion, is a humorous and satirical account of the occasion, which reflects the way Zappa viewed not only this event, but American politics in general. After the haphazard sounding middle section, the piece returns to the slower opening motif at, with ternary form assisting the impression of the entourage entering and leaving Bitburg, without humility or learning taking place.
This work is a direct continuation of Zappa’s earlier tribute (sic) to Richard Nixon, which is less complex musically, but equally as innovative in the means it conveys information. It was common practice during the Roxy Tour in 1974 for Zappa to begin the song by initially encouraging the audience to sing the works principle motif and title – ‘Dickies Such An Asshole’. The colloquial use of the word ‘Dickie’ combined with the collective nature of audience participation somehow accentuates how Zappa believed everyone should feel about Nixons’s misdemeanours, which are progressively revealed as the piece progresses. It is noteworthy to elucidate how much of the work is superimposed over an altered blues, which somehow accentuates Zappa’s position regarding the state of American Politics at the time. Lyrically, the piece commences with a sarcastic plea to the audience that Nixon’s office was more sinister than what was portrayed on the surface. I quote
One ‘n one is eleven!
Two ‘n two is twenty-two!
Won’t somebody kindly tell me,
What the government’s tryin’ t’ do . . .
Dickie’s just too tricky
For a chump like me to use
Well, you’d take that sub-committee serious, boy
You might get a seizure from the evenin’ news
Although performed regularly during 1973 – 1974, the piece was not officially released until Broadway The Hardway fourteen years later, with the original 1970’s version being released in 1989 on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3. This piece was only recorded live, which indicates that Zappa was initially more interested in spreading his message via a live audience as a gesture of political theatre, a practice that he incorporated initially as early as 1967 at the Garrick Theatre in New York when he invited three Vietnam based marines to show the audience how to kill a gook baby. This act of political theatre was repeated during live performance, and is developed during his practice of encouraging and facilitating his audiences to vote during the 1980’s, when at his own expense he placed voting booths in the hallways of the venues he performed in. Returning to Zappa’s sarcastic ode to Nixon, the work continues to depict direct reference to Watergate in particular, with allusions to the FBI being out to ‘get your number’, the consequences of the misuse of microphones, and principally the impact this practice could have on the American peoples’ capacity to have ‘private conversations’ if left uncovered. All of the lyrical content up to this point is principally in first person narrative, but this intensifies when Zappa begins to quote directly from both Nixon’s Resignation Speech of August 8th 1974, and his 1952 Checkers speech, when as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate he defended himself on national television against financial improprieties, twenty years before Watergate. After Zappa’s blues based guitar solo, the work proceeds to alternate direct quotations or allusions from Nixon’s history with Zappa’s own rhetoric as follows.
Let me tell you one thing right now
Let me tell you one thing right here
Let me make this perfectly clear
Let me tell you ’bout this right here
You know you put me in office
So you must have wanted me in office
I’ve did you no harm
You know I’m not a crook
You know I’m innocent
Zappa then continues, this time portraying a humorous version of the missing Watergate tapes, from Nixon’s perspective
I had twenty-five tapes
I only have ten
I don’t know what happened to the rest
Musta gave ‘em to a friend
The piece finishes with a short phrase that deliberately builds towards a repeat of the opening motif taught to the audience
We know you’re not a crook
We know you’re not a crook
All we wanna say is one more thing now
Dickie’s Such An Asshole
