July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have a motor?
Or was it
–F. Zappa, “Inca Roads,” (from One Size Fits All)
It is shameful to admit, but I am no great shakes as a thoughtful appreciator of music. Most certainly I enjoy it—rock, jazz and classical music (mostly pre-19th century) especially, but I seem to lack both the time and bandwidth to really give serious music the deep and sincere listen it deserves, except for when I am driving, of course, something I seem to do a lot, especially during harvest. Unfortunately, I often lack the presence of mind to carry much of an assortment of CDs in the car.1,2 (I usually have perhaps one or two of them in the vehicle at a time, which I end up listening to maybe forty or fifty or a hundred times before I have the wit to replace them with something else.)
And it goes without saying that like virtually every Baby Boomer, I am compelled to share with my offspring, to wit, daughter Amélie, currently aged ten, the music of my youth and young adulthood, which I, like any BBer, regard as vastly superior to anything produced in the last thirty years or so.3 These are the circumstances whereby, as it happened, I found myself with a couple of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention CDs in the car; Zappa has pretty much been what she and I have listened to together for the last couple of years.4 She has become a real fan, and I have become utterly obsessed with Frank.5
I didn’t really know his music all that well back when it was first released, and still I have a way to fully acquaint myself with the greater part of his oeuvre. The early stuff—Freak Out!—I first heard when I was in junior high, but some of the lyrics were a bit too outlandish to consider playing at home at normal volume. It was partially my own inhibition to play the music in my parents’ house6—this was well before the day of the privacy afforded by iPods—as well as my modest musical curiosity that gave me but a shallow acquaintance with one of the real compositional geniuses of the 20th century.7
It was a few years later that I was honored to be compared to Frank Zappa by the late wine writer, Jerry Mead.8,9 I’m still not quite sure precisely what he meant by the comment—the article (predating the internet) is likely lost to oblivion—but I take him to mean that I was creative, experimental, and significantly, more than a little irreverent, if not outré, given to épater les (crus) bourgeois, if not to lobbing (or Laube-ing) the occasional cherry bomb on the relevant snooty salle de degustation.10,11 ,12
While I am honored beyond words by the comparison with Zappa, lately I’ve been slightly haunted by the suspicion that there might, in fact, be some darker, if no less apt, aspects in that comparison to Frank.
I’m still not quite sure why I’ve been thinking so much about him these days. Perhaps, it is a gathering sense of my own mortality, and a great trepidation about being able to really get a significant body of important work done before I shuffle off this Merlot coil. When I muse about Frank, I am struck by two thoughts that exist in a sort of ideational Mobius strip: How extraordinary is the sheer volume of his oeuvre, how Olympian his will and fearlessness in pushing himself beyond his own limits.
The other thought that is omnipresent in my consciousness is the simple but utterly jarring fact that as a corporeal body he is no more.13 As human beings, it is hard for us to accept that someone who was once alive and vital is no more, but somehow, with time, we mostly manage to come to some level of acceptance. It’s been twenty years that Frank’s gone, but I for one, am still in major denial, at least as far as the length of time it’s been. It is just very confusing to me.14 For one thing, while he was alive he managed to set up a living trust, a fiendishly efficient institution that continues to release new CDs posthumously,15 continues to wage fierce copyright wars against all potential usurpers, even recently attempting to protect the iconic image of Frank’s trademark “Imperial” beard/mustache arrangement from intellectual property infringement. The Zappa website is alive and well, and his son, Dweezil, continues to play his father’s music brilliantly, exposing new ears to a lot of music that is being heard for the first time. His music does not appear dated at all; with the passage of time, it has become oddly more progressive, receding not into the past but into the future.
Frank does not speak to me directly; I don’t reckon he could be much bothered to do so, or indeed, be bothered to take his eyes and ears off of anything that did not totally possess him or take him away for a moment from his vast auditory playground.16 But the weird timelessness of his music and the fact that he’s already been gone so long tells me every day that it would serve me well (and you, too, dear reader) to become a lot more conscious of the preciousness of the short time we are allotted. Not to panic (it’s organic), but the time is nigh to really buckle doon.
So, what did we share in common? He and I certainly had a lot of difficulty with authority and equally, with what were called in an earlier and less ambiguous day, “posers,” “phonies” or “plastic” people. His early targets, very oddly, were hormone-addled teenagers, disco dancers and squares (this was shooting fish in a barrel),17 later, hippies, yuppies and ultimately, the voice for wholesome, family values, Tipper Gore. For me, the easy targets were initially Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot drinkers18 and then of course influential American wine writers, who, not surprisingly, took some umbrage at my jabs. Frank didn’t seem to have any personal problem at all in offending people—gays, Jews, Catholics and other groups too numerous to mention; on some level, it seemed as if it were his mission to give offense.19),20 I, in my passive-aggressive way, remain shocked whenever I have managed to offend absolutely anyone. (This was probably one of the important differences between us.) There was a combative spirit that we both shared, but, more relevantly, it is certain that for Frank, it was ultimately only the music that mattered. For me, it is, or at least has become, all about the wine; most everything else is but a mere distraction.
