Zappa – A Critical Look at ‘Joe’s Garage’ (Part 1)

Album cover.

Image via Wikipedia

Joe’s Garage: A Token of His Extreme

In studying an author or his works one can often point to a singular piece of work in order to define an artist; or possibly to analyze a given work that has become personal and meaningful to the one conducting the study itself. In choosing to examine Frank Zappa’s seminal recorded work, Joe’s Garage, this author would have to admit that the incredible production would fall into both the former and later categorizes.

Joe’s Garage weaves a tale of a very dark and grim future time in our American experience, furiously painted on an aural canvas shot through with the abstract, the comical, the frightening, and the absurd. If one takes the nineteen tracks that make up this masterpiece of musical theatre, one can glean from it many things: music that winds its way through various genres ranging from punk, to rock, to experimental jazz, to reggae; sublime musicianship that showcases the incredible talent that Zappa gathered to bring life to his creation; lyrics that can confuse with their complexity, bring about a chuckle or guffaw with their prankish punditry, offend with their blunt and straightforward honesty, or frighten with their darker vision. But if one takes the work as a whole, the entire concept offers the most nourishing food for thought on the reeking mess of bureaucratic manipulation that surrounds our desire to make sure our rights as citizens of this republic remain as rights – and are not relegated to the lesser roll of cherished but half-forgotten memories of the “golden years”, “good old days”, or “how things used to be”.

One can gather from some of his work (including some of the lyrical commentary he had made in Joe’s Garage) that Zappa might have felt apart from people as a whole; that he was not particular to being part of the American culture. In fact the contrary was true. Although he was a private man he was quite at home in the musical community he was a part of, often working with various well known artists (the likes of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Sting) and kicking off more than a few careers (namely Steve Vai and Alice Cooper). And the fact that he was a performing artist plainly showed that he had an innate need to not only create but share his creations as well.

He did find himself scornful of most of the ideals and attitudes that were common in his continental environment. But he was also a societal sponge, soaking up various bits and pieces of Americana and inserting them in his various artistic endeavors. He simply avoided using these things in a way that people would expect. His father (Francis Zappa) had often talked about a great history of the world that he had wanted to write, from the perspective of personas not in power and without wealth… with Sicily as the hub of historical existence. His rational for this was that the history that had already been written and passed down was created for the amusement of the ruling classes; since the lower classes throughout history could not read, their rulers did not care about what happened to them.

Even though Francis never got around to writing this history, you can see that Zappa took the concept of his father’s thought to heart. His characters are at times “good guys” or “bad guys”, but their always just “some guys”…your average Joe surrounded by
a certain surrealism brought on by unforeseen circumstance or their own personal undoing.

Zappa’s body of work is often overlooked and dismissed as offensive, shock-music, inaccessible, or lyrically nonsensical. But the best way to determine if this is indeed true of Joe’s Garage is to actually study the work itself.

First we shall take a look at the narrator of our journey, known as The Central Scrutinizer. The scrutinizer is not a person…or at least not human in the traditional sense.
He is the product of the society which has allowed him to become real; a society that had left its own proverbial head buried deeply in the sand for way too long. In the liner notes of the album, Zappa describes him thusly:

Sometimes when you’re not looking he just sneaks up on you. He looks like a cheap sort of flying saucer about five feet across with a snout-like megaphone apparatus in the front with two big eyes mounted like Appletons with miniature motorized frowning chrome eyebrows over them. Along the side of his disc-like body are several sets of stupid-looking headers and exhaust hoses which apparently propel him and punctuate his dialogue with horrible smelling smoke rings. In the middle of his head we can see an airport wind sock and constantly twirling anemometer. The bottom of him has a landing light and three spoked wheels. In spite of all this, it is obvious that the way he really gets around is by being dangled from place to place by a union guy with a dark green shirt up in the roof who is eating a sandwich (pieces of which drop off every once in a while and lodge themselves near the hole where they put the oil in that makes the cheap smoke).

