The End Is Near

Why does the land of plenty love dystopias?

Prophetic works always promise more than they can deliver. Fans of the Book of Isaiah still wait in vain for lambs, goats, and unicorns to make the dust fat with their fatness. And when was the last time anybody who really deserved it had his heart vexed, his blood poured over mountains and rivers, and his flesh fed to fowls and beasts, as promised by the prophet Ezekiel? More recent prophecies haven’t worked out much better: The actual year 2001 sucked so hard that the estate of Stanley Kubrick should face a class-action suit for false advertising.

But the late Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage now rises to that rare stratosphere of works applauded for their prescience when the future itself arrives. The mad, filthy 1979 rock opera (a hybrid of a cheap high school play and a say-no-to-music cautionary tale narrated by a creepy government official) has now been brought for the first time to the live stage, in a very faithful musical playing at Los Angeles’ Open Fist Theatre.

In Entertainment Today, reviewer Travis Michael Holder marveled at “how right that wildly un-PC social critic…Frank Zappa was in his pronouncement of what could be the future of America, a place where his outrageously predicted fascist theocracy, not to mention the Central Scrutinizer itself, have become all too real.” The Los Angeles Times’ Philip Brandes allowed that “the rock icon/avant garde composer/social satirist’s cautions seem downright prophetic.” L.A. Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris added, “Some people can just see things coming.”

Such claims for Zappa’s prophetic gifts are commonplace. In a You-Tube comment on the musician’s epic six-minute tirade “Flakes,” Bob Cronley wrote: “I believe the original record came out in 1980, and it was sheer prophicy (sic). Frank warned us, but very few listened. Now, the Flakes are running our government, running our corporations, and programming our computers. This is the most important protest song ever, but it’s too late, we are doomed for not listening. :)”

Pat Towne and Michael Franco’s production of Joe’s Garage is an inspired, moving, hilarious adaptation of a concept album that Rolling Stone’s Carter-era review said would be impossible to stage. As far as I know it’s the first fully successful effort to bring rock’s manic, shameless anarchy to legitimate theater.

But was Frank Zappa’s three-decade-old record really prophetic?

Oh, it has its eerie overlaps with our science-fiction present. The album’s scenario of a government so intent on “enforcing all the laws that haven’t been passed yet” that it outlaws music was at the time a response to a crackdown by the Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, yet it received more recent resonance from the Sunni Taliban’s pre-invasion music and kite flying bans in Afghanistan. Zappa’s vision of perverted priests, prison sexual assault, and copulation with appliances (including a man-cyborg rough-sex death) surely feels contemporary. The circus/hootenanny vibe of Joe’s Garage got an even more circus-like rehearsal during the mid-1980s, when Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center crusaded against explicit rock lyrics. And the following phrase (drawn from the strangely coherent storyline’s narrator) should be inscribed on the wall of every federal building: “Cruel and inhuman punishments are being carefully described in tiny paragraphs so they won’t conflict with the Constitution (which, itself, is being modified in order to accommodate THE FUTURE).”

But in just as many ways Joe’s Garage remains a relic of its time, not least in its adolescent gags about women and gays, which may have been daring or progressive in the ’70s but now amuse only those of us who still giggle when we say “Uranus.” The core idea of the story—that musical expression would no longer be free—clearly failed to transpire. The Parents Music Resource Center, which Zappa eloquently opposed on Capitol Hill, ended up providing little more than free advertising to some heavy metal bands. America endured an eight-year period during which Tipper Gore was just one assassin’s bullet and one coma-inducing aneurysm away from an iron grip on federal power, yet here we are.

It is ever thus within the rarefied genre of dystopian burlesque. Other examples of nightmares that didn’t come true (hype notwithstanding) include Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network and the genre’s white whale, George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984.

