ICE-Z 3, ICE-Z 69 or The 3rd International Zappa Conference... what was this conference called? As it turned out, it was called all three things depending on whom you spoke to. This time it was the turn of Paris to host the conference previously hosted in London (2004) and Rome (2006). Organised by Les Fils de L'Invention (bravo Didier! bravo Marie!) it was without question the best attended to date; however, with all the bookstands and record sellers, it did feel markedly more commercial. Posters of Zappa looking like a roguish gypsy were plastered all over the venue causing Ben Watson to remark "somehow, the French have managed to create a handsome Zappa"! After I delivered my paper, Paul Sutton remarked that I'd done my country proud... see what you think, mofo's.
In a recent online article published by The Onion, it was revealed that Frank Zappa was a new entry into the Top 20 of "popular culture obsessions", taking up a position alongside Star Trek and The Simpsons. The article entitled, "The knights who say 'nerd': 20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python"  comments that "because Frank Zappa was so prodigious, so eclectic, and so keen on parodying modern music, fans of his work can dive in so deep that they rarely listen to anything else," (with the possible exception of doo-wop and Varése) and that "fans often aspire to become as smart and skilled as Zappa, so that they too can, with authority, mock a culture that they perceive as excluding them". Certainly once you begin to understand Zappa's music, normal popular music (i.e., the stuff in the charts) starts to sound too safe, too boring. There's only so much Coldplay one can take before strapping a bomb to ones self and running into HMV becomes a justifiable act. Zappa's music appeals to the inner nerd because it provokes thought. The "Project/Object" is a sprawling mass of interconnectivity and unpredictability, making it difficult to penetrate, especially if you're only used to standardised radio friendly music. Like the Simpsons and Star Trek, Zappa albums often feature loveable characters (e.g, Rhonda, Uncle Meat), challenging plots (e.g., Greggory Peccary, Billy the Mountain) and profound moral advice (e.g., "Don't mess with Billy", "Don't eat the yellow snow"). Sometimes, even the instrumental albums would contain a story printed inside the gatefold cover or dustsheet, an example being, The Grand Wazoo (1972).
In my own capacity to commit acts of geek-like behaviour, I have chosen to focus this essay on "wazoo" continuity. For the purposes of show biz, the first half involves a laughable etymological study. This is followed by an attempt to show how The Grand Wazoo album cover triggers waves of "conceptual continuity", tracing themes as and when they occur on the material surface. This section is taken from my PhD thesis, where I made a connection between "conceptual continuity" and "obscure complexity" . The term "obscure complexity" is used by the cryptographer Carl Ellison to describe number sequences which appear random, not because they are but because the person examining them doesn't understand the process that's generating them. To someone who understands the process, the sequences might not seem random at all, just complicated. Likewise, a Zappa album makes much more sense once you understand Zappa's ordering processes and have a grasp of the continuity links that connect it to the rest of the oeuvre.
Not long after Zappa disbanded the first incarnation of The Mothers in 1969 he began working on a number of jazz/rock projects. Some of the music from this period was released on Waka Jawaka (Hot Rats II) (1971) and The Grand Wazoo. Recently, two more "wazoo" related releases, both recorded in 1972, have found their way out of The Vault. First came Imaginary Diseases (2006) which features a selection of performances by the 10-piece Petit Wazoo group. This was followed up by Zappa Wazoo, which captures the 20-piece Grand Wazoo Orchestra blasting its way through some of Zappa's big band charts. Both releases capture a fascinating period of Zappa's writing and are a welcome addition to the catalogue as a whole. Zappa's skills as a composer and arranger are clearly evident, as are the inevitable hand signals used to steer the band through the improvisational sections.
So what does the word "wazoo" mean? Zappa had his own ideas which we'll look at in a moment; however, "wazoo" is such a strange word it benefits from a little analysis. Predictably, the Internet throws up a number of wild definitions ranging from "crazy person"  to "high priestess of the Babylonians"  whose role in society was to offer some kind of high-class escort service. In America, "wazoo" is commonly used as slang for "bottom", broadly applying to the fleshy rump of the buttocks or more specifically to the ever giving, ever receiving anal orifice itself. We can ponder for a moment that Zappa could have sung, "Broken Hearts are wa-zoos" but he didn’t, maybe because "wazoo" has only recently become associated with assholes. It was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006.
