Look past the title and the diner cover art, and you’ll see what we have here – _Cruising with Ruben and the Jet_s. Most of those initiated enough to make their way to zappa.com already know the story here, but for those who don’t, this is an album with a long story.
This was the last in a set of four albums Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded for Verve in the ’60s. While the previous three were mostly ugly, avant-garde, boundary-breaking music, this release revealed Zappa and some of the band’s roots in street corner love songs. It would be the only full album where he expressed this side of his personality, although, as usual with him, there would be debates on how much irony was in the equation.
The Verve records became scarce for a decade or two, and then in the ’80s there was a twist in the story. Zappa brought the album back into print in the CD years, but he chose to revise it. Gone were the sparse bass and spacy, machine-like drums of the original album, replaced by the modernistic sound of Zappa’s ’80s studio-pro sidemen. There were various other tweaks, too – for instance, “Stuff Up The Cracks” gained additional sax while the false start of “Deseri”’s monologue and the joke about “coming out of the closet” at the end of “Later That Night” were now missing. Unlike many Zappa fans, I can appreciate the anti-nostalgic gesture (ironic as it was in a nostalgic album), but like many fans, I prefer the original.
Now, after more than twenty years in the wilderness, the original is back, under a new title, and with a few alternate mixes, outtakes and interviews added. The revised version also remains available. These developments have attracted perhaps more debate and attention than the music itself, but the Zappa family deserves thanks for putting the original back into circulation. With the once-futuristic CD now as much a relic as doo wop was in 1968, perhaps in a few decades no one will remember anything about Ruben other than the simple, exuberant music it contains.