Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage Gets Its Premiere 29 Years On
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.”
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.
Among L.A.’s small theaters, Open Fist is comparatively spacious. Situated within a former warehouse, it has an expansive, freshly painted lobby, tall ceilings and audience seating on a wide bank of risers. On August 18 — one month to the day before the first preview of Joe’s Garage — the stage is lit by overhanging fluorescents, because the lighting plot hasn’t yet been installed; instruments hang from pipes, with cords dangling, waiting to be focused and plugged in.
At 7 p.m., Anthony Sandoval leads warm-up exercises with the ensemble of 12 Joe’s Garage actors — four of them from Open Fist’s resident company. Sandoval is an invited guest instructor and student of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, with whom Sandoval studied at the University of Delaware and, later, in Japan. Sandoval is taking the company through Suzuki movement exercises for balance and breathing, which appear like a blend of martial arts and U.S. Army drills. They are, by design, tortuous tests of mental discipline and physical stamina.
The company forms two lines of six. They’re dressed in leotards and sweats; some wear kneepads. Each actor crosses toward the opposite line of actors, walking pigeon-toed, stepping on a beat that Sandoval claps out with his hands. Among the goals is to sink into each step, to complete the gesture, regardless of its contortion, and to do it on time. This is a warm-up for the brutal choreography that’s to come.
Now they’re in a circle. Keeping their torsos erect, they’re to dip with their knees and then return up on eight counts that are clapped out, then 10 counts — dipping slowly is more stressful. Now they execute a clean jump, a quick turn and an exclamation of “ha!” — which releases the accrued stress.
After a 10-minute break, director Patrick Towne and choreographer Jennifer Lettelleir take over. Towne’s co-writer/producer, Michael Franco, crosses the front of the stage, speaking into a flashing Bluetooth cell phone in his ear.
Jason Paige portrays musician Joe, and the cast is rehearsing a scene from his suburban garage, where the solipsistic bliss of his music is interrupted by a police squad responding to an excessive-noise complaint. Herbert Russell, a gifted, roly-poly comedian, leads the squad, which strides in, with mimed weapons drawn. But this isn’t an episode of Law & Order — it’s closer to the Keystone Cops.
As they drag Joe away, Towne is concerned that the police exit is too realistic and too sloppy.
“Stride, stride,” he barks at the cops while pacing in the risers. “Stride till the thighs hurt.”
Now they’re working on the song “Catholic Girls,” featuring Joe’s girlfriend, Mary, played by wide-eyed Becky Wahlstrom with heartbreaking naiveté.
David Castellani, as Mary’s priest, Father Riley, repeats with exaggerated nasality the one-line refrain “Catholic girls” — between which the chorus of singer-dancers toss in one-line commentaries: “Catholic girls/With a tiny little mustache/Do you know how they go? In the rectory basement/Father Riley’s a fairy/But it don’t bother Mary.”
Choreographer Lettelleir is working on jazzy moves for the chorus, trying to capture the blend of perkiness and perversion at the heart of Joe’s Garage. They work through the moves with house accompanist Scott Nagatani, and then with both the piano and CD playing simultaneously.
Joe croons, “When they learn how to blow” — answered by Father Riley, “They’re learning to blow/All the Catholic boys!”
Lettelleir jumps in to choreograph stylized fellatio — considerably larger than life — to a chorus line of young women on their knees, mouths gaping open like hungry carp. They bear animated expressions of disgust and alarm, bobbing necks accompanied by fake gagging and spitting that Lettelleir is working to coordinate. Wahlstrom, also on her knees with her back to the audience, sways her head to and fro. One of her wrists flings away some imagined goo, right on the song’s beat, then the other wrist. A few measures later, all will repeat. It’s clear that the musical’s point of view is carried largely by the choreography, which depicts porn’s generic eroticism as part of a numbing machine.
Towne says he’s lost a couple of actors due to religious conflicts with the play. “‘Why are there so many blowjobs, so much sexuality?’ they asked. So we had a meeting, I tried to explain the satire. ‘I don’t think Frank is celebrating this stuff,’ I told the cast, ‘there are some people who will walk in here and will think solely that it’s obscene. You’ve got to be ready for that and take responsibility for it.’”
