Artists in turbulent times often must resort to extreme measures to compensate for the general state of cultural disorder. How can one be heard over the sounds of civil unrest? Dada and surrealist artists adopted an archly gibberish music hall idiom during World War I. Amidst the tumult of the 60s, some avant-gardists like Frank Zappa used more populist means, an ostensibly rock and roll format and image, as a vehicle for his influential classical-prog-jazz.
Like the first Dadaists, however, Zappa was a physical artist. He started small in the early sixties, if you can call an appearance on the Steve Allen Show small. The act certainly seems so at first. A young Zappa, clean-shaven with a well-tailored suit and dapper haircut, appears solo on Allen’s show. He’s taciturn at first during the interview, admitting that he can play guitar, vibes, bass, and drums. He has chosen, however, to help the audience recover what he suggests is a childhood delight, playing the bicycle. “How long have you been playing bike, Frank?” Allen asks. “About two weeks,” says Zappa, getting his first big laugh.
Zappa also talks about an early, pre-Mothers of Invention project, scoring the 1962 film The World’s Greatest Sinner, which he calls “the world’s worst movie.” The film, it turned out, didn’t air until 50 years later (Martin Scorsese names it as a favorite). But the mention gives Zappa a chance to show off how much he knows about composing for a 55-piece orchestra. Allen seems unimpressed, and remains so when Zappa begins his performance art. Then the gag strays into a Salvador Dali spoof via a John Cage performance, with Zappa as the weird, debonair straight man to Allen’s mouthy comic.
Zappa plays both the right-side-up and the upside-down bike, which involve different techniques. Though it all, he keeps up the patter of a seasoned showman, the directness of a determined bandleader, and a straight face. And perhaps that’s really what’s on display here—not the bicycle as a musical instrument, but the physical act of playing and conducting, using precise movements and sequences to elicit specific effects. For all the humor, there’s no reason not to think Zappa isn’t completely serious about all of this, as it expands into the kind of organized chaos only he could so masterly orchestrate.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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