The greatest concept album of all time is Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.
That’s not my opinion. It’s fact. Joe’s Garage is superior to any rock concept album you could offer in comparison. And I tell you this emphatically; mankind will never produce anything in the future that surpasses it.
It’s from 1979 and it sounds as fresh as air. Its themes are as prescient today as they were back then, if not more so. It’s relatable, despite containing some of the most virtuosic musical performances imaginable. The production reveals an intensive, lengthy mixing process, and the overdubbing is artfully utilized, creating a lush aural playground. Joe’s Garage is a slaved-over labor of love.
It is incomparable.
On the cover, Zappa appears with a mop and what looks like motor oil covering his face. The back cover shows a blond woman applying it, and she is rubbing that shit right into his eye. As Ben Watson noted in The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, it’s a visceral image that provokes the fear of a poke in the peeper. The album art is plentiful, provided by John Williams (not the composer or the guitarist). It’s a collage of post-war photos, gas masks, and industrial diagrams. On the very last page is a poem that doesn’t feature in the music itself.
Eventually it was discovered
Did not want us all to be the same.
For the Government of The World
As it seemed contrary
To the doctrine of
Portion Control Servings.
Mankind must be made more
Was going to work.
Various ways were sought
To bind us all together
Same-ness was unenforceable.
It was about this time
Came up with the idea of
Based on the principle that
If we were ALL crooks
We could at last be uniform
To some degree in the eyes of
Shrewdly our legislators
That most people were
Too lazy to perform a
So new laws were
Making it possible for
Anyone to violate them
Anytime of the day or night,
Once we had all broken
Some kind of law
We’d all be in the same
Big happy club
Right up there with the
The most exalted industrialists,
And the clerical big shots
Of all your favorite religions.
Was the greatest idea of its
Time and was vastly popular
Except with those people
Who don’t want to be crooks
So, of course, they had to be
TRICKED INTO IT…
Which is one of the reasons
Was eventually made
Within Joe’s Garage, a teenager named Joe (Ike Willis) rehearses in the family garage with his band, one of the most shared American experiences. He has a few run-ins with the law, finally landing in jail, where he is raped by record executives incarcerated there. By the time he is released, music has been made totally illegal, and thus he wanders in a “semi-catatonic state”, imagining in his mind the music he can no longer make. In three acts, we share Joe’s emotions along this journey.
Desperate nerds in high offices all over the world have been known to enact the most disgusting pieces of legislation in order to win votes (or, in places where they don’t get to vote, to control unwanted forms of mass behavior).
Environmental laws were not passed to protect our air and water… they were passed to get votes. (…) All governments perpetuate themselves through the daily commission of acts which a rational person might find to be stupid or dangerous (or both). Naturally, our government is no exception… for example, if the President (any one of them) went on TV and sat there with the flag in the background… and stared sincerely into the camera and told everybody that all energy problems and all inflationary problems had been traced to and could be solved by the abolition of MUSIC, chances are that most of the people would believe him and think that the illegalization of this obnoxious form of noise pollution would be a small price to pay for the chance to buy gas like the good ol’ days. No way? Never happen? Records are made out of oil. All those big rock shows go from town to town in fuel-gobbling 45-foot trucks… and when they get there, they use up enormous amounts of electrical energy with their lights, their amplifiers, their PA systems… their smoke machines. And all those synthesizers… look at all the plastic they got in ’em… and the guitar picks… you name it…
JOE’S GARAGE is a stupid story about how the government is going to try and do away with music (a prime cause of unwanted mass behavior). It’s sort of like a really cheap kind of high school play… the way it might have been done 20 years ago, with all the sets made out of cardboard boxes and poster paint. It’s also like those lectures that local narks used to give (where they show you a display of all the different ways you can get wasted, with the pills leading to the weed leading to the needle, etc., etc.).
If the plot of the story seems just a little bit preposterous, and if the idea of The Central Scrutinizer enforcing laws that haven’t been passed yet makes you giggle, just be glad you don’t live in one of the cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted… or, as it is in Iran, totally illegal.
The “Central Scrutinizer” narrates the story of Joe’s Garage. Based upon Zappa’s vivid description in the liner notes, I believe it looks like this:
After introducing the production, the Central Scrutinizer directs our attention to a “boring old garage in a residential area with a teen-age band rehearsing in it. JOE (the main character in the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER’s Special Presentation) sings to us of the trials and tribulations of garage-band husbandry.”