It seemed that Frank was often frustrated with fallible human institutions and certainly with fallible human beings—business managers, record companies and record company executives, symphony orchestra musicians (and symphony orchestras), and above all, studio players, who would seldom meet up to his most rigorous standards.21 He burned through a Who’s Who of sidemen over the years, with just a precious few sticking with him for the duration. He was “difficult,” a perfectionist, and did not suffer fools. I’m not sure if I am any less frustrated than Frank was on a daily basis, and there is a rather different assortment of characters that tend to push my buttons, wholesale distributers and grape growers, primarily.22 But, I’ve been able to mostly avoid expensive litigation and ongoing acrimony with the people with whom I interact. Perhaps my vision of the world is slightly fuzzier and more forgiving than Frank’s was and I am slightly less attached to a given outcome than he was.
I often talk about the difference between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—the latter being the only kind of wine that holds any real interest for me—but maybe the vinous analogy to music here does not quite obtain. I am not certain precisely what would constitute musique de terroir. (Is there such a thing as “natural” music, or music created without the strong imprint of the composer?) Frank’s music was musique d’effort, experimental, explorational, in so many respects, “against the grain,” finding beauty in the synthetic, perhaps in the unnatural, or at least in the unfamiliar.23 But what is music if not a communiqué from the celestial spheres? Frank’s discovery of the strange music to be found in “noise,” in the abrupt juxtaposition of varying time signatures, in the practice of what he called “xenochrony,” the blending and harmonizing of music from disparate sources,24 revealed his great genius, which is another way of saying that he heard the music all around us that most of us are incapable of discerning.
In some sense, winemaking and certainly wine blending might be compared to writing, arranging or producing music, with the important difference that music, having an added auditory dimension, possesses a rhythmic and melodic structure that unfolds in a measured fashion over time, in fact, almost defines time itself. (The flavors and aromas of wine unwind over time as well, but at a much, much slower rate; the pulse of the their gradual revelation is not the main Gestalt of the experience.)25 Dubbing and mixing tracks you are seeking the most felicitous polyphonic voices, and Frank was certainly a genius in discovering these incredible voices. The unctuous, New Joisey-like lead vocalist of “Florentine Pogen” (She was duh dawtuh of a well-thee Flaw-run-teen Poh-gun…),26,27 the nasal, snarky, Pachuco-sounding voice in “Disco Love.”28 (It’s dee-sco loff too-nite. Be shoor you luke awl rite.)
In making a wine blend, one analogously looks for the appropriate balance between the benign, gentle elements—fruit, the warmth of alcohol, soft tannins—and the darker, earthier components, that hard, mineral edge, and (if one could possibly control this) even adding (or allowing) in a discreet touch of the Brett-monster (the snark in “Disco Love”). Frank was a notorious perfectionist in his re-mixes, certainly far more fastidious than I am or ever was. And yet, without self-flattery, I must say there was something like fanaticism in at least some aspects of my work,29 though in candor, this was mostly applied to the detail that went into our packaging and marketing efforts, which at times could take on a strong OCD aspect.30,31
Frank was a Libertarian, of all things. I am most certainly not, though oddly enough, there are (or at least were) a substantial number of attendees of Bonny Doon Vineyard winemaker dinners who come up to me at the conclusion of these solemn events and proffer the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead-cert that I am One of Them. The clear difficulty I have with authority being one of the telltale signs. 32,33 Frank and I both love satire and parody, terrible puns (e.g. Sheik Yerbouti), and things that explode, and oddly enough, thought enough alike to come to similar parodic, iconoclastic ploys, at least in once instance, though in fairness, the Sgt. Pepper spoof was a bit of a gimme.
And we both love sofas or at least find them quite amusing.34 I don’t remember thinking of Zappa when we created the Contra label, but it’s not impossible that his imagery was lurking somewhere in my unconscious. (The image of the sofa in the Antioch vineyard was “found,” not composed art.) Since the days of Dr. Freud, sofas (and couches) are absolutely hilarious; they represent a sort of nebulous area between the familiar and the not so safe. (Clearly, what goes on on sofas, kind of like Frank’s music, is not 100% reputable.)
Frank was a public figure but also very much a solitary individual, preferring his own company to that of others, professing to have not much to say to anyone. (I am afraid that I can utterly relate to that.)
Frank and I seem to share something like the self-absorption gene.35 Is it clinical narcissism or perhaps is it that the interior theater is just a lot more compelling than the show going on outside? He and I both share some challenges with emotional literacy,36 but there are (one hopes) some significant differences in our perspectives on some sensitive areas. Frank had no use whatsoever for what he thought of as the fantasy of romantic love, (whereas I remain an utterly delusional romantic naÃ¯f on the subject.)37,38 Believing that Frank and I share some personality traits/quirks, the most disturbing thing I read about him was an interview with one of his kids (maybe Dweezil?), who, while clearly admiring, if not adoring his father, stated baldly, “Frank doesn’t do love.” Doesn’t do love? This sent a bit of a chill down my spine. I instantly felt a pang of pity for Zappa (and perhaps one for myself as well). I know that in my own case I can certainly do better. The literature suggests that Frank was at times perhaps a bit exploitive of some of the people with whom he worked,39 but on balance, I believe that he was far more of a giver than taker,40 and was utterly beloved for the gifts he shared with the world.
I hope I’ve taken some cautionary lessons from Frank’s weaknesses and peccadilloes. The greatest positive lesson I have learned from him is the need to truly be oneself (who else can one be?), to think for oneself, and above all, seek to please oneself in the work that you do every day.41,42 In the end, there’s nobody else out there offering final letter grades (or even narrative evaluations).