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.