In some contexts, "Wazoo" is used to imply irreversible bad fortune, as in the sentence, "my status at the High School has gone up the wazoo". Although this could be a euphemism for "up the ass", the expression "up the wazoo" has similar connotations to "up the Suwannee". The Suwannee is a major river in the United States, flowing through southern Georgia and northern Florida. It was the source of inspiration behind George Gershwin's first big Tin Pan Alley smash, "Swanee" (1919) . The story goes it was discovered by Al Jolson, the black and white minstrel, who overheard it at a party and whom subsequently used it in his Broadway musical Sinbad alongside other classics such as "My Mammy". Jolson's warbling vocal intonations are immediately recognisable as the inspiration for the voice of the Evil Prince from Thing-Fish (1984).
When something goes "up the wazoo" or "up the Suwannee", it means ones luck has run out, analogous to going up or down shit creek without a paddle. Why the Suwannee should get such a reputation isn't clear but one can assume it has its fair share of dangerous rapids that could total your sailing dingy. Equally, sometimes things go down the pan, meaning that they have been flush down the lavatory. Thus, "wazoo" could be a substitution for the word "lavatory". In truth, "wazoo" can pretty much mean anything you want it to, depending on how you use it.
The actual origins of the word "wazoo" are harder to pinpoint. From a phonetic standpoint, "wazoo" sounds like the sort of word a drunk person might slur, inebriated to the point where intoxication of the brain means they are no longer able to co-ordinate the complex mouth movements required for enunciation (i.e, speech). Stroke victims and those who have suffered brain injuries can also find speaking difficult. My own grandfather lost part of his ability to speak after he was involved in a car accident. Although it was frustrating for him at times, his inability to say words properly was a source of humour in my family. We would imitate his speech by saying, "whizzle-whizzle... whizzle-whizzle... whizzle...".
One Internet source suggests that "wazoo" stems from the French for bird, l'oiseau ; however, this paints the uncomfortable picture that The Grand Wazoo is really Big Bird from Seasame Street. A similar sounding word "kazoo" is also of French origin. Although kazoos have existed since Roman times, the word first appeared in written form during the mid 14th Century, in the scholarly works of the Italian cleric and raconteur, Ethelred . The kazoo, called the chasoux royale throughout the Dark Ages, was essentially a French instrument well into the 14th Century and was played by noblemen to entertain guests at banquets. Ethelred recalls a story of the Dauphine, the future Jean II, who at a banquet was serenading an attractive young lady called Isabelle on his chasoux royale. Just as he was going in for a little kiss he sneezed in her face causing her to fly across the table, knock over the roasted pig, and land in a pile on top of various clerics and noblemen. Ethelred writes:
It is not just that the words wazoo and kazoo rhyme and are likely to be of French origin that connects them. In both cases, vibrating surfaces produces sound. The kazoo achieves its buzzy sound by using the human voice to vibrate a thin membrane. Simply blowing air through a kazoo produces no sound. Wazoos (if we apply the "arsehole" definition) produce sound by forcing air between two surfaces, i.e., the buttocks, causing them to oscillate. (NB: Reed instruments such as the bassoon and the oboe produce sound in a similar way.)
The Grand Wazoo's sleeve design features a battle scene set in ancient Rome, but Zappa's concept of time as a spherical constant, where everything coexists at the same time, means this is no ordinary battle. Against the backdrop of a crumbling Roman coliseum and what appears to be a huge monument engraved "The Grand Wazoo", a jazz/rock horn section (consisting of Norman soldiers and Egyptian pharaohs) fights off an army of Roman violinists. Instead of gunfire, they exchange hostile notes. The winged emblem across the top of the monument recalls the eagle symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, an icon much associated with Nazi Germany. The battle scene recalls the "traditional" verses the "modern" discourse of The Mothers' stage play Progress  and the fusion of orchestral and rock music of 200 Motels (1971). Alongside the music of The Grand Wazoo album, Zappa provides the listener with some reading material: "The Legend of Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus and The Grand Wazoo", a typical Zappa nonsense story, parodying the music industry, life on the road and groups trying achieve chart success.
At the time of the Grand Wazoo Orchestra's inception, music journalists pondered the meaning of the name. Harvey Siders wrote in Downbeat, "It's a typical 'Zappelation', made up of one part gibberish, one part satire, and the rest - just plain old put-on" . Zappa supplied a number of possibilities. During the story of Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, the Grand Wazoo is described as "an oversized primitive-but-effective megaphone" used to address "QUESTIONS" . A few years later, the song "Cosmik Debris" from Apostrophe (1974) featured the line, "with the oil of Aphrodite and the dust of the Grand Wazoo...", suggesting it might be a dessert or maybe a Sirocco-like wind. In the notes to a Synclavier track released in 1995 and also called "The Grand Wazoo" , Zappa gives it a completely different meaning: "Anybody in any one of those lodge organisations with a stupid hat on - actually the guy with the biggest, dumbest hat is the Grand Wazoo".
