Frank Zappa is one of those rare, prolific figures that could warrant their own special edition of Trivial Pursuit. His influence is monumental, his genius inescapable, and his legacy all-apparent. Yet that does not mean that everything he touched turned to gold. Much of it failed commercially. Some of it failed creatively. But none of it failed dishonestly. Zappa was, amongst other things, frank.
He was also a forerunner, a visionary, and a frontiersman. If he was bonkers it's because someone called him zonkers but whereas they didn't know where to go from there, Zappa, always looking forward, took the z back around, jumped two steps over the start, and ended up on the b bonkers. That goes for the whole of Zappa-land. They're all nuts. Either the boss's drink-free, drug-free work zone straightened them out or it made a complete mess of them, but Zappa's musicians were always in on it. They were henchmen for his musical battle plan.
Filmed at an August 26, 1984 concert in New York City, "Does Humor Belong In Music?" was originally released nearly 20 years ago on VHS. In 1985, a condensed one-hour concert reel, with a couple Speedo-brief interview bytes thrown in for convenient editing, may have been Pac Man candy but these days it doesn't justify transfer to the current medium (DVD) unless the content can be updated as well. Sixty-minute DVDs with just one audio track and not a single bonus, bone, or egg are not visionary they're a waste of dye (and $19.98).
What's more, the picture quality shows no improvement over the dated VHS counterpart (although the sound gets a noticeable promotion).
There are two explanations for the barebacked transfer to DVD: 1.) Frank Zappa is dead. The film's original producer, director, subject, and star was not available to participate in this particular project. 2.) Released by EMI (unlike the new "Baby Snakes" DVD), this one was hands-off for the Zappa estate. For all I know, Zappa's own family had to purchase a copy at full retail price from the local merchant.
So it's past 4:00 AM, the night after my deadline, and I'm sweating it. I can't sleep, can't write, can't think. Something's gnawing at me. I just have to know what would Zappa do?
Through a favor owed to me by someone of position, I managed to track down a posthumous Frank Zappa. At first he was reluctant to talk, but I explained to him my predicament. I told him all about the DVD Review Section that was about to launch on Jambands.com, told him that I wanted to include his DVD in the first installment, told him that I was unsure if it was going to be a positive or negative review. He granted me one question:
Me: "Does (post)humour belong in music?"
Dead Zappa: "Yeah, but who wants to go through life with a tiny nose and one glove on?"
Incidentally, it is the exact same answer that Living Zappa gives during an interview clip in the film, in response to the interviewer's interjection that Zappa could write chart toppers and sell millions of albums if he only wanted to.
Now that I know his take on it, the rest of this review will be cake to write. I'm a big nose with nothing to worry about. Same with Zappa; may he rest in peace.
As a current release DVD, "Does Humor Belong In Music" fails. It fails in a way that Zappa never did, for it fails by being dishonest. It was assembled without much effort or thought. Even the packaging is bare (and sans booklet). If you're looking for an improvement over the original release, all you're going to find is a better audio mix.
On the other hand the performance itself is Frank Zappa at his z-to-the-b zany brainy best. It's no heavyweight contender, but (almost as if a planned response to the title question) it is an hour-long visit to Zappa's novelty side, as he dorks through quirks such as "He's So Gay" and "Keep It Greasey." While there are few moments of Zen (found mostly in Zappa's guitar solos in "Cosmik Debris" and "Zoot Allures"), the band is a tight unit, even acting out the satirical lyrics through Romper Room expressions and gestures. Even during the "Whippin' Post" encore, the band seems inclined to satirize the blues before yielding to a more serious delivery that's closer to what the Allman Brothers likely intended.
So where are they now? For most of them, their stint in Zappa's band was The Pinnacle. Some, like Ike Willis, have continued onward, carrying the legacy with them. Others, like the talented Ray White and Bobby Martin, have retreated into obscurity. For all of them (including bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Chad Wackerman, and keyboardist Allan Zavod) this DVD captures, if not their most stunning musical moments, at least an hour's worth of their hard earned playful fun.
Frank Zappa would like to ask you, from his grave, if humor belongs in music. Tell him he's got a big nose and there's no need to wear only one glove.