The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: The Stravinsky Theory

The healing power of prescience, set on 'repeat'

By Louis Black, February 2, 2007, Columns

"So I'm watchin' and I'm waitin'

Hopin' for the best

Even think I'll go to prayin'

Every time I hear 'em sayin'

That there's no way to delay

That trouble comin' every day

No way to delay

That trouble comin' every day"

"Trouble Every Day," Frank Zappa

Driving in to work lately, I've taken to listening to the same song over and over, often at very high volume. Different songs on different days, though probably not more than a half-dozen, all told. Zappa's "Trouble Every Day" is a song I've been listening to since I first heard it on Freak Out!, the Mothers of Invention's first album, maybe four decades back. I borrowed that double album from my friend Debbie Bernstein, who is now a doctor practicing in Princeton, N.J., and whom I probably haven't seen in three decades. Regardless, I never returned the album.

In the pre-Internet days, after you heard a song or an album that just knocked you off your feet, finding any information about the group that performed it was painfully difficult. This was still a couple of years before Rolling Stone, so there was Crawdaddy! and maybe one or two other publications, but really not much in the way of rock coverage existed. Album covers thus became texts to be pored over and studied. Freak Out! was an absolute treasure trove with photos, two long lists of names – one of Zappa-esque thank-yous and the other of the Mothers' Auxiliary – his notes on the songs, quotations, and a number of other Zappa statements.

The quotations included one of those rock koans that inexplicably make rich and deep metaphoric meaning to me: "The present-day composer refuses to die!" – Edgar Varèse, July 1921.

In all honesty, and to demonstrate that the relationship between my thoughts and these quotes is by no means ample or obvious, another favorite quotation is on the album itself, when the drummer declares, "I'm Jimmy Carl Black, and I'm the Indian of the group." At the strangest times, in the most unusual places, I've said that line to myself, sometimes repeatedly. Often this does nothing but distract me, though on occasion my head has cleared as I contemplate, "I'm Jimmy Carl Black, and I'm the Indian of the group." There is insight provided by both the meaning and the meaninglessness of that line.

One of the wonders of Austin is that Jimmy Carl Black ended up hanging out here for some time. I met him during that time, and we would occasionally run into each other and chat. By no means were we tight, but he did have great stories. I'd like to think, and am pretty sure, that though tempted, I resisted saying anything to him like, "Ohh! The Indian of the group," though I'm by no means certain.

During Black's stay here, Arthur Brown, of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, also moved to town. Together, Jimmy Carl Black and Arthur Brown ran Black & Brown Painting (or something similarly named). That's right: They did house-painting. Ah, the glories of the rock & roll life!

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had opened for Jefferson Airplane some time in 1968 at the Fillmore East in New York City. These were the days when Brown was still performing the hit "Fire," wearing a flaming headdress. It was quite something. During the show, the Airplane announced they would be playing a free show in Central Park on Sunday. The lineup was the Paul Butterfield Band (Michael Bloomfield had already left, but Elvin Bishop was inspired), Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. As I remember it and have always told the story, this was the Dead's first time on the East Coast – but now, well aware that there are dedicated Dead followers who are familiar with such information, I do note this claim may be apocryphal.

When the Dead played, my friend Warren worked his way to the front of the crowd. After the set, he started ranting at us, wide-eyed and on fire about how the Dead was the greatest band of all times!! He wouldn't stop. It was the first time I encountered the Paul-on-the-road convert's religious passion for the Dead, though by no means even within counting distance of the last.

Sharon, my girlfriend, and I had been fighting through the whole Dead set, though amazingly we caught the first two bands. I say "amazingly" because we rarely left off bickering to indulge in the more mundane and less truly possessed activities going on around us. It was Ralph and Alice Kramden as imagined in a velvet Elvis painting, realized by Dalí/Escher. There was nothing small or minor about any jibe, slight, or insult. As we were teens, this was pure, biologically driven – the unrestrained, untrained, unedited language of love, as I would probably never know it again. We did see the first couple of songs by the Dead, but we were gearing up for what was to come, so though I remember how they looked, I don't remember how they sounded.

The Grateful Dead, like the Mothers, was a group we studied intensely; any tiny bit of information we might stumble across was treasured. With the Mothers, there was an accompanying album, so we understood exactly what kind of genius we were dealing with (though I don't think we got the breadth, depth, or ambition). Before the Dead performed, or their first album was even readily available in the East, there had been pieces on the nascent Haight-Ashbury scene in national publications such as Time and Newsweek. As I recall, the photo accompanying at least one of them was the now-famous shot of the young Dead standing on a staircase. Art historians have not spent as much time staring at certain works by the masters as we spent in studying that photo. Obviously, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free, the second Mothers of Invention album, provided a lot more information, though far less explicitly, than the articles.

Now, it was about this same time that I had one of my early Stravinsky moments.