Lettelleir keeps sharpening the choreography, until Wahlstrom complains, “This is a 10-hour BJ!”
“The Suzuki work is really paying off,” says Towne without a trace of irony. He’s right. The fellatio has moved beyond titillation through parody into an ugly and allegorical grinder, shredding whatever it means to be human.
For almost 30 years, the rights to a stage production of Joe’s Garage were tied up by the Zappa Family Trust. Along the way, however, in 1995, Towne cast Moon Unit Zappa (one of Zappa and second wife Gail’s four children) as Bianca Jagger in a local production of a play called Waiting for Studio 54. Gail Zappa oversees the trust and therefore controls the rights to Joe’s Garage. Towne, who’d come to L.A. from Chicago after working there with the sketch-comedy company Annoyance Theatre, says he had a long-standing desire to direct a production of the musical. Finally, after Gail attended the show to see her daughter perform, Towne and his producing partner, Franco, drafted a formal proposal for a pitch meeting with Gail. Franco says the deal was eventually sealed with a handshake and that Gail was relieved they weren’t “pushing papers in her face” like so many applicants who had come before.
Franco has worked as a pitchman on TV, and it shows. He’s a fast-talking, product-oriented guy who has produced a number of shows in L.A. — some independently, and some (Nosferatu, Pathe X and The Master and Margarita) with the company Zoo District. Franco became the focal point of a philosophical conflict within that company, a conflict with possible reverberations for the Open Fist production of Joe’s Garage. Though the opposing Zoo District camp was led by director Jon Kellam, most of those who backed him were women, revealing a gender divide within the Zoo District troupe. Franco and the men were advocates of the “let’s find a script and do it now” approach to putting on plays — a view in stark contrast to Kellam and the women’s desire to concentrate the company’s resources on actor training and play development. Franco describes the division as the “product-versus-process debate.” The women’s view translated into the time-consuming idea of giving new plays readings and workshops in order to repair weak ligaments and prime the plays for a professional debut, with the highest standards possible.
“I’m 50 years old,” Franco says in the Open Fist lobby during a rehearsal. “I don’t have four years to spend telling one story. There are too many other stories I still want to tell.”
This attitude reflects Franco’s damn-the- torpedos insistence on presenting this Joe’s Garage not as a workshop but as a full production — a cavalier choice that’s perplexed and bemused some people associated with the production. Franco and Towne drafted a script from the libretto and liner notes enclosed in the CD of Joe’s Garage, a studio recording of the opera made in 1979, and the project now has a budget of $70,000 to $90,000. Open Fist (of which Franco is a member) is contributing the venue, some actors, equipment, staff support, operating costs and a small percentage of the overall budget. But almost anywhere else in the country, a work of this scale — blending a new script, choreography, video design, puppetry and the sound-mixing challenges that come with a live band — would at least be tried out as a smaller-scale workshop. Among the many purposes of such workshops is to attract potential investors for future productions. Franco is having none of it, and says he’s happy to spend up to $25,000 of his own money to offset whatever funds he can’t raise from outside sources. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s drawn down his mutual funds for a theater project, and it sounds like it won’t be his last.
“There are a lot of Zappa fans out there, and they’re already reserving tickets,” he says when asked what plans he has for transferring this production. “I’ll just have to see who turns up, and how it turns out.”
On the evening of August 19, Gail Zappa floats into the lobby of the Open Fist Theatre, delighted and surprised to find daughter Diva and son Ahmet also there. A vocalist herself, Gail has the beautiful, round face of an ageless hippie, with kind, world-weary eyes. Behind her candor and gentle veneer percolates some muted frustration. “It’s not easy working for a dead guy,” she says in the theater office while the cast is doing their Suzuki warm-up. “The simple answer and the horrifying answer is that my future is my husband’s past. And I’m just trying to keep it as unfiltered as possible by everybody who would like to have it reflect their image.”
