Larry Kart

A 50-year imbalance righted

25 posts in this topic

A somewhat embarrassing Tale from the Crypt.

Soon after I took Bill Quinn's place as associate editor of Downbeat in 1969 (that meant there were two editorial employees at DB, editor Dan Morgenstern and myself) Dan told me to go up to Ravinia that weekend and interview Frank Zappa, who would be appearing there with the Mothers. Having recently written an enthusiastic review of "Uncle Meat," I felt reasonably prepared, but aware that Zappa was a notoriously prickly interview subject, I took along my copy of a rare circa 1950 purple vinyl Edgar Varese album on the EMS label, thinking  rather pathetically that if gave this disc as a gift to Zappa the would-be Varese fanatic it might win him over.  Fat chance.

Zappa and several of the Mothers were lounging around the motel pool in north suburban Highland Park. I handed the Varese album to Zappa, he said, "I already have this," and instead of giving it back to me he disdainfully flipped it to (I think)  Ian Underwood and said, "Here -- you take it." Then  in short order Zappa left the premises,  leaving me me without an interview. Having witnessed Zappa's behavior and themselves, as I soon realized, more that a little sick of Zappa's highandedness, the band members, with Don Preston in the lead, gathered around and gave me all sorts of good info about the band and themselves.

Still pissed at Zappa and embarrassed at my callow attempt to win him over, I went to the concert that night, had very positive feelings about what I heard, and incorporated them into what turned out to be a very decent piece, albeit one devoid of quotes from Mr. Zappa/a.k.a. Uncle Meathead.

So today I was in a resale shop. saw the same Varese album (EMS 401) and bought it for 27 cents. Looks like a fairly clean copy too.

 

Hey - I found the DB interview online. Obviously, Zappa was more forthcoming than I recalled him being. The headline was my doing I think.

Frank Zappa: The Mother of Us All

By Larry Kart

Down Beat, October 30 1969


A SAGE WHOM I invented once said: "The only event which might merit the term 'progress' would be an increase in the percentage of intelligent human beings." And he added: "Those who work toward this goal are known, variously, as fools, clowns, and prophets."

* * *

For purposes of economic gain and protective coloration, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have promoted themselves as a group of truly weird people. Well, the Mothers may have their eccentricities, but no more than other musicians I have met, and Zappa himself is a man of striking sobriety. Sometimes, he even made me feel frivolous.  

* * *

Zappa is standing onstage in front of 10,000 or so people, most of them under 21, at an open-air concert last summer. He says to the audience, "We've just had a request for Caravan with a drum solo" (the fruit of their routine on America Drinks & Goes Home). Laughter. Shouts of "yeah!" "Now we may play Caravan with a drum solo, or we might refuse to play Caravan with a drum solo. Which will it be? We think we'll let you decide." (All of this is delivered in a light, mocking tone of voice.) An applause-meter type test indicates that the crowd does not want Caravan with a drum solo. "All right, we'll play Wipeout" (the nadir of early-'60s schlock). Which they proceed to do, in three tempos at once. The mindless riff of Wipeout melts like plastic.

 

* * *

Consider this scenario. A bright young boy is attending a Southern California high school. It is 1955. We've just "won" the Korean War. The boy is prey to all the adolescent agonies – acne, young love, cars, dumb teachers, the rigid status system of the American high school, et. al. He doesn't particularly want to grow up and be a successful anything. There is a music called rock 'n' roll that expresses his condition. He likes the music, maybe loves it. Since he is musically talented he begins to play it.

But soon several things disturb him. First, he is musically curious, so he begins to explore other kinds of music – jazz perhaps, certainly the 20th century classical avant garde. After this, the musical limitations of rock 'n' roll seem obvious. Second, he sees that popular music, and rock in particular, serves its consumers in ways they would never recognize. It diverts their anxious energy into rhythmic response and lulls their sorrows with romantic fantasy. It helps to render them harmless, or at least controlable. And behind all this there is a chain of promoters, DJ.'s, record company executives, and on up who are making a living on the music. This makes the boy angry. He resents being used and manipulated. And his intelligence tells him that this is an insidious form of propaganda (definition: propaganda is not designed to change opinions, but to move men to action, or inaction). Perhaps he eventually resolves to do something about it.

