Frank Zappa’s satirical rock opera, Joe’s Garage, is ambitious and mad, brilliant, peculiar and incoherent — epithets that have also been applied to German expressionist Georg Buchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck. This may seem like a ludicrously lofty cross-cultural reference to attach to an album most notorious for a song about Catholic girls’ aptitude for fellatio, but there you have it. 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. No matter how much fans of Hot Rats complain that their hero’s “seriousness” is compromised by the “frivolousness” of “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (or vice versa), Zappa remains true to himself: the mensch with a dirty mind.
Written in three acts and released by Zappa’s custom label in two packages (one single LP, one double), 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. The boy, Joe, sings the title tune about his humble rock & roll band whose day of fame came and quickly went. Most of Act I is given over to the saga of Joe’s girlfriend, Mary, who moves from blowing Catholic boys in the church basement (having been tutored by the parish’s resident expert, Father Riley) to being “Crew Slut” for a touring rock group to competing in a “Wet T-Shirt Nite” contest for bus fare home, where she arrives wrecked for good. Hearing of her exploits, Joe seeks consolation from a taco-stand waitress, who gives him VD.
In Act II, Joe joins L. Ron Hoover’s Church of Appliantology, in which he learns that he’s a “latent appliance fetishist.” He studies German (don’t ask why), dresses as a housewife (ditto) and goes to a bar called the Closet. There, he picks up a Kitchen Machinery named Sy Borg, who “plooks” him with his “hot curly weenie” and takes him home for an orgy with an orally fixated Gay Bob doll. However, Joe destroys Sy Borg in some S&M byplay, is sent to jail and gang-banged by a squadron of record-company executives. Music has been outlawed by the government in an attempt to unify the people through “total criminalization,” so our hero survives his prison term by imagining guitar solos.
Released from jail at the beginning of Act III, Joe enters an orderly society of mindless, obedient consumers. Still crazed, he thinks that everyone can hear his imagined guitar solos and that critics are even reviewing them. Then, after a vision of Mary convinces him it’s all in his head, he dutifully forgets music and gets a job in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. This pleases the Central Scrutinizer, who’s narrated the entire fantastic story.
As a stage musical, Joe’s Garage is unproducible. As a satire, it’s terribly obvious and conceptually fuzzy. (One tiny example: how come the “heroic” musicians wind up in the same jail as the degraded record-company executives?) 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. In his inimitable and ironic way, Frank Zappa recognizes his own complicity in a rock culture that runs on money, reveres machines and promotes stupidity. He exposes the sexual hang-ups of men who desperately want to fuck and be sucked, yet have nothing but contempt for anyone who satisfies them sexually. Though he refuses to preach, Zappa champions individualism by fantasizing the horror of the alternative: he makes “You’ll love it, it’s a way of life!” one of the most chilling come-ons you’ve ever heard.
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.