Oh God, I am the American dream
I was struggling with Sheik Yerbouti for about the first half of the album. It’s, like a lot of Zappa’s double album, a weird, somewhat sloppy mix of weird instrumentals/collages and songs that veer from high quality to forgettable. But then, quite suddenly, I came upon the song Bobby Brown. And everything became clear.
Sheik Yerbouti isn’t Zappa’s best album, not even close, but it is, I think, his most ambitious artistic effort. The album is, at base, a dissection of the excesses of the eighties. If the album had come out in 1989, it would have been incredibly obvious. But Zappa never does the obvious; the album instead comes out in 1979, but it remains incredibly on-point. We often call our favorite musical artists ‘prophets,’ but nothing throws us for a loop more than when they literally are. This album was upon release, and I think is still, very misunderstood. But it feels like Zappa is dead on point with so much of his commentary here. More on that later.
But first, let’s talk about the central moment of this record. I could spend a whole page discussing just Bobby Brown. It’s a masterpiece of song-craft, marrying intense lyrics to a beautiful, catchy background to create a song that is funny, disturbing and, ultimately, deeply sad. It begins as a witty takedown of an alpha male that very quickly morphs into a disturbing portrait of a society gone wrong. It’s damning enough to conflate arrogance, superficiality and wealth with the American Dream; but Zappa doesn’t stop there – it is, in Zappa’s vision, power that creates the Dream. There are few moments in music as shocking and perfect as the turn from the verse into the chorus: Got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper/let her do all the work, maybe later I’ll rape her/oh God I am the American Dream. As the song progresses, it takes on an even deeper sadness as our titular character drifts further and further into irrelevance; he’s peaked, in power, influence and quality of life, too early and his post college life isn’t what he wishes it was. The lyrics here are easily Zappa’s best. I went out & bought me a leisure suit/I jingle my change, but I’m still kinda cute; this is a heartwrenching, absolutely real portrait of a pathetic man – there’s a joke in there, but the visceral sadness hits harder than the humor. By the end of the song, none of the jocks can even tell he’s a homo. Hiding a central part of himself out of shame; this too speaks directly the American Dream. It’s easy to see the humor in the later passages of the song, but there are double meanings here; “I can take about an hour on the Tower of Power,” is about more than sexual degradation, but the thing that ties all the meanings together is that loss of power, whether it’s sexual, social, economic or anything else you want to think about. By the end of that verse, Bobby Brown has learned to love S&M, but he gets there the same way he gets everywhere in his life these days: “One day me & a friend sorta drifted along . . .” The melancholy melody and restrained, beautiful backing to the words adds immeasurably to the emotional heft of the song. Zappa claimed to be flabbergasted by the fact that the song was a number one hit in some places in the world and became something of a favorite among his fan base; I think he was being disingenuous. The reasons this song is a masterpiece are obvious on its very face and it gets more complicated the farther down you dig. Bobby Brown is perhaps Zappa’s masterwork, a three minute emotional & incisive summation of the destruction of the American Dream or, more accurately, the corruption of that Dream, which never, after all dies; it stays around to the end of the song, but by the time Bobby Brown finally admits he’s on his way down, what does it even mean.
Other tracks on the record are less obvious in their glimpses of the oncoming excesses of the eighties, but they’re there. Jewish Princess explores anti-Semitic stereotypes. Flakes models something of a culture war as the affable hippies of the sixties and seventies become annoyingly unmoored (and one might even make the case that Flakes also predicts a dire decade for Bob Dylan!). Dancin’ Fool & I Have Been In You both parody the increasingly sterile music scene that is beginning to develop. Some of these are stretches more than others, but with Bobby Brown as the beating heart of this album it’s easy to make these connections.
So, is this album great? No, I don’t think so. Despite the extreme ambitions of it, it’s yet another great single album downgraded by being stretched to a double. Essentially every instrumental needs to go, even Rat Tomago, based on The Torture Never Stops, a song I absolutely love. Especially nonsense like Rubber Shirt; that one seems a holdover from Weasels Ripped My Flesh – Zappa edits together the bass line from one song with the drum track from another in order to produce . . . something no one wants to hear. There is genuinely a brilliant forty-five minute album in here that has eleven tracks, not eighteen. That album would have a shot at being Zappa’s best album; as this album stands, even all the brilliance on display and all the artistic ambition in the world can’t keep it from slipping down a bit. But Sheik Yerbouti stands as a unique entry in Zappa’s discography and an exciting one; Zappa’s reach continues to exceed his grasp. But this is a blessed reach still. 3 stars.
tl;dr – Zappa’s most ambitious artistic statement is buried under a lot of annoying trivia; too long, sloppy & very flawed, this album still contains some of Zappa’s most breathtaking work. 3 stars.