On every Mothers' album aside from Ruben and the Jets this statement is printed on the sleeve: "The present-day composer refuses to die! Edgar Varèse, July 1921" (on Ruben and the Jets it reads: "The present-day Pachuco refuses to die! Ruben Sano, June 1955").

Varèse was born in Paris in 1885 and settled in New York in 1916. His distinction as a composer lies in his acceptance of the harsh sonic environment of the modern city as his musical material. Out of this "noise", with a scientist's precision, he created a musical order. Although Varèse's music can be violent, it is never programmatic or sentimental. He masters his environment on its own terms.

* * *

Zappa begins the second half of the concert by saying, "Ian Underwood will now play for you the Mozart Piano Sonata in B flat." Underwood begins to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata (K. 281, I think). He plays it very well.

* * * 

I asked Zappa about his runin at the London School of Economics, and he said, "I was invited to speak at the London School of Economics. So I went over there and asked, 'What do you want me to say?' So here's a bunch of youthful British leftists who take the same youthful leftist view that is popular the world over. It's like belonging to a car club. The whole leftist mentality – 'We want to burn the . . . world down and start all over and go back to nature.' Basing their principles on Marxist doctrine this and Mao Tse Tung that and all these clichs that they've read in their classes. And they think that's the basis for conducting a revolution that's going to liberate the common man. Meanwhile, they don't even know any common men. With their mod clothes, either that or their Che Guevara khakis. It's a ... game.

"I do not think they will acquire the power to do what they want to do, because I'm positive that most of them don't really believe what they're saying. I told them that what they were into was just the equivalent of this year's flower power. A couple of years before those same shmucks were wandering around with incense and bells in the park . . . because they heard that that was what was happening in San Francisco. The first thing they asked me was what was going on at Berkeley. I was thinking to myself, 'What, you guys want to copy that too?' . . . It's really depressing to sit in front of a large number of people and have them all be that stupid, all at once. And they're in college."

* * *

Zappa introduces the first piece on the concert as "a chamber piece for electric piano and drums". The title, I believe, was Moderato. A chamber piece is exactly what it is.

The drum part takes typical rock rhythms (wham-wham-awhamma-bam-bam) and stretches the space between beats. The result is a series of percussive timbres suspended over a void.

The music verges on the Hollywood-sinister (background for some awful, invisible monster) but the close interaction between the two players (at times each seems to be imitating the other's part) gives the piece an extravagant formal rigor.

* * *

Zappa, like most moralists, is pessimistic about people in the mass. Perhaps he even wants to punish them. The rest of the group seems considerably more optimistic, and occasionally there are good-natured clashes of will.

Zappa: All those mediocre groups reap a huge profit, because people really like what they do. The more mediocre your music is, the more accessible it is to a larger number of people in the United States. That's where the market is. You're not selling to a bunch of jazz aesthetes in Europe. You're selling to Americans, who really hate music and love entertainment, so the closer your product is to mindless entertainment material, escapist material, the better off you're going to be. People will dump a lot of money into a bunch of young pretty boys who are ready to make music of limited artistic merit so long as they can sell a lot of it.

Kart: What about your gestures of contempt towards your audience?

Zappa: I don't think the typical rock fan is smart enough to know he's been dumped on, so it doesn't make any difference. . . . Those kids wouldn't know music if it came up and bit 'em on the ass. Especially in terms of a live concert where the main element is visual. Kids go to see their favorite acts, not to hear them. . . . We work on the premise that nobody really hears what we do anyway, so it doesn't make any difference if we play a place that's got ugly acoustics. The best responses we get from an audience are when we do our worst material.

Don Preston: Oh, how can you say that?

Zappa: It's true, man. Louie, Louie brings down the house every time.