The vile creature, his whispering, scratchy voice dripping with self assurance and oozing righteousness hovers into view and introduces himself and his purpose to the story:

This is the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER…it is my responsibility to enforce all the laws that haven’t been passed yet. It is also my responsibility to alert each and every one of you to the potential consequences of various ordinary everyday activities you might be performing which could eventually lead to *The Death Penalty* (or affect your parents’ credit rating). Our criminal institutions are full of little creeps like you who do wrong things…and many of them were driven to these crimes by a horrible force called MUSIC! Our studies have shown that this horrible force is so dangerous to society at large that laws are being drawn up at this very moment to stop it forever! Cruel and inhuman punishments are being carefully described in tiny paragraphs so they won’t conflict with the Constitution (which, itself, is being modified in order to accommodate THE FUTURE). I bring you now a special presentation to show what can happen to you if you choose a career in MUSIC…The WHITE ZONE is for loading and unloading only…if you have to load or unload, go to the WHITE ZONE… you’ll love it…it’s a way of life…Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…Hi, it’s me, I’m back. This is the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER…The WHITE ZONE is for loading and unloading only…If yah gotta load, or if yah gotta unload, go to the WHITE ZONE. You’ll love it…it’s a way of life. That’s right, you’ll love it, it’s a way of life, that’s right, you’ll love it, it’s a way of life, you’ll love it. This, is, the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER!

The Scrutinizer seems to be an amalgam of all the negative characteristics that Zappa has perceived in our own various departments of law enforcement…seemingly heavy handed, smarmy, and always, always, all too willing to help you (the average citizen under the thumb of his protection) make up your mind about the laws (including the ones that haven’t been passed yet) that you have to follow and he has to enforce.

Now Zappa introduces the “hero” of our tale; a simple man with extravagant dreams – a man named Joe. In the first verse, Zappa describes the environment in which we find him:

It wasn’t very large
There was just enough room to cram the drums
In the corner over by the Dodge
It was a fifty-four
With a mashed up door
And a cheesy little amp
With a sign on the front said “Fender Champ”
And a second hand guitar
It was a Stratocaster with a whammy bar

In a very breezy tone, Zappa manages to paint us a picture of the rehearsal space that the band practices in, a typical area that brings to mind the vision of what our common tongue would call a “garage-band”. The lyrics continue on to tell the tale of an all too typical band, in an all too typical garage, with all too typical parents who grow annoyed with the cacophony of sound and scream, “Turn it down!” into the garage. Much in the way of a typical group of young musicians, they ignore the pleas of Joe’s parents. Unfortunately, the neighbors are becoming upset at the racket that the band is causing, prompting a call to the local law enforcement agency. As the police are busy surrounding the garage, Joe muses:

Well the years was rollin’ by, yeah
Heavy Metal ‘n’ Glitter Rock
Had caught the public eye, yeah
Snotty boys with lipstick on
Was really flyin’ high, yeah
‘N’ then they got that Disco thing
‘N’ New Wave came along
‘N’ all of a sudden I thought the time
Had come for that old song
We used to play in “Joe’s Garage”
And if I am not wrong
You will soon be dancin’ to…
Central Scrutinizer:
The WHITE ZONE is for loading and
unloading only. If you
gotta load or unload,
go to the WHITE
ZONE. You’ll love it…

Joe’s musing about the future is obviously Zappa’s lament about the state of the music industry. He had released quite a few songs about (what he thought of as) the sad state of the commercial music industry. This verse is simply another reiteration of that sentiment. But in the last part of the verse, we see Zappa’s fear of governmental control over the arts as he quips that we’ll soon be dancing to the mantra of the Central Scrutinizer that we had originally been privy too in the first track, “The Central Scrutinizer”. This might be a reference to the problems in Iran that he knew about during the time that he was working on this album, and a reflection of how their government banned all music soon after the Shah was deposed.
The Scrutinizer returns yet again in the track, as he explains what happens to Joe when the authorities finally arrive:
Central Scrutinizer:

That was Joe’s first confrontation with The Law.
Naturally, we were easy on him.
One of our friendly counselors gave him
A do-nut…and told him to
Stick closer to church-oriented social activities.

Again, we see Zappa’s paranoia about governmental control. Joe was sent to a councilor for playing music, not for any sort of serious crime or wrongdoing; in addition, he was prompted to “stick closer to church oriented activities”. This line shows Zappa’s frustration with the cultural norms that we find ourselves constrained by (rock music bad, church good), as well as the mixing of church and state that he was so adamantly against.

(NOTE: continued in part 2)

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