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Musical Maunderings in Sunni's Salon

June 2005

I think all the absurdity in the world is starting to have an effect on my brain -- I'm spending more time listening to music that I previously would have likely considered too weird to give any attention. A friend recently introduced me to Tom Waits, and it was to my great surprise that the first strains I heard from Frank's Wild Years were familiar -- Hang on St. Christopher! I'd loved that song as done by the Bulletboys on Freakshow, and it was with real pleasure that I heard Waits' version. That was sufficient to keep me listening, but it's Innocent When You Dream and I'll Be Gone that have me queuing up Waits now. We also have Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. I've listened to the former several times, and especially enjoy 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six and Gin Soaked Boy. (I'm saving Rain Dogs -- much like a precious cache of chocolate -- for "when it's needed". Don't ask me how, but I'll know when that time comes.)

Waits is a singular artist whose creativity crashes through lyrics and music alike. Spare, odd instrumentations and unusual time signatures can make his music hard to appreciate, as can his gravelly voice. For those seeking "expert" opinions, the list of musicians who cover Waits' music ought to be ample evidence of his talent. Tough and tender, uniquely insightful, I'm pleased to have discovered another excellent, offbeat musical genius to explore.

Speak of musical geniuses and absurdity, and who comes to mind but Frank Zappa? Our collection barely scratches the surface of his works, but is decently representative, starting with Freak Out!, easily my favorite of the discs we have. Avant-garde music, biting satire, amusing pop parodies -- all are here, and much of it is as relevant today as it was in 1966, when it was first released. Trouble Every Day is a great song and a dismal reminder that some things haven't changed much at all over the past 40 years. My children especially like two songs: Wowie Zowie and Help, I'm a Rock (after a long discussion, they decided being a cop was worse than being a rock). Many people know Don't Eat the Yellow Snow, from Apostrophe, but I like Stink Foot better. Another favorite release currently in our possession is, without doubt, Have I Offended Someone?. Although lacking some of the experimental quality of other releases, each song is an amusing poke -- Jewish princesses, Christians, disco lovers, record company execs and the musicians who prostitute for them are some of Zappa's targets. My children are amused by Goblin Girl, no doubt thinking it's just a Halloween song, while I'm chuckling at the subtle double entendres that fill it. As more ideas and images become off-limits according to the morality police currently in power in the USSA, Frank Zappa is a welcome store of biting social commentary and fun music. Bring out your kazoos and join in!

Queen is another band getting a lot of eartime with me lately. The first album I ever bought was their 1975 release A Night at the Opera, because of Bohemian Rhapsody, but I came to love it because of the variety and depth of the tracks. It's tough to finger favorites from it, but Death on Two Legs, The Prophet's Song, '39, and I'm in Love with my Car are all great -- the latter two being noteworthy for allowing other Queen members to show their vocal chops. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy Freddie Mercury's voice; it and the unique guitar sound of Brian May are what drew me to Queen way back in the 70s, and kept me coming back until Freddie's death in 1991.

Mercury's voice was an amazingly pure tenor that packed one hell of an emotional punch. The multilayered vocal tracks, along with the complex, indulgent instrumental arrangements, made Queen's sound one either loved or hated for its overblown presentation. I loved it, almost as much as I loved the quirky and deep songs waiting to be discovered when I bought the albums for their hits. These include Don't Try Suicide and Sail Away Sweet Sister from The Game, Who Wants to Live Forever from A Kind of Magic, Get Down, Make Love from News of the World, and I'm Going Slightly Mad and These are the Days of Our Lives from Innuendo. I cry every time I hear a song from Innuendo, because it's clear that Freddie is making a herculean effort to give his best, as he was at the time seriously ill, but I can't stay away from that release, in large part because of the lyrics contained in the title track:

You can be anything you want to be
Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be
Be free with your tempo, be free be free
Surrender your ego - be free, be free to yourself
I never expected to find inspiration from an all-out rocking band I'd loved for years. But then, Queen's exuberant, singular approach to music-making had been inspiring to me for decades.
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