Preston: People were booing the last time you played that. One guy wanted Louie, Louie, so you said, "OK, we'll play Louie, Louie . Booo!"

Zappa: Maybe they were booing because we didn't play Midnight Hour instead.

Kart: Isn't it difficult to function as musicians when you feel that no one is listening?

Preston: I don't feel that way.

Zappa: I think most of the members of the group are very optimistic that everybody hears and adores what they do on stage. I can't take that point of view. I get really bummed out about it. Because I've talked to them [the audience members] and I know how dumb they are. It's pathetic.

Preston: But they do scream for more when we do a good show.

Zappa: They scream for more and more because they paid X amount of dollars to get in, and they want the maximum amount of entertainment for their money. It's got nothing whatever to do with what you play. Stick any group on there and let them play to the end of the show.

 

Kart: Do you have a solution to this situation?

Zappa: Yeah. I'm not going to tour anymore.

Then I asked some questions which amounted to, "Will rock survive?"

Zappa: Rock won't die. It will go through some changes, but it ain't going to die. They predicted it too many times in the past. Remember – "the limbo is coming in, rock and roll is dead". There've even been some concerted efforts to kill it ... but it will survive because there'll always be several very smart producers and record companies who are interested in giving people what they want instead of what they need.

* * *

During the concert the Mothers play several long numbers where everybody gets a chance to blow. Since several of the players have extensive jazz backgrounds (Preston, the Gardner brothers, and Underwood), their playing in this context clarifies the differences between jazz and rock improvisation.

An essential quality of the jazz solo is the sense it conveys of forward movement through time, which is the result, I think, of the jazz soloist's role in even the simplest contexts – establishing and revealing his identity. In the typical rock solo this kind of forward movement rarely occurs. Instead there is an amount of space to be decorated, with the emotional curve (excitement to ecstasy) a foregone conclusion. That's why many jazz listeners find rock solos boring, no matter how well played. They're like someone brought up on Beethoven who listens to a raga and says, "I dig the rhythm, but we're going around in circles. Where's the development?"

In many rock solos, guitar solos especially, there is a theatrical relation between the player and what he's playing, and the most "exciting" parts occur when it sounds as if what he's playing has got the upper hand. The drama is that he's conjured up a screaming musical monster, supposedly, and now the beast threatens to overcome him. The "excitement" comes from watching him master the "beast", surrender to it, or get even altogether and smash or burn the instrument. When someone like Jimi Hendrix presents this sexual fantasy, it can be Wagnerian.

The Mothers undercut this setup quite neatly. The soloists go through the outward motions of getting hot, but their precision of accent and the care they give to motivic development prevent any "loss of control" effect.

The reaction of the audience to this was curious. Zappa would stomp off a number that had "Watch Out! Explosion Ahead!" written all over it, and the people around me would murmur "yeah", and a blank look of anticipated ecstasy would settle on their faces. By the end of the piece no explosion had occurred, and they looked vaguely bewildered, although they applauded, of course.

* * *

The Mothers have made six albums, and Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money, and Uncle Meat are worthy of anyone's attention. Their first album, Freak Out, is interesting but unformed compared to the others; Mothermania is an anthology, and Ruben and the Jets, an extreme parody of '50s rock 'n' roll, doesn't mean much to me, since I never got to that music the first time around.

Listening to all the albums in one sitting reveals an interesting facet of Zappa's musical procedure – in the pieces with lyrics the often elaborate rhythmic and melodic patterns are tied directly to the words (one beat and one note to each syllable, with few large melodic intervals). This effect carries over into the instrumental pieces, where the tight rhythmic-melodic motifs expand and contract as if they had a life of their own. It's an airy, bracing music, and the play of intelligence in it is so prominent that one must respond in kind.

