One of my favourite American dissidents has always been and remains Frank Zappa. Zappa defies categorisation in terms of group allegiance, but as an individual, his views were remarkably coherent.
Zappa started his professional musical career in 1950s California, but before one thinks of a kind of proto-Beach Boy, Zappa’s California was the barren Mojave Desert (pre shopping mall days). He eventually made it to Los Angeles where he became to the hippy movement what Voltaire was to the French Enlightenment.
Whilst Zappa operated in the hippy ‘scene’ as virtually any young musician not playing easy listening or strict classical had to do, both his lyrics and his music mocked the pomposity, pretence and hypocrisy of the ‘love’ generation in the same way that Voltaire mocked some of the moral excesses and self-indulgence of the Parisian salons. Simultaneously, he took a libertarian stance on authority whether it be the authority of heavy handed policing or conformity minded counter-culture profiteers masquerading as messianic characters.
As his career moved forward, he became a fierce critic of the cultural policies of the ‘religious right’ which came to dominate the Republican party during the Reagan years. Interestingly for me, he defined himself as a conservative, as I do. Things were suddenly interesting.
Zappa opposed Reagan’s ‘big cowboy’ posturing against the USSR, opting for cooperation and commerce rather than confrontation. It wasn’t just the Soviet Union that Zappa wanted to do deals with. He became close friends with Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel in the 1990s and was going to be given a position in the new government in Prague before, Secretary of State James Baker apparently made a mad dash to Prague in order to tell Havel, ‘you can have American money or you can have Frank Zappa’.
Part of this story may be apocryphal, but the fact is, Havel was made an offer he could not refuse, although he remained friends with Zappa till the end of Zappa’s life.
Zappa was a foreign policy realist and domestically, Zappa lampooned the peace corps and hippies with the same vociferousness as he did hypocritical ‘televangelists’ and bored housewives who thought rock and roll music was actually a danger to young people (yes, it was the 1980s in America for those too young to take such things seriously).
If I had to place Zappa somewhere on 2017’s political spectrum, I’d put him on the Ron Paul libertarian side of things. I refuse to engage in speculation as to what a diseased individual would make of events long after his death (1993), but if there was ever an individual whose opinion I’d yearn for in 2017, it would be Zappa’s.
What is certain is that in his day, Zappa never encouraged pandemonium, lawlessness or hooliganism. He opposed drugs and drink and encouraged young people to put down the television remote and pick up a musical instrument. He told kids to skip school and instead become autodidacts. Zappa had a fondness for libraries that many of his contemporaries simply did not.
His solution to political malaise was to have young people register to vote and run for public office. In this sense he was before his time. A young person in the 1970s and 1980s America had little hope of being heard unless he was born into millions of dollars.
Today though, the power of the internet has given everyone a surprisingly influential platform. In this sense, Zappa’s rather middle of the road proposals seem more meaningful than ever, especially since people like George Soros are encouraging open violence and civil disorder, something Zappa always abhorred.
I’m sure the Trump era will have many whiney ‘charity concerts’ in store for us. So in that spirit I’ll conclude with one of Zappa’s finest quotes. He called Live Aid, “…”probably the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all time”.
You’re missed Frank Zappa. Whether you’d agree with my views on 2017 or not, your voice would be a breath of fresh air.