Everything wonderful about playing in a teenage band is encapsulated in that song. Zappa sings as “LARRY (a guy who will eventually give up music and earn a respectable living as a roadie for a group called Toad-O)”. The woman screaming at the band to turn it down is the inimitable Denny Walley as Mrs. Borg, “who keeps her son, SY, in the closet with the vacuum cleaner”. This will become important later. Or not.
Mrs. Borg makes good on her threats to call the police, who surround the garage. I’ve noticed a similarity between the pleas of the cop here and those of Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore, as he begs for the return of his surfboard from a helicopter, in Apocalypse Now. I’d lay odds that one inspired the other; both hail from 1979. Joe is arrested, and thus has his “first run-in with the law”.
The Central Scrutinizer tells Joe to “stick closer to church-oriented activities”, and so he goes to a festive Catholic Youth Organization party, with “crepe paper streamers, contestants for the broom dance, the ‘Hokey Pokey’, baked goods, & FATHER RILEY making sure the lights don’t go down too low…”
A brief aside. I have known countless Catholics in my life and have a tremendous fondness for them. 9 times out of 10 they emerge from the more repressive aspects of their faith to become the life of the party. Zappa did just that, and here we have one of the greatest pieces of rock music ever. Ever.
Listen to the guitar tones, the vocal harmonies, the sitar-like solo. Zappa received a broken neck in an incident where a deranged fan threw him into an orchestra pit, around 1972. As a result his voice dropped an octave, and he was able to bend notes in weird, rubbery new ways. Ike Willis provides the heft and timbre that only he can. He counterpoints the falsetto vocals as the song fades. What tops this? Thick As A Brick? Tommy? Get the fuck out of here. This is like Mozart.
The Central Scrutinizer continues:
Joe had a girlfriend named Mary.
She used to go to the church club every week.
They’d meet each other there
And think Pure Thoughts
But one night, at the Social Club meeting
Mary didn’t show up…
She was sucking cock backstage at the Armory
In order to get a pass
To see some big rock group for free…
Zappa sings the next track, “Crew Slut”, as Larry (the guy who quit the band in order to make an honest living). It’s a rocking blues number, the guttural back-and-forth of the rhythm guitar suggesting an endless line of supplicating groupies. Mary is voiced by Dale Bozzio, not only the wife of drumming titan Terry but the lead singer of Missing Persons, which also featured Terry, and Warren Cuccurullo.
On Toto’s -ahem, sorry, Toad-O‘s tour bus, Mary is given a present that Larry says looks just like a Telefunken U-47. That’s a microphone that vaguely resembles a cock, so it’s probably a cock. She winds up stuck to seat 38, which is typically the fate of chicks who take up with roadies. With no way to get home, she resorts to competing in a bar’s wet T-shirt contest for fifty bucks. Buddy Jones, the emcee, is another sleazy Zappa caricature. His agenda is subtly revealed as he describes wet breasts to the howling audience:
“…as viewed through a thoroughly soaked, stupid-looking white sort of male person’s conservative kind of middle-of-the-road COTTON UNDERGARMENT! Whoopee!”
Stupid, white, male, conservative, middle-of-the-road. Then the water hits Mary, and Buddy Jones complains that her shriek sounds like she got an icepick in the forehead. Icepicks, now archaic, once figured heavily into rhythm and blues lore; another antebellum allusion. Mary’s sopping tits send the crowd into a frenzy, and she wins the $50, chirping happily that she can now return home.
[Buddy:] Home is where the heart is.
[Mary:] On the bus!
This segues into the real gem of disc one; “On The Bus” (aka “Toad-O Line”). As I noted in an earlier entry, Zappa is actually improvising the melody from Toto’s “Hold The Line”, but he completely remakes it. Peter Wolf provides the distinctive staccato keyboard that cross-fades with Arthur Barrow’s throbbing, unstoppable bass. Vinnie Colaiuta delivers evidence to back up my claims that he has few, if any, peers.
Before the middle eight, the voice of the Central Scrutinizer reappears, telling us that Joe heard about Mary’s blowjob marathon, and fell in with a fast crowd as a result. A girl named Lucille gives him an “unpronounceable disease”, and Zappa illustrates with guitar notes that scorch and writhe like venereal torment. This deftly introduces the stomping “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, wherein Joe sings falsetto, his balls seething with illness. After this, Joe reflects, in the form of a tune called “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.”
