Review: Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

Zappa, in and out of a cow barn



At the Indiana State Fair Coliseum in the early '70s, Frank Zappa said, “Think of it. Mankind. Evolving, struggling, climbing ever higher over thousands of years to reach this pinnacle where WE can play music for YOU … in a cow barn.”

Don't hold me to the exact wording of that 40+ year old quote, by the way. I offer it knowing that my online brethren will be quick to point out the failings in my memory, while adding their thoughtful critiques of my writing skill.

Before watching a documentary on Frank Zappa, I thought it wise to listen to my favorite Zappa recordings. I started with the first three albums by his band, The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We're Only In It for the Money.

When I was a boy, I'd lip sync to Absolutely Free in my bedroom. This weekend I discovered, to my delight, that I can still do it. Every verse, every aside, every word of that remarkable album is still tattooed on my brain. How cool!

I asked my friends on Facebook to share their picks for other essential Zappa recordings (he released over 60). They suggested: Zoot Allures, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, Hot Rats, Overnight Sensation, Lumpy Gravy, Cruising with Ruben and The Jets, Apostrophe, Shut Up and Play Your Guitar, Stupid, The Grand Wazoo, Thing Fish, and Live at the Fillmore.

I include the list here for those of you newcomers who, inspired by the film, decide to dive in the Zappa pool. Be prepared for a sometimes dizzying mix of humor — absurd, satiric, juvenile, and sometimes astoundingly tasteless — and doo-wop, rock, jazz, orchestral and experimental music. I suggest you start with Absolutely Free. And you probably should hold Thing Fish until last. I only got three tracks into that one before turning it off.

German director Thorsten Schuetter's Eat That Question has no narration. It's a collection of film clips of Zappa, many reported to be rare. Judging by his hair, they appear to be in loose chronological order. Early on you see a short-haired Zappa in a suit on a 1963 episode of Steve Allen's talk show, playing a bicycle in a semi-improvised piece with Allen's band. Zappa seems serious about his performance while Allen struggles not to laugh. Are we watching Zappa making music or pulling off a stunt? Your guess is as good as mine.

You'll hear some of Zappa's music throughout the film, though the focus remains on interviews and his celebrated battles with the group that created warning labels for music releases. In one segment Zappa claims to hate being interviewed, saying, "It's one of the most abnormal things you can do to anyone, two steps removed from the Inquisition."

Good quote. I guess the armed guards forcing him to be interviewed were out of camera range.

Sometimes Zappa made me angry. Apparently bothered by the fact that the audience had responded louder to a flashy bit of theatrics than to other, more demanding, parts of the show, he said, “You people wouldn't know good music if it came up and bit you on the dicks.” I turned to my friend and said, “Why do we keep paying him to tell us we're stupid?”

That was my last Frank Zappa concert. My loss.

Frank Zappa is one of the most pivotal figures in the history of contemporary music. In one segment shot a few months before his 1993 death from prostate cancer, Zappa was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He said he didn't care.

I care. I worry that because his music is so non-commercial, most people know Zappa primarily for his piercing stare, long hair and thick mustache/soul patch combo. But the man was also an amazing guitarist and composer; an artist that pushed those under his influence to push themselves further. He was a troublemaker, and a visionary. Sometimes Frank Zappa's sneer made me angry. But his challenges made me better. He made a lot of us better. 


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