New Star Blogs

The Big Note: ‘Big, beautiful, and smells great!’

|

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.