Zappa thinks that Uncle Meat is "the best album in terms of overall quality", but his favorite music is on Lumpy Gravy, the album where he directs a large orchestra. It's hard for me to tell why he thinks so, since what comes through is a collage of rock and classical parodies that are disconnected by any standards. Perhaps he has in mind the album Lumpy Gravy might have been, since both he and Bunk Gardner mentioned that the Los Angeles studio men on the date were unable to cope with some of the music and played without much spirit on what they did manage to record.

* * *

Frank Zappa might be described as a cultural guerrilla. He sees that the popular arts are propagandistic in the broad sense – even when they masquerade as rebellion they lull us into fantasy and homogenize our responses. So he infiltrates the machine and attempts to make the popular forms defeat their traditional ends – his music doesn't lull, it tries to make you think.

Obviously, he's balanced on a narrow edge. On the one hand, he's faced with an audience whose need for homogeneous response is so great that they can make his creations fit their desires. On the other, he must in some way reach a mass audience or his efforts are useless. And, of course, there's money, too. He's only human.

But, whatever the outcome, there is still the music, and if any of us are around in 20 years, I think we'll be listening to it.

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Zappa always seemed like a pretty impenetrable sort, who very few people could probably have a good conversation with -- other than (perhaps) people for whom the name "Frank Zappa" might not mean anything.

Without anything specific to back this up, I suspect Frank looked at every social interaction with anyone who knew who he was, as a sort of mini battle of wills.  Or battle of intellects.  Or battle of something.

Wasn't there a documentary a few years ago that was nearly all segments of interviews (long and short) with Frank?  I only half remember it, just enough to think that I may have actually seen it (which would have been in an actual theater here in DC, if you can imagine - and I even seem to think I dragged my wife to go see it with me).  Maybe I posted about it here, even.  Anyway, I only barely remember seeing it -- but I do have this (admittedly vague) memory of just how damn difficult and sort of full of himself Frank seemed to always be.

But I *also* seem to (vaguely) remember thinking that he was half-to-be-forgiven (maybe), simply because he was so full of interesting (or at least half-interesting) ideas, not only about music, but about EVERYTHING.  (Emphasis on the "HALF-interesting" though.)  If you liked the man generally, as I (generally) do -- then, all that nonsense was genuinely sort of interesting and/or entertaining to watch.  But I also would be foolish not to recognize how tiring I'm sure it got to be dealing with Frank, whether you worked for him, or whatever.

I don't primarly think of (i.e. conceptualize) musicians as being "the boss" super often, within the bands they formed.  Clearly band leaders are that, but in most cases, their role as "boss" is just one hat, and just a necessary part of getting shit done.

But that "I'm the boss" aspect of Frank seemed every present, and it seemed to permeate his interaction with the world (not that he was the boss of everything, but he did give off that "I'm in charge" vibe in seemingly every interaction that I've seen captured of the man -- interview footage, and print-interviews, etc.  Even his book comes off that way.

I've got about 80% of his entire catalog on CD (though I haven't kept up with the new archival stuff that's come out in the last 10 years).  About once every 5 years, I'll get in the mood for a bunch of Zappa, but then I might not listen to anything by him for 2-3 years (not a note).

Obviously a brilliant mind, but I imagine he was also tiresome.

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24 minutes ago, Rooster_Ties said:

Wasn't there a documentary a few years ago that was nearly all segments of interviews (long and short) with Frank?  I only half remember it, just enough to think that I may have actually seen it (which would have been in an actual theater here in DC, if you can imagine - and I even seem to think I dragged my wife to go see it with me).  Maybe I posted about it here, even.  Anyway, I only barely remember seeing it -- but I do have this (admittedly vague) memory of just how damn difficult and sort of full of himself Frank seemed to always be.

You probably mean "Eat That Question": https://www.amazon.com/Eat-That-Question-Frank-Zappa/dp/B01J2E59OG/

Excellent article, Larry. There are not that many contemporary reviews of Zappa's music written by somebody with the knowledge of jazz and classical music. This reminded me of Zappa being praised by Brubeck:

DB: Oh yeah. My sons, especially Chris and Danny, loved rock and were involved in rock bands, and would bring home rock musician friends that I grew to respect gradually because they were such great musicians. And, there's a lot of it that doesn't seem to move me that much, but there's some that does, like -- Iola, who's that great rock composer that I like so much?

