Released a mere two months after Act I, the double album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III completed the tragic story of Joe, as told by the Central Scrutinizer. While Act I was mainly harmless fun, Act II is not for the squeamish, and Act III contains some of Zappa’s angriest and most beautiful work, sitting side by side. Again, the songs were written before the story, but it’s the unfolding concept that gives this material its genuine emotional weight, something very few Zappa albums aspire to.
Of course, it’s all wrapped up in a silly cautionary tale, still being narrated by the whispering Central Scrutinizer, voice of a world in which music has been outlawed. When last we left Joe, he had contracted a venereal disease from a woman named Lucille, and had fallen in with L. Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology, an obvious swipe at Scientology. In Act II, Joe gets deeper into the world of machine sex, finds a willing robot named Sy Borg, and has very rough sex with him (introducing a new Zappa word, "plook"), to the point where Sy is irreparably damaged. Joe cannot pay for the robot, and is sent to jail with all the former music industry executives, who rape him repeatedly.
He is set free at the end of Act II, and in Act III, he wanders the music-less landscape aimlessly, hearing imaginary guitar solos in his head. He imagines a whole world for himself, one in which he achieved his dream of music stardom, but in the end realizes that it’s all an illusion. He imagines one final guitar solo, then puts away his dreams and takes a job frosting muffins. Though the story ends there, one imagines that Joe dies unfulfilled, and the possible scofflaws watching the Central Scrutinizer’s story are sufficiently frightened away from the world of music.
It’s a bleak story, but the bright and shiny music that accompanies it is consistently enjoyable. While Act I mainly contented itself with relatively simple rock songs, Acts II and III show off the phenomenal skill of Zappa’s late-‘70s band. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta in particular shines on complex numbers like “Stick It Out” and “Keep It Greasey,” and Arthur Barrow’s bass work is impeccable. Zappa saves the spotlight for himself more often on these two records, particularly on Act III, and uses Joe’s Garage as his final proof of concept for xenochrony – most of the lengthy guitar solos were lifted from live performances of other songs, and the new studio tracks constructed around them.
While Joe’s Garage is remarkably cohesive, Act II begins with two tracks that betray the fact that the songs came first. “A Token of My Extreme” had been around in instrumental form since 1974, and featured often in concerts by the Roxy and Elsewhere band, and “Stick It Out” hails from as early as 1970, when it was part of the Flo and Eddie band’s “Sofa” routine. In their new forms, these songs detail Joe’s association with L. Ron Hoover and his realization that he is a latent appliance fetishist, coming around to the idea that “sexual gratification can only be achieved through the use of machines.” This is Zappa’s wry commentary on sex toys, similar to “Penguin in Bondage,” and his slap across the face to L. Ron Hubbard.
It could certainly be argued that the Central Scrutinizer would want to show Joe’s descent into sexual deviancy in the greatest detail, to dissuade the tender souls watching his cautionary film. Whether that in-story device excuses the content of Act II is up to the individual listener. It is the most sexually explicit set of songs in Zappa’s catalog to date, beginning with “Stick It Out,” a rhythmically complex song in which Joe propositions a robot named Sy Borg: “Fuck me, you ugly son of a bitch,” “stick out your hot curly weenie,” “make it go fast, in and out, magical pig, till it squirts, squirts.” Later he warns Sy not to “get no jizz on that sofa.” (Note the monologue from “Jewish Princess” near the end, delivered in Sy’s robotic monotone.)
“Sy Borg” is a nine-minute slow-jam reggae number that follows Joe and Sy back to Joe’s apartment. “I never plooked a tiny chrome-plated machine that looks like a magical pig with marital aids stuck all over it, such as yourself before,” Ike Willis sings, as ever throwing himself into the character of Joe. “Gimme that blow job,” he pleads, and later Sy requests he “plook me now, you savage rascal.” The song treads the line between ridiculous and uncomfortable for its entire running time. (Special mention should be made of Peter Wolf’s synthesizer solo, which is terrific.)