This is actually a reggae version of a Jeff Simmons song that Zappa produced in 1970, under the pseudonym LaMarr Bruister. Simmons and Zappa had a tempestuous professional relationship, in my opinion because they possessed equal talents, but differing ideas about image. Simmons is of course the protagonist of Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels, who was portrayed by Ringo Starr’s chauffeur after Simmons walked off the movie. Look folks, I love Frank to death and all, but at one point he wanted Wilfrid Brambell to play “Jeff Simmons”. Brambell is the always-ancient bloke who, a year later, would assay the elder Steptoe in the popular UK comedy Steptoe and Son.
I love Brambell, I love Zappa, but I don’t know what he was on about here. On Playground Psychotics’ “The True Story of 200 Motels”, Zappa claims to have had “a bunch of adventures” recasting Simmons after he left, and that Brambell “completely freaked out” in the audition. Brambell was a very particular sort of classical actor, plus a ferocious drinker. I imagine Zappa’s loose (to be kind) methods of movie-making struck old Wilfrid as a bunch of pointless fucking-about. And since Simmons’ gripes with Zappa were that he felt he wasn’t being taken seriously, it must’ve stung when Zappa literally replaced him with the next person that walked in the door.
The reggae treatment of “Lucille” fits like a glove. This is quite possibly my favorite song to get high to.
I think that’s Tommy Mars on keyboards, but it could be Wolf. Ike Willis has never sung more beautifully. It is perfection.
After the Central Scrutinizer recaps Joe’s state of mind, he notes that for the first time, Joe did something SMART-
“…he goes out… and pays a lot of money to L. Ron Hoover… at the First Church of Appliantology!“
This is obviously a parody of L. Ron Hubbard, and his First Church of Scientology. Anyone could see that. And let me tell you something, folks; the “Church” of Scientology has a policy where they destroy or trip up anyone who criticizes them. Can you add Scientologists to Zappa’s long list of enemies? You bet your sweet ass. Scientologists act like this kind of thing is analogous to rendering Mohammed, or insulting Christ. The proliferation of this dangerous cult is the sole reason I could be glad Zappa is dead. He did not suffer religious fools gladly while living, I assure you.
Zappa lampoons Hubbard and other fad-junk gurus in “A Token Of My Extreme”, where Joe falls under the influence of Appliantology, and is told he can only achieve sexual gratification through the use of machines. In order to get a really good one, he’ll have to learn a foreign language (German) and go to a club on the other side of town called THE CLOSET. He dresses up like a housewife and does so, seducing an appliance with his linguistic ability.
Stunned by JOE’s command of his native tongue, a gleaming model XQJ-37 nuclear-powered Pan-Sexual Roto-Plooker named SY BORG (previously thought to be the son of the lady who called the Police on cut two, side I), spindles over to JOE and says…
[Sy Borg:] Pick me… I’m clean… I am also programmed for conversational English.
This begins the “Fuck me you ugly son of a bitch” section of “Stick It Out”, which is what Joe was singing in German for the first verse. They go back to Sy’s apartment, in which “all government sponsored recreational services are clean and efficient.” Joe describes Sy as a “tiny chrome-plated machine that looks like a magical pig”, with dildoes stuck all over it. They commence anal sex, which is called “plooking” here so it can be snuck past the censors. Sy invites his roommate in, “a modified Gay Bob doll” who “goes all the way”. Gay Bob was the first gay doll in the world, introduced in 1977.
Zappa enjoyed writing obscure sex toys into lyrics; see also “Ms. Pinky”, from Zoot Allures. “Sy Borg” is a dub callback to “Lucille”, and it’s also fun to get stoned to, thanks to the hilariously candid antics of Joe and Sy. An impromptu golden shower shorts out Sy’s master circuits, and Joe inadvertently plooks him to death.
I’m gonna call that Mars on keys, and it’s gorgeous. Barrow’s bass is clockwork perfection. Finally the cops come and arrest Joe, who can’t post bail since giving all his money to L. Ron Hoover. This was initially where Zappa commenced the “first half”, and the second was released a few months later.
The Central Scrutinizer informs us that Joe was sent to a special prison, “where they keep all the criminals from the music business… you know… the ones who get caught… it’s a horrible place, painted all green on the inside, where musicians and former executives take turns snorting detergents and plooking each other…”
(As the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER chuckles to himself for a moment, FATHER RILEY, who became BUDDY JONES, steps into view in his new identity: FATHER RILEY B. JONES, Prison Chaplain, who, in a rather heavy-handed piece of imagery, is now entrusted with the job of singing this song as he assists the captured executives in their quest for new meat to plook, and, once having found these victims for the princes of the industry, trades them little blobs of sanctified lubricant jelly for cigarettes and candy bars while he holds them down so the execs won’t have to work too hard when they stick it in.)