IB: Sting?

DB: Sting is one, but before Sting -- I played with him in a Boston concert.

IB: You played with him in Boston?

DB: Yeah. Oh, dear.

IB: Oh, I know who you're thinking, Frank Zappa.

DB: Frank Zappa.

SS: Really? Brubeck and Zappa, huh?

DB: Well, we were on the same night, and I thought some of the things he was doing were just terrible because they had on rain clothes, and high boots like you were going through a storm, and rain hats -- you know, those yellow kind of hats, and they would roll on the floor and everything. Then I started listening to the music rather than looking at these guys, and I was thinking, "Boy, there's a lot going on there musically." So, you never want to put down any trend, any direction.

Zappa was a complex guy. For whatever reason he chose to cultivate this public image of a cynical, bitter, arrogant know-it-all. People who knew him well for years - his musicians - are invariably (with exception of early Mothers) in owe of him - both as a musician and as a person. I still have to find a single negative comment about Zappa from any of the musicians who worked with him post-1969. There are many reports of one-off encounters with Zappa (not from journalists, though) where he was generous and caring (I liked the story where two teenage brothers somewhere in Sweden persuaded him - after having played two shows in a row - to come to their place in the middle of the night to say hi to their youngest brother who was not allowed to go to the concert by their parents). Part of the problem with Zappa's public image was that he really wanted to be viewed as a "serious composer", and the world failed him! Perhaps he also understood that as a "serious" composer he was actually not that great. Decent, competent - sure, but Ravel he was not.     

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just read this, which I think is the best thing I have read about Zappa and his relationship to the band and that whole time period:

https://www.amazon.com/Freak-Out-Life-Frank-Zappa/dp/0859654796/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=freak+out&qid=1576277492&s=books&sr=1-1

(and not only is Zappa popular but I like the music; thanks and good night)

Edited by AllenLowe

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1 hour ago, Д.Д. said:

You probably mean "Eat That Question": https://www.amazon.com/Eat-That-Question-Frank-Zappa/dp/B01J2E59OG/

...

Part of the problem with Zappa's public image was that he really wanted to be viewed as a "serious composer", and the world failed him! Perhaps he also understood that as a "serious" composer he was actually not that great. Decent, competent - sure, but Ravel he was not.     

I saw that (German) documentary a couple of years ago. Definitely worth viewing.

Strongly agree with your last 2 sentences. The film made it very clear that FZ really wanted to be viewed as a "serious composer". I attended a few concerts that included FZ's "serious" compositions and was a bit underwhelmed by them.

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I interviewed Zappa about his film 200 Motels. It was back stage at The Rock Pile (really an old Masonic Hall) in Toronto and both The Mothers and most of Blood, Sweat and Tears were present.  Both bands were  happy to be sharing a bill with another group that included horn players.  Zappa began talking about a Chicago band called CTA that also had horn players, saying that if all three band could get a gig together they could do some interesting stuff. He was much more benign towards his audiences that he was with Larry.  He talked about how he would get letters from kids who wrote that they were the only freaks in their town and his records made them feel that they were not alone in the world.  The biggest negative about the interview for me was that he had a very demeaning attitude toward  women and kept talking about "strapping them on".  

I once saw the Mothers on a double bill with The Mahavishnu Orchestra in Maple Leaf Gardens. 

Ian Underwood played on many of the film recording sessions I attended.  From Frank Zappa to Elmer Bernstein. 

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Zappa insulted (and blew off all at once) Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and me circa 1968. I can no longer assess his music - the event was so negative.

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5 minutes ago, Chuck Nessa said:

Zappa insulted (and blew off all at once) Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and me circa 1968. I can no longer assess his music - the event was so negative.

can you give us more detail?

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8 minutes ago, medjuck said:

The biggest negative about the interview for me was that he had a very demeaning attitude toward  women and kept talking about "strapping them on".