At the end of “Sy Borg,” Joe kills his electronic paramour by “plooking too hard,” and he is taken to jail with “all the other criminals from the music business” who “take turns snorting detergent and plooking each other.” “Dong Work for Yuda” is the most tangentially related of these songs – it purports to give the listener an idea of prison life, but is really about John Smothers, Zappa’s bodyguard, who had a distinct pattern of speech. Terry Bozzio mimics it for this song: “This girl must be pracketing richcraft!” The song makes special mention of John’s “iron sausage,” which serves not only as a prison rape reference, but a conceptual continuity clue – the original title of “The Torture Never Stops” was “The Night of the Iron Sausage.”
“Yuda” is an interlude before the onslaught of the eight-minute “Keep It Greasey,” which is entirely about the aforementioned prison rape. “Keep it greasey so it’ll go down easy, roll it over and grease it down, I’ll drive you through the heart of town…” It’s one of the most complex pieces on the album, putting Coliauta and Barrow through their astonishing paces, and showcasing Zappa’s xenochrony technique – the band improvised on a tricky groove behind a long, previously recorded guitar solo. That technique is used again on “Outside Now,” the devastating closer to Act II, in which Joe dreams up his first imaginary guitar solo while waiting for release.
The imaginary solos make up the bulk of Act III, and they represent what the world has lost. Even the xenochrony technique adds to this theme – the solos are literally from the past, even as the band plays around them. Joe is let out of prison at the start of “He Used to Cut the Grass,” and spends the entire song walking around “in a semi-catatonic state,” thinking of guitar notes. Zappa weaves in the voice of the angry neighbor from “Joe’s Garage,” giving the song its title, and completes the running gag of the Central Scrutinizer’s loading zone announcements – “The white zone is for loading and unloading only.” None of this sounds like it would be emotionally affecting, but it is.
Zappa’s playing is remarkable here, lyrical in “Grass” and sharp and angry in “Packard Goose,” his 11-minute riposte to music reviewers. It’s another song that clearly did not originate with the Joe’s Garage concept, and it feels shoehorned in, but it allows Joe one last burst of anger. Coliauta and Barrow are superb here, improvising some insanely complex rhythms behind Zappa’s solo (taken from a performance of “Easy Meat” from March 1979).
The transcendent moment of “Packard Goose” arrives with the return of Mary, from Act I. Mary delivers a philosophical monologue that has gone on to be a Zappa calling card: “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.”
This leads into “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” arguably the most beautiful nine minutes Zappa ever committed to tape. The dream-like instrumental takes the form of Joe’s final imaginary guitar solo, his last escape from the real world, and Zappa’s tone and playing have never been more emotional. It’s sad, sure, but it’s also angry, reminding the listener of what the world would lose, should the dystopia of Joe’s Garage come to pass. The band keeps things simple (well, as simple as a song in 9/4 could be), and Zappa soars – “Watermelon” is the album’s only guitar solo played live in the studio. Zappa himself named it one of his signature pieces (alongside “Black Napkins” and “Zoot Allures”). It’s a highlight not only of this album, but of Zappa’s collection.
Unable to let things end on such a wistful note, Zappa concludes Joe’s Garage with “A Little Green Rosetta,” a song intended (in much shorter form) for Lather. The jokey number follows Joe as he hocks his imaginary guitar and gets a job at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, adorning muffins with green frosting. (“A little green rosetta, makes a muffin better…”) As the Central Scrutinizer puts down his megaphone, the closing-credits singalong becomes Zappa’s final admission that all of this is just a little stupid. In some ways, “A Little Green Rosetta” devalues the genuine feeling and incisive points made earlier in the record, but Zappa doesn’t care: “This is a stupid song, and that’s the way I like it,” he sings.
But look past the closing minutes, and the reliance on sexual imagery (which here more than ever act as a distraction from the musicianship and the intelligence on display), and Joe’s Garage is a masterpiece. In fact, even with those things, it stands as one of Zappa’s very best works, containing everything there is to admire and detest about the man’s music. If new listeners are ambitious, starting here would offer a fine summation of the wonder and frustration of being a Zappa fan.
One thing the album undoubtedly gets right, though: music is the best.
Which version to buy: The three acts of Joe’s Garage are not available separately on CD. The 2012 Zappa/Universal double album collecting Acts I, II and III is pristine. It’s only a slight improvement over the previous CD versions, but enough of one.
Next week: Tinseltown Rebellion.