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Frank Zappa “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”

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COMMENTS: This seven and a half minute song from the 1967 album Absolutely Free gave an early indication of Frank Zappa’s artistic ambitions – the wide range of musical styles he knew and could bend to his own ends, his broadjumping studio cut and paste compositional style, and perhaps the best single codification of his central lyrical theme.

After opening with a gumshoe detective theme, Zappa sets out to investigate “a world of secret hungers perverting the men who make your laws.” A mayor’s life and day to day behavior are so dull, gray, plastic and controlled in order to accomodate his power hunger that he finds himself compensating by having an affair with a (barely) 13 year old girl.

The composition changes tempo, time signatures, instrumental line up and theme every few bars, yet never loses coherence because it is so purposeful. Zappa is trying to get into the character’s headspace. There he finds the wife nagging monotonously in drag time about flower shows. He also finds a sleazy cocktail lounge singer crooning encouragement for his perversion. His conscience briefly intrudes with noises about the incestuous implications of his behavior, followed by the climax of the of the whole thing in which an old-fashioned barber shop quartet describes his ultimate sexual/political fantasy in four part harmony.

So what we end up with is a psycho/social/political treatise and satire expressed through numerous early and pre-rock styles utilizing state of the art studio editing and effects, all leavened with a pound or two of humor. It’s like a whole concept album boiled down to just the good stuff, light on the self-importance, and change back on your eight minutes. All in all, a hell of an early career milestone.

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  • But does the dirty ol’ politico of “Brown Shoes” really do the deed with that nastynastynasty li’l girl? Zappa’s not that clear: we’re told it’s a “dream of a girl about thirteen,” and that we’re entering a “world of secret hungers/perverting the men who make your laws.” I’ve always taken the song as tis slimewad’s fantasy (“I’m gonna make her do the nasty on the White House lawn”), not the more explicit pervo realization that we got in later period Zappa. . .

  • Oh no. It’s intended quite literally except for the specifically wishful fantasy “I’d like to make her do a nasty on the White House lawn.”

    Note that the wife is gone (attending an orchid show). Note the reference to the girl’s misery: “She’s only 13 and I hear she gets loaded.” That’s not his fantasy, that’s the negative impact of his depravity.

  • The lines that tell me otherwise (they’re not reprinted in the album’s lyric sheet, interestingly) are:

    “We see in the back of the city, a mind;
    A dream of a girl about thirteen:
    Off with her clothes and into a bed
    Where she tickles his fancy all night long.”

    Zappa was definitely capable of being literal about sex in his songs, but I still think this ‘un is more ambiguous. A great composition either way, though. . .

  • And one more thing (okay, here’s where I get obsessive in supporting my interpretation), the girl of our anti-hero’s dreams doesn’t start out being his daughter, but changes into her halfway through the fantasy. “If she were my daughter I’d – ,” our lecher muses, while a previously unheard li’l girl voice chirps up with “What would you do, Daddy?” The answer – smother her in chocolate syrup – is sung as both “girl” and “daughter” by the band at the same time: we’re hearing the guy revise his sordid masturbatory fantasy as he creates it.

  • “We see in the back of the City Hall mind”

  • Here‘s

    …some more material on B.S.D.M.I., focusing more on the music than the lyrics.

  • “We see in the back of the City Hall mind”

    You’re probably right on that mildly misheard lyric, Dave, but either way it still places the lyrical focus on the fantasizing mind of the song’s subject.

    Neat Zappa gif.