Orwell’s creation received a special workout during its eponymous year. The United States of 1984 could not have looked less like the former Eric Blair’s vision of Airstrip One. But that did not stop “Orwell’s Nightmare Vision Has Come True” thumbsuckers from being recycled in hundreds of newspapers for a full calendar year. In a characteristic example, the Manhattan School of Music’s James Sloan Allen took to The Christian Science Monitor to announce that his inability to “get an undergraduate to make an objective and reasoned moral judgment” proved that “in truth, we [were] slipping into bondage of a more insidious kind, one that Orwell feared above all,” making Orwell’s “futuristic novel dramatically pertinent now in the United States.” Not to be outdone, the organ of the Soviet Writers’ Union announced that Orwell’s “vision of the future is becoming a reality—in the United States,” while the East German Leipziger Volkszeitung found that the book “has parallels with the real world of imperialism… through the increasingly total surveillance of citizens (in the West) by computers.”

Network, a witty attack on corporate media, does contain elements that now seem like prototypes of contemporary trends, among them its versions of politicized reality television and an early Bill O’Reilly figure in the bellowing, suicidal Howard Beale. Yet in its larger picture, the film is almost totally wrong. Paddy Chayefsky’s script posits mainstream media becoming more outlandish and exerting ever greater control of the public imagination. In fact, the Captains of Consciousness become stodgier each year, and their grip on the public mind grows steadily more feeble.

So why are dystopian visions still more popular than a truckload of Soylent Green? In recent years we’ve seen studio movies detailing human extinction through infertility (Children of Men) and the mental retardation of all humanity (Idiocracy), even a kid’s picture in which environmental disaster drives the population underground and Bill Murray is president (City of Ember).

Maybe the lure of dystopia is that it’s one of the few remaining popular genres that seem to invite tragedy. Not cheap accidental tragedy, but the real kind, the inevitable, ironic kind where the hero gets disabused of his illusions in the instant after he is ruined. In Joe’s Garage’s less popular second half—like most musicals, it frontloads the crowd pleasers—political puckishness and dirty jokes give way to grim, violent, psychosexual despair. But Open Fist’s staging elevates the whole thing into a kind of universal lament: Your culture will find one way or another to break you down; the gods will mock your attempts to escape or transcend; things that were supposed to be fun will end up feeling like rape. In the end, you will lose. That is the sad truth of every age, and why the prophets are destined to be half right.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a Los Angeles–based writer.

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  • paul carr||

    Great article. Oddly enough I wrote a blog post the other week which briefly discussed this production. It was in fact not the first of its kind - see blog for details. It is also interesting how this facist approach to controlling the reception of music is in a strange way being implemented by the Zappa Family Trust at the moment. See http://paulcarrmusings.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/who-owns-what-in-music-copyrighta-zappa-case-study/ for details

  • Other Matt||

    I'd not be so quick to write off Orwell. Given that 84 was just a reversal of 48, and didn't necessarily indicate 84, kind of seems like he was truly a prophet.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Catharsis?

  • ||

    The United States of 1984 could not have looked less like the former Eric Blair's vision of Airstrip One.

    I quote Nigel Tufnel: "That's just nitpicking isn't it?" I don't think there are that many people who find or need Joe's Garage and 1984 to be Faith Popcorn-esque works of forecasting. They are satirical works with hyperbolic predictions of modern governments unabated attempt to relieve people of their right to self-determination. In that respect they have only erred in the depth of penetration and how these attempts would express themselves.

  • Chris||

    Man, I haven't even received my december issue in the mail and you guys are posting january articles to the website

  • the innominate one||

    I'll have to RTFA later, but I just wanted to post ZAPPA RULES!

  • ||

    Wow, what a great year 1984 was! Truly amazing stuff.

    jess
    www.anonweb.net.tc

  • ||

    Zappa called the war on terror, lawyers writing careful words to justify torture as reasonable, but so what, right?

    We've got warrantless wideband wiretapping devices installed in our biggest telephone switching centers, invasive searches of our persons and possessions without probable cause, SWAT teams breaking down our doors and shooting our dogs to bust us for the suspicion that we might be smoking a weed that just grows out of the ground, hundreds or thousands of people held in prisons for years without ever being charged, an arbitrary motion picture rating system owned by the major studios and the FCC fining broadcasters hundreds of thousands of dollars for an errant dirty word but, boy, that Orwell and Zappa were way off, weren't they?

