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The Old Time Warp Genius Grant Ploy

My friend is an internationally renowned folksinger — which is to say, unknown. He and I meet in unlikely locations, at conferences and coffee house open mikes, on street corners frequented by buskers, at parties, in music stores. He's a man of strong opinions, my friend, a singer of political songs, a terse and penetrating analyst of current events and arts. And he detests and despises Frank Zappa.

His prejudice, if that it be, given that FZ was in fact a frequently repellent person both socially and politically, would be a mere facet of his makeup were it not for a fellow performer, a sometime working partner, equally renowned and unknown, for whom Zappa represents the pinnacle of musical perfection. For this third party, Zappa is an icon, a spokesman, a thriftstore god.

This, as you might suspect, generates some lively discussions at times. One's mind (mine, anyways) is cast back to the scenes in that anarchist's brick of a novel Gravity's Rainbow in which two disreputable characters argue the relative merits of Beethoven and Rossini, the life well lost for art versus the popular and successful entertainer of the masses. In some respects, Zappa's life encompasses both these positions, as reference his self description as a composer of art music whose day job happened to be as a rock n roll star.

The debates inevitably spill over into my own space, as bar brawls tend to expand to fill the bar available. It was at a chance meeting at American Music up in Fremont, that august institution of resistance to big box commodity music stores, that the eternal disagreement reared ever again its distinguished, tousled head.

My friend found me a less than satisfactory opponent. I will cede to anyone Zappa's inadequacies as a human, whatever artistic and business qualities I may defend in him. But my friend is a trifle didactic, and frequently things become very black and white to him. He was ready to throw out the baby of FZ's undeniable genius (in the exact sense of that word, not the watered-down "Boy he sure was smart" sense that seems to be so common anymore) with the bathwater of his distasteful views on life (basically "Get the hell out of my way!" with a smattering of philosophical frosting), and was frustrated that I neither defended nor attacked, but merely responded. The subject narrowed to the question of Zappa's legacy, with my friend contending that nobody would be listening to him in a hundred years, while I suggested that they would.

Our conversation caught the attention of a nearby clerk, one of those overqualified refugees from the real world who tend to wind up working in music stores. He was, he asserted, an expert on "pretty much all things Zappa," and invited us to ask him anything. We put the question of relevance to him. His response? "Twenty years after his death." "Until he's forgotten?" "No, until he's rediscovered. It's the rule of thumb for all avant garde artists."

Oh. Really. If at first you don't succeed, die, die again. Doesn't matter how hard you work, how painfully you suffer, how dire your vision or subtle your soul. If you're hard-core enough to really matter, you can expect to spend your whole artistic life in an involuntary pupae state, busily spinning the cocoon of your simultaneous immortality and funeral shroud, only to emerge, long after your demise, as a splendid butterfly of achievement.

Every artist hears that story. Some of them even embrace it: "My work is too advanced for this time. Ah, but in the next century...!" To quote that august artist and critic Bill Cosby, yeah, bull. The part the story teller's not gonna spill unless you get them drunk and sit on them is that all too often, the considerable profit attainable from successfully innovative art goes, not to the artist, but to some smartypants collector or random gasbag smart or lucky enough to grab onto a piece of the heritage cash cow and milk that moomoo for all it's worth. Consider the paintings of van Gogh, that stuff he couldn't even give away while he was alive, now selling for sums approaching the annual budgets of small principalities. Who's getting that money? Not Vincent, honey, he's pushing up daisies. Or maybe sunflowers.

It's certainly not impossible to cash in on your own legend, given that you have the business sense or know someone who does. Zappa himself had no trouble amassing some considerable wealth off his day job, enough to almost bankroll his more serious excursions. Almost. And if you live long enough, you can get the Charles Ives Award, getting your music performed for the first time when you're so old you almost can't hear it. But for the po' pitiful bulk of unknown geniuses, fame and fortune are somebody else's problem, while yours is whether you'll eat or buy paints this week.

See, I understand how this works. I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. Chances are, being how chances are, in a hundred years this essay will be eagerly devoured by millions of devotees of All Things Thaddeus along with every other word or tune or scrap of detritus I've scraped out of the cracks of my cerebrum lo these many years (and many more to come, I'm sure). And somebody, some special Someone, will be making a junkyard mint off it. Don't laugh. It could happen. It could!

So here's my proposition (like you didn't see this coming), you Someone you. How's about fronting a li'l of that filthy lucre you're creaming off my cold dead corpus? Just a bit, you know, I'm not greedy. Ten godzillion thoonfops would do fine, or its equivalent in industrial grade gold or stock market futures. Just a taste, just wet my beak. You can, y'know, Tachyon Paypal it to me or whatever it is you've got then.

Right then. Go ahead. I'll wait. You know where to find me. I'm not going anywhere.

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