Much of the final section of this piece is conducted over a ‘Stop-Time’ backing, a practice that was pervasive in blues and R & B during the 1940’s – 1950’s, and according to Dave Headlam enabled an ensemble to ‘stop abruptly, leaving the singer to articulate a compelling lyric solo’. Examples of this practice range from the secular, (James Brown’ ‘That’s Life’) to the religious (Mahalia Jackson ‘Search Me Lord’) and with reference to the latter pertaining to Nixon. When analysing these lyrics, of particular interest is the phrase ‘Let me make this perfectly clear’ which Safire considers to be a quintessential example of Nixon’s use of a ‘pointer phrase’ – ‘a term for verbal signs that underscore essential points of speech’. As verified in a 1971 edition of Life Magazine, the author notes how Nixon ‘stopped using this pervasive wording, just as John Kennedy stopped utilising the words vigour when it became the target of impressionists’ parody. He continued – ‘Quite clear; crystal clear, and even plain, unadorned clear became taboo words in the lexicon of those working with Nixon on speeches’.  This of course would have been precisely the reason Zappa used it, and it is apparent that there were also a number of other satirists using the expression in the early 1970’s, with a cartoon by Bill Gardiner in the Washington Star dated 1971 dealing with Nixon’s impending visit to China being particularly noteworthy. The caption showed Secretary of State William Rogers in the State Department’s translation department asking ‘how do you say ‘Let me make one thing perfectly clear’ in Chinese?’ Other uses are apparent in early 1970’s editions of Marvel Comics, The Hartford Times Advertising (Kosher Wine), and comedians David Frye and Mort Sahl, all of which use the phrase ironically in a similar fashion to Zappa. Just as Nixon appropriated the use of a catchphrase from John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech - ‘My Fellow Americans’, it is fascinating to note that Barak Obarma also adapted ‘let me make this perfectly clear’, and Zappa would consider this a perfect example of his self titled ‘conceptual continuity’, where extracts from his previous portfolio were used in later recordings. Indeed in this work, Zappa’s juxtapositioning of Nixon’s 1950 and 1974 speeches is a microcosmic example of the way he experimented with time and space. In addition to the blues based progression of this work, it is important to outline that Zappa carefully crafted a range of subliminal musical fragments into the piece that indoctrinates the lyrics with additional meaning. Entitling these fragments ‘Archetypical American Musical Icons’, he commented
I can put sounds together that tell more than the story in the lyrics, especially to American listeners, [who are] raised on these subliminal clichés, shaping their audio reality from the cradle to the elevator (Zappa 1989: 171).
Two bootleg recordings dated October 26th 1973 and November 11th 1973 indicates that Zappa experimented with a range of semiotic devices to indoctrinate the music with specific meanings. For example both of these shows include a short do-wop style I – vi – ii – V progression that accompanies words related heavily to the words ‘cheatin’’ and ‘lyin’’. According to Phillip Tagg, this ‘turnaround’ progression has inherent associations with ‘lost unrequited love’ for ‘certain people of a certain generation’, a factor that gives the meaning of the entire section an ironic, but deeply ambiguous duplicitous nature. This may be influenced by the common practice of blues musicians incorporating amphiboly or double entendre into their lyrics, but is more likely focused on the deliberate confluence of the harsh realities of Nixon’s administration, against the media’s utopian view of reality. Although this section was omitted from the two official releases of the piece, Zappa does include the humorous ‘Woody Woodpecker Theme’, over the words ‘The man in the Whitehouse, he’s got a conscience as black as sin’ followed closely by ‘Battle Hymn Of The Republic’, a song often heard at presidential inaugurations and therefore apolitical in nature. As opposed to using the ‘Battle Hymn Of The Republic nationalistically like Martin Luther King or Micky Newbery’s arrangement of ‘American Trilogy’ (Made famous by Elvis Presley), Zappa’s incorporation is deeply sarcastic, almost anti-American in its stance. This is similar to Zappa’s deconstruction of patriotic pieces such as ‘God Bless America’ and ‘America The Beautiful’ on the tracks ‘Soft Cell Conclusion and ‘Call Any Vegetable’, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in ‘Would You Go All The Way’ and ‘Billy The Mountain’, all of which use iconic American themes in a deeply subversive way.
It is difficult to precisely ascertain where Zappa’s political convictions came from. A child of the 1940′s and adolescent of the 1950’, with Italian and French ancestry, his family was an obvious target during the McCarthy era during the 1950’s when Zappa was growing up. He commented
‘Every time I would get in trouble at school [my father] would flip out because he worried that it would effect in some roundabout way, his security clearance.
