It’s been a little over six months since Charles Ulrich dropped The Big Note on Zappa’s universe last Mother’s Day. With August’s second printing — which like the first truly deserves the epithet “big”; more than one tree had to go to make way for this sucker — dwindling faster than the polar icecaps, it’s high time to study this phenomenon closer, in order to try to better understand its root causes.
The first thing that jumps out is that The Big Note story has been completely overlooked by MSM. So far, no Time or Rolling Stone cover (or even mention! (I guess they don’t have as much room to fit the news they print as they used to). Not once has it lead Regis and Kathy, or even Canada AM. No half-hour CNN News Special devoted to it. Not just Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, or Michiko Kakutani: the entire New York Times has maintained a silence about what might be the biggest Zappa news story in a quarter of a century.
Nor have their been any well-attended author signings, whether at the Grand Opening of Indigo’s enterprise flagship store in Short Hills, New Jersey, the Laboratory State; nor at the roll-out of the new-concept Barnes & Noble in Vernon Hills, Illinois. The never-planned cross-Canada tour was cancelled after a single show, the sold-out August 24 event at Lanalou’s Restaurant in Vancouver, BC, where an unebriated Charles Ulrich tossed his U47 into the roiling crowd and swore that he would never set foot in a tour bus again, unless it was going to Bad Doberan next summer.
So far the only crack in the mainstream Wall of Silence has been Charlie Grimes’s review of The Big Note in the December issue of Downbeat, downloading into mailboxes across these great lands of ours this month. And just in case Downbeat’s readers miss the point, we also have our own nifty, tough & bitchin’ ad on p. 85 of the same issue (and, for your viewing pleasure, reproduced here as well). S’cool, you know. Downbeat was, like, the daddy-o of music magazines the first time Jann Wenner was wearing diapers.
And, locally, the reviewer for the local underground newspaper the Georgia Straight has been one of the first, but not the only one, to point to the general lessons that FZ’s music holds for all those lucky enough to have been born with proper ears. “[W]ill thrill dedicated musicians and musicologists alike,” their writer Martin Dunphy concluded.
But the real work of the marketing department was laid down decades ago, as Charles Ulrich established himself as an authority on all matters relating to Zappa and the Mothers. It all started out on the old usenet, in a discussion forum going by the name of alt.fan.frank-zappa. One-time affz denizen Russkiy_To_Youskiy remembers it thusly:
“Well, I didn’t even know he had a book out. Lol… Basically, back in the day of the FZ newsgroup, there was a lot of just random info going around. For example, concerts, set lists, and bootlegs that nobody knew about. A whole other of guys were in search of info in one particular aspect, and they were relentless in pursuing anything they could get, and they shared it with everyone. Ulrich started the process of collecting and collating all that info that everyone else was gathering. Guys like Roman started the FZ lyrics page from the info he got from newsgroups, which was essentially crowdsourced info, and then Ulrich incorporated all that info into his stuff. Robbert Heederik started St. Alphonso’s Pancake homepage, and that was another huge and informative website from info gleaned from the newsgroup. I think, and I’m not sure right now, that St. Alphonso’s is gone, but Ulrich backed everything up and included it in his site. Vladimir Sovetov’s Arf.ru is still up, and that was another extension of the newsgroup to collate huge amounts of info. Not sure if thebignote webpage is still up, but that was a really cool site too. A few other people you can try looking up for sites and info are Patrick Neve, Jon Naurin, and Johan Wikberg. Those guys were really the ones who started the FZ newsgroup, were the stewards of it, and a lot of info that we have now is because of those guys. There were quite a few sites in geocities and there was a Frank Zappa web ring (if you remember web rings), but off the top of my head I can’t really remember any specifically. Im sure that if I look through my Netscape bookmarks I still have them in there… ok, I’m feeling pretty old talking this shit now… lol… At any rate, most of all that stuff went into planet of my dreams site, iirc.”
(The “planet of my dreams” site that R2Y mentions is Ulrich’s own website, The Planet Of My Dreams, which has its own special 1994 charm.)
A vestigial affz lingers on as part of the Google Groups empire, and sure enough, the vestigial lizard brain of the internet responded to the stimulus of the appearance of their old friend’s long-awaited book.
Indeed, it is deepest reaches of the internet that most of the critical reception of The Big Note has been taking place. Nowadays, the biggest on-line FZ discussion fori have names like Zappateers.com and the demi-official Zappa.com. The Zappateers discussion thread that greeted the announcement of Charles’s book is kinda fun.
One of the more detailed reviews so far is John Corcelli’s over at Critics at Large (co-founded and edited by Kevin Courrier, author of his own quite fat FZ book, who we are saddened to learn, left the firm last month). Sez Corcelli, “.. . brings, for me, a renewed appreciation for Zappa’s collected works and how to listen to them. .. . succeeds by defining everything about the composer in precise detail, and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Big Note is a beautifully rendered, 3-dimensional guidebook for the ages.” But you can read Corcelli’s review for yourself.
Amazon’s page for The Big Note is actually pretty informative too, once you get past the publisher’s own b.s. Twenty-three customer reviews, not one less than 5 out of 5 stars. They’ve even heard about it over on Goodreads; just two reviews so far, but they’re both 5-star reviews too.
Meanwhile, there are little discussion threads popping up all over the internets. More Redditation: “Most amazing Zappa book there ever was!” And over on the otherwise-controversial Steve Hoffman forums, more respect for Ulrich’s amazing achievement., as well as our favourite comment about it so far: “The Big Note is big, beautiful, and smells great!”
“Enough! You’ve convinced me!” we hear you cry. “Where can I get my hands on a copy of The Big Note, before it’s completely sold out, and each copy has become a highly sought-after rarity that I will no longer be able to afford?” Ah, yes, well fortuitously there are still a few copies left, and you might find one of them rattling around on the shelves of these purveyors of actual-printed books: Munro’s in Victoria, BC; McNally Robinson Booksellers on the lonesome prairie; Pulpfiction, the People’s Co-op Bookstore, and High Life Records in Vancouver, BC; Type Books in TO; Novel Idea in Kingston; that previously mentioned little ma-and-pa outfit that started in a garage in Seattle; and our own charming, vintage website.