  • dhex||

    if you read 1984 you'd be hard-pressed to find too many direct comparisons. it doesn't mean parables can't have lessons drawn from them, but it doesn't make them prophets, either.

    the sadism found in 1984 is pointlessly abstract and arty, breaking people for the sake of breaking them like a camp guard bored into savagery. why would an all-encompassing government that has found a way to control not only all media and information but the very nature and flow of language itself busy its minions with breaking the will of their subjects in elaborate con games?

    that's what makes it great literature (a good read waiting for jury duty, to say the least) but not necessarily a roadmap to the future.

  • ||

    Everyone invested in the current system denies that there is anything wrong with it.

    Wiretaps, Eschelon, Fox News' "homicide bombers", bin Laden tapes right before elections, an open-ended war with a vague enemy, domestic spying on mosques, etc... But that Orwell's such an idiot... it's not like we have a chocolate ration and have to do jumping jacks every morning!

  • ||

    the sadism found in 1984 is pointlessly abstract and arty, breaking people for the sake of breaking them like a camp guard bored into savagery. why would an all-encompassing government that has found a way to control not only all media and information but the very nature and flow of language itself busy its minions with breaking the will of their subjects in elaborate con games?

    I think Orwell was on to something there. People with authority do seem to enjoy cruelty for its own sake.

  • ||

    Where's my Victory Gin, bitches?

  • Kolohe||

    I wouldn't put '2001' in the dystopian fiction genre. It was almost the complete opposite, especially when compared to its contemporary peers.

  • the innominate one||

    A Victory Jay would be far preferable.

  • dhex||

    "People with authority do seem to enjoy cruelty for its own sake."

    i think that's largely projection. not that petty people don't get into power or abuse it - mr. balko keeps us up to date on aspects of that front to be sure - but it does seem that large scale power is much less personal than many would like to take it. you can see the flip side with the bailout, the personification of "wall st." by some on the left as an actual living, breathing monolith of wickedness, rather than a collection of people acting out their own agendas and impulses.

    why would government be much different in this regard? it's nice to think of the enemy as an enemy worthy of emnity, complete with the jackboots and other trappings, but the process is a lot more like a rock rolling down a mountain than a boot stamping on a face.

  • dhex||

    or perhaps i'm feeling a little too taoist this morning. take yer pick!

  • ||

    or perhaps i'm feeling a little too taoist this morning. take yer pick!

    Probably. Because it wasn't necessarily the policy of Ingsoc to break Winston, it was just O'Brien and his subordinates.

  • ||

    David,

    I think Orwell was on to something there. People with authority do seem to enjoy cruelty for its own sake.

    Spot on.

    Western Kentucky University did it very quietly, but I witnessed them allowing police with drug dogs roam the dorms on Friday and Saturday night to sniff out kids smoking pot. What is that but banal cruelty?

  • ||

    Oh good, another piece of crap to miss. Thanks for the warning.
    The very name of the theatre itself "Open Fist" tells me to avoid it entirely.
    Drop a big load of acid and enjoy nothing, I'm sure.
    Zappa did a fine job on the single politics centered interview I've ever seem him give - he should keep to talking - only.

  • ||

    I don't think you'll have to worry about it, doc, considering that the man's been dead for 15 years.

  • ed||

    nightmare visions that didn't come true

    Alar
    Acid rain
    The population bomb
    Global cooling
    Global warming
    Global fluctuating...wait, that one is true.

  • ||

    Zappa also had some great insight on the economy. Although he was referring to the USSR, it's still relevant to today's situation:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Aak2LU_UmI

    "The only people that want war are religious fanatics and crazy people in government. Average men and women just want to do business." -FZ

  • ||

    This is an erratic article--the thesis seems to be "look how their fears didn't come true, wow those guys really weren't that hip". Good lord, dystopias are cautionary tales which usually illustrate a single social flaw taken to its logical conclusion. If they don't come true, it's not because their logic is flawed, just that in the real world, there are too many other flaws teasing things in other directions. Where Zappa's dystopia didn't come out, I think it is only because people overestimate the capabilities of political evangelicals. Of course no one more so than a NARAL canvasser. You listen to one of them, you'd think Dobson just wants to save the fetuses so later he can eat them to power his eye laser beams. But I do think the logical conclusion of the Moral Majority was indeed a fascist theocracy, so thank god they turned out to be a bunch of feckless chumps.

