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The torture never stops

CAUTION: portions of this column may contain literary elements known as “satire” or “irony” that, while recognized by many as comedic devices, are unrecognizable to people lacking a sense of humor.

Anyone lacking a sense of humor should avoid reading any further as doing so risks any or all of the following: severe hair loss (due to compulsive tearing), becoming morbidly thin-skinned, being irrationally incensed, spitting uncontrollably, irritable bowels (or global irritability), bitterness, an infantile sense of being persecuted (The “Poor-me Victim Syndrome”), self-righteous chest thumping and jug-headed judgementalism.

Continued reading of this column without a sense of humor (and with lips moving) may also lead to chronic vacuity, a condition which interferes with basic cognitive skills and could result in requiring five or more weeks to compose an incoherent and semiliterate Letter to the Editor.

Although science is split on why some people lack a sense of humor, it has been found many were anencephalic at birth, thus lacking the intellectual capacity to “get a joke.” On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that a small portion of sufferers lose their sense of humor after suffering some sort of psychological trauma: being frightened by a clown, experiencing sustained social rejection, an epiphany that dolls don’t actually respond to questions regarding why Mommy spends so much time alone with “Uncle Ted” or the sudden appearance of spare knees (“Wee knees”).

Satire and irony should be avoided by anyone lacking a sense of humor as those concepts require an intellectual two-step that could result in a severe cerebral cramp at least, enlisting in industries that, after taking billions in tax payer dollars, award billions in bonuses to incompetent swine (while declaring patriotism — “the last refuge of a scoundrel” — to compensate for being both parasite and pariah), at the very worst.

Unfortunately, those lacking a sense of humor almost never recover. Leading empty lives of anhedonic solipsism, unable to connect with others on even the most foundational human level (lacking love, altruism, empathy, kindness, etc.), the humorless eventually fall into a kind of insanity that convinces them that their answers are the only correct ones — ignorance in the service of arrogance— and a gestalt that leads its sufferer into the armpit of what H.L. Mencken called “the booboisie,” a place where Glenn Beck-ian half-witted conspiracies are woven with grandiose fantasies of American exceptionalism, unfettered jingoism and an assumed sense of entitlement.

Really, reading this without a sense of humor will make your brain sizzle into ash, your mirror image to take on a cartoonish visage and your turkey wattle to ripple like a soccer club banner during a British riot.

And while it seems absurd that I should have to prefix my column with that caveat, recent experience has led me to realize that the WATBs (if you don’t know what WATB is, Google ‘GIR’ to dance your own two-step), lacking a sense of humor and, apparently, having far too much time on their hands, completely miss the point of this column, Random Shuffle.

Irony, kids, satire, it’s all part and parcel of the fun. I’m an equal opportunity offender shooting a sawed-off shotgun at liberals and conservatives, bluenoses and hipsters, Hip-hoppers and Be-boppers, bleeding-heart hunters and vegan Nazis.

Almost everyone takes it in stride and in the spirit it was directed, laughing at themselves as readily as they do at me, with me and, considering the soft pin pricks marking the disposition of my minor jibes (more often than not, self-inflicted), share some perverse fascination in where the dart lands next.

It’s sad that some are incapable of laughing at all and, in self-consumed anti-Irony, assume my pen was aimed at them. Yet, I’m consoled by Oscar Wilde who said, “Irony is lost on the stupid.”

No pedagogue me, I nonetheless feel compelled to school the clueless, perambulating for a moment to present a peripatetic picture of “satire” and “irony” as practiced by the master: Frank Zappa.

Anyone who has read Random Shuffle for any amount of time, with any alacrity (and so, possessing some sense of humor), knows that Zappa grips my brain with talons that will carry me to my grave as I hum “Dirty Love” or “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”

As a musician, Zappa stands on his own – no one made or makes the kind of improvised gumbo (combing rock, jazz, classical, doo-wop) the way he cooked it. Employing some of the finest craftsmen in the biz for his band – Lowell George, George Duke, Jean Luc Ponty, Steve Vai, the list is expansive – Zappa conducted bands that were arguably as talented as any led by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis or James Brown (if you doubt me, check out the live BBC performance of “King Kong” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7p6yUvQBXSY or listen to any of various bootlegs where he weaves the baroque “Chunga’s Revenge” with his own version of Ravel’s “Bolero”).

To, his protean approach to music, as a composer and bandleader, was not to be overshadowed by his attack on the guitar, an almost algebraic assault — part Lebanese, his Arabic heritage seems to explain the fret-board precision (considering the Arabs invented algebra) he displayed on vinyl and in concert. The multi-disk Rhino releases of live releases, “Shut Up and Play Yer’ Guitar,” attest to the man’s prowess on the Gibson.

However, it was Zappa’s unwavering commitment to satire and irony that set him apart from all others, thematically and musically (the live 1985 release “Does Humor Belong in Music,” with its incendiary version of the Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post,” a testament to his ethos). Beginning with the groundbreaking and unprecedented debut “Freak Out!” in 1966 – never before had a band been introduced with a double-album, especially when double-albums were rare except for classical music recordings – Zappa was unrelenting in his critique of a culture seemingly insane with consumerist obsessions and class distinctions.

. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” “Help, I’m a Rock,” and “Who Are the Brain Police?” (among so many others) established Zappa as a preeminent composer of challenging music infused with complex and cutting social commentary. In fact, the Beatles have cited the album as an influence on their direction, with George Martin (their producer) for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The rumblings had just begun. Along with his band, The Mothers of Invention, Zappa created four of the most revolutionary, musically sophisticated, and really, really funny albums of that (or any) decade: the previously mentioned “Freak Out!” along with “Absolutely Free” (wherein he created the unforgettable, satirical character “Suzy Creamcheese”), “We’re Only In It For the Money” (with its infamous “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover parody) and “Cruising With Rueben and the Jets” (both a parody and homage to 50s Doo-wop music).

Songs like “Plastic People,” “Why Don’tcha’ Do Me Right,” “America Drinks (and Goes Home)’ on “Absolutely Free,” “Who Needs the Peace Corps,” “Bow Tie Daddy,” and “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” on “We’re Only In It For the Money,” and “Cheap Thrills” (from “Cruising With Rueben and the Jets,” in which Zappa intertwines the theme from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) reveal Zappa as an artist unafraid to call out anyone standing on credentials wrapped in plastic. Not only satirizing the “straight” culture that had tightened up to a sphincter-like pinhead in the ’60s (and a too-obvious target, at the time) but also the very freaks that had assumed they were immune from his caustic and trenchant commentary.

“We’re satirists,” Zappa said in an interview back then, “and we are out to satirize everything.”

While expanding his classical and jazz chops after disbanding the Mothers – the largely experimental and symphonic album “Uncle Meat” being a nod to John Cage and his technological innovations in modern classical music – Zappa also continued to be rock’s preeminent clown prince, his satire a scattershot blast at any available targets: new age idiocy on “Camarillo Brillo,” the obvious “I’m the Slime” (television) and a poke at the granola-tinged back-to-the-Earth muffin-head movement of the early-’70s on “Montana” (from the quasi-pornographic “Overnight Sensation”); the brilliant and soulful “Uncle Remus” from “Apostrophe (‘)” – “We look pretty sharp in these clothes (yes, we do)/ Unless we get sprayed with a hose/ It ain’t bad in the day, If they squirt it your way/ ‘Cept in the winter, when it’s froze … I can’t wait till my Fro is full-grown/ I’ll just throw ‘way my Doo-Rag at home/ I’ll take a drive to Beverly Hills, Just before dawn/ An’ knock the little jockeys off the rich people’s lawn … “

Of course, Zappa is probably (and regrettably) most famous for making fun of his own daughter and the subculture she belonged to: “Valley Girl” (“Last idea to cross her mind/ Had something to do with where to find/ A pair of jeans to fit her butt/ And where to get her toenails cut”).

However, it was with “Joe’s Garage (Parts I, II and III) where Zappa’s satire and irony reached a zenith, especially since he set himself in those comedic sites. A concept album of sorts (something he’d satirized with “Billy the Mountain” back in the early ’70s), he placed his own Catholic repressed sexuality on the line (previously evident in “Jewish Princess” from “Sheik Yerbouti”), making it manifest with a vision of a fascist present and setting his animus on his own anima: aside from the general theme, songs like “Catholic Girls,” Crew Slut,” and “Keep It Greasy” exhibit that, while a “Jewish Princess” may possess the innate invention of guilt, it took Catholics like Zappa to refine it into something as ostentatious as the Pope’s ring.

It doesn’t hurt that the album also includes one of Zappa’s greatest instrumentals (“Watermelon in Easter Hay”) — quite an achievement considering his impressive oeuvre of instrumental compositions.

Many other bands have attempted to draw up Zappa’s threads — The Offspring, The Tubes (at their crappiest), 10cc, Insane Clown Posse (ugh) immediately come to mind — but none have even approached the edge of the galaxy, much less entered the solar system. Although I won’t say that another ironist of Zappa’s caliber won’t arise in our lifetime, the brilliance and perspicuity he exhibited in poking fun at the lot of us, you, me, and them, makes it seem highly unlikely that we’ll see the likes of him again.

Like Zappa (and I’m loathe to make the comparison), I tend to point my pen towards any direction with no regard for the delicate ego I might bruise. Yet, unlike Zappa, I can honestly say that I have only cut a swathe with the intention of drawing blood from obvious targets: pretentious and preening egoists, bloviating burp brains and investment bankers who have no compunction from taking our money to enrich themselves while producing nothing (other than spreadsheets) and, by virtue of having more money than us, claim they’re better than us.

To them, those who judge us based on their portfolio and the fact they’ve not made one single tangible thing nor added anything to our country (and, in fact, have led to its downfall), I quote “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” (from “We’re Only In It For the Money” – exquisitely appropriate, given the theme of this column): “Some say your nose/some say your toes/But I think it’s your mind … All your children are poor/Unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control/A plague upon your ignorance/And the gray despair of your ugly life … A plague upon your ignorance/That keeps the young from the truth they deserve…”

While Zappa was never “strictly commercial” (the unfortunate title of the ill-conceived “greatest hits” compilation), to his credit that was never the point. Furthermore, those who didn’t get the point (primarily those lacking a sense of humor) were those whacked by his large and devastating ironic hammer.

Fortunately, Zappa never needed to prefix his work with a warning that someone might be offended — it was as understood as it was inevitable. It is with his spirit and influence that I continue on here.

CAUTION: the irony and satire will not subside. To borrow the title of one of his songs, “The Torture Never Stops.”

jim@pagosasun.com