The man who recorded Jewish Princess had a very demeaning attitude toward  women?

 

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1 minute ago, AllenLowe said:

can you give us more detail?

Maybe later - I'm so steamed thinking about it.........

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1 minute ago, Chuck Nessa said:

Maybe later - I'm so steamed thinking about it.........

Fifty years later? :lol:

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Just now, Captain Howdy said:

Fifty years later? :lol:

Not really funny.

 

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no problem. Zappa, brilliant as he was, seemed to be capable of great shit-headedness.

Edited by AllenLowe

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10 hours ago, Chuck Nessa said:

Zappa insulted (and blew off all at once) Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and me circa 1968. I can no longer assess his music - the event was so negative.

 

10 hours ago, AllenLowe said:

can you give us more detail?

Chuck referred to his interaction with Zappa previously

On 6/27/2012 at 2:12 AM, Chuck Nessa said:

Hmmm....

In late 1967 or early 1968 when the Mothers were first breaking on the scene, someone in the Zappa management team, working for Tom Wilson suggested I take Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell to meet Frank when they came to town for a gig. It took a bit of convincing to get them to drive to the North side for this meeting. Frank came out from the dressing room and dismissed me as a white guy exploiting black artists and dismissed Lester and Roscoe because they were my n...ers. I have never been able to take him seriously or listen to his music. He was an ASSHOLE of the first order.

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Have you read the lyrics of Jewish Princess? Hardly complimentary. 

Edited by Brad

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Funny how people don't let misogyny get in the way of alleged genius.

Always was and always will be my issue with FZ. No excuses, not the widely proposed "irony" for such behaviour. Man was a wanker.

Cue the can't judge the music by the man excuses.

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2 hours ago, mjazzg said:

Funny how people don't let misogyny get in the way of alleged genius.

Always was and always will be my issue with FZ. No excuses, not the widely proposed "irony" for such behaviour. Man was a wanker.

Cue the can't judge the music by the man excuses.

I feel the same. Offensive and dim-witted. Cleverness for morons. 


Not like he didn’t know it though. Shut up ‘n’ play your guitar. 

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1 hour ago, David Ayers said:

Shut up ‘n’ play your guitar. 

Do you like this one? 

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Just now, Д.Д. said:

Do you like this one? 

Actually, yes...

 

 

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35 minutes ago, Д.Д. said:

Do you like this one? 

31 minutes ago, David Ayers said:

Actually, yes...

It's good stuff. At this stage, Zappa's guitar solos are my favorite Zappa by far. 

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25 minutes ago, Д.Д. said:

It's good stuff. At this stage, Zappa's guitar solos are my favorite Zappa by far. 

Some good stuff on Guitar as well.

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17 minutes ago, David Ayers said:

Some good stuff on Guitar as well.

On "Trance-Fusion" too. 

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1 minute ago, Д.Д. said:

On "Trance-Fusion" too. 

That one I don’t know. Yet. 

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3 hours ago, Д.Д. said:

On "Trance-Fusion" too. 

3 hours ago, David Ayers said:

That one I don’t know. Yet. 

1984 and 1988 solos. Released after Zappa's death. Sounds better than contemporaneously recorded stuff released during FZ's lifetime - this is probably the best FZ live release (so far) to hear Thunes's bass and Wakerman's drums. Not as good as "Guitar" and SUAPYG but still. Best track, IMO:  Best track: https://open.spotify.com/track/0gFHij17zQ7PJrOtjJhA9Y   

 

Edited by Д.Д.

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15 minutes ago, Д.Д. said:

1984 and 1988 solos. Released after Zappa's death. Sounds better than contemporaneously recorded stuff released during FZ's lifetime - this is probably the best FZ live release (so far) to hear Thunes's bass and Wakerman's drums. Not as good as "Guitar" and SUAPYG but still. Best track: https://open.spotify.com/track/0gFHij17zQ7PJrOtjJhA9Y 

 

Very good.

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