It wasn’t very large
There was just enough room to cram the drums
In the corner over by the Dodge
It was a fifty-four
With a mashed up door
And a cheesy little amp
With a sign on the front said
And a second-hand guitar
It was a Stratocaster with a whammy bar
We could jam in Joe’s garage
In Joe’s Garage, Zappa tells the story of a guitar player who starts in a garage band and is slowly brought to destruction by a heartless society that doesn’t value music or art. I didn’t take to Joe’s Garage the way I was hoping I would, but one thing I can say is that Zappa isn’t about to imbue this story with any particularly mythic or self-serious overtones; he’s having, I might say, as much fun here as he’s ever had on a studio record. The song is narrated by a sarcastic, mean-spirited figure known as the Central Scrutinizer and he returns throughout the album to fill in details of the story. The Scrutinizer was maybe the most pleasant surprise of the album; it seems like exactly the kind of Zappa gimmick that I would hate, but I warmed up to him and found Zappa’s performance as the Scrutinizer is genuinely one of the very best things on this record. The songs are mostly pretty bland as far as I’m concerned and, for all the pleasure I got from the Scrutinizer, the story didn’t do anything for me, outside of the title track, which is a blissful, nostalgic ode to being in a band that plays for no other reason than the love of music. It’s one of Zappa’s best lyrics, a concise ballad that tells a full story and it even feels sincerely emotional, something you rarely get from Zappa. All the snippets of extra songs and cheesy saxophone solos are welcome, for once, as they add to the atmosphere of the song as it builds to a really wonderful climax. The other song that absolutely kills here is Crew Slut, a song dedicated to the night that Joe’s sweet girlfriend Mary became a groupie. Zappa’s vocal here is one of the sleaziest he’s ever done and the central riff of the song is a non-stop groove like Zappa only rarely produced. There’s a sense of genuine menace at times: “The guys in the crew have got a present for you,” just lands like a ton of bricks. And once again the Scrutinizer proves his worth; the entire rock opera concept is almost entirely justified when that central Crew Slut groove fades up under the Scrutinizer as he snarls, “One night . . . Mary didn’t show up. She was SUCKING **** backstage at the Armory.” There was a lot of controversy over the vulgarity and profanity on display on this album, but when you can do it that perfectly, you get to do it, as far as I’m concerned. (Acts II & III . . . well, they might not get the same pass). Joe’s Garage: Act I is a real mixed bag; thankfully it isn’t a double album, so it does sail by at a nice clip, but some of the songs, like Lucille & Catholic Girls, are just big ol’ whiffs. Two masterpieces and an endearingly vicious narrator can only elevate this album so far. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – a couple of great songs and a surprisingly well-executed central conceit can’t totally compensate for the bulk of the album being forgettable at best. 2 ½ stars.