Frank Zappa Don Shewey - Essay

Don Shewey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Zappa's satirical rock opera, Joe's Garage [Act I and Acts II and III] is ambitious and mad, brilliant, peculiar and incoherent…. As a music maker and recording artist, Zappa has always cultivated two warring images—the serious composer with a social satirist's sense of irony versus the smutty crowd pleaser with a puerile sense of humor….

Joe's Garage ties the dual extremes of Frank Zappa's sensibility closer together than ever. An attack on authoritarianism in which fascist governments, self-help pseudoreligions and the music industry are inextricably linked, the opera simultaneously tells the tale of a boy and girl….

As a stage musical, Joe's Garage is unproducible. As a satire, it's terribly obvious and conceptually fuzzy…. And as an aural experience, this work is too often unlistenable. After three clever and catchy cuts on side one—the title tune, "Catholic Girls" and "Crew Slut"—the music goes downhill, and the third album is almost complete drivel. In short, the whole thing's a mess.

But Joe's Garage is also the brave and revealing (albeit depressing) meditation of a man who wonders why he's squandered his life and talent on the scuzzy business of rock & roll….

If the surface of this opera is cluttered with cheap gags and musical mishmash, its soul is located in profound existential sorrow. The guitar solos that Zappa plays in Joe's imagination burn with a desolate, devastating beauty. Flaws and all, Joe's Garage is Frank Zappa's Apocalypse Now.

Don Shewey, "Mensch with a Dirty Mind," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 313, March 20, 1980, p. 55.