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
Are they -isms
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.