On Halloween night in 1978 Frank Zappa closed his band’s North American tour with a four-hour marathon show at the Palladium in New York City. The now legendary show is fondly known to his fans as “the big one”, after Zappa decided to combine the early and late shows into one and introduced the show with: “All right this is the big one. Since this is the big one, we’re gonna do an extra long show. I hope you don’t have to leave early”. Many put this show on their top live Zappa performances and considering the mammoth amount of shows that had been taped and bootlegged during his prolific career, this is no minor achievement. The evening was even more special, the band was joined with guest L Shankar, the great Indian violinist who became known to western audiences a few years earlier with Shakti, the band he formed with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain.
On stage that night was a similar personnel to the one that would record a few months later the triple-LP rock opera Joe’s Garage, an album that is an acquired taste for many, and not considered one of his best. But it includes one of my favorite in all of Zappa’s large catalog of amazing performances: Watermelon in Easter Hay. What makes the 1978 Halloween show special for me is a great rendition of that song, perhaps the best live performance of it that I heard. The solo exchanges between Zappa and Shankar on that song are nothing short of spectacular.
On the album Joe’s Garage, Watermelon in Easter Hay is played towards the end of the record, and it opens side six on the triple LP. The Central Scrutinizer, the narrating voice that comes whispering though a megaphone and glues the album songs with his tale of Joe and his entanglements in a dystopian society while trying to form a garage band, utters the following: “This is the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER. Joe has just worked himself into an imaginary frenzy during the fade-out of his imaginary song. He begins to feel depressed now. He knows the end is near. He has realized at last that imaginary guitar notes and imaginary vocals exist only in the imagination of the imaginer. And ultimately, who gives a fuck anyway?! Excuse me. Who gives a fuck anyway? So he goes back to his ugly little room and quietly dreams his last imaginary guitar solo.”
Towards the end of the narration the band comes in with a riff that is played throughout the nine-minute song, a hypnotic slow arpeggiated pattern in a 9/4 time signature, The snare accents have tons of reverb and delay, creating a swooosh sound that sometimes sounds like wind. That effect alone adds another dimension to the song. As the song unfolds, the 9/4 cycle becomes a sort of a mantra that you cannot get out of your head after the song ends. But the best part comes right after the narration ends, with one of the best guitar solos in the history of music. There is really no song form here, no A, B or C parts, no verse, bridge or chorus. Its that pattern and the guitar on top of it, repeating endlessly with slight variation from one cycle to the next. The solo is uniquely emotional in Zappa’s catalog, and he considered it one of the top performances of his career.
Whether you like Joe’s Garage or not, you cannot argue with its sound quality. It was recorded at Village Recorders studios in Los Angeles where some other amazingly sounding albums were recorded in the late 70s including Steely Dan’s Aja, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. The studio personnel was very accommodating and tried to provide everything the artists needed to get their creative juices going. Studio D was constructed especially for the production of Tusk, and Stevie Nicks asked for and got a vocal booth looking like a sunset in Tahiti. One of the things that stands out immediately when you hear the guitar on watermelon in Easter Hay is its tone, a clear spacey sound that works so well for the emotional mood of the piece and is very different from any other guitar sound I know. It was achieved by using the Space Station reverb unit in the days when sound engineers had to tinker with all of the equipment’s intricate options to get a unique sound. Today’s sameness of sound is a result of using factory presets in a digital age that encourages laziness when it comes to the sound and tone of an instrument.
The role of the other musicians on Watermelon in Easter Hay is much more restrained than usually on a Zappa composition, because they keep playing that 9/4 cycle over and over. But they are high enough in the mix that you can hear various nuances, especially by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and percussionist Ed Mann on Marimba and Glockenspiel. In a long list of extraordinary drummers that worked with Frank Zappa over the years, including Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thompson, Chad Wakerman and Terry Bozzio, Colaiuta stands out as the one most able to cope up with Zappa’s polyrhythmical sense of phrasing. In an interview he explained: “I had a pretty fair knowledge of polyrhythms and stuff like that before I got in the band, but nowhere near what it became. I mean, I knew what they were theoretically, but in terms of approaching them the same way he did and using them on the drumset, no way. I got all that from him. In the two and a half years I was with him, it was incredible what I learned. If he sees you have it to begin with, you have to keep up with him. There’s so much information and knowledge coming out of him so fast that you have to be on your toes every second. I would play behind his guitar solos. He said, “I want you to listen to what I’m playing because I’m playing all those rhythms. When you accompany me, I don’t want you to just try to guess what they are and play some standard rhythmic fill. I want you to understand exactly where I’m at and communicate with me on that level.”
Many consider Vinnie Colaiuta the most advanced drummer who played with Zappa. Here is Steve Vai: “He’s one of the most amazing sight-readers that ever existed on the instrument. One day we were in a Frank rehearsal, this was early ’80s, and Frank brought in this piece of music called “Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation.” Just unbelievably complex. All the drums were written out, just like “The Black Page” except even more complex. There were these runs of like 17 over 3 and every drumhead is notated differently. And there were a whole bunch of people there, I think Bozzio was there. Vinnie had this piece of music on the stand to his right. To his left he had another music stand with a plate of sushi on it, okay? Now the tempo of the piece was very slow, like “The Black Page.” And then the first riff came in, [mimics bizarre Zappa-esque drum rhythm patterns] with all these choking of cymbals, and hi-hat, riffs, spinning of rototoms and all this crazy stuff. And I saw Vinnie reading this thing. Now, Vinnie has this habit of pushing his glasses up with the middle finger of his right hand. Well I saw him look at this one bar of music, it was the last bar of music on the page. He started to play it as he was turning the page with one hand, and then once the page was turned he continued playing the riff with his right hand, as he reached over with his left hand, grabbed a piece of sushi and put it in his mouth, continued the riff with his left hand and feet, pushed his glasses up, and then played the remaining part of the bar. It was the slickest thing I have ever seen. Frank threw his music up in the air. Bozzio turned around and walked away. I just started laughing.”
Frank Zappa developed the song during his live performances in 1978. The first recorded instance of Watermelon in Easter Hay was at at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on January 27, 1978. Another version was recorded a month later in Germany and is available on Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa. A Memorial Tribute, an album released in 1996 by Dweezil Zappa that captures a few versions of pieces Zappa the father considered the best of his career . It is interesting to hear the development of the guitar solo from the early shows in 1978 to the ones on Halloween in New York and the studio version that appears on Joe’s Garage, recorded in 1979. The solo becomes more structured and mature in the last two and performances and projects a deeper emotion in my opinion. I believe the improvement is mainly due to the change of drummers from Terry Bozzio to Vinnie Colaiuta before the Halloween show .
On Joe’s Garage Zappa continued to use his technique of xenochrony, the placement of previously recorded material on top of studio tracks. Almost all his guitar solos on the album were recoded during live performances from his 1978 tours, and he let band members accompany these solos in the studio and improvise on top of them. He recorded only one new solo for Joe’s Garage and that was Watermelon in Easter Hay. As for the name, Zappa told an interviewer: “If a drummer overplays, if the bass player overplays or the keyboard overplays . . . if they don’t have any sensitivity to what I’m doing or if they aren’t smart enough to track the direction that I am going in it’s like dragging an anchor. In fact, I’ll point out the way that song, “Watermelon in Easter Hay” got its name. It’s from the statement that playing a solo with this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay. And most of the bands that I’ve had it was like that. It’s been just recently where I’ve had rhythm sections that don’t get in my way and let me do what I am going to do.”
Needless to say, Joe’s Garage’s lyrics are of the xxx rated material, and you have to take them as he did, with a good amount of humor. As much as I find his use of explicit lyrics sometimes juvenile, I have the uttermost respect for his opinions on freedom of speech, which he took a stand to protect during the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center, or otherwise known as the Tipper Gore idiotic censorship on song lyrics) senate hearing. An interviewer once asked him about Jewish Princess and the backlash that came after it:
Interviewer: Kind of like what came down with Randy Newman’s “Short People.”
Zappa: Yeah, but in his song, he says he hates short people. I don’t say I hate Jewish princesses; I say I want one.
So here is Watermelon in Easter Hay as it appeared on Joe’s Garage. I found a blessed youtube soul that cut the central scrutinizer part and faded right into the guitar solo:
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