US Halloween & Election Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: The Torture Never Stops

Trick or treat?

Halloween is paving the way for the United States presidential election this year, knee-deep in the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. Fortunately, as we’re peeling smashed pumpkins from the street, riding a national sugar high in various states of isolation, anxious and uncertain about our future, democracy persists. We remain citizens bound to a collective, members of a culture larger than ourselves.

In the final installment of this mini blog trilogy dedicated to American musician Frank Zappa, it’s worth looking at two cultural events that were personally significant for Frank: Halloween and Election Day. If the previous entries about Memorial Day and Independence Day leaned upon irony—frankly, considering the theme of pairing national United States celebrations with Zappa songs, it’s hard to avoid—this one shoots straight from the hip.

With a dash of his patented humor, Frank once mentioned in an interview, “Well, in this world of basic stereotyping, give a guy a big nose and some weird hair and he is capable of anything.” Frank, of course, fit that profile consistently throughout a career spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Frank also fit the profile of a free-thinking eccentric. He was a socially conscious, politically opinionated rock musician who might be considered a liberal progressive by many ballots. Yet he spared no sharp judgements for either side, seeing that the Democratic and Republican parties are both prone to the same corrupting forces.

Frank was not just original, he was authentic. The distinction, in my mind, is crucial. Yes, I know that authenticity is the new buzz word within certain circles, but hear me out. If originality is often outwardly focused, or, at least, finds its identity in contrast with something outside of itself, on what it is not, authenticity is inwardly focused, measured in alignment with itself, on what it can’t help but being.

In other words, Frank was consistent, in his own way, even in the face of his peculiar contradictions.

Although Frank scoffed at the rampant drug use so prevalent in the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, he was a heavy tobacco smoker who amusingly referred to his revered substance as a vegetable. His music influences were as colorfully nuanced as his lifestyle choices, combining a love for the dissonance of classical composers such as Edgard Varèse with the feel-good grooves of 50s rhythm and blues bands.

Frank was cynically anti-establishment, never succumbing to the naively hopeful anti-intellectualism of his time. And maybe that’s why Frank loved Halloween so much, appreciating its deeper history; Halloween, as we know it, being a modernized, domesticated celebration with roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when it was believed that ghosts roamed the earth freely, the past returning to visit with the present, helping us or haunting us, in turn.

Frank never tolerated the tyranny of -isms that rule our lives. The disembodied figures in the lyrics for his song “The Torture Never Stops” [excerpted below] evoke the flickering shadows on the walls in the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave:

“Flies all green and buzzin’
In dungeon of despair
Who are’ll those people
That is shut away down there
Are they crazy
Are they sainted
Are they heroes someone painted
Someone painted
Are they -isms
Later ornated
Once they come they have been tainted
Once they come they have been tainted
Never been explained
Since at first it was created”

These unexplained -isms personify the dungeon-crawling ideologies that infiltrate our institutions and our minds. However, given a fly-buzzin’ human form in “The Torture Never Stops,” they are subjected to natural laws of decay. We are reminded then that all that decays can corrupt or be corrupted.

I can imagine Frank’s vigilant voice counseling discernment in our time of pandemic blues and hyper politicization: While peeling candy corn from your teeth, get out there and vote. As dysfunctional as the political system is, and as inadequate as the candidates are, we still have a choice, limited though it may be, in guiding the course of a country. The invitation is ours to lend a hand to the present in service of a less corrupting future.

Rest in peace, Frank.

“The Torture Never Stops” from Frank Zappa’s Halloween 81 live album.
Frank’s full, nearly two-hour 1981 Halloween performance. He always was a charismatic front man.
A video of Frank promoting voting.

US Independence Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: Outside Now

Can we appreciate a home that we’ve perhaps never truly known? Would we recognise it if we found it? What would it look like?

Of course, we can address the question figuratively, wax existential for a quick minute. But in 2020, we can now address the issue experientially. In a time when our homes have been displaced by COVID-19, our daily lives derailed, I submit these questions in observance of another Zappa-fied American holiday: this time a fire-works-free Independence Day.

Amid a world-wide pandemic that crosses borders without concern for human conventions, we’re beginning to appreciate our homes quite differently in isolation. This year we’ll have to imagine history’s shadows illuminated on the backs of our eyelids from a distance, do without the smell of sulphur lingering in the air, a noxious aphrodisiac to obscure a domesticated dream.

A restless revisionist to the end, musician Frank Zappa approached his craft the way one approaches a borderless home. Never satisfied for what has comfortably settled into place, he wandered fluidly between the probable and the possible, returning to his older songs throughout his life, willing, with each passing performance, to see what he heard differently.

On “Outside Now,” Frank’s soulful prog-rock soundscape reflects his adaptability with invigorating energy. Like all of Frank’s music, each version of its performance frames its own vision. Yet they all share a wry sense of humor and contagious grooves, reminding us to look closely at the world (including ourselves) and see it all askew (if not anew) from another side.

Despite the national weather or the latest public health crisis, hope remains in 2020. There’s no need to light a fuse to illuminate what we believe in. Wherever we find the prospect of a brighter future, we are welcome to celebrate it our own way, with or without an amplifier, individually or collectively, but always courageously, and with as much zest for life that we can muster.

“Outside Now” studio recording from Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III
“Outside Now” live from München, Germany, 3-31-79
“Outside Now” live from Rotterdam Broadcast, 1980
A moving cover of “Outside Now” by the Zappa tribute band, The Band from Utopia, performed after Frank’s death — Stuttgart Jazz Open, July 94

US Memorial Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: Chunga’s Revenge

While we reflect on what freedom means to us during the COVID-19 quarantine, it’s a good time to celebrate where we can.

For zealous patriots and protestors alike, whatever flag we raise or trample upon the lawn, only the foolish wait for history to sanctify our losses. If politics, at its best, aims for unity, it can’t help falling short at the borders of our disputes. In contrast, music can remind us that we are all conduits for a different kind of message, the kind that vibrates in our chest—and spirit—and moves our feet to an unseen rhythm.

Fortunately how we move to the beat is beside the point. What’s important is that we keep on moving. In times of grief, like times of longing, we may drift out of step to the master rhythm, but we’re never alone, for long, on the dance floor of life.

So let’s pay some respect to the tolling hour this Memorial Day. Politics aside, every casualty of war is a tragedy.

Full stop.

Of course, there aren’t words or sounds powerful enough to revive a life beyond the grave. But before we grow too grim, let’s carry on in remembrance of those who no longer can.

Musician Frank Zappa’s legacy is more American than apple pie, raw and unapologetic, topped with a dollop of zest that only he could muster. Although his music can’t raise the dead, it can raise our spirits from a realm beyond the aftermath of humanity’s self-inflicted wounds.

Frank’s song “Chunga’s Revenge” captures the mood of the occasion with a certain somber gleam. A pulsing bass line marches beneath an electric guitar riff playing scales with the stars.

Perhaps its the lively wardrobe? Maybe the heroic scale work? However Frank’s performance catches us, powered by hope and a fire for righting social wrongs, we are all invited to put on our finest tropical shirt and shake it loose to some slick Zappa riffs. We can change the world, if we choose to—one note at a time…