This short piece of text perfectly describes Zappa's relationship with new members of his fan base. Zappa is the Grand Wazoo (despite the text having been read by Captain Beefheart) and the concert arena is the lodge. The band make up the experienced members of the lodge since they regularly take part in the band rituals (rehearsals, gigs, tours, groupies) and the audience is characterised by Fred - always aware to expect the unexpected at a Zappa concert. The secrecy surrounding lodge organisations, their dependence on ritual ceremony, pledges of allegiance and secret handshakes, induces paranoia in the outsider and a sense of comradeship amongst those within. The Grand Wazoo's big, stupid hat may be a symbol of his status, but it is a symbol understood and respected only by those privileged enough to join the lodge .
The Grand Wazoo works at a hardware store. In reality, clandestine organisations represent a cross-section of society, from ordinary members of the public to those in positions of power such as politicians and the police - the figures of authority Zappa targeted on Absolutely Free and We're Only in it for the Money. The lodge is amusing to Zappa because it exchanges one set of lifestyle codes - the restrictive social codes of a moral society - for another equally "unfree" set, those of the secret society. Zappa is exposing the average American's need for escapism from the repressions of the workaday life. But it is the private (often sinister) goings-on, possibly of those conspiring against the interests of the masses, which Zappa is most interested in. His desire to reveal the closely guarded secrets of the state authorities, the decisions made behind the "closed doors" of the boardroom, the record company head office and, of course, the bedroom, are well represented in his body of work .
Nothing is more paranoia inducing than the knowledge that someone is being secretive. The "secret whispers" heard by the jock in "Status Back, Baby" , "the secret underground dumps (where they keep the pools of old poison gas, and obsolete germ bombs)" in "Billy the Mountain" . During live concerts, Zappa would often announce, "The secret word for tonight is...". The secret word could be anything. In a concert from 1988 it was "Ring of Fire" due to a chance meeting with Johnny Cash earlier that day. The album Fillmore East, June 1971 features the secret word "Mudshark", after the exploits of rock stars with marine life at the Edgewater Inn. The secret word could also be a sound, as on The Yellow Shark, which features the Ensemble Modern firing toy ray guns upon Zappa's cue. Secret words at concerts and the Grand Wazoo's stupid hat at lodge meetings are both codes, the significance of which is only understood by those present at the time, indoctrinated into the proceedings. The cryptic nature of "conceptual continuity" poses problems to the uninitiated in a similar way.
Watson comments in Poodle Play, that each time Zappa was asked about some "puzzling" feature which might reveal a hidden truth, a new set of questions would occur serving to complicate matters further. Because we can't ask him anything these days, we are left sifting through the materials he left behind in search of clues, speculating, imagining and stuffing up the cracks in our knowledge with our own contributions to Zappology, our own additions to "conceptual continuity" and our own cover band versions of Zappa's songs, be they forwards or backwards. This essay has only scratched the surface and should be consumed as an entertainment product for those who have outgrown the ordinary forms of popular music studies as championed by universities and other businesses.
1. "The knights who say 'nerd': 20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python", The A.V. Club, 4/2/2008. http://www.avclub.com/content/feature/the_knights_who_say_nerd_20_pop. The A.V. Club is an entertainment newspaper and website published by the US satirical publication, The Onion. It appears in the print editions of The Onion and online at www.avclub.com.
2. Ellison, Carl, "Cryptographic Randomness", http://world.std.com/~cme/html/randomness.html
Yes - these are far fetched but I think they're as plausible as anything else.
5. George Gershwin (music) and Irving Caesar (words), "Swanee", 1919.
7. Hutchinson, Robert D., "The Kazoo: A Historical Perspective", http://www.hmtrad.com/catalog/articles/kazoo.html
9. Frank Zappa, "Progress", Ahead Of Their Time, 1993.
10. Siders, Harvey, "Meet the Grand Wazoo", Downbeat 9/11/72. http://members.shaw.ca/fz-pomd/wazoo/gwrev.html
11. This recalls Charles Ives's "The Unanswered Question". In commentary relating to the piece, Ives outlined the symbolism of its parts which included a solo trumpet asking "The Perennial Question of Existence". http://www.musicweb-international.com/Ives/WK_Unanswered_Question.htm
12. Frank Zappa, "The Grand Wazoo", The Lost Episodes, 1996.
14. Zappa occasionally wore funny hats as distancing tool to prevent others taking him too seriously. There is a famous 1970s photograph of Zappa wearing a dunce's hat.
15. Frank Zappa, "Cocaine Decisions", The Man From Utopia, 1983.
16. Frank Zappa, "Status Back Baby", Absolutely Free, 1967.
17. Frank Zappa, "Billy The Mountain", Just Another Band From L.A., 1972.