    The big lesson of 1984 is that when you dumb down the language, you dumb down the thought. Same thing George Carlin later showed us. And what is the average vocabulary of a "Deal or no Deal" fan? Enough to form a competent understanding about Guantanamo? Extraordinary rendition? Warrantless wiretapping? Police militarization?

    Hey, ed, fuck you. Just ask any lake fisher in Scandinavia or New York or a ton of other places if acid rain is a problem or not. There only two reasons world population growth hasn't gone completely helter-skelter: family planning and education of women, both of which were responses to the warnings. And as for global warming, we'll just have to find out together. But, and just to reiterate, fuck you.

  • dhex||

    "What is that but banal cruelty?"

    avoiding lawsuits and building your brand as a "safe place" for people to send their kids. from a university pr standpoint, any kind of drug bust on campus that can be spun into a "big drug bust" (even if it's not) is bad publicity.

  • dhex||

    "The big lesson of 1984 is that when you dumb down the language, you dumb down the thought."

    that's not nearly as true as whorf or even lakoff seems to think. it's confusing thought with rhetoric, i think. rhetoric can be used to narrow and reframe an argument, but it's done so in line with the speakers' beliefs, not vice versa. (i.e. i can just say "no no it's a death tax" to a liberal and have them go "oh yeah it's not an estate tax at all since you used the term death")

    the manner of debate seems to be more of an influence, i.e. the shoutypants style so popular these days, contra the charlie rose or "the open mind" style of chat and actual dialogue.

  • ||

    dhex, wouldn't you say that the shoutypants style is possibly a compensation for having a restricted vocabulary in comparison with, say, Charlie Rose?

  • dhex||

    "dhex, wouldn't you say that the shoutypants style is possibly a compensation for having a restricted vocabulary in comparison with, say, Charlie Rose?"

    i'd like to, but no. the folks on crossfire probably weren't idiots, and definitely went to some good schools, but the style of debate was such that it lowered the iq of everyone watching.

    it's not vocabulary - it's shitty rhetoric and arguing like a jerkoff and stuff.

  • marky||

    i am not a product of consumerism. with my new credit card i am free to do what i want.

    for those of you who are worried about the economy, don't worry we have missiles so we are protected.

    however, placing a gun in the drawer beneath your bible should assuage any fears you may have.

  • ||

    "Oh, [Joe's Garage] has its eerie overlaps with our science-fiction present."

    Rock albums and speculative fiction don't pretend to predict the specifics. They warn of trends. If they are successful, the trend alters, then Tim Cavanaugh says they weren't very prophetic. But the fact that we identify "eerie overlaps" suggests that their visions were worthy trend identifiers.

  • ||

    Oh Timmy, your are just so progressive!

    But in just as many ways Joe's Garage remains a relic of its time, not least in its adolescent gags about women and gays, which may have been daring or progressive in the '70s but now amuse only those of us who still giggle when we say "Uranus."

    L. Ron Hoover prescribing a vacuum cleaner with marital aids stuck all over is funny. It was funny in 1979. It was funny in 1989. It was funny in 1999. And it will be funny in 2009.

  • Pendulum||

    Plooking too hard!

    Father Riley's a fairy, but that don't bother Mary!

  • ||

    Assuming there is still a thing called CYO and the CYO still sponsors dances, then I think the girls are still learning the same thing...unless Michelle and Hillary have outlawed that.

  • Lord Jubjub||

    Wasn't 1984 meant to be a description of eastern Europe as it existed in 1948?

  • ||

    Frank Zappa released an album detailing a future where music is illegal.

    Now I know where they got the idea for Revolution X.

    Oh, Aerosmith, how could you?

  • ||

    "dhex, wouldn't you say that the shoutypants style is possibly a compensation for having a restricted vocabulary in comparison with, say, Charlie Rose?"

    i'd like to, but no. the folks on crossfire probably weren't idiots, and definitely went to some good schools, but the style of debate was such that it lowered the iq of everyone watching.

    it's not vocabulary - it's shitty rhetoric and arguing like a jerkoff and stuff.