She makes no mention of the lawsuit she threatened to file last year against Arf-Society, the German musicians society and fan club that helped to organize the renaming of a Berlin street after Frank Zappa. The Zappa family failed to respond to invites from Arf-Society for its endorsement, so the the club proceeded anyway. The club also supports the kind of Frank Zappa tribute bands that arouse Gail’s ire. She doesn’t cite them by name, but the target of her anger is clear enough: “People who misinterpret Frank, or miscast him, somebody who plays his music, somebody who writes a book, taking a very large footprint and shrinking it down to a minuscule size that’s not recognizable by anybody. It’s really grand theft identity. I can imagine, but I can’t prove that I’d be right about what Frank would want.”
Who could possibly know more about what a man would want than the woman who bore his four children? “You can’t imagine how many people would disagree with that,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of experience with absurdity.”
Many people had approached her for the rights to produce Joe’s Garage, but it never felt right, she says, until Towne came along.
“The ones that have shown up ... I didn’t want to get involved with. And the ones you would hope would show up have issues of their own. What I’ve been told is, ‘Joe’s too blue for the stage.’ I don’t know anybody who talks like that in any generation.”
She confirms Towne’s story of her coming to see Moon Unit in Towne’s production of Waiting forStudio 54.
“Pat directed it. It was very small and totally cheesy,” she says, clearly pleased. (Frank Zappa described Joe’s Garage as “a really cheap kind of high school play.”)
“I felt, ‘Oh why not? Why not take a chance?’ ... I think of it as, I’m doing the best I can with the tools I’ve got. You hope for the best, you expect the worst, and if you come out somewhere between, that’s a good thing.”
Unlike Towne, however, Gail plays down the importance of the story, because most of what Frank Zappa did is musical. His playfulness and gregariousness, “it’s all in the music. It doesn’t have anything to do with words. So that’s the legacy.”
The three Zappas in attendance for the rehearsal sit in the same row. Ahmet, in a suit and tie, rests his elbows on his knees. Diva sits knitting, smiling, preparing for a September exhibition of her knitting designs in New York. Towne and Lettelleir are restaging “Catholic Girls” — refining all that fellatio. Gail Zappa watches, beaming.
“I love this energy,” she says.
On September 2, the full band — two keyboardists, two guitarists, a drummer and a couple of horn players — makes its first appearance for a rehearsal with the ensemble. The theater is awash in activity, with actors practicing routines in the lobby as equipment is hauled in around them. The theater’s huge backstage door hangs open. A table saw stands on one side of the stage. Two platforms that have been constructed on the stage now give the actors points of elevation.
“All singers gather ’round. This is going to be a funky night, obviously,” Towne bellows. “A couple of people we have wireless mikes for are Joe and Father Riley — everyone who has a solo, go over to the standing mike so we can hear what you sound like against the band.”
The plan is to just sing through the whole show without choreography, so sound designer Tim Labor can get a clearer idea of how the music needs to be mixed.
“This outdoes anything I’ve ever done,” says Towne, smoking on the sidewalk during a break. “We’re going to make it flashy and put in lots of lights, but the music is key and has been the hardest to get down.”
One part of a song has a 19/16 count per measure, and then it shifts to 21/16, “So you’ve got these weird Frank time signatures — and then, even in the easier songs, there’s a funky dissonant harmony the men have, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I hearing this right?’ — because if you’re a little flat on a dissonant chord, it’s all over.”
Onstage, the drummer clacks his sticks together, setting the beat, and the full band blasts out the title cut, “Joe’s Garage.” Lanky Ben Thomas approaches a standing mike, and apes Zappa’s vocal cadences: “We could jam in Joe’s Garage/His mama was screamin’/His dad was mad/We was playin’ the same old song/In the afternoon ’n’ sometimes we would/Play it all night long/It was all we knew ’n’ easy too/So we wouldn’t get it wrong ...’”
The music envelops the room. The ensemble on stage sneak glances at each other, as though they never imagined this could sound so good. Some break into irrepressible grins and begin swaying to the music.
With two weeks until the first preview, only a fraction of the theatrical elements is in play, but the interactions in the hall are so cordial and cooperative, you can’t help but feel that Franco’s grandiose and possibly reckless approach to producing a new musical might just fly — or, at least, that enough of it will leave the ground to give this show a future.
Joe’s Garage, presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Currently in previews; opens September 26 and plays Fridays through Sundays through November 22. For information, call (323) 882-6912 or visit openfist.org.
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