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Over nite sensationI went on a little Frank Zappa jag this morning. Currently, I have only four Zappa tunes on my iPod, so I played them all, starting with “Camarillo Brillo,” which the iPod brought up all by its lonesome to get me going.

“Camarillo Brillo” is from the Over Night Sensation album, which happens to be the first Zappa album I ever owned. My brother got it for me as a birthday present—probably in the summer of 1978. I think he wanted to trick me into playing “Dinah-Moe Humm” while my parents were in the room. Being savvy enough to read the lyrics first, I avoided falling into his trap.

Flash forward a couple summers. My brother and I are both had summer jobs at a Mexican restaurant in Gardiner, Maine, called Bravo’s. I started as the dishwasher on the day the restaurant opened, and got a battlefield promotion to cook that evening. My brother had just graduated from M.I.T., so he had all the qualifications necessary for the post of dishwasher. He did a pretty good job, too. It was a real testament to the value of a good college education.

We both put in long hours at Bravo’s that summer, but we had fun. There was a little radio in the kitchen and we’d keep it on all day. In the afternoons the kitchen crew would listen to Paul Harvey as he told us “the rest of the story” in his inimitable way, with his odd diction and emphasis. We loved Paul Harvey. But for the rest of the day we’d usually listen to WBLM. On weekdays the station had a regular feature where they’d dedicate a song to a business each lunchtime. One day I called and requested they play “Camarillo Brillo” for Bravo’s. And, by god, they did! It was quite a rush. Which should be pretty obvious, because I’m writing about it almost 34 years later. (I had to check the math there a couple of times, because I found it hard to believe. But it’s true. Thirty-four years!)

After hearing “Camarillo Brillo” this morning, I listened to the Zappa song most everybody knows, which is “Montana,” with its references to dental floss, pygmy ponies and zircon-encrusted tweezers. What you might not know is that Tina Turner sings background vocals on the song. Ike, being the total dick that he was, refused to let her receive a credit because he just didn’t get it. “Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this thing that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour,” Zappa recalled, in an interview Barry Miles used in his biography. “He listened to the tape and he goes, ‘What is this shit?’ and walked out.” Zappa also plays a killer guitar solo on the song, so maybe Ike was jealous.

Next up: “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” from the Zappa and the Mothers album Weasels Ripped my Flesh. Great song. It made me think of the time I went to a party at the friend of a friend’s in Riverside, California. I didn’t know anyone except the people I came with, but that didn’t stop me from commandeering the turntable. It was located behind the bar, which made it easy for me to block access and prevent anyone from playing what I considered bad music. I remember one young woman was very vocal about wanting to hear some Journey. I played Weasels Ripped my Flesh instead.

The fourth song I listened to this morning was “Muffin Man.” It’s one of Zappa’s sillier songs, with Captain Beefheart on vocals, but it does have another killer guitar solo. And Zappa gets to say “poot.” Twice. It seems to amuse him. Zappa later revisited the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen from “Muffin Man” on Joe’s Garage. It must have been a part of his “conceptual continuity,” in which various subjects—the mud shark, poodles, Sears ponchos, and other such things—resurface in different songs.

I got to see Zappa in concert several times at venues on both sides of the country. It was always memorable. The first show was in Portland, Maine, probably in the summer of 1979. A college friend and a bunch of his pals were heading down for the show and I tagged along at the spur of the moment. I did not know it at the time, but my best friend Bill was working security at the show, standing in front of the stage in a yellow shirt, probably with his arms crossed and a fierce expression on his face. I was struck by one of Zappa’s roadies, a big, bald guy who reminded me of Zippy the Pinhead. During the show he sat on some of the speakers on the side of the stage and just watched the crowd. I was excited when, years later, I watched the Zappa film Baby Snakes and recognized him.