    Television is a low-resolution medium that leads to low-resolution discussion.

    Or something.

  • andrew||

    dhex, etc.:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISil7IHzxc

  • Paul||

    carefully described in tiny paragraphs so they won't conflict with the Constitution (which, itself, is being modified in order to accommodate THE FUTURE



    The Constitution is a lllllllliiiiving document! Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

  • Paul||

    Zappa, like many artists, was merely speaking to what currently ailed him: The suppression of speech of the entertainment and artistic type.

    Since then we've moved on to far more chilly areas of speech suppression-- areas which have bipartisan support.

  • Paul||

    Television is a low-resolution medium that leads to low-resolution discussion.

    What does that make youtube?

  • ||

    Television is a low-resolution medium that leads to low-resolution discussion.

    Bullshit!

  • Freeranger||

    Despite the general rising arc of civilization, living standards, etc., the notions of dystopia and decline retain power to frighten and fascinate in no small part because it has actually happened before. Dark Ages, anyone?

  • Paul||

    And what is the average vocabulary of a "Deal or no Deal" fan? Enough to form a competent understanding about Guantanamo? Extraordinary rendition? Warrantless wiretapping? Police militarization?

    Better than it was 100, 200, or 300 years ago. We've allowed ourselves to be confused by our own system of education.

    There was a time when no one would have been able to comprehend those things because such a narrow minority of the population received any meaningful education... at all.

    If they (which, who am I kidding, "they" is actually "us", ie, you and I) can form any understanding, we've actually come a long way.

  • Paul||

    the notions of dystopia and decline retain power to frighten and fascinate in no small part because it has actually happened before. Dark Ages, anyone?

    Ahh yes, I remember them well.

  • ||

    What does that make youtube?



    Ever read the comments section of a YouTube video?

  • ||

    "Ever read the comments section of a YouTube video?"

    Nope, I installed the youtube comment snob firefox plugin and I haven't seen a comment since.

  • ||

    YET AGAIN Reasononline blithely dismisses Orwell's 1984 and his/its warnings and PRESENT REALITY.
    Down that darn Memoryhole...via the Delete button.
    The Smiling Boot to the head of Americans...now tapping at an increasing tempo and force...
    dismissed as paranoia and tolerated...by of course sheeple SkinnerBox resident Americans...but Reason??
    You can have YOUR DHS/FEMA/NorthCom/SPPNAU-EU/APEC/seamlessCCTV America...and shake your internet finger at them/it
    Thanks

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    L. Ron Hoover prescribing a vacuum cleaner with marital aids stuck all over is funny. It was funny in 1979. It was funny in 1989. It was funny in 1999. And it will be funny in 2009.

    No argument here. Interestingly, I chatted up the show's creators and cast members, and none of them seemed aware that the Gay Bob doll was a real thing. (To be fair, few or none of the cast members were even born at the time.) It's totally forgotten, or remembered only by me, just like the paper knife Zappa mentions in "Flakes."

    When I say the adaptation is faithful, I mean they even left in Zappa's flub and do-over of the L. Ron Hoover intro. And the band missed nary a nuance or rhythmic fillip in the dense score. Seriously, anybody who's anywhere near Southern California needs to see this show.

  • Andy||

    Anyone else notice that Frank Zappa is the lead article on Wikipedia today? Conspiracy? If so, by who?

  • ||

    There is every indication that we are descending into a dark age, and it is arguable that that descent may have started well over a century ago. Any half-way historically literate person should be able to deduce this. So esplain me, Lucy, why are libertarians always running around trying to convince us that the doomsayers are all wrong? Certainly some of them have been wrong (especially in the area of environmentalism), but many of them have been proven spot on (particularly in the area of economics and culture). And, then these self-same libertarians wonder why their reformist message doesn't sell at the polls. Go figure. You don't sell a fix-it-up product by telling people their lives don't need fixing. Could it be that libertarians are the world's most clueless people when comes to public relations and marketing?

  • nfl jerseys||

    jrg

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