His father’s position in chemical weaponry research also resulted in the zappa family constantly moving house, a factor that possibly impacted his ability to conform and develop close friendships. Whatever the reason, it is apparent that Zappa preferred to be in a position of control throughout his career. This manifested itself in various ways, including through what could described as amateur anthropology, where he would often record, document and release his band’s off stage activities, to his authoritarian live performances, to control over his intellectual property, to his manipulation of recording studio technology – where time and space itself would succumb to his authority. As outlined by Steve Jones (1992), the recording studio itself can facilitate political power in terms of decision making and in Zappa’s case, his autocratic approach to these other factors accentuate this ‘political position’. Indeed Zappa’s work on the synclavier in the last several years of his life takes this controlling power a stage further, the equivalent of an automated society where all ‘citizens’ are under Zappa’s jurisdiction. Zappa often complained about the inadequacies of orchestral musicians, and this machine enabled him to automate his workforce. He stated
With the synclarier, any group of imaginary instruments can be invited to play the most difficult passages, and the little guys inside the machine play them with one millisecond accuracy – every time
Although this statement very much concurs with Edgard Varèse’s ‘Liberation of Sound’ lecture in 1939, this totalitarian approach conflicts with his view of American politics, where he very much emphasised the importance of freedom of speech, but this itself is another dimension of the conflictory nature of his music. Ultimately, the freedom in Zappa’s music reflects the way in which he viewed the First Amendment, and this is apparent in both his controversial subject matter and the uncompromising way he juxterpositioned musical styles and genres, and the freedom that his art give him. According to Kevin Courrier, Zappa’s capacity to draw ‘moustaches on the faces of America’s sacred cows’ made his work ‘formidably political, even if the subject matter was often sociological in nature’. Courrier continues to compare Zappa to other musicians/political commentators such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, U2 and Rage Against The Machine, but differentiated Zappa because he did not make his work explicitly partisan, but in a manner that ‘transcended the lyrics’. As outlined in this paper, Zappa’s music certainly transcended lyrical content and was also explicitly political, as indicated by his carefully crafted lyrics, his facilitation of voting rights, his political gestures in performance and recording studio and his pervasive outspoken media comments. Weinburg considers ‘all theatre, by virtue of it being a cultural construct as ideologically inscribed’ as political’, and considering the theatrical nature of Zappa’s portfolio it is not unreasonable to position him within the continuum of political theatre, alongside Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, even if critics in Zappa’s opinion described his work as ‘perverse’. As noted by Courrier, Zappa’s work was not explicitly partisan, but this is due to his personal affiliation to a political party being vague. Claiming to be neither Democrat or Republican on his 1984 video Does Humour Belong in Music, he described his position toward the end of his autobiography as a ‘practical conservative’. As noted by Delvile and Norris, ‘as long as people keep confusing avant-garde art with revolutionary politics, Zappa’s music will continue to be misunderstood by leftists and conservatives alike’. As discussed in this paper, what is apparent in Zappa’s work is the pervasiveness of his ideological tendencies. Even though they may not always manifest themselves in his lyrics, his politics are inextricably embedded into his art in numerous ways, and hopefully this document has elucidated some of the means through which these tendencies were channelled to audiences.
 ‘Stick Together’, ‘Doing Work For Yuda’.
 Dickie’s Such An Asshole’ and ‘Rhymin’ Man’ parodied Richard Nixon and Jesse Jackson respectively.
 ‘Welcome To The United States’.
 ‘Porn Wars’.
 ‘One Man One Vote’.
 The wife of former vice president Al Gore
 Who were advocating that warning stickers be placed on the cover of any recording containing sexually explicit content
 A practice that cumulated in him enrolling around 11000 voters via a front of house application process throughout his 1988 tour
 Namely two Crossfire shows, and a Nightwatch and Larry King debate.
 A dark story of a government official having underage sex with a 13 year old girl
 David Walley, Teenage nervous breakdown (CRC Press, 2006), p.14.
 Ibid., p.15.
 Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, The real Frank Zappa book (Simon & Schuster, 1990), p.322.
 Barry Miles, Frank Zappa (Atlantic Books, 2005), p.14.
 Zappa and Occhiogrosso, The real Frank Zappa book, p.142.
 Barry Miles, Frank Zappa (Atlantic Books, 2005), pp.97-88.
 Written & Directed by Rudi “Cadillac” Dolezal & Hannes Rossacher.
 Michael Blowden (1991) Frank Zappa Eyes The Whitehouse. July 10th 1991
 Miles, Frank Zappa, p.365.
 This video is proudly displayed on Zappa’s official web site. Refer to the following url for details. http://www.zappa.com/stufftoget/video/youarewhatyouis.html
 Something that was done extensively in the UK in Spitting Image.
 This work has been covered by the likes of MXPS (On The Cover II (2009)), Andead (Hell’s Kitchen (2009)) and Trashlight Vision (Alibis & Ammunition (2006)) and alludes to the film Bedtime For Bonzo (date), staring Reagan and a chimpanzee.
 Element Of Light (1986).
 Civilization Phaze III (1993).
 At 1:05.
 Principally by the use of what Phil Tagg would describe as ‘sonic anophones’.
 The Firebird
 For example ‘Occasional Variations’.
 At 4:15.
 In earlier shows, this piece was entitled ‘San Clemente Magnetic Deviation’, which referred to the ‘strange effect that pilots felt when flying over San Clemente’ the home of President Nixon.
 According to Barry Miles (2005), Zappa had a poster of Nixon’s unsuccessful campaign to be governor of California on the wall of his home recording studio, indicating that he had a particular interest in exploiting his inadequacies.
 Although this was also conducted on his album covers at the time too.
 When referring to the dog he received as a gift, Nixon stated at Checkers ‘I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it’.
 This was one of Nixon’s most pervasive lines. See below.
 Nixon stated at the start of his resignation speech ‘I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me’.
 Near the end of his Checkers speech, Nixon stated ‘I would do nothing that would harm the possibilities of Dwight Eisenhower to become President of the United States’.
 Nixon used the phrase ‘I’m not a crook’ prior to his resignation in an interview with the Washington Post dated Sunday November 18th, 1973 (p.A01).
 Charles Gregory ‘bebe’ Rebozo was a Florida based banker who was a close friend and confidant of Nixon.
 Allan F. Moore, The Cambridge companion to blues and gospel music (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.162.
 Live At the Apollo (1962).
 Mahalia Jackson Sings America’s Greatest Hymns (Date)
 Hugh Sidey, “LIFE.”
 Safire, Safire’s political dictionary, p.549.
 For example issue103 (Fantastic Four (1970)) and issue 144 Captain America (1971)).
 The caption features Richard Nixon presenting a speech flanked by oil executives. The cartoonist Ed Valtman questioned Nixon’s for rejecting oil import quotas.’ By depicting drops of liquid as oil money, dripping into a storage tank labeled “Political Contributions,” he strongly signaled the president’s interest in bolstering financial support for Republicans in the upcoming Congressional elections.’ .http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/cartoonamerica/images/ca016-09112v.jpg
 OCLC FirstSearch Electronic Collections Online, Youth & society (Sage Publications, 1971), p.400.
 For example Mort Sahl Live (1973) features an entire side of an album dedicate to Watergate.
 Which was also used on ‘Plastic People’ (Absolutely Free 1967).
 Armadillo World Headquarters (1973). Note that at this time the piece is entitled ‘The San ‘Clemente Magnetic Deviation’, the sub title being ‘Dickie’s Such An Asshole’.
 William Patterson College (1973).
 On You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol.3 (1989).
 This piece was also used on Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk (Broadway The Hardway 1988).
 Zappa includes a full deconstructed version of this piece on his 1969 album Uncle Meat.
 Absolutely Free (1967).
 Just Another Band From LA (1970).
 Chungas Revenge (1970).
 Just Another Band From LA (1970).
 Michael Gray, Mother! (Plexus, 2001), p.17.
 In Time and Space book p.16.
 Zappa and Occhiogrosso, The real Frank Zappa book, pp.172-173.
 Check this.
 Kevin Courrier, Dangerous kitchen (ECW Press, 2002), p.16.
 Susan Kattwinkel, Audience participation (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), p.185.
 Toward the end of his life, he described the Republican party as a ‘species’ not a political party. See http://www.zappa.com/stufftoget/video/republicanparty.html
 Michel Delville and Andrew Norris, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Secret History of Maximalism (Salt Publishing), p.52.