"You know we got to sit around at home

And watch this thing begin

But I bet there won't be many live

To see it really end

'Cause the fire in the street

Ain't like the fire in the heart"

– "Trouble Every Day," Frank Zappa

Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, a celebration of pagan ritual, premiered on May 29, 1913, in Paris. Choreographed by the legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the ballet was staged by the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky's innovative score of complex, violent rhythms, clashing against each other for odd emphasis, unnerved part of the audience. The choreography, very distanced from traditional ballet, also proved shocking and upsetting to many. The audience also had its share of supporters excited by the work. The two groups began to yell at and insult each other. Eventually the confrontation grew violent and poured outside the theatre, turning into a street riot. Finally, the police had to be called in to quell it.

Now, as a kid, I missed the whole actual ballet part and thought it was the music alone that lit the fuse. This became a point for meditation. Whenever I found myself disliking some new work by any kind of artist about whom I was passionate, I would reflect on the Stravinsky theorem. Was this new and great, with my problem being that I was locked into an old mindset, more desirous of the familiar than willing to be challenged by the unknown?

The Mothers had a long residency in the Village. Friends who attended shows brought back tales of crazed songs and wild antics, including sexual attacks on stuffed animals. I never went.

In 1968, the Mothers played Town Hall in NYC. A group of friends and I were there. (At some point, maybe I'll go into the whole show in detail, but only the Mothers' performance is germane to this discussion.) The first set was classic Mothers: maybe 45 minutes of well-known Mothers songs, delivered in their outrageous style. The second half was all almost entirely instrumental. The music foretold what Zappa was planning for Uncle Meat, one of my favorites of his albums. But at the time I sat there disappointed; I wanted more funny songs, more unbridled humor backed by exquisite musicianship. I even remember wondering if this was a Stravinsky moment: Was I listening to genius, diminished not at all by the music but only my shortcomings? As I realized that well might be true, it did nothing to raise my spirits. This was not what I had come to hear, not what I was expecting. Mea culpa, but as with this column, it was storm and fury unattached to any action.

"All that mass stupidity

That seems to grow more every day

Each time you hear some nitwit say

He wants to go and do you in

Because the color of your skin

Just don't appeal to him

(No matter if it's black or white)

Because he's out for blood tonight "

– "Trouble Every Day," Frank Zappa

"Trouble Every Day," an almost straight-driving Zappa rock song that charges forward with turbo power, indicates how Zappa was capable of writing any kind of song, making any kind of music, and beautifully imitating any popular style. Freak Out! was a sampler of Zappa's brilliance, abilities, interests, and audacity, as he champion-ice-skated across the whole public face of rock & roll, his skates ripping flesh.

When all is said and done, "Trouble Every Day" is still one of the great songs on race – one of the few that, rather than advocating one self-defeating position or another, grasps the total insanity of what was and is going on. I'm surprised that sometimes it is treated as a novelty song or, as in another critique, its lyrics labeled puerile. The point is so easily missed. It doesn't matter, as I look out from this wood-and-ivory tower; there is still the song, over and over, all morning long.

This morning on the way in, I must have listened to Love's "My Little Red Book" 10 times or more, over and over, just lost in the power of the song. Listening like this, to the same song many times, is now my morning methadone, my nicotine gum. The Chronicle's News staff, my family, my therapist, and close personal friends from around the country have all forbidden me to listen to talk radio. Right-wing hate radio made me crazy enough, as I obsessed over different points, fired up by blatant untruths and deliberate hate-mongering. I had long been asked to stop, and I tried.

But since I've stumbled into listening to the Republic of Texas, Radio Free Austin – truth-seeking conspiracy radio – the Chronicle staff, at least, has threatened a walkout if I continue. The network features a full range of conspiracy theories, including those addressing 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the Illuminati, all the way to fluoride in the water – all mouthed by passionate hysterics who know the United States' founding fathers were devil-worshipping Masons. These are people who prove they are not anti-Semites by saying they aren't – that they are just true patriots reiterating every hateful, vile insult and damning accusation ever made against the Jewish people. They insist that they love the Constitution, only not the document that it is – the one that is invites opposing views, philosophical conflict, and compromise – but instead their version, which privileges these patriots above the rest of us. These America- and American-hating, true red-white-and-blue believers know they are the only ones to see the truth. All of them resist the New World Order as though it were a Legion of Evil in a Republic serial from the 1940s, with a purity that makes those brave souls at Lexington and Concord pale in comparison. This is a network on which mere self-sanctified self-righteousness is pedestrian compared to how highly these folks regard themselves and those who are "like-minded." God speaks directly to most of this handful of good guys who bravely face the armies of darkness while the clueless and compliant masses (you and me) stand by.

See why "Trouble Every Day" and "My Little Red Book" are an antidote, as well as an infusion of decent rock energy?

"Hey, you know something people?

I'm not black

But there's a whole lots a times

I wish I could say I'm not white"

– "Trouble Every Day," Frank Zappa end story

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