In this special prison is a “guy who used to be a promo man for a major record company, Bald-Headed John… King of the Plookers…” He is immortalized in the opener “Dong Work For Yuda”.
In the late seventies, following his recovery from the career-threatening injuries I mentioned, Zappa employed a bodyguard named John Smothers. You can see him in Zappa’s 1977 concert film Baby Snakes.
Smothers is a multifarious personality. At the close of Baby Snakes, Zappa is mobbed by fans as he leaves the Palladium. Smothers is at Zappa’s back, towering over him, and he raises something over his head, in both hands. He extends the object, like a car antenna, and the eyes of the crowd lock onto it, transfixed. By the time the weapon is two feet long, Zappa is halfway into the limo. It is an incredible display of restrained power.
Smothers inspired Bald-Headed John. He even kids about ass-raping Terry Bozzio in Baby Snakes. If this dude wanted your butt, there’s very little you could do about it. So it goes for Joe, as he is gang-banged by John and a multitude of lawyers and execs, in “Keep It Greasey”.
There is a version of “Keep It Greasey” on Buffalo, featuring most of the same personnel and at such momentum, everyone I’ve played it for exclaimed the same thing: “Holy shit!”
Exhausted from the marathon of rape, Joe lays back in his cell and dreams of guitar notes that would irritate music executives, in “Outside Now”. This is emotionally the deepest track of the entire opera, as Zappa spent time behind bars, and understood the inherent frustration. Joe dreams imaginary notes for years, until he is at last released, in “He Used To Cut The Grass”.
Patrick O’Hearn is not credited on bass for that track, but I swear it’s him. According to the liners he only played on “Outside Now”.
By this point, Joe’s mind has been totally destroyed by music.
“He’s so crazy now he even believes that people are writing articles and reviews about his imaginary guitar notes, and so, continuing to dwindle in the twilight realm of his own secret thoughts, he not only dreams of imaginary guitar notes, but, to make matters worse, he dreams imaginary vocal parts to a song about the imaginary journalistic profession…”
This is “Packard Goose”. The Ford Packard had a hood ornament that was supposed to be a phoenix or some such, but more resembled a goose.
Zappa uses this as a symbol of intent versus audience perception. The song is an excoriation of the entire music journalism industry, and through Joe’s lyrics, Zappa tells them all to squat on a cosmic utensil. Sit on it and spin.
Maybe you thought I was the Packard Goose
Or the Ronald McDonald of the nouveau-abstruse
Well fuck all them people, I don’t need no excuse
For being what I am
Do you hear me, then?
All those rock ‘n roll writers are the worst kind of sleaze
Selling punk like some new kind of English disease
Is that the wave of the future?
Aw, spare me please!
Never again would Zappa elucidate his rage better than he did here. Joe’s Garage makes Pink Floyd’s The Wall look like Rock-A-Doodle.
Joe wonders what became of Mary, as she returns, with an absolutely grating New Yawk accent instead of her original Cali-girl. Poignant and wizened, she delivers this immortal speech.
“Hi! It’s me… the girl from the bus…
The last tour?
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST…
Wisdom is the domain of the Wis (which is extinct).
Beauty is a French phonetic corruption
Of a short cloth neck ornament
Currently in resurgence…”
The penultimate track is “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, which contains the greatest guitar solo Frank Zappa ever recorded. The song is so named because of the difficulty of the playing involved; it would be easier to grow a plump watermelon in plastic Easter grass.
Now you have seen the top of the mountain. And it is good.
The experience closes with the scratchy tones of the Central Scrutinizer, as it tells us how Joe finally hocked his imaginary guitar, and got a decent job at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, squeezing a little green rosette of icing onto the top of each and every muffin. Zappa puts down his plastic megaphone and reveals himself as the Scrutinizer, and leads the whole UMRK in “A Little Green Rosetta”. Among the voices singing is Geordie Hormel, meat heir. Zappa jokingly calls Vinnie Colaiuta “Steve Gadd’s clone”, which is a huge compliment, even though he busts his balls about the click track.
There you have it. The greatest concept album of all time. Appropriately, it all started in a garage. Great things often do.