The second time I saw Zappa, it was in Santa Barbara, California. My friend Brad and I decided, again on a whim, to drive up from Los Angeles in my faithful 1975 Toyota Celica and see the show. We didn’t have tickets but figured we’d buy them at the door. But when we arrived, there was a long line at the box office, and the show was about to start. Just then a guy walked by peddling two tickets. We grabbed them at face value. They were about 17 rows back, right in the center. We sat down just as Zappa hit the stage and kicked things off with “Montana.” Pretty cool!

The third time was in Santa Monica. Young guitar whiz Steve Vai was in the band for this one, and Zappa gave him room to shine. The best thing about the show was the way it opened. The band started playing, and I knew I recognized the song. But what was it? I racked my brains trying to identify it until it finally came to me: It was the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” played perfectly straight, no fooling around, no making fun. And it was awesome. I have a studio version of it someplace on a promotional EP. (Note: I just found the set list from this show—“Whipping Post,” it turns out, was the second song the band played. And it was the late show. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?)

I was back on the East Coast the fourth and last time I saw Zappa. It was an outdoor concert someplace outside Salem, Massachusetts. Probably the spring of 1985. I gave a lift to a music writer who contributed to the little rock magazine I edited. I think he had interviewed Zappa for me, and was reviewing the concert for the Boston Globe. We parked someplace in the woods and then followed the crowd down a narrow trail until we emerged into this little natural amphitheater with a stage at one end. It was raining and the night promised to be wet and uncomfortable. Then Zappa came out on stage. He looked up into the sky. “Make it stop!” he said.

And the rain stopped. I am not making that up.

(I found this set list, too, and it turns out he ended this show with “Whipping Post.”)

I listened to a fair bit of Zappa in my college and immediate post-college years. There’s a lot of fantastic musicianship on his albums, but also a lot of painfully juvenile stuff, too, like parts two and three of Joe’s Garage, which are pretty much unlistenable (except for “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” which is a great instrumental).

A little while ago I read Barry Miles’ Zappa biography, and I came away from it well informed but somewhat depressed. I did not much care for the man it portrayed. Zappa appeared to have an all-encompassing contempt for humanity (with the possible exception of Frank Zappa), and I think this corrosive attitude ate into his music. After all, it was Zappa who said, “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” I can’t really argue with that, but when Zappa set out to attack stupidity in his songs, he set his sights pretty low. He took potshots at flower power, hippies, valley girls, and Peter Frampton. Yes, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center over music censorship. Occasionally he did songs about bigger societal issues, such as race on “Trouble Coming Every Day” and “Uncle Remus.” But more often than not he seemed content to show how smart he was by composing complex and demanding music, and then added puerile lyrics to demonstrate that he didn’t care what you thought.

Miles tells a story in his book that provides insight on Zappa’s attitude. In 1965, an undercover copy offered Zappa $100 to make a porno recording. It apparently consisted of Zappa and his girlfriend moaning and groaning while they jumped up and down on a bed and attempted to stifle their laughter. It seems pretty silly today, but back in 1965 it was enough to get Zappa arrested. Even the judge couldn’t help laughing when he heard the tape. Still, Zappa was found guilty and spent 10 days in Tank C at the San Bernardino County Jail. “It was the worst experience of Zappa’s life,” Miles wrote. “There were 44 men crammed together in the cell in temperatures reaching 104 degrees. The lights were on day and night, so the inmates couldn’t sleep. Zappa didn’t shave or shower the entire time he was in there, the facilities were so dirty.” Miles asserts that Zappa “was a different person when he came out . . . . Tank C traumatized him for life and in many ways he spent the rest of his career shoving his pornographic tape down America’s throat, time and time again. He was determined to show Americans what their country was really like.”

In his biography, Miles writes, “Zappa was a social reformer, filled with righteous anger and a sense of profound outrage at the stage of his country. He looked deeply into the murky side of society, but refused to look at himself.”

Frank Zappa isn’t around to agree or disagree with that assessment. He died in 1993 of prostate cancer. Love him or hate him, you have to agree that he was one of a kind.