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Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage Gets Its Premiere 29 Years On 

Rock opera, like its revered creator, was ahead of its time

Wednesday, Sep 17 2008
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Some people can just see things coming. In 1979, one year before Ronald Reagan was elected president, Frank Zappa wrote a rock opera called Joe’s Garage. It’s a “stupid story,” said Zappa, a fantasia about a garage-band singer who finds himself at odds with an increasingly religious, controlling society in which music is eventually banned for its destructive effects on society.

Six years after Zappa completed it, the U.S. Senate held hearings on a proposal by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to put warning labels on rock-music CDs and videos. Gore had been offended by the lyrics in the Prince song “Darling Nikki”: “I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine . ...” Children, said the PMRC, needed to be protected from sexually provocative lyrics.

Not surprisingly, Zappa, a satirist, celebrity rock musician and respected avant-garde composer, testified as an opposition witness (with John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider), describing the PMRC proposal as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense, which fails to deliver any real benefits to children [and] infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children.”

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The next year, 1986, Zappa appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, with so-called leftist journalist Tom Braden (a former employee of the CIA’s International Organizations Division), conservative columnist Robert Novak and John Lofton of the right-leaning Washington Times. In a contentious conversation, Zappa revealed the prescience that makes Joe’s Garage as relevant as the day it was written:

 
Lofton: Do you support records that promote incest as just another kind of sex, or in some instances it might even be preferable? Do you agree with that?

Zappa: No I don’t agree with it. I don’t have any interest in incest ... but I didn’t realize that incest was such a terrible problem in the United States that we suddenly need government intervention ...

Lofton: Does the government have any purpose, Frank?

Zappa: Yeah, it has a number of purposes ... how about national defense?

Lofton: I consider this national defense, pal! Our families are under attack by people like you, with these lyrics.

Braden: John, you don’t have to buy them.

Zappa: Can I make a statement about national defense? The biggest threat to America today is not communism, it’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened during the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pipe.

Novak: ... Do you really think ... in this country, with the permissiveness, that we are moving toward a fascist theocracy?

Zappa: You bet we are, buddy.

[Lofton and Novak laugh derisively.]

Braden: One example of a fascist theocracy?

Zappa: When you have a government that prefers a certain moral code derived from a certain religion, and that moral code turns into legislation to suit one certain religious point of view, and if that code happens to be very, very right wing, almost toward Attila the Hun ...

Lofton: Then you are an anarchist. Every form of civil government is based on some kind of morality, Frank.

Zappa: Morality in terms of behavior, not in terms of theology. 

 
The ideas in this debate form the crux of the ribald cultural satire in Joe’s Garage, which will have its world premiere on September 26 at the Open Fist Theater. The play opens with an Orwellian “Central Scrutinizer,” a large robotic puppet who speaks through a megaphone and whose job is to enforce laws “that haven’t yet been passed.” A local policeman counsels Joe to drop his music and engage in more church activities, but Joe’s sweet Catholic girlfriend, named Mary (of course), abandons him for a backstage pass to see another band. After following that band on tour and after being used as a sex toy by the band’s roadies, the exhausted Mary is dumped in Miami, where she enters a wet-T-shirt contest to raise enough money to get home.

When Joe learns of her plight, he goes into a funk of depression, contracts venereal disease, and seeks religion — at the door of L. Ron Hoover and his First Church of Appliantology — to pull him back up. Membership in the church costs Joe his life’s savings, and he is ordered “into the closet” in order to find salvation by having sex with home appliances — so much more safe and titillating than with human beings. There’s a three-way orgy between Joe, an appliance named Sy Borg and a “modified Gay Bob Doll”; Joe accidentally destroys Sy Borg’s circuitry during a golden shower episode and is imprisoned for being unable to pay for Sy’s repair. In prison, Joe is gang-raped by record executives and other riffraff. He eventually emerges into a new world, where music has been banned, but he does land a good job in a muffin factory.

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