Joe’s Garage, Act 1

Artist: Frank Zappa

Album: Joe’s Garage, Act 1

This was one I hadn’t put on the turntable in a long time, not until two weeks ago when my sister-in-law and her boyfriend were up in Collingwood, and I was playing D.J.

“What should I put on next?” I asked my guests. “It’s Nick’s pick.”

“Frank Zappa,” Nick said without hesitation.

“Which one?”

“Joe’s Garage.”

Ah yes, Joe’s Garage. Released in 1979, Act 1 was the first of a three-record ‘concept’ piece that allowed Zappa a bit more freedom after his contract with Warner Bros. ran out. Joe’s Garage explores the life and adventures of a musician, aptly named Joe, and his sort-of girlfriend, Mary.

Brilliant, zany, off-the-wall, ground-breaking, offensive; those terms would probably define most of Zappa’s work, and Joe’s Garage is no different. It opens with The Central Scrutinizer, a satirical spoken-word (using a menacing, whisper) piece with a techno drumbeat occasionally interspersed with bursts of Spike Jones-inspired musical mania. The ‘central scrutinizer’ would become a theme, occasionally poking in to narrate Joe and Mary’s story between tracks.

Other song titles are designed to push the limits, to provoke a reaction: Catholic Girls, Crew Slut, Wet T-Shirt Nite, and Why Does it Hurt When I Pee?

Ultimately, Joe’s Garage is a statement about censorship and music, and the rather ridiculous statements made by government in order to get equally ridiculous laws enacted.

Zappa swings between late ’50s doo-wop, funk, guitar-heavy rock and his deep understanding of classical composers such as Stravinsky. His lyrics are complex and cuttingly satirical, often pushing the bounds of good taste. But that’s what makes it great, that Zappa was not one who allowed the music industry to fit him into a category.

I’ve always thought of Zappa as an artist who needed to be actively listened to in order to fully appreciate the nuances. Allow your attention to drift for only a moment, and you’ll miss something, a word, or a sharp turn of phrase.

This stuff isn’t for the faint of heart, or the casual appreciator of music.