Jason Paige and the Utility Muffin Chorus bring the bawdy bile of Joe's Garage to brilliant life
How you react to the Open Fist Theater’s first-time-ever staging of Frank Zappa’s satirical rock opera Joe’s Garage, or even simply the news that director Pat Towne and producer/co-writer Michael Franco have taken on the long-thought-unstageable project, will depend almost entirely on your affinity/reverence for Zappa’s music. Attending Joe’s Garage is not likely to make a convert to appreciation for Zappa’s singular talent out of anyone who doesn’t know “Catholic Girls” from “Jewish Princess,” or what the hell means Waka/Jawaka, or the story of Bobby, the very potato-looking ne’er-do-well who resides in Zappa’s San Ber’dino. But for those, like me, who consider Zappa an epic musical genius often misunderstood and/or dismissed by both the star-maker machinery behind the popular song and the general audiences who never, beyond the occasional novelty hit, cottoned to his avant-garde leanings or his penchant for holding a foul-mouthed mirror up to the basest stupidities of human society, Open Fist’s production of Joe’s Garage (extended through December 21) is, literally, a dream come true, made flesh. The wonderful thing is, for those of us who have navigated and examined the soundscapes of Zappa’s seminal three-record set since its two-part release in 1979, the new production in many ways surpasses the dream.
What you’ll see on stage for your ridiculously reasonable $25 ticket is a dark-hearted satiric revelation disguised as a smutty carnival, the embodiment of what was a speculative social nightmare nearly 30 years ago, based on what Zappa postulated as our society’s apparent trajectory toward a Reagan-inspired fascist theocracy, staged at a time in our history when we are even closer to that speculation being realized than ever before. In the aftermath of the Obama election, one might be forgiven for breathing a little easier over the “alternate reality” Zappa suggests in Joe’s Garage, in which that fascist government creates the straw dog of music as a force that opens up the soul to its ultimate destruction and uses it for across-the-board legislative and moral oppression. (The governmental forces at work against freedom of expression in JG are not strictly borne of theocracy, but they certainly lie down with that particular breed.) But one only need to recall the name of the instigator of the Parent Music Resource Center controversy against which Zappa was a prominent and vocal resister—Tipper Gore—to realize that the cautions of Joe’s Garage are as much rooted in battling the complacency we can most often find in ourselves or those ostensibly aligned with us-- complacency, say, borne of relief over dodging a devastating election result, for example-- as they are rooted in the forces from without that work to strip our lives and individuality and turn us into lobotomized muffin factory workers.
Here’s Zappa from the Joe’s Garage liner notes (1979):
“Joe’s Garage is a stupid story about how the government is going to try to do away with music. (A prime cause of unwanted mass behavior!) It's sort of like a really cheap kind of high school play ... the way it might have been done 20 years ago, with all the sets made out of cardboard boxes and poster paint. It's also like those lectures that local narks used to give (where they show you a display of all the different ways you can get wasted, with the pills leading to the weed leading to the needle, etc., etc.). If the plot of the story seems just a little bit preposterous, and if the idea of The Central Scrutinizer enforcing laws that haven't been passed yet makes you giggle, just be glad you don't live in one of the cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted ... or, as it is in Iran, totally illegal.”
The “stupid story” finds Joe (Jason Paige), a garage rocker whose band makes a bit too much noise for the neighbors and who ends up tossed into Catholic school in the hopes that he'll eventually ease up on the power chords a bit. There he falls in love with Mary, who eventually betrays him by becoming a “crew slut” for another rocker. Joe finds out about this betrayal and rebounds with a fast-food waitress who gives him an unpronounceable disease (something like “ginococcocochus”), which itself leads to Joe falling prey to a preacher for the First Church of Appliantology. This Hubbardesque evangelist determines that the way out of Joe’s personal doldrums (as well as his little venereal problem) is to come out of the closet by going back into the closet and having sex with the various and sundry electrical appliances he finds there. Joe’s subsequent torrid love affair with a magical pig-shaped toaster device (Open Fist's version looks more like Robby the Robot) goes horribly sour when he short-circuits the machinery during a passionate golden shower episode. Having destroyed private property and being stuck for the cash to make repairs, Joe’s “offenses” are conveniently blamed by the government on his passion for music. (The government is embodied by the piece’s narrator, the Central Scrutinizer, itself embodied by a genius bit of puppetry that sets the perfect unsettling/grin-inducing tone right from the start.) Joe is thrown into a prison which houses other musically oriented “criminals” where he is repeatedly gang-raped by some of the pokey’s foulest citizens, including many fiendish and corrupt record executives. Joe gradually retreats into a fantasy world of imaginary guitar solos (and, in a hilarious bit of business, imaginary rave reviews written by imaginary rock critics) that sustain him through his nightmare of incarceration, but do nothing to stave off encroaching insanity when he is released into a world that he discovers has almost totally given in to the mechanistic prerogatives of governmental control. (“I can hardly wait to see what it’s like/On the outside now,” sings the increasingly mournful chorus as a zombified citizenry greets Joe on the street.) After one final glimpse into the ethereal musical landscape happening underneath Joe’s crumbling exterior (“Watermelon in Easter Hay,” one of Zappa’s most achingly beautiful solos), Joe’s mind finally gives way and he is subsumed into the assembly line culture, drooling and staring into space while working a menial job at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. Here he dutifully “poots forth” little green rosettas, icing on bland muffins that will provide as little nutrition for the public as anything else, artistically speaking, in this increasingly neutered society where empty calories are king, all the better to keep the thoughtless masses docile and in their place.
Zappa’s chosen mode of expression was, of course, music, and his ribald talent served him well in grafting the telling words of this no-holds-barred social critique, itself the end result of a lengthy and bitter legal dispute with Warner Brothers records in the late ‘70s, to this soaring, mathematically challenging, desperate and soulful guitar-based, jazz-influenced rock symphony. But it is readily apparent watching Joe’s Garage (perhaps more so than listening to it) how much of a pretext music is for the pretenses and agenda of this government. The real interest is suppression of ideas—one gets the feeling that innocuous music, in Zappa’s vision, is a perfectly acceptable mode for the propagation of the kind of nullified emotional and political behavior that is, after all, the ultimate goal. The white elephant in the room during Pat Towne’s staging of Joe’s Garage is the notion that the real M.O. of Joe’s government, or of a government like Iran’s (1979 and 2008 variety), or of the post 9/11 Bush cronies, is the discouragement or discrediting (via outright suppression or other means, like, say, the demonization of intellectualism) of a potent artistic expression or vision. And that can come through music, or writing, or film, or theater, or anything else that one is poised to invest of oneself entirely. And one of the reasons why this version of Joe’s Garage seems such a cathartic and exceptional visualization of a beloved, well-known album is that it itself feels explosive; the shards of broken glass from the mirror the production holds up to this society, post-Bush, in the current economic crisis, still cut deep when they make their way into the audience. Zappa’s attacks on mechanized sex (Girls Gone Wild on Internet porn are available in every home), religious fanaticism and hypocrisy (Ted Haggard and the Catholic buggery scandals are so much more freshly stinging than Jimmy Swaggart, aren’t they?), greed (Haliburton and Enron, anyone?) and every other form of bad behavior you can think of (including bad music—the name Toto is invoked, however briefly) seem at once rooted in their time and deeply prescient as well.
The genius of Open Fist’s production is how well the music—brilliantly performed by a seven-piece band just off stage left—meshes with the Hunter S. Thompson-Circus Circus bent of Jennifer Lettelleir’s ingenious choreography and Towne’s limber, let’s-put-on-a-show aesthetic. Zappa, who likely harbored a measure of his own guilt about feeding the rock and roll beast while trying to live past it and break through its strictures, would have appreciated the way this show dances along the razor’s edge where eroticism and dehumanized porn coexist. (The ghastly sight of that chorus line of Catholic girls in their plaid school skirts fellating those future Knights of Columbus is simultaneously hilarious and chilling, a blow-up doll aesthetic writ on embossed C.Y.O. stationery, and Lettelleir’s dancers weave throughout the show from number to number with similar effect.) Similarly, crude humor is made to serve a subtly subversive and serious consideration of the price one can pay for having a specific vision, much less the freedom or the balls to make it come alive.
Too much praise really cannot be heaped on the cast, who with unflagging energy wrestle this difficult beast to the stage floor and pop up on their heels with infectious energy. Jason Paige, a formidable singer (and not a bad guitar player either) plays Joe with an appealing mixture of smart-ass devilry and potent empathy—his is an Everyman that jacks into the audience’s desire to see a satiric representation of themselves as powerless and slightly dopey. Joe suffers no messiah complex; his suffering is specific and personal, and more powerful for the actor’s (and the director’s, and the composer’s) resistance to making him a symbol. By the second act Paige marshals an impressive stage presence, even as Joe dwindles, and the production achieves the scale of tragedy that seems befitting. (And if you sit in the third row you might just become involved in Joe’s “impromptu” bit of audience participation, as I did. Be prepared to in some way be violated. You’ll love it! It’s a way of life!) Also excellent are David Castellani as Father Riley; Becky Wahlstrom as Mary, Joe’s ill-fated girlfriend; Michael Dunn, the unctuously imposing voice of the Central Scrutinizer; Ben Thomas as Joe’s slick band mate (his big number, ”Crew Slut,” is a dirty, disturbing highlight) and Mario Moseley as the Reverend Ike-ish leader of the First Church of Appliantology, L. Ron Hoover (“Well, you have nothing to fear, my son!/You are a latent appliance fetishist, it appears to me!”). It should also be noted that as brilliantly as the music is performed (and the Joe’s Garage band, under the direction of Ross Wright, provides as much reason as any to see the show—to hear the music, rarely performed live, in person), the dancers and singers, breathing life into Lettelleir’s inventive choreography and Zappa’s music simultaneously, are in a class by themselves. Nicole Disson (pictured above), Matt Crabtree, Crystal Keith, Lindsay Loesel, Pip Lilly, Maia Madison, Jonny Marlow, Franci Montgomery, Herbert Russell, Laura Sperrazza and Glen Anthony Vaughan all have reason to enjoy the high spirits they artfully spin from this dark, bitter comedy.
Restrictions on the performance of the music insisted upon by the Zappa estate, and dissatisfaction with proposed treatments, led initial pre-Open Fist attempts to successfully mount a production go unrealized. (Gail Zappa, the musician's widow, has however been a staunch supporter of this production, leading the theater company to bestow upon her the credit of Consultant on All Things Zappa.) But one significant legal hurdle hindering the live performance of Joe’s Garage ended up, for director Towne, resulting in one of the musical’s most sublime, transporting moments. Designated by the composer as one of the three signature guitar pieces that he decided should never be played by anyone else, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” the piece that represents Joe’s final interior guitar reverie before he trades in his sanity for an icing-caked apron, was the one piece that the band could not interpret themselves. Towne and company were faced with one choice, and depending on their own performance up to that point in the show, it was a potentially risky choice artistically. At the point where Joe drifts off, the lights go down and the Open Fist stage space is plunged into darkness, as apt and spare a representation of Joe’s benumbed brainscape as anything set designers Franco and Charlie Otte (himself another producer) could have likely conjured. It is here that the live aesthetic gives way to around eight minutes of the original recording of “Watermelon” from the Joe’s Garage album, and the transporting effect of the imaginary guitar solo transfuses itself directly to the audience. It is a sublime moment of eyes-closed contemplation in which the nimble strains of Zappa’s guitar seem perfectly, tonally emblematic of those within every soul which tries to connect with a sense of being, of purpose, of self-worth, of the necessity for music to once again mean something apart from the acrobatic ability of its performers and its unerring capacity to separate us from our cash. As much as the original recording was in 1979, this stage version of Joe’s Garage is a vital, brutal, scorched-earth social commentary wrapped up in some of the most moving, funny, challenging music Frank Zappa ever wrote. The show has been extended through December 21, and one can only hope that it will have a long and utterly unexpected future beyond the friendly confines of the Open Fist Theater. This is a production and a vision, based on a great, messy, funky, angry, shattering original work, that deserves a long life all its own.
SIX DIRECTORS WHO COULD CONCEIVABLY PUT JOE’S GARAGE ON FILM:
KEN RUSSELL: At 80 I bet he’d still have the visual chutzpah to bring to the table; his biggest hurdle might be dealing with the obstinate and protective Gail Zappa, as rigid in her vision of her husband’s work as Paddy Chayefsky was in his.
JOE DANTE: He’d connect with Zappa’s anti-establishment themes and would have a good time making the stage production’s carnival quality all his own.
STUART GORDON: An original member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, he’d have unique insight into how to make what worked on album and stage translate into film. He’s an unknown quantity with music, but the sinister comedy of Re-animator and Stuck suggests grisly social satire of Zappa’s ilk might be well within his grasp.
ALEX COX: Hard to say how this avowed punk sympathizer would connect with Zappa’s decidedly D.I.Y., but anti-punk sentiment. But his sense of social outrage and fearlessness as a filmmaker might be just the spark for a filmed version of Zappa’s rock opera.
GUY MADDIN: Could Maddin’s faintly antique-feeling surrealism be made to gibe with Zappa’s sensibility? Might be interesting, in a masterpiece or a folly sense, to find out.
DANNY BOYLE: Perhaps this director’s chameleon-like approach, combined with the fresh film technique he brings to each project, would yield a Joe’s Garage that could bridge the 30-year gap between the original work and modern audiences with ease.
Anyone else have any other ideas?
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH:
Buy your tickets to see Joe's Garage here. (The show has been extended through December 21.)
Variety's Terry Morgan writes appreciatively about Joe's Garage.
Steven Leigh Morris' L.A. Weekly cover story about the production.
Two stories on Joe's Garage courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.
Behind the scenes as Open Fist prepares to unveil Joe's Garage this past summer
FZ debates Tom Braden and Robert Novak on Crossfire circa 1986. The discussion of Zappa's notion that the country was even then moving toward a fascist theocracy leads to considerable condescension (especially from Novak), but it goes a long way toward making clear Zappa's seriousness as a social satirist and commenter, as well as the presience of works like Joe's Garage.
Here are parts 1 and 2 of FZ on The Mike Douglas Show circa 1976, promoting Zoot Allures. On the panel are Jimmie Walker and a very appreciative Kenny Rogers.
FZ and the Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life performing "Watermelon in Easter Hay" in Barcelona, 1988.