Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Sheik Yerbouti

So I was sittin’ and I was wonderin’ why it is I used to love Frank Zappa so much and now he just makes me want to puke from my ear holes when suddenly the answer hit me like a Zen Bullet straight to the third eye–Drug Abuse!

I mean, we all know drugs are great and pretty much a “must do” on just about every social occasion including weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Black Oak Arkansas concerts but I would add an item to the list–when listening to Frank Zappa albums. Cuz if my experience holds true for anybody else drugs (it don’t matter which ones–better to take ‘em all!) do not only enhance the “Frank Zappa experience”; they are necessary to enjoy the “Frank Zappa experience” in the first place.

Take 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti. Very shortly after it come out my pig farmer buddy Billy and I were busy drinking and doing drugs in my upstairs room in the decaying hovel (the ceiling collapsed in the room next to mine, dropping a one-ton wooden beam on my roomie’s bed–did I move? No!) where I lived at 16 North Washington Street in sunny Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

And because it was such a fine and beautiful day we thought why not crank up Sheik Yerbouti and place the speakers on my window sill pointing out just to, you know, educate the neighbors on the subject of righteous music. Because such is what passes for rational thought when you’re burning holes in frontal lobe with every drug you can get your clammy teengenerate hands on. Which in our case came down to pot, Placidyl–and I’m talking the big green 750s, the ones they use to treat insomnia in prize hogs–beer, Wild Turkey, and a several gallon jug of fake Quaaludes Bill was selling to 10th graders (god knows what was in ‘em), which he insisted upon crumbling into the bowl of the pot pipe we were passing on the theory they would probably fuck us up in some way if we could just find the proper delivery mechanism.

So there we were, swigging from the bottle of Wild Turkey in slow motion due to the Placidyl and smoking imitation quaaludes to the “musical accompaniment” of such immortal tunes as… well the truth is I don’t remember any of the tunes except “Bobby Brown” which struck me as hilarious at the time but now sounds like one very uptight man’s condemnation of alternative lifestyles and the S&M subculture in particular, and “Rat Tomago” which is a bona fide blazing guitar rant of the sort that still impresses me about Zappa, but which I’ve mostly given up searching out because too many of the songs around them are as sneering in tone as “Bobby Brown.” Oh, and I do have a vague recollection of “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes,” because those were the words we were screaming at the top of our lungs when who should magically materialize through the purple haze of pot smoke in my room, like Satan emerging from the hot springs sulphur reek of Hell smog, but a cop.

After his appearance, things happened in very slow motion. Billy tossed the pot pipe over his shoulder; it described a great arc and landed on my turntable where it remained turning great circles, slowing the music to a great distorted slo mo yawn, making Zappa sound like a man on not just one or two Placidyl 750s but a good half-dozen. I proceeded to drop my beer bottle, which hung in the air for a moment, like Wile E. Coyote after he has run off the edge of a cliff. I also distinctly remember going slackjawed, as would anybody who has just seen Old Scratch himself appear through an impenetrable curtain of marijuana smoke.

The cop looked at me with disgust, I looked at the cop with horror. I’d been caught red-handed smoking pot before, in cars parked on country roads with my buddies, but this was different. This cop had the unmitigated gall to let himself in through my front door, walk up the steps, open my bedroom door, and stroll right in. This wasn’t the kind of thing your ordinary police officer would do, and this told me this cop wasn’t just your ordinary cop but some kinda supercop willing to go to extraordinary lengths to stamp out the Great Narcotics Menace of which I was at that moment the Evil Figurehead.

“Turn off the music,” he commanded. Dead serious. This was not one of your Deputy Dawgs. This was a glass eater. Aryan features. Big shoulders and arms. Ex-Special Forces, or worse.

“Turn off the music,” I told Billy. He was, after all, closer to the stereo. Besides, I was paralyzed.

Billy didn’t move. He was paralyzed too. I couldn’t say as I blamed him.

“Turn off the music,” the cop repeated, one exact octave more menacing.

“Turn off the music,” I repeated hopelessly.

Billy finally got up off the bed and turned off the music. The silence was deafening. I took the opportunity to shoot God a prayer that went something like, “If you get me out of this, I’ll never do Placidyl again.” I suppose I was hoping he wouldn’t notice my silence on the subjects of alcohol, pot, and the plethora of illicit drugs I didn’t happen to be doing at the moment.

“Look,” said the cop finally. “I don’t care if you smoke pot. And I don’t care if you’re not old enough to drink. I don’t even care if you appear to be in possession of a big plastic jug full of imitation Quaaludes you’re probably selling to people who are even dumber than you are. Hell, I don’t even care if you feel the need to share your music with the entire neighborhood. What concerns me is the fact that you have such shit taste in music. Do you really want to fritter away your formative years listening to this condescending, puerile, morally smug jerk? Sure, he plays a great guitar, and his work with the Mothers of Invention was both inventive and groundbreaking, but since then he’s been producing nothing but albums full of juvenile sexual innuendo and lame poo-poo jokes designed to induce knowing giggles in 14-year-old males with acne. Are you a 14-year-old male with acne?”

“No,” I said sullenly. He’d touched a nerve.

“You need to heed your humanizing impulses,” he said. “This music is anti-democratic, elitist, and designed to allow you to look down your nose at your fellow man. And judging by your life style choices, I don’t think you’ve earned the right to look down your nose at anybody. I hate to say it, because I’m a nice guy, but you’re a wet mess. Which is not to say I’m a puritan. Where’s that pot pipe?”

So not only did we not get busted; we got to smoke pot with a real live cop. After, that is, said real live cop flipped through my record collection, and picking out a Charlie Parker album said, “Well, your case is far from hopeless. Follow the Bird, kid. Follow the Bird.” He then put on Workingman’s Dead and the three of us sat on the bed passing the bowl as the sun went down over glorious Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, the speakers still pushed out the windows. As the cop put it, “If they don’t wanna hear Workingman’s Dead? Fuck ‘em.”

As for Sheik Yerbouti, the cop was dead right. And all I can really say about it after all these years is exactly what The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau had to say about Zappa’s entire output from the 1980s. To wit, “Oh shut up.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-
(Upped a grade for the groovy guitar solos.)

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  • Vint Gonser

    One of the best music reviews I’ve read since The Lampoon. But wait, they never had music reviews! Champion yarn there.

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