Billy the Mountain

FZ

I sing best when by a washing machine.

Half way across Australia. The farming hamlet of Kimba. Late on a Tuesday. It often was. At that time, no night was safe. Bazz, Hen and I wedged into the laundry, and warbling along with Frank Zappa.

A mountain is something
You don’t wanna fuck with
You don’t wanna fuck with
Don’t fuck around

Stripping precious bushels from the wheat, our voices pranged out across the paddocks. The adult in charge was Coopers Sparkling Ale. Of course, Bazz, Hen and I have been mates ever since.

I first heard Zappa at Bushy Martin’s one summer down at Sellicks Beach. It was Joe’s Garage on vinyl, exhilarating and just a bit dangerous. Here was sophisticated, funny music coupled with contagious lyrics, especially on “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”

Much of my pop culture schooling came on Sunday nights through The Coodabeen Champions. During one episode the best Frank Zappa song was debated. They agreed.

I raced into Rundle Mall, and bought Just Another Band From LA. Inspecting the cartoonish cover, I see “Billy the Mountain” runs for roughly thirty minutes. Epic songs have always bewitched me with their wide landscapes. Empty roads, awaiting traffic.

The storytelling and amusing arrangements make it a masterpiece. Part travelogue and romantic comedy, it opens in Los Angeles, tumbles through Playa Del Rey, Santa Monica, and Canoga Park, before lurching across the Mojave Desert, to The Strip

It’s off to Las Vegas
To check out the lounges
Pull a few handles,
And drink a few beers.

It also functions as an opera and a radio play, with Zappa and cult vocal duo Flo and Eddie alternating as narrators. On a vacation paid for by postcard royalties, our mobile mountain Billy, and his wooden wife Ethell are heading, seismically, to New York.

The heroic pair travel west to east, annihilating various human environments, in a deviant Manifest Destiny. Edwards Air Force Base is an early, delicious target

TEST STAND #1 and THE ROCKET SLED ITSELF… (We have ignition!)… got LUNCHED! I said LUNCHED!

When I lived just north of London in the old Roman city of St Albans, it was a Zappa-free zone for two years. Mammoth in charisma and personal impact, I missed this song. So, in 2005 I had a mate home in Adelaide copy my CD, and send it to me.

Driving down to New Forest’s heathland, the wife and I listened to it one Friday. It provided happy escape from the cheerlessness of the M25 and M3. A universe distant from soggy Hampshire

He was born next to the beef pies,
Underneath Joni Mitchell’s autographed picture,
Right beside Elliot Roberts’ big Bank Book,
Next to the boat
Where Crosby flushed away all his stash.

Mentioning American emblems such as Jack-In-The-Box and Howard Johnsons, this magnum opus inspires me to drive an El Dorado Cadillac and shop at Ralph’s. Just like The Dude in the beginning sequence of The Big Lebowski. To a country boy from South Australia, it’s profoundly panoramic.

Remember the soaring coda of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes?” It’s parodied on “Billy the Mountain.” A key sonic motif is the stab from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and the structure reminds me of “Peter and the Wolf.”

It’s eclectic, as Toto (the dog, mercifully, and not the band) and the tornado from The Wizard of Oz, are juxtaposed with Jerry Lewis samples. Remarkably, all recorded live at UCLA!

Satirising the antihero, a blundering Studebacher Hoch, Zappa’s darts are sharpest on overzealousness, and fawning ignorance, especially in Hoch’s introductory monologue

and, ah, how’s your wife’s haemorrhoids? Oh, that’s too bad… Listen… so you’ve got a mountain, with a tree, listen, causing… oh, my! Well, let me write this down . . . sorta take a few notes here… yeah… ?

The song’s Dadaist, its anarchistic storyline urging anti-war sentiment during its elongated loopiness. But, it’s also debauched, ridiculous, and hilarious.

And, of course, it takes a brutal intellect to invent such fun.

We don’t live in a global village. Mostly, we reside in a culturally identical village, repeated globally. Zappa fought this, and “Billy the Mountain” is musical theatre of prodigious ambition, and equal achievement. It’s among the most engrossing, most weird half hours you can spend.

I often think of being by that washing machine, in its tiny laundry, when three friends squawked out into the undeserving Tuesday dark, with America’s wittiest commentator, Frank Zappa.

A mountain is something
You don’t wanna fuck with
You don’t wanna